Monthly Archives: December 2008

The Conflicted Photographer…

Before jumping into the following essay, I ask those who I have photographed over the years to not take personal offense to some of the things I am about to say. Because I have done thousands of hours of work over the past ten years toward promoting other creatives at no charge, or in the spirit of being spontaneously creative, I have occasionally had to struggle with interpersonal frustrations, miscommunication, and unmet expectations, I think it prudent for me to take the time to put my thoughts into words. And as such, I hope to establish a rudimentary understanding as to who I am, why I do what I do, how I hope to relate to those who I have yet to photograph, and what I can realistically provide…

Since my creative awakening at Burning Man in 1999, I have received numerous emails that, whether polite or not, ask some variation on the following question: “Would you please send the photos that you took of me?”

I am very fortunate to be gifted with a talent for taking beautiful and meaningful photos of truly interesting people and subjects, but one of the banes of my existence as a photographer has been to receive impatient and demanding requests for, though worthwhile and important, what are typically art-for-art’s-sake or speculative documentary without the expectation of compensation for my time. Then, when I am able to fulfill these requests, I have over the years come to learn that I am not only rarely thanked for my efforts and for sharing these images freely in the spirit of co-promotion, but I am also not credited properly. What troubles me most though, is that even when the subject would typically expect to be paid by an event promoter or venue to perform, to sing, to dance, or whatnot, and who is quite capable of offering a gift, exchange, or compensation for my time or a print, I am only very rarely appreciated as a working artist. Yet, when I am unable to meet these demands in a timely fashion, believe me, I hear about it, and am made to feel inadequate. So, through sharing the following, I would like to clarify both my purpose and circumstance as a photographer, as well as set down, in policy, the standards by which I would like to approach all future recreational, portraiture, musician, performance, and speculative documentary work.

I am a D.I.Y. artist and documentarian who has, for the past eleven years, lived on a hand-to-mouth budget while doing the best that I am able with what few resources I have available to me. I live minimally. I don’t hold down a “regular” job, because I have the equivalent of three roles as a photographer (pointing the lens and pushing the button; the editor/retoucher of my own work; and the promoter/manager), which is, I feel, the most meaningful way that I can contribute… working almost every waking hour toward these ends. I sleep on friends sofas, so that I am able to put what few funds I do have available to me toward my craft and to co-promote my creative allies. And instead of being able to own and use what camera and computer I desire, I make use of an inexpensive prosumer camera, and perform all of my post-production work on a 2001 laptop that I bought at a discount rate back in the middle of 2002.

Now, on one level, I empathize with the frustrations of the few who have discredited me. However, this isn’t because I think that I owe them something. My understanding of this troubling issue comes from the probability that, over the years, I have not effectively communicated my purpose, my ethic, my situation, my limitations, the resources I have available to me, and the hard fact that photography is what I do for a living.

I am not an independently wealthy photographer, such as was Diane Arbus. Nor do I currently have a support staff to whom I can delegate my administrative, marketing, creative, financial, and managerial tasks. And I am most certainly not a one-man Fotomat. I am a thoughtful, kind, and generous person who’s first loyalty is to spread awareness and provoke thought, dialogue, and positive change. My second priority is to inspire mainstream society to consider other ways of living and being through pointing my lens toward unapologetically genuine and unique individuals, creatives, and alternative lifestyle communities so they may be inspired to express themselves authentically, to perhaps recognize and break from the prescribed reality. My third is to co-promote the various grassroots creatives who I appreciate and respect, and who do what they do for the love of it or because they cannot be untrue to their calling. So, in order to maintain the facility to move about freely and without distraction to discover and share lesser understood realities, I have forsaken creature comforts, geographic stability, and the soul sucking job that holds most of us firmly in place so that I may honor this purpose.

So as to give the reader a sense of the history and compounded gravity of these demands without consideration of recompense, it all started in 2000. At that time, I was still shooting film. At that time, I provided small prints at no cost to my subjects. However, at $30 a roll (through film, processing, and printing costs) plus event entry fees combined with the effort it took for me to do a shoot, travel to and from the lab, and edit the photos, I was fast going broke. It was in 2002 when, disheartened, I looked down upon about 500 unprocessed rolls from my early years that I had to consider either going digital, or deny my passion as a visual artist and activist. I, of course, chose to go digital. However, in doing so, I incurred an enormous up-front expense to purchase a new camera system and the computer that I still use today. And to boot, I still have over 400 of those 500 rolls yet unprocessed.

Ironically, after I started to shoot digital, I was soon overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of images that I had to manage, while also becoming responsible for post-processing, which up to that point was mostly left to the lab… unless I was printing for a show. Nonetheless, some people would say, “Just send the photos as they are!” Maybe this is just my ego talking out loud, but that’s not the way that I operate. I am interested in quality, not quantity. And the level of quality that I hope to attain, and that which I wish to attach to my name, requires effort. And though there are more than a few photos that might be considered excellent, I am only capable of applying my efforts toward one or a few before moving onto the next project.

What surprised and disappointed me most, however, was when such a statement would come from the mouths of artists, dancers, musicians, or performers. This is because these, of all people, are the ones who should most be able to understand where I am coming from. I want only my best and my finished work to leave my possession, to perhaps enter the public realm. And where a painter might, for example, complete one painting per week, I am often dealing with up to 3000 images per week. I have often wondered how some of these people would feel if I demanded that they paint, dance, sing, or perform for me halfway… or for free.

Another surprise is how more than a few of the people who I have photographed – who live materialistically minimal, and sometimes spiritual, alternative lifestyles – could become so attached to the idea of a picture of themselves. Then, occasionally, expressing dissatisfaction with receiving only one or a few images. It frustrated me most to know that some people would retroactively corrupt a genuinely fun, creative, and productive photographic experience simply because they based their entire experience on the expectation that they would get something beautiful for free… while assuming that, for me, it was all just cake.

So, over the past year, this growing accumulation of unmet expectations has weighed heavily enough so that I have actually asked myself, “Should I stop taking photos of people? Should I just photograph places and things that won’t demand so much from me? Should I leave the camera home during moments of great creative potential? Or during historically relevant moments?” Then, after a lot of thought, and considerable melancholy, I decided, “Hell no!”

Though I am not a religious man, I feel blessed. I was put on the Earth with a gifted ability and a purpose. I will not be made to feel as though I should stop chronicling beautiful people and important moments simply because a few spoilers can’t see the big picture. To choose to not take photos, and to not share what I am able to provide with the world at-large, would seem to me to be short-sighted, selfish, and personally self-destructive to not heed my calling.

So, with the exception of a few people who really seem to get it, I am sometimes made to feel alone in my endeavor, and separate from some of the people who I otherwise respect, admire, and/or enjoy being around. Thankfully, the people who understand me and appreciate what I am doing make it all worth it. Nonetheless, each time I aim the lens and push the camera’s button, though I tend to feel that I have taken one more step forward and am actively making a difference, it feels as though my ability to manage my works is pushed back another ten steps.

Well, I guess that’s my bane… and the spoiler’s loss. Because, though I do have the desire to be generous and make people smile, I have absolutely no desire to compromise my purpose, nor sell short my creative soul. So, I repeat… I was put on the Earth with an ability and a purpose. I intend to use my talents to the best of my ability, while continuing to do my very best to be kind, generous, and true.

With that said, though I will continue to take the time to capture historically relevant moments and co-create artistically provocative imagery with a knowing and consenting subject, I think it important to state that my talent, my time, and my person is of value.  And how I choose take photos — which at this time is expressed through black and white photography; and what I choose to release to the world, which are images that I deem worthy of investing my efforts toward retouching; and how I prioritize my shoots, which first honors paying work, then low- or unpaid social/environmental/economic justice work, then speculative fine art portraiture, and so on — is my prerogative.

In terms of my documentary imagery, if you enter the public realm, where any number of other recording devices may capture your likeness, or you are in someone’s space where I have been given permission to photograph, I will, whenever possible, be among the first to ask for your permission beforehand.  Additionally, I will do my very best to one day share the selected image or images with you to post on your website, MySpace, Facebook, or whatnot.  But in saying so, it will be on my own terms, by my own quality and selection standards, and if I am not offered some form of compensation, in my own time.

And though I recognize that the subject’s time is of value too, I will no longer commit to a photo shoot with a person if they cannot first understand the position I have stated in this essay.  So, if one day I should approach you to ask if I may take your photo, and if, in your heart, you are attached to the expectation of an end product without any thought or consideration for my priorities, my livelihood, or the resources I must own and maintain in order to take and process the photos… or if you cannot understand my commitment to being an artist, a visual historian, and a hopeful agent of change… or if you cannot appreciate all of the heart, and sacrifice, and effort that goes into bringing what I capture through my lens to completion… or if you have difficulty living in-the-moment, enough so as to at least engage in an experience simply for the joy of being creative… then you should probably politely decline my request.

But, on the other hand, if, you trust my eye and know that my intentions are good, and you wish to one day be able to see and share the strange and wonderful keepsake that is an artful photographic memory as seen from my point-of-view, then, in recognition of all that is necessary to make it manifest, I would, at the very least, appreciate a smile and a “Thank you!”.

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The New Fountainhead

With our economy going to hell-in-a-handbasket, there has been a worrisome stir in the extended community that includes architects, planners, and developers. Being that houses across the country are being foreclosed, home loan approval is nearly impossible, housing developments sit idle, half-built, and office buildings are emptying into the streets of every major city, what may yet become of their livelihoods? Allow me to put those minds at ease…

Assuming that President Elect Obama will keep his promise to light a flame underneath an economic plan that will ignite a “Green Deal”, it’s only the very beginning of a new era in architecture as well as physical layout and design, when there will be opportunities too numerous to count. This is because in this proposed future, a lot of heads and hands will be necessary to implement out-of-the-box solutions for square-one designs, and energy-efficient retrofits of old architecture and municipal layout/infrastructure to become manifest.

Assuming the perceived urgency of the current Green Movement continues to gain momentum, I expect maverick architects, planners, engineers, and developers will have a field day (or rather, a field decade) with consideration to all of the unhinged possibilities for creative engineering and re-imagining. The heretofore bridaled visionaries will perhaps have more creative latitude, funding, and public support than ever, at least in the modern age, to propose super innovative and foundation-shaking solutions. And where municipal zoning and subdivision laws have literally made everything resemble everything else in our physical environment, while attempting to make every function fit neatly into the same size and brand of box – be it a mall, a Walmart, a McDonalds, a parking space, or a cubicle – local, state, and federal agencies will soon hurry to pass legislation that encourages intelligent physical design and thoughtful accounting of resources. Through the coming years, this will further be facilitated by federal funding requirements and the shift toward supporting industries, a labor force, and a marketplace that manufacture Green materials, technologies, and systems.

