Every Picture Sells a Story

(And now for something completely different. This article is a bit of a flight of fancy, since looking at photos can encourage such strange imaginings. It may come across as pat or angry but it’s not intended that way — it’s meant to be provocative, to get me (and you, if you’re so inclined) thinking in a different way about what we see, and what it means. Please don’t take my meanderings below too seriously — I’m just trying out some new ideas out loud. — Dave)

Take a look at these early colour photos, taken in the US between 1939-43: denver post photo

Take a look at the whole series, not just the one I’ve sampled above. Take your time. Look at each photo. What is it telling you?

Take a look, too, at these early colour photos, taken in Paris between 1909-30. paris-1914

And at these early colour photos, taken in Russia between 1909-12. Hard to believe they were all taken in the same country (then the Russian Empire), isn’t it?


Although the following photos have been colorized from high-quality black and white shots, they’re also worth a look. Here’s a photo of the Bowery in New York in 1905, by colorist Scott R at Shorpy’s vintage photo site; see the full-size version here if you want to look at the facial expressions:


Here’s a version of a photo of flood victims lined up for assistance in 1937 in front of an ironic billboard, by the amazing Swedish colorist Sanna Dullaway for Time magazine from this collection:


The reaction of a lot of people looking at these photos (based on the comments on several of these photosets’ websites) is: (1) life was much harder back then; things are much better now; and (2) people sure have changed since those days (for better or worse, depending on the commenter).

My reaction was the opposite. The median real annual income of a working person today is not significantly different from what it was at any time in the 20th century when these photos were taken. That’s using real inflation numbers, not the falsified ones published by self-interested governments. That’s medians, not averages skewed by the incomes of the ultra-rich. And that’s per worker, not per household (cost of living requires two incomes in most households today to provide the same purchasing power than one income provided in the first half of the 20th century). The median real net worth of a household today (again, in real-inflation-adjusted dollars) is not significantly different from what it was at any time in the 20th century — that is, nearly zero (most families have debts approximating the value of their assets, when those assets values are discounted by the bubble factors affecting most real estate and stock and bond investments today). And many households are “under water” i.e. they have a negative real net worth.

The women working for the defense industry in the first set of photos above (just about the only industry there was in war-time, end-of-depression-era years) are there because their husbands and fathers are fighting overseas; they will be immediately laid off as soon as the war is over.

So why do they look so poor? One reason: the banks had not yet decided to ratchet up the consumer economy by making credit available to everyone, and, working with the corporate sector and media, propagandizing the population to believe that having two or five times the assets, along with two or five times the debts, somehow represented an “improvement” in their lives, and that if they didn’t acquire all the assets their credit limit would allow, they would be considered economic “failures” by their superficially-“richer” neighbours and peers.

Where has this superficial “wealth” come from? From using cheap energy and cheap foreign (and domestic, non-unionized, minimum-wage-or-less) labour to exhaust the planet’s resources to make billions of shoddy, throw-away products (keep ’em buying more). From indebting workers their whole lives so they will stay in thrall to the corporatist employers that exploit them, and then passing those debts on to their survivors. From using up, in a couple of generations, cheap (when costs are externalized) natural assets the planet took hundreds of millennia to produce, and hence depriving future generations of enough resources for them to live on, while saddling those future generations with mountains of garbage, toxic wastes and trillions of dollars in debts that can never be repaid without impossible, perpetual growth — debts that will come due and collapse the economy beyond recognition. From stealing land and resources from the commons, the people, for exploitation by a tiny minority of rich corporatists. From stealing the land and resources of third world nations and then saddling those nations with phoney, inflated “debts” and inflicting misery and deprivation on their people to punish them for the avarice and greed of corrupt “leaders” once sponsored and supported by the colonial corporatists in return for giving away that land and resources.

