We Hold These Truths:
The Hopelessness of Photography in Zimbabwe
A lecture given by J. Ross Baughman
Prior to a Debate at the Jefferson Society at
The University of Virginia on
16 February 2001
Armed with the ideals of Thomas Jefferson, I went to war in Africa. That was half a lifetime ago for me. My sense of Jefferson in those days was much simpler than it is today. I loved the way that his words had shaken the world, first inspiring the common folk of Europe and then sweeping through Latin America and eastward into Asia.
I thought that by carrying Jeffersonian values to southern Africa, and by bringing back out the Truth, I would open the eyes of victimizer, victim and the whole world as well. First and foremost, I thought that journalists armed with information could change minds for the better, enter those facts into permanent human memory and make those lessons stick.
What early impressions did I have of Jefferson? During the War of 1812, the British sought out and burned our young Library of Congress along with the new White House.
Jefferson came to the rescue, offering to sell congress his own private library of 6,000 books at about four dollars apiece. Congressman Cyrus King of Massachusetts didn’t like the idea, because he had heard that the package deal would include volumes “good, bad, and indifferent, old, new, and worthless, in languages which many cannot read and most ought not... irreligious and immoral books, works of the French philosophers, who caused and influenced the volcano of the French Revolution.” Fortunately for the nation, Congressman King lost out on that vote.
Jefferson pursued his curiosity with a religious fervor, and as a pure end onto itself. For much of his life, and as one cause of the poverty in his old age, Jefferson kept a standing order with his favorite bookshop in London to send one copy each of “every new book to be had.”
Was Thomas Jefferson an incurable materialist, a mere collector, a generalist, a relativist? Or was this the mark of an open mind, ready to respect the unknown, to accord it sincere consideration.
Information, he felt, was crucial fuel for democracy. Those who want to frustrate liberty most often seek to choke off information first. When Jefferson stood as a candidate for the presidency, he wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Even though the catalog of Jefferson’s library matches the so-called Great Books so much under discussion in universities today, such lists miss the spirit of Jefferson’s debate. Jefferson would never have been satisfied with a small library or a small discussion.
The story and portfolio of photographs I brought back from Africa show white soldiers from the minority-rule army of Rhodesia interrogating and torturing prisoners at gunpoint. When the story appeared, it proved what Ian Smith’s government had long been trying to deny, and drastically hastened the fall of his government.
I risked my life, and brought back proof of injustice. The largest news organization in the world made sure that tens of millions of people saw what I saw, but none of that made any permanent difference. Human nature swindled me. When I held a mirror up to the world, hoping to shame it into change, nothing really changed.
Imagine how heartbroken I became when the new nation, renamed Zimbabwe, made the same mistakes. Robert Mugabe insisted that my photographs be printed into the text books for his schoolchildren, but soon enough his troops also tortured black farmers for political crimes in that same village district where I had been. In recent months, he has aided and abetted the murder of white farmers for cruel political purposes.
What motivates most people to enter journalism? Most hope their work will make a difference in the world, that it will have the power to enlighten people, to awe them, activate them, improve them.
It turns out though that journalists don’t actually have that power. Some of my colleagues feel completely demoralized by that. They feel like vultures, rubber-necking at the scene of bloodshed. Some take very limited comfort helping one case for one day at a time. Many wake up to a desire for direct impact, driving the ambulance instead of just chasing it. I’ve known quite a few who become much happier after turning into fire fighters, doctors, lawyers, politicians and undisguised advocates.
So I took another much harder look at our third president. He and I would not have always seen eye to eye. For students of American history today, the riddle of Thomas Jefferson must straddle — simultaneously and at the most personal level — oppression with love; doubt with pride; slavery with self-determination; classicism with revolution; admiration for ancient American tribes with a readiness to take their land; a worship of the books that he could not live without, and a willingness to slice them into ribbons.
On this last point, Jefferson literally took several copies of the King James New Testament and cut out all of the miracles, pasting the remaining parts into an ethical guide for his own life called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, or more often known as Jefferson’s Bible. What he had then, in February of 1804, was “the most sublime and benevolent code,” only the “morsels of morality.” Jefferson suspected that the intent of Jesus had been too heavily filtered over the centuries, and that “fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.”
