Worth

I am currently away in the Middle East and out of touch until the beginning of May.

If urgent, please contact Johanna Ramos-Boyer at [email listed]

Kind regards, Tim

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, Tim Hetherington technically sent me this email the morning of April 21, although he had died the day before.

In late 1921, an ad entitled “One Look is Worth a Thousand Words” by Frederick Barnard was published in the magazine Printers’ Ink. “So said a famous Japanese philosopher,” Barnard wrote, though he made that up purely to add gravitas to his quotation. Marketing folks are liars and cheats. See also: Mad Men.

It wasn’t exactly a new sentiment, although Barnard was trying to push his industry in a new direction, but here it was phrased cleverly enough to catch on, and now we’re saddled with the cliché for the indefinite future.

But how many lives is a picture worth?

Hetherington, if you haven’t heard, was a photojournalist and filmmaker – co-director of Restrepo – and was killed in Libya by a rocket-propelled grenade. He was not the only one killed in said blast, or the only civilian killed in Misurata (what a fitting name), Libya that day. He is however the one receiving the most attention.

And while I highlighted a similar phenomenon in the coverage of the Tucson shooting, my eventual point was that it is only natural for us to be more affected by some deaths than others, and Hetherington’s threw me for an unexpected loop.

Maybe it’s because I remembered casually mentioning his film – giving it fifty-five words in a rambling opus about art, including it mostly as a kind of name-drop: yeah, I’ve seen that movie; yeah, I’ve digested and can spit out the most important bits – but then thought the morning after he died, about how that was a year of his life, a year of him living in danger so that I could lie on my bed and stream the thing on my ipad.

Maybe it’s because I read that he lived in Brooklyn, and I thought of so many of my friends who live the lives of artists/literati/thinkers in Brooklyn, and I thought of myself, moving there in a few months, and I thought of one of us being ripped out of the world, leaving behind a Brooklyn apartment of carefully collected intellectual knick-knacks, a book collection to impress with at parties, a couple of nice bottles of wine in reserve.

So I don’t know if it was my allergies or a mortar/grenade that had me nauseous that morning, but when your body tells you something that strongly, you listen for all possible messages.

Coverage of the story almost inevitably asks the question, “Is it worth it?” Is it worth having these journalists get kidnapped, beaten or killed so that we can all have our obligatory guilt and grief moments as we scan the internet headlines? Is a picture worth it?

The most haunting chapter of The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins, is to me the one titled “Pearland.” In it, Filkins tells the story of how he and photographer Ashley Gilbertson ended up getting a Marine killed in their pursuit of a picture.

“The life of the reporter: always someone else’s pain. A woman in an Iraqi hospital cradles her son newly blinded, and a single tear rolls down her cheek. The cheek is so dry and the tear moves so slowly that you focus on it for a while, the tear traveling across the wide desert plain. Your photographer needed a corpse for the newspaper, so you and a bunch of marines went out to get one. Then suddenly it’s there, the warm liquid on your face, the death you’ve always avoided, smiling back at you like it knew all along. Your fault.”

Part of that chapter originally appeared in the NYTimes Magazine, and the photograph that went with the story was what made me realize I had to buy this book, had to experience this. The picture, by Ashley Gilbertson, who does striking work, clinched it for me. The Marine turned away from everyone is the one who is later shot in pursuit of a good shot.

But there can be much more to the worth of pictures than letting me have my little emotional moment in the comfort of my home.

Apparently, reports Dan Murphy, one of the issues at hand in Libya is whether or not Qaddafi’s forces are targeting civilians. If they are, then NATO has a pretty good reason to be the heck involved. If they aren’t, argue some, that reason does not exist. Documentation of what’s going on in Misurata, then, is very important. It’s a mission worthy of military status. And Murphy says that journalists have indeed documented “intensifying fire on the civilian quarters of the city.”

Burden is often put on those of us who are still around to not let a person die in vain. We come up with simple or elaborate ways to attempt this. A local teenager where I live died in a car accident; his parents established a lacrosse tournament in his honor.

Do you remember the end of Saving Private Ryan? The 80-year-old playing Matt Damon asks his wife and family if he’s been a good man, if he’s lived up to Tom Hanks’ command to “earn” the sacrifice of all those other soldiers? And we’re all thinking, “well, shit, buddy, you probably didn’t, because a dead Tom Hanks is a whole lot to live up to,” right? At first I thought SPR was stupid because its premise was absurd. Now I think maybe the absurdity is the point.

In Christopher Shinn’s play Dying City, Kelly, a War on Terror widow, describes her theory about Law and Order, to which she is addicted. It’s about a fundamental human “fantasy,” she claims, that when we die, “an entire community” of skilled, sometimes attractive people will come together so that the mystery of our death is solved, “and therefore symbolically reversed.”

