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. . . .

March 6th, 2015

Paper Call: Viscom 2015

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

29th Annual Visual Communication Conference

Cannon Beach Viscom
Tolavana Inn, Cannon Beach, Oregon

 June 24-28, 2015

The organizers of the 29th Annual Visual Communication Conference invite faculty and students to submit research and creative presentations from the varied and emergent field of visual communication. Topics may include, but are not limited to, graphic design, visual aesthetics, visual rhetoric, semiotics, still and motion photography, documentary and feature films, visual literacy, visual ethics, multimedia and new communication technologies, visual culture, and pedagogy in visual communication. While the range of topics and presentation modes is varied, authors and creators of all accepted submissions must present their work in a visual way.  In addition, video presentations of research will be considered creative work and reserved for the “creative work sessions.”

VisCom brings together a community of visual communication scholars and creative practitioners passionate about the visual. It is a plenary conference where everyone presents to everyone, and presenters are encouraged to stay for the entire time. The sessions take place in a visually stimulating environment with an afternoon off to enjoy the scenery. Works-in-progress are welcome and presenters can anticipate an environment that encourages lively discussion and helpful feedback. Finished papers are encouraged. The conference organizers will accept only one submission per person.

Additional information is here.  The submission deadline is March 15, 2015.

March 4th, 2015

When War Is a Memory That Won’t Go Away

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Those who romanticize war tell us that it is eternal.  The long, grey line; the camp fires glowing on the plain; the roar of battle, the loneliness of command–these and other verities are found in every era and clime.  The weapons change, but war offers the same terrors, the same fraternity no others can understand, and the same hard truths about the human condition.  There always has been war, there always will be war, and only fools think otherwise.  Thus, the full honor due to those in battle today can be paid only by placing their memorial within the unbroken continuity and epic scale of myth.

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This photograph from the Ukraine might seem to be a step in that direction.  Taken only weeks ago, the cold, desolate steppe, abandoned, ruined weaponry, and grey scale tonality suggest that we are in World War II.  The distant line of trees could have been there then, the metal tower looks like it could have been on a Soviet era propaganda poster, and few of us know enough about tank designs to see much difference there.  This war, that war, any war. . . . The photo’s allusion to the past amplifies what is otherwise but a private catastrophe already lost to history.  By setting this war within that war, now a ghostly presence like the fog in the background, the specific wreckage becomes part of a much larger tragedy.

What the photograph does not do, however, is romanticize war.  It does not suggest that this war was inevitable or that character will be forged and tested or that valor will triumph.  Instead of being a lesson in the need for constant vigilance, the photo cuts through the fog of romanticism to suggest that the result in any case is the same: more waste, loss, and oblivion that will lead only to another cycle of violence.  War seems less like mythic ground, and more like a bad memory that just won’t go away.

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Or for those still living in the war zone, a nightmare that persists after you wake up.  This very different scene is another repetition of the same.  Now the civic infrastructure supplies the wreckage, while the donkey carts take us back to another time long before tanks and airstrikes.  This neighborhood in Gaza City is in ruins, and feels more empty for that than the open field in the first photo.  This is another scene from Rubble World, which is the home front of our time.

Once again, the photograph places one war within prior wars: here we can see the line go through the bombed cities of WW II all that way back to the Roman occupation of Palestine.  This war, that war, any war.  The armies wreak their havoc, and those still alive struggle to live among the ruins, and perhaps history will be kind enough to rebuild again before another onslaught.  Whatever the outcome, it remains very clear that there is no glory here, and never was, and never will be unless enough people can discover the heroism of peacemaking.

Two photos, two wars, and something more.  Each image has respected the dignity of its subject, without allowing that respect to be hijacked–as it so often is–by the romance of war.

The problem with war is not that it is eternal, but that it is persistent.  Like a traumatic memory, it haunts us, often to pull entire societies backwards into a time of darkness and agony.  At least now perhaps we can begin to see that memory for what it is: the door though which war enters the future, where it will be waiting for our arrival.

Photographs by Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images and Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

March 2nd, 2015

Fifty Shades of Contemporary War

Posted by Lucaites in Uncategorized

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The photographic record of the ruins of contemporary war are everywhere to be seen. Buildings once cast as monuments to modernization destroyed in the blink of an eye, homes completely devastated as if hit by a tornado, dead bodies strewn amongst the debris of what was once thought to be civilization, and much, much more. We have written about it previously under the sign of “rubble world” (here in 2008 and here in 2012).” And truth to tell, even now in 2015 it doesn’t seem like it is getting much better.

The photograph above is from Debaltseve in the Ukraine. According to the caption “an elderly woman collects water from a puddle” