Monday, December 17, 2012

It's time we redefined the word Pornography

Pornography. What's the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear that word? Sex, right? Wrong. It should be violence. Whether it's violence as entertainment, violence as a game, or simply violence as a diversion. This is pornography.

I began thinking about this in the aftermath of the horrific elementary school shooting in Connecticut last week. As we collectively try to get our heads around the reason for this senseless attack, law enforcement officials attempt to piece together a motive. What could possibly have motivated this young man to kill twenty 6 and 7-year-old children?

It's already been reported that the shooter was mildly autistic, leaving us to conclude that his mental deficiency led to the tragedy. While the facts are not all in, I'd like to propose an alternate theory.

Granted, there is rarely a single cause for this kind of radical anti-social behavior, but I believe we will find — as we have with other public shooters — that first person shooter computer games were a contributing factor. These games, now played by millions online, serve as a virtual training ground for would-be assailants. They put players "behind the gun" and give them a taste of power and omnipotence, without any real world consequences. Over time, players get desensitized to the idea of killing of other human beings. It's all in the virtual world, of course. Or is it?

The vast majority of people who play first person shooter games, even the heavy users, will never apply these skills in real life. But to that rare individual who has other mitigating factors in his life, such as a deep rooted desire to get even with family, teachers, classmates or society in general, a training ground such as this could provide a tipping point. If such an individual also has access to real guns, watch out.

What to do? Outright banning of first person shooter games seems unlikely, due to first amendment rights. However, civil actions in the form of product liability lawsuits might not be outside the realm of possibility, especially if it can be shown that heavy game play was a contributing factor. Product liability is a form of enforcement that has corrected many problems in our society, especially those related to safety. The publishers of such games as Black Ops - Call of Duty make millions of dollars on these games. They should be held accountable for its effect on society, especially when it contributes to such horrific loss of life. It's about time that we began calling a spade a spade. My friends, first person shooter games are pornography.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

America's Gun Control Paralysis

It's been twenty-four hours since the horrific elementary school shooting in Connecticut, and President Obama has already suggested that it's time to get serious about gun control. But if history serves as a guide, the discussion of gun violence will again get bogged down in a quagmire of binary thinking.

On one hand, gun control advocates attribute gun violence to the very existence of guns. And on the other hand, gun owners believe that, "Guns don't kill people — people kill people." They point to another elementary school attack in China where the assailant stabbed his victims instead of shooting them. From this, we are to infer that guns are not the issue. Instead, it's a mental health problem.

Gun advocates continually point to examples that show how guns have saved lives. "If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns." People on both sides of this issue speak in absolutes. They use deductive reasoning to back up their thinking: if something isn't true 100% of the time, then it must be false. It's exactly this kind of binary all-or-nothing thinking that prevents us from making substantive progress toward preventing tragedies like this one and countless other mass killings across America.

First, we need to understand that guns are but one piece of a larger puzzle. Mental health is another piece, as is parenting, as is violence in video games, as is the glorification of getting even, as is the acceptance of hate. Attacking the gun problem alone will not result in the outcome we're looking for. We need to address the whole picture, including sensible controls on gun ownership and strict limitations on assault weapons.

We need a comprehensive plan that doesn't even use the words "gun control" in its title. It's time to get serious about mass violence and all of its causes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Movie That Changed My Life

In 1966, I was a high school sophomore at a boys boarding school in upstate New York. The school was known for its college-level hockey program, as well as a ski racing team that landed several skiers on the U.S. Olympic team. The soccer and lacrosse teams were also above average. Suffice it to say, excelling at one of these sports was a prerequisite to having credibility on campus.

I, on the other hand, was not adept at any of these things. I was the gangly kid on the sidelines, taking photos for the school newspaper. For me, 'scoring a goal' meant coming up with a perfect black & white print in the school's darkroom. I was perfectly content to pursue my extracurricular achievements in the orange-glow solitude of the photo lab. The jocks ignored me, and I ignored them.

