Rebecca Solnit on hope, failure and storytelling

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The title of this article by Rebecca Solnit is “Protest and Persist: Why Giving Up Hope Is Not An Option” but it is also about storytelling. As she puts it, “This work is always, first and last, storytelling work, or what some of my friends call ‘the battle of the story’. Building, remembering, retelling, celebrating our own stories is part of our work.” She charts various “failed” activist projects and shows how, despite failure (or sometimes, initial failure) that had important impacts in unexpected ways.

Why this photo? Partly because I don’t have very many photos on my laptop but also because we’ve been fighting the battle of the story here over the right to walk safely in winter. It’s a small thing compared to most of the stories Rebecca Solnit tells in the article, but it is about health and inclusion and clean air. It often feels as though we’ve failed but in fact we have made progress, both in practical results (at least some sidewalks are now cleared, though not the one in the photo) and in storytelling (the city has active transit as one of its goals in the latest strategic plan and schools are organising walk to school programs). We can’t take all the credit but I think all the activism did make a difference.

Pearl Ginsburg by Esther Bubley


All I know about Pearl Ginsburg is that she lived in a boarding house in Washington DC in the 1940s and that in January 1943, when this photo was taken, she had refused to have her rent raised. You can see the determination and fatigue in her face. To me, she looks attractive and intelligent; I feel we might have been friends, though maybe we would both have been too stubborn for it to last. Perhaps she worked for the government – I say that because the photographer, Esther Bubley, took other photos of young women who were government employees and lived in boarding houses. It was wartime and lots of young women had jobs and an independence that wouldn’t have been available to them a few years earlier. My sister points out that her arms were unusually hairy. Maybe women didn’t worry so much about body hair back then or maybe she just didn’t care. Anyway, I like her and I like this photo. Sometimes you come across a kindred spirit from another age, through old letters, diaries or photos, and Pearl is one of them for me.

The photo is part of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photo Collection, a project that documented the lives of ordinary Americans during the Great Depression and WWII. (There’s a fantastic webpage about this collection here.)  Esther Bubley specialized in this kind of photography and was extraordinarily good at it but when she first approached Life magazine she was told that though her photos were wonderful she didn’t have the right personality. She persevered though and had a successful career doing what she loved. She once said “Put me down with people, and it’s just overwhelming.”