Sad Western Porn

The photograph of deceased Syrian infant Alan Kurdi laying face down on a beach in Turkey is one of the saddest images I have ever seen. Shot in 2015 by Turkish Photo Journalist Nilüfer Demir, the image quickly gained international media attention and became somewhat of a symbol for the global refugee crisis that was emerging as a result of the ongoing civil war in Syria. I recall seeing the photo for the first time when it was trending (and subsequently igniting a debate) on social media shortly after it’s initial publication. The emotional response evoked within me back in 2015 was much the same as it is today: sadness.

 

 

Wait a second, why did I start this paper by immediately addressing my feelings?  I set out to write this paper about the western media’s portrayal of poverty, and how problematic it is, yet here I am, unintentionally beginning my rant by selfishly concentrating on my own emotions, rather than the broader issues present within the portrayal of poverty by the media. Why did I not start by attempting to empathise with the Kurdi family, who’s pain and sadness no doubt dwarfs my own? Or perhaps I could have begun by focusing more specifically on the situation in Syria, which has now reportedly claimed up to 400,000 casualties.

Sadly, the egocentric response I have exhibited here is fairly common in the media landscape, especially when the topic at hand is poverty. The term poverty porn has been invented and is now widely used, to categorise the behaviour I am describing here. Put simply, poverty porn, also sometimes referred to as development porn, is any type of media which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for generating profit or increasing charitable support for a specific cause.

 

 

Be it a photo of a deceased Syrian baby washed up on a Turkish beach, or Kevin Carter’s famous 1994 photo of a vulture waiting to devour a dying child in Sudan (above), the media has long been addicted to poverty porn. Here I will highlight the western media’s tendency to focus primarily on the suffering experienced by the western audience when confronted with these images, rather than the suffering of the non-western subject.

The first example is a promotional video (see below) produced by the charity organisation Red Nose Day and starring comedian Jack Black. The video begins with Mr. Black giving an introduction and explaining to the viewer “what your donations will be going to”. After the cheerful introduction, the video quickly descends into a gloomy mood as a sullen piano tune begins playing. Mr. Black cries whilst being interviewed about what he has witnessed during his time in Uganda. A large portion of this four-minute video is dedicated to footage of Mr. Black crying as he describes the pain elicited by witnessing other people’s suffering. The video is clearly intended to provoke an emotional response from a western audience, and in many ways, it does a good job of that. Mr. Black uses the closing sequence of the video as an opportunity to plea for public donations towards the Red Nose Day charitable campaign. This video serves as a clear example of the above-mentioned definition of poverty porn in which the producer uses the suffering of the poor to generate sympathy and garner support for a charitable organisation. Seeing the usually jovial and affable Jack Black crying creates a sense of sadness that a western audience can relate to, albeit without addressing the causes of issues present in Uganda.

 

 

A second and perhaps more famous example is Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1994 photograph, titled “The Vulture and the Little Girl” (pictured and mentioned above). The image was first published in the New York Times over twenty years ago the image still to this day is regarded as one of the world’s most famous examples of western photojournalism. Some have argued that Carter’s photograph is poverty porn, while other’s argue that his work did a tremendous job of raising awareness toward the famine in Sudan at the time. After careful consideration, I have concluded that it is probably a bit of both. The photograph is no doubt striking, and as a result, it has become famous, which in turn has raised some level of awareness of the public perception of issues in Sudan during the 90’s. The issue, however, is that Carter’s photograph was captured as a commercial endeavor. The fact that it heightened western awareness about Sudan would have only resulted in a bigger payday for Carter, and for the New York Times. It would be unreasonable to assume that either party was present in Sudan purely on humanitarian grounds. The goal of both the photojournalist and his employer is to earn money.

It is quite easy to argue these two examples above as being ‘poverty porn’. What is much harder is deciding whether the good outweighs the bad when it comes to poverty porn. There is obvious good that comes from the sharing of images which highlight suffering, as there too is negatives. Perhaps what we need more of though is explanations as to the causes and solutions to said suffering. There is no humanitarian side to the poverty porn sccenrio unless the genuine intent is to use it to create a better world.

 

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A Sometimes Lack of Selfie-Respect

Over the past week I have spent considerable time wading through my vast swamp of thoughts pertaining to the art of the selfie. This process begun on Tuesday as I was reading an in-depth journal titled ‘What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon’ (2015), in which authors Theresa Senft & Nancy Baym attempt to uncover the meaning(s) behind the suddenly pervasive and ubiquitous act of self-generated photographic portraiture. I took this initial encounter to be somewhat of a defense of the selfie. The authors appear concerned that a moral panic has arisen in the debate around selfie culture, and that there is an unwarranted concern amongst the public that selfies have become symbolic of the narcissism and self-absorption present in our modern, increasingly digital, society.

