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THE COMMONS

Camera's Eye Must Provide Depth

"Objective" journalism cuts us off from a world that is changing all around us.

September 12, 2004

Journalists and artists approach the human condition from different angles. What kind of art could they make together? Theater director Peter Sellars has devoted his career to sparking conversation across mediums. His recent staging of Euripides' "The Children of Heracles" brought refugees and immigration officials face to face in an intimate encounter. His productions of "For an End to the Judgment of God," Antonin Artaud's final text, and "Kissing God Goodbye," based on a poem by June Jordan, will premiere in October at the Roy and Edna Disney/Cal-Arts Theater (REDCAT) in Los Angeles. Last month, he spoke at California Plaza about the challenges facing journalism and "the amount of pain that's going on in the world that is being treated as if there's no pain involved." The talk was part of the Zocalo Public Square lecture series (www.zocalola.org).This is an edited transcript.

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We really do forget in our talk about media that communication only functions, at a minimum, in two directions. The question is reciprocity: What are the ways in which not only is someone speaking, but someone is listening? In what way is listening quite active? What does it mean to actually speak to someone you care about, about something you can't tell anyone else about? Where the act of communication begins to become honest -- in some way real, in some way personal, in some way committed -- and the first step in the healing process? So, it's not simply reportage, it's not simply observing from the outside, because the reality is we're all inside.

For me, this is really one of the hardest things with the way journalists, particularly television cameramen, are trained. So, you're there in the Sudan, and you have your camera trained on somebody who has nothing to eat, and then you go back to the Intercontinental Hotel and have your steak. What are you seeing through that camera? Are you looking in a way that you can walk away from that scene [of starvation]?

This notion that we don't want to change, but we're going to look at the world that's in the middle of changing, is one of the issues about commercial journalism: We don't have to change while we're looking at someone else whose life is being torn apart.

We live in this strange buffer zone in America, where, because of a certain material comfort, you don't realize that everything in the world does affect you directly. [It's] a kind of new medieval period, where the news has to circulate on the Internet and in late-night comedy shows because there is no other outlet, and where the official "marketplace of ideas" actually doesn't function as a marketplace anymore. The way people are voting, the way people are even understanding the world around them, has to do with what kind of information they are receiving. What is the dimension that is missing?

One of the hardest things right now is that we're getting our news in a very sanitized manner, because the cameraman is not supposed to have a nervous breakdown while filming, whereas it would be better if he did. If the cameraman did acknowledge what was in front of him, and we could watch with that sense that the eye taking those things in also finds them unbearable.

This whole idea that the camera is "objective," and that we're receiving our news "objectively," is one of the reasons we're not receiving the very history of our time. Because all the heat [of events] has been removed. All the threat has been removed. All the possibility and hope have also been removed. And we're in this strange statistical no man's land, where the news just carries on, and, meanwhile, people continue to die and starve to death.

So, what does it take to add that little extra something to the news that allows people to realize there are no observers, only participant observers, and that we are all participants? The 20th century was about spectatorship. That's over with. You're not watching it, you're in it. As Madge used to say on the Palmolive commercials, "You're soaking in it, dear."

You are soaking in it, and actually it is the moral and spiritual energy in your life, or it's the absence of moral and spiritual energy in your life.

Journalists are encouraged to report on a very narrow bandwidth of human experience. And, of course, human experience is happening in a very wide bandwidth. It's that depth of feeling and that spiritual resonance that is the motivating factor that says to all of us, "This can't go on any longer," and then asks us to search ourselves for the solution. Which turns out to be the finest moment of all of our lives, which we are denying ourselves in our passivity.

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