In other words, the current “wealth” is a fiction. If you were to take the photos in the sets above and photoshop them by putting obscenely expensive jewelry and clothing on all the people, replacing the cars and wagons with limousines and private airplanes, and “painting” the walls of all the buildings with marble and tapestries, you would get only a slightly exaggerated comparison with what today’s photographs, with our debt-laden buildings, vehicles and clothing, and our resource-exhausting, ecosystem-destroying and climate-destroying “wealth”, present. And for this, two people per household put in longer hours with less work “security” than past generations (some studies have suggested that for more than half of today’s “affluent nation” families, they would be bankrupt in 60 days or less if, due to some adversity, one family member suddenly lost their income).

What if we were to do the opposite, and “photoshop” today’s photographs to eliminate all the “wealth” that hasn’t been paid for and for which there is no reasonable expectation that it ever can be repaid? And to eliminate all the “wealth” that came from stealing from future generations, third-world nations and a million times our share of nature’s resources? My answer? Pretty much this: Seven billion naked, starving, clueless people scrounging through garbage and exhausted soil for clean water and their next meal. That’s the real story our modern photos tell.

So much for things being better now.

Have people really changed in the last 100 years? Some of the commenters on the sites where these photos were published write with either nostalgia (that life was simpler and people better-behaved then) or self-satisfaction (that life provides far more freedoms now).

That’s not what I see in these old photos, or the faces in them. What I see is conformity, resignation and mindless obedience to the beliefs and standards of behaviour and appearance of the day. For these people, regardless of their place (country of residence or social situation), there is just one correct way to live. The costumes are different but uniform in each picture. So is the behaviour, and, implicit in the exhibitions of patriotism, of work, of posture and action and dress, so are the beliefs. I look at these faces and recall what my parents believed, and my grandparents, and, from my research and my grandparents’ stories, what their parents and grandparents before them believed. They all believed what they were told, by their parents, by their “leaders”, by their bosses, by the politicians and media and, most of all, by their peers and friends and spouses. Their actions were in accordance with these beliefs. Non-conformity and rebellion and disobedience were tolerated in youth, in moderation, with the knowledge that the relentless and combined effect of the homogeneous culture would soon grind down such misbehaviour and recalcitrance and remake every individual into, as EE Cummings put it, “everybody else”. Not just like everybody else. Into everybody else.

But that’s changed, right? Look at today’s photos and you see a vast divergence and high tolerance for and displays of diversity of appearance, beliefs and behaviours? No?

No. Go ahead, look at the photos in your newspaper, your yearbook, Flickr, or Facebook, or the iconic photos in the magazine racks. What do you notice about these photos? They’re all the same. Just like a century ago, we’re all brainwashed, from birth, to dress, think and act like everybody else. To be everybody else.

There is one significant difference between the photos of a century ago and those of today. A century ago the homogeneity was within each culture. And there were lots of somewhat different cultures then. Today there is only one culture, and it’s global. It is eating up the remaining cultures and the last vestiges of diversity of dress, of thought, and of action, just as it’s eating up the resources of the planet, at a dizzying pace. Everyone is becoming, more and more, everybody else. It’s a corporatist’s wet dream.

That’s what I see, in these photos of the past, and the present. Perhaps I’m seeing something most others are not. Or perhaps I’m missing what they’re seeing. Or what they want to believe they’re seeing.

Every photo is a story, and as soon as it’s taken, it’s a story of the past. It’s a fiction. It’s only a story, though it’s our story, or so we tell ourselves. It’s only sensible that we want to capture it, recall it, tell it again. How much harm can there be in that?

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8 Responses to Every Picture Sells a Story

  1. Mike says:

    None of them are fat either…….

  2. David jones says:

    Well I think that there have ben many, very significant changes. Perhaps – as you point out – not materially – but in our learning, our communication and our growing consciousness / awareness (of which you are a significant contributor). The plight of our species is multi-fold but I’d focus on the debilitating effects of two: religion and a passionate belief in determinism. I believe we have made real progress – and the Internet is without doubt a major factor here – in moving us up the evolutionary scale a teeny bit – in the last 25 years. Individual awareness and collective consciousness – why could that not be the next stage for our species? And my sociological perspective says that we are lurching towards a common understanding of purpose, and fundamentally – that includes knowledge of our condition, knowledge of what is impacting us – and a sense of what the consequences are if we keep on the same track we have been on since the industrial revolution began.