Give it a decade…  If the forthcoming administration can lead the charge toward dedicated research, development, and application of conservation-minded technology, energy, material, and space solutions, an entirely new family of products and services may yet become available…  to eventually become ever more efficient and affordable.

Consider how the personal computer, the internet, the digital camera, and the cell phone have indelibly changed our lives over the past decade.  If the aforementioned ideas can get a foothold for even one-half a generation, Green thinking and conscious behavior will no longer be on the fringe. It will simply be the way things are…

The Flight Of The Phoenix

An online Flickr acquaintance, James, contacted me with the following note, which is paraphrased…

“Greetings Craig… I am at an Internet cafe and received your article… worded and sent out into the world with true heart and passion. Since I lost all of my stock holdings, I am currently homeless. I’m living in the Florida Keys: selling my art work, doing cleaning jobs, dish washing, and other things to survive while preparing for Saskia’s arrival on January 4th. When the stock market crashed, life went from having everything to absolutely nothing. I suppose it’s a chance to start at ground zero with a good attitude and faith in the good energies that will allow folks, such as us, to continue the struggle and create. It gives the world a chance to even out. Anyhow, I wish you strength, peace, joy, and love in life… James”

I responded…

Dear James… “I’m so sorry for your loss, but I really admire your attitude!

Though I cannot say that my life has ever been overly complicated by money, property, or responsibility to another person, after going through some considerable trials in the nineties, I had an epiphany on Valentine’s Day of 1998. I relinquished many of the so-called responsibilities and comforts that American culture deems important, if not altogether essential, such as functioning as a soulless cog in the machine in order to sustain a materialistic lifestyle and pay the bills. That day, while sitting alone, I willfully decided to go against the grain. I chose to be impractical… to follow my dream to become a documentary photographer and one day work for the likes of National Geographic and Smithsonian. During this process of becoming, I not only discovered there was an artist, writer, cultural anthropologist, visual historian, and activist hiding deep within, but I also realized that I had the tools, the talents, and the resources available to me to get people to ask a lot of questions (instead of blindly accepting the party line), consider different possibilities, and even change their thought patterns and behaviors. Though I have struggled along the way, as a direct result of these choices I have experienced some unbelievable moments in our history, met some truly unique and talented people, and come to know and love (and be loved by) those who I consider to be my dearest friends, without whom, I suspect, I would be little more than a pale interpretation of who I currently am, if not dead.

It may sound cliché, but I firmly believe that EVERYTHING happens for a reason. This, to me, means that every event that occurs in our lives – whether it is large or small, or perceived as good or bad – presents us with an array of choices. If these choices are recognized, thoughtfully considered, then acted upon, they enable the individual the opportunity to endow themselves with purpose. Essentially, these moments present us with metaphorical benchmarks, which, if attended to consciously and with optimism, result in a more meaningful existence. Additionally, through reminding ourselves to live-in-the-present and do our very best – while minimizing material attachments, emotional dependencies, and selfish expectations – we come ever closer to being truly free.

I was once in-love with a wonderful, beautiful woman who I met in Rio de Janeiro. After sharing a storybook romance, we decided to get married. However, after the hard knocks of reality weighed heavy upon our dreams, this marriage eventually came to an end. It resulted in one of the most painful and confusing experiences I had had in my life up to that point. Yet, I do not regret it having happened, nor would I choose to go back in time to change events, if I could. This is because so much good has come into my life as a direct consequence of this unpleasant event. If I we had remained together, I would neither have had the liberty nor the courage to pursue my passion as a photographer. It is likely that I would not have met any of the wonderful people who today inhabit my life. And if not for the therapeutic, creative, and purpose-driven qualities of my photography, I, as a person prone to depression, might not be alive.

Today my ex-wife is one of these dearest of friends. And though we have been apart for many years and don’t see each other as much as I wish we were able, both she and I are exactly where we need to be in our respective life situations. So, though my life was very painful and without direction at that time, it is as it should be.

Another illustration of the “Everything happens…” tenet relates to those people along the Gulf Coast who were victimized by Hurricane Katrina and the inept response of our federal government. These people had their existential foundations ripped from beneath them. Many were torn from their homes, their communities, and from everyone and everything they, and their families had known and loved for many generations. Whether upon their return to New Orleans or in another place, a many people were driven to despair, while many others tried their best to restore normalcy and routine. But apart from these people, there were a few exceptional souls who understood that their world was changing irrevocably. They allowed their repetitive routines, their material attachments, and their behavioral addictions to wither – effectively shedding their skin – as they adapted to their circumstances, became sensitive to their present, and expressed their thanks for all of the genuinely valuable and important things in their life. So, though they did quietly suffer as they slowly healed, they chose to look deep within while setting their sights on the horizon as they reinvented themselves, having had their eyes opened wide.

