Friday, March 19, 2010

The Latest News on Human Nature


by J. Ross Baughman

Whenever journalists worry about the future of news, I think back to this view of Brooklyn in 1987.

I remember a woman who turned her back on the television when she heard her neighbors' voices float in through the open window. She loved to mind other people’s business, and could tell that their story was going to be pretty terrific. She even brought a pillow over to the window sill to make herself more comfortable.

Well lately, the word on the street is that the news business is in terrible shape. Journalists are under attack from every corner. The media’s entire business model is broken and may not survive.

* The worldwide tally from 2009 showed that more journalists were murdered while in pursuit of stories than ever before, including a single deadly attack on over 30 members of a traveling press corps in Latin America.

* Militant radicals plotted to decapitate Scandinavian journalists who had published a cartoon that criticized their faith. Their goal was to throw those heads down from the roof of the newspaper just to create maximum terror.

* The NBC network, following the path set by major newspapers across the nation, slashed their own newsroom staff in hopes of maintaining high profits.

* The new Republican candidate for New York’s governorship recently waged war on two staffers of his hometown newspaper, forcing editors to re-assign them from covering his career as executive of Suffolk County.

One of my recent editors loved to talk about our work as product, and lectured us on journalism as a business. Without monetization, he argued, there would be no newspapers.

My Brooklyn neighbors would beg to differ; and so would the successful avalanche of social networking illustrated by Wikipedia. It may be possible to slap an ad on just about anything, but making money is not the only reason why people do things. In fact, the underlying reasons for story-telling are much more profound. People always have and always will love stories; and the hunger to see and hear them is no stronger than the urge to show and tell more.

I prefer this more enduring view of human nature.

A much more potent lesson I can remember goes something like this:

Ask yourself what you really love to do, and would likely continue to do whether or not anyone paid you to do it. Then pursue it whole-heartedly. Chances are good that people will recognize your passion, and admire it.

Another possible future for mass communications will surface when those who feel passionately about a story find a natural alliance with people who want that story told widely.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Rising Above our Vows of Silence


by J. Ross Baughman

Photojournalists feel an irresistible attraction to the power of still and silent images. We commit ourselves to what that language can impart, and in so doing, try to find or make pictures that speak for us.

Donna Ferrato awoke to this idea back in 1976, and to celebrate the occasion, we made this photograph in her parent’s house back in Lorain, Ohio. Of course Donna went on to document the awful point of view of women who suffer from domestic violence. For those who know this winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, she seldom seems reluctant to speak her mind.

She has gone on to become a champion of this cause, one that almost could not speak its name until Donna gave it voice. She helps women’s shelters whenever she can, lectures around the world and started a website to make sure that her work from the book Living with the Enemy remains in the public eye.

Over the years, I invited photographers such as Donna to speak with my students, hoping that the power of ideas would be more interesting and more inspiring that fretting over the latest gadget.

Some of the other distinguished visitors to my class at the New School in New York included Mary Ellen Mark, Gordon Parks and a young fellow named Louie Psihoyos.

Back in the early 1980s, Louie had caught the eye of top magazine photo editors with the incredible lengths to which he would go for a gorgeous photo. Whether dangling from an aircraft or diving deep beneath the sea, firing multiple remotes or over-gelling his strobes – all this seemed to come naturally to him.

On Sunday evening, 7 March 2010, Louie proved how important it is to put content and passion first. His work entitled The Cove reveals the brutal, mass killing of dolphins and whales in the name of commerce. Louie rose above the golden silence of still photography to win an Oscar for making the best documentary film at the 82nd annual awards ceremony of the Association of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences.

Even though his name was called out before a huge, international viewership, and he ran up on the stage into the well-deserved spotlight, Louie could barely slip in a word as other folks did all the talking.

But now he has fully joined Mary Ellen Mark and the dearly departed Gordon Parks as part of that elite group of still photographers to have received Oscar’s approval.

They have all transcended this self-imposed limitation of our craft, and found their higher calling.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Where We've Been; Where We're Headed


A Column of Arts Criticism by J. Ross Baughman

The edge of a single great photo can work like a knife, cutting far sharper than a mere one thousand words. In fact, a good picture can win a thousand arguments.

Since 1952, a New York publishing house and gallery named Aperture has earned a preeminent reputation in the world of photography, discovering and mapping all the branches and leading lights during that time.