  3. Helen Highwater says:

    I don’t understand why you say “why do they look so poor”. They are working people, they are dressed in work clothes, but their clothing is not in tatters, and they are dressed appropriately for the weather. They aren’t carrying iPods and cups of coffee in their hands, but they do share meals with their fellow workers, and look on the whole relatively content with their lives.

  4. Philip says:

    Just want to have no debt. Owe no claims on future labour…so I can be free to “wear” what ever and say what ever. That freedom comes form the security of not having to conform for your tickets.
    Is it about political correctness again? we seem to have many layers of it. The layers have been building up since we became farmers. What’s that saying…if you follow the crowd you get nowhere. That’s why I come your way Dave …because the transient / etheral idea of progress does not dwell in any collective consciousness (which by the way never grows). You explore the bubbles we find ourselves dwelling in. This is so evident in your illuminating map of idealogies in preparing for collapse a couple of posts ago. Have you read immortilisation commision by John Grey? -topical/timely to this topic. We are all God builders…some just more than others.


  5. Syd O says:

    I get where you’re going with “global” culture in that it has corrupted our stories and cultures into one, world eating culture based on debt and exploitation. What I don’t get is the issue with conformity. All cultures conform, that’s what makes it a culture. The issue is we conform by now choice rather than lack of choice and more often than not those choices are based on superficial reasons as we search for simulcrums of what we really want.

    Technology and trade are behind a lot of historical changes in dress over the years (along with fashionh but that’s another issue). Italians in ancient Rome dressed differently in 200BC than in 1200AD. Likewise I doubt the clothing of the Eastern tribes of Native America changed much in that same timeframe but it changed drastically as the encountered European technology (glass beads, copper arm bands, lead paints) and trade (wool coats, cotton shirts).

    Fashion, which also dictates style of dress, comes from human emotion. When we buy excess clothes, that which might require debt or false richness, stems, for most people, not from their desire to stay current with Paris runways but with what will separate them from others. If I wear a sharp suit I will get the job. If I wear this sexy dress or slacks I will get a mate. This can quickly stew into addiction and become flush with purchases made to feel the emotions you cannot get elsewhere.

  6. piyush says:

    Good one for a change, interesting observations. Even the pictures themselves are being used to increase consumerism. The enormous pile of digital trash generated in facebook for example will be “data mined” to target advertising and create new ways to lure people into buying more things they don’t need to keep the now publicly traded facebook’s profits and revenues growing forever.

    It is not too hard to project this forward to the point where people will only be taking pictures of themselves consuming things, there will be no other kind of pictures (at that point economists will declare a crisis because they will find it hard to continue growth). The freak show (George Carlin) is becoming increasingly freakier with time, but it looks like the biophysical realities are going to end this show pretty soon.

  7. Mitch says:

    This is all so true. The world we live in undoubtedly unsustainable (at the moment). I want change, I want the humans to go back to the stone age. What do we need? An Eco-friendly prophet? Sounds about right.

  8. bart raguso says:

    Dear Dave, thanks again for your diligent efforts, your observations, and providing a forum for thoughtful comments. Hope you are weathering the winter and will blossum forth in the spring with your froggy voice intact.
    The harm in telling the story is what you leave in your wake. The story the photos tell has to be seen in the backdrop of all of our history. The stories we tell ourselves creates our self-image and our self-image determines how we choose to act. We humans like “Norman Rockwell” types of images which embody
    specific but tacitly accepted ideals. Images with religious themes, such as the Madonna in the early Middles Ages, helped to form our cultural psyche.
    I think the best stories are those which inspire us to pursue our hopes. I would reccomend “The Great Turning” by David Korten, (http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/religion-science-and-spirit-a-sacred-story-for-our-time), as one way to look at where we actually are, how we got here, and what our options are for the future. We do need very specific images to lead our minds to a way of seeing things with our hearts and spirits. The story we tell ourselves is the story we will get. Hope the springtime will bring us all some sense of renewal as we marvel at the miracle of rebirth.

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