NO CAPTION NEEDED
ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

April 18th, 2014

Conference on the Visual Culture of the News

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

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Getting the Picture: The Visual Culture of the News

Visual Studies Research Institute/University of Southern California

May 4-5, 2014

 Few would dispute that the news picture, whether static or moving, photographic or autographic, is one of the most ubiquitous, powerful and controversial kinds of images today and that there is a long and complex history of the news picture still to be analyzed and explained. This two-day, interdisciplinary workshop — which includes scholars in fields ranging from art history and history to English, comparative literature, and communications — seeks to classify and comprehend those pictures that are news.

Papers will be pre-circulated for all participants to read. During the workshop, speakers will briefly summarize their papers before the floor opens up for group discussion. To participate and receive access to the papers, please RSVP to vsri@usc.edu.

The conference home page is here.  You can see the program here.

April 16th, 2014

Images of Spring: Prettiness or Presence?

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

The slide shows now contain photographs of cherry blossoms, crocuses poking through the snow, and other Scenes of Spring.  The images are as predictable as the return of the season.  And perhaps just as welcome to many people.  (It snowed where I live yesterday, so I’m more than ready to see things bloom again.)  You won’t see many of those images being held up as models of Engaged Photography, however.  And that may be, if not a mistake, at least a missed opportunity.

Spring forest

This photograph is a wonderful image of spring, and we could just leave it there.  Let me use it as a case in point, however.  On the one hand, it is easy to disparage the image: It is merely pretty and so caters to “aesthetic consumerism”; it is a brief glance at a distant place seen without commitment, and so a form of “tourism” that sets up “a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world”; instead of bringing us closer to the world, it “anesthetizes” us to the real feelings of direct experience and contributes to “a depleted sense of reality”; instead of prompting artistic engagement or thoughtful reflection, it makes “distinctive and vivid artifacts out of cliches” and is “the most irresistible form of mental pollution.”  (If you guessed that all of the quotations came from Susan Sontag, you would be right.)

On the other hand, that’s not exactly a generous attitude toward either the medium of photography or the world it depicts.  Frankly, those are not the first trees or flowers that I’ve seen, so claims about a glancing encounter need to be recalibrated against the shared experience of a common world that is part of the context–and contribution–of photography.  And the fact that a stock image is being recycled needs to be put in the context of the cycles of nature: photographs, like flowers, may be following deep patterns of repetition but are no less remarkable or welcome for that.  And so it goes: the arguments can be dismantled, but sadly the attitude too often remains–and, we should add, is recycled as much as any other cliche.

So why don’t we take a breath and look at the photograph again?  You are looking at Bluebells carpeting a forest near Halle, south of Brussels, Belgium.  Doesn’t it elicit a sense of wonder: say, that natural beauty could be at once so delicate and so profuse?  (Philosophy begins in wonder, according to Plato.)  I think it offers something more as well: a sense of immanence, that is, of how the world is suffused with an abundant indwelling of energy, divinity, call-it-what-you-will: something that is beautiful and sustaining, a presence beyond understanding, beyond representation, that nonetheless suffuses all of reality.

Photography always can be faulted for mediating experience that could otherwise be apprehended directly.  (Philosophical arguments remain, but let the point stand in terms of relative levels of everyday experience.)  But it also can make us aware of what eludes attention precisely because it is so much a part of our experience of the world.  A sense of presence, for example.  Something that is offered to us every spring, and every time we look at a photograph.

Photograph by Yves Logghe/Associated Press.

April 14th, 2014

“… My Kingdom for a Drink of Water”

Posted by Lucaites in boots and hands, no caption needed

Water, Water, Water ...

Yes, I know, the quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard III concerns horses and not water, but then there was a time when horses were scarcer than water and at least arguably more important to survival.  Those days are gone. And we didn’t need the most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to make the point or to underscore its importance.  Such reports have been made over and again in recent years indicating that water shortages are accelerating throughout the world as patterns of industrial and agricultural usage are increasingly polluting both ground water and the water table, and consumption is outstripping renewable sources at progressively alarming rates. Nor is the problem one that is only taking place in underdeveloped regions or nations, as those living in California or West Texas can immediately and readily attest.

