Sunday, July 31, 2011

Travel writing ethics from trauma journalism

Photo by mlgroveruk

The Mac McClelland article on PTSD should force a look at the ethics of travel writing..

A couple of months back, Mac McClellands provocatively-titled personal account of the effects of PTSD after working in Haiti started a storm of debate around issues of journalistic ethics.

In her article, Mac shared the story of a Haitian rape victim (though her name was changed) without her consent. To further compound the issue, it later emerged that the victim had in fact explicitly requested Mac not to use her story. While the ethics of telling the details of a victims story when they have explicitly withdrawn consent are pretty straightforward, the debate gradually morphed into larger considerations of consent more generally.

Frankly, when telling the stories of individuals that travelers meet particularly when those individuals may be poor, disempowered or traumatized the dynamic between travel writer and subject is not that much different.

In many situations, it might be questionable whether the individual who shares their stories with a journalist/writer is willingly consenting to have those stories published. Even when consent is explicitly given, do those giving it fully appreciate what they are consenting to? And is it not fundamental that they should?

Freelance journalist Jina Moore, writing in review of the McClelland saga, argues compellingly that ethical storytelling on the part of journalists should keep four basic rules in mind at all times:

Consent must come from the owner of the story. Not the husband, a tour guide, a translator or anyone else. This will require you to explain to the person who you are and why you want to tell their story. It can be difficult, but its absolutely essential for the owner of the story to understand what it is you want to do, and to give you their response directly.

Consent must be given for a specific use. Simply asking whether, I can tell your story is too vague. There is a world of difference between revealing the details of someones life in subsequent casual conversations, blogging it, or putting it out as a long format article on Matador. Without knowing what the scale and nature of telling their story means, it is impossible for them to meaningfully consent.

Meaningful consent is given at an appropriate timeAsking a trauma victim for consent right after the traumatic event is dishonest, as they are in no position to give a rational, considered answer. Equally, if you are a traveler, asking your Cambodian tourguide if you can write about his childhood memories of the genocide while you are still employing him should clearly constitute a compromised request for consent. Agreement to having your personal history shared with the world is not something that can be given when an imbalance of power exists.

Meaningful consent repeats itself. The more personal and difficult the story being told, the more important it is that the writer be able to have a relationship with the person whose story is being shared in which they can check facts, and ensure that the person concerned understands the angle the story is taking, and the manner in which they are being represented. Given that someone is sharing an intimate history, the writer should be obligated to treat that sharing with respect and be prepared to approach the storytelling process as a co-creative one.

This ethical position was initially written with the McClelland debate and the ethics of trauma journalism in mind, but what characterizes the need for such ethical considerations is the fact that, in Jinas words:

Trauma journalism requires that journalists acknowledge a major power shift one that favors the journalists.

Frankly, when telling the stories of individuals that travelers meet particularly when those individuals may be poor, disempowered or traumatized the dynamic between travel writer and subject is not that much different.

When a local taxi driver with whom you have a rapport tells you about childhood under a dictatorship, a Ugandan friend shares stories about life under Idi Amin, or you hear personal accounts of suffering under the Khmer Rouge on your next stint in Thailand, these rules surely apply. You are in a position of privilege as the listener, and are thus obligated by the ethics of consent if you want to share these stories.

If this reasoning is correct though, it feels a little as if there has been a deafening silence, in the travel writing community. With some notable exceptions, travel writers would seem to be more concerned with how to write a compelling story than about the ethics of the storytelling process.

Insofar as travel is a process of sharing ourselves with those we meet, and travel writing is about putting some of that intimacy out into the world, we could all perhaps take a lesson from the journalism of trauma.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Bringing peace home from Thailand

Peace in Thailand

Photos by author

Thailand made a profound impact on Jessica Festa. Shes learning to breathe through it.

I USED TO pass by the Dipamkara Meditation Center everyday without ever giving it a second look. I didnt even know it existed. But since returning from Thailand, Ive been visiting the Buddhist meditation center every week.

