"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

17 May, 2009

How my afternoon idling on Twitter taught me a bit about earthquakes & space walks & a lot about the increasingly skewed perspective of BBC news

"BBC Eurovision host Graham Norton was nowhere near the protest and is totally unharmed” (Irish on-line forum)

I’ve been very busy lately but I couldn’t really tell you what it is I have achieved. I suppose I’ve been mostly busy with life minutiae – you know the sort of stuff: sick spaniels, laundry, being the executor of my late Father’s estate and the rest of all that bereavement baggage (separate post coming eventually – I know, bet you just can’t wait…) last minute commissions just a little too lucrative to turn down, laundry, lovelorn girlfriends, scrubbing the house as it goes on the market and, you’ve guessed it, yet more laundry.

I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had a minute this month to fulfil my regular commitment to a U.S. database, who pay me very nicely to read and abstract foreign language arts magazines for their website. It’s my favourtie gig. Interesting, informative, stimulating and, as a bonus, the (UK) Cambridge-based editors with whom I work – if only virtually – are a lovely, professional bunch.

So, on Saturday afternoon, I sat down with the express intention of completing a few records. And then I got distracted. Yes, hands up, by Twitter, but I hadn’t been terribly attentive or active for ages and wanted to ensure I knew what was going on in the Twitterverse, ahead of Media140 in London on 20th May with which event I’ve been lucky enough to be just a little bit involved.

These are just a couple of the things I did, courtesy of Twitter and Twitter pals IRL and otherwise, on Saturday afternoon alone. I heard within minutes about the Texas earthquake from the must-follow @JimMacmillan. Not a big one at 3.3 apparently but unusual for Texas. I also discovered the #earthquake Tweet stream which is bizarrely compelling. I was able to follow the latest on the Twitter #fixreplies saga via @JamesRivers and read a top think piece on the emergence of Social Network Revolt from @mashable.

I learned about the great #UnderAPound #Under2Bucks initiative started by @DarenBBC which is just the kind of TwitterLove project/meme which particularly appeals to me. Thanks to @Carole29, I was alerted to a link which let you watch the space walk live. I am no geek but a live space walk! How far is that from 1969, when my parents made us sit down in front of a tiny monochrome TV to see Neil Armstrong take his small/big step.

Courtesy of @tristamsparks I found out all about the #freejeanfer #escandologt campaign. If you haven't heard about it, I recommend you do so. I’d been trying all week not to get bogged down with daft #eurovision tweets but then saw this one from my friend IRL @Danoosha, "#Eurovision: gayest event in European calendar in Europe's most homophobic country. I predict a riot" http://tinyurl.com/qdqkgb

I’m not gay – although many of my close friends are and I suppose I have kept a vague watching brief on HIV/Aids related issues since my late brother, Rory, died in 1995. I didn’t even know that activists, including Peter Tatchell, a brave bloke whatever you think of his motives, were planning to stage a protest ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest. Russia decriminalised homosexuality in 1993 but the gay rights situation remains dire. Moscow’s influential mayor Yuri Luzhkov has described homosexuality as satanic. Then I found @PeterTatchell’s Tweet Stream which included such perfect succinct tweets as the following: “Arrested. Shortest march I've ever been on” and the last tweet at 12.26 on 16th May: “Free from police station but am deeply worried about Slavic Pride organiser Nikolai Alekseev. Haven't heard anything since his arrest”

As I continued trying to do a bit of remunerated work, I drifted back to Twitter and became more and more anxious about the lack of news about the Moscow arrests. Searching #Eurovision merely unearthed Euro-Tweeps’ preparations for camp parties with a few blatant attempts to secure votes for particular countries. Then I started to check MSM, starting with the BBC who were running huge coverage of the event itself. Much anticipation of whether Graham Norton could adequately fill the shoes of his countryman Sir Terry Wogan but on the protest and the arrests? Nothing whatsoever.

On Google, pratically nothing but the wire services’ anodyne round-ups of which the English-language Russia Today turned out to be both the most neutral and the most comprehensive. On Twitter, I found a previously undiscovered country of (mostly) sober and serious LGB voices, tweeting either as individuals or from collective platforms. Via one of these, I found a link to UKGayNews which had by far the most up-to-date news.

