Black and White and Gray all Over

Do you think you’re a “good” person?  I bet you do.  Most folks do.  But when you and I get into an argument and I walk away thinking that you’re an asshole, and you walk away thinking I am...well, who’s the asshole?  I know, I know...THEY are.  But what if they aren’t? 

I began thinking about this last year when I did something in particular and thought to myself, “Wow, ‘good’ people don’t do that kind of shit.”  But I’m a good person, aren’t I?  Well, maybe I’m not...or maybe instead, it’s not useful thinking of people in terms of “good” or “bad.”  Because the fact is, good people do bad things, and bad people do good things.  Smart people do stupid things, and people you think are dumb can be really insightful.  It’s a muddy world out there, and it’s a muddy world in here *taps chest* -if you know what I mean. 

So what's "good," anyway?   Mostly folks agree on the basics, and it’s really not that confusing, is it?  Most of us value the same sorts of things:  loyalty, honesty, kindness, intelligence, and being good in the sack generally rank pretty high on most people’s lists.   OOPS, sorry...that last bit just kinda slipped out there...  :P

But OK, Honesty.  This is a quality that I have wrestled with my whole life.  I believe people should be honest.  But they’re not, and frankly, I’m not.  So for example, in my capacity as a teacher I sometimes tell little fibs.  It goes like this:  I make a JUDGMENT about how a person is doing (emotionally) in their process, and I give them feedback based on a combination of if x + y + z < 0 I lie.  if x + y + z = 0 I give them a soft truth.  It x + y + z > 0 I give them a hard truth.  Here, x is how long they've been working at it.  Y is how I believe they are feeling.  And z is the quality of the print.  See what I'm saying?

Sometimes, after a person has sweated in the darkroom making multiple prints of the same image trying to perfect it, and they come out feeling proud of themselves for a print that is still slightly blown out in the highlights, and I KNOW that hearing a critical comment from me will squash them, I lie.  I tell them it’s awesome and their grade also reflects the awesomeness.  And MOSTLY it IS’s just that one spot, you know?  Or that one quality that could have been a bit more carefully rendered.  Because here’s the thing, if they shuffle off with their print –yes, the one that they were so proud of- feeling defeated and with their tail between their legs, they are less likely to continue doing photography at all.  And as long as they come back, we can work on those little things.  I have had students stay with me for years, who have gone back and looked at the work they did in Photo 1, and then said to me, “Wow...these prints are not so good, huh?”  Because they can see it now, and that is how it’s supposed to be: they are supposed to get good enough to know for themselves when the print still needs attention. 

I guess I would say that I tell them what I believe they need to hear.  Sometimes what is needed is a well-considered fib.  Sorry, just the truth there...because sometimes the actual truth is not useful.  It just isn’t.   Since I’m outing myself on this topic, I should say that I also get people who reeeeeally want the truth and who would prefer a hard truth to a lie, and a hard truth to a soft one.  And I have no problem at all saying what I see. 

Here's another tidbit:   I tell them I always tell the truth.  But that in itself is also a lie. 

One last tidbit:  What I say to them in critique (a public forum) is not the same as what I say to them in person. 

It’s a slippery slope. 

Moving on from the teaching realm (and I saved this for last because nobody is going to read this far) here’s another thing in the truth department...and this is where I went wrong last year.    FACEBOOK.  Omg, with the FB humble-bragging.  I fucking hate it.  My sister said I should really try to get my work out there on FB, and last year I made a valiant attempt.  I tried all kinds of wording, tried the humble-bragging, tried excitement, etc.  but it all just seems like so much self aggrandizement. 

I had (notice the past tense) a friend –and I considered her a friend irl...not just a FB friend.—who was something of a champion at posting her accomplishments on her FB feed.  OK.  That’s her business and her thing –works for her, wouldn’t work for me, but I still couldn’t help having sentiments about it. 

Well, guess what I did.  I composed a letter to my sister, stating my opinions about one of her posts.  I did so in derogatory terms.  And I accidentally sent it to the person I was criticizing.  OMFG...can you say:  Terrible Moment.   Yep, it was a terrible moment.  And it’s a moment I will remember for the rest of my life for so many reasons.  Here are some:

It was a moment of honesty that I would NEVER have shared with anybody but my sister, much less the subject of the criticism.  I really DID believe that this person’s post was horseshit.   And though this ex-friend and I had previously discussed how her FB presence didn’t really match her real life self, I had never stated -nor would I ever have been so specific and harsh in my critique of her posts.  I hurt her feelings.  Like, a lot.  It is the one thing that has continued to be hard for me to swallow.  That I could say something hurt somebody like this. 

This experience also solidified my beliefs about telling the truth.  Some "truths" are just not useful.  But I have been taught, and also on some level believe that the truth is important...that it is somehow "real" and that there is value simply in knowing that reality.  So I want to be honest.  And I was wondering:  if the truth is hard to tell, then maybe there is some way of changing certain kinds of truth.  Subjective truths, truths that are about how something makes you feel... these kinds of subjective "truths" might be mutable.  Meaning:  what if I could change how I feel in the first place?   Alternately, what if I could get into a place of non-judgment about stuff that doesn't matter anyway.

Anyhow, my ex-friend has certainly moved on from this.  However, because I am the perpetrator, I have not been as successful letting go of it.  Many times, this whole affair has made me wonder:  “am I really a ‘good’ person?”   “do ‘good’ people act like I act?”  and you know what?  I think they do.  Because unless we are 2 years old or we are not too swift, we all form opinions about how the world should be, and sometimes the world doesn’t manifest in expected ways, and/or other folks don't see or believe the same things we do.

Seems like the older I get, the grayer the world becomes.  It was so much easier when the whole shebang was black and white.


Thien Nguyen

One of the weirdest pedagogical experiences I get to have:  students who don't believe me.  Who come to me with a question for which I provide an answer, and then tell me I'm wrong.  Just for the record, because I have no problem confessing ignorance when I don't have answers, I am not actually wrong a lot. (LOL!! Don't ask my mom about this!) And since we're "on the record" I should also say that when I recognize that a question appears to require a subjective response I situate my feedback in context.  When these things don't work, I will say something like this:  "Student, pretend I am your client.  I just asked you for 5 widgets.  Give me the widgets or you won't be paid." or "GREAT!  I'm glad you love it printed with the 5 filter; you can put that on your refrigerator and now make one for me."

You might ask:  WTF with all this clap-trap about teaching when I'm posting awesome photos by one of my students?  Um.  Yeah.  Thien's been a pretty tough nut.  From happily stating in critique of others' efforts: "I don't like any of it."  to telling me I'm wrong about what a print should look like, to not getting stuff done on time because it's just his little way...this list could be extended, but you get the idea.  Thing is, he has also been one of the most rewarding students I've had in years.  

The dude is "ON."  Always thinking, always assessing, exploring, trying new things.  He wants to talk about stuff and he likes arguing and being challenged...he is actually looking for answers.  He's got his own style, and his own ideas which are complex and in constant flux.  And yeah, he has been critical of others' photos, but he also turns that critical eye onto his own work, and in my opinion, with really amazing results.  Furthermore, this quarter his prints have been golden, and he is developing his own photographic vision and style...I'm putting some of his work below.  

What I like the best about Thien's photos is that they are peculiar, unnatural somehow, surreal.   His use of fingers and legs as primary touch-points, the shapes he creates with bodies, and what's missing are all features that interest me about the photos and that leave me feeling that I've been allowed a glimpse into a privately coded universe where things are just half-a-bubble off.  I also love his attention to light, and his sense of overall composition.  If you would like to see more of Thien's work, you can check out his Flickr page!