Tag Archives: lifewriting

Reading Photographs

When I teach courses in lifewriting, I always start with an exercise on photographs because they are the most common resource, and almost everyone has at least one picture. Photographs reveal a vast variety of information. We can see with our own eyes the measurable physical attributes (height, weight, age, shape) of a person, as well as make note of the posture and positioning of the subject in relation to others and to things. We can see what people have. My sister has a lovely pin that is a family heirloom, although we did not know its exact origins. A few years ago, I was sorting through photographs for my work, and—because my sister had worn the pin just recently—I recognized it at the throat of our great-grandmother. I excitedly showed the portrait to my sister, who paused for a moment and said “well, that explains why it never sits right—I’ve been wearing it wrong.”

Look through albums and boxes full of photographs. People always say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but really, a picture provokes a thousand words. Here are a few tips to help you read and interpret photographs:

  • Notice the captions—dates, places, names, quips, nicknames
  • How do people relate to each other—detached, affectionate
  • How do people relate to the camera—confident, self-conscious
  • Who stands next to whom
  • Is the picture a formal studio portrait or a casual family snapshot
  • What are people wearing—overalls, suits, gowns, aprons
  • What are people doing—posing, working, playing
  • What else is in the picture—pets, cars, furniture, machinery, landscapes

Notice all of those things. And then, think about what they mean. Some of these considerations are very revealing for a researcher. Maybe you’ll see that in group pictures, one person stands a little apart from the rest, or that two people are always standing together in the group. It’s possible that you have the luxury of someone with whom you can sort through the pictures and ask questions—who is this? when was this taken? where was this taken?—or that you’re on your own with all your questions. If you give a photograph a little time, it can tell you things you didn’t know, if you let it, if you ask it.

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Filed under On Biography, On Thinking, On Writing

Biographers’ Ethics

A friend happily informed me over dinner that I was a professional writer. Until I heard him say it, right out loud, I didn’t realize it, feel it, fully. We’re all secretly frauds, after all. And, my head had been down for years, as I scrabbled to make a living. I’d been teaching a lot, but for the first time, I was working on a project big enough to support me. A biography. Lifewriting is my doctoral specialization, but, when I prepared my requisite ethics approval and protocol for the degree, no one asked me if I’d be having sex with my subjects. Later, my publisher didn’t ask about that, either.

I was asked if I’d be experimenting with live subjects, but I thought that was covered by an explanation of my research and interview strategies.  I didn’t read the question as a euphemism. And, I did state that I agreed with Plath’s biographer, Anne Stevenson, not to include anything that would harm the living without serving any good purpose for the story. I meant it. There were some alcoholics in my subject group, but I didn’t out them individually. I made my point by discussing the overarching effects on the group. A biography isn’t exactly a tell all.

I wasn’t writing a written-overnight, unauthorized biography of Michael Jackson or a who’s-zooming-whom scandal sheet. Two of the most important considerations in lifewriting are the match of biographer and subject, and of the writer’s voice functioning in what otherwise could be a copy-and-paste exercise. Leslie Kaufman wrote about “The Quandry for Biographers,” in her 13 November article for The New York Times, and it’s an interesting piece to read because it opens this discussion, using the recent biography All In as a touchstone. The quandary is all about the ethics.

So, does it matter, as we watch the Paula Broadwell / David Petraeus story, All In, titillate news consumers, that the reason the biographer had such extraordinary access to the subject was because they were lovers? It may not be as clearly an ethical issue, from a biography point-of-view, as the James Frey A Million Little Pieces debacle. In that case, the guy called it a memoir, and he lied. If he had called it an autobiographical novel, no one would have cared. There would have been a fascination about what was autobiography and what was invention, and he wouldn’t have had to contend with the wrath of Oprah.

Someone might protest that Ms. Broadwell couldn’t be objective if she was sexually involved with Gen. Petraeus. No, probably not. Do we really believe in objectivity anymore? Don’t we instead accept that we cannot be objective, and then try to minimize our subjectivity? I have to say that if I were to write a biography of John Lennon, readers should question my objectivity, and no, it would not be because we’d been lovers. Alas. However, Broadwell and Petraeus’ relationship may affect the quality of the book, and it’s the quality of the book that we should care about, as writers. American national security isn’t our purview. The affair may be a factor there, but moralizing, on the basis of his marriage, should be irrelevant in that context.

If there is an ethical question here, for a writer, what is it? The only potential ethical foul that I can see is if the writer has a sexual relationship in order to achieve exceptional access to the subject’s life. Otherwise, who cares? We all have our own codes, presumably, things we would or would not do. But, as a profession, it’s difficult, or impossible, for us to articulate a list we’d all sign, maybe not even a single item list. We aren’t physicians, who very clearly are compromised by sexual intimacy with their subjects.

I am not a fan of the public humiliation of Holly Petraeus, but that public humiliation is the result of extra-marital sex being privileged as the Big Sin and therefore a thing to be trumpeted about the town. Sex between consenting adults ruining careers: there are worse things people could do. Is Mrs. Petraeus’ humiliation an ethical consideration for the writers who released and repeated the big news? If it should be, it certainly wasn’t. Who’s done harm to whom? Scandal mongering should be on the ethics hit list. If the general had an affair with a spy, then it should affect his career. But he isn’t John Profumo. In my opinion, if any writer has done something unethical in this instance, it isn’t Paula Broadwell. But there’s always an “unless,” an exception, a variable—because writing isn’t math.

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Filed under On Writing