My first meditation experience came during a trip to Thailand. Julie and I were visiting Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple in Chiang Ma.

I dont think Im going to make it to the top without slipping and breaking my skull, my friend said while looking at the 309 steps leading up to the temple.

You better try, I warned her, we have to make it up there in time for evening prayer.

The walk up the stairs was slick from the rain as we slid in our flip flops, almost falling several times. Although there was an option to take a cable-car up to the top, we thought it would be more of an accomplishment if we walked.

We took pictures of the 360 degree views of the city from the top before going off to find where evening prayer was being held. The scene was sprawling green, dotted with small white homes before a backdrop of mountains. Then we heard the chanting begin. The sound was strangely beautiful. Following the voices, we found where all the monks had gathered and quietly entered the room.

Wat Po

Wat Po

Finding a spot on the floor, Julie and I knelt down, making sure to tuck our feet under ourselves (pointing your feet in the direction of a Buddha is taboo). I took in all of the decor the embellished Buddha statues of all sizes and colors surrounded by bouquets of vibrant flowers. I closed my eyes and folded my hands in my lap, letting the chanting wash over me.

At Dipamkara in my home state of New York, I learn the teachings of Buddha. The goal, as I understand, is to reach a mind that is completely at peace and full of happiness. Our instructor, Maggie a woman around 60 years old who speaks with an English
accent is kind and wise. I want to be just like her, with her gentle voice and effortless smile.

I learn about the importance of cherishing others. About how nothing, not expensive cars or designer clothing, can bring as much joy as cherishing others does. I learn that in order for the world to know peace that the people in the world must know peace. I learn that people should stop hating others, and instead help others. I learn that when we become impartial to our cravings, we can get rid of our unhappiness.

In Thailand, I took part in a ritual known as Alms Giving that exemplified these teachings. Alms Giving is the act of giving food to the monks, who are not allowed to cook or hoard food. I arrived at the site around the monastery where the monks would be walking and saw people congregating with offerings of sticky rice, fruit, and other forms of nourishment to give to the monks. Only the best food was given, as the monks are very well-respected in Buddhist culture and need the energy to study and practice their lessons so they are able to share their teachings with the community.

Alms giving

Alms giving

Women on the streets sold balls of sticky rice and bananas to people who either had nothing to give or wanted to give more. I bought three balls of sticky rice and five bananas. When giving Alms, I learned, it is vital to only give as much as you can, not too much and not too little. I was told it is a way to support the monks while practicing giving to others and letting go.

I had never truly been exposed to this way of thinking before traveling to Thailand; the trip had a profound effect on me. Immersing myself in the Thai culture, learning about their outlook on life, and seeing their sense of community helped me to realize how to have a more peaceful mind and how to experience genuine happiness.

Before Thailand I was more focused on myself and how I could acquire short-term happiness. I can recall an instance where a new relationship had quickly fizzled out and I was feeling low. Instead of trying to work through my attachment issue and reconsider my way of thinking, I ran straight to the MAC counter at Macys and purchased $160 worth of foundation, bronzer, and eyeshadow. I believed this would make me happy. While I did enjoy my purchase, it did not bring me peace of mind or a lasting sense of ease, and I did not understand why.

Since returning from my trip, I have encountered difficult situations but have felt more equipped to handle them. Most recently, I had a boyfriend break up with me in a cruel manner. As much as I wanted to hate him, I decided to take the alternative route, a more Buddhist approach.

He was not your property, I reminded myself aloud. You are not the center of the world, and you cannot hate someone just because they did not follow your script and play the part that you had in mind for them.

Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply, allowing my belly to fill with air, then exhaled. A smile formed across my face. So maybe I didnt feel like doing cartwheels or dancing a jig, but I certainly felt a lot more peaceful.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Bamiyan Buddhas return

A photo of what isn't, by Tracy Hunter

Archaeologists in Afghanistan have begun the painstaking work of rebuilding the remains of the famous Bamiyan Buddhas.

