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. . . .

October 22nd, 2014

Mirroring Ebola

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Health workers enter the high-risk zone as they make the morning rounds at the Bong County Ebola Treatment Unit, in Sgt. Kollie Town near Gbarnga.

The caption said, “Health workers enter the high-risk zone as they make the morning rounds at the Bong County Ebola Treatment Unit in Sgt. Kollie Town near Gbarnga, Liberia, Oct. 6, 2014.”  Good to know, but not all that is being shown.

So what is being shown?  A mirror image, but what is that?  And what’s with the visual tricks: isn’t Ebola a serious threat, and shouldn’t the press be emphasizing transparency, clarity, and accountability rather than playing with artistic techniques?  We need to know the truth, not be confused about the distinction between image and reality.  Or is this a political ruse, taken to suggest that there are more emergency personnel available than is actually the case?  Or a critical comment that the number of health care workers needs to be doubled?

Whatever the answers, it might help to ponder the fact that the photographer risked his life to create this photograph.  And once at risk, he certainly could have concentrated only on straight-forward reportage, keeping any obvious distractions out of the picture.  Yet here we have a photograph that comes with a built-in distraction: divided between a mirror image and the scene reflected, one’s gaze is pulled back and forth, never able to settle on one focal point without having the other as a peripheral vision that disturbs concentration.

Curiously, the second image is troubling precisely because it is too similar to what is being seen directly.  Just about anything else could either be disregarded or given direct attention, but the double image keeps undercutting its own validity even as it demonstrates its representational power.  Instead of demarcating reality, the image is too close for comfort, uncanny, and suggestive of a truly profound disorientation.  Which side is real?  How can we tell?  What if the mirror has been mirrored?

This discomfort is part of photography’s DNA.  Originally valued for its ability to replicate nature, the technology also has fueled anxieties about reality being displaced by an image world.  When photographers feature mirror images, they automatically make viewing reflexive, bent back to include both the subject of the photograph and its techniques of composition.  The double image reminds us that we are seeing an image rather than reality, and suggests how we can see more, not less, because of that.

The media panic about Ebola has involved massive injections of fear regarding viral replication, contagion, and the ultimate displacement of death, so perhaps an image of photographic doubling can channel or otherwise contain some of the excess emotion.  Instead of panic, the doubled image is reflective, creating a space for a slower, more meditative response.  Instead of death by contagion, we see an artificial replication that is benign and yet perhaps suited to representing the social system that develops quickly to contain the disease.

And yet, like the oscillation in the image itself, this reflective moment can’t be entirely comforting.  The scene is doubly surreal: as if hazmat suits and goggles, emergency tents and water brigades, and the transformation of extraordinary suffering into routines of risk management weren’t enough to deal with, those many dislocations of ordinary life have been doubled, replicated, cast into a space of reproduction that could extend repeatedly around the globe without every becoming a place one would want for one’s own.

You can decide how much of that picture is image, and how much is reality.

Photograph by Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times.

October 20th, 2014

A Realist Imagination (or is it An Imaginary Realism?)

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Realism and the Image

By some persistent, traditional accounts photographic representation is driven by a technological determinism that derives its power from the mechanical capture and reproduction of an event. Accordingly, the fundamental measure of a photograph is its indexicality, i.e., the photograph establishes that the thing was there to be photographed. This position has been critiqued by those who underscore the difference between analogue and digital photographs as if the question of indexicality could be reduced to measurement of a positive reality. But of course there are two problems with this that underline what seems to be a naïve and simplistic sense of “the real.” First, of course, we can never fully test the accuracy of the positive existence of the indexical reality presumably represented because every photograph is always a representation of a transient moment in the past. The best we can measure it against is human memory which, as we know, is fallible in multiple registers. Second, even the best analogue photograph offers a two dimensional representation of the scene recast which inevitably flattens the thing represented (and even stereographic representations, analogue’s predecessor to 3D digital technologies, was an illusion of two dimensional representation).  If the “real” is to mean something useful in the discourse of photography it is going to have to avoid such naiveté and offer a more complex sense of photographic realism.

