Last March, my wife and I drove from our home in Aiken, South Carolina, to Apalachicola, a small fishing town on the Florida panhandle that is trying to reinvent itself as a tourist resort. While visiting the nearby coastal islands, we couldn’t help but notice the number of “For Sale” signs. Nearly every house packed close together on narrow sandy strands fronting the Gulf of Mexico was on the market. Locals told us we were seeing the result of speculation and overbuilding, a blind faith that the housing bubble would never burst. I did not realize it at the time, but here was a visual image for the meltdown we are in the midst of today.
Photography and Hard Times
Recently I started thinking about the power of visual images to portray hard times. Most people are familiar with at least some the photographs taken during the Great Depression by photographers working for the Historical Section of the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration, which later became part of the Farm Security Administration.
From 1935 until 1943, photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, and Marion Post Wolcott roamed the United States, documenting the human consequences of poverty and the effectiveness of New Deal programs. In the process, the FSA photographers created one of the world’s great photography archives. They also left us a portrait of a mostly rural America that would soon either be radically altered or fade almost entirely from view.
Part of the power of the FSA photographs comes from their unflinching look at human suffering. Many of these photographs did not portray America in a positive light, to say the least. The work of the Historical Section was sometimes dismissed as propaganda or “a waste of taxpayers’ money,” as Hank O’Neal wrote in his introduction to A Vision Shared, a 1976 compilation of FSA photographs published by St. Martin’s Press. Apparently there were even efforts in Congress to have the archive destroyed. We are fortunate that it survived and is now available to anyone with an Internet connection.
A New FSA-Style Photography Project?
Is the time right for a concerted effort by photographers and other image makers to document the current economic meltdown and the massive changes that are sure to follow? The FSA photographers may have been unaware that—as they captured the effects of the Great Depression and birth of the New Deal—they were also creating a record of a largely vanishing America. We are on the verge of a similarly radical transformation—political, social, and economic.
The recent presidential election marked a historic shift in our political process on many fronts. Our society is becoming increasingly diverse; the “face” of America is literally changing. As for our economic system, an NPR commentator recently said we can’t drill or dig our way out of this mess; we must invent and invest our way out. Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times has been hammering away at the same theme in his columns—the new economy must be green and based on innovation.
During the energy crisis of 1973–1974, I was in Portland, Oregon, yearning to become a newspaper photographer. I enrolled in a photojournalism course at Portland State University, taught by Oregonian staff photographer David Falconer. Our project for the semester was to document local effects of the energy crisis—high gas prices, drivers waiting in line to fill up, folks using alternative transportation (buses, bicycles), and people splitting and stockpiling wood to heat their homes.
Not the most thrilling stuff, perhaps, but certainly a visual record of a significant era. If we had seriously started to transform our energy system way back then, perhaps we wouldn’t be in such a pickle now. In fact, President Nixon in 1973 called for a “Project Independence” to eliminate America’s dependence on foreign oil by 1980. Sound familiar?
I decided to search some newspaper Web sites to see how they are covering the current economic crisis. I started, just for fun, with the Oregonian (full disclosure, I worked there for a few years in the early 1980s). I did a keyword search for “economy” and came up with 20 images. Surprisingly, about half of them showed people smiling and looking at the camera; the caption carried the weight of the story. The keyword “financial” returned one image of a financial planner looking at notes and talking on his mobile phone.
The Washington Post has a link on its main photography page to business-related images: stockbrokers (almost exclusively male) grabbing their heads, rubbing their eyes, looking at banks of computer screens, talking on mobile phones; financial executives (again, men) testifying in Congress; politicians (men) behind podiums, at their desks, shaking hands, taking meetings.
The site also has a multimedia show called “From Wall Street to Your Street,” featuring several different slide shows. These relied mostly on the voiceovers, rather than the images themselves, to tell the stories. Drifting through the national and California photography galleries of the Los Angeles Times Web site, I found little related to the current economic crisis.
Finally, I turned to Kobré Guide, which collects the best video and multimedia photojournalism from a variety of sources. Under the Topics tab, I selected Business and came up with “The Debt Trap,” a series of three New York Times videos from last July prepared by Matthew Orr, Emily Hagar, and Pulitzer Prize–winning photojournalist Todd Heisler. With articles, videos, slide shows, and even an interactive debt calculator, the Times series definitely represented—in my nonscientific sample—the most comprehensive and sophisticated use of images about the economic meltdown.
Those who study journalism use the term “hot crisis” to mean a situation so dire that people feel an immediate sense of dread or menace; the stability of the existing order is threatened; and there is intense public concern. For example, Sheldon Ungar, professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, compared the sense of urgency people felt during 1987–1991 about the hole in the ozone layer with what they felt about global climate change, as reflected in media coverage.
He determined what caused a sense or urgency over the ozone layer—and what was lacking for global warming—was what he called “bridging metaphors”—simple, easily understood images that help the public grapple with an issue. In other words, the hole in the ozone layer was more easily understood by the public because there were actual satellite images of the hole, along with metaphorical images of a shield or barrier being penetrated. At the time, global climate change had no such images; it is debatable whether it has such images today, other than melting ice and stranded polar bears.
The worldwide economic meltdown certainly meets the test for a hot crisis. But has the meltdown developed a repertoire of images, or bridging metaphors, which will help lead ordinary people from a state of panic and confusion to being able to call for—indeed, insist upon—the needed transformations to our political, social, and economic framework?
I recently asked my students in a magazine-writing course to write an article explaining what subprime mortgages are and why they were a bad idea. The students did well, even though at first they disliked the assignment (Research? Ugh!). I wonder what would happen if I gave my photography or video students the same assignment?
Photographers and videographers are image makers, so it is up to them to come up with the requisite images to portray, explain, and personify this crisis. It would not be a bad idea, now, for all image makers to revisit the FSA photographs and think about what kind of archive future generations will have of the present critical period in American history.