Sleepwalking through Hell

by A.D. Coleman

In a controversial article I published in 1984, titled Information, Please, I wrote, "The emergent new forms of informa­tion technology — the computer and the electronically encoded image — seem to be the logical successors of the mass-cir­culation magazine and the mass-market book. Yet there has been surprisingly little exploration of these new vehicles by docu­mentary photographers and photojour-nalists. ... How is it that our arguments over documentary photography andphotojournalism are still centered around magazines, books, and gallery exhibits?"

The intervening 14 years have certainly not brought us a flood of experiments in combining the informationally-oriented approaches to photography with these new forms. Yet in the two most widely available new formats — the World Wide Web and the CD-ROM — we begin to have examples we can use as reference points, if not as benchmarks. Steve Hart's much-celebrated A Bronx Family Album: The Impact of AIDS (which, most recently, won him the ICP's 1998 Infinity Award forPhotojournalism) seems to function right now as the most high-profile of these. I think it needs to be considered on twolevels: as a documentary project and as an example of CD-ROM usage. Further­more, some questions about the politics of this particular medium need to be addressed. I want to start with the last of these and wend my way toward the first.

I have worked on a computer since 1987 and have run a large-scale, multi-subject Web site since fall 1995. I'm no hacker, but I'm working with reasonably current if not cutting-edge equipment and programs, am comfortable with and know my way around them. Yet it took me hours to get this CD-ROM up and running in order to explore its contents. I tested it on three machines. First I had to install an updated version of Quick­Time VR (which comes on the CD-ROM) to handle its kinetic features. Then I had to experiment with turning on and off the virtual memory and several exten­sions. I never did get it going on my IBM ThinkPad, and it keeps crashing my supercharged Mac Power PC clone. But, for some reason I haven't figured out, my comparative clunker of a Mac Performa 637CD plays it just fine — except for a video interview withHart that still comes out scrambled.

I say all this to point up a simple truth: as a technological form, the CD-ROM is not yet as easy to use as a book. Any reader with hands and eyes can pick up a book and work his or her way through it. Getting a CD-ROM up and running may require not only a certain level of hardware (which has its price and thus its politics) but also a certain level of computer know-how (which also has its price and thus its politics). To a considerable extent, those facts determine the market for works generated in this medium and thus to some extent their audience.

I separate somewhat the market for the CD-ROM and its audience because, for example, an institution with the technology and know-how to present this CD-ROM adequately — a public library, a museum, a school, a local cultural center, a drug— or AIDS-education venue — could buy it, set it up and make its contents readily accessible to hundreds, even thousands of viewers for the cost of one copy. Depending on the size of the viewing screen and the view­ing space, it could be looked at either by a single individual or even an auditorium full of people —unlike a book. There's a politics to that as well which also must be acknowledged.

"There's a tremendous breakthrough awaiting us in this decade. We're still just bottom-feeding on this idea of interactiv­ity," admitted the Brenda Laurel (who gave us the home version of Pac-Man) in a summer 1993 lecture in Rochester. So far as I can see, this remains true. Which is to say that while A Bronx Family Album makes good use of the CD-ROM form asan elementary storage and retrieval system for large amounts of material in different media (images, video, sound files, text files), it doesn't utilize fully the hypertex-tual, multimedia potentials of the form to enable you to follow various trails and move freely and in an idiosyncratic, exploratory way between them.

Basically, you can enter Hart's sequence of his images at any point, let it run forward as programmed while lis­tening to Hart's terse vocal captioning; or you can move forward or backward along the sequence, one image at a time; or, inperhaps two dozen instances, you can jump from selected images to sidebars — pertinent spoken and transcribed passages from longer interviews with the protago­nists. Alternately, you can move to the full audiotaped interviews (each divided into half a dozen subsections), look at two small images of the speakers and listen to any one of them while simultaneouslyscrolling down a transcript thereof or attend to either format separately. Or you can go to a screen of thumbnail portraits of the principals in the narrative, click on any one and get a brief synopsis of their relation to the others and their currentstatus quo.