We watch Law and Order because it makes us feel we will be immortal. We like Saving Private Ryan because two absurdities (the war, the mission to save) make a right, and we feel like things matter again. It’s like Joan Didion says: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In order to believe life’s worth living.

So Hetherington’s death fills me with the desire to know more about Libya, to better understand. But we should be wary of the emotional “worth.” A Marine dies in the jungle in Vietnam and to his family it may be worth it to stay in that fight for as long as it takes, until those bastards surrender. Ultimately, as a society, we judged that this was not the case – judged wisely, most now think, and also too late.

Luckily, I found another option to earn the sacrifice of photographers and journalists and the ones who risk death – many of them quite happy to do so, I realize – in order to let me fill my life with images.

The same day I got nauseous about Libya, I read an article in Sierra Club magazine. A young guy, Ian Shive, worked in the movie biz but spent all his free time taking pictures of our national parks. He turned his hobby into his career and made a book of those photos. The book, with the help of a non-profit, was distributed to citizens of Afghanistan, in order to show them that there is more to American than steel skyscrapers. Pictures were taken of these men and women and children holding those photos.

“Shive plans to reverse the flow by traveling to Afghanistan, shooting its most scenic wild places, and making a book of those photos to show to Americans. He hopes that someday a photo of a shock-blue lake in Band-e-Amir…will end up in the hands of, say, a New York City cop. And maybe someone will shoot a portrait of that cop displaying the image of that lake, and Shive will arrange to share that photo with a woodworker in Kabul. See if it makes him wonder what the cop’s life is like.”

The article, by Steve Hawk, is called “Wilderness Diplomacy.” I fell in love with the idea.

A few days later, we were performing a series of monologues in our new theater for V-Day, and I took pictures of all the performers holding pictures from my recent trip to India – I tried to match them all with a person or place that connected in some way to their life, or my relationship to them. My friend the fishmonger paired with the merchants of Goa. The elephant advancing on me in the street coupled with my friend and her overly affectionate dogs.

The value of these pictures, or of hearing the hard stories of V-Day, or of reading depressing things like blog entries about Tim Hetherington, is not in making us feel guilty and depressed, which we can handle on our own. I think just keeping these things in sight, and in mind, works a kind of magic on us, and makes us maybe just a little more compassionate, maybe just a little more empathetic, maybe just a little more patient, just a little more wise.

And that’s worth it, if we make it so. 

Trash

“April is the cruelest month,” says T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” his allegedly incredible poem that I can never make it through. But it is fitting to kick us off this month with a post related to Waste Land, another recent Oscar nominee for Best Doc.

Waste Land is about Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, a semi-rags to riches guy who makes art out of unorthodox material, and who decided a few years ago to make art out of the world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho. At JG, workers (called catadores) are paid by volume to sort through and pick out the recyclable materials in the trash. Rio de Janeiro did not (at the time of filming) have any organized recycling system.

This movie streams on Netflix. I have bought a copy for the sole purpose of loaning it. I will mail it to you if you want to get crazy about it. I think you should see it. It manages to deftly display and comment on all the regular issues that come with making art (it deals with “what is art?” with a conciseness that puts my two wordy entries to shame), while at the same time making you think about trash.

While thinking about trash tends to make me feel guilty and ugly-Americanesque (god I eat a lot of food with packaging), I am glad to see that there are lots of people lately trying to make us think about trash, and see trash, differently.

I Googled “that guy who saved all his trash” because I remember articles about him from a few years back, and found out there’s more than one. Several people – often West coast hippies – have tried storing all of their trash in their apartments or houses, trying to make a point that things are not ever really “thrown away.”

Need proof? You know how in The Graduate that guy tells Ben that it’s all about plastics? Well, plastic is like herpes. It doesn’t go away, and also sooner or later it’s probably going to be knocking at your door with an eight-year-old son you didn’t know about. Take this morning’s CNN article on how trash from Japan’s tsunami will be washing up on Hawaii within a year, then will tour the West coast, then back to Hawaii (you can’t go to Hawaii just once, right?), then it will rest safe and sound in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

I wish there were a Charlie Brown special about the Great Garbage Patch. Alas. At least Good Morning America and various organizations have little youtubable blips about it. It is what it sounds like, and it’s the size of Texas (some say twice that). And to me what’s more interesting than the fact that it kills birds and fish who think plastic is food, is that there might be some animals who eat only a little bit of it, not enough to be killed by it, and then who get eaten by us.

In the future, I think maybe we will all be made of plastic. And shit plastic.

Alright, you say, I get it. So what can I do?

We all know that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to know how to be the greenest. Is Kindle greener than buying books? Well that depends: how many hours do you have to research all the potential factors involved?

