Can I Take My Picture?

facebook photoDoes it bother anyone else how good all we ordinary people have gotten at posing for photographs? How eager, how easeful, how undeniably skilled. And that our talent at getting our picture took seems to be developing at an earlier and earlier age?

Everyone above the age of three now seems to know just where to look when a cell phone is pointed their direction, how to smile at it on cue, how to smile again – exactly the same way – for the just-in-case-I/we-didn’t-get-it-the first-time shots. Everyone is a good hugger now. We’re excellent smilers. And all of America – despite substantial and growing non-photographic evidence to the contrary – is awfully damn happy with their lives.

Happy couples, happy families, happy lives. Good American people pleased with wherever they happen to be when the camera happens to capture their latest moment of pleasure. Pleased with the other people in the shot. Most of all, pleased with themselves.

At the risk of being called perverse – it won’t be the first time – I miss the days when not everyone posing for cameras knew where to look, how to stand, what to do when the world said cheese. When we weren’t all good huggers and some of us couldn’t manage an easy, happy smile if our lives depended on it. Perversely, too, I relished those photos where strain was apparent. When the seams sometimes showed. When a picture actually did tell a story. A picture that – once in a great while – was worth a thousand words.ordinary-people-1980-e1422419085632

The Photo That Helped Change a War

NGUYEN NGOC LOAN kills viet cong
South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brig Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong prisoner with a single pistol shot in the head in Saigon Feb. 1, 1968. (AP/Eddie Adams)

My teen-aged support of the Vietnam War ended the day I saw the above photograph – taken on this date 47 years ago – although I probably didn’t see it until later in the month in a national magazine such as Newsweek or Rolling Stone. My hometown newspapers supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam and, regardless, their editors would have deemed the image too graphic for the good folks at home.

Whenever I finally did see the photo, I remember thinking that the country where such an event could take place is not one I’d care to die for.  Even get a haircut for. And I also remember thinking that this is a fight between brothers – the shooter and the shot looked enough alike to be blood relatives – so the rest of the world should leave them to it.

We are flooded with images daily, hourly now, and I don’t believe that a single photograph could ever again have the impact that this picture (and a later, even more devastating photo known as “Napalm Girl”) had on the course of a war. I feel certain that’s not a good thing, but I’m not sure why and I don’t have the first clue how to fix it.

Scene in L.A. (Drive-thru Polio Clinic)

“Could you patent the sun?” – Dr. Jonas Salk

polio drive-thru jonas salk

Only in L.A. – where people live in their cars – was it possible to get vaccinated against polio at a drive-thru clinic circa 1960. I have no idea whether patrons could order fries and a shake with that, but I’m certain the clinic saved lives.  And the vaccine itself was free.

Which brings us – on this MLK holiday – to the subject of altruism. Which is a noun. And which is defined as “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was familiar with the concept. And I suppose you can argue that his civil-rights work on behalf of others wasn’t entirely disinterested, since he was fighting for his own civil rights as well. But King had expanded his moral charter  in the 1960s to include opposition to the war in Vietnam. And on the day he was murdered, he was fighting for garbage collectors in Memphis, putting his life on the line so that they could have a living wage. And dignity.

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Dr. Jonas Salk spent seven years developing a polio vaccine, which was donated to the world in 1955 and which has saved countless lives and limbs. Including any number saved because the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis didn’t waste time applying for a patent or trying to figure out the best ways to profit from saving lives. When asked in a TV interview who owned the vaccine, Salk replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” 

You will sometimes read in rightwing journals that lawyers for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis looked into the possibility of a patent (with the implication that they would have made money from it if they could), but Dr. Salk had already provided the vaccine to pharmaceutical companies and the idea of a patent was merely to protect against inferior imitations that others might try to profit from. Decades before Salk, Dr. William Roentgen had also refused to patent the sun – or, in his case, X-rays – and altruistically donated his new medical technology to the world.

Paul Ryan & Friends (inspired by their patron saint, Ayn Rand) will tell you altruism is for suckers. Or that it’s just a different form of selfishness, since giving to others and helping humankind provides the giver with pleasure. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather hang around folks being “selfish” by helping their neighbors or fighting for people’s rights or curing disease than hang around a bunch of GOP pols getting their jollies by cutting food stamps, gutting public education, trying to privatize Social Security, or making a big show of voting down the Affordable Care Act for the one-millionth time.

I wish there was a vaccine against Ryan & Friends. And a drive-thru clinic where Americans could get it. I’d be willing to pay – a lot – for that one. And you can hold the fries and shake.