Anyhow James, I urge you to read between the lines of your personal experience while continuing to do your very best while in the Keys or wherever you may go from there. If you have faith in yourself and the universe, and choose to remain open, who knows? Perhaps you and Saskia will meet someone who owns a boat and who needs two people to crew their journey through the Caribbean? Or perhaps you will learn to juggle while riding a unicycle and befriend a fascinating and wacky group of performers? Or perhaps you’ll save enough money through selling your art to fly from Miami to the tropics, where a small piece of land with banana trees and cockatoos patiently await your neighborly presence. Your future success is contingent upon you broadening your perspective while opening yourself to new experiences and ways of being…

Trust yourself. Take a few risks. And live each day honestly, authentically, and completely. A great adventure awaits you…

In fact, it has already begun.

:) Craig”

Pardon Me!?!

Just yesterday I received an e-mail from the ACLU mentioning that George W. Bush may very well give Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, and others who are or have been in his administration something known as a Preemptive Pardon. When I read this, I said to myself, “Preemptive? WTF!?!”

What rational explanation can justify the granting of immunity by a sitting President to a person who has not yet been convicted nor even formally charged with a crime? It sounds ridiculous, yet it seems to have been acted upon once already… when Gerald Ford granted Richard Nixon a presidential pardon before he had been convicted or even formally charged with the Watergate crimes.

Doesn’t this go against core American values of justice and due process? And isn’t it implicit that by allowing high-ranking officials to evade accountability for undermining the Constitution and violating the law will give a “Get Out Of Jail” pass to future public officials who commit high crimes against the people of the world, or against the interests of the American People? Maybe I’m naive, but doesn’t this define a certain powerful segment of the upper tier of our society as above the law? And how can a sitting president project his will into a succeeding president’s term, effectively nullifying the possibility of an investigation into past activities or bringing up charges against a former official?

Let me remind the reader that several officers in this administration, including the President himself, could easily be accused and tried for crimes such as subterfuge, libel, misrepresentation, torture, illegal wiretapping, and even treason under our own Federal laws. And though it would require a great act of political courage by our President Elect, Barack Obama, followed by the tying up our courts for a good whi a series of independent investigations are under way, would most certainly send a precedent to all future public officials and elected representative that they ARE accountable to their actions.

There are so many questions that need answers, such as “Was there tampering and/or fraud committed during the 2000 and 2004 elections?” Or, “Were any of the Bush Administration or American Neo-Conservatives involved with the planning, goings-on, or suppression of information that led to 9/11? And what about war crimes and crimes against humanity, as it is understood under the Geneva Convention and the International Criminal Court?

The Geneva Convention, which was ratified by the U.S., and is therefore as applicable as our own laws, is explicit in that it prohibits torture, the use of “violence,” “cruel treatment” or “humiliating and degrading treatment” against a detainee “at any time and in any place whatsoever.” The War Crimes Act of 1996 made any grave breach of those restrictions a U.S. felony.

This preemptive perversion of the Presidential Pardon would enable Bush to prevent any future criminal investigation into his administration’s activities. Though interestingly, through accepting a pardon, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and so on would be, by default, admitting their guilt.

In an editorial by The New York Times, it stated:

“The Bush administration distorted statutes and case law to legally justify interrogation techniques that had long been considered torture under domestic and international law. It relied on sloppy or aggressive legal analysis as a basis for evading judicial review of a warrantless wiretapping program. It has at every turn chosen the most expansive interpretation of the law to rationalize indefinite detentions and deny federal court review to those in custody. It has, in short, determined its preferred course of action first and then stitched together absurd readings of the law to defend those choices.”

With regard to torture, to outline the laws broken by our public officials, I offer the following information…

To show how inhumane the practice is, a U.S. volunteer is waterboarded.

To show how inhumane the practice is, a U.S. volunteer is waterboarded.

Dick Cheney, the sitting Vice President, orchestrated the use of torture, secret prisons, and detention without charge. The vice president’s office played a central role in eliminating limits on coercion in U.S. custody, and created a distinction between forbidden “torture” and the use of “cruel, inhuman or degrading” methods of questioning which they advanced as permissible.

A hooded and wired Iraqi prisoner, believed to be Satar Jabar, who reportedly was told that he would be electrocuted if he fell off the box.

A hooded and wired Iraqi prisoner, believed to be Satar Jabar, who reportedly was told that he would be electrocuted if he fell off the box.

Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense, authorized the use of abusive interrogation methods at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base and Abu Ghraib. These methods included abuse, humiliation, torture, sodomy, and homicide.

Lynndie England and Charles Graner posing with prisoners ordered to form a human pyramid.

Lynndie England and Charles Graner posing with prisoners ordered to form a human pyramid.

John Ashcroft, the former US Attorney General, reportedly participated in National Security Council meetings authorizing specific forms of abuse on specific prisoners, and approved Office of Legal Counsel torture memoranda.

England pointing to a naked prisoner being forced to masturbate in front of his captors.

England pointing to a naked prisoner being forced to masturbate in front of his captors.

George Tenet, forner Director of the CIA, oversaw the Extraordinary Rendition Program (the extrajudicial transfer of a person from one state to another, particularly with regard to the alleged transfer of suspected terrorists to countries known to torture prisoners or to employ harsh interrogation techniques that may rise to the level of torture), as well as the abusive interrogation methods, including waterboarding, by CIA officials.

