A couple of years ago the St. Kilda Writers’ Festival in Australia organized a haiku-writing competition, with entries to be submitted via cell phone text message—“seventeenth-century Japanese poetry meets twenty-first-century digital technology,” as the solicitation billed it. In our attention-starved, overstimulated age (see “Attention Span”), the idea strikes us as genius.
No wonder we fell for the little book recently published by the editors of the online storytelling magazine Smith called Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure (Harper Perennial). Inspired by the legend of how Ernest Hemingway, challenged to write a story in six words, came up with “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” Smith invited readers to pen their own memoirs in exactly a half-dozen words.
The results range from mundane (“Now I blog and drink wine”) to silly (“Artsy married Fartsy, has two kids”) to wistful (“Educated too much, lived too little”) to witty (“The psychic said I’d be richer”) to utterly brilliant (Mario Batali’s “Brought it to a boil, often”).
Hearts of Darkness
This spring documentarian Errol Morris released his film Standard Operating Procedure, a probing look at what happened at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison during the U.S. occupation. Morris and Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch produced a book of the same title, just out from Penguin Press. These projects relied on hundreds of hours of interviews with the American soldiers involved and were inspired by the shocking photographs that raised troubling questions about U.S. practices and policies when they surfaced in 2004. Gourevitch discusses the power of these images in our media-saturated age.
Q: Errol Morris has said that the Abu Ghraib photos “took away America’s innocence.” Can you put their impact into context?
Gourevitch: Their impact was so great because they marked the moment when we saw that instead of remaking our enemies in the war on terror over in our self-image, we were making ourselves over in their image. Of course there have been shocking and disillusioning images before in American history, but what makes the Abu Ghraib pictures entirely unprecedented is that they were taken not by journalists but by the soldiers. For the first time the iconic images of a defining moment were taken by the participants. And instead of being given Pulitzer Prizes, the photographers were thrown in jail as criminals.
Q: The images have become symbols used by artists, printed on posters and T-shirts. How does this shift their meaning?
Gourevitch: I believe that part of what made the Abu Ghraib photographs so powerful is that when we first saw them, we didn’t know exactly what we were looking at. Were these pictures of torture? Were these pictures of soldiers at play? The power of pictures is slippery, sometimes treacherous, and easily misdirected. Why is that picture of the hooded man on the box trailing wires and wearing a weird cape one of the defining images of our times? I’d say because it is symbolic of all that went wrong at Abu Ghraib precisely because we do not know how to read it. It looks like a crucifixion, an electrocution, or some medieval ritual of dark sorcery.
Q: What does this episode say about photography as truth, as evidence, or its limitations as such?
Gourevitch: The great paradox is that the pictures quickly turned from an instrument of exposé into an instrument of cover-up. The idea was that the photos were the scandal, not the policies they depicted. Photographs can be evidence, but evidence is not always self-evident—it has to be interpreted, and that places a great deal of responsibility on us as observers, as consumers of images.
The Los Angeles Center Theater Group—which includes the Ahmanson, the Kirk Douglas, and the Mark Taper Forum—was once a stop for touring shows. But increasingly it has become an incubator for new productions, and in September the musical version of the 1980 movie 9 to 5, featuring music and lyrics by Dolly Parton, opens at the Ahmanson with Allison Janney in the lead role and Joe Mantello directing.
Get ready for the High Line, the disused elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side that is being transformed into a public promenade and park by the firms Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The much-anticipated initial phase—from Gansevoort to 20th Street—is slated to open in late fall.