BACK IN 2001, despite a worldwide outcry, the Taliban moved to destroy the two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. At the time, after firing at the statues for several days with artillery, then Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal complained about the difficulty of the task:

this work of destruction is not as simple as people might think. You cant knock down the statues by shelling as both are carved into a cliff; they are firmly attached to the mountain.

Then they got down to business with anti tank mines, dynamite and, finally, a rocket fired at the remains of one of the Buddhas heads. By the time the task was done, they were thought to be thoroughly destroyed.

Fast forward a decade, and United Nations-funded archaeologists and work crews have begun the difficult task of trying to undo the destruction wrought on the statues by the Taliban. The damage has been so thorough, that a process called anastylosis is being employed essentially rebuilding the statues with a combination of original material (where available) and modern equivalents where the original sections are lost or beyond recovery. Its a sizable job, as the work crews sift through 400 tons of rubble that occasionally yield landmines and undetonated explosives from the original demolition.

It is also an undertaking that has attracted criticism from some quarters. With much of Bamiyan highly underdeveloped, debates have begun to surface as to whether United Nations money would not have been better spent on improving the living conditions of local residents instead of embarking on grandiose cultural projects. Some of those in favour of the restoration argue that, in the long term, the restoration of the Buddhas will entice tourists to return to the area and create long term benefits for residents.

Regardless, the Bamiyan restoration, now started, is temporarily on hold as the Afghan summer arrives. It is due to be resumed in the fall.


Bit by bit, the Bamiyan Buddhas return

A photo of what isn't, by Tracy Hunter

Archaeologists in Afghanistan have begun the painstaking work of rebuilding the remains of the famous Bamiyan Buddhas.

BACK IN 2001, despite a worldwide outcry, the Taliban moved to destroy the two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. At the time, after firing at the statues for several days with artillery, then Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal complained about the difficulty of the task:

this work of destruction is not as simple as people might think. You cant knock down the statues by shelling as both are carved into a cliff; they are firmly attached to the mountain.

Then they got down to business with anti tank mines, dynamite and, finally, a rocket fired at the remains of one of the Buddhas heads. By the time the task was done, they were thought to be thoroughly destroyed.

Fast forward a decade, and United Nations-funded archaeologists and work crews have begun the difficult task of trying to undo the destruction wrought on the statues by the Taliban. The damage has been so thorough, that a process called anastylosis is being employed essentially rebuilding the statues with a combination of original material (where available) and modern equivalents where the original sections are lost or beyond recovery. Its a sizable job, as the work crews sift through 400 tons of rubble that occasionally yield landmines and undetonated explosives from the original demolition.

It is also an undertaking that has attracted criticism from some quarters. With much of Bamiyan highly underdeveloped, debates have begun to surface as to whether United Nations money would not have been better spent on improving the living conditions of local residents instead of embarking on grandiose cultural projects. Some of those in favour of the restoration argue that, in the long term, the restoration of the Buddhas will entice tourists to return to the area and create long term benefits for residents.

Regardless, the Bamiyan restoration, now started, is temporarily on hold as the Afghan summer arrives. It is due to be resumed in the fall.


The desert and the Embodied Deity

Mojave Desert

Photo: John Bruckman. All others by author.

Mary Sojourner and her son take a walk into the desert.

MY ADULT SON once lived with me in a one-room cabin on a Mojave desert mesa. He is a writer and a musician. He was living in LA and worked as an extra at minimum wage. My son hung on for nine years but when his landlord jacked up the rent and the
price of gas escalated, his bank account had nowhere to go but down.

We moved around each other in 500 square feet of space. We moved around what can and cant be seen. One night we walked out into the desert. I took him to the ruins of what might have been a smelter and a four-room house. A stone well is still there. Kids had filled it with dead branches, wire, and cans. I thought of how the desert eats everything.

Further up the dirt road, we turned toward the east. The sun burned polished copper over the mountains behind us. The light on the mountains ahead flared hot rose, then cooled to ultra-violet*. We walked up the narrow dirt road, past a gorgeous collection of empty plastic cigarette lighters glowing emerald and yellow and scarlet.

We both saw it at the same time:

desert bramble

a seated Buddha statue on a log

a person wrapped in a gray cloak

a Buddha

a threat

a Buddha

a lost soul.

We moved toward the Buddha. I was afraid. I remembered once walking alone, seeing the gray shape and feeling my heart leap. My fear had been of a human, of a man both unpredictable and unknown, a man who might hurt meor who would be hurt by my fear that he was dangerous. I had crouched in a wash until I calmed.

My son and I took slow steps. Slower. The figure was still, its back straight, its concentration absolute. At about 20 feet, the Buddha resolved into the stump of a branch jutting from a downed Joshua tree. We retraced our steps and walked again toward the Buddha. Again it became a tree.

When a Tibetan Buddhist finds a natural form that resembles the visage or body of a god/dess, the Buddhist believes the rock, the tree, the whirlpool, or slab of melting ice is an Embodied Deity. No canon is required. No ceremony. Only light and time.

A few days later I walked out alone. I greeted the Joshua, pressed my face to the cool wood, then sat in the sand at its base. By last light, I saw a flicker of something white in the bark. A delicate spine, each vertebrae intact, lay in a deep crack. The spine was no longer than the first two joints of my little finger. It was no thicker than the cotton cord the monks tie around the neck of someone lucky enough to take part in an empowerment.

desert flower

I touched the spine. I wanted it, but I remembered Dine and Tibetan Buddhist sand-paintings, the fine difficult work; and at the close of the ceremony, the images returned to their origins. I imagined the crack in the bark without the comet curve of the spine. I knew it was not my privilege, but Times to take away the bones.

A week later, my son and I climbed up a basalt boulder slope and rested, looking out over the twilight desert. It had been too long since I had felt harsh rock under my hands, had felt my breath catch as I teetered at the balance point and pulled myself up. We sat on boulders. A bird hunted insects on the slope below. It lifted, startled, and skittered around us.

My son said, What I like about the silence here is that I just heard that little bird fly by. He extended his hand palm down to the ground and fluttered it. Whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

*Ultraviolet (UV) light is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength shorter than that of visible light, but longer than X-rays. It is so named because the spectrum consists of electromagnetic waves with frequencies higher than those that humans identify as the color violet. ~ Wikipedia


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

One (more) Day on Earth on 11/11/11

A truly global documentary on the human condition finally comes together.

WEVE POINTED your attention to this project before, back when it was a pup sniffing for enough funding at Kickstarter to finish.

Well, the good news is that it was indeed completed.

The idea was simple. On 10 October 2010, willing individuals all over the world shot images, recorded video, did whatever they felt inspired to do to capture the human condition across the planet that day.

The result was an avalanche of content that has been painstakingly edited into a DVD which can be purchased to support the continuation of the project. The rest available as a giant, interactive archive of life across the world on that day. You can even sign up to contribute to the project in future.

Some days its easy to forget that we share the block with our neighbours, nevermind that we share the planet with people many degrees more diverse, from places we havent imagined. One Day on Earth serves to remind us of the diversity of the human experience, and perhaps rekindle the desire to understand lie a little further from home once again. For those contributing to the project, its also a reason to stop and really pay attention to the place you find yourself in. You might just find something worth sharing with the other 6,999,999,999 of us.

I hope so. Because the next Day on Earth rolls around on 11/11/11, and its wide open for contributions.


Monday, July 25, 2011

The wolves that battle inside us

wolves fighting

Photo: sociotard

The choice is always ours.

THIS ONE CAME to me on my StumbleUpon toolbar from Matador contributor and former BNT editor, Alex Andrei. Apparently its been making the Internet rounds these days, but his post is the first Ive read of it. I love the message so am passing it along here. Enjoy

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson
about a battle that goes on inside all people.

He said, My son, the battle is between two
wolves that dwell inside each and everyone of us.