The story is still moving with one detainee, US activist Andy Thayer completely off the radar for several hours. I’m still struggling to find anything breaking but have definitely given up on the BBC. This morning, Radio 4 news at 9.00 am ran a soundbite with the Norwegian violinist who won Eurovision, admitting that he really couldn’t sing but the bulletin mentioned nothing about the arrests. “Openly gay” host Graham Norton reportedly said something along the lines of: “heavy handed policing spoiled (sic) a grand Eurovision”. I’m still trying to work out whether this line on an Irish on-line forum was serious or supposed to be funny: “BBC Eurovision host Graham Norton was nowhere near the protest and is totally unharmed”.

Looking forward to debating this and many other key issues: #whithertwitter, the changing face of news gathering and the citizen journalist at Media140 on Wednesday 20th May. Hope to see you there.

Stop press: this tweet from PeterTatchell "Glad everyone was freed eventually, though Nicholas & others face police charges. On my way home to London now.... I need a holiday" (c.1115 hours Monday)-

15 May, 2009

Guantanamo Tribunals & Torture Photos: why my own Honeymoon with Obama is over

This image (from the 2006 series “Guantanamerica”)
Copyright 2006 John Keane/Flowers East

Barack Obama’s controversial decision to restart the Guantanamo Bay tribunals has been hailed as the official "End of the Honeymoon". It certainly marks the beginning of my own irritation with the increasingly pragmatic President. Just when I thought it was safe to publish a new post on his decision to hold back thousands of images of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, he throws in yet another extraordinary reversal of a campaign promise, infuriating the left-liberal blogosphere and rendering much of my own carefully crafted musings on the torture photos decision rather old hat.

The story is still moving quickly. Just as the White House is spluttering over what or was not promised on Guantanamo, more shocking pictures of American torturing prisoners have emerged, despite all the administration's efforts to suppress them. The latest images to emerge via an Australian television channel are thought to be from a batch of the original 2006 Abu Ghraib shots which were not publicised at the time.

My last post on Obama’s approach to the thornier elements of the Bush legacy was in early March, when I explained the significance of his promise to release previously banned images of America’s war dead and other footage from both theatres of war. At the time, the decision was, rightly, hailed as a victory for a long-fought battle for freedom of information and seen as welcome proof that Obama’s re-iterated campaign promises for greater transparency would be honoured. The main reason given this week for holding back the torture images is the need to prevent any further international anti-American feeling, suggesting that now finally in office, the Obama administration may be finding national security issues more complex than they appeared to be when viewed from the rather simpler perspective of a hopeful candidate.

However, this week’s back-tracking, both on the torture photos and on Guantanamo seems to signal a decidedly more sober presidential approach, interpreted by some U.S. commentators as a victory of statesmanship and pragmatism over the instinct and spontaneity which has previously characterised the new President’s approach and which so many of the electorate clearly found so attractive. Nevertheless, the speed of both reversals has shocked observers on both sides of the political divide. The president originally ordered Guantanamo to be shut by early 2010 in a bid to restore America’s human rights image. But the closure of the Cuban-based detention camp was always going to be fraught as Newsweek’s Dan Ephron pointed out perceptively as long as six months ago.

The image above is by John Keane (b.1954) one of my favourite and most thoughtful artists. He is often called the ‘journalists’ artist’. He was the Official Artist during the First Gulf War and has since consistently turned his intelligence and extraordinary technical approach to issues of conflict and media all over the world. My personal favourites are his 2006 Angola series, in conjunction with Christian Aid and his 1999 series ‘Making a Killing’ featuring Rupert Murdoch and Diana, Princess of Wales.

01 May, 2009

Small Country: Significant Trauma - Why the Queen’s Day Parade attack is sure to scar the Dutch psyche

This image from the series "Reigning Queens" © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, NY and DACS

Why the shock of the Queen's Day attack on Queen Beatrix has shaken her subjects to the core

The key challenge for every foreign correspondent is to report accurately from wherever the dateline, without falling into the facile trap of resorting to national stereotype. The Netherlands, with its familiar and easily caricatured iconography of windmills, tulips, clogs and cheese, is a relatively small northern European country, (population 16.5 million) whose heady days of maritime empire are centuries ago and whose guttural language erects yet another barrier for any outsider attempting any meaningful analysis of the contemporary Dutch nation. It is moreover, a society which has been radically altered over the last four decades by unfettered immigration, much of it from Islamic countries.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to underestimate the shock and horror reverberating throughout the Netherlands at yesterday’s – ultimately suicidal – attack on Queen Beatrix and her family, as they travelled in an open-top bus through the central Dutch town of Apeldoorn, home of the main Oranje royal palace, Het Loo. Without exception, today’s headlines in the Dutch papers all signal the end of dreams, the shattering of illusions, disbelief, disgust and discomfort. “Zwart fantoom blaast alle dromen weg” (A black phantom blasts every dream away); “Nationale illusie gesneuveld in Apeldoorn” (A national illusion slain in Apeldoorn); Beatrix: “Heel diep geschokt”.