With two recent books, Aperture cuts away the chaff from our visually cluttered life, explaining where we have been and what's coming next. They peel layers of taste from the underlying culture, and show how errors begun long ago will form scars nearly impossible to tear away.

In Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context Since 1955, the editors fillet some 125 of the most memorable magazine picture layouts of all time. The actual magazine pages are handsomely reproduced in this thick, coffee-table book, including the yellowing patina of their original cheap paper.

There are simply too many good photos to do them all justice; and so viewers must settle for a sample biopsy. Along comes Abraham Zapruder's sequence of J.F.K. in Dallas, and, also courtesy of LIFE magazine, mug shots and senior yearbook portraits assembled into a week's toll from Vietnam.

But there are also plenty of things to bring a smile. Henri Cartier-Bresson found plain joy in the fox trot of Ukrainian boys and girls behind the Iron Curtain. We also get a walk on the moon and a microscopic view inside the womb.

Mary Panzer's opening essay offers a rich and detailed history of the medium. Editors in Europe began to wield pictures in a much more threatening way by the mid-20th Century, showing gritty, passionate people in the midst of life-and-death struggle. Lurid pages abound from publications that no longer exist, or that are little-known in America, such as Die Woche, Ojo, Proceso, Geo and The Mirror.

The choice of stories to include in this book fell to an international panel of 100 photographers, editors, art directors, historians and magazine collectors. The board which organizes The World Press Photo Awards served as a principle sponsor. The International Center of Photography gave the effort their prestigious Infinity Award as this year's Best Publication, and an exhibit will travel throughout the U.S. this year.

Aperture and their blue-ribbon panel want us to see the magazine cover and several spreads from Larry Burrow's "Yankee Papa 13" the landmark photo story of a young Marine door gunner in Vietnam during his gut-wrenching baptism by fire. One of the other best stories of all times came from photographer Eugene Richards, who watched and documented with full emotion as his wife fought and died from breast cancer.

The war correspondent Don McCullin went to Northern Ireland where troops charged down a neighborhood street in full battle-cry. In the same frame he caught a horrified housewife who stopped luckily short at her front door. Sebastiao Salgado came upon a nightmarish pit in Brazil filled with workers, all reduced to the size and individuality of insects as they scratched for gold in the muddy walls.

For most of its life, The New Yorker magazine never used photographs to illustrate its stories; but when it published the first pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the whole world noticed.

It is a good thing that editors published the many significant pictures here taken by non-professionals. In part, this can be attributed to the millions of cameras in the hands of amateurs who will inevitably bump into historic moments. But this fact also stabs editors and photographers with the most painful challenge. After all, their most valuable skills are analyzing and anticipating where to position themselves tomorrow, but they are so often in the easy spot, the wrong spot or still at home in bed.

Donna Ferrato became the first journalist to look long and hard at domestic violence, and knew that she would have to be at home with victim and tormenter in order to see it. She succeeded brilliantly, but throughout many years of investigation, Ms. Ferrato could not get her usual magazine sponsors to publish the work, and turned instead to the Sunday magazine of The Philadelphia Enquirer. The book's cover photo came from Nicaragua, where Susan Meiselas found masked rebels with their fists full of rocks, beckoning the viewer to come along.

But Eric Valli also deserves a place in the longer story of photojournalism, even though his headlines did not make such earth-shaking news. He and the editors of National Geographic magazine allow us to tag along while mountain climbers in Nepal risk falling to certain death just to harvest honey. The chance to record passion and heroic risk fills these pages, most memorably published in an issue of Paris Match, where jaunty rebels in Hungary meet their Soviet executioners.

It could be tempting for readers to soak in this warm bath of recent history. While these books can do a good job of that, they also offer a much more valuable insight.

Unfortunately, most of the photographs swirling around us can only be described as dull. To have any effect, they must be used in a sufficient flurry, working more like the attack of a thousand cuts. Here is how some dull-witted photographers and editors think. Number One: Think of a topical question. Number Two: Think of something to look at that reminds us of the question.

Richard Avedon's roll-call of powerful Americans in 1976 cut them all down into paper dolls - perhaps an interesting enough premise - but a courageous editor might have assigned instead a patient witness to the manners and appetites of our leaders. The way they treat a cabinet member, a spouse or an intern could reveal a great deal more.

Likewise, a stark headcount for genocide in Cambodia does not reflect a proud moment in magazine photojournalism, but rather the failure of that medium's language to bring the genuine story - the record of how people treated each other - to light.

