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Documents and Dreams

The story is told of an elder from a northern Cree community who, when asked in a courtroom to swear that he would tell the truth, responded: “I can’t promise to tell you the truth; I can only tell you what I know.”

The elder’s response, expressed in his native language and within the context of aboriginal knowledge (which on the personal level lays no claim to universality), has an odd resonance with the famous line by another Canadian: “The medium is the message.”

In post-industrial societies, we still process information in much the same way as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did. We have an instinctive understanding that most socially relevant information is a function of communication, which in turn is a function of relationships. All information is naturally perceived in the context of its medium. The speaker’s background and past history is as much a part of the message as the words themselves.

In the history of photography since Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, many towering personalities have told us stories in the old Indian way. They spoke on behalf of themselves and from the honesty of their own perceptions. In the 60s, at the height of narrative photography’s story telling prowess, they gave us haunting, detailed accounts of the Vietnam War.

Since that time, market forces have changed print media, diminishing the space and prominence given to narrative photography and pushing practitioners to operate within the consensus of massive media organizations rather than simply telling the stories they have witnessed. Those on whom we depend to inform us about the world are compelled to seek an overriding truth in which more and more details get omitted for the clarity of the message, and the message itself is often too simplified to satisfy our sense of reality. The message is sufficient to disturb or scare us, but not adequate to nurture rich contemplation, to produce new visions and ingenious resolutions.

As anthropologist Hugh Brody puts it: “Dreaming is the mind’s way of combining and using more information than the conscious mind can hold. It allows memory and intuition and facts to intermingle.” As social creatures, if we are to be part of a changing world, we need dreams and visions that utilize more information than the official consensus can enclose. We also need to hear about the dreams of others. We need diversity in every aspect of our social existence including alternative narratives through which we can learn about the world beyond our immediate horizon.

It was Plato’s judgment that democracy amounts to nothing more than mob rule. For those of us who do not share his dim view, there is an obligation to become aware of the world in diverse detail. If democracy is to be invigorated, if we are to engage our capacity to dream outside of what is prescribed, we have an enduring need to hear about the world through the personal voices of those who have gone out into it, speaking in the way of the Native elder: I can tell you what I know

        – Christopher Grabowski, Vancouver 2003