The photograph above is not from California or West Texas, but shows those living on the southern bank of the Yangon River in Myanmar using paint cans to collect drinking water during the annual dry season in which water shortages have led to the drying up of the reservoirs, forcing local elders to create rationing systems.  And yet, while it is not California or West Texas it is not all that difficult to imagine how it could be in the altogether near future—or perhaps one of the other 34 states that the GAO anticipates will face water shortages in the near term.  To get the point one needs to avoid focusing on the bare feet and rusted out paint cans that have been repurposed as water containers, let alone the brown skin, all of which underscore something other than a first world experience, and concentrate instead on how the photograph directs attention to the way(s) in which the need for water dominates everyday life in an otherwise visually indistinct location.  There was a time when we would look at photographs of exotic locations and imagine that “their present is our past”; what we see here, however, is the way in which water is the great leveler that perhaps predicts that their present is our future.

The photograph did not receive much attention in the national media.  I found it in a “pictures of the day” slide show at the Seattle Times nestled between images of a moving sculpture at a music festival in California and men warming themselves at a fire near the barricades at a Ukrainian security office proximate to the Russian border.  As one more sluice of life incidentally contrasting the hardships of life “there” to the fun and festivities of life “here,” it would be altogether easy to miss, or merely to glance past without paying too much attention to it. Indeed, there was a time, not so long ago, when photographs of this sort would show up in places like National Geographic where readers would be encouraged to view the “present” of indigenous people in such exotic locations as “our past,” the assumption being that one day they too can experience the progress that modernity promises; here, however, it would seem that their present is cast as “our future.”  Or more to the point, it is a future that is already present without our clear recognition of it.

What makes the photograph all the more poignant is not just the way in which it serves as a kind of foreboding prophecy, but more, as it functions as something of an allegory for how to imagine the very problem of water shortage itself.  Note how the scene underscores the necessity of performing a careful balancing act, both socially and environmentally, to make the system of water recovery work. More to the point, note in particular not just how feet and hands strain so as to maintain equipoise on the balancing beam, but also how both participants need to coordinate with the other so as to avoid disrupting the overall ecology in which each operates. Whether or not we can actually adjust our contemporary patterns of resource usage and consumption so as to effect a sustainable world is open to question. But it will take effort and strain, and surely the appeal to “balance” that makes this system appear to work is more than worth the effort; indeed, it seems altogether necessary.

The bigger point, of course, is that solutions to such problems are right before us if we are willing to see them.  And photographs such as this, however subtle or otherwise hidden within the visual landscape, can serve as a powerful optic to help us do just that.  Look.  See. Engage.

Credit:  Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

April 13th, 2014

Sight Gag: All MEN Are Created Equal

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

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Credit: Sack/Tribute

Sight Gag is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.

April 11th, 2014

West African Image Lab Workshop

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

Franck Ogou and photographer Benoit Adjovi, Cotonou, Benin, c. Resolution 2013 small

Resolutionphoto.org has announced its forthcoming Préservation du patrimoine photographique africain (3PA): West African Image Lab, which will be held in Benin, April 22-25, 2014.

The workshop will provide technical training in preventive conservation as well as open a dialogue on preservation of mid-20th-century photography in collections in Africa. It is part of a larger initiative and series of projects emphasizing creative approaches to preservation, digitization, and digital dissemination, aimed at expanding public access to African photography.

The workshop will bring together museum and archive professionals, researchers, curators, photographers, and arts activists representing photography collections in both Anglophone and Francophone Africa.  Instructors and speakers include Fatima Fall, Centre de Recherches et de Documentation du Senegal (CRDS); Debra Hess Norris, University of Delaware Department of Art Conservation; Nora Kennedy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Bertrand Lavedrine, Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation des Collections, France; Franck Ogou and Fallo Baba Keita, Ecole du Patrimoine Africain, Benin.

Resolution is a non-profit organization dedicated to photography and photography collections in Africa.  They work to preserve important photography collections for future generations, and to expand public and community access to the African photographic heritage in the present.

For more information, contact Jennifer Bajorek, Resolution (NY) 917.697.6056, jennifer@resolutionphoto.org; Erin Haney, Resolution (DC), 202.841.3842, erin@resolutionphoto.org.