Bold words stenciled on a traffic sign do not qualify as literature, and neither do the visual equivalent. Phone books are useful, sometimes interesting, even life-saving, but for all the density of printing, they are by no means a pinnacle of language. One day, telephone directories may even feature a picture of every person next to their phone number, but this will not make them into picture books either.

Including such examples in a serious book on the potential of photography is self-limiting and insulting to all those who hope for more. Too often, these old editors forfeited a visual language of far greater potential. Pictures can do an excellent job telling a story, but less and less are being called upon to do so.

To the great discredit of all concerned, we are often afraid of pictures, and in the long view of history, turn out to be squeamishly, shamefully wrong. LIFE's editors left out the most crucial photographs of President Kennedy's assassination, claiming the responsibility to protect America from the awful truth. Eugene Richards, also mentioned above, tried to get his story on cancer published for years, but faced rejection by every serious leading publication until only a magazine for, by and about photographers agreed to publish it.

So how to predict the future of photography? Aperture used a second book named reGeneration to wander through the questions, "How much will the next generation of photographers respect, build on or reject tradition? Will any of the images being made today still be known in 20 years' time?"

Curators at the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne chose the pictures from hundreds of portfolios offered by more than 60 of the world's top photography schools and picked out a slice of 50 promising students. They were especially proud of looking in every corner of the world, avoiding the habit of seeing Britain, France and the U.S. as the home of all meaningful work.

If the documentary or photojournalistic tradition had a chance of appearing here in any greater proportion, they might have checked with a few of the schools best known for such training. Overlooked programs include graduate-level work from universities in Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio and quite a few others in New York alone.

In reGeneration, the subject matter shifts from a world in crisis to the end of the rainbow, primarily in the civilized, developed nations. Quite properly, there is a potent sense of place, a territory of plenty.

Here we find "a volley of questions about a society in which... the humanization of objects have become common currency, making it increasingly hard to tell the difference between true and false, real and ideal."

Keren Asaf stages people in modern, distant, dream-like landscapes. Her view of two young boys in Israel lolling on an evening lawn popped out of her imagination, but she chose to execute it in an entirely realistic way. Are these the boys left over from an outdoor birthday party skit? Maybe.

Nicholas Prior of New York shows us a young child sitting quietly on the carpet, keeping a posture fitting for a rascal in his Time Out, or perhaps an autistic boy in deep conversation with a pattern of vines on the drapery.

Two exceptional portfolios offered both a new look and rich content. For an extract from the long project "Familial Endurance," Jaret Belliveau of Canada studied the effect of catastrophic illness on the children of an elderly woman. There can be seen the honest but painful exchanges of helpless regret. Lucy Levene also bucked the trend to formalize and ritualize the act of photography. In her series "Come and Be My Baby," Ms. Levene clutches tight to a cloak of invisibility, and this allows her and us to scrape the surface of young people in a night club, already afraid of who they might be becoming. Her remaining self-portraits, however, fall back in line with the vast majority of the book.

Much more typically, Pieter Hugo found South African albinos and Raphael Hefti collected Swiss beauticians, but for all their effort, every polished encounter has been reduced into a dispassionate mug shot.

The climax of the book comes with the close-up of an uncooked chicken drumstick, and one must believe that the student Chih-Chien Wang of Taiwan, already in sparkling command of photography, deliberately wanted it to appear amateurish, flat, unappealing. What becomes the difference though between an unappealing idea and the failed expression of that idea?

Aperture takes on an unmistakable world view in reGeneration. It may seem like a fresh approach for communication-minded students, teachers and editors, but it remains nevertheless one of profound alienation. Out of the 323 photographs at hand, nearly two-thirds show places deserted of all people. The next largest category (58 examples) shows people without faces, without identity or with expressions so blank as to be impenetrable. If that combination fails, there are plenty of pictures (23) with miniaturized, bug-like people, or scenes where people are entirely dropped in favor of things (19). People experiencing clear emotions (20) or having exchanges with others (3) seem more like an after-thought.

That the search for reGeneration turned up such pictures should be no surprise. Twenty-first Century magazine photography looks quite distinct from everything else in the last 50 years. Without a doubt, the pictures reveal underlying technical discipline and ability.

They can often surprise, and that does satisfy one of the most basic requirements of the medium, namely, "Show me something I've never seen." People who feel a vague unease, perhaps a bit ambiguous about our times, should see this book as quite beautiful and feel right at home in its pages.