I cannot offer such a theory here today, though we begin to develop such an approach in forthcoming work, but the photograph above does offer something of a gesture to what such a theory might include. Here we have a photograph of a man painting a scene which is included in the photograph. The painting has an impressionistic quality to it underscoring the role of the imagination in recasting the scene before him. But the photograph is not simply about the painting of the scene or the man doing the painting, but rather calls our attention to how his creativity is important to making sense out of the photographic event itself. In an important sense the photograph is divided between foreground and background, of the man and his painting and of the scene that his being painted. The lens is wide open and so the depth of field is wide, teasing the eye to move back and forth between the shaded areas in the foreground and the natural light that illuminates the background. And in the end it is almost impossible to settle one’s vision on one vs. the other for very long. In short the photograph implores us to reflect on the relationship between the role of realism and imagination in making sense out of what we are seeing.

We might thus call this photograph a representative anecdote for the “photograph matrix” that always and already consists of both a referential (or indexical) orientation and an imaginative orientation. Any photograph is both more or less a record of what has happened, and more or less an artistically enhanced experience, both more or less empirical, and more or less interpretive, both more or less accurate, and more or less suggestive.  The point here is that photographs –whether analogue or digital—operate in the interspace between reality and imagination. The camera records the surface of the world like no other instrument, but the truth of what is shown can be realized only through an act of imagination. Stated otherwise, the photograph is inherently not reducible to a simplistic realism, but is instead a heterogeneous object where different sources of meaning intersect, and the intersections are lodged in the formal design and explored through interpretation. How those intersections occur is the subject for another time, but for now it is enough to note the need for a complex photographic realism that is not reduced to a simple or naïve notion of indexicality and such a conception needs to think hard about the inherent– necessary–connection between the real and the imaginative.

Photo Credit: Carols Barria/Reuters (Caption: An Artist paints a picture of a pro-democracy site near government buildings in Hong Kong.)

 

October 19th, 2014

Sight Gag: What Does Equality Look Like?

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Credit: M. Wuerker

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.

 

October 17th, 2014

Paper Call: Conference on Media Materiality

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

Sixth International Conference on the Image

imagecell

Media Materiality: Towards Critical Economies of “New” Media

Clark Kerr Conference Center
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, California USA
29-30 October 2015

The conference web site is here.  The call for papers is here.  The submission deadline is November 6, 2014.

October 15th, 2014

White Swans and Photographic Seeing

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Flying swan

The caption says, “A white swan (lat. Cygnus olor) flies over the Main-Donau canal in Bamberg, Germany, 06 October 2014.”  Not that you can see the canal, or Bamberg, or the sky, or anything except the bird suspended in a black void.  Nor are the feathers pure white, which you can see in the stock photos that will pop up on Google Image.   The bird seems to have been stained by mists of oblivion, as if it were a message traveling through some fantastic system of communication in Middle Earth.  Such fantasies may be invited by the stark contrast of the lighted figure and dark background, which makes the bird seem to be a silhouette despite still being visible as a specific individual.  The image is both the literal trace of a single animal in a single moment of time, and an abstraction in some undefined cognitive space.  There once was a bird passing over a canal, and there is the Swan, a Bird, token of Nature, passing through Life, again and again and again.

Many people spend their entire lives seeing swans without ever seeing a swan.  From the preschoolers’ first picture books to Disney movies to advertising to the arts and back again, swans are not rare birds.  They are tokens of culture, not a familiar part of nature.  One might hesitate then about focusing on photography alone, but the image above does provide an object lesson in photographic seeing.  Joel Synder has pointed out that cameras don’t capture images–they make them.  The image doesn’t exist until the camera clicks.  The image above is a near-perfect demonstration of that distinction.  There never was a swan suspended against a black background; those effects were created by the camera.  In fact, a swan was flying through a night sky, but the movement has been stopped and the details of the actual optical field have been abstracted out of the picture.  And a similar transformation is true of every swan photograph that you have ever seen.  Those swans never existed in the rectangular box of the photograph; they are found there only in the image.

