Those of us toiling in the news and information field on the Internet often feel we labor in obscurity, our serious work hidden from easy access and public view.
So I was encouraged by a recent encounter with Jacqueline Hayden and Michael Lesy, publishers and editors of Living Now, a relatively new, local on-line web site that presents documentary coverage of issues, people and communities in the lower Connecticut River Valley.
We want to create a window for people to look through, people outside the valley, explains Lesy, who teaches literary non-fiction journalism at Hampshire College. And we also want to hold a mirror up, so people can see themselves ... we want them to look at themselves in not the usual ways.
Hayden, his Hampshire colleague who teaches documentary photography, says: We have flexibility, the web is free space, it has freed the artist to get the work out, to do it yourself.
And sharing my own view, Lesy calls the Internet a wonderfully subversive way for telling stories, and illuminating issues that the mainstream media ignores and simply prefers not to tackle.
Here we are back to Tom Paine, looking to do an end run around those bastards (the conglomerate media) ... they cannot close all the mouse holes, he declares with confidence.
Hayden and Lesy are upbeat about what has been accomplished so far by their fledgling effort, which was launched earlier this year as an outgrowth of a course they teach at Hampshire and where each has been a faculty member for more than a decade. The content of Living Now at http://livingnow.hampshire.edu
is based on the photographic and journalistic work of the best student projects focusing on local people and issues dealing with life in the valley.
A recent visit to the Living Now web site found a dozen word and photo pieces in the sites archives, including an interview with Bison, long-time Northampton street musician, a photo essay about homelessness in Holyoke, an inside look at the hard core punk population of Western Massachusetts, a somewhat nostalgic even sad photographic examination of pre- and post-fire Mountain Park, an extended conversation with a number of recent Hispanic immigrants to Hartford, and a raw glimpse into the local pornography scene.
These are stories that took enormous quantities of time, resourcefulness, and even courage to report and photograph, as well as the discipline and care to shaping them into documentaries that have a long shelf life. It is work that cannot be cranked out on a daily deadline or squeezed into space between competing advertisements. It is work that takes time and intelligence, both to produce and to absorb as viewer or reader.
Lesy sees parallels between what Living Now is attempting - paying allegiance to ordinary life - and the documentary publishing of Robert Coles DoubleTake, the Utne Reader, and Granta. He also cites as a model the collaborative work of photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee that appeared in the 1930s and 40s in Fortune magazine and later was published in book form as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Thus the Living Now web site consists of word stories and picture stories, although Hayden and Lesy acknowledge that the projects so far have not been totally successful in linking images and text, the ultimate goal of strong documentary journalism.
The web version of their Living Now course, is the logical next stage in disseminating their students work. Says Lesy: The wonderful work our students produced - the photo essays they made and exhibited, the nonfiction narratives they wrote and then published in the READER - all this convinced us to go beyond gallery walls and newsprint , and launch Living Now.
And with the web, this can now go beyond the Valley, says Lesy.
In fact, they envision from time to time carrying material about issues and locales far beyond the Valley, alternative pieces about the gray economy in Cuba, the political situation in African countries, and other material produced by former Hampshire students who are known to travel far and wide.
Yet while the web site can broaden its reach, Lesy says were always going to be local. Or as Hayden puts it: Know where you are, thats just basic. Were never going to stop being local. Were in this for the long-term. Our stories are current, but a documentary is long-lasting.
Still, both Lesy and Hayden found as I do that the challenge and struggle is to get people to pay attention to a web site.
Its not true, says Lesy, that if you build it they will come. The best away to promote the site is through redundancy, he says, talk about it ... in as many ways as you can. To that end Living Now is linking itself to other media in the area, joined with a consortium of other like-minded colleges and is making a presentation this fall to the meeting of the American Studies Association.
They have gotten seed money from the Education Foundation of America for the design of their site and praise the professional contributions of its local designer, Michelle Turre.
Hayden believes acceptance of the Internet as a source of alternative news and information is generational, citing the appeal of the Daily Jolt web site among undergraduates on many college campuses.
At this point, they say, were not even in mid-stride. This grew out of three semesters of courses. Were optimistic editors.
Concludes Lesy: I think its a cumulative process. The more unmediated information out there the better.
I agree totally. Thus downstreet.net
had added the Living Now site (http://livingnow.hampshire.edu) to its links.