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The one thing I do when I’m away from home is walk. A lot. I might just set off in a random direction to see what I come across. Or sometimes I will try retracing a route I have walked a hundred times before because once in a while this is when I see something for the first time. One of the differences between me and a proper photographer is that I might have to go somewhere that many times before I finally see the photo that jumps out at me and then seems obvious. But perseverance is also one way of getting to the answer you want.
I think I cracked Berlin this time photographically, finally managing to capture some of the contrasts I see in the city. I also spent most of the time with plasters on my heels so I could walk for enough hours of the day, but it was worth it.
Here’s what came of it this time, in an entirely random order with some recurring images.
Welcome to my Berlin.
One of my gripes about digital versus film is that I get different colour renditions depending on which digital camera I am using, and the colours often bear absolutely no resemblance to the ones my eyes see. Now it might be that colour film has/had the same issue, but I have only used black and white film for so long that I can’t remember if I had the same problem with film. In this case, it worked to my advantage – the subtle colours from a winter sunset were nowhere as near as pleasing in ‘real life’. There are three layers of Berlin in this photo. In the foreground the wreck of a ship, to the left in the middle the two towers of the famous Oberbaumbrücke and behind that (and hazy) the television tower which dominates the landscape of the city (more on that later). And yes, I walked all the way from that tower and discovered so many things I had never seen before, including walking past the power plant that sits near the centre of the city.
In the middle of sophisticated residential streets, you come across abandoned, graffiti-covered structures which always catch my attention. This one had so many padlocks on the gates that I decided they really did not want me going exploring any further. Spoilsports.
The television tower again from an angle I had not seen before because I had never walked right beside this church. The city is an eclectic mixture of the old and the new and I thought this captured that part of the city. You can see it in colour in a minute and decide which you prefer.
That wreck of a ship is back again – you can see it in the middle on the left – but this walk beside the river started with these massive structures in the middle of the river which I had never got round to seeing close up before. Definitely better in the evening light.
I am finally happy with this photo. It’s taken me a long time to get it as I wanted it. The pointed part of the structure is part of the wider complex the tower sits within. As I’ve said before, it’s just a matter of perspective.
The same tower and church as before, but from a different angle and this time emphasising the religious element contrasting with this symbol of East Germany.
What you won’t see on a postcard. This, for me, introduces the side to Berlin.
The skyline of Berlin is still sprinkled with clusters of cranes as the latest building projects take form. It’s been that way for decades and there is no sign of anybody slowing down. So maybe it was right that the crane was in this photo, even though at the time it annoyed me because it seemed to spoil the overall image.
Yes, you’ve seen it before, but I liked the vibrancy of the colours. When you get a day like this in winter, you have to make the most of it.
Still love my geometric shapes and I loved the way the shadows accentuated the structure.
I was busy taking a photo of something that it turned out was not worth bothering with, and then I turned around.
I will admit that I recognised Marx and Engels immediately from behind. Just don’t blame them for everything that was done in their names. But they changed history.
I’m going to continue where I left off last week. Different perspectives.
We are a pretty tribal species. We have our allegiances, and we value loyalty. Just this morning, a reasonably well known British MP was commenting on the possibility of voting in favour of a parliamentary motion tabled by the Opposition, and noted that she has been loyal to the government to date, as if it were obvious that such loyalty is in and of itself a good thing.
On social media, we are more likely to share the opinions of those who are ‘friends’ or we ‘like’ or ‘follow’ (funny how those words seam to mean something different from in the pre-Facebook/Twitter/Instagram era).
We create our own little tribal bubbles, in which we are right and ‘They’ are wrong, and in which it is, moreover, blindingly obvious that ‘They’ are wrong. I mean, how could any intelligent person think differently from us, right?
Is this really that different from our distant ancestors coming together in literal tribes (we call them clans up here) and forming social bonds and cohesion around that identity?
We are then surprised, shocked, and sometimes horrified when we discover that more than half of the population (or at least half of the voting population) of a country does not agree with us on something. But of course, they are all [delete as appropriate] stupid/deluded/racist/thugs/misguided/choose your put-down. We thought everyone agreed with us. Everyone we know agreed with us, pretty much. Or at least they said they did. Or did not actively contradict us when we threw in a comment, assuming it was what everyone else in the room thought.
So here’s the experiment. If we really don’t know anybody who disagrees with us on some important topic, and is able to articulate their position to us, try reading the opinions of those who hold informed, but different, opinions from us. It doesn’t have to be at the more extreme end of the spectrum, not least because it would be far too easy to write such views off without considering them, or the perspective they are coming from.
I tried it.
I read Nigel Farage’s columns.
Moving on swiftly, I read articles in Breitbart to gain the right-wing American viewpoint.
