Seing through photographs

 

I have just completed an excellent Coursera MOOC called “Seeing Through Photographs” that was put on by the Museum Of Modern Art in New York.  I thoroughly enjoyed loking at the various ways that professional photographers have ben able to express their art.

There were sections about different ways of seeing that ranged from the snapshot of the documentary photographer trying to influence political and social debate to the manufactured shots of some modernist photographers making us see everyday objects in a different way.

I suppose it was very likely that I would be most influenced by the realist documentary photographers such as Dorothea Lange and her iconic “Migrant Mother”.

lange6a

For my final project I had to select one photographer and explain just how his photographs influenced me. I chose the late, great, Gordon Parks. This was my effort:

Gordon Parks and the power of the camera

I have looked into the amazing photographic career of Gordon Parks. He was born the youngest of 14 children in Fort Scott, Kansas. The town was deeply segregated in all aspects of life and in 1956, at the time of great debate about the subject of desegregation, Parks was sent to his home town to do an assignment for Life Magazine.

He was the magazine’s first black photographer and he was putting himself in the dangerous situation of taking photos of events that he saw which represented the place he had grown up in and which he had to leave in order to achieve anything in life. Interestingly, he looked up his old schoolfriends in the black-only school that he attended and found that with the exception of one tragic lady, who stayed and was involved in a relationship with an abusive partner in poor conditions, the rest all had to leave Kansas to go to places like Chicago in order to get on in life.

Parks was not shy of presenting the facts as he saw them and allowing people to use the power of the images to understand just how bad things were for black people in the segregated south.

038_FortScott

 

This was the first picture that he took as he entered the town by train. The scowl of the white guard as the train departs and a black photographer takes his picture is plain to see.

segregation

 

Parks shot photos in colour as well as black and white and here it can be clearly seen that there are different drinking fountains for Blacks and Whites. It is so reminiscent of Apartheid South Africa.

playing together

 

In this photo it can be clearly seen that black and white children could and did play together. The boy pointing the gun though has perhaps a present-day effect about guns and crime and the relationship of poverty and deprivation. This shows the power of great photography to make us think and debate important subjects.

schoolroom 1956

 

This picture of a schoolroom in a black-only school shows the poverty of so-called “separate but equal” when the debate about school desegregation in the south was to herald the whole “Civil Rights” movement led by Martin Luther-King.

BTFS1

 

 

This was the picture of the “tragic lady” as Parks referred to her, who stayed behind. The man smoking on the bed is her abusive partner. Her expression tells so much that words cannot.

There are so many powerful photographs that Parks took for the article. Only a few were actually used.

Life article

 

As can be seen above the article was called “A Separate Way Of Life”  Parks did not put the rest of his photographs on exhibition until they were rediscovered after his death, in a box, by the Gordon Parks Foundation.

The following video explains this:

This is a MOOC from the excelent Coursera that I can thoroughly recommend.  It might even get me trying to use my digital camera again!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Blue Planet 2

I have just watched the last, highly emotional episode of yet another David Attenborough/BBC natural world series “Blue Planet 2”.

Like so many people I feel that I have almost grown up with Attenborough, following his early efforts to find animals for London Zoo and then being enthralled and educated about evolution in the path-breaking series “Life On Earth” and watching the technological developments that allowed for more and more fascinating glimpses into this wonderful planet that we live on and the teeming but hugely threatened lifeforms within it.

Attenborough has gone from being a presenter to a figurehead of the environmental movement that has sought to correct the many problems that our lifestyles have inflicted upon the planet we live in. His programmes have more and more sought to show the effects of pollution and climate change on our planets flora and fauna.

We have gone from oohs and ahs at looking at the pretty animals and how amusing and interesting they are to a feeling of dread that our future and theirs is severely in doubt.

This is best summed up in the following photograph from an episode in the series

This picture shows a pilot whale. On her back is her dead baby that she refuses to let go of. Most probably the baby has died from her infected milk. The cause of the infection? The intake of poisonous plastic substances in her food. The series makes the point quite clearly that we are polluting and destroying our oceans lifeforms by dumping masses of plastics waste into our rivers and oceans.