The great thing is the internet exposes us to all kinds of freaks without real jobs (bloggers) who have already done that leg work for us. Take Colin Beavan, the No Impact Man. He has a book, a blog, and a doc on Netflix (also streams…good documentaries can be awfully easy to get these days). He wanted to see if he could reduce his carbon footprint to zero. Many people found it difficult to look at his project with a straight face, especially when they found out about the no toilet paper rule, but the documentary paints him and his wife as genuinely concerned, not-crazy people trying to figure out how to best be green. And he makes the point many times that he doesn’t think everyone should be as extreme as he was that year, but we all ought to start by taking some steps we’re comfortable with.

Things that I do: I don’t use or open straws at restaurants. I don’t ask for receipts at gas stations. I unplug my DVD player when I’m not using it. I have those reusable grocery bags and remember to bring them with me about 62% of the time.

I love it now that lots of businesses don’t give you a plastic bag unless you actually ask for one. It’s not hard to carry the book you just bought to your car. If it’s raining. enjoy a small thrill and put it under your shirt (oooh, book on skin…feels like learning).

Want some more tips? Here are some on plastic. Also No Impact Project is a resource where people share their tips. Please feel free to share other things you do in the comments. And, as with altruism, don’t get too hung up thinking about it. So maybe what you’re doing isn’t as green as it could be. Do what you can do now.

I know full well how very very tempting, and satisfying, it can be to just chuck a bunch of crap in the garbage. I can’t tell you how many times my recycling principles have gone out the window for whatever reason – I’m busy, I’m tired, I don’t want to rinse this thing out, I don’t want to take this plastic cup home from Panera just to put it in my recycling, I’ve worked hard today and earned a pass on this…

Then there are the larger rationalizations, the darker ones like “Well really they take all the trash to the same place anyway. I’m just kidding myself to think that this is being recycled. Worse, I’m wasting my time.” I had this theory confirmed by a few people whom I trust, so I started driving my recycling to the center in Roswell myself.

I have never actually lived in Roswell, so when they started asking everyone their address before recycling, I felt dangerous. Added perk.

Then I had a really lovely, film score in the background kind of moment when cleaning up from my production of Guys and Dolls. The kids had eaten on the run before and between shows, and there were just dozens of plastic bottles and aluminum cans all over the place backstage. I was there before anyone else the day we were striking, so I started throwing everything in the trash and feeling good about myself. But I kept staring at those bottles and cans and feeling guilty. So then, yes, I went back through the trash with my bare hands and separated out all that stuff into piles. And I even had some awesome students help me rinse all the bottles and get rid of the caps and stuff, and we made these huge piles of recyclables that I was going to take to the center myself.

Except I got back to the classroom Monday morning and everything had been thrown out by the janitors. I hadn’t marked it “Do Not Throw Away!” or anything.

I didn’t tell the students because I was too sad. Instead with the help of my science teacher friend and one of his clubs I set up a bootleg recycling system since our school didn’t have one. We collected a lot of stuff, and we did eventually get it to the center ourselves.

I’m telling you that kind of thing makes you feel good about yourself. And it also can get you laid if you dig chicks who don’t shave their armpits. And in this economy, why be picky?

Finally, coming back to our beginning, art about trash can be cruel (see how that ties it all together?). Without spoiling the film, I will say that Waste Land makes us think hard about the implications of creating something beautiful out of something, well, trashy.

So does the work of Chris Jordan’s Running the Numbers and Intolerable Beauty, which paint stunning pictures of our stunning consumption. You know how I feel about rape scenes in movies, so you may think, why create beautiful art out of something that ought not be beautiful? Is there a danger of romanticizing the landfill?

The picture: Depicts 28,000 42-gallon barrels, the amount of oil consumed in the United States every two minutes (equal to the flow of a medium-sized river).

But I think that Chris Jordan is more likely to make us turn off a light switch than go on a plastics spree. And Vik Muniz’s work, instead of giving the catadores a reason to whistle while they work, made many of them reconsider their ambitions and goals.

I put this as an entry here because I believe our definitions of trash and “throw away” are flawed. I believe they imply that trash, the throw-aways, are things we do not have to deal with anymore. They are gone. But they aren’t. It’s bad enough that we force other parts of our country and the world to deal with the trash we believe to be in some magical “away” land, but sooner or later the herpes trash chickens will be roosting in our backyards as well.

Trash, one way or another, is not going anywhere. Neither are the people who conceal it from us, for us. Neither are the people we like to think of as trash, as rejects, as beyond repair, beyond recycling. It’s better to sculpt it than ignore it. Better to keep it in sight than out of mind.

The Plastic Pollution Coalition (linked above for their tips) has a “Refuse Pledge,” which I find a clever play on words. We need to refuse to continue to produce so much refuse, and refuse to think of refuse as someone else’s problem. Plus, their website has an endorsement from Martin Sheen, who is now the only living Sheen with an acceptable level of crazy. 

Valter, one of the catadores in Waste Land has a saying: “99 is not 100.” One bottle recycled makes a difference. This is true. But don’t be like me and be smug after you take a few baby steps. 99 is not 100, but neither is it 98.

Or 97.

Or 96.

Or 2.