Of course, as we have become habituated to photography, we also become accustomed to projecting images: to imagining how photographs could be taken and how scenes are more or less photogenic.  We also become accustomed to collecting images: to filling our phones and tablets and heads with expansive vistas, glorious sunsets, and thousands of small ornaments: raindrops on a leaf, leaves on the surface of a pond, the moon reflected in the dark water.

And that’s the hell of it, according to some critics of the medium.  Most notably, Susan Sontag argued that “so successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful. . . . Photographs created the beautiful and–over generations of picture-taking–use it up.”  Perhaps that’s why we’re down to one swan.  Indeed, this “habit of photographic seeing–of looking at reality as an array of potential photographs–creates estrangement from, rather than union with, nature.”

Now that is a serious charge, and although Sontag offers no proof whatsoever, it would seem to be supported by Synder’s account of the image.  That silhouetted swan is pure culture, and although the photograph promises to bring you closer to nature, in fact you only are being brought close to an optical illusion.  The photo says, “Look, you can see a bird that you never would have seen otherwise,” but you still haven’t seen that bird as it actually moved through a material environment, much less while you were a part of that same environment.

But you have seen something, and something that was amazing, and what you would not have seen otherwise.  In that seeing, you have become part of a larger world, and one in which the most ordinary and distant and ephemeral of events–a bird flying across a canal–has acquired special significance.  Not meaning, perhaps, but significance, which may be all that we can hope for some of the time.  (Some readers may hear an echo of Walter Benjamin’s remark that Kafka “sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility.”)  Photography does transmute reality into images, but to create a common world, which now is one where a swan flies through complete darkness, like a message from a distant beacon.

Photograph by David Ebener/EPA.  Joel Synder’s argument is set out in “Picturing Vision,” Critical Inquiry 6 (1980): 499-526.  Sontag’s remarks are from On Photography, pp. 85 and 97.  Walter Benjamin’s insight is in Illuminations, p.1 44.  For an earlier post on this theme, go here.

October 13th, 2014

All The Comforts of Home

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Screenshot 2014-10-12 19.57.48 copy

I have a chair very much like this one in my living room. I sit in it when I am watching television or reading a novel or socializing with friends and family. It is really quite comfortable. Sometimes I even fall asleep in it. But there are differences. My living room is not made of cinder blocks or painted in a bland, institutional beige that matches the color of the chair and the floor and enhances the intensity of the harsh bright lights above; nor for that matter is my living room shaped as an acute triangle that doesn’t seem to be much more than 8 feet across at its base and it doesn’t have a one-way security mirror. And it should not go without mention that my legs are never shackled to the ground when I am sitting there.

 The photograph is of the “Compliant Detainee Media Room” – that is both the caption for the photograph and the actual name of the room –at Guantanamo Bay, where one of the 149 prisoners being “housed” here can watch DVDs for an hour or two if he “follows the rules.” Prisons don’t have to be fully austere or inhumane institutions – and truth to tell it would be best if they were never neither of those things – but there is something oddly perverse about this scene as it underscores the extreme contradictions between comfort and constraint that govern our detention of prisoners who have never been formally charged with a crime or granted anything even approximating the due process of law. There are legal reasons we can get away with this, of course, since Guantanamo Bay is not governed by the U.S. Constitution, but such a technicality aside it surely violates the spirit of our founding documents.

 “To comfort” is to give physical relief or sustenance, to provide support and serve as a source of strength, courage. It is fundamentally a social function. But nothing in this room is designed to do any of these things, or even anything close to them. It serves instead as a reminder of all that has been lost in the process of detention. The chair, which is designed to recline, is constrained by the feet that are shackled to the ground. The appearance of freedom is thus an illusion. All color has been removed from the world and with it something of the possibility to imagine difference. And finally, the very possibility of sociality has been effaced as there is only one chair, the only possibility for interaction with a polished mirror that displays the prisoner to himself (while knowing that others are watching his every move). The room, in short, is something of a torture chamber masquerading as a comfort station.