One is Evil.
It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed,
arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority,
lies, false pride, superiority and ego.

The other is Good.
It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility,
kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity,
truth, compassion and faith.

The grandson thought about it for
a minute, and then asked his grandfather:

Which wolf will win?

The old Cherokee simply replied:
The one you feed.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Shooting film as art in Penang

Image from thirtysix

A ragtag group of photographers takes an assortment of cameras to Penang to create art.

AS FILM PHOTOGRAPHY takes its last breaths worldwide, the medium continues to find photographers who revel in using it for artistic projects of various kinds. The Negative Effect is a lo-fi documentary shot in Malaysia which follows a group of enthusiastic photographers who still use everything from Lomos to old-style polaroid cameras to make their pictures.

The group leaves for Penang island with the intention of shooting a series of images across wildly different cameras in different areas before bringing them together in an impromptu exhibition titled Gia Gia Kua Kua (walk walk & see see) a day later.

As the project unfolds, the photographers explore what photography means to them, their affection for cameras that to some no longer have a place in the world. In a way, the awkwardness of film photography in a digital world dovetails with the experience of being a teenager and not quite fitting in, making the documentary a promising examination of more than an artistic whim.

As they make their way to Penang and exhibition day draws near, each photographer needs to master their camera and the challenge of shooting to their respective media in time. To find out more about the documentary, check out their web page.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Don McCullin & Eugene Richards in conversation

Photo bykrystian_o

An examination of the strain in conflict and documentary photography.

ITS NOT EVERY DAY that two great photographers conduct a conversation like this. Don McCullin is arguably one of the most famous conflict photographers in a generation. Eugene Richards is well known for his images from places in society that few ever journey to see.

In discussion, the two men examine their work, backgrounds and the emotional toll that their photography has exacted:

[Richards] Youre with people who are being tortured or people being shot at and they turn around and give you their food. Thats when I fucking lose it. Or you go to a cancer ward, and youre with a bunch of women, all of them have breast cancer and all they do is share with each other. Then I fucking fall apart. Its been the case that I can handle it all until the beautiful thing happens.

Read the full conversation over at PDN Online.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mini documentary for urbex fans

A mini documentary exploring the motivations and adventures of some of the sneakiest photographers.

URBAN EXPLORATION, or urbex for short, is the practice of entering interesting, inaccessible, often dilapidated and frequently forbidden places in the urban landscape in order to take interesting photographs from the inside.

Some urban explorers do it to obtain unique images from unlikely locations, others for the sheer thrill of sneaking past cameras and guards. Crack the Surface, a mini-documentary following some of the projects of an urbex crew in what appears to be London, makes for a fascinating insight into what drives someone to risk a fine or worse to go where few photographers dare.

If you dig the mini-doccie, then take a peek at the Silent UK website as well, for more details on some of the projects the group has completed in the past.

Crack The Surface Episode I from SilentUK on Vimeo.


Interview: Joao Amorim explores our crisis of consciousness

Filmmaker Joao Amorim shares his views on 2012, the role of psychedelics, and why we are the only ones who can save ourselves.

ON May 12, 2011, you may have noticed there was no Rapture. Contrary to the predictions, the real date has now been revised to October 2011.

Or maybe before. Or after. Or, could the end of the Maya calendar on Dec 21, 2012 signal the end?

Brazilian filmmaker Joao Amorim, in this film 2012: Time For Change, decided to explore a different perspective on the coming cataclysm. He believes 2012 can herald a historic awakening, a transition from the destructive practices of humanity, to a new paradigm that aligns itself with the fundamental nature of life.

Watch the trailer:

I caught up with Joao Amorim to dive deeper into the themes of the film, and how we can become active co-creators of this shift.

BNT: We believe our present challenges stem from our materialist culture reaching our ecological limits. Yet, the issue goes even deeper than that. Can you explain why the film calls it a crisis of consciousness?