At first, it was intuitive to me that selfie culture is narcissistic. The act of capturing a self-styled image itself does not intrinsically appear that way, rather, the selfie culture becomes narcissistic when images are shared with the public via the various popular social media channels. I took the publisher (and subject) of the selfie to be acting in self-interest, parading themselves in the public sphere, and seeking validation for their efforts. These thoughts, however, were just my intuition, and I found no evidence to suggest these ideas held any merit. What I did find is the new art of the selfie is complex, multi-layered, and that there is no single meaning behind the selfie phenomenon.

This conclusion left me feeling a bit lost. In all honesty, selfies are not something I really care to know about. As a media scholar, I generally think there are more important topics that deserve my attention – the recent media storm surrounding US President Donald Trump, for instance. My interest was not seriously piqued until I stumbled across the work of Berlin-based Israeli artist/ satirist Shahak Shapira, titled Yolocaust, – detailed in the video below.

 

 

Shapira was displeased by the manner in which young attendees were behaving during visits to Berlin Holocaust memorial. The artist was particularly unhappy about visitors publishing selfies that appeared to depict insensitivity toward the suffering of Jewish people during World War 2.  In retaliation, he decided to Photoshop some of the selfies he was dissatisfied with into real, powerful wartime photos that depict Jewish suffering during World War 2. The resulting Yolocaust project raises consciousness about how we should behave when visiting places that are designed to commemorate those affected by the atrocities such as the Holocaust.

instances, however, it does seem appropriate for Shapira to raise questions about appropriate conduct when taking selfies in sensitive situations. I can personally relate to the themes present in Shapira’s Yolocaust project as I have taken selfies (pictured below) when visiting various Holocaust memorials during my time in Poland.

 

selfie aushwitz
My brother Tom (right) and I (left) pose for a selfie during our trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in July 2015

 

The photo above is a selfie that my brother and I captured during our visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in Poland in 2015. The photo clearly shows us appearing stern-faced as we pose for the photo. I am seen clutching my SLR camera, which shows that I had attended the camp on that day with the intention of capturing photos. I believe there is a clear distinction between this photo and those depicted in Shapira’s Yolocaust project. The first is that unlike the photos in the Yolocaust project we do not appear to be enjoying the experience of visiting the holocaust memorial. Second, this blog post is the first time this selfie has been made public, and the sole purpose of this publication is for the purpose of an academic inquiry.

My introductory exploration into the world of the selfie found that context is all-important when deciding to capture and to share one’s selfie.  Shapira’s Yolocaust project highlight an apparent lack of respect being shown by those visiting the Berlin Holocaust memorial, whereas the selfie of my brother and I show’s the discomfort we were experiencing when visiting the Auschwitz camp to pay our respects to those who died during World War 2. My key finding was the context of a selfie may be depicted by something as simple as the facial expression of the person pictured, the caption of the image, or the decision of where to publish the image, if at all.

 

References

Senft, TM and Baym, NK 2015, ‘What does the selfie say? Investigating a global phenomenon’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 9, Vancouver

The End of the West

In October 2016, former Spanish Foreign Minister Javier Solana wrote an article for The New York Times, titled “The Decline of the West, and How to Stop It”. In this somewhat optimistically constructed op-ed, Mr. Solana asserts that “The West”, which he describes as The United States, Canada, and Much of Europe, (one could also include Australia) as having set an example for regional cooperation, and served as a mainstay for “the liberal world order” throughout the past seventy years. While Mr. Solana’s decision to assert the term ‘world order’ as a positive arrangement is slightly disturbing, it is perhaps his total ignorance toward both history, and contemporary environmental concerns, that is more troubling.

 

In the 21st century, it has become standard to view ‘The West” as being a set of individual nation-states which are banded together by free-trade agreements in the pursuit of the fantastic prosperity promised by unfitted neoliberal capitalism. In this sense we can view ‘The West’ as a sort of globalised empire, using power and wealth to create a transnational metropolis that exploits and conquers its less fortunate neighbors in the global south. For much of the twentieth century, this centralised model of conquest (and capitalism) has delivered unprecedented wealth to those in power, while at the same time delivering the greatest levels of inequality and concentration of wealth ever experienced by mankind.  (Saez & Zucman, 2016) Solana conveniently ignores the vast expanses of data available regarding the concentration of wealth. Perhaps more troubling though is that Solana ignores the history of empires, which tell us we have seen this all before – and that there is no stopping the decline.