But all this material is I-talk-you-listen, which means that the project's sub-subti­tle, "an interactive CD-ROM," implies a lot more self-determination for the user than it actually delivers. The accompany­ing booklet describes it accurately as "user-friendly and intuitive," and its organizational structure is clear­ly indicated and not very hard to master. However, inter­actively speaking, this CD-ROM does­n't move us much further than Pedro Meyer's I Photograph to Remember (1991) orLewis Baltz's The Deaths in Newport (1995). Fact is, it doesn't allow the user much more "interactivity" than your average printed photography monograph with text.

This isn't said to impeach the substance of the material in­corporated into this project. But I do think we need a better, less "bottom-feeding" working definition of inter­activity, one that involves a lot more than deciding whether you want to look at photos or listen to recorded interviews first, one that really engages the user in the process of constructing the way the material is organized and presented.

One final consideration regarding technical qualities: the transcribing of the interviews appears to have been done by someone with a less than firm grasp of punctuation and a tin ear for Hispanic and middle-eastern accents. Also, no oneseemed to have bothered to read the project: Hart's photographic narrative and the contextualizing material with which he's surrounded it. In 1990, Hart befriended and began to photograph and otherwise track the lives of "Ralph and Sensa, a Puerto Rican couple living on wel­fare with four children between the ages of two and thirteen." They resided in the SouthBronx. Both adults were HIV-posi­tive; Sensa was crack-addict­ed, Ralph an ex-junkie. Hart photographed them across the seven-year stretch reflected here (the project remains ongo­ing), tape-recorded them at length, recorded others — social workers, psychi­atrists, drug-abuse and AIDS specialists — speaking about them and/or the larger picture of which they form telling details. Hart's probing black-and-white photo­graphs are sensitive to and respectful of the family, intimate without feeling intru­sive. Clearly they all accepted him as part of their company and proceeded to ignore his activity, minimizing the perturbation effect inevitably generated by a photogra­pher's presence. He worked during their happier passages as well as amidst and in the aftermath of ongoing trauma of all kinds: domestic violence; addiction and drug use; Sensa's return to prostitution; expulsion from the family; eventual death from AIDS-related causes; the eldest daughter's running away from home and getting pregnant; several of the other children's placement in foster homes; and more.

Informed, like much contemporary documentary, with some ideas and visual tropes from the fine-art approaches, Hart's pictures nonetheless stay within the tradition of their form. They maintain a gravity and balance, an attention to the inner lives of his subjects made visible, that vivifies and particularizes these troubled, struggling people and rivets one's attention to their plight. Hart's own voice-over to the image sequence — which is structured chronologically — is understated yet full of feeling. One senses his emotions right below the surface of his words, and he clearly had to work hard to keep his account of their complex, ongoing crises from submersion in either mawkish-horror. The extensive accom­panying interviews provide a great deal of con­textualizing material — autobio­graphical, personal — from various members of the family, plus the com­mentaries of Hart and professionals in the fields of medicine and social service. There's much here to explore at length. It would take several days for anyone to go through everything the disk offers, return to its key sections and begin to digest it as a totality.

Yet, their sober and haunting quality aside, Hart's own pictures and his accom­panying spoken comments on the eventsthey depict, which presumably constitute the core of this project, began to bother me. Eventually, as I returned to themagain and again, the problem began to clarify. In a manner oddly akin to Nan Goldin's handling of her subjects over long stretches of time, Hart has effec­tively if unconsciously cocooned this family, separated it even from the imme­diate microcosm in which it functions. We never meet friends, neighbors, teach­ers, classmates, playmates, cops, social workers, adoptive parents. We never see this family interacting with relatives or other families or at school, in the grocery store, at the welfare office, at the dentist.

They seem to know no one and to do nothing, day in and day out. Are they so isolated and inert in real life? Hard to believe and the various stories they tell suggest otherwise. Yet, excepting one image of Ralph in jail and two of the fam­ily at funerals, we see them exclusively at home or occasionally in the park, interact­ing only with each other (though now andthen with new lovers), at play or resting. And Hart's spoken words don't place any of them in a larger social, economic or political frame. In his version of their lives they inhabit a virtually sealed envi­ronment, something akin to a toxic, lethal biosphere, inexorably imploding while relentlessly reproducing.

