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Gary Con 2019
Players gather for a session of Ragnarok

Players gather for a session of Ragnarok

I found myself with the opportunity to attend Gary Con. Gary Con is a gaming convention held in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in tribute to Gary Gygax. He co-created Dungeons & Dragons, the quintessential roleplaying game, and created TSR Games to distribute it.

In the decades since the creation of DnD, it has transformed from a modified rule set for war game enthusiasts to entire universe of lore and media. It is now owned by Wizards of the Coast (best known for their own fantasy product, Magic the Gathering), which is owned by Hasbro.

 While I appreciate the place that TSR and DnD have in popular culture, I was not feeling up to the prospect of playing table top games for hours on end. And, I must admit that coming as a “looky loo” I may have set myself up for some amount of disappointment. If I demanded that the event “entertain me,” that certainly would have been the case. But as with tabletop gaming itself, one must put some effort into the entertainment.

 Being held in Lake Geneva on a blustery weekend lends an air of simplicity to the event. This is not a “big” event by the measures of a modern fan convention. The dealer floor was fairly limited, there were no major brand announcements, no sneak-previews of major media events. I don’t think I saw anything I would consider cosplay.

Gary Con is a beating heart of gaming history. While TSR may be something of a memory, the people who participated in the development of Dungeons and Dragons are all there (at least in spirit if not body).

 I feel that I should make a note that while I definitely feel a kinship with the fandom of Gary Con, I am not “of” that fandom. I have played a few RPGs in my day, I’ve had mixed success. Something I picked up and put down easily. I still appreciate the lore it provided me with and a glimpse into the hundred various fantasy stories that inspired DnD’s development. I am pretty sure I would not have read Lord of the Rings if not for Dungeons and Dragons.

 

There was something of an artist alley… which was small but absolutely stuffed with truly great fantasy artists. Deisel, Jeff Easly, Larry Elmore, each right next to the other. I remember looking at images that Jeff Easly created in all of my classic 2nd edition AD&D books. I didn’t have any money to buy a print, and I was otherwise a little shook to try and say, “hi” without otherwise knowing what to say.

Work by Jeff Easley

Work by Jeff Easley

I was lucky enough to have a ‘guide’ of sorts, my cousin-in-law Clif. He’s far more of a fan of tabletop strategy games, which are the lineage that tabletop RPGs hail from going back many decades.

 

He walked me through the “miniatures room” which was, ironically, one of the largest spaces of the entire event. In the room were massive table-spanning war games. Naval battles, air battles. It’s interesting to see how they systematized these chaotic events.

It was quite fun watching a group of people play a chariot racing game called Circus Maximus, which involves turning all the precise decisions of a charioteer into dice rolls.

 

Along one wall of the miniatures room, there was a small museum display of Dave Arneson’s contributions to tabletop gaming. Among the items on display were Dave’s original ‘uncommon dice’ (the 4, 8, 10, 12 and 20 sided polyhedrons we know today) and various books and notes he drew inspiration from. Arneson, as much as Gygax, was a key figure in taking the tabletop strategy games and adapting it into the continuous, individual, ongoing roleplaying games we know today.

What is the heart of Gary Con?

 

It is the spirit of a very straightforward love of games as a means of understanding the world. In its origin, it is a way of simplifying the world. Turning tumultuous battles into manageable war games.

And from that stems this other game. One not rooted in reality, but fantasy. And while it carries over the tradition of measuring, chance, quantifying, it is still about a wish fulfillment. And that is what makes children of men.

On top of that, I can’t help but appreciate the old gray hairs among the crowd. People with a very specific connection to this game. And, in particular, one person: Gary Gygax.

I could not help but love the play floor. A thousand conversations conjuring monsters, starships, kings and treasure. All individually intoning, in silly ways, great drama and tragedy. Ruled by dice and the whims of the Game Masters.

 

In reading that poem to Gary, I had another realization about the event and the purpose there. Apart from the comics conventions I've seen before, this is kind of a time machine. Especially in the last two lines:

"But what I love for most

Is our past now long a ghost"

 That's it right there. Whatever we had we can have again only in fleeting moments. One thing I admire so much about the old gamers there is that they, at least the version I've built in my head, have the ability to put away the adult side of life for a minute. When I see the joy on that person’s face. The puzzling over a quandary of which road to take? Which spell to cast? I see myself in that moment, when I was playing and puzzling and debating and discovering.

And the amazing thing is, that at the end this play thing, these diversions became an industry. People's reputations were staked on it, and their "belonging" was so tied up in it. The play becomes reality and that, in itself, feels magical.

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"Afghan Girl", Gula Sharbat, and Fragile Photographers

There has been a recent controversy in the Online Photographic Community. I use capital letters because this is the semi-formal body of Youtube photographers that seem to draw a ton of viewers and spend more time arguing about cameras than actually working gigs.

Tony Northrup posted a video (which has now been taken down but you can view a copy of it below) about the famous "Afghan Girl" portrait from a 1985 National Geographic cover.

"Afghan Girl" is a terrible title for the picture, what it should be known as is "portrait of Gula Sharbat". We can dispense with this generic "Afghan Girl" title, it's not a piece of stock photography and though Steve McCurry failed to record her name, he did the right thing and worked with National Geographic to find many years later.

The violation at the heart of the picture

In the video, Tony explains the violation at the heart of the picture.

However, let's just go through a few things that we can be fairly sure of:

1) Steve McCurry was a western white man with some degree of power in a poor foreign country

2) he was taking photos to "humanize" a humanitarian crisis

3) By religious and regional custom, the act of revealing her face to this man would be very strange and could easily make someone uncomfortable.

It's hard to know what happened for certain as the event occurred in 1985. Gula has stated somewhat recently that she is happy that the photo has helped bring attention to Afghanistan's refugee populations and that it eventually afforded her some material comfort. 

The arguments I’ve seen from people trying to poke holes in this story point to everyone else who may have been in the room except for Gula. McCurry may have taken other photos to "get her to relax" or get her familiar, but just because she can be polite does not mean that she is comfortable. Being surrounded by others in power does not mean that someone is necessarily able to say "no" even if they want to.

All of that seems particularly realistic to the situation. Granted, I have only pieced that together based on the details people have reported and also by the content of the photo itself. That iconic portrait is a valuable piece of the puzzle. Where western audiences saw "Afghan Girl" (with its depersonalizing title) and saw it as a powerful "ethnically ambiguous" "third world Mona Lisa" (good LORD can we please be less racist/colonist about this person?), to this viewer, it appears more as a defensive, oppositional stare. It feels invasive because it is invasive. And while framed within the context of a magazine cover, the subject of the photo can be presumed to be looking at no one. In reality she was looking at one specific person.

Tony has a pretty good read on the photograph itself. Whether by intention or accident, the photo has some of the classic trappings of a "cover model" photo that would have been on any magazine. He juxtaposed the posing and lighting with the person being photographed and that is what caused National Geographic to run it as a cover photo, as well as in marketing materials for decades. 

It's a good thing that Gula was, eventually, compensated. I'm glad that Gula is now happy with the photo. People can change their minds. But that doesn’t mean that the photograph itself was not a transgression.

Steve McCurry is a nice guy, and years later he helped to find Gula and give her her due. That doesn't mean that he probably did something kind of gross in the moment back in 1985. Because THIS IS what privilege and oppression are! It's a symptom of oppressive systems. Those systems act on us even when we are unwilling participants. It allows us to not feel the empathy we need to feel in that moment. It turns Gula into "an Afghan Girl."

Quick aside, why did McCurry not record her name? A person who he clearly saw as a good subject for a photograph, yet no name? This wasn't a quick snapshot of history in which you have no time or ability. The teacher was there, the translator was there... he could have gotten her name. He says he was friendly with her in their brief encounter and never got her name? Okay…

So, to recap: Tony Northrup, who posts of videos on Youtube and generally seems to court controversy with videos debating whether or not one should shoot in JPEG mode on DSLR or how ISO "is a myth" apparently really freaked everyone out by saying that this one particular picture has all of the trappings of a really gross thing that is actually pretty common in photography.

So that is my case for at least, in part, agreeing with Tony.  The part that feels even more damning however, is the reactions: the decrying, the categorical denial. The protectionism of this "good man," Steve McCurry. McCurry has even claimed that he is getting his lawyers involved.

 It is absolutely astonishing to hear Ted Forbes say that "being accused... it's like a trial with no jury" (We are ALL better than this!)...

 

 

This is baffling to me. The "I want to believe"… How hard is it to believe these factors may have played a role in the creation of that photography? Why don't we value that Gula, at first and for a time after, did not like that photo being taken of her? No one is saying that McCurry should be imprisoned or that he should never photograph again. This is a critical reexamination of a piece of media. That's just a smart thing to do.

I think Tony did a fine job of explaining his argument. Especially the point about how Gula Sharbat has come to make peace with the photo since she has been compensated for it, and it probably also helped her get out of prison in Pakistan.

 

The fragility of online photographers

The biggest tell here is that the comments are almost exclusively from men, and more specifically white men. Men who have never, in their entire lives, been the subject of a leering camera. To be honest, I haven't been on that side either! But at least I'm ready to take into account the strong possibility that this is an invasive picture. And the amount of umbrage I see these men taking is a HUGE tell on how fragile their egos are in this regard.

 No one else needs to go to bat to defend Steve McCurry from Tony Northrup. That's... just not a thing anyone else should really care about. But at the core is an indictment of a system and a way of producing images that, I think, has been subtly harmful for entire groups of people- primarily people in the global south.

 National Geographic made a pledge to reexamine its privileged western point of view and apologized for the dehumanizing portrayal of indigenous cultures in the past. And it still has a lot of work to do to make sure that the next generation of photographers aren't brought up with the spectacle of the other as a key feature of telling someone else's story.