The contradiction between comfort and constraint is accented by a second photograph by the same photographer, captioned “Detainee Comfort Items.”

Comforts of Home Two

The photograph shows a single person detention cell. Everything is laid out in near perfect order, clothes and blankets clean and neatly folded, shoes shined, hygiene products new and unopened. The blue matt on the back wall is a mattress, and so it is pretty clear that the sleeping conditions are anything but comfortable—indeed, it is hard to imagine that the room is much more than six feet wide. But that turns out to be the least of it. And to get the point, ask yourself this question: In what world would these items—an orange jump suit, shoes, minimal hygiene products, a thin blanket and a pillow, a book—be considered comfort items?

 What we have on display is a troglodyte world. One in which comfort has been recast as a teasing reminder of one’s condition of un-freedom. It is, in short, a world of constant and continual torture. And as we noted in a post at this blog many years ago, we wonder why they hate us?

Photo Credit: Debi Cornwall

 

July 27th, 2014

NCN on Vacation

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

 

On the road

It’s time to hit the road again.   We’ll be back on August 25 October 6 October 13 (really, we promise this time).  Truth be told, the vacation has turned into a last push to get our next book to the Press on time (and we did; this last delay is for other reasons, and we’re running out of excuses).  We’ll hope that you are busy, too, but not so busy that you’ll forget to check back later in the fall.

Movie still from On the Road (2012).

July 25th, 2014

Artificial Light in Philly

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

How much can you catch in a flash of light?

portrait by Sarah Stolfa

A lot.

Artificial Light: Flash Photography in the Twentieth Century is an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through August 3.  The exhibition web page includes a slide show, along with a video interview with photographer Sara Stolfa, who took the photograph above.  You also can see a brief discussion of the show at Time Lightbox.  An intriguing review, one that connects flash artistry with the value of compassion, is provided by Ed Voves at Art Eyewitness.

July 23rd, 2014

A Second Look: Judging In Camera

Posted by Lucaites in a second look

Screen shot 2014-07-20 at 10.00.47 PM

Yes, this is the same photo featured in our Sunday postMichael Humphrey commented on that post with the accusation that it was animated by “moral idiocy” masquerading as “moral seriousness.” His argument is that publishing photographs that underscore the notion that “war is hell” don’t accomplishing anything without being accompanied by a “serious statement.”   His position is a serious one, and indeed something of a conventional piety that gets repeated often and again by any number of iconoclasts (most notably Susan Sontag) and it deserves serious response.

The iconoclastic position is simple enough: photographs can at best be only a surge of raw emotional energy that is devoid of the rational capabilities necessary for ethical relationships; this is so, as the photograph—by itself—cannot provide moral knowledge. Accordingly, the viewing public is locked into a passive spectatorship that leaves little room for anything like serious moral engagement (i.e., at its best something like compassion fatigue, at its worst, “moral idiocy masquerading as moral seriousness”). Photography maybe put to better or worse uses but remains a profoundly suspect medium of representation, indeed one that is presumably and inherently fraudulent because the image can never provide the adequate knowledge of reality that is promised.

The argument assumes that photography bears the burden of representation, which is to say that the “truth” of any photographic image is mitigated by the fact that it always offers a partial and limited view of the world—and in its most extreme forms the argument is that photographs offer little more than fantasy, deceit, and manipulation. So far so good, as any medium—not least, the spoken and written word—is subject to precisely the same limitations. The difficulty is that proponents of this position place the full burden of representation on the photograph with the assumption that its inherent inadequacies can be solved by turning to the word (i.e., “serious statement”) without recognizing that rational discourse and verbal narratives are no less subject to the exact same problem. To get the point, note how discussions of photographs often underscore the fact that we need to “know more than is shown” or that the “context” needs to be elaborated, but we never see rational or narrative reports that include serious discussion of the inadequacy of the word to fully explain a situation.

