This morning I was listening to the CBC radio show “Q” with Jian Gomeshi. This is a Canadian arts and culture radio magazine that we do really well, and the secret is slowly getting out as the show has gone global. Today, Jian was interviewing Jodi Cobb, a groundbreaking staff photographer with National Geographic. Just as I was moving to Japan a few years ago, I had picked up her geisha book, and a quick image search will show the great depth of her work.
One of the intriguing moments in the interview was when Jian asked Jodi Cobb whether she saw herself as an artist or as a journalist–and whether that was a false distinction. Cobb’s response caused me to pull the car over. She said,
“I think of myself as a storyteller. It’s sort of a cliche, but I like to make a narrative of a thing I’m covering…. I don’t consider myself an artist. I consider myself someone who is trying to interpret the world visually.”
One of the great debates in Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev is the discussion about whether art tells a story or tells the truth. I can’t find my way through that debate, since I am a storyteller in word rather than a visual artist. But I do remember the moment I first realized that photographers could be storytellers.
I went to one of the last publicly-funded Catholic schools in Prince Edward Island. The school struggled first to understand that I wasn’t Catholic, and then struggled to understand that I wasn’t Protestant either. One of the events that we endured was the “assembly.” As far as I can tell, “assembly” simply meant putting every kid in the school on the floor in uncomfortable piles while the principal lectured us for hours, usually on one of the many things I was doing wrong in school and what God thought about that. I still shudder when I hear the word, “assembly.”
As a coping mechanism, I began sneaking books into assemblies so I could read as the message went on and on. I remember one day grabbing a National Geographic from a pile. I slipped the magazine from under my shirt and set it on the thread-bare carpet. I peaked down, and this image was looking up at me:
I don’t remember what Mr. Christopherson said that day. All I did was look a this girl’s eyes. I didn’t even open the cover.
She is now famous, the “Afghan Girl.” I was ten or eleven then, and she was two years older than me. But I could tell by her eyes that she was a lot older then me. Already, she had seen more than me. She had experienced more than me. And now, nearly 30 years later, she has aged far more than I have. This image has haunted me ever since. Her eyes are burned within my consciousness.
It was then I began to understand what art could do. Since then, there are images that I have collected that tell me the story of the 20th century: a nude girl running from napalm, emaciated bodies heaped in a heap, a flower in the end of a rifle, a Chinese man standing in front of a line of tanks, the falling man. I could clip them here, but you know them. These pictures tell a story, but I wonder if they also capture something of the truth.
In her introduction to The Man Born To Be King, playwright and novelist Dorothy L. Sayers captures some of the struggle we have as storytellers who see narratives emerging in the world.
“My object was to tell that story to the best of my ability, within the medium at my disposal – in short, to make as good a work of art as I could. For a work of art that is not good and true in art is not true and good in any other respect.”
Sayers’ caution is a good one. Because, in this piece, she set out to tell the story of Jesus’ passion, there would be a temptation to see the project as “doing good.” We have seen this sort of art, haven’t we? American evangelicalism is particularly good at producing art that is bent because its real objective is some truth beyond the art. But it isn’t just one group. Our world is awash with moralistic images crusading in the form of bad art.
If Dorothy Sayers is right, though, bad art cannot tell the truth. Bad art, according to C.S. Lewis, is bad theology, which is to say that bad art reveals a faulty worldview.
At the end of his interview with Jodi Cobb, Jian joked that he knew her secret. As a photographer, Cobb said, you know that people will pose for a picture–they will force a face and project an image. “But they can only hold a pose so long,” Cobb said. A good photographer waits until the subject has forgotten she is there. In this way, I really admire photographers. There is much to their skill, but one thing they must do is wait for the narrative. They, of all artists, cannot force it.
Whether we are trying to tell the truth, or tell a story, Jodi Cobb and her work in Saudi Arabia and Japan, or Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl,” reminds us that our stories need to emerge naturally if they are to be authentic. It is a good lesson for writers–not least those who are passionate about what they see happening in the world.