Despite it being just a few days until Christmas, I've personally come across a higher-than-average number of comments pointing the finger at the "liberal media" — frankly, at this point, that just comes with the job. The New Year's not too far away, and we're still convinced stories are meant to dupe the masses, rather than display the truth. Emotional appeals, rather than cold hard facts.
Emotion and truth are not always opposites.
If we as a country had historically stuck to the cold hard facts, we would know only that there was an economic downturn in the 1930s and a large number of Americans were forced to relocate. That's the Dust Bowl I'm describing by the way. That term, that coined term like any other, calls to mind images we all know quite well — at least I hope we do. And it's the images that are most often called to mind when we think of that stretch of American History.
We think of Dorothea Lange's photo "Migrant Mother." We think of Arthur Rothstein's "Farmer and Sons Walking in Dust Storm." We think of any number of images taken by the photographers hired by the Resettlement Administration, because it isn't the cold hard facts that stick with us. It isn't the cold hard facts that we really have a desire to know.
It's the humanity.
And focusing on facts without focusing on people misses the mark. The photographers who recorded the reality of the Dust Bowl for us knew that. In fact, according to author Timothy Egan, they were told as much before they set out. Egan was one of the many sources interviewed as part of Ken Burns' documentary "The Dust Bowl," and he said Roy Stryker of the Resettlement Administration sent his photographers out with a simple set of instructions.
"He said, 'I want to see their eyes,'" Egan explained in the documentary.
He goes on to say Stryker essentially understood it was the humanity people needed to understand, rather than an abstract concept of poverty somewhere in the ether. That reality captured in the photographs is something outside the realm of cold hard fact yet within the walls of truth that people didn't quite comprehend at the time. Today, we understand it very much. We wonder what the "Migrant Mother" is pondering, with her hand under her chin and her brow furrowed, but we know she's worried — likely about the young children hanging on either shoulder. In my opinion, it's difficult to not understand someone — to not empathize with them on some level — once you've looked them in the eye.
We don't live in the Dust Bowl any longer, something for which I'm sure we're all thankful, but we have our problems just the same, and we won't overcome them if we don't understand our fellow man. The world is a lot bigger now. Where it was the farmer in need of greener pastures in order to live during the Dust Bowl, it is the migrant and the refugee in need of safety in order to live during our time. The farmer wasn't the focus in the 1930s to build a narrative. The narrative had already been made. The farmer was the focus because it was the reality of life. The photograph that would become known as "Napalm girl" wasn't writing the narrative of the Vietnam War. It was recording it. In kind, the news focuses on stories of migrants, immigrants, refugees, minorities and any other topic concerning people because that is the narrative that's unfolding in front of our eyes.
We can question the motives of the media. That's our right, and no writer, anchor or telecommunications company executive is beyond reproach. That said, to label a focus on the migrant or the refugee as an attempt to color the world blue is to label the stories being told as untrue.
It is to shy away and not meet their gaze or peer into their eyes — to understand.
Of course, with a bigger world, there are more eyes and souls to be seen and understood. Not everyone's story is told, from government figures to processing plant floor workers. But rather than believing such stories should not be told, in truth, that simply means there is more to be understood.
So let me make my plea, when next you come upon the story of a migrant attempting to cross the border in hopes of supporting a family, or a middle-class worker whose manufacturing job was exported to China or a high school student whose teachers and classmates were shot dead, see them as people. See them as neighbors. See them as family.
Look into their eyes and at least attempt to understand.
As a not so up and coming cartoonist, I feel I would be remiss if I didn't at least give a nod to cartoonist Steve Breen, whose work is regularly featured in the San Diego Union Tribune. When I first started regularly checking in on Breen's work, he was working on a series in which he met, talked with and ultimately drew some of the homeless population he met. That effort and emphasis on a group of people who are often overlooked is, I feel, in keeping with the spirit of the photographers in the Dust Bowl days. This week, the Tribune released the second installment of a video series titled "Drawn to American" in which Breen is doing essentially the same thing with those he meets on the other side of the southern border of the U.S.
The stories are moving, but it's the faces that ring true, that make you realize these are not objects or abstract concepts. They are people, and they always have been.