This seems to me a seriously missed bet. If ever a medium were made for es­tablishing shots, footnotes, digressions,sidetracks, parallel narratives, flashbacks and fast-forwards, it's the CD-ROM. The interviews provide a much richer infor­mational environment in which to place this family's history, but no one — Hart included — seemed inclined to con­struct any cause-and-effect hypotheses here, whether along cultural, politi­cal, socioeconomic, educational, racial, ethnic or other lines. And while the adults — Ralph and Sensa and a few others — are not presented as pathetic, helpless victims of forces beyond their control, they're also not con­sidered as auton­omous individuals fully accountable for their own actions, citizens whose behavior demands not only scrutiny but assessment. Instead, Ralph, Sensa, their lovers and progeny all are treated here not as beings with free will but as forces of na­ture, human tornadoes, factories of per­petual havoc.

In the world constructed by this CD-ROM, no single voice challenges their pre­sumed right to live off welfare, take drugs, to conceive, give birth and raise children while addicted and/or HIV-positive and to impose the consequences of these choicesof behavior not only on other consenting adults but on their defenseless offspring and society at large. In this ethically neu­tralized context, they gradually come to constitute the epitome of a stereotype: the archetypal family of color on welfare, doing drugs, spreading AIDS, rutting like bunnies and popping out babies, genera­tions without end, amen. Let's pray thatRush Limbaugh never gets his hands on a copy of this; he'd have a field day with the evidence Hart provides in support of the right's cartoon version of reality. I can understand Hart's decision to remain nonjudgmental about all this in­sofar as the family is concerned; that was probably necessary, as an unstated precon­dition, even a mindset, for this project to be possible in the first place. (What family would let a preacher hang around to cen­sure them?) Yet, aside from the familymembers' angers at each other, no one here (including the outside observers) blames anyone for anything, including the system and themselves. They don't even seem particularly upset about any of it, just sad, and resigned, as if they were all doomed to sleepwalk through hell to­gether. Perhaps we, as viewers, need to think of everyone involved in this project — the family's adults and children, of course, but also the representatives of the various healing professions and social ser­ vices, and even Hart himself, a hapless if eloquent onlooker — as participants in some dreadful co-dependent nightmare to which none of them can foresee any end.

There's nothing here from anyone to apportion responsibility, suggest guilt or contrition, propose alternatives or effect change. That no one in that larger family — the dysfunctional "family" of all those whose opinions are heard on this CD-ROM — seeks to terminate or prohibit anything described therein or intends to intervene in any way or even disapproves vehemently and unequivocally of any of it leaves this viewer, at least, adrift in an amoral microcosm whose fatalistic, apolit­ical assumptions sap the empathy Hart's account evokes initially and frustrate the intellect by proposing no accountability, no causal analysis and no strategies for change.

This project's strengths lie in its long­itudinal approach — that seven-year com­mitment is exemplary — and its wealth of contextualizing material, plus its ex­ploratory (even if simplistic) use of a new medium which may bring it to new audi­ences. Its weakness is its failure to take a stand of any kind on anything. Does Hart actually believe that there's no one here — from Ralph and Sensa right on up to the federal drug czars, from the local crack salesmen to the corporations that profit off the existence of an unemployable, per­manent underclass — with anything to answer for? What are his positions and his politics? If he truly wants to make something happen, rather than merely ensure the continuation of this heart­breaking story and its countless counter­parts, he needs to look back at some of his form's problematic models — W. Eu­gene Smith, Lewis Hine, even old Jacob Riis, moralists and polemicists all, what­ever their flaws — and ask, as they did,"Who profits?" And then lead us to their door and point an accusing finger at them, as Smith and his wife Aileen did in their classic Minamata. That is, he must develop his capacities for inves­tigative journalism, learn to locate his own capacity for outrage and condem­nation and somehow put them all where his eyes and heart already are. •

A. D. Coleman is executive director of The Nearby Cafe, a multi-subject Web site at
<www.nearbycafe.com> where his interactive newsletter, C: The Speed of Light, can be found. The Digital Evolution, a collection of his writings on digital imaging and electronic communication from 1967-1998, will be published this fall byNazraeli Press.

Top