Ultimately, all media are mixed media, and the image needs the word as much as the word needs the image, so this is not an argument against “serious statement.” It is, however, an argument in favor of taking the photographic image on its own terms and to be willing to “think” with and through it. That is, not just to look at it, but to see what is being shown on its own terms and to seriously consider its implications. Mr. Humphrey quotes a Washington Post editor who is altogether blithe in conceding that “war is hell” as a simple matter of fact without being willing to interrogate its particular hellishness (as displayed in the photograph of carnage) apart from a “serious statement,” and in so doing creates the conditions for normalizing our attitudes towards war as a taken for granted assumption. What matters then are the rational causes for conflagrations and not the affective or moral implications of the body of the dead child that the photograph above forces us to stand in witness to.

Mr. Humphrey assumes a degree of “moral clarity” to the political situation in the Middle East. Maybe from his perspective it is morally clear, but I don’t quite see it. When I allow myself to think with and through the above photograph on its own terms, however, I find myself questioning the world in new and different ways as it invites consideration of what is at stake when we concede that “war is hell” and move on to other matters. Are we comfortable participating in a world that assents to the normalization of war as a taken for granted assumption and, more, one that accepts any rationale whatsoever as justification for the murder of children? Whatever the answer to these questions, the point is that the photograph invites—perhaps demands—their asking, and it such invitations/demands that coaches moral seriousness.

Photo Credit: Stringer/Reuters

 

July 21st, 2014

Judging In Camera

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

Screen shot 2014-07-20 at 10.00.47 PM

A Facebook “friend” living in Tel Aviv recently admonished analyses of Mideast politics from academics “who only know about the Mideast from their shithead blogs and cherry picked newspapers.” Scatological references aside, I was prepared to agree. The history of the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestine conflict in particular, is so fraught with local complexities that anyone who has never been part of that world—intellectually, socially, politically— would have to be either a fool or incredibly arrogant to enter the fray. And then I came across the photograph above at more than a few major news outlets, and I was literally stopped in my tracks.

Photographs of corpses are always gruesome and hard to look at, but the image of a dead child is especially hard to view; when it is the result of human volition—and in this case military ordinance—it is nearly impossible to avoid judgment. The photograph here is especially difficult to look at. The child cannot be more than six or seven years of age. Dressed for what looks to be a day at the beach, he carries all of the innocence of childhood; he should be flying kites or building sand castles, not lying face down, his body wracked and contorted by the force of the blast of the shell fired by an Israeli gunboat. Wars may be necessary, or at least inevitable, as hard as such ideas are to swallow. But one can only wonder what threat this child posed to those who chose to bombard this strip of Gaza beach.

If this were the only photograph of the only Palestinian child killed by Israeli air raids and bombings it would be enough to demand that we sit in judgment. But of course it is neither. Such images are abundant and it is not sufficient to say either that there are Israeli children who have suffered a similar fate or that Palestinians have been given “fair warning” when such bombings are about to take place. Were the photograph above of an Israeli child killed by a rocket launched indiscriminately by Hamas the demand for judgment would be no less. And to warn those locked within a narrow strip of land with no real opportunity for cover to take heed is, well, no warning at all.

But what judgment to make? There’s the rub. This photograph—as with any photograph— forces us to stand in witness, to question and to query, to see what is before our eyes and to take responsibility for what we see; in short, it calls out for our engagement if only by way of imaging the possibility of a future that is different from the past. It does not tell us what judgment to make—though it is hard to imagine the circumstance that warrants the indiscriminate killing of innocent children, regardless of the provocation—but it demands that we not sit idly by. Judge or be judged; that is the calling of such photographs.

Photo Credit: Stringer/Reuters

 

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