Saturday, March 08, 2008

Coming apart at the ends

This week I was talking with my colleagues, Jon and Matt, about the recent memoir scandals. If you don’t pay attention to that sort of news, two recently published memoirs have been outed for being wholly fabricated. In one, the story of a daughter of Holocaust victims was shown to not even be Jewish. In another, a middle-class white girl told her story as a mixed-race drug runner among the gangs of L.A. Literature has, of course, a genre for these types of stories called fiction, but instead these authors chose to, like many others, position their story as true accounts.

Also this week I was talking with my friend Sarah about photography and art. She’s a photographer herself, so I e-mailed her an article entitled, “Is Photography Dead?” The article traced for a novice like myself the history of controversy surrounding photography as an art form and its trustworthiness for depicting truth or reality in the Photoshop age. Sarah made the good point that photography has always chosen to show some things and not others. Even if it’s not photoshopped, it’s composed with light or angle to highlight certain things and cropped to leave out other things. Every photo leaves out more than it includes, I guess you could say.

I discussed these memoirs with my colleagues and the nature of photography with Sarah when I realized that, in many ways they have similar symptoms. Memoir and photography both purport to show reality as it is and to give the facts. This may not be the intent of the writer or the photographer, but that is the understanding of the general reader or viewer (and everyone knows it). “As any publisher will tell you, memoir sells better than fiction.” It’s a “question of sincerity and authenticity. Memoirs are seen as more authentic than novels.” The same is true of photography. The viewer believes that what they are seeing is not derived from the photographer’s imagination.

At the same time, both attempt to show that reality through a finite lens and not without bias. Both have a vested interest in putting forward a picture of reality that grabs the attention of the reader/viewer. That way it reaches a broader audience. This inclination, however, leads away from “sincerity and authenticity” and toward sensationalism.

It is a strange paradox that readers’/viewers’ values of authenticity are threatened by their desires for the sensational. What’s more is that, when forced to choose, some publishers and photographers will essential manufacture both. They will photoshop a memoir beyond anything genuine in order to make for a sensational story. But the sensational isn’t sensational by the mere fact that it’s not true. It’s only truly sensational if it actually happened. In the same way, some photographers will fictionalize their art for the same ends. And in the end, both the sensational and authentic are ruined by man’s manipulation of them for his own ends.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

This hoax is a tragedy. The Rosenblats have hurt Jews all over and given support to those who deny the holocaust. I don't understand why Atlantic Pictures is still proceeding to make a film based on a lie. I also don't understand how Oprah could have publicized this story, especially after James Frey and given that many bloggers like Deborah Lipstadt said in 2007 that the Rosenblat's story couldn't be true.
There are so many other worthwhile projects based on genuine love stories from the Holocaust. My favorite is the one about Dina Gottliebova Babbitt - the beautiful young art student who painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the children's barracks at Auschwitz. This painting became the reason Dina and her Mother survived Auschwitz. After the end of the war, Dina applied for an art job in Paris. Unbeknownst to Dina, her interviewer was the lead animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They fell in love and got married. Now that's a romantic love story! I also admire Dina for her tremendous courage to paint the mural in the first place. Painting the mural for the children caused her to be taken to Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death. She thought she was going to be gassed, but bravely she stood up to Mengele and he made her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber.

Also, Dina's story has been verified as true. Some of the paintings she did for Mengele in Auschwitz survived the war and are at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum. The story of her painting the mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the children's barrack has been corroborated by many other Auschwitz prisoners, and of course her love and marriage to the animator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the Disney movie after the war in Paris is also documented.

Why wasn't the Rosenblatt's story checked out before it was published and picked up to have the movie made?? I would like to see true and wonderful stories like Dina's be publicized, not these hoax tales that destroy credibility and trust.