After 50 or so years of watching Attenborough documentaries, I have , like him, gone from wide eyed fascination to anger at just what we, as a species, have done to our wonderful blue planet.

But the last programme was not totally pessimistic. It shows how the Norwegians have introduced laws to stop overfishing and how this has resulted in huge increases in herring and other fish that were threatened with extinction only thirty or so years ago. It also showed us some wonderful people who have almost single-handedly transformed the environment where they live. One such hero is Len Peters, who comes from a small fishing village in Trinidad in the Caribbean.

Len grew up in an area where Leatherback Turtles come out from the sea to lay their eggs in the beautiful sandy beaches. These ancient reptiles, which Attenborough tells us in the commentary, go back to the age of the dinosaurs, are slow ands lumbering when they come onto the land and they are at risk of hunters.

Len tells us that he grew up in a family where the turtles were hunted for their meat and skin. Thirty years ago the turtle numbers were seriously under threat. Len though started a one person campaign to patrol the beaches and protect the turtles as well as replacing their eggs in safer holes further from the sea’s edge where they were easily eaten by predators.

He has taken his campaign to the local community and encouraged environmental tourism to protect the turtles and not destroy them. He goes into schools to give talks about the turtles to the next generation that will hopefully protect them and not destroy them.

The turtle numbers are now rising dramatically. It was stories like these and the Norwegian example that give us a little hope in an otherwise bleak picture.

Maybe, many years ago, a young Len sat in his house in Trinidad and saw a programme from the BBC about preserving wildlife presented by an amazing man called David Attenborough.At aged 91 he is still enthralled by the wonders of our beautiful planet and still fighting to preserve it for future generations.

 

Image | Posted on by | Leave a comment

The Runaway Species

Here is the review I have written on Amazon.com about the book “The Runaway Species” by Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Not broken; just neurologically outnumbered. A review of “Neurotribes” by Steve Silberman

This is a very good book. It tackles the subject of autism and goes into it in some detail. Specifically, it is a history of how autism has travelled from being treated as a form of madness, to an illness, to a disability to a part of the diverse spectrum of cognitive development that represents the strange but gifted animal, Homo Sapiens.

The author is a journalist who originally made his way to California to follow his favourite group “The Grateful Dead” and found himself in the late 60’s living and interacting with the likes of Allen Ginsberg. Being in San Francisco meant that he was in at the birth of the digital revolution in “Silicon Valley” just a few miles from his home. As an aspiring young journalist, he became part of the “Wired” magazine team that covered the origins of this revolution and the personalities involved.

During the course of investigating the somewhat strange personalities of many of the pioneers of Silicon Valley Silberman came across many examples of children of these so-called “Geeks” who had been born with developmental issues. He wondered if there was a reason for this and he researched an article that was eventually published as “The Geek Syndrome”.

The research for the article introduced Silberman to the subject of “Autism” and in particular a form of it for so-called “high functioning” individuals called (now) “Asperger’s Syndrome”.

I say,called now, because the book details the history of how Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician who worked at the University of Vienna put forward a number of theories about the highly intelligent children and young adults that had been referred to him who had remarkable abilities in encyclopaedic knowledge of certain (often scientific) subjects but often had not spoken for the first few years of life and found social interaction painful and extremely difficult.

Asperger saw many positive qualities in these young people who had often been shunned by society and were often confined (probably for life) in institutions for the mentally ill. He was willing to see their problems as a handicap but not a life sentence inside an institution and he was willing to allow their talents to thrive. He did not see autism as a disease that was somehow curable.

In the U.S. A., at almost the same time, Leo Kanner, the father of Child Psychiatry, was doing research into what he called “Infantile Autism”. He wrote a famous article in 1943, where he described eleven children who had remarkable abilities, but, like Asperger’s children/young adults, displayed severe problems in social communication and showed traits such as head-banging, total silence and failure to make eye-contact.

Kanner’s approach to the reasons for these children’s problems and to their solution was very different from Asperger’s. Silberman presents his research into the fact that Kanner never mentioned Asperger’s work although he must have known about it because Georg Frankl, the chief diagnostician in Asperger’s clinic in 1938, came to Johns Hopkins University to work in Kanner’s clinic later that year.