The country’s leading commentators seem to be taking an unusually long time to gather their thoughts but the on-line message boards have been buzzing with indignant theories and demotic and instinctual apportioning of blame. “The American plague of crazed individual narcissism has arrived!” was one comment in daily de Volkskrant. Another complained about the insensitivity of the media, quick to broadcast footage of the attack on main news programmes, without a prior warning as to its highly disturbing content.

I arrived in Amsterdam in 1985 on my first foreign posting. I was nervous and anxious that my Dutch experience would be as wretched as my gap year, teaching English in a small town in Bavaria. On my first trip to the office, I got hopelessly lost along the city’s central horseshoe of canals and stumbled upon the floating flower market on the Singel. It was April. All I could see was what looked like a protracted rainbow of brightly coloured, perfectly formed tulips. I was hooked.

I lived in the Netherlands, on and off, for almost a decade. I even managed to master – albeit with a still frightful foreign accent – their curiously classical, yet simultaneously colloquial – language. Slowly, I discovered a people startlingly close to their British cousins across the Channel, or the big puddle, as it is affectionately referred to in Dutch. I admired my Dutch friends’ refreshing directness and candour, their dry sense of humour, their robust family ties and their intellectual curiosity and often surprisingly whacky creativity. And, despite my clumsy attempts to mangle their fiendish tongue, I was universally welcomed. The centuries-old alliance between the Low Countries and Britain developed into fervent Anglophilia during the Second World War when the government, eventually led by Gerbrandy was evacuated to London as the Germans invaded their previously neutral neighbours in May 1940.

The Dutch resistance was partially run from London and agents on the ground were heavily indebted to the BBC for communications. British troops’ role in the May 1945 liberation set the seal on an affection which continues, unshaken by any trivialities of EU politics. To this day, German sailors on the Ijsselmeer fly the blue, starred EU ensign, rather than their national colours and most Dutch people, even though they speak perfect German, will use their fluent, accent-free English when replying to German visitors.

I personally believe the Occupation is a vital key to understanding the apparently self-contained Dutch character. The survival instincts, courage and compassion fostered during those five years seem to have lent the Dutch an almost arrogant confidence in their ability to deal with almost any conceivable affront. If my generation has only limited understanding of what our parents and grandparents went through during the Second World War, how much harder do we have to imagine what it must have been like to live, with the Occupiers living next door, with the fight for survival and the temptations, in a time of privation, of collaboration? As a translator, I have had the privilege to work on more than one self-penned tome of memoirs and the extent of the local heroism and courage in all of them is humbling.

The Netherlands is known more for the visual arts than for the literary ones but the Occupation inspired several important lightly fictionalised autobiographical works, among them De Aanslag (The Assault) by Harry Mulisch and my personal favourites, Stripes in the Sky and Drowning by Gerard Durlacher. The Occupation is moreover the subject of the most famous Dutch book of all time, one which has become one of the best-loved books in world literature, Het Achterhuis or Anne Frank’s Diary. The Occupation continues to reverberate artistically, in works such as Paul Verhoeven’s surprising 2006 return to credible film with Zwartboek (Black Book).

The other key factor in understanding the implications of the Queen’s Day attack is the immense affection in which the Royal Family, and particularly Beatrix, herself is held. The family remains remarkably accessible to the Dutch population. Who could possibly imagine the entire British Royal Family taking to a charabanc for a parade on a holiday? A holiday which is anticipated and enjoyed as a true Volksfest – a proper people’s party, with free beer, spontaneous jumble sales and obligatory naff Orange accessories, cheerfully and willingly donned by all.

Of course, there have been regular mutterings about the Dutch royals, since Queen Wilhelmina decided she might feel safer in London, leaving her loyal subjects to deal with the invading Germans. Beatrix herself courted unpopularity in 1966 by marrying a German, Claus van Amsberg (1926-2002). More recent tittle tattle has concerned the putative activities of Argentinian-born Crown Princess Máxima’s father during the Videla dictatorship and the suitability of alleged gangster’s moll, Mabel Wisse Smit, now the wife of Prince Friso.

An excellent English-language portal into Dutch news is the website of the venerable daily NRC Handelsblad which also has clear links to the equally professional English language offerings of Germany's Spiegel-Online and Denmark’s Politiken.