Jefferson was a Unitarian, and hoped that his book would forge an ecumenical society, serving the interests of many in a shared and single cause. In 1791, he wrote that religion “abolishes the false glare which surrounds kingly government.”
No such thing as Truth is revealed by the sorting of information. The only result may be an organizing of several points-of-view. Choices from among these may be found for the moment, but only when they are already suitable to underlying values. Special kinds of information must be necessarily spread to form and sustain a religion, or keep citizens well-prepared for a democracy, but information does not cause permanent changes in human disposition. What we deem to be significant Information merely reflects our nature and that of society. When referring to information, notions of Good and Evil are largely superimposed for political purpose on an enemy, and only become “true”' at the pleasure of a victor.
In Forum theory, however, information has intrinsic value. The health of individuals, and whole societies, can be measured against their access to and appreciation of wide arrays of information. Delusion, desensitization and the repression of information all ensure a dysfunctioning spirit. Forum theory guarantees the fundamental human right to see and be seen. Every individual’s access to information should be guaranteed, protected and shared freely, and tampering with this right, this “respiration of the brain,” is evil. This philosophy is libertarian and pragmatic to the degree that information is the life-blood of a vibrant mind.
Forum journalism defines and distinguishes itself from other mass communication by offering eyewitness, in-depth, in-progress, subject-centered testimony. Forum journalists should serve only to funnel the points-of-view from diverse subjects, especially those that are little known and seldom seen. When too many journalists are all hankering for the same story, the forum journalist must peel away for a different approach, or a different story altogether.
Journalists should anticipate definitive events, and obtain informed consent to accompany their subjects during the moments and emotions that give a story meaning, outlined by the subjects themselves. Journalists should not interrogate or antagonize a subject, or attempt to nullify a point-of-view in the name of balance. Asking for trust and complete access to an individual but then watering down their opinions, contradicting their perspectives and values in the name of fairness, is an insulting and unethical exercise. Conduct at all times for the Forum journalist must be discreet, unobtrusive and nearly passive. Unless they are already in harmony, journalists must temporarily adopt the values of their subjects, or otherwise disqualify themselves from covering that subject.
Forum principles will not be confused with advocacy journalism, partisan propaganda or mere public relations because of several safeguards: With patience and empathy, the Forum journalist should remain present throughout the fullest possible disclosure, even when such disclosures complicate and contradict (though hopefully enrich) the story. Subjects should be made as unaware and unselfconscious as possible about the reporting process, and never be given the right to censor information after the fact. It must not be the aim of the Forum journalist to effect short-term, specific change on behalf of such subjects. If such chain reactions might take place, it is up to the journalists to remain as inert of a presence as possible.
Many habits of today’s journalism are incompatible with Forum theory: the illusions of objectivity and fairness; explicit editorial endorsement, boosterism and safe crusading; token tear-jerking fund-raisers; the rush of competition, deadlines and live transmission of information; invasions of privacy; superficial photo opportunities; dramatized recreations for the camera; the over-coverage of the pack press corps; pandering to irrelevant sensationalism; cults of celebrity and personality; arbitrary top-ten, day-in-the-life and worn-out anniversary formulas; the high profiles of highly paid reporters; and directly arranging for subjects to profit from their stories.
In order for Forum journalism to be practiced, government will have to protect the freedom of all expression, and insulate this forum from all civil liability, much as the floor of Congress is already a safe haven for full-blooded discourse. Almost limitless, well-indexed channels of communication will have to be opened to all, at the lowest possible cost and without the chance that public and private underwriting could influence content.
A thoughtfully designed mass media could ensure the free flow of information, something just as precious to the common good as clean air and water.
This university was not started from or built out of one idea, and merely repeated brick by brick to buttress one philosophy. Thomas Jefferson’s library stocked the widest assortment of ideas. He was less interested in snug security than he was in unsettling liberty; and he recommended, even guaranteed this, to all Americans.
In Thomas Jefferson’s time, universal literacy was not easy to imagine, although he also believed in this whole-heartedly. The progress made in education during the last two centuries certainly would have excited him.