A really good description of the intellectual differences and consequences of the work of Asperger and Kanner can be seen in Simon Baron-Cohen’s excellent review of the book in the Lancet.

The key difference, according to Silberman, was that Kanner, although fighting the institutionalisation of these children, believed that they could be helped to change into as “normal” a person as was possible. To Asperger, they represented a different kind of thinking and being that needed to be nurtured and understood. Asperger’s approach was very much in tune with the modern “neurodiversity” movement but his research was largely forgotten for over 40 years.

Silberman puts forward a number of reasons for this.Firstly Kanner was able to dominate the field in the academic centre of world psychology/psychiatry, the U.S.A. Asperger stayed in Austria during World War 2 and continued to work at the University of Vienna, which became a centre for Nazi Eugenics. He was only able to continue his position by swearing allegiance to Adolph Hitler and the Nazi State. Silberman comes out with a theory that Asperger’s Christian beliefs meant that he did not support Nazism but went along with it in order to carry on his research, which in many ways undermined the Eugenics theories that his colleagues championed. The actual level of Asperger’s Nazi sympathies is still debated to this day.

The result of Asperger’s academic neglect was that autism was seen in terms of Kanner’s ideas up until the 1960’s. Silberman covers the period where parents (in particular mothers) were “blamed” for their children being born with this “condition”. The children were seen as uneducable or at least in need of separation from the “mainstream”. In Kanner’s terms, only about 4 children in 10,000 were sufferers of “Infantile Autism”.

This all changed due to the work of a British Psychiatrist, Lorna Wing. She, with her fellow researcher Judith Gould, re-examined Asperger’s work. She believed that there were far more children with what she started to call “Asperger’s Syndrome” than 4 in 10,000. She wanted to reinvigorate the idea of autism as being numerous conditions on a “spectrum”  and that there could be fully functioning, highly successful individuals who had aspects of the problem.

The re-introduction of Asperger into the debate supported various organisations in the U.S.A., Australia and Europe where parents and indeed Autistic people themselves fought for educational and social rights. They believed that many people in history, particularly in science and technology, had been on the spectrum and there are various names that have been put forward as possible candidates, of which, Sir Isaac Newton, Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein are just three.

According to these new ideas about Autism, there have always been people who did not fit into the “normal” category. My favourite quote in this respect was from the well-known Autistic academic, speaker and writer, Temple Grandin, who said that she imagined that the first great technological breakthrough, the arrowhead, was fashioned at the back of a dark cave by a patient autistic person, whilst the “normal” ones gossiped about nothing around the fire!

Silberman, in many ways, comes full circle from his “Geek Syndrome” article by describing how the internet and the digital revolution, created largely by people on the spectrum, provided the basis for non-social contact that has allowed many “spectrum people” to thrive. Perhaps our world, which has always been greatly influenced by the “Geek Tribe” who have been misunderstood, incarcerated, destroyed, bullied and shunned by the normal majority, now has to live lives on their terms.

The idea of thriving has led to the creation of the term “neurodiversity” whereby autism is seen as another way of thinking. This is perhaps best seen in one of the most famous commercials of all time that can be seen above.

This is a really good read by a very good writer. At this point, I should admit to a vested interest in this subject. My family has two and probably three or more generations of people with Asperger’s. As Silberman says, this is not something to keep quiet about but in our neurodiverse world, to celebrate.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Star Trek or Mad Max?

This post is a review of the book “The Driver In The Driverless Car” by Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever.

This book is an investigation into all aspects of the most recent developments in technology. It takes in Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), Robotics, drones, biotechnology, The Internet of Things, 3D Printing and of course the driverless car.

The authors try to present a balanced argument of the pros and cons of this new technology and how it will affect our future. As Wadwha states, as a child, he was fascinated by the Utopian vision of “Star Trek” and loved the character “Rosie” the all-purpose robot assistant in “The Jetsons”.

The Jetsons (Syndicated) 1962 – 1988
Shown from left: Astro, Judy Jetson, George Jetson, Jane Jetson, Elroy Jetson, Rosie the Robot

Later in his life, he watched the dystopian vision of Mad Max, where society has broken down and the world is about savages who have nothing but live lawless lives in what remains of a past highly sophisticated technologically progressive society that has degenerated due to unemployment caused by technology and the creation of a small rich class with everyone else  left to fend for themselves.