All this is not a symptom of ivy-towered thinking. For the last five or six years, the photo editors of The New York Times Magazine could have easily published any of them. Magazines that used to lead the way in narrative photojournalism have given in to just two kinds of pictures, with seemingly nothing in between. There's either the numb head shot or the view of a robotic, parking lot surveillance camera – compositionally aloof, random, high on art-school, abstract lines, a landscape lost and useless for understanding a specific human story.

Far and away, the photos chosen to represent this next generation say, "People aren't so important. I can't even begin to describe why, dear viewer, or what it is that makes them worth your attention. I don't believe that photography can capture the soul, or get anywhere below the skin. I won't even pretend that I understand them, or would even know when the best time would be to watch what they do, and I'm sure not going to stick around for it.

"My view of the world is all about surface and style and what mood I'm in, and the fact that the photographic tricks I choose to superimpose on them could work just as well in Washington on Tuesday as they will in Hong Kong on Thursday."

By concentrating on yesterday and tomorrow, these books may have overlooked the needs of viewers in the present tense, what we want from pictures. The art of story-telling requires some basic familiarity with the laws of gravity, with affinity, with dramatic tension. Discard these at the peril of slashing the contract between what's being shown and those doing the seeing, the number one promise between reporters and their viewing audience.

Although the pen may be mightier than the sword, somewhat like the contest between a rock and a pair of scissors, both can be buried in our Media Age beneath a single, effective, story-telling picture.


Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context Since 1955, essays by Mary Panzer, Michiel Munneke & Christian Caujolle (Aperture, New York, 2006) pp. 384, 500 illustrations; $75

reGeneration: 50 photographers of tomorrow by William A. Ewing, Nathalie Herschdorfer and Jean- Christophe Blaser, editors (Aperture, New York, 2006) pp. 224, 323 illustrations $35

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Geographic View of the World


by J. Ross Baughman

Just as a river slowly changes its course, or a continent drifts across the ocean, so too the standards for photography have evolved at the National Geographic Society.

For all those who grew up reading National Geographic magazine during the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, there came to be a comforting familiarity about how the world appeared in its pages. One might gawk at the golden hours of sunrise and sunset painted across a landscape, frequently seen from a pilot's point of view. Next would come one of Norman Rockwell's kids, or a close-up of the most wrinkled face in town.

National Geographic's editors squeezed the whole world into their own little idea of a globe, even if it meant moving one of Egypt's great pyramids a few feet to the left or right with photographic magic. There was a time when the magazine's color printing was much more primitive than it is today, and so any scene from a tropical climate came out monochromatically green. To liven up their pictures, some National Geographic photographers traveled with a bright red, long-sleeved shirt in their kits so that any local person shimmying up a tree or wading across the stream could put it on and better catch the reader's eye.

When it came to looking back over the long history of the magazine for Through the Lens, however, almost none of the pictures taken from 1950 through 1980 made the cut. Of the tiny handful that did, most were taken by amateur photographers who happened to be working for NASA as astronauts. Quite tellingly, Leah Bendavid-Val and her team of editors chose 60 percent of what we see here from the work of the past decade.

With 250 pictures mostly splashed across double-page spreads, this is the largest single volume ever compiled by the society. As may be expected, the book is organized geographically into six chapters: Europe, Asia, Africa & the Middle East, the Americas, the Oceans and Space.

But this is not just a book. It will also be a marketing blitz: Released simultaneously in 20 languages, it arrives complete with an hour-long television special, a 40-image touring exhibition that will reach ten world capitals, a lecture series at the society's headquarters in D.C., and art gallery sales of selected signed prints.

In recent years, the traditional Geographic formula has finally cracked, with old-hat surveys giving way to more and more narrative moments. Putting emotions and other crucial content into the pictures seems to be the most important lesson that the society has taken to heart. For instance, they have addressed the subject of wolves over and over again. At first, the pictures only showed fleeting, shy figures, caught at a distance. When photographer Jim Brandenburg made a recent effort, in a remarkable cover story titled "At Home with the Arctic Wolf," a powerful new familiarity with the mythic creatures was set down in print. Mr. Brandenburg joined a pack while they loped across bleak landscapes and gingerly hopped from one piece of iceberg to the next.

However, not until Joel Sartore returned to the subject in 1998 did wolves, and all that they represent in the human imagination, truly come to life. If the depiction of a wolf does not have as its center of attention those canine fangs, that snarl, and the kill, then the viewer will not feel fulfilled.