Photograph from Resolutionphoto.org of curator Franck Ogou and photographer Benoit Adjovi looking at Adjovi’s negative archives in Cotonou.

 

April 9th, 2014

Alien/Icon: When The Copy Helps Us See Anew

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Imagine that there had been no Eiffel Tower, and then one day we woke up and there it was, an alien structure planted on the banks of the Seine.  Had that happened, it might have looked like this:

Eifffel Tower Fleishman

The Tower has been up for 125 years as of this March, and it surely is one of the iconic structures of the modern world.  This can be faint praise, of course, because it also marks the fact that the structure has become one of the high water marks for kitschy knock-offs, from the tiny (and not so tiny) replicas that are hawked by street vendors every ten feet at the site, to the post cards, earrings, T-shirts, ceramic plates, and other merchandise you can find all over the world, to the giant replica (with hotel and restaurant!) in Las Vegas, to–not least–the billions of photographs that have been taken of what arguably is one of the most photographed monuments in the universe.

How, then, might one take a photograph that could somehow avoid being just another copy of the image that everyone already knows all too well?  The Tower is now always already a copy of itself, something that you can never see for the first time, an image of an image of an image that extends in every direction through media space, never to return to being a unique experience.  This was the problem that photographer Lauren Fleishman faced when she set out to commemorate the monument for Time.

Well, I think that with at least this one shot, she pulled it off.  (You can see the slide show here.)  In doing so, she may have gone beyond her own intention, which was “to show what the tower means to people, both Parisians and tourists alike.”  Now, let me be clear: that is exactly the right intention, as both icons and photographs are artifacts that acquire their meaning through use, that is, through the many ways that many different people use them to make sense of their world, enjoy their free time, or do whatever else needs to be done to get through the day or the era.  The Tower means what it means to people, and if that involves wearing it on your bracelet or embracing your lover in a gush of romantic sentimentality, I won’t be the one to say it’s been done before.

But that’s not what we have been given with the photograph above.  The Tower is too distant to be romantic, too imposing to be just another copy, too self-contained to be welcoming, and altogether too strange to be a familiar landmark in the cultural landscape.  Indeed, it has almost become somewhat illegible again, which really would get you back to the moment of origin, when people saw it being erected and then completed and were by turns astonished, enraptured, or appalled.  The strange achievement of lace-like ironwork, the fearful symmetry and incredible sweep from massive structure to sheer ascension as if into flight, the sense that it somehow represents modern, industrialized civilization but without any specific reference, message, or ideal being communicated, the uncanny lack of functionality in a structure that seems the perfect synthesis of form and function. . . . These and other features of the artwork will infuse in some small degree every encounter with the Tower, no matter how cliched, but here they are brought to the fore again, as if we were seeing it for the first time.

What is most important here, I think, is that “seeing it for the first time” requires seeing how it eludes comprehension, how its purpose is not obvious, how this most obviously constructed thing nonetheless appears to not be the work of human enterprise.  As much as modern culture elevates artistic creativity about mere functional values, we don’t like to think of ourselves as erecting monuments to meaninglessness.  And yet that is the beauty of this photograph: the city has all but disappeared, the monument towers above the few boats moored along the riverbank, and that gorgeous sky extends outward, as if for another civilization to arrive and inspect the ruins.

Icons provide familiar beacons for navigating the human world.  I suspect that one reason familiarity is so important is that we want to forget that we are the alien species.  That the human world is a built environment which is essentially meaningless on any other terms but our own.  That we make things meaningful both through invention and through endless copying.  That to understand humanity, we need to become strange to ourselves.  Such are the lessons that might be learned when a copy makes us see anew.

Photograph by Lauren Fleishman/Time.

April 7th, 2014

Seeing and Being Seen Through the Eyes of Anja Niedringhaus: In Memorium

Posted by Lucaites in the visual public

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I was saddened—and more, really, thoroughly distressed—to learn of the tragic death of photojournalist Anja Niedringhuas in Afghanistan’s Khost Province, murdered by a rogue Afghan police officer as she was preparing to photograph the upcoming elections in that country.  Her photography was a testament to what photojournalism at its best enables, which is not simply an objective view of the world, but a complex realism that acknowledges its reliance on a  capacious sense of imagination.  “Imagination” is not mere fancy—the mind at play with things it already knows—but rather a way of extraordinary seeing that allows us to project our sight beyond the horizon of ordinary observation or conventional belief.  Put differently, the photograph is always an indexical imitation of some part of  reality, but also a way of seeing that reality more extensively, whether as through the lens of a microscope or a telescope.

