We are Sorry

A week ago Saturday, Martine and I were walking through Union Square in New York when we saw a small group of people holding signs that proclaimed “We are Sorry.” Sorry about what, I wondered, so I went over to find out. They didn’t look very rueful, in fact they seemed to be having a rather good time, smiling and enjoying the fine spring weather.

I couldn’t resist. “Sorry about what?” I demanded. One sprightly young blonde sprang forward and said “we’re sorry that so many Christians have behaved so badly. That wasn’t Jesus, that was people getting the message wrong.” She then thrust a card bearing the words “We are Sorry” into my hand.

Christian apology

Well. How about that? Although I am not among the faithful, I do think that Christians tend to get a bad rap, their image spoiled by the words and deeds of the radicals and extremists. (Such is the lot of all of the children of Abraham.) It was nice to see people making a point of distancing themselves from their insane counterparts and planting a standard for the simply misinformed.

“Apology accepted” I replied with a smile, and moved on. Given that this is New York, where few people apologize and fewer still will acknowledge one, she seemed a little surprised. “Gee… uh… Thanks!” she said, with a big grin.

As I made my way across the square towards the Saturday market stalls, I turned the card over. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted. It turns out those nicely washed kids are from “The Awakening Church,” a Greenwich Village based Christian center “bringing spiritual Truth through cultural relevance.” They bill themselves as “spiritually messy people following a perfect Savior.”

we're sorry

While I like the idea of spiritually messy people, these folks are establishing bulkheads against true messiness (and thus, I think, true knowledge and awareness) by proclaiming things like “spiritual Truth” and “a perfect Savior.”

Because, really, there is no single truth, and nobody — not even a savior — is perfect. Truth, perfection, and reality are slippery and shape-shifting. Nobody has it wholly right, and that includes Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and even the radical atheists like Dawkins and Harris.

The only “truth” I understand is this: the more you are convinced you have it figured out (in matters of God and spiritually) the more I distrust your opinion. I value the doubters and the questioners, not the ones who think they’ve got it.

On the other hand, it’s a nice try. All of the Abrahamic faiths follow the same basic principles, and much of what we in the West think of as morals and ethics spring from that foundation, so I’m not willing to throw the whole thing aside. But don’t get all doctrinaire about it. Be flexible. Have more questions than answers. It’s OK to run MS Word on your Mac and to use iTunes in Windows. Heck, the backbone of OS X is Unix for Pete’s sake! There’s no single right answer, and if there is any such thing as truth you find it by looking in all directions.

Earth Day Message: Beware of Greenwashing

“Greenwashing” occurs when a company puts a lot of marketing and public relations effort into delivering a message that they’re very “green” when in fact they are not. An example would be an oil company that takes out ads in influencial magazines touting their wind and solar power research when in fact that represents only 1% of their R&D budget (the rest goes into fossil fuels exploitation).

We frequently hear about those big cases of greenwashing, but it happens on all levels. On this Earth Day I urge you all to read the labels on products before you buy them, and to be wary of green claims. Don’t allow yourself to be wooed.

It can be subtle, especially when the green message is only by association. Some brands imply greenness simply because of the brand; they don’t even have to be explicit. Yet there is no guarantee that the item has any actual “green” value.

Here’s an example: Whole Foods Market claims it is the “world’s largest retailer of natural and organic foods.” Their web site and stores are filled with messages of green ecology and of wastelessness. When you finish eating at their cafeteria, you have to sort your waste by paper, plastic, and compostables.

With billing like that, you’d probably assume that anything you buy at Whole Foods will have been vetted by the company for it’s environmental impact. However, I was in the Whole Foods store in Soho, New York, a few days ago, and I happened upon a stack of packages of cedar planks near the fish department. “Planking” is a method of cooking fish in which you place the fish (usually salmon) on top of a cedar plank and then put it on the grill. The heated wood imparts a nice flavor on the food.

I’ve always thought that planking was very wasteful. After all, you’re only supposed to use the plank once; that’s a lot of wood to use for the sake of flavoring one piece of fish. At Whole Foods I decided to turn the package of three planks over and read the label. Here’s what I discovered:

  • The wood was from Canada.
  • The wood was processed in China,
  • The processed wood was packaged in the United States.

That’s a lot of international travel for a few pieces of wood, and it’s hardly ecological. It’s bad enough that you’re using a whole chunk of cedar for one piece of fish, but the fact that it was shipped to China and back just to be sawed into rough planks is too much (particularly since Canadian sawmills are desperate for work). All that so you can pay a dollar less for your three planks.

I was very disappointed, particularly since I really like Whole Foods; they have marvelous stores with really nice and interesting products. However, the lesson, as always, is to read the label, and to be aware that branding is 80% bullshit.

From the Hip

Loyal readers will be appalled that I’m taking time away from what is surely the highlight of their day (this blog) to work on blog number four: From the Hip – Montreal.

From the Hip – Montreal (or simply FtH) is my experiment in clandestine street photography. There are three drivers behind this project:

  • I like street photography (although I don’t like being conspicuous as a photographer so I rarely do it);
  • I’ve long had a fascination with photography that is impressionistic by nature (although the Cartesian side of my personality has usually squashed my efforts);
  • In Quebec it is illegal to photograph people without their permission.

Knock those three together and what emerges is the desire to shoot street photographs inconspicuously, with the camera held at waist level shooting more or less blindly. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, and in many cases it is. I have a very high “reject” rate.

However, I have exiled the Cartesian mind for the time being, and am allowing myself to forget the so-called basics of “good” photography (focus, exposure, and composition) and am allowing myself to view these photographs on a purely experiential and impressionistic level. I only publish the ones that (to me) bring together an interesting confluence of event (what’s going on), subject (who is involved), and perspective (the uninvolved passer-by).

A lot of people will think these photos are crap, and that’s OK. I’m not putting them out there as an example of my expertise or fine photographic craftsmanship. I’m not fishing for compliments on my excellent photographic abilities. Rather, I’m presenting them (as I put in that blog’s About page) as “film stills from the reportage of my mind.” That means they’re tilted, fuzzy, and largely disengaged from the subjects. But that’s how I experience the world when I’m walking around, so that’s how I’m presenting these photos. They’re all about what I see, and how I see it, uncontrived by the conventions of standard photography.

That’s not to say I’m knocking standard photography. Far from it. I’m still running the Monday Morning Photo Blog, with a new image every Monday Morning (since 2004!). But that blog has no particular orientation or perspective. It’s just a loose collection of my photographs spanning more than 20 years and a dozen different styles. If you didn’t know, you’d be hard pressed to identify the photos on the Monday Morning Photo Blog as coming from the same photographer. It does contain a number of images that I’ve tagged as “street” photography (you can see all 75 “street” thumbnails here), and perhaps four of them could (and might) appear on FtH. But I see FtH as a sort of self-contained project, which is why I’m running it as a separate blog.

Go take a look if you feel like it. But leave your expectations behind. Prepare to be underwhelmed. It’s the kind of work that if it grows on you at all, it does so over time, as you see themes and perspectives emerge. Or not. We’ll see.