The Stories We Tell

People love telling stories.  We’ve built a centuries old industry on it.  But this week I’ve been struck by the stories I’ve heard where things are unclear, someone puts a spin on it, and that becomes the story that everyone runs with.

The biggest one that’s been running around the last few days was the photograph of “The Kissing Couple.”  For those unfamiliar, Vancouver, British Columbia, broke out in riots a few days ago after the loss of the Stanley Cup.  People were burning, looting, pillaging and just basically going batshit crazy. This kind of blows my mind because Vancouver is like ultra-laid back. But hockey can make people lose their minds.  So among the rioting, the police came out, as did the news crews and one intrepid photographer took a picture that has been blowing up the internet.

The Vancouver Kissing Couple, from Getty Images

In the picture you see a riot cop with his baton and shield, a line of other folks in the far background, and smack in the middle is a man on the ground, holding a woman lying there.  The photographer didn’t realize what all was transpiring around him.  He just shot everything he could find and took the pics back to the paper to look at them with for the following morning’s print run.  It was there in the editing room that the photographer and the editor talked about what they both were looking at in the picture.  The photographer at first thought that the woman had been injured, but the editor said that they were kissing.

“I just saw these two people and I thought they were hurt … I didn’t really know what I got until the editor pointed it out,” he said.

And that’s where everything went haywire.  See, news editors know that everyone loves a good story.  That’s their job.  So they spun a story of the “kissing couple” photograph and it hit the internet.  And then EVERYONE saw it. Including other people who were there, and eventually the couple themselves.  As it turns out there may have actually been a kiss, but the woman was in fact on the ground because she was injured in the riot.

I love Kat Hannaford’s take on it at Gizmodo entitled “How Photos Lie.” But the problem with that title is that it’s not the photo that’s lying, it’s the story that was told based on the interpretation of the evidence second or third hand.  And is it a lie, per se?  I believe that this editor truly believed that he had some weird gem and that the story he was telling about the picture made sense to him.  He probably totally believed that this couple was just making out right there among the shields and the tear gas.

We tell ourselves these sorts of stories all the time when we don’t understand things objectively.  The story fills a need to explain the unexplainable. To wrap a narrative into something devoid of narrative brings it to life.  And we have told ourselves these sorts of stories for as long as stories have been told.  Constellations are stars that have nothing more in common with each other than their brightness and visual proximity to each other.  But we crafted shapes in the stars and told stories about these shapes as heroes and demigods.  When we first had a telescope powerful enough to see to Mars the observers noted lines on the surface of the planet.  So a narrative was crafted of “canals”, which to some signified that civilization existed on Mars.  This led to all sorts of speculative fiction of what race of creatures may live on Mars and would they militantly try to destroy us?

I don’t think that telling stories is a bad thing.  Stories are an inextricable part of us.  We need them to put things into perspective.  Objective data can only go so far, and sometimes we need to feel the data in a way that resonates with us as humans.  The problem comes when we need to reconcile objective reality with the story we have created.  As the photographer and his editor are finding out, reality is harsh for story tellers. Especially now when the story and the data hit the entire world at once, and can be disputed, contemplated, juxtaposed and verified in less than 24 hours.

And in honor of some delicious story telling, though in this case some total bald-faced lies, I leave you with a link to one of the most hilarious trademark dispute trials I have ever read about (though admittedly I have read probably only a few).  Over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun (a video game blog) they have the story of trademark litigant Tim Langdell who has been working this tired old dog of a case through the courts in England claiming that he owns the patent trademark on the use of the word “Edge” in video games forever.  The story of his pile of lies and manufactured evidence is so egregious that it deserves being read.