The photograph above is in many ways emblematic of Anja Niedringhaus’s considerable archive of photographs (e.g., see here, here, and here) from Afghanistan.  What makes it interesting for me is precisely how it puts seeing and being seen in tension with one another.  On the one hand we have a child playing as if she were an adult (no different in this regard than a young girl in the US trying to walk in her mother’s high heeled shoes), and thus being seen, and at the same time underscoring what it might mean to see from that perspective, one’s sight obscured by the screen that alters what can be seen. And indeed, the photograph shows the young girl adapting to the change in perspective as her hands frame what the screen in the burqa already limits and obscures.   The photograph below, shot at a separate moment in time, provides the reverse shot, focusing more on seeing than being seen.

Screen shot 2014-04-06 at 1.42.19 PM

One could make much from these two photographs about how women are seen and what they are able or allowed to see in Islamic cultures, but there is a different point I want to emphasize here as these two photographs double for how the photograph as an optical medium itself works, always and already positioning us as those who see and those who are seen. And as the two photographs above demonstrate, seeing and being seen are not altogether innocent activities (think again of the young girl walking around in her mothers shoes), but are traversed by vectors of power and colonized by societies and their institutions.  And it is when the photograph accesses its capacity to energize the imagination in this capacity that it removes us from the world of simple questions of who, what, where, when, and why—all important questions, to be sure—and helps us to see questions of relevance, resonance, and engagement.  In short, they can help to pull us out of our ordinary indifference, and perhaps to challenge—or at least acknowledge—conventional wisdom or denial.  It shows us as “seeing” and “seen” subjects.

Anja Niedringhaus was a master at employing her art—and let there be no mistake, photojournalism is a public art— to display a more nuanced realism that prodded us to see the world in extraordinary ways and thus to imagine what it might mean to associate with others—to see and to be seen—in a more humane fashion.

RIP

Photo Credit: Anya Niedringhaus/AP Photo

April 6th, 2014

Sight Gag: It’s The Real Thing

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

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Credit: Chan Lowe/South Florida Sun Sentinel

Sight Gag is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.

April 4th, 2014

Paper Call: Photojournalism and Citizen Journalism

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

DSC_0784 (798)9089080-1

“Photojournalism and Citizen Journalism: Cooperation, Collaboration, and Connectivity”

Call for Papers: Special Issue of Journalism Practice
Guest editor: Stuart Allan, Cardiff University, UK

If everyone with a smartphone can be a citizen photojournalist, who needs professional photojournalism? This rather flippant question cuts to the heart of a set of pressing issues, where an array of impassioned voices may be heard in vigorous debate.  While some voices are confidently predicting photojournalism’s impending demise as the latest casualty of internet-driven convergence, others are heralding its dramatic rebirth, pointing to the democratisation of what was once the exclusive domain of the professional by citizen journalism.  Regardless of where one is situated in relation to these stark polarities, however, it is readily apparent that photojournalism is being decisively transformed across shifting, uneven conditions for civic participation in ways that raise important questions for journalism practice.

This special issue of Journalism Practice aims to identify and critique a range of factors currently recasting photojournalism’s professional ethos, devoting particular attention to the challenges posed by the rise of citizen journalism. Possible topics to be examined may include:

• Redefining photojournalism in a digital era
• Evolving forms and practices of citizen photojournalism
• Citizen photo-reportage in war, conflict or crisis events
• Influences of social media on photojournalism
• News organisations’ use of crowdsourced imagery
• Audience perceptions of ‘professional’ versus ‘amateur’ news photography
• Ethical issues engendered by citizen witnessing
• Impact of citizen photo news sites, agencies or networks
• Innovation and experimentation in photo-based visual reportage
Prospective authors should submit an abstract of approximately 250 words by email to Stuart Allan (AllanS@cardiff.ac.uk). Following peer-review, a selection of authors will be invited to submit a full paper in accordance with the journal’s ‘Instructions for authors.’ Please note acceptance of the abstract does not guarantee publication, given that all papers will be put though the journal’s peer review process.

