Today I wrote a letter

Writing

Photo by me.

For the longest time – certainly longer than any of us have been alive – writing letters was a necessity. Putting pen to paper was as frequent an act as a keystroke or a mouse-click is to most of us today. The glide of a nib across the surface of the paper was a crucial part of conducting business, of negotiating local and international politics, of creative expression, and of interpersonal communication.

It’s been a very long time since I sat down to write a letter. On paper. Without the aid of a spell-check, or the need to select a font, or to find and insert an email, or remember to attach an attachment. But today, I did. In fact, I wrote two. And I’m about to carry them to the post office and send them away. The reason? The Strangers podcast. Strangers is part of the Radiotopia network, who, last year, ran a Kickstarter to keep running, and to expand on their current line-up of shows. If you’re not listening to, in particular, Strangers and 99% Invisible, you need to do yourself a favour.

I threw a couple of dollars their way, not really thinking much of it, and in fact forgetting about one of the perks, which was being assigned a penpal by the Strangers team. Rather than being assigned in pairs, each backer gets one name and address, while their name and address is forwarded to – perhaps appropriately – a total stranger. I’d forgotten about it until I received a modest envelope in today’s post, containing a handwritten note from my new penpal in the US. I had also received my assigned recipient, so I sat down today and wrote them both.

As I explained to one of them, I’ve not had a penpal since I was about ten, and from memory they were in India. I’m sure with my living in Australia they think I’m equally exotic, despite living in the comfort of the uniquely non-threatening suburbs of Melbourne (yes, the letter I received today made a crack about Aussie wildlife). There is something very refreshing about writing again, like, properly writing. Though after writing about five pages of correspondence my hand is aching — a sign of the times, anyone?

The point of this post was to make some grand observation about how writing has gone from a necessary part of everyday life, to a hobby reserved usually only for older generations, to some quirk or quaint pastime that’s very rare. But such an observation is not forthcoming. Nevertheless, pick up a pen, and write someone a letter. It’s good fun.

Death to the selfie stick

"Hipster style bearded man taking selfie with selfie stick." - actual description from Shutterstock. Click to see full copyright details and purchase a high-res non-watermarked version, if that's really your bag.

“Hipster style bearded man taking selfie with selfie stick.” – actual description from Shutterstock. Click to see full copyright details and purchase a high-res non-watermarked version, if that’s really your bag.

Today I had the pleasure of attending the RMIT nonfictionLab‘s symposium on interactive documentary. A great many interesting talks were given, and I’m hoping to collate some of my notes into coherent ramblings here and elsewhere over the coming days.

I was reading various tweets today, watching some of the presentations at the conference, and ruminating more generally on photography, mobile media and the ‘self’. As something of a disclaimer, I abhor selfie sticks. I find their presence and purpose incomprehensible, and the people who use them (for the most part) arrogant and, possibly appropriately, self-absorbed.

In spite of this, my mind kept returning to them today, in light of some of the discussion around ‘autodocumentary’. In using our smart devices to track and photograph and record and measure every movement we make, we are, in a sense, creating a narrative; a documentary of our lives.

The ‘selfie stick’, ostensibly, aids in the act of taking ‘selfies’, or photographs of the photographer. The ‘selfie’ finds its origins in the ‘fridge shot’: an often poorly-composed, over-exposed photograph of the photographer and one or several other people. I find this origin important, given that the current ‘selfie’ is a refined and technologically-improved (allegedly) version of the earlier iteration.

What struck me today is that the ‘selfie stick’, by its nature, is a step in a weird direction. Physically, the device distances the camera from the ‘self’, allowing a modicum of control over the composition and quality of the resulting artefact. I think it could be argued, then, that the selfie stick does not create ‘selfies’ as we have come to know them. A photograph taken with the aid of a selfie stick is more akin to one taken with the aid of a tripod, in that the photographer takes much more care with the composition and preparation of the shot.

‘Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention,’ writes Susan Sontag in her magnificent On Photography (1977), ‘[though] the act of photographing is more than passive observing.’

Sontag is relaying here that while photography necessarily detaches any interaction or meddling with the subject (if recording something as it appears in nature or, for want of any other word ‘reality’), it cannot be seen as just that: recording. In the framing up of any given subject, you lose any claim to objectivity.

I would argue that in holding the camera at arm’s length, with no idea of what the frame is, or what the light is like, or whether you and your mates are even in the damn picture, the ‘fridge shot’ and, to an extent, the original smartphone selfie (before front-facing cameras, introduced to Apple devices with 2010’s iPhone 4 – yep, only five years ago), are more in line with the former definition. This is mainly due to the fact that the artist’s control over the artefact is limited, both physically and in terms of the relinquishing of some of the act to the technology itself.

The ‘distancing’ that comes into play with the selfie stick is an attempt to control the entirety of the act of taking selfies which, in some small way, detracts from the entire philosophy and purpose of the selfie.

Yet another, this time thoroughly thought-out, reason to detest the selfie stick.

The Unexpected Awesome of Birdman

Birdman

I’m still reeling from Birdman. And I probably will be reeling for some time. It’s definitely a film you need to see more than once, I think.

First impressions? Where before I believed The Grand Budapest Hotel deserved every Oscar it was nominated for, I’m now torn. Every performance in Birdman is sublime. The cinematography is flawless. The script, while hokey/cliched in parts, allows the actors to fill in the blanks with their performances.

There’s not much else to say at this point. I’m sure I’ll watch it again soon.

As I’ve said to a few people: A great many films make me want to write about them. But very few films make me want to write films. Birdman certainly fell instantly into the latter category.