The newer challenge I’ve taken up is a hope for widespread and sophisticated visual literacy, a very subtle, effective and persuasive language. Its rules of grammar and the potency of its message have barely even been understood or tested yet.
Good camera work is the cornerstone of Forum journalism. Teachers and parents and newspaper editors have finally noticed how many young people don’t like to read. Word people don’t easily understand how to compete for the attention and memories of a whole generation raised in a highly visual world.
Vivid examples in scientific research should open up their eyes. It seems that centers for memory in the brain are much stronger recalling images rather than abstractions or words. I’m sure that’s the way my brain works because I’ve always been terrible at names, but I never forget a face. When people are able remember long lists of names, they explain their trick as being able to “picture” the printed page in their mind’s eye. Memory experts shake hands with a large crowd and remember each name by quickly tagging a memorable visual trait to each person.
A particularly elegant experiment in this field was published not long ago, answering this question of how reliably we know what we know, and how we get that information best.
Dr. Jon E. Grahe of Monmouth College in Illinois, paired off 100 men with 100 women and first asked them to solve a simple wooden puzzle together. All of them were then asked to numerically rate the quality of their rapport in working together. How easily could other observers then predict those scores? What if they were given only a written transcription to study for clues? What if they were given an audio tape recording to understand what had gone on? What if they could watch the scene from beginning to end, but in total silence, without benefit of hearing one word, even one sound that had passed between the test couples?
Out of the three choices, the visual record worked best if you wanted to understand how the subjects themselves had experienced their encounter.
People prefer the powerful medium of visual information, especially those who have been raised with television. This is not something new or peculiar to the present generation. People have long used phrases such as “I’ll believe it when I see it.” There just happens to be much more visual information getting pumped into the culture. The problem with television today is the meager visual content there. Try turning off the sound on the evening news and see how much you can decipher from the rather standardized talking heads and aftermath photography.
Will Forum Journalism work? Will you accept it, or become one of those who practice it? Try applying the principles outlined so far to these tests:
Suppose you are the correspondent for a British newspaper based in Virginia during the year 1776. One third of the colonists are loyal to the crown; one third are feeling rebellious, and the rest are caught in the middle. You are wandering King Street in Alexandria when an unruly mob grabs the Royal Tax Collector. They slather him with hot tar, dump a pillow of feathers over his head and chase him around until he collapses.
You quickly draw a picture of all this, but start to wonder if you could save the poor man from any more humiliation, or argue with the rebels to cool off their demonstration. Finally, the poor Tax Collector stops breathing and suffocates. The rebels string his body upside down from a tree, but you cannot bring yourself to draw that. Though they have painted their faces and some wear masks, do you try to identify the rebels? Do you try to get to know them better? Do you quote their political demands?
Move forward in time to today and suppose you are the resident correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing. “Chronicle all of the winds of change there,” you are instructed, “but maintain your welcome with the government, too.” As a foreign guest in China, the police insist that you obey all the laws and behave as any other good citizen would. If you don’t, your bureau will be closed, you will be detained, questioned thoroughly, possibly expelled.
In Tiananmen Square, four young people and a five-year-old-child approach you claiming membership with the outlawed sect Falun Gong. If you keep them in sight for the rest of the afternoon, they promise you will see a remarkable protest. Talking to them is a crime, as is failing to notify the authorities. Instead, you watch, take pictures, and much to your horror, they light themselves afire.
Later, it turns out you got used. The human torches weren’t actual members of the Falun Gong. Somehow, the Chinese government caused the whole thing to happen just so you would see it, so the world would think that the sect was dangerously fanatical, and deserving of imprisonment.
Would you react to this situation any differently in America? What if the activist had been an unemployed roofer ready to burn himself to death to protest the heartless downsizing of his last job and his lack of access to affordable health care?
These cases are not fictional. What would you do? What would Jefferson do?
Resolved: The journalism that serves people best, and democracy most faithfully, invites all to testify, especially the remarkable, the fundamental, the passionate, the tested; it affords eyewitness views of their crucial times; respects what subjects call significant; insists on full-disclosure; and resists judgmentalism.