Snapshot of a MOOC

DSC_0415The Camera Doesn’t Lie”  University of London at Royal Holloway, taught by Dr. Emmett Sullivan and available on Coursera.

From its earliest days, photography seemed to offer an objective, unmediated visual report of people, events and the world. More than an artist’s interpretation a photograph purported to be the real thing — the truth — because, “The Camera Doesn’t Lie.”

As we learned in the early weeks of this MOOC photographers, politicians and news editors sometimes do lie, or at least they photoshop. What purports to be a “truthful” photo or video may in fact be very editorial and very much the product of artistic or politically motivated alteration.

We looked at evidence of Hitler’s self-awareness as a public performer and image subject (the photos of Heinrich Hoffman), the Stalinist practice of “airbrushing” (editing out pictures of former friends once they disagreed with or opposed Stalin), photos from the American Civil Rights movement, and finally a comparison of two events (the battles of Mogadishu and the battle of Iwo Jima,) as they were presented in the news, social media, still photography, narrative non-fiction books and movies.

The course introduced me to the concept of Public History which is now about more than curating museum exhibits. It is about the popular version of historical events — especially the book and movie versions — which are full of artistic amendment, alteration and interpretation. Public history is not scholarly or academic history. It is much more influential and formative than scholarly or academic history.

I was reminded of the Coursera MOOC “The Pre-History of the Bible” which argued (I believe) that the Bible was essentially a kind of public history the purpose of which was to create a national identity in the absence of a state. But I digress.

The last three weeks of “The Camera Never Lies” are pure military history. If you like military history, you’ll probably enjoy the course. I enjoyed it very much. I learned a lot and I think I will be a more savvy consumer of “public history.”

A number of lectures rely heavily on photographs that neither Coursera nor the University of London has the right to use. Students are invited to look over the professor’s should at the image printed in a book. Not cool. Please get the rights or permission to use the images or find other images!

Some of the recommended books were easy to find (“Flags of Our Fathers” and “Black Hawk Down.”) Some were out of print and/or much to expensive to purchase (“Underexposed.”) I was able to rent one of the recommended texts (“Photography: A Cultural History” 4th ed.) from Amazon for $20. Who knew you could rent books from Amazon! Another book I found “used” on Amazon for $3.00 and in excellent condition. Finally, the public library came through with the book I needed for the Stalinist era (“The Commissar Vanishes.”) And it still continues to be the case that Coursera courses are free. It’s a great deal.

I and some others originally signed up for the course thinking that it would be about photography. It wasn’t. Having now gone back and re-read the course description, I see that I have no one to blame for this mistake but myself. It was a mistake I am glad I made.

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