Sgt. Ivan Frederick sitting on an Iraqi detainee between two stretchers.

Sgt. Ivan Frederick sitting on an Iraqi detainee between two stretchers.

John Yoo, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel, authored memos that tried to provide a legal basis for the torture and abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody.

United States soldier Spc. Graner prepares to punch restrained prisoners.

United States soldier Spc. Graner prepares to punch restrained prisoners.

Alberto Gonzales, the former White House Counsel, chaired discussions about the authorization of specific forms of torture and abuse, and urged the president not to apply the Geneva Conventions to many of the detainees.

Spc. Charles Graner poses over Manadel al-Jamadis corpse.

Spc. Charles Graner poses over Manadel al-Jamadi's corpse.

Condoleeza Rice, the current Secretary of State, chaired the National Security Council meetings reportedly authorizing specific forms of abuse on specific prisoners.

One of the previously unreleased images released in February 2006 by SBS in Australia, showing a man covered in excrement forced to pose for the camera.

One of the previously unreleased images released in February 2006 by SBS in Australia, showing a man covered in excrement forced to pose for the camera.

In my opinion, this should be fought against, tooth and nail, by the American People. Then, there should be clear and rigorous conditions placed on the whens, hows, and limitations of a Presidential Pardon.

The pardon should be made available to correct judicial error, not used for the sake of political expediency or to absolve an administration’s criminal activities.

And now the big question… if these and the many other accusations against the Bush Administration (especially those of fraudulent election activity and/or involvement with 911) are found to be true in a court of law, would it not be prudent to retroactively nullify the many laws and appointments that this administration has made?

What do you think?

•••

Sources include the ACLU’s letter and citations from Wikipedia

Knowledge Begets Wisdom: A List Of Recommended Documentary Films

Have you ever had one of those moments when you just wanted to sit back and relax to some informative variant or another about the beauty, mystery, and/or stupidity of our strange existence?

Does anyone remember 1970’s public television? When some disaffected scientist’s voice would describe the mating habits of the Australian Dingo? Well, the documentary film has come a very long way since those slow days when making the choice to spend your free time learning was painfully boring, and those audio samples are relegated to the likes of music by Boards Of Canada. Whether it be the works of Michael Moore’s biased dissertations, Ron Fricke’s audio/visual tapestries, Danny Schechter’s brilliant investigative journalism, or the new age revelations of glorified infomercials, such as “The Secret”, learning about ourselves, our world, and our universe has never been so enjoyable as well as informative.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that I truly look forward to a day when soulless corporations, at least as we know and understand them, will meet their demise. But one company, Netflix, has actually managed to enrich my life through providing me with a quality array of great films and documentary, both quickly and inexpensively. With that said, I’d like to recommend the following films with hopes that you won’t have to waste too much time trying to figure out what to watch. I too hope that you will gain and put to use the knowledge and wisdom you are sure to acquire about the oft overlooked reality that stealthfully affects us everyday.

If you have any great recommendations, please let me know so I can add it to the list…

Politics and War…

No End In Sight: This in-depth, Oscar-nominated documentary from filmmaker (and former Brookings Institution fellow) Charles Ferguson examines the decisions that led to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the handling of the subsequent occupation by President George W. Bush and his administration. Featuring exclusive interviews with central players and detailed analysis, the film pulls no punches as it chronicles the twists and turns America took on the path to war.

WMD: Weapons Of Mass Deception: Independent investigative reporter and filmmaker Danny Schechter’s documentary focuses on how the media shaped people’s views of the Iraq War through their intense coverage from the war’s inception through February 2004. Schechter’s film examines provocative theories such as the Pentagon’s involvement in media messages, how new methods such as satellites and embedded journalists affected media coverage, and the competition between media outlets.

Zeitgeist: Produced by Peter Joseph, was created as a nonprofit expression to inspire people to start looking at the world from a more critical perspective and to understand that very often things are not what the population at large think they are. IMPORTANT NOTE: The introduction, being the first ten minutes, or so, is cheesy, amateurish film making. Skip it.

Iraq in Fragments: Honored with an Oscar nod and prizes for editing and cinematography at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, director James Longley’s striking portrait of a nation divided presents a collage of images and commentary from ordinary Iraqi citizens coping with the effects of war, political unrest, religious feuds and an uncertain future. Moving beyond the abstract, the film powerfully captures the indelible humanity of those living in a country defined by conflict.

Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers: Private contractors are getting rich while everybody else is suffering: This is the point director Robert Greenwald makes — passionately — in this 2006 documentary. Using whistleblower testimony, firsthand accounts, financial records and classified documents, Greenwald levels charges of greed, corruption and incompetence against private contractors and shows the subsequent devastating effect on Americans and Iraqis.

War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death: Based on Norman Solomon’s revealing book and narrated by actor Sean Penn, War Made Easy exposes the government’s and the media’s purported history of deceiving the American people and leading us into war after war. Using archival footage of past presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and both Bushes, and media correspondents like Walter Cronkite, the documentary sheds light on propaganda pushing and draws parallels between the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

The Weather Underground: A sobering documentary about a group of 1960s “committed freedom fighters” known as The Weather Underground. A radical offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen didn’t just march or sit in; they rioted and bombed — not to change the American political scene but rather to destroy it. The organization was part of a global trend of revolution that sprang from the belief that not acting against violence is violence.

