Friday, 29 August 2014

Summer is ending.

Some days, when I think about how vast and hopeless the world is, I get stuck. Stuck in my own brain, as I consider the huge expanse of people trembling in fear and madness. Stuck in the horrors that permeate people's psyches, lurking just below the surface in day to day life. Stuck considering the multitude of ways life conspires to fuck people over based on no sound reasoning whatsoever.

It's been a long summer, where an early spike of heat has faded away into rain and grey cloud and cool breezes on days when it's already a little cold.

It's been a summer full of death. At the individual level, celebrities seem to be dying like never before (possibly a side-effect of our aging global population and the ability of the internet to extend stars' lifespans beyond their decade of fame; funny how we only remember people when they die). We've seen James Foley executed in front of the whole world, who watched his beheading through their fingers on computer screens and smartphones. He was trying to elucidate us about the dark corners of the world; the darkness got to him.

On a larger level, we've learned so much more about the hundreds of violations going on around the world. The Gaza strip has seen fighting that's killed 2000 civilians - and over what? Two groups of people, locked up safe in boardrooms, disputing who owns some land without sparing any thoughts for the people who live there and call it their home.

We've seen spates of cops abusing the black community in the USA, from Ferguson to New York and even further. I get so angry about it - but I am white, I am privileged, I am English. I am not on the streets holding candlelit vigils for Michael Brown, and being tear-gassed for my efforts. But I wasn't there either in London, when Mark Duggan was shot in 2011. Then, the country turned on itself as anger flared up all over the nation, and we rioted across the country. In Ferguson, there are no riots. There are peaceful protests, misreported by the white media wrongly representing something calm as violent - due to the cops' reaction, which wasn't even precipitated by anything.

One and a half thousand children were sexually abused in Rotheram in an industrial, organised fashion over the course of decades, and the authorities did nothing. Too concerned with protecting themselves than the children they were supposed to be caring for.

This is the state of the world, right now. Ebola ravages Africa but we only care when a British citizen is infected. There's so much bleakness and suffering that we have to depersonalise, only view a few select groups as people and the rest as merely faceless masses - because, if we really truly considered every person who was hurting, and empathised that fiercely with every sore soul, I think our hearts would burst.

I get stuck thinking about all this - and I feel bad, because I'm happy. There's nothing I can do to help, and my impotent thoughts of action wither and die into indolence and satisfaction with my own personal status quo.

My job pays me £117 each week for three days of my time, where I mainly dick around and waste time by writing cloying, overwrought blog posts like this. My friends see me most days, a dancer cooks me dinner on a semi-regular basis, and I've managed to avoid dumping a bucket of water over my head. I've gained weight but the media's insistence that I should now experience crushing body dysmorphia hasn't materialised. My body is still my body. I'm happy.

Just like other people having it worse doesn't invalidate your own sadness - and other people having it better doesn't invalidate your own happiness - the suffering of the world doesn't seem to have much impact on my own feelings. Not today.

Summer is ending. The pain is still everywhere I look, except in my own personal bubble. Maybe this is the only way we can combat the blackness though. Maybe happiness is the most subversive thing we can project. The world is made up of awful moments of anguish and crying when nobody can hear you, but it's also beautiful. Life is harsh, but it's sharpest when in relief. Among the brutality are shining shards of joy: laughing until you collapse, cycling through hayfevery fields, hot showers and Netflix marathons and singing karaoke with strangers. Hold them close.

One day, I'll be struggling with my own demons, be they personal or systematically oppressive. I'll be holding onto past days of happiness then: in a world where death is random and impersonal, it'll come for me eventually. Be joyous. Dare to be happy. We have to find some frivolous way to beat the severity of real life.

Monday, 18 August 2014

The transience of photographs.

I haven't written for a while and I already fear that my brain is not what it used to be. This post was not light and whimsical to write: it was mucilaginous, viscous, the words forced from my fingers rather than flowing. It's also piecemeal and bitty, strung together from patchwork thoughts I've had over the week rather than a narrative stream-of-consciousness which I am using to hash out my ideas.

I want to talk about photographs. I don't even know what I want to say about them. I just want to say something.

The problem with photographs is that they take something as fleeting, as transient as a moment, and attempt to immortalise it forever. In the past, you had to live in the second: you reminisced with your mental faculties, not your Facebook app, and everything happened once and only once.

But cameras appeared in the world, and photographs had to be staged, stock-still, for hours on end in order to create an image to last forever. Victorian women decked up in finery clutched their babies in chokeholds, staring sternly at modern technology, and the resulting sepia prints were monuments to their patience and wealth.

Those days have passed too, and now I take Snapchats of my laptop to let friends know I'm at work (and hardly working). Stay gold, pony boy, even though nothing gold can stay.

In Physics, it is an accepted fact that by observing something you change it. The Observer Effect, as it is appropriately called, says that the very act of measuring something will alter it. This is true of photographs. Taking a photograph of something changes it, because it no longer exists in its unobserved state. By viewing it - by giving it the audience of a lens - it is changed. You are not taking photos of things as you see them; you are taking photos of things as your camera sees them. Do the subject of photos even really exist outside of your aperture?

I digress.

Transience. I am a big fan of transience.

