There is a place in Washington D.C. that is absolutely perfect.
It’s a tiny spot on the top step of the Lincoln Memorial, in front of a Doric column that sits between you and the 19-foot tall statue of the former President. The column’s grooves are perfect, and you can lean against it to get a shot of the Washington Monument staring back at itself in the water below.
What’s perfect about the view is that you can’t see the Capitol Building, which usually dominates the National Mall. Built on a hill, the building is huge and sprawling; no matter what you do it seems to hang over you downtown. But in that spot, the building is almost completely hidden by a stone obelisk that took 40 years to build.
I was thinking about all this while I stared at that perfect spot and that perfect scene. Its perfection is not based on an optical illusion, or that it’s an especially important place to me. The Washington Monument isn’t my favorite building in the world, but what I was thinking about while I stared at it meant something:
The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
That’s a passage from the Gettysburg Address, which is on display inside the Lincoln Memorial. I was running over that quote in my head when I realized that, in a way, Lincoln was completely wrong. If anything, the world only remembers what Lincoln said on that day in Gettysburg. Americans that can’t place Pennsylvania on a map will know the first three lines to that speech and what it meant. It is not the place, but the words that people have remembered for decades, and will probably remember forever.
Earlier in the day I went to the Newseum. With the Capitol Building looming outside I studied the history of journalism and the media and wondered what it all meant. All those words and pictures were collected by journalists intent on telling the most important stories in the history of man.
But as I looked at famous headlines and photos and saw how much things have changed, so much felt exactly the same. The stories may be different and the medium might change, but what journalists do hasn’t.
Still, it wasn’t a place stuck in time. It opened in 2007 and seems to evolve quickly. Their twitter account wished me a nice visit when I mentioned them, and they had plenty of digital media displays throughout the building. The Newseum doesn’t have any answers to the crisis newspapers face, but it didn’t shy away from the questions, either. The last edition of the Rocky Mountain News was there for all to see, leaving an open ended question along with it: what happens next?
Not everyone is a media nerd like me, but I think the idea of a story resonates with everyone. What I liked about the Newseum was that the story wasn’t told in just one way. There are differences between journalism and “the media,” but to truly understand something we need more than words. The photos, the video and the words all come together to mean something, they are all part of the package.
In a forced metaphor, that’s what blogs do, right? They add something to the discussion, whether good or bad. The media may set the talking points and do the heavy lifting, but blogs add to the stories we tell, the stories we remember. The Newseum may be a monument to the media funded by the corporate giants that control it, but the larger concept of the story still remains.
All of that was swirling in my head as I hit the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. None of it connected, but when I read through the Gettysburg Address, that excerpt struck me in a way it never had before. I have never been one for pictures; I don’t mind looking at them but hate taking them. I’d much rather see it for myself, soak it all in and remember as much as possible.
However, when I saw that speech engraved on the wall I understood why so many people love taking pictures. They are the spark, the part of a story you show people and give them a section of the tale. Pictures are never quite what you remember, but they give you the starting point to tell the rest of the story.
See what really matters, what makes photos and landscapes perfect, is not the history behind their construction or creation. It’s your stories, how you got there and who you were with and what it means to you. What really matters are the personal stories you find in an extremely public place.
People are interesting, and their stories are not meant to be the same. That’s why we travel, isn’t it? If we all got the same things from the same places, we would just read about foreign cities and countries and never leave our homes. But we crave new things, and so we wandered the planet long ago and continue to wander today.
The truth is that photo is meaningless. It’s just an obelisk and a pool of water at night. To a billion people on the other side of the world, that photo is completely new. It’s not perfect or imperfect, it is nothing.
However, to me what makes that photo perfect is not the pixels it is made of or the camera that took it. Rather, it is what was going through my head when the shutter clicked. I didn’t take that photo, I stood to the right of that perfect spot, holding a backpack and telling someone who loves taking pictures to lean against that perfect column.
I’m not one for pictures. I’m usually the one with words.