This past weekend, Susan Boyle competed in the finals of Britain’s Got Talent and came in second ultimately to the street dance troupe Diversity, despite winning the hearts of judges Piers Morgan, Amanda Holden, and Simon Cowell. Her lifelong interest in singing led up to her decision to enter the competition, leaving the tiny Scotland village of Blackburn, and fulfilling a dream nurtured by her dying mother two years ago. Along the way, her passage through the competition has drawn worldwide attention.
It was fascinating to watch the audience and judges react to her initial competitive appearance. At first, the judges were bemused when she strode on stage and announced her ambitions. As a camera quickly cut to audience reactions, eyes rolled and skepticism seemed to be the prevailing sentiment. It was clear no one was expecting a shy, middle-aged woman to be capable of being able to sing in a way that could enable her to be “as successful as” Elaine Page.
Within a few measures, her voice and evident determination changed everyone’s opinion and the performance ended with Morgan expressing astonishment and delight at her voice and the power of the effort and calling it the biggest surprise in the show’s history, and Holden decrying the cynicism that she clearly felt in the hall as Boyle strode on stage to perform, understanding that it was related directly to the Scottish singer’s appearance and age. Taking their comments and flow of narrative that has since followed at face value, Susan Boyle’s progression through the last rounds of the competition seemed remarkably like the transforming quest that is so often at the heart of fictional storytelling. It clearly had a powerful effect on the show’s ratings and drew it enormous publicity around the world. At the same time, some critics have attacked her appearance as the exploitation of a vulnerable, overwhelmed ordinary person.
Yet, ultimately, all the judges were wowed again Saturday when she performed “I Dreamed A Dream” from the musical Les Miserables, the song she also used during her audition.
Speaking as one of the judges who were clearly pulling for her to win by the show’s end, Simon Cowell said, “I am gutted for Susan but she was incredibly gracious. Susan’s come out of this very well. We’ve never had a runner-up like Susan Boyle before. She’s won over a lot of fans tonight through her graciousness. She’s a really sweet person. She has a massive future ahead of her.”
In the aftermath of the building pressure of the past seven weeks and seeing the scary consequences of instant celebrity and the pressure that goes with being in the center of a hurricane of public and media attention, I was struck by a part of one pre-final round television interview in which Susan said that she hoped her performance would prove she “wasn’t worthless and did have some value.”
It seemed like a terribly sad admission by someone whose evident passion for singing and amateur talent may have not been enough to overcome how she was being judged by others on the basis of her physical appearance and lack of sophistication. Further, the way she began to be hounded by the tabloid press and attacked by other well-known pop singers and ordinary citizens on message boards, social networks and comments attached to news articles, reminded me very much of the song “Mr Tanner” by the late Harry Chapin.
That aspect of her saga brought to mind a conversation I had with colleagues at the Southwestern Photojournalism Conference a few years back. As we talked then, I offered the opinion that the stance one employs as a photojournalist toward one’s subjects matters intensely to both subjects and audience alike. I believe visual storytelling can be often an act of affirmation, indicating that the subject and their story have value and, as such, the story being observed is worth recording, sharing and retelling with fidelity and integrity. If a photojournalist expresses a fundamental appreciation for the dignity and worth of the individual being photographed, then that person may be willing to share truths about their life that can offer lessons for others and expand the circles of wisdom and knowledge that ripple through our world.
As I watched the initial audience response to Susan Boyle in her audition on the YouTube video I saw a show premised on mocking the aspirations of unaware, naive hopefuls who didn’t see the impossibility of their dreams or the real range of their talent. Then as she turned the audience and judges by the dint of her performance, I saw the collective cynicism in the studio give way to appreciation and a kind of awe for the purity of her focus and her courage in coming out of seemingly modest circumstances to express her dream.
Hopefully, Susan’s future will end differently than the fictional Mr. Tanner’s, once she is able to stay away from the public eye for awhile and regain a sense of balance. I hope the lesson that Amanda Holden saw in those moments of the initial audition is one that can also be taken to heart by visual journalists everywhere. I think we benefit when we treat our subjects’ hopes and aspirations seriously and try to tell their stories in ways that affirm life’s possibilities and potential, rather than mindlessly feeding into the culture of personal destruction that is the end result so often of today’s media-fueled obsession with celebrity and instant fame.