 

When we look at the history of empires we can see striking similarities between previous examples throughout history and the modern transnational empire of ‘The West’. In his essay titled “The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival” Sir John Glubb analyzed the lifecycle of empires, from the early pioneers to the pervasive consumers that become a burden unto themselves. (Glubb, 1978) He found remarkable similarities between them all, particularly the six ages of an empire. These six ages of civilisation are defined as the age of pioneers, the age of conquest, the age of commerce, the age of affluence, the age of intellect, and ending in finally the age of decadence. (Four Horsemen, 2013) Glubb also found that the lifecycle of an empire almost always lasts around 250 years (see table 1). We can see the six ages of an empire occurring in the Western Empire, except in this iteration we can see them occurring, in some instances, simultaneously. Most importantly though we can see that western civilization has now rapidly advanced to the age of decadence. There are certain characteristics that define the age of decadence, particularly the age of decadence, that defines he current empire.  An over-extended and undisciplined military, conspicuous displays of wealth, massive (and in this case unprecedented) disparity between rich and poor, a desire to rely upon the state, and an obsession with sex.

 

Exploitation of resources and a continued desire for expansion is the key characteristic that we must address, as it bears strong correlations with the age of decadence. These characteristics were evident in the Roman Empire, among others, and today we are seeing them in the Western Empire. (Fulford, 2010) In the Western Empire expansion is viewed primarily as the expansion of population, and the exploitation of resources. When the population of an empire grows, the economy must continue to expand in order to support it. We have seen the unprecedented population expansion throughout the course of the 20th century and in to the 21st. The global population has expanded from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion at the turn of the century, and to over 7 billion in 2017. (Kremer, 1993, U.S census bureau, 2017) At the same time the population in the Western Empire has expanded to over 900 million as of 2016. (Solana, 2016) This rapid expansion of population correlates with an ever-growing exploitation of resources.

 

Here we will use The United States as a primary example of the over-consumption and exploitation of resources by the west. “The United States, with less than 5 % of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—burning up nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil, and 27 % of the world’s natural gas”. (World Watch Institute, 2017) These troubling figures are unparalleled elsewhere in the world, although other western states do attempt to emulate the US model. Many rich European countries, including Canada, Australia, Brittan, and other wealthy European states, are responsible for the massive exploitation of resources. All of the above mentioned states are ranked within the top 25 top resource users on earth. (Pappas, 2012) This shows that the west is responsible for a large percentage of the world’s resource consumption. Perhaps this phenomenon is best described by reiterating that 20% of the global population uses 80% of its resources, consuming 30% more than the planet can regenerate. (The End of Poverty, 2008) The majority of the richest 20% percent of the earth’s inhabitants are found in living in Javier Solana’s idea of the Western civilization.

 

This information is not ground-breaking. In fact, it has been known to the west for many years, and to indigenous peoples for even longer. We are exploiting the earth’s natural resources as a exponential, and absolutely unsustainable rate. What is perhaps most troubling about these figures is our collective reluctance to change our behaviour. Many politicians and various people in power like to be seen to be implementing change, yet much of this is speak is little more than political hyperbole. For instance, President Obama’s decision to address the topic of “sustainable development” in 2015. (Obama, 2015) In deciding to counteract global inequality and poverty with ‘sustainable development’, Obama was essentially declaring his unwillingness to accept our fate and in turn propose necessary fundamental changes to our way of living. The term ‘sustainable development’ is central to this idea, because the term itself is an oxymoron. Development by it’s very nature is not conducive with sustainability practices. (Latouche, 2003) This idea that sustainable development is attainable is reminiscent of Javier Solana’s fantastic statement in his above-mentioned New York Times article that “For globalization to be politically sustainable, it must be more economically equitable. Measures like these would begin to persuade a critical mass of people at global, regional and national levels that they, too, can share in a new wave of prosperity”. Both Obama and Solana ignore (or are uneducated on) the impossibility of endless expansion and development from within an empire.  Rather than ignoring the inevitable negative environmental consequences of expansion and development, leaders in the west (currently US president Donald Trump) should be looking at implementing radical alternative ways of living, especially now that we have arguably reached the point in which the western empire has advanced to the age of decadence, and impending collapse.

