Thursday, February 22, 2007

BOOKS: Truthiness in Literature

Those who can, do. Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, blog.*

And I'm comfortable with this. Trust me, self-esteem is high over here at 50 Books HQ. But every so often I find myself in a blur of activity, where I'm out there
doing, and from time to time -- heaven help us all -- even teaching. Such was this past week. I've missed you, internet! Have you missed me?

I wish I could say the frenzy is over (soon, though! Soon!), but until things settle down and I can once again curl up in the web's cozy lap, I thought I'd point you toward this very interesting article, which Rusty just sent me:
The original picture from which [the cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran] is excised is lifted off a news report during the parliamentary election of February 2000 in Iran. In the original picture, the two young women are in fact reading the leading reformist newspaper Mosharekat. Azar Nafisi and her publisher may have thought that the world is not looking, and that they can distort the history of a people any way they wish. But the original picture from which this cover steals its idea speaks to the fact of this falsehood.

The cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran is an iconic burglary from the press, distorted and staged in a frame for an entirely different purpose than when it was taken. In its distorted form and framing, the picture is cropped so we no longer see the newspaper that the two young female students are holding in their hands, thus creating the illusion that they are "Reading Lolita"--with the scarves of the two teenagers doing the task of "in Tehran." In the original picture the two young students are obviously on a college campus, reading a newspaper that is reporting the latest results of a major parliamentary election in their country. Cropping the newspaper, their classmates behind them, and a perfectly visible photograph of President Khatami--the iconic representation of the reformist movement--out of the picture and suggesting that the two young women are reading "Lolita" strips them of their moral intelligence and their participation in the democratic aspirations of their homeland, ushering them into a colonial harem. [emphasis mine]

[images via]

It's an interesting issue. On one hand, I can see a publisher's graphic design department blithely saying, "We need a picture of Iranian women reading. Aha, here we go. Croppity-crop here... a little more croppity-crop over there. Perfecto!" From a purely aesthetic perspective, the photograph works.

However. Just like words, images have meaning. Unless the people in this picture have been commissioned by a photographer with the understanding that the image could be used in pretty much the same way any stock photography is used, it is very arguable that some kind of ethical violation has occurred.

In light of what Reading Lolita purports to be about -- people, particularly women, and their freedom to choose what they consume, what they write, and what they do -- this charge of "iconic burglary" is, to me, is extremely serious. What do you think?

*Note: I apply this maxim only to myself.

7 comments:

jagosaurus said...

Ooooh, tricky.

I think the way around this might have been to provide information on the dust jacket or elsewehere in the book about the actual origin of the image and show or link to an uncropped version.

I am disinclined to believe that there was a deliberate attempt to strip these women of their moral intelligence.

Anonymous said...

As someone who is currently getting an education as a photojournalist, we've done classes in stock. For the publishers of a book to use a photograph for the cover, as I understand it (at least in North America; this may not be true elsewhere) the photographer would need to have gotten those two girls to sign "model releases," in which they give permission for the photo to be used in any way the photographer wishes to sell it. So . . . they probably gave permission for this, at least indirectly. Not sure if that makes it better, but it's not stripping anything from them if they willingly agreed that it could be used.

Diablevert said...

I find this argument to be bullshit.

I've read the book -- I flipped over my copy, and on the back the cover design is credited to Alison Salzman and the photo to the AP/World Press. That makes it a news photo; I don't know exactly what the permissions are with photo, but my understanding is that journalist and photogs are allowed to cover anything happening in a public place. The publisher would then have to pay the AP to use its photo for thier book. Considering that the publisher is Random House, I bet you sweet bippy they did.

But the reason I find it bullshit isn't to do with the sticky legal issues of a news photo being transmorgrified into art in order to sell stuff. It's with this whole removing the image from its context is inherently unethical angle, a deliberate attempt to twist its meaning.

The thing I ask myself is, what photo would the author not have objected to? I do not think there is one. To any photo depicting young Iranian woman reading while wearing headscarves could he have applied the same argument. To any such photo _would_ he, I think, have applied the same arguments.

If the young women in the photo hadn't been wearing headscarves, I think he'd have trounced right through Barthes into Lacan and past that to a gentle frothing at the mouth.

anna said...

While he has an interesting point, I think his hatred of the use of this picture is equally informed by his politics - just like he thinks the politics of Nafisi/her publisher are distorting truth by putting this cropped picture on the front.

I'm usually all for conspiracy theories but this takes it too far. It's represents (to me at least!) how writing about politics is becoming more and more about THEY ARE WRONG I AM RIGHT rather than having actual valid arguments or reasonablenesss or leaving room for argument. Which is all well and good but politics is no fun when it's all sanctimonious! And it's not just modern politics! I have a history degree, I had to read a lot of this bullshit! Looking at that guy's biography, he represents a different point of view of Iran in his books, which he also writes.

Ahem.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is enabling the global war on terror to include Iran! (It's included in the required reading for all who want to bomb Tehran?)

I don't see the cropping of the photo as any sort of censorship or indicative of people not showing how Iran really is. For one, I think people are individuals and not controlled by political forces and two, how much control do you think Nafisi had over the cover besides being able to say "I hate it please change it?" The writer doesn't like Nafisi because she incorrectly portrays Iran on the global scheme and therefore everything she does is tainted. Even things she didn't actually do!

I must say, it didn't even occur to me that they would be reading Lolita on the front, anyway. Because they're outside and why would there be a book if Lolita could be read outside in Tehran? And if you look at the cover of, I don't know - "The Girls" (Lansen) - there's a picture of four legs, btu I bet if you got the rest of the photo they wouldn't be siamese twins! They might not even be twins at all!

Sorry I've turned into an asshole again, I will cease now.

shoppista said...

I think I can see the writer's point. More importantly, I think of what it would be like for me as a person, if I let (or was unaware of, which is quite possible under the "public place" qualifier that allows photogs not to get model releases) a news photographer take a picture of me in one context -- reading the paper with a friend around election time...

...And then saw it on the cover of a book or magazine implying a totally different context, one that I might completely disagree with.

I would feel pretty exploited.

Naomi said...

Given that a large portion of Nafisi's book is about women struggling to retain their place and voice in society, I think this picture is appropriate. I for one never thought that the cover implied the women were reading Lolita; instead they were reading, full stop, which has been considered a radical and dangerous action for women for, um, most of recorded history.

Plus, like Diablevert and anna, I find it really hard to take any arguments in the article seriously. All I could read was "OMG NAFISI IS POPULAR AND I'M NOT." Sometimes it seemed like he hadn't read the book - for instance, claiming Nafisi totally ignores the history of Iranian literature in turn ignores her comments on the literature and importance of Iran, her family member who was a poet (a grandfather, I think, but I don't have the book with me) and her main point that secular literature was being banned as well.

Anonymous said...

Using a photo in a "misleading" context can leave a newspaper liable to a civil lawsuit. (For example, you don't want to grab a random image of a happy couple for your article on rocketing adultery rates, because that implies libelous things about the happy couple.) As the public record, newspapers are legally allowed to publish anything happening in a public space -- but given that a book cover is not exactly the "public record," I mildly hope the photo agency got a formal release signed by the subjects before the image was sold for commercial use. (The agency probably didn't, but I can dream.)

Other than that -- the cropping strips some of the context from the photo, but it doesn't imply or add untruthful information. The book cover conveys the minimal essence of the original photograph: two girls reading together. Morally, I'm okay with the edit. (The actual subjects might feel differently, depending on how they feel about the book.)