In “Star Trek” technology has allowed man to overcome illness, live full and happy lives and concentrate on exploring the outer reaches of the universe. Back on planet Earth there is a world government and on the Star Ship Enterprise there are representatives of all races and creeds (but not sexual orientation, it was of course originally filmed in 1960’s U.S.A.!). Man has overcome the divisions that divided him and led to wars and internal strife. It was very much a view of technology which represented the views of the series’ creator, Gene Roddenberry, a liberal humanist.

Throughout the book, the authors present the case to support the advantages and drawbacks of the technological developments that are fast becoming the change agents of everyone’s lives and will affect all our futures.

Their conclusion is entitled “So Will It Be Star Trek or Mad Max?” and they write:

“If. after reading this book, you complain that I have taken you on a roller coaster ride, getting you really excited about the amazing future in one paragraph and then scaring the crap out of you in the next, I will not be surprised. That is the path that technology is on: with amazing possibilities to uplift mankind, yet with really dark downsides too.There is no clear outcome: the future hasn’t happened yet; it will be what we make it.”

Technology, as they state, is a tool and it is what we make of it that will determine our future.

I think this is a wise book that should be read widely and definitely contributes to the debates about the use of technology in society.  Highly recommended.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Arsenal players I admired

The title of this post will no doubt surprise many people who know me. This is because I was brought up in a family that supports the other “tribe” in North London and are supposed to have a continuing animosity towards everything related to the Arsenal.

On the whole, I have always enjoyed Arsenal discomfort as in the recent 4-0 thrashing that they received at Anfield.

As may be imagined when two teams “co-exist” (if that is the real term) as do Arsenal and Spurs in a small but densely populated part of a teeming city such as London, if you come from that area as I do (I was born in Stoke Newington, about two miles from what used to be the Arsenal ground of Highbury and three miles from the now demolished Spurs ground White Hart Lane, you come into everyday contact with supporters of the other “tribe”.

I have friends who are Arsenal season ticket holders and we have interesting “banter” at each other’s misfortunes (recently I have had more to say to them than the other way around but this follows many years when the reverse was the case!).

The fact that I have used the term “tribes” liberally throughout this post is because football support does have an ancient throwback to a time when our ancestors lived in close tribal communities that gave you identity in the way you dressed, acted and lived but which strengthened these identities through the setting up of barriers to others coming into the tribe and indeed a hatred towards anyone who had different ways of dressing, interacting or living.

The origins of our inbuilt biases and prejudices lie in this tribal past. We have since moved on in terms of the organisation of our society and nowadays it is sport that allows us to rekindle our tribal passions.

Tottenham Hotspur followers are black, white, Asian, Jewish, Christian, Moslem, tall, small, thin, fat, gay. straight, male and female. Many of them come from the immediate catchment area of the team but there is support from many parts of the U.K. as well as a large international following.

All of the above can be said of Tottenham’s deadly rivals, Arsenal F.C.

I recently saw a Youtube video about great football rivalries. It was one episode in a number that covered Rangers v Celtic, Roma v Lazio, Manchester United v Liverpool and other fierce rivalries.

I am including this video in this post because, if you have the time, it is really insightful into the real passions and indeed hatred that our tribal throwback brain mechanisms can bring us to.

 

If though, we try to sit down and forget the banter, the chants, the anger that leads to real fighting (these days mercifully mostly outside the football grounds). If we try and switch off our tribal identity for a while, we can begin to see that they are, in the end, just two professional football teams.

Over the years I have come to admire the skills of some great players who happened to play for Arsenal. I always liked George Armstrong, Chippie  Liam Brady, I loved the skills of Denis Bergkamp and the sheer striking ability of Thierry Henry.

I would be fascinated to see if there are Arsenal fans who could do a similar switch off as I did and see the brilliance of Jimmy Greaves, the occasional genius of Glen Hoddle, the audacity of Paul Gascoyne and the development of Gareth Bale into one of Europe’s greatest footballers.