I have a tattoo on my hip of cherry blossom, which is traditionally associated with transience in Japanese culture, and the need not to fight time - instead, you let it pass, flow over you like a river you cannot change the course of. (I think of photos as leaves, floating on this river: they are buoyed along, in the same inexorable forward motion, separate from the water but carried by it.) There is a permanent reminder on my skin that nothing is permanent. I am a big fan of this irony, too.

Nothing can last forever, and few things last beyond their own moment. Photographs take that moment, distill it, capture it in proverbial amber and preserve it. A moment, cut forever from its contexts of movement and chronology: a moment, caught forever with less-than-flattering lighting and slightly wonky framing.

But photographs create another situation whereby, divorced from their context, they become irrelevant to their time. I know people who still fancy Heath Ledger, despite the fact he is dead. He is dead, and buried, and rotting - and yet we have photographs and films that depict him as young and attractive and as the hero in teen films, so fancying him doesn't seem weird. This also explains why we are still struck by photos of beauty from our previous millennium. It is not because beauty is timeless. The people in photographs, who were beauties at 21 in 1955, are probably no longer beautiful now. It is because we can make that moment timeless. Photographs turn us into time travellers, showing us things as we could never experience them because the world simply is not like that. They're lying to us. They are self-demonstrative proof that the world used to be like that, and yet the only proof is that image itself. Photographs are duplicitous.

(This is true of any static rendering of a sense, I suppose - so sound recordings are privy to this too; but I think there's something so much more intense about photographs. An image gnaws at my nerves far more viscerally than a sound.)

All this thinking was prompted by something a while ago. A friend of mine sent me a photograph of himself as a teenager, in order to prove he had once had hair. The photo was a candid shot, of a Welsh 16-year-old holding a cat, looking slightly surprised by the proceedings. His hair was blond, and as New Romantic as any Spandau Ballet tribute act. I have only ever known my friend as an adult: he is, to my young eyes, old and wise and sensible (and almost certainly reading this). To think he was once my age - that he was younger - is inconceivable. He was 26 when I was born, and I'm closer his age in this photo from 1984 than I am to him now.

But in that photo, there isn't much to mark it as being defiantly 80's fare. The clothes are rather generic. It could have been taken in 2011, when I was 16 and had rainbow hair. The boy in the photo could have gone to the same Cardiff Uni open day as me, passed me on a crowded train, smiled at my chronic clumsiness.

What a shame he stopped existing the moment after the shutter clicked.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Bullshit Bell 5: Timekeeping.

I had a plan for a blog post today. I was going to write a beautiful, gentle, whimsical thing about photographs and how they distort our sense of history, making the past forever present through a frozen image which refuses to change no matter how the world around it does. I was mulling it over in my head last night. It was going to be achingly well-written. A musing on transience and time.

But no.

Instead, I am calling bullshit on the corporate world in one more small, petty way that has proved I cannot deal with offices where everyone wears pencil skirts: timekeeping is bullshit.

I say this as an admittedly unpunctual person. I turn up on time to events when you're expected to be late. I'll get to lectures either five minutes early or five minutes late, and rarely in the sweet spot in between. I've been trained by my mother to turn up to doctors' appointments ten minutes early, when in reality I don't think my GP's ever been less than twenty minutes behind schedule.

In my mind, punctuality is pretty flexible. Being assigned to work 37 hours a week means I will work 37 hours a week. If I am 5 minutes late turning up to work, I'll religiously work an extra 5 minutes. I may be 5 minutes late to work fairly often, but sometimes I'm early to work. Because that's how humans work. We have days when we wake up early and days when we can't get out of bed and sometimes we have days where traffic is slow or the lights won't turn on or we have to spend ten minutes looking at ourselves in the mirror to psyche ourselves up to face the day.

And yes sometimes I am late to work. What of it?

Has anything interesting and vital ever happened in those 5 minutes between when my contract starts and when I arrive?

My manager is apparently the only person who cares about this, because he is the one who chews me out. He's not even my boss. Because my boss is in Turkey for four weeks, and working from home. He has also threatened me with termination of my contract if I am late again.

How does that work, exactly?

If 5 minutes past 9 counts as so truly horribly heinously late that the very existence of space-time warps and number start turning backwards, then yes I will accept that I was late and this was a mistake that could have been avoided.

What about 1 minute past 9? Couldn't that just be down to our watches not being synchronised?

Or thirty seconds past 9? Or 1 second past 9?

If I am 1 second late on Monday, am I going to get fired?

Personally I'm still a little bitter about the extra 3 hours I worked to finish some important copy, only to be told that I hadn't cleared the hours in advance so they didn't count. In my head, I'm stilled owed 3 hours, which I can chip away at by being 5 minutes late every day for 36 days, and still have worked 37 hours a week.

In a fast-paced working environment, yes, I can possibly see the relevance. In journalism, where new stories can break at literally any time, I suppose it's important to be at your desk at exactly 9am, because heaven knows how you could receive communication on your smartphone while commuting. In an office where the most productive thing I've done with week is write 400 words of newsletter copy and be told the photos I selected for it were wrong, it's pretty hard to care.

So, there we go. Timekeeping is bullshit. Punctuality is bullshit. I can keep track of my own hours. I know that when they deign to give me work to do, I do it on time and well. So why should it matter if I want to have breakfast in the morning rather than arrive, starving, at 8.55?

I don't even have anything funny and witty to say. I'm just angry. And if someone wants to give me a job where the quality of my work counts for more than my timekeeping, that'd be great. I would walk out now were it not for the money. Truly, I have sold myself to The Man.