 

The tributary empire has always been a flawed concept. It has proven itself time and time again to be unsustainable and self-defeating, yet today we seem stuck in a paradigm where the West has developed a sort-of transnational tributary system that has reincarnated the concept of an empire, but on a global scale. This is fundamentally important as the global reach of the western empire is unprecedented, and the impacts of the eventual demise will no doubt be profound. Unlike previous empires which have collapsed soon after arriving at the age of decadence, we now find ourselves in a paradigm in which we have firmly cemented ourselves in the age of decadence, but the impending tipping point may also prove to be the point of no return. Sustainable alternatives to the empire are being proposed and even implemented in some localized environments, however, it is yet to be seen whether even true sustainability can withstand the effects of a failing West in the modern world.

Mapping My Journey to Find E-waste in China

Over the past twelve weeks, I have been investigating the realities surrounding e-waste processing in China. I wrote a project statement several weeks ago which outlined my goals for the project and proposed my method for presenting any findings. In the previous post, I suggested that I would be creating a YouTube video. Since then I have been playing around with Google Maps API, a lot. Two weeks ago I began curating all of my findings for this project and I made the spontaneous decision to try and present my work as an interactive Google Map, rather than with the YouTube format that I had originally planned.

As this was my first real experience with JavaScript, or working with an API, I found the process extremely challenging, yet overwhelmingly enjoyable. This project ended up being a hybrid between a digital artifact and a coding exercise, yet I am somewhat pleased with the result. The map was created using a site called jsbin.com. I learned rather slowly that WordPress does not allow embedding from JSbin, so I was unable to embed the map on directly here on the site. Instead, please click the link below and check out my major digital artifact project for 2016.

The story begins at the icon labeled ‘A’ which is located in Wollongong.

Click Here.

Major Digital Project 2016: Reflection

Link to Digital Artifact Map.

This post serves as a reflection on the major digital project that I recently undertook as part of the Media, Audience, Place course in The University of Wollongong’s Digital Media degree. The key aim of the digital project was to create a digital story circle that persuades an audience to think about how media practices are spatial in nature. I endeavored to display a digital story circle by creating a customised Google Map that shows photographs and captions which depict the current television consumption habits of my childhood friendship group.

 

A ‘digital story circle’ is, in essence, a digitised embodiment of the common ‘story circle’, in which a group of story makers sit face-to-face and engage in a narrative exchange in order to co-produce a story. The key difference here is of course, that the collaboration takes place in the digital realm, rather than face-to-face. In this instance, the digital story circle may be seen as an example of the process of collaborative ethnography. My friends act as informants and are actively contributing to the process of creating an ethnographic account of television consumption behaviors in Australia. Rather than taking information the informants have given and synthesizing it, instead, I have created a digital story circle that allows each participant’s contribution to be fully and mutually recognised in the form of an icon on a map. The concept of collaborative ethnography in this story circle was informed by Luke Eric Lassiter’s (2005) book: The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography. In particular, I have attempted to adhere to Lassiter’s notes on the importance of paying close attention to what informants are actually saying, in order to build maps of vocabulary, knowledge, and experience. Lassiter suggests that the ethnographer may benefit from involving their interlocutors in the process of writing (or in this case mapping) an ethnography. Each collaborator contribution to the study is mutual recognised in the form of an icon on the map, and the nonlinear nature of Google Maps excludes the possibility of favoritism from any particular party, including myself. This idea of mutual recognition in collaborative ethnography was also inspired by Honneth’s (2007) suggestion that digital storytelling is a tool for facilitating and deepening mutual recognition amongst participants.

 

Collaborators were added into a private group conversation on Facebook and invited to contribute their experiences to the project (see image below). I received responses from eighteen participants, each of whom contributed a photo and caption relating to their television consumption habits. I then added the responses to a map, in the hope that we can view the map in order to see correlations and patterns in television consumption amongst a group of 20 to 30-year-old Australian friends. In particular, I hoped to see the spaces in which television is being consumed in the 21st century, and what platforms consumers are using to access content.

 

FACEBOOK CHAT STORY.png
Asking potential participants to contribute to my project via Facebook.

 

 

My inspiration for creating a story circle map was taken from the Nick Couldry et. al.  (2012) project titled Constructing a digital story circle: digital infrastructure and mutual recognition.