It takes a lot to overcome our tribal instincts and in a wider context, we need to switch off other examples of this unfortunate trait in respect to race and religion in our multicultural society.

I will still banter with my Arsenal friends and they no doubt with me but I hope it can be without the hatred and violence that has so often been seen in our team’s histories.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The human spirit will soar free

I have become a convert to synchronicity.

synchronicity

The above sums up what has recently happened to me. I was alerted through a Tweet to an RSA talk by a Human Rights Barrister called Dexter Dias:

I was impressed enough by the talk to look up Mr Dias. I found that he had recently written a book called “Ten Types of Human“.

As fortune, or synchronicity, would have it, I had recently resubscribed to Scribd, the online books organisation. I had the chance to see whether they had an ebook version of the book. They didn’t, but they did have an audio version which I downloaded.

Now, this is a very long and complex book (recording). It has 78 chapters in the audio version. I have so far covered 24 chapters and it is quite a remarkable journey into the depths and heights of the human experience.

There are times, I have to admit, that Dexter, the Human Rights Lawyer, tells of his experience of mistreated prisoners, of child slavery, of genocide. It is informed by his training in law as well as his recent training in neuroscience. To get a feel for the book see the following site.

Basically, Dias looks at ten profiles of human characteristic. In the broad sweep of looking at the ten different types, he tries to explain how humans can be kind, supportive and loving whilst also being vicious, killing and cruel. He relates these different types to our biological and social evolution.

I do not want to paint a picture of total horror and despair because Dias looks at the highs as well as the lows of our humanity. In one chapter he introduces us to a fascinating lady called Dawn Faizey-Webster.

Dawn

As can be seen from above Dawn is a lady who was a teacher in the Midlands who was married to a fellow Black Sabbath fan and expecting her first child. After 20 weeks of pregnancy, her mother noticed that her ankles were swelling. The situation got worse with ever rising blood pressure and she collapsed and was rushed to a hospital.

It turned out that she was suffering from preeclampsia. According to the NHS,

Pre-eclampsia is a condition that affects some pregnant women, usually during the second half of pregnancy (from around 20 weeks) or soon after their baby is delivered.

Early signs of pre-eclampsia include having high blood pressure (hypertension) and protein in your urine (proteinuria). It’s unlikely that you’ll notice these signs, but they should be picked up during your routine antenatal appointments.

In some cases, further symptoms can develop, including:

  • swelling of the feet, ankles, face and hands caused by fluid retention (oedema)
  • severe headache
  • vision problems
  • pain just below the ribs

If you notice any symptoms of pre-eclampsia, seek medical advice immediately by calling your midwife, GP surgery or NHS 111.

Although many cases are mild, the condition can lead to serious complications for both mother and baby if it’s not monitored and treated.

Dawn was told that if the condition she had developed was treated there would be a severe risk to her unborn child. She decided to wait for nearly a week to give her child a chance to live. Her son Alexander was born by Caesarian section. He was rushed to a premature baby unit and was born deaf. He did though survive and is now 15 years of age.

Dawn though had a massive stroke that affected her brain stem and left her almost totally paralysed. She went into what is called “Locked In Syndrome“. She could hear and understand everything around her but could not communicate except through blinking her left eye.

Her brother Mark was a nurse and seeing her lying in her bed, seemingly in a vegetative state, he asked her to blink if she could understand him. She blinked. This was the beginning of an incredible journey that led to her being able to communicate using a specially devised lap-top and an alphabet board.

Over a period of six years, Dawn studied for an Open University degree in history and gained a 2/2. Not content with that she then decided to do a Master’s degree in art history and wants to aim at a Ph.D.!

To me, this is a remarkable example of where the human spirit can be triumphant over immense adversity. Dawn has said that her study has given her wonderful restless mind a reason to live every day. It says so much about our human need to learn. I found it immensely uplifting and inspiring.

Where I go next in my synchronistic journey I do not know. But I am pleased to have come across a great book that I am barely one-third through, found a great intellect in Dexter Dias and come across a story such as Dawn’s that reinforces your faith in our humanity and encourages me to continue my quest to keep learning.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment