Good morning, Hank. It’s Monday. I spent much of this weekend in New York, Central Park and for some reason I kept thinking of my favourite photograph. So there was this German photographer August Sander who was famous for his massive, never finished series, ‘People of the Twentieth Century’ in which he took pictures of everyone from Bricklayers to Circus Performers to Famous Composers. Along the way he also took my favourite picture, this one, which is sometimes known as Three Farmers on their Way to A Dance, 1914.
There is a lot I like about this picture: I like how the farmers’ heads are cut off by the horizon, I like how their faces are in the sky but their feet are in the mud, and I like what the photograph tells us about class and history, that by 1914 mass production meant that these young farmers could afford suits and fancy hats and canes. For the first time in history, European peasants in the countryside could dress like – or almost like – urban professionals; but then again, they are still walking rather than driving in a car. These are young men on the cusp of what I think of as the contemporary world and I like how they are looking over their shoulders as if the can only briefly pause for the camera before they head off to their futures, to the dance.
It was the middle of 1914 and these three farmers were of course on their way to two dances: the one they knew about and World War One. These men very likely ended up fighting in that war and may well have been among the 17 million people who died in it. And the very same industrial manufacturing innovations that made their clothes affordable created the bullets and machine guns that made World War One so lethal.
The three people in this photograph are living in the middle of history, like, to us, the dance they were walking toward seems inevitable but to see their faces is to know that it wasn’t, that history is choices we collectively make about how to look at the world and how to respond to what we see. These three young farmers walking along a road, a hundred and one years ago remind me that I am also in the middle of history, and that how I imagine the world and the people in it really matters.
Someone once told me that photographs are just light and time. And in this picture, August Sander captured a hell of a light and a hell of a time; I pray we never see the likes of it again.
Hank, I’ll see you tomorrow.
This is a transcript of the most profound vlog I have ever watched. It was made by my favourite writer, John Green who, along with his equally genius brother, own the Youtube account ‘Vlogbrothers’ which currently has well over two million subscribers. I will not dwell too much on Vlogbrothers (do yourself a favour, go on Youtube and subscribe.)
This particular video was made on the Monday after the 2015 Paris attacks and I thought the reason I found it profound at that time was because of that tragedy. Perhaps I was wrong but when I watched it over and over during the week, it still made a lot of sense. Maybe this is because there is always tragedy in the world. I mean, name it: From the crisis in Syria to Agatu in Nigeria. There are disasters everywhere we look. This video talks to these tragedies in a most unprecedented way: that history is choices we collectively make about how to look at the world and how to respond to what we see.
Do you see how the dance the young farmers were walking toward seems inevitable but it actually is not? Do you see how these things are a factor of the decisions we make? Do you see that we are in total control of our future? That what happens next will inevitably be a direct consequence of what we do now? Do you see?
Till next time,, Keep dreaming!