The Story We Create

Szarkowski argues that a photo cannot tell a story but should instead be interpreted as symbols.  I agree that the moment a photographer selects cannot tell a narrative without seeming overly contrived or posed on their own.  Instead, I think the viewer brings the story to the image with their life experiences and knowledge.  I’ve included Nick Ut’s photograph image from the Vietnam War.  This is an image I have seen many times but never read background information about.  That being said, it still tells a story to me.  I have been told that it’s from the Vietnam War (so I admit to slight cheating) but without further knowledge I can assume these people are Vietnamese and the soldiers are American troops.  The children look like they’re very scared and in pain, and there is a cloud of smoke obscuring the skyline behind them.  This makes me think that they’ve been with some kind of chemical agent which is causing the pain.

The composition of the photo highlights a sense of helplessness and lack of agency on behalf of the Vietnamese.  Everyone is fully contained within the edges of the frame.  The Vietnamese, mostly children, are in front of the soldiers, walking towards the viewer.  The soldiers in the background look like they’re herding them forwards.  The smoke in the background hides whatever is in the horizon, limiting the depth of the photo and keeping the viewer sharply focused on the people.  It also prevents the viewer from knowing what time of day it is.  Further emphasis is given to the Vietnamese because the soldiers are wearing darker colors that almost match the smoke.  When I view Ut’s image, I immediately focus on the look of horror and pain on the face of the naked little girl.  She is almost in the center of the frame, slightly left.

I believe Ut used the horror and anguish of the children to represent the pain of the Vietnam people during the Vietnam War.  U.S. soldiers are not the heroes in the photo.  Instead, they are responsible for the suffering of children.  This dismantles the mythic idea of the U.S. defending people across from the evils of Communism.  American viewers might see this image and question their role in this imperialistic venture.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Children Playing in the Ruins, Seville, Spain, 1933” does indeed highlight Szarkowski’s tenet of time.  This photo was taking during the Spanish Civil War.  The opportunity to take a photo like this only happens after the ruin of a battle or a bombing.  The composition of the image is fantastic.  The hole in the wall meets the edges of the frame.  Children are both in front and behind the hole.  There’s a group of six children in the foreground.  One child is physically stepping out the hole, joining the viewer at their vantage point.  Like Ut’s photo above, the children are coming towards the viewer.  There are also children playing in the background and middle ground.  Their faces are obscured by distance but it’s clear that they are playing—one child has his hand raised like he’s about to throw something.

I’m unsure what tone or message Cartier-Bresson was trying to convey.  On one hand, it’s devastating to see young children in such a violent setting.  It means that these boys do not live in a safe place and their lives are endangered.  Some of them likely faced loss recently, whether of material or familial value.  On the other hand, the image does speak to the endurance and vitality of youth.  These kids are stuck in a terrible place, yet they continue to play.  They adapt.

Historians hip with the times

Northern Virginia entered a cultural, economic, and demographic shift since the U.S. military built the Pentagon after WWII.  NOVA changed from an agrarian society to a suburb of D.C., with its inhabitants commuting to the city to work for the government.  The growth of the suburb and these high-paying jobs also created the need for a new service workforce, which immigrants who moved to the area worked.  This shift affected Virginia politics because NOVA, a massive population center in Virginia, eventually supported Democratic Party candidates because of the areas new education levels, wealth, and diverse population.  The 2008 and 2012 presidential election of Barack Obama marked the political shift, when Obama carried the state over John McCain, winning 52.7% of the popular vote.  In the same year, Democrat Mark Warner won the governor seat with 65% of the vote.  Ever since then, Virginia has turned blue in national elections and state elections are typically very close.

I’m honestly not sure to what extent I’ve worked with data that has been through textual analysis.  I suppose websites like Chronicling America would count as being analyzed because you can search through digitized newspapers from across the nation and search through the text.  Perhaps its user error but I haven’t been able to draw out themes from my sources like Dr. Nelson.  I typically find events what I’m looking for and then I read the articles more closely.

I would LOVE for the Memphis Daily Appeal to be analyzed to the degree the Dispatch was.  I’ve been looking for references to Memphis’s African American community.  The newspaper rarely mentions them in any detail but they did keep a count of the dead, separated in black and white deaths.  This means when I search “negro,” the term used then, I get hundreds of unhelpful hits.  I think I need to be more specific with my keywords.

Finally, I’ve enjoyed learning about Virginia politics this week.  I learned about massive resistance and the Byrd machine as a child and I would rage over the face that Route 7, the highway that runs through NOVA, was named after Harry Byrd Jr.  As someone who considers herself pretty tuned in to the national news, these readings were a good reminder that the local matters and greatly impacts people’s lives.  My podcasts, however, have not ventured anywhere near Virginia politics.  I think my podcast tastes continue to focus on the thematic or storytelling variety.  I listened to the Ted Talk podcast tonight and the segment’s topic was about medicine.  They discussed how issues of race and sex can often lead to misdiagnosis because doctors have based much of their medical knowledge upon the notions of race and the testing of white males.  I found it fascinating, and while I obviously have no expertise to contradict any of the hosts, I did wish the segment provided counterpoints.  The speakers were highly educated people, almost all doctors, but they got about ten minutes to speak uninterrupted and without challenge.  It would be very easy to walk away and repeat this information without any peer evaluation.  Maybe there are some topics where this wouldn’t be a big deal, but medicine doesn’t seem one of them.