Then, in the fall of '66 something happened that changed everything: the movie Blow-Up came out. The entire student body walked to the village movie theater one Saturday night. I had only a vague idea of what the movie was about, but as it unfolded on the big screen, I felt surely I must be dreaming. Overnight, Blow-Up changed the profession of photography from something utilitarian to something truly exotic.

The film, directed by Michaelangelo Antonioni, features actor David Hemmings as a successful British fashion photographer, likely inspired by New York photographer Richard Avedon. Blow-Up introduced the idea that a camera can be a means of discovery, not just a tool for documentation.

During the next week, the effect on my campus credibility was extraordinary. Upperclassmen, who had never given me the time of day, suddenly wanted me to teach them how to use a camera. It was a whole new ballgame. I'd already knew I had a knack for shooting portraits, but this turn of events strengthened my resolve. I became the school's official portrait photographer.

Prior to seeing Blow-Up, most of my portraits were shot on location. The movie inspired me to move my camera into the studio—along with a sound system to blast some provocative tunes. (Note the speakers in the image above.) The school found me some studio space in an unused storage room in the basement of one of the dorms. 40 years later, I still prefer shooting in the studio.

Blow-Up also had an extraordinary effect on the public at large. I believe this movie is largely responsible for the rise in photography's popularity as a means of personal expression. Its effect on sales of 35mm cameras is not to be underestimated.

I watched Blow-Up not long ago. I hadn't seen it in decades. It looks dated now, in the same sort of way bell bottom jeans look dated. The female characters seem two-dimensional, the relationships simplistic. But that just shows how far we've come. Two generations of photographers were influenced by Blow-Up, many without even realizing it. Whenever I see someone exploring their life through the lens of a camera, I think of this movie.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Power of a Song

I woke up at 3:30 am, and the words just started pouring out. I scrambled to find something to write on. It was 1990, and the big news in Burlington, Vermont was the proposed Pyramid Mall to be built in nearby Williston. Burlington had a fragile but promising retail economy at the time, and this proposed mall full of chain stores was sure to kill it dead. My subconscious must have been churning about this for days because I wrote all the verses in one five-minute blast. Then I went back to bed.

I'd been working on some music projects with my friend Mark Ransom, and I showed the lyrics to him. He came back two days later with a melody and a great chorus. We assembled a studio band to record it, with Robert Crenshaw (Marshall's brother) singing the lead. I sent of copy of the master tape down to WIZN, the major rock station in the area, and to our surprise they put the song in high rotation, playing it nearly every hour.

Jerry Greenfield (of Ben & Jerry's) heard the song on his radio and tracked me down. “We should make a music video,” Jerry said. He’d been a supporter of Citizens for Responsible Growth, a group trying to stop the mall. It’s a nice idea, I replied, but video production can be quite expensive. Jerry told me he’d get back to me.

He did get back to me a few days later. He had a video production company, a director from New York, actors, lighting, everything. All for free. That’s how important this issue was to the community.

The Back to the Pyramids music video played on the local public access TV channel multiple times a day. Copies were also made available, for free, in all the local video rental stores. Instead of copyrighting the video, we encouraged the public to share it.

Finally, the mall project got rejected by state planners. The Syracuse-based Pyramid Company had never seen anything like this. It was a terrific victory for locally owned retail businesses.

Months later, at the annual Vermont Ad Club awards banquet, the Back to the Pyramids music video took the top prize of the evening. It was a sweet moment.
Back to the Pyramids (1990, Burlington, Vermont)

Lyrics by Todd R. Lockwood

Music by Mark Ransom

Performed by The Sold Americans

Robert Crenshaw, lead vocalist and drums
Mark Ransom, bass guitar and vocals
Bill Mullins, guitar
Douglas Jaffe, keyboard

Video directed by Allan Nicholls

Produced by Todd R. Lockwood, Stephen Murphy and Jerry Greenfield with help from Citizens for Responsible Growth

Music recording by White Crow Audio

Produced and Engineered by Todd R. Lockwood

Video Production by Lake Champlain Productions

Camera: Stephen Murphy
Editor: Marianne Eaton