Why We Fight: Filmed during the Iraq War, this documentary dissects America’s military machine with a keen eye to answering the question: Why does America engage in war? Through personal stories of soldiers, government officials, scholars, journalists and innocent victims, the film examines the political and economic interests and ideological factors, past and present, behind American militarism. Winner of the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Award.

911 In Plane Sight: This provocative documentary probes the theories behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, focusing on live video footage captured that day that aired only once on TV and was never shown again. The film examines alternative causes of the crash on the Pentagon and questions whether the damage was inflicted by a 757. The documentary also asks if explosives might have been already present in the World Trade Center and aboard United Airlines Flight 175

Orwell Rolls in His Grave: Documentary filmmaker Robert Kane Pappas presents a riveting argument for his theory that America is under an Orwellian watch with the rise to prominence of the radical, right-wing Republican party, an ascent aided, unwittingly or not, by the mainstream media. Here, Pappas interviews an impressive roster, including Center for Public Integrity director Charles Lewis, legal analyst Vincent Bugliosi and liberal filmmaker Michael Moore.

Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties: Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Congress passed a series of legislations known as The Patriot Act, which is designed to assist law enforcement in preventing future terrorist attacks. Take an inside look at this controversial bill through the eyes of legal analysts and constitutional experts as they examine the possible dangers The Patriot Act poses to our civil liberties and individual freedoms.

The Peace!: Amid an escalating war in Iraq, rising terror levels and the threat of nuclear attack, a growing body of intellectuals, religious leaders and community organizers are getting tough with their questions about peace — and that’s no oxymoron. To shed light on the answers, filmmakers Gabriele Zamparini and Lorenzo Meccoli record a variety of speakers, including Noam Chomsky, Desmond Tutu, Scott Ritter, Pete Seeger, Howard Zinn and Gore Vidal. NOTE: The first half is good, but it loses all of its steam toward the end.

Bowling For Columbine: Famed filmmaker and left-wing political humorist Michael Moore tackles America’s obsession with firearms in this Oscar-winning documentary. Focusing mainly on the Columbine massacre in April 1999, Moore also visits a Michigan bank that gives new customers a free gun, recites statistics for gun deaths in the United States and interviews folks ranging from National Rifle Association spokesman Charlton Heston to shock rocker Marilyn Manson.

Business and Economy…

The Corporation: This documentary charts the spectacular rise of corporations as a dramatic, pervasive presence in our lives. Filmmakers Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott present a timely, entertaining critique of global conglomerates as they chronicle the origins of corporations, as well as their inner workings, controversial impacts and possible futures. The pros and cons are weighed via interviews with social critics such as Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore.

In Debt We Trust: Filmmaker and former journalist Danny Schechter (WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception) investigates Americans’ ongoing love affair with credit cards and the staggering level of personal debt it’s created, paying special attention to the relationship between Congress and the credit card industry. In a modern society that’s increasingly “financialized,” consumer debt is so common that extending credit has become highly lucrative.

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room: Based on the book of the same name by Peter Elkin, director Alex Gibney’s documentary takes a behind-the-scenes look at the powerful energy company whose downfall forever changed the landscape of the business world. With a blend of fascinating footage, fast-paced interviews and a wealth of information, this film is a serious lesson in the potential trappings of dishonesty and unethical behavior dogging corporate America today.

Roger and Me: In this blistering, satirical documentary, ex-journalist Michael Moore gives a personal account of the tough times in his hometown of Flint, Mich., after the General Motors plant was closed in the mid-1980s. The film revolves around Moore’s dogged attempts to gain an interview with Roger Smith, the elusive and well-insulated head of GM and the man responsible for massive layoffs that eliminated more than 30,000 jobs and left the town destitute.

America: Freedom to Fascism: Acclaimed filmmaker Aaron Russo directs this thorough investigation into the creation of the Federal Reserve and the controversial legislation (or lack thereof) that requires all American citizens to pay income taxes. Through revelatory interviews with key members of Congress, a former IRS Commissioner, tax attorneys, agents from the IRS and FBI, and various authors, Russo demystifies federal income tax and the creation of money. NOTE: It’s not a particularly well produced film, but the historical information and interviews are excellent.

A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash: Produced by award-winning filmmakers Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack, this documentary examines the world’s dependency on oil and the impending chaos that’s sure to follow when the resource is depleted. Straight from the headlines, this hot-button topic may represent the world’s most dire crisis. Through expert interviews, the film spells out in startling detail the challenge we all face and underscores our desperate need for alternative energy.

Maxed Out: Investigating both the personal and the national debt owed by Americans, this thought-provoking documentary explores the staggering financial burden we live with every day and exposes how the contemporary financial industry is set up in ways that can harm unwitting customers. With both sobering facts and black humor, Maxed Out unveils the consequences of our debt addiction, including its contribution to the vanishing of the American middle class.

Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price: Producer, director and activist Robert Greenwald takes aim at the corporate giant that’s come to symbolize big business in America: Wal-Mart. Blasting the box-store Goliath for allegedly paying substandard wages, skimping on employee health benefits and eviscerating communities, this hard-hitting, emotional documentary profiles the struggle of everyday folks from around the country who’ve committed themselves to fighting the mega-retailer. NOTE: Though I believe this documentary is poorly produced, the interviews and information is invaluable.