Breitbart is currently embroiled in a campaign to stop its readers (and others) from buying Kellogg’s products because Kellogg’s withdrew advertising from the media company because they wanted ‘to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company.’
Breitbart commendably quoted the Kellogg’s statement in full in their article. Not everyone would have done that. It is all too easy to take words out of context, top and tail them and make them appear to say something very different from what was said, and certainly from what was meant. Shoot, that’s exactly what Breitbart did. The full quote came after they took part of it and included it the strapline of the article.
‘We regularly work with our media-buying partners to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company’ (Kellogg’s statement)
‘Kellogg Co. announced on Tuesday its decision to pull ads from conservative media giant Breitbart.com because its 45,000,000 monthly conservative readers are not “aligned with our values as a company.”’
Kellogg’s did not say that. They did not comment on the values of the 45m (hmmmm…) readers of the site.
And here is what the editor in chief and CEO said respectively (truncated by me):
‘For Kellogg’s, an American brand, to blacklist Breitbart News in order to placate left-wing totalitarians is a disgraceful act of cowardice. They insult our incredibly diverse staff and spit in the face of our 45,000,000 highly engaged, highly perceptive, highly loyal readers, many of whom are Kellogg’s customers. Boycotting Breitbart News for presenting mainstream American ideas is an act of discrimination and intense prejudice. If you serve Kellogg’s products to your family, you are serving up bigotry at your breakfast table.’
‘Pulling its advertising from Breitbart News is a decidedly cynical and un-American act.’
That’s pretty emotive. And definite McCarthy undertones in there.
What was more troubling was the readers’ comments – which, unfortunately, I have found is true of far too high a proportion of comments on any news articles in any paper I have looked at. Here is a small sample (of the ones that actually made any sense at all – again, in no way restricted to Breitbart as an issue, many comments do not mean anything at all):
From ‘Castiel’ (remember that all these comments are can be made anonymously and most are):
‘In the 21st century, it’s really not too tough to figure out who the Capitalists and who the Socialists are. Companies like Kelloggs, the NFL, Disney, ESPN, etc. are perfectly willing to spit in the face of their customer base in order to push forward their own particular version of “social justice,” a 100% Marxist strategy. These Socialist companies are dinosaurs whose outlandish persecution of the people who actually pay them will, much like dinosaurs, soon relegate them to the scrapheap of history.’
Bit of an issue there with what socialism and Marxism are, I’m afraid, but OK.
‘PStarr’ encouraged us to
‘Open your eyes. We might not be quite like N. Korea or Cuba, but we are definitely starting to lean that way. There are around 80 communists in the “progressive” caucus, and likely all of the “black” caucus are commies.’
And yes, I did read the article on Fidel Castro’s funeral, which a worryingly large proportion of readers thought should be bombed, with a debate about whether nuclear or conventional bombs should be used. Long live anonymous comments.
And ‘Balder the Brave’ took us one stage further in the Kellogg’s debate in arguing that Obama was partially responsible for the 2007 housing crisis:
‘Obama’s career was build on the creation of mortgagees not supported by down payments. The housing crisis was built on the Community Redevelopment Act. Community Organizers pressured the banks to give sub-prime loans or be sued by pressure groups.’
Well, don’t worry, President Obama. Pretty much nobody else went to jail for committing fraud in relation to the US housing market, so I suspect you’ll be all right, despite your apparent key role in the financial disaster which ensued.
So what did I take from this experiment (including the many other articles I read – on climate change, Trump, the Dakota Access Pipeline etc etc etc)? Much of the news coverage is entirely factual, professional and succinct. Borderline boring. There are hot buttons – Trump, climate change, (US) conservative values, where the reporting clearly moves swiftly into opinion, and strong opinion at that. But it’s pretty clear where that happens. Personally, I prefer reporting to be clearly differentiated from opinion, but there are legitimate arguments on both sides of that one. Breitbart also includes articles by contributors with contrary opinions, as most serious news organisations do.
Did I enjoy the experience? Not really, for one thing because there are some issues – climate change being a prominent one – where the reporting simply does not accord with or reflect the science. Breitbart is by no means on its own there, there are large swathes of American opinion which has no time with climate change, or evolution, or other areas of science. Does it help to understand a different perspective? Undoubtedly so, although I would have preferred more reasons than assertions to support the position being taken.
One recent article caught my attention – headlined ‘Race warriors decry “White Jesus”’. Didn’t like the article, liked the subject.
So next week, it’s finally time for religion. Definitely in the context of understanding different perspectives. Expect Dawkins, Grayling and Hitchens to make an appearance.
I am spending more time on photography than I was expecting to. And I have been thinking about perspective. I’m still using a camera with a fixed lens (ie no zoom) so if I want to change my perspective, I have to move. And it struck me that this is an analogy for life. If we want to change our perspective, we have to move from where we are. Otherwise, we will only see the same thing whenever we look.