Women’s Suffrage in Virginia

Question 1

In my podcast episode, I’d like to tell the story of the women who fought for women’s suffrage in Virginia and show how it has affected state politics since. The fight for women’s suffrage in Virginia began in the 1890s, but didn’t gain traction until 1909 when a group of women in Richmond established the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia.

Led by women like physician Kate Waller Barrett, reformer Lila Meade Valentine, and writer Mary Johnston, the Equal Suffrage League gathered support across the state for women’s suffrage. They’re primary goal was to educate people on the need for equal suffrage – in a time and place when Southern traditions held strong. By 1919, membership in the Equal Suffrage League reached 32,000 in Virginia.

One thing I’d like to highlight is the problem of race in the Women’s Suffrage movement in Virginia and the South, generally. Virginians were concerned that giving women the vote would double the impact and voting power of African Americans. Leaders of the suffrage league in Virginia argued, however, that women’s suffrage would ensure white supremacy because the literacy test and poll tax would exclude many African American women. However, African American women responded positively to their right to vote and thousands were registered and voted in the 1920 election (mainly in Richmond and Tidewater which had the largest number of African Americans in the state – see map below). Over the course of the following decades, the inclusion of women in state politics gradually built. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that a woman, Eva Scott, was elected to the Senate of Virginia. In 1992, Leslie Byrne (left) was the first Virginia woman to be elected to US Congress.

Question 2

I have not had very much exposure to textual analysis in this sense as I’m still fairly new to the field of history. My undergraduate experience was rather anti-digital, but I did interact with visualization some in my political science classes. More recently in textual analysis, we have been researching “Night” for our Research Seminar. We’re supposed to find a paper topic that centers on night, but also trying to link it in with our research interests. I’ve searched the word “Night,” “Electric Lamps,” and “Street Lights” in the Roanoke Times in the 1890s and 1900s to see what patterns might arise in the use of those words. Generally “night” was connected with crimes in the Railroad Avenue area, and one of the most prominent articles using both “night” and “street lamp” was about a lynching that took place in 1893. Honestly, I have a lot of textual analysis left to do as we prepare for our thesis proposal and even for this smaller research project this semester.

Question 3

For the past few weeks, I’ve been listening to Side Hustle School. It’s a podcast produced by Chris Guillebeau who gives a different “side hustle” idea each day. His episodes are fairly short, usually under 10 minutes.

One of my biggest takeaways was how he differentiated his podcast and improved on a model from an already existing side hustle podcast called Side Hustle Nation. SHN is produced by a guy named Nick Loper – he generally posts an episode or two every week and interviews people who’ve been successful in some sort of side hustle. The episodes are usually 30-45 minutes long.

Chris keeps his episodes short and in a manageable, everyday snippet. While he interviews people for the content, he doesn’t have the interviewees on the show. He summarizes their work and talks about it himself – while normally I would think this is less interesting than interviewing someone, it works for his format because it does save time and keeps his episodes short. In my opinion, Side Hustle School is a good example of a streamlined podcast that retains interesting content and production value.

Week 5 Blog Post

We have three readings on politics, all available on Canvas, and one on topic modeling for this week.

On politics, read V.O. Key’s section on Virginia in his classic study of Southern politics, Lassiter’s study of moderates and massive resistance in the wake of Brown vs. Board, and Skowronek’s introduction to the study of American Political Development.

For Thursday, we will have a discussion on Virginia politics.  Each of us should be able to explain our topic and contribute to our class’s broader, developing narrative about 20th century Virginia politics.  To that end, the first key question for this week’s blog post is for you to explain your findings and narrative in one paragraph.  1) Tell us your story thus far in one paragraph.  You should be growing familiar with some key figures in your narrative — VA governors, Congressional representatives, and state politicians and activists.  Include people in your story.

This is also a data-driven project.  Give us some data to help support your account — election results, public opinion polls, demographics, etc.  I will assume you have some exposure to data sources like the U.S. Census (published or digital), but perhaps not much.  For the Census, you can go to NHGIS.org or SocialExplorer.com  The Roper Center (available through the library) is one of the key academic aggregators of historical public opinion polling; ICPSR (through the library) has polling data; and Proquest Statistical Insight has some, as well.  Start browsing these to familiarize yourself with the interface and with the data sources, and make sure you are thinking about data all through the project — the data/mapping assignment is just an introduction.

We will also be reading Rob Nelson’s NYT piece on topic modeling, “Of Monsters, Men — and Topic Modeling.”  Data and digital analysis are not merely quantitative.  Natural language process is a related tool.  2) What exposure have you had to textual analysis of large corpora, and what would textual material would you like to see analyzed?

UPDATE: Let’s also remember 3) what have you been listening to, and what is your takeaway for the most recent week of reading or thinking about podcasts?