JOAO: Because above all that is what we live, a crisis of consciousness. The Financial Crisis, the Environmental crisis, Peak oil, etc are all related to our complacent behavior, where we basically sit around as innocent bystanders. We have given our power away to governments, companies, and so on.

We need to be more pro-active and take the control over our own lives back. All in all I think we need to aim for coherence between our words and actions

Many people believe that 2012 is about an apocalypse yet you believe this idea actually shirks our responsibility. How does this destructive thinking actually give our power away?

It is salvation or, in this case, Armageddon point mentality. Where we believe something external from us will either save us or destroy us. We need to see ourselves as co-creators of the future we want for the planet, as foundation builders of a future civilization based on cooperation rather then competition. Really an Open source based society

Your film speaks about the importance of using psychedelics in shifting personal and collective consciousness. Why do you feel the Government outlawed these substances and effectively forced the mainstream to see these as dangerous? And what true benefit do they serve for collective transformation?

Well first of all I do not think these substances are indicated to everybody, lets be clear. I think they are one of many forms of reaching a higher connection with the whole, with Nature. But there are many others, such as meditation, Yoga and even gardening

Nature is screaming out loud, and even a deaf person can here her message today.

I think governments and society in general have a reductionist approach, and decided to classify [these] substances as drugs. I think we need to move beyond this view, and realize the war on drugs have failed, and has in fact promoted the worldwide expansion of drugs such as crack-cocaine.

I think certain plant medicines such as Ayahuasca and Iboga can help urban people go beyond this reductionist view. It may help them question what they perceive as happiness, such as the accumulation of goods, promoted by the capitalist system.

That may be why governments have banned their use. The [drugs] challenge the status quo. And corporations and Government do not want that. They want you to stay in your home, watch TV, eat junk food, and consume industrial goods

For the younger activist generation, they often look to the 60s as a failure. They believe their parents turned away from their ideals and joined the mainstream consumer culture. Your film outlines how this was due to the lack of elders to guide them through their awakening. Can you elaborate?

In indigenous cultures around the world elders have an important role to play in initiations (Joseph Campbells idea of initiation, separation, and return). In the 60s we had an entire culture go through a rite of passage, or a shamanic initiation. But because they did not have elders that could relate to these experiences, they could not reintegrate the knowledge they gained in other realms to their mainstream culture.

Today we do have these elders, so it is easier to integrate these types of experiences, we have a whole generation that had these experiences that can act as guides and help us along.

Regardless I do not think the 60s failed. Think about civil rights, womens rights and the ecological movement. These movements started then and are still reverberating in our culture today.

The wisdom of nature is a theme threaded throughout 2012: Time For Change. You speak of how we need to listen to the messages of nature. Why do you feel weve finally started to listen?

Because nature is screaming out loud, and even a deaf person can here her message today.

The idea of conscious evolution is compelling how are human beings unique in this role of cooperating with the unfolding of the universe?

Buckminster Fuller used to say that god had placed us on Earth so we could realize that we are the creator himself. I think we have an evolutionary role to play in the coming years, that has no precedent in history. It is really down to Utopia or Oblivion.

Many people look out at the wars, dwindling resources, vapid materialism, and the destruction of the earth, and feel humans are a cancer doomed to extinction. Your film shows a different perspective: that in fact, it is often through crisis that we are forced to evolve. Why is this perspective so important?

Because the other perspective is not a good one. And because we should think of future generations and not just of ourselves. What kind of world do we want to leave for our children? What is our role in building the foundation for an ecological and just society? As many indigenous people say, what are we doing that will benefit the next 7 generations?

The usually enlightened perspective is that personal shifts must happen before collective shifts, yet it feels like time is growing short. How can we balance the shift on both fronts: the personal and the collective?

By taking action. We need to go beyond dreaming the world into being, and act on a systemic level. Personal change and collective change are resonances of the same thing. Micro and Macro cosmos. We do not have the luxury to sit around and meditate and wait for enlightenment. We need to act now. Get up and plant a tree.

For more info, and to buy the film, visit 2012 Time For Change.