In fiction, perspective matters a lot. As a writer, you have a number of choices. First person – ‘I ran.’ Second person – ‘you ran.’ No, don’t do that. Please just don’t do that. Third person – ‘he ran’. And then there is tense. ‘I was running towards the gate, my arms reaching out to catch the baby before she fell.’ Or ‘I am running towards the gate, my arms reaching out to catch the baby before she falls.’ One has happened, one is happening in the moment. Both perspective and tense change the feel of the story and how we relate to it. Some books mix tenses and perspective, sometimes effectively, sometimes annoyingly. One author at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was adamant that ‘you should only ever use the first person singular if you have a very specific reason to do so.’ And I realised that over half the books I had read in the previous few weeks were written in that tense. Writers have as many different perspectives on their work as much as in any other occupation. And the Book Festival has been invaluable in hearing different perspectives.
The other beauty of fiction is that it can help us to challenge our current perspective. We are forced (albeit willingly) to adopt the perspective of someone else, someone who will never share the same views as us. Even an autobiography will show a development in the author’s views over time. We are not the same person at 40 as we were at 20. Now I have to accept that ‘living’ a life through a novel is not the same as actually living that life. There is only so much that can ever be put into a character in a book. And yet. There is evidence that visualising something mimics the experience of doing that activity, not completely, but at least partially. Athletes know this well. My favourite example of this is Michael Phelps. During one race, his goggles began to fill up with water and he was unable to see properly in the water. He closed his eyes and kept going, executing perfect turns at exactly the right time. He set a new world record in that swim, because he visualises the perfect swim every night, then tries to perform it the next day. When trouble struck, he already knew what to do and simply performed what he had already seen in his mind (and practiced so often).
Some of the books that have had the most memorable impact on me are ones where I cannot now remember the character’s name, but where they gave me a different perspective on something I had no experience of – and in most cases, never will. I remember the feeling of being that person for a while. Jodi Picoult’s Sing You Home is a good example of this – a woman loses a baby she has longed for and finds her marriage at an end, and is surprised when she finds love with another woman. The book is not preachy, it just gives the reader a different perspective. I think part of the enduring impact of religious works is their attempt to give us a different perspective on our lives, on our relationships with each other, and to think differently about our place in the universe. Books can educate, entertain, and they can offer us a different perspective on life.
So back to the photography.
Here is a really boring street, the kind of one we walk past every day without paying any attention.
And here is the same street at night (two variants – neither manipulated by me other than by waiting for the sky to darken even more so the orange would dominate the scene).
Harder to walk past without noticing. Unsurprisingly, I took the evening photos first as the scene caught my attention immediately, then went back days later to take another shot of the same street during the day (which I will now delete, as it has no value other than to illustrate the point!).
And here is a bridge – three perspectives, all of them having a slightly different impact, just from taking a step forward or crouching down.
We will not change our perspective and learn to see the world differently if we are never prepared to move from where we already are. We already know where that is and what it looks like. It might be better or worse from somewhere else, and it might well be uncomfortable, but we will learn something in the process.
What do you see in this photo?
It’s not very good, really. Railway tracks, pretty boring. It should have something dramatic, something that catches the eye, something in the foreground.
So as a photo, not up to much.
But this is Platform 17 at Grunewald train station in Berlin. It’s the platform trains departed from in the 1940s, heading to Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and other similar places. It’s now a permanent memorial to that period in German history. I doubt most people know it exists.
Along the platform are metal plates, each showing the date, number of Jews deported, and the destination. The rest we can imagine. I was particularly touched by this one:
It wasn’t 100 people on that one day in 1942, it was 101. And for some reason, that one person made a difference to me. It was more personal.
The other thing which struck me amongst the horror that this platform represented in a small way was the number of people who were still being found and deported as late as the spring of 1945. To have survived for all those years and then to have been discovered so close to the end of the war.
So the photo wasn’t meant to be technically good, it was meant to be a reminder. Changing our perspective is sometimes the most important thing we can do in a situation. Much more prosaically, I was reminded of that on two recent occasions.
You are running late, in traffic, and a car wants to pull in front of you. You might miss the next set of lights if you let it in. And then you realise that you recognise the driver, it’s someone you know. Of course you let them in, it’s become personal, not an abstract question of values.
Or you are watching a concert and some teenagers in front of you start climbing on each others’ shoulders, holding some huge video camera and blocking your view. How annoying. And then someone else asks them what they’re doing. It’s a school project, they’re on an exchange, learning about the country. And all of a sudden, who cares about missing the view for a few minutes while they film the experience they are having? Again, there’s a personal connection all of a sudden.
Three recent reminders for me that sometimes, all we have to do is change our perspective to change a situation, because it’s not what’s happening that’s the problem, it’s how we’re interpreting it.