This paper details Couldry’s creation of a multi-faceted story circle that employs digital media platforms to facilitate the process of narrative exchange. I was particularly attracted to Couldry’s use of Historypin to empower contributors to share stories of their local community in a nonlinear fashion. Couldry employed the Historypin platform in order to create an inter-generational map-based interface that pins user’s photographs and narrative text to the geographical location that the photo was taken. Couldry’s application of Storypin in his project resulted in the creation a narrative exchange that can be viewed from multiple perspectives, rather than being viewed from a singular perspective, or space.

 

I initially planned to replicate Couldry’s History methodology and apply it to my story circle. I explored the Historypin platform, however, after some initial tinkering I found the platform was rather clumsy and offered limited affordances. I was however impressed by Historypin’s use of custom markers. I decided to employ a similar marker system in my project. I trawled the web for platforms that could allow use of employ the marker system in a custom Google Map interface, but to no avail. Finally, I settled on using Google Maps API to code a custom map to aggregate and display the individual stories of my collaborators. Using Google Maps API was an ideal choice because it afforded me full customisation of the map in a way that Historypin would not. For instance, Google Maps API allows customisation of the map colour, map positioning, map size, and adding custom markers, such as the television icons displayed on my map.

 

Given that the sample size of this study was 18 people the results are somewhat inconclusive. Patterns did, however emerge that provide information about television consumption behaviour of young people in 2016. Fifteen of 18 contributor’s television sets were located in the living/ lounge room of their home, showing the majority of my friends prefer to watch television in the living room. Eight of the respondents indicated that they access Netflix to consume television content. This correlates with a recent Roy Morgan poll which indicated that over 5 million Australians are now subscribing to Netflix. Five instances of ‘Dual Screening’ was noted in the study. Surprisingly, the number of respondents who reported not owning a television was only 2. I assumed a higher level of non-participation in the television medium given the recent Roy Morgan statistics which indicate a large drop-off in participation rates, especially among young Australians.

 

Overall, this project showed that collaborative ethnography can be successfully facilitated by using digital media methods. The choice to use a map to display responses was, in my view, an effective way to publish qualitative research responses. Using Google Maps API was particularly effective because it enabled me to aggregate the respondent’s views in their entirety. Future endeavors of this nature would benefit from more precise questioning and should request more in-depth responses from participants. The ambiguity of my initial questioning appeared to prompt respondents to give somewhat vague answers, although this was overcome to an extent by the insights displayed in participant’s photographs. In conclusion, Google Maps API appears to be a somewhat effective platform for displaying content gathered for a digital story circle or collaborative ethnography project.

References

Couldry, N., MacDonald, R., Stephansen, H., Clark, W., Dickens, L. and Fotopoulou, A., 2014. Constructing a digital story circle: Digital infrastructure and mutual recognition. International Journal of Cultural Studies, pp. 1-26

Honneth, A 2007, ‘Disrespect’, Cambridge: Polity.

Lassiter, L.E 2005, The Chicago guide to collaborative ethnography. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, p 22

Left Handed

IMG_3950.jpg

Left Handed is a computational sketch that explores the process of repetition and variation. The work was in Inspired by Alvin Lucier’s I Am Standing in a Room (1969) in which the artist positioned himself in a room and recorded himself narrating a text. He then plays back the recording and simultaneously re-records it. By repeating this process numerous times Lucier is employing the process of iteration to expose the acoustics of the space he is recording in.

This work employs a similar iterative methodology to Lucier in an attempt to explore the patterns inherent in human computational processes. I instructed myself to use a lead pencil to draw a square in the bottom left-hand corner of a piece of paper. The square is then enclosed in a square twice the size of the original that square is enclosed in another square twice as large as the second square. This action is repeated until the page is filled with iterations of the initial instruction. The work was increasingly smudged as I repeated the process because I was drawing with my left hand. The various smudges form a pattern that exposes the imperfect computational nature of my creative process.

Reference:

Strickland, E 1993, Minimalism: Origins, Indiana University Press, Indiana, pp 281

Can I Access The Internet In Bali?

Recently as I was planning on travelling Bali, Indonesia, with my close friends. As I was planning the trip I considered whether or not it would be wise to bring my laptop. When considering this decision it occurred to me that I had no idea whether I could even access the internet in Bali. I had never travelled to Bali before and my knowledge about internet access in Indonesia was very limited.

I decided to create a cartoon to discuss my autoethnographic (lack of) understanding about Balinese internet connectivity, before travelling to Bali, and then once I arrived, I could create a photo essay to capture the internet capabilities on the island. The result is this video – shown below – that depicts my initial thoughts and assumptions on the topic, in cartoon form. The cartoon is accompanied by a photo essay which highlights my initial encounter with Balinese internet accessibility.