Mr. Sartore would settle for nothing less. For starters, he would need a camera that could be controlled remotely from a safe distance, and because it would be smack dab in the middle of a feeding frenzy, it would also have to be wolf-proof. The technical wizards at National Geographic built him a plexiglass cylinder to house his camera; its circumference was too wide for a wolf's jaw to clamp down on it.

Once set up amid the snows of Ely, Minn., it took another week of meticulous planning for Mr. Sartore to get his image. Educators at the International Wolf Center helped supply a deer's carcass they had just found run down by a motorist, and in no time the alpha female from a nearby wolf pack made her claim. Neither Hollywood nor any ten-year-old boy could dream up a more frightening picture.

"Animals are thoughtful and emotional," believes Mr. Sartore, "and my job is to make viewers think about that. The readers of the magazine trust us to be as familiar as possible with our subjects."

Another of his best pictures is taken from the eye level of a hunting dog, still transfixed long after necessary by the pheasant in the grip of his master in Long Bow, Neb. Other, deliciously complete moments include Mr. Sartore's 77-year-old California orange picker bending his tired back; a blues guitarist wowing the ladies in Clarksdale, Miss. [William Albert Allard, 1999]; French tourists tickled to be carried ashore from an outrigger in Tahiti [Jodi Cobb, 1997]; and the wall of a mosque in Mali swarming with workers who patch its cracks [Esha Chiocchio, 2001].

Pages are set aside to honor the magazine's creative mothers and fathers. The first managing editor, Gilbert Grosvenor, showed an American inventor sailing through thin air while hanging on to his multi-winged Katydid glider back in 1907. Cannibals in Papua New Guinea slice the back of a tribal member in a "bloody and dangerous initiation rite" as recorded by F.J. Kirschbaum in 1929. At a New Year's celebration in Japan shortly after World War II, Horace Bristol saw a large room choked with thousands of barely dressed men who hurtled themselves after sacred batons.

The cursory text, written by a few scientists and a couple of the photojournalists, skates over centuries, mountains and oceans with no chance of rivaling the pictures. All in all, this is a big, gorgeous book. Also beautiful is its affordable price. Everyone who loves photography and this old world should ask for this as their next gift.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Studying to become a Quick Study...


During October 1971, after only my first month as a freshman at Kent State University, the daily school newspaper asked me to photograph a distinguished guest on campus, the architect R. Buckminster Fuller.

It was an easy assignment to give to the new kid, since our evening deadline was several hours away and Fuller would be tutoring a senior drafting class only one flight above our newsroom in Taylor Hall.

Even in these earliest days in my love of imagery, however, I knew that I would not be satisfied simply with a good likeness of the man. With the geodesic dome as only one of his more well-know creations, Fuller was considered one of the most brilliant, original thinkers of American architecture in the 20th Century. I wanted to see if I could catch the man in the act of being and becoming what we most admired about him: someone struggling for inspiration, a vision of the future.

That's not to say that plenty of other photographers would have been glad to stumble upon this moment. The slim advantage I had was understanding a bit about my subject in advance, and knowing how the world imagined him at his best, and realizing that the picture which would be most fitting might require an angle and a sense of timing that was not reactionary, but rather anticipatory.

I was competing shoulder-to-shoulder with other photographers, some with much more experience than I had; but I knew I would be shooting with slightly different priorities, one that made Fuller less of a target and more of a co-author for this portrait.


The Birth of Love & Anger Among Children


An early mentor suggested that I look inside my own heart for stories that could strike a powerful and long-lasting chord. That way, I would feel nourished and rewarded by the work no matter what anyone else said, and also be willing to return to and deepen it over and over again.
In my mentor's own 30-year career, he had been looking for faces to photograph that expressed simultaneous love and anger, but could only succeed if he managed to preserve it during a formal studio setting. He challenged me to go find it out in the real world.
I focused the theme even more so, specifically to the world of children and how some of them first weld those two feelings together.

I found children in Lebanon who had been in school when jet fighters blew up their playground.

I found little boys in Kentucky and Illinois who were learning to the see the world as racists.

I met young teens in Los Angeles eager to join the largest street gang for the chance to make their own crime family.

I visited a doll therapy program for autistic children, where some of the young patients spoke for the first time in their lives through their puppets.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Discussing Ethics...


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.