Timeline
Deadline for abstracts: 1 May 2014; deadline for submission of full papers: 1 September 2014. Final revised papers due: 15 January 2015. Publication: Volume 9, Number 4 (August 2015).

Guest Editor
Stuart Allan is Professor of Journalism and Communication, and Deputy Head of School (Academic), in the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, UK. His books include Citizen Witnessing: Revisioning Journalism in Times of Crisis (Polity Press, 2013) and Citizen Journalism: Global Perspectives, Volume Two (co-edited with Einar Thorsen; Peter Lang, forthcoming).

Contact
Professor Stuart Allan (AllanS@cardiff.ac.uk)
Deputy Head of School (Academic)
School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies
Bute Building, King Edward VII Avenue
Cardiff University
Cardiff, CF10 3NB
UK

Photograph by Gail Orenstin/The web 3.0 lab/Clima.

April 2nd, 2014

Humanity Among the Ruins

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

It is understood that one of the challenges, and responsibilities, of photojournalism is to capture “the decisive moment”: that instant when intention becomes action or action becomes effect to define an event and perhaps change the course of history.  This encounter with history’s eventfulness is not the only task facing either the photographer or the viewing public, however.  To note another, perhaps equally daunting responsibility, we might ask how photography can represent history’s longer, more repetitive patterns.  What happens when suffering is prolonged, destruction becomes routine, war is normalized, and searing images turn into genres of catastrophe?

Aleppo ruins 2014

This photograph from Aleppo is one answer to this predicament.  It’s another scene from Rubble World, and images of wrecked urban neighborhoods in Syria have become so common that Reuters has gathered some of them into a slide show, which also helps the public face up to what is happening.  We need to admit to the frequency and redundancy of these images.  We need to grasp that war is now business as usual for too many people, and that no photograph is likely to change that.

So what can a photograph do?  Perhaps it can show us how much is at stake, and how much already has been lost.  It may have become too easy to see wrecked concrete as another occasion for urban renewal–hey, war is a job creator, come to think of it–or to see a broken city as merely a reason for pulling up the drawbridge–well, we don’t want that to happen here–or to accept the repetitiveness of the news as a reason to pay less attention rather than become more troubled.  The photograph above challenges all of that and more.

Admittedly, this image has more aesthetic quality than some of the others in the series, but that is precisely why it is the more important political statement.  The dark ruins on either side contrast with a stream of light flowing from the hazy shaft of space in the background to the muddy sheen of grey roadway in the foreground.  It seems that one can move through this space, albeit slowly and carefully, but that there is no chance that one could live there.  And so we get to the sole figure in the middle.  He is walking through, and looking, perhaps in stunned amazement, perhaps with a specific curiosity, but slowly and carefully.  What else can he do?  What else can we do?

This emphasis on his nomadic movement and contemplative gaze is underscored by that fact that we see him as the silhouette of a human being.  No more ascriptive marker is provided: you can’t limit his identity to Freedom Fighter or Aid Worker or Resident.  Instead, he is much closer to a philosophical figure: the Existential Subject who, with his civilization in ruins and only empty space for a god, now has no choice but to consider how civilization and barbarism are two sides of the same thing.  He could be that thing, the abstract human being that usually is clothed in this or that social identity, but now–like the city itself–has been stripped down to reveal how close it always was to desolation.

The war in Syria has gone on for four years.  Add to that ten years and counting in Afghanistan, plus the “sectarian violence” (i.e., continuing warfare) in Iraq, the many wars periodically erupting across Africa, the drug wars in Latin America, . . . . If any of this is to stop, something more than another decisive moment is needed.  The pressure for peace will have to be as it always has to be: slow and wide and insistent and then more insistent.  If that is to become a decisive process, it will need habits of representation and spectatorship to match.  Fortunately, some of what is needed is already available.  The question remains, what, or who, is still missing?

Photograph by Hosam Katan/Reuters.

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