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Take Flight Microgrant Proposal

This proposal was submitted to the Take Flight Microgrant program sponsored by DailyKos.com spring of 2009. Successful proposals were never announced.

What: Summarize the proposed project

During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration, putting many Americans back to work. One program actually sent photographers, writers and other creative workers around the country to document the Depression, both to understand the depth of the nation's distress but also to show the politicians and media what they would never ordinarily see from their insulated environments. These social documentary projects still give us unique insight into America. Rather than capturing the "decisive moment," the WPA photographers revealed for the viewer the teachable moments.

There are now, however, very few widely available sources of images that actually document how Americans are living, especially as our standard of living slowly declined and then suddenly dropped off a cliff. These images used to be provided by two sources:

  • Photojournalism is now reduced almost entirely to celebrity worship, whether it be following political leaders or movie stars. Photojournalists are among the first let go by local newspapers, faced with fewer subscribers and lower ad revenues.
  • Social documentary photography has produced great images in the past, such as those by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and others during the Great Depression, but the practice is almost invisible today, largely because the traditional distribution networks (magazines and books) are so expensive to produce for and distribute to their shrinking audiences.

Thus, how many Americans actually live, as represented in traditional media, has become almost invisible. This is at a time when access to making and publishing images is easier than ever, thanks to digital media. "Point and shoot" digital cameras are cheap and easy to use. Nearly all cell phones have a built in camera capable of producing images that are of sufficient quality for web publishing. Plenty of photographs are being taken and shared on free websites, though they almost always fall into predictable categories (family photos, travel photos, etc.).

The benefits of digital photography are many for bloggers. Photographs online are nearly instantly downloaded and viewed, they take almost no time to comprehend (unlike a video which you have to sit through), and they can be combined with words that are already being written. A photograph may seem like retrograde technology, but photography is the first democratic visual medium (photography was being invented in France -- and given free in the public domain for the world to use -- as Alexis de Tocqueville was writing "Democracy in America").

An opportunity exists to use digital photography, organized through social networks, to engage citizens, and to document the need for change in America. A good image with a title and a short caption can tell a compelling story in a very efficient and effective way. Photoblogs are not new, but they are almost entirely nonexistent in the progressive blogosphere.

Until we show each other what we are experiencing, those experiences will not be validated by anybody. In traditional community organizing, individual problems become community issues only when lots of people share them. Politicians can't easily ignore the documentary evidence, if we capture -- with lots of photographs -- and present it. Citizens can make the difference if we educate, organize and agitate them to do so. Over time, what blogging did to journalism, this proposed project can do for photojournalism and documentary photography.

If you had good documentary photographs to support your narrative, would you publish them on your blog?

Why: Describe the problem this proposal solves, the void it fills, the existing efforts it supplements, or the opportunities it creates.

The American Dream has been looted. The economic and political establishment of the country abandoned the American Dream -- and with it the shared prosperity that defined the middle class -- sometime during the 1970s, and this fact has only recently been discovered by the majority of voting Americans.

The traditional media was looking the other way as the middle class was disappearing. In fact, they contributed to the deception: by focussing ever more on consumption and celebrity, they ignored the fact that wages had stagnated and that the only way to consume more was to go into debt. Only after the bubbles pop do they pay any attention to the devastation in people's lives and dreams, usually limited to the occasional human interest story, a la NPR or PBS. Once the recession is "over," the traditional media will lapse back into what they usually do: ignore reality.

The problem is that because the media looks the other way, we often do not see the breadth and depth of what others are experiencing. Many of us knew the middle class was disappearing. We could see subtle signs all around us of America's slow decline. Lots of citizens wrote blogs about it. But the failure was in not finding a more effective way to make others pay immediate attention -- often words are not enough. Words are necessary, but not sufficient. We have to literally show others the problems we see.

We have the opportunity to document what we all see, but nobody takes the time to capture. We all use our cameras while on vacation to photograph what interests us, but what if we carried our small cameras everyday, everywhere, and captured what we see that's not right about America? If there were a Twitter-like service, the framing question would be, "What's wrong with this picture?" We could take our photo, write a caption, and share it with others.

Even leading progressive blogs do not use images as they could. When they do (fewer than one in eight blog posts on the major progressive blogs include any image -- they're all words!), the images usually are video clips from traditional media (cable TV), repurposed images from other secondary sources, or advertising. While these images definitely are valuable and enhance the visual appeal of any blog, they could be much better. There are very few places to see widely shared images of us, as visual stories of how we live now.

Trite as it may seem, a picture is still worth a thousand words. Reality-based politics has to start with reality, and the best way to represent this efficiently is by using photography. We can start by simply photographing what we see, and establishing a platform to publish thousands of these images.

How: Describe how the project will be executed

including, but not limited to all of the following:

  • a list of tasks required for the project to become operational;
  • a list of people who will work on these tasks, and which tasks they will complete;
  • a description of the legal status and organizational affiliations this project either does, or will, have; and

This project will focus activities in three main areas during the next year:

1. Produce a documentary record of how the recession is affecting the middle class in the American West (West Coast and Intermountain West). While the entire nation could be documented, focus is on the West simply because of expense. I'll travel throughout the region taking photographs that will be published online (see the end of this proposal for a link to current images). One photograph per day, on average, will be produced, of good enough quality to be published on other blogs besides my web site. This activity will demonstrate that it is possible to use photography to effectively tell the story of how the middle class is being affected by the recession, and how the middle class is or is not recovering from the recession.

