Tuesday, May 11, 2004

On Photographs: They say a picture is worth a thousand words. It's just a cliche, but it says that pictures can tell you a whole heck of a lot.

But if a picture is worth a thousand words, it can also evoke thousands of thousands. There's a book by Chris Van Allsburg, the guy who wrote Jumanji and The Polar Express, called The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. The book is nothing more than captioned black and white pictures, with both the pictures and the captions being particularly evocative. Fantastic stuff.

Lots of grade school teachers have their kids look at the pictures and write stories surrounding the pictures. They make up backstory or tell what happens next, and what comes out is a fun mix of Van Allburg's suggestions and the kid's imagination.

This is exactly what's happening with these pictures from the Iraqi prison. Clearly, what's depicted in those photos tells a story. It's a cruel story and one that's unacceptable to most of us. However, they're still snapshots. It's only a tiny fraction of a story. It is limited by the boundaries of the edges of the frame, and similarly framed in time around a few single moments. Even the video is framed around the moments the camera started and stopped.

Our mind doesn't deal well in singularities. When we see a piece of an object, our mind wants to fill in the rest. If a shoe is poking out from the bottom of a curtain, our mind does not stop at the shoe--it assumes a person has a foot in there, a person who's standing behind the curtain. If we see two sides of a box, our mind fills in the other two sides as being like the sides we see (That's how a box works, right?). As magicians, we like to exploit this trait people have to make assumptions.

So just like the elementary school kids, everybody's filling in the rest of the story from the pictures they've seen. And just like the elementary school kids, we're learning more about who the people looking at the photos are than we are about what actually went on in the pictures. The left has filled in the holes with the dark and viscous paste that is their assumption that all evil traces back to the Bush White House. The right is filling in the gaps with the airy and thin fluff that is the idea that because your intentions are good, diversion is justified, that since worse is being done to our people, this should be sneezed at.

Both positions are ludicrous. The people calling for Rumsfeld's resignation prove their own bias--at this point, shouldn't we just be calling for an investigation? Or more knowledge of what's being discovered in the current investigation?

And as for the assertion by the lawyers of the people who were in the pictures that their clients were under orders--that's the standard defense in most Military tribunals.

The fact is, we don't know what happened. I have opinions, but they're probably wrong. What you think is probably wrong, too. But a lot of what we think will also turn out to be right.

But I do think we need to wait and see.

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