Truth or Art: Integrity in the Portrayal of Culture Discussed in Katie Ives’s "Sharp End"
The dilemma of aesthetic versus truth
The works of authors depicting the first ascent of the tallest peak in the world in the early 1900s “reflect[ed] dreams of hidden other worlds or vertical wastelands." After all, these writers were storytellers, seeking a story that would captivate worldly audiences. They did not lie, nor transcribe the events in a malicious manner, but their search for the twist that would set their story apart from the rest left a hole in the truth. In the essay “Sharp End,” published in the magazine The Alpinist, Katie Ives follows Tibetan local and author of We Tibetans, Lhamo, and with the accompaniment of Ethan Welty’s photography, illustrates the tradeoff between an honest portrait of foreign culture for a more interesting story.
Ives's records the reaction of a local Tibetan to the outside perspective of her home village, illuminating the juxtaposition of her culture to the one that was formed through the manipulation of foreign journalists. In those first works that brought the landscape of Tibet to the people back in the west, the land was described as a “desert of ice and snow." Afraid that the “green meadows of summer” would take from the grueling image that was necessary to depict these explorers harsh journeys, those facts were neglected altogether. The presence of the sherpas, described as an “equation of lord and manservant," would take away from the heroic, never-before-seen feet of the western explorer. The need to fish the story from the vast landscape of nuance quickly turned a writer's trope into a western lens, through which the story was retold. When the author searched for “what of the strange can be written about it... you get a strange picture" of the subject in question. Without necessarily lying, the lens’s selective capture failed to reflect the truth.
In Ethan Welty’s photograph that heads this article, the clever use of a long exposure and careful framing of Mt. Everest describes the fallacy of the western understanding of Tibetan culture, that arose from the stories around the first ascent of Everest. Utilizing the camera’s interpretation of movement through a slow shutter speed, traditional Tibetan prayer flags become a dominant but unclear foreground element. The vibrant colors work to frame the mountain, which stands heroic in the soft light of a Tibetan golden hour. Becoming a symbol of the culture, Ethan Welty manipulates the clarity of the flags, throwing them into a blur, illustrating how foreign writers had obscured the reality of the locals' culture in an attempt to more clearly frame the mountain in a context that would develop its character as a more daunting and foreboding figure. The use of photography turns the article inward. Despite its main focus surrounding events that circulated in the 90s, the image assists the work by illustrating the ease by which the medium they are working with can become manipulated enough to force a story, as opposed to illuminating one.
This essay by Ives becomes a warning for those in her field. With its reflexive nature, discussing the flaws of the types of institutions in which the magazine resides, it becomes a call to action of sorts. It reminds the creatively-inspired and adventure-inclined author that prose must sit backseat to the truth, when journalistic integrity, and more importantly the integrity of the subject, are at stake.
Ives, Katie. “Sharp End” Alpinist August 2015. alpinist.com Digital. http://www.alpinist.com /doc/ALP51/11-sharp-end-katie-ives