2. Partner with bloggers to produce documentary photographs that amplify their stories. I am not a blogger, primarily because I'm not an efficient writer. Because I'm an avid blog reader, I know that bloggers can provide local access to compelling stories. Of course, this assumes that they get out from behind our computer screens. While I am on the road, I will collaborate with local bloggers to document what they see in their own communities. Local bloggers will be the best eyes and ears to identify what needs to be documented when I am in their community. My photographs will be paired with their blog entries. I'll be doing a "proof of concept" of this in Helena, MT, in May and June, with a local journalist. As this project develops, introductions made through blogger networks will be especially appreciated, to help bring the project to scale.

3. Train citizen photographers to document what they see, and share their photographs with others. At most stops where I am partnering with a blogger, I will also work with local organizations to conduct simple training sessions on how to use a camera to document what they see, and then train others to do the same so that the process can be part of the standard political organizing toolkit and thus widely disseminated. It really is as simple as the difference between hearing and listening, but active seeing, like listening, is something we need to learn how to do. Some sessions will include field trips, and all attendees will be trained how to use the web to share their photographs (including sharing their stories using http://my.barackobama.com/page/s/ffcshare). We'll also work with citizens to approach local newspapers about publishing "photos to the editor" (photos and captions with a reality-based opinion). Dying newspapers need a new kind of reader-based content which we can provide. As readers see a story like theirs being told, citizens can establish a new relationship with a their neighbors.

A special emphasis in each of these activities will be to search out opportunities to document the success that government and other non-governmental agencies, i.e., social action groups, are making in improving the lives of Americans. For 30 years we've lived with the narrative that "government is the problem, not the solution." This narrative will change slowly, but more quickly if we tell the success stories. We'll use the Obama administration's recovery.gov website as the primary source of possible stories in each location I visit.

Each of these activities will be conducted on two prolonged tours, and one proof of concept trip. The proof of concept trip will be to Seattle and the Puget Sound area. I'll work primarily with the local Organizing For America chapter (my brother is its Chair, and the WA state OFA Volunteer Coordinator is one of his members: she's already expressed keen interest in this project).

The two prolonged tours include September and October to be spent in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies, while January and February of 2010 will focus on California and the Southwest. The itinerary will be determined by the opportunities to partner with bloggers and train citizen photographers, coordinated through on-land networks include Organizing for America, Living Liberally, MoveOn.org, and the like. Public notice will be through letters to the editor (using online submit services), regardless of the risk of concern trolls attending. I'll also reach out to photographic educators, members of the Society for Photographic Education, to do guest lectures -- evangelizing students to get involved -- in their classes on college campuses.

As each tour is conducted, we will publish photographs using free internet tools:

  • Anyone can open a free Picasa or Flickr account to upload their documentary photographs for sharing with each other. All photographs produced in this project will be identified with a unique tag, "theamericans.org". In addition, each photograph will have a title and a short caption (like you'd find in the newspaper), and photographer, date and location information (ideally automatically added as part of each photograph's metadata). Optionally, photographs could have longer text about the subject, as in a traditional blog entry.
  • I will organize all the photographs thus tagged into a group that the public can easily access, either on the service itself or by RSS feed. The group as well as the public will be able to rate photographs and comment on them.
  • Finally, I'll establish a blog, probably on Blogger using theamericans.org* as the domain name (I've registered it), to highlight the best of the photographs and stories (as determined by user ratings or my own editorial picks). Thus theamericans.org will be the aggregation point for all photographers participating in this project. These blog entries will be available for other bloggers to publish: either as complete blog entries by RSS feed or as individual photos by inserting onto your own blog entries. All content will be available for use under a Creative Commons license.

I will spend May and June architecting and establishing a scalable platform for this social network (and creating links to other social networks that activists are already using), and making adjustments to the strategy, based on the tools' capacity, to make it easy for people to share their stories and talk to each other. Network effects will be maximized to ensure that the solution is as scalable as possible using internet technology.

During the course of this project, I will build a business model that will make theamericans.org financially self-sustaining as soon as possible. Expenses will largely be for continued travel (there is no substitute for being there) while revenues will likely be from the usual sources (Google and sponsor advertising) but could also be from sales of high quality prints as well as syndication of content to media companies (like High Country News or NewWest.net, for Western content). I'll conduct all activities through LiveModern, Inc., a company I founded to create internet-based communities of interest (see my biography and resume). Of course, if there is interest, I'd also be willing to run this project (and publish its images) through one of the partner organizations in the Take Flight Microgrants.

* The project name, and thus the domain name, is inspired by "The Americans," a photography book by Robert Frank. During the mid-1950s, he undertook an extensive road trip to document America (it wasn't all "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet"), and produced "The Americans." This photography book fundamentally changed how we understood America, and is still relevant. If you are in San Francisco this summer or New York City this fall, be sure to see the show "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans" at their respective Museums of Modern Art.

Submitted May 26, 2009


when,
where,

We will develop a portlet that finds the three notes taken nearest you. For example:

Fracking Creates Temporary Housing

Alexander, ND  USA

Renters Not Buying New Pickup Trucks

Cut Bank, MT  USA

Energy Production Generates Unintended Consequences

Colstrip, MT  USA

more...
why and how

What we witness may not be "newsworthy" but that doesn't mean we shouldn't attract attention.

 

Take note, and take notes.