Saturday, March 05, 2011

"American Values" Video Project.... or, The Little Idea That Could

I'm not yet finished editing the "American Values" video, some of the images of which are in this collage on your left, but I wanted to share a bit about the making-of the project, which is turning into one of the most serendipitously rewarding things I've stumbled into in quite some time. I'll start at the beginning...

Not too long ago, in observance of the World Day of Social Justice (February 20th), one of the student activist groups on my campus (Rhodes GlobeMed) asked people to fill in the blank for the following statement: "Everyone has a right to_______." GlobeMed then photographed and compiled in a video all the participants with their answers written on their hands. You can watch GlobeMed's excellent video here. Some of my best and brightest students were involved in the making of that video and that's how I found out about it. When I saw GlodeMed's final product, I thought to myself: I should do something like this with my Human Rights class. However, I didn't want to start up a big project with my class until I had figured out all of the technical nuts and bolts first, so I endeavored to construct for myself something like a "practice" video project. (And you see where this is going, I'm sure...) Just to be clear at the outset here, this project began as a trial-run for what I hoped would later be something like a new pedagogical strategy/skill. This video wasn't, technically speaking, "for" anything other than my own education and edification. Little did I know what it would turn into...

Anyway, back to my no-idea state. Over the course of the next few evenings, after I had resolved to come up with a concept for a practice video but before I had any idea what to do, I was sitting on my couch and flipping through the cable news stations. I couldn't help but notice how many times the talking heads made reference to "American Values" in the course of their arguments, indicating dramatically different values depending on which head was talking. I thought to myself EUREKA! I'VE GOT AN IDEA! What if I just asked Americans (I happen to know a lot of them) what their values were? Surely THAT would be an interesting video project and a good practice run for whatever I decided to do with my Human Rights class later. So that, my friends, was the beginning of what I'm now calling my "American Values" video project.

I set myself some arbitrary deadlines-- which I assumed, at the time, would be very easy to meet-- and then I put out the call for contributors here on the blog and then on Facebook and then by email to some of my colleagues and friends. I had a basic idea of what I wanted, namely, for people to photograph themselves indicating (on a sign) something that they counted among their "core values." My guess was that IF I was lucky enough to get more than a handful of submissions, they would all be variations on two or three common core values (love, freedom, justice, god, blahblahblah, etc.) and that I just might get enough to cobble together a 3-minute video demonstrating the actual diversity of American values.

And then the photos started coming in...

And they kept coming. And coming. And coming. And then the deadline passed and they STILL KEPT COMING! A couple of mornings I would wake up to a dozen or so new photos in my email inbox-- most from people I know (or sort of know), but some from people who just happened upon my blog or saw it on someone else's Facebook page or otherwise heard it through the grapevine. I really can't capture how shocked and awed I was to see not only the sheer volume of people who responded, but also the creativity and artistry of their photo compositions. When I posted a few of the contributions on my Facebook page, I think that served as a catalyst for even more people to exercise even greater imagination. (And, by the way, a LOT of people out there have VERY nice cameras.) When the time for sending in photos had officially expired, I found myself with a whole set of new problems. I needed to acquire (and learn) more sophisticated editing software. I needed to develop my inner auteur, figure out some basic rules for how I was going to manipulate and arrange the images. I needed to select some music. And, most importantly, I needed to figure out how in the world was I going to produce a video that could do justice to all of these people's photos and values???

So, that's where I am now. Editing and re-editing and re-re-editing. As soon as it's done, I'll post it here on the blog.

I just want to say a BIG THANK YOU to everyone who shared their photos and values with me, especially those of you who sent along such nice stories about how/why you chose the value you chose or the image you photographed. (I wish I could include some of those stories in the video!) Some of you wrote to me in advance of sending your contributions in with some really great questions that helped me focus the half-baked idea for this project: do I have to be in the picture? is this supposed to be "my" value or what I think an "American" value is? what if my picture is "offensive"? what if it's too political or not political enough? what if I'm not photogenic? When I finally had all of them collected, I was overwhelmed. There are images from all over the United States, from young and old, from all races, from various walks of life. There isn't a single one that I don't find deeply moving and inspirational in it's own way. And, for the record, you all look fabulous.

Yesterday, feeling a bit overwhelmed, I complained that I "now had a whole load of other people's values that I had to figure out how to do something with." My good friend, Joshua Miller, responded: "This is the problem of liberal pluralism in a nutshell." He's right, of course. But it's also the great promise of liberal pluralism as well. The final video, I hope, will demonstrate my basic intuition about Americans and their values: we're a complex, imaginative, unpredictable, creative and non-quantifiably diverse community of people, alternately overlapping and contradicting each other in ways that are sometimes problematic, other times promising. Collecting all of your images, seeing all of your values, and putting this video together has been a great gift to me... even if also a lot of work!

Finally, I wanted to say that I will happily take more photos if you weren't able to get them in to me before the deadline. It's unlikely that I'll be able to include them in the video, but I will post them to the photo album on Facebook that will (eventually) include all the submissions.

Now, back to the editing board...

[UPDATE: The video is complete and posted here.]


Beverly said...

Sounds like you really have your work cut out for you! I know it will be great, and I can't wait to see it. Thank you for doing this, I had fun participating and checking out other people's ideas. They were very creative and interesting! Thanks again!

Joshua A. Miller said...

I guess it's the pharmakon of political liberalism.... :-)

Super excited to see the finished product. I chickened out on sending in a photo, and now I'm glad I did! These are *great* images you've received.

Devin Greaney said...

I saw this on Maggie "curiosity" Louie's Facebook and was trying to guess the answer to the question. I was thinking "What gives meaning" or " What keeps me going"


Tracy Lemos said...

This project is an interesting idea, Leigh, but I wonder how you deal with the fact that some of the stated values are not actual values. For example, is coffee a value? Is "horizontality" an actual value? How does one move from the plethora of stated "values" in the photos to any type of norm-building? It seems to me that placing a valuation on diversity of values in itself will not be able to displace the near stranglehold that conservative ideologies have over political and religious discourse in the United States, particularly in the South. To be honest with you, I worry that conservatives would see this project and think it exemplary of the feebleness of today's leftist morality, dismissing it as mere hipsterism.