Media…

Outfoxed: Rupurt Murdoch’s War on Journalism: Finally, a no-holds-barred documentary on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, which has been criticized in some quarters as running a “race to the bottom” in television news. Offering an in-depth look at the dangers of burgeoning corporations that take control of the public’s right to know, the film explores Murdoch’s ever-expanding media empire and its impact on society. Media experts such as Jeff Cohen and Bob McChesney are interviewed.

Control Room: This documentary peers into the controversial and often dangerous operations of the 7-year-old Al Jazeera news network. Although it often enrages its own people, the news outlet has become the most accepted informational resource in the Arab community. Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim gains extraordinary access to Al Jazeera journalists and examines the risks they confront on a daily basis.

Science…

The Elegant Universe: Brian Greene, a Columbia University physics professor and best-selling author of The Elegant Universe, hosts this fascinating exploration of string theory. Beginning with an overview of general physics concepts, Greene moves on to a straightforward and visually stimulating explanation of the more recent string theory that unites relativity and quantum mechanics. A profile of Einstein and an explanation of his theory of relativity are included.

Connections 1: How did a test of gold’s purity in 500 B.C. lead to the invention of the atomic bomb? James Burke, host of this beloved 1978 TV documentary series, makes this and other beguiling connections between history and science. Combing through 12,000 years of history, this Sherlock Holmes of science finds clues that led to various modern inventions. Burke’s droll humor, careful reenactments and stirring use of classical music helped to make this a BBC hit.

Connections 2: History links seemingly disparate past events to form a fascinating whole in this intriguing show featuring British intellectual James Burke, who makes connections between such moments as the invention of the French loom and the creation of computer giant IBM; the naissance of the steam pump and the production of carbon paper; and the use of water pipes and the streamlining of carburetors. What results is nothing short of educational magic.

Connections 3: Intrepid host James Burke connects the seemingly random dots between one scientific or historical event and another, creating a fascinating, weblike tableau of the past in this popular Learning Channel series. Learn how the invention of the superconductor and the study of oceans are linked and how the exploration of a plethora of other topics, including geysers and handwriting analysis, helped shape the world as we know it today

Environment…

Baraka: The relationship between humans and their environment is the subject of this mesmerizing visual study from Ron Fricke, the cinematographer and editor of Koyaanisqatsi. The images — which Fricke gathered from 24 countries — range from the daily devotions of Tibetan monks and whirling dervishes to a cigarette factory and time-lapse views of the Hong Kong skyline. Diverse world music accompanies the visuals.

The 11th Hour: Actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary on the global environmental crisis paints a portrait of a planet at risk while also offering some exciting and radical solutions for making life on earth sustainable. Tapping the brains of leading scientists and thinkers — including Stephen Hawking and Mikhail Gorbachev — the film ultimately delivers a hopeful message: Our planet may be in crisis, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late change.

The End of Suburbia: This provocative documentary, a regular on the film-festival circuit, examines the history of suburban life and the wisdom of this distinctly American way of life. A post-World War II concept, suburbia attracted droves of people, giving rise to sprawl and all that comes with it — good and bad. How has the environment been affected by this lifestyle, and is it sustainable? Canadian director Gregory Greene dares to ask all the tough questions

An Inconvenient Truth: Director-producer Davis Guggenheim (HBO’s “Deadwood”) captures former Vice President Al Gore in the midst of waging a passionate campaign — not for the White House, but for the environment. Laying out the facts of global warming without getting political, Gore makes a sobering impression in this Oscar-winning doc on the audiences who hear his message, urging them to act “boldly, quickly and wisely” … before it’s too late to act at all.

Microcosmos: Critters of the small kind are featured in this interesting look at the seldom-explored world of insects, snails and other undersized creatures as they go about their daily lives. By using unique microscopic cameras and powerful specialized microphones, this highly praised French documentary gives new meaning to “a bug’s life.”

Culture…

Baraka: The relationship between humans and their environment is the subject of this mesmerizing visual study from Ron Fricke, the cinematographer and editor of Koyaanisqatsi. The images — which Fricke gathered from 24 countries — range from the daily devotions of Tibetan monks and whirling dervishes to a cigarette factory and time-lapse views of the Hong Kong skyline. Diverse world music accompanies the visuals.

The Story Of Weeping Camel: This unique documentary follows a Mongolian camel that’s rejected her newborn white colt. Throughout her difficult delivery, the camel is aided by a family of shepherds, who instantly notice the mother’s rejection and make valiant efforts to warm the mother to her child. Now, all hope lies with the family’s two young boys, who must travel across the Gobi desert to find a healing musician. Will the violinist’s ritual do the trick?

The Up Series: In 1964, Michael Apted interviewed a group of 7-year-old kids in England, all from different backgrounds and with big dreams, and has tracked their lives every seven years since. Now, those kids are 49 years old, and this intriguing documentary series reveals how their individual journeys are a microcosm of Britain as a whole. You’ll see how the kids who once had goals of going to college ended up living the dream or falling by the wayside. VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: Because each volume of this series was filmed at 7 year intervals, if watched in succession, the viewer must put up with some repetition due to an introductory summary of each subjects’ past, effectively catching the viewer up to all that had come before. Nonetheless, it is a truly unique and profound series, and should be viewed like such: 7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up… and in 2012 it will be followed by 56 Up.

Born Into Brothels: This Oscar-winning documentary is a portrait of several unforgettable children who live in Calcutta’s red-light district, where their mothers work as prostitutes. Spurred by the kids’ fascination with her camera, Zana Briski, a photographer documenting life in the brothels, decides to teach them photography. As they begin to look at and record their world through new eyes, the kids awaken to their own talents and sense of worth.

Religion…

Zeitgeist: Produced by Peter Joseph, was created as a nonprofit expression to inspire people to start looking at the world from a more critical perspective and to understand that very often things are not what the population at large think they are. IMPORTANT NOTE: The introduction, being the first ten minutes, or so, is cheesy, amateurish film making. Skip it.

Jesus Camp: This riveting Oscar-nominated documentary offers an unfiltered look at a revivalist subculture where devout Christian youngsters are being primed to deliver the fundamentalist community’s religious and political messages. Building an evangelical army of tomorrow, the Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil’s Lake, N.D., is dedicated to deepening the preteens’ spirituality and sowing the seeds of political activism as they’re exhorted to “take back America for Christ.”

Fall From Grace: For years, the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church have preached a message of intolerance and hatred, aimed at homosexuals. This compelling documentary shines a spotlight on Phelps and his followers, widely condemned as a hate group. K. Ryan Jones’s debut takes a hard look a church that claims that everything from the poor economy to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks can be tied to God’s wrath over so-called sexual deviance.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple: How could one man persuade 900 people to commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the jungles of Guyana? That man, of course, was Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones, and this film tries to answer that question by providing a portrait of the demented preacher. Using never-before-seen footage and audio accounts of two Jonestown survivors, documentarian Stanley Nelson paints a chilling picture of a social experiment gone horribly awry.

Health…

Super Size Me: On the heels of recent lawsuits against McDonald’s, director Morgan Spurlock takes a hilarious and often terrifying look at the effects of fast food on the human body. For one month, Spurlock eats nothing but McDonald’s food, ordering everything on the menu at least once and “super-sizing” his order if asked. With obesity on the rise, Spurlock’s film begs the question: Where does personal responsibility end and corporate responsibility begin?

Sicko: Michael Moore sets his sights on the plight of the uninsured in this eye-opening, Oscar-nominated documentary. In the world’s richest country, 45 million people have no health insurance, while HMOs grow in size and wealth. Moore also explores the widespread use of antidepressants and their possible link to violent behavior. With his trademark humor and confrontational style, Moore asks the difficult questions to get to the truth behind today’s health care.

Art…

Rivers and Tides: This amazing documentary from Thomas Riedelsheimer won the Golden Gate Award Grand Prize for Best Documentary at the 2003 San Francisco International Film Festival. The film follows renowned sculptor Andy Goldsworthy as he creates with ice, driftwood, bracken, leaves, stone, dirt and snow in open fields, beaches, rivers, creeks and forests. With each new creation, he carefully studies the energetic flow and transitory nature of his work.

Personality…

The Eyes Of Tammy Faye: Tammy Faye Bakker’s journey from traveling evangelist to weepy, scandal-scarred cult icon is chronicled in this tongue-in-cheek documentary from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. The film (which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival) details the affair that ended the PTL Ministry of Tammy and husband Jimmy Bakker as well as Tammy’s emergence as a hero to alternative-lifestyle communities. RuPaul Charles narrates.

Pumping Iron: In 1977, this independent documentary shone a light on the world of bodybuilding, unaware that it would launch one man’s multimillion-dollar career and forever change the face of bodybuilding and physical fitness. Starring five-time Mr. Olympia winner (and now mega-movie star) Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie follows the then 28-year-old bodybuilder as he competes for his sixth title. Includes interviews with Schwarzenegger, outtakes and more.

When We Were Kings: Legendary boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman travel to Zaire for the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight title bout in director Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary. At the time, Foreman was world champion, and Ali was supposedly past his prime. Financial and legal issues shelved the film for two decades, but this glimpse of Ali in the years after his moral opposition to U.S. military service showcases a sporting and cultural milestone.

New Age…

What the $*! Do We Know!?: The neurological processes and “quantum uncertainty” of life are explored in this film. Thrust from her mundane life into an Alice in Wonderland-like world, Amanda (Marlee Matlin) must develop a brand-new perception of the world and the people she interacts with. Interviews with various experts are interspersed throughout the film, which combines narrative, documentary and animation. IMPORTANT NOTE: This film is so poorly acted and produced it’s laughable, however the interviews and general message are invaluable.

The Secret: Believed to have been in existence for thousands of years, The Secret is only now being shared to the world. It’s supposedly what brought success to such greats as Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Andrew Carnegie. In this video, The Secret is revealed and taught by over 50 teachers, including writers, philosophers, doctors and scientists, to empower viewers to achieve success in their careers, relationships and health. IMPORTANT NOTE: This too is very poorly produced, almost to the effect of being a sappy infomercial. I also think it’s message is misdirected, putting too much effort into convincing the viewer that what should be “attracted” is superficially material in nature. All this aside, if the viewer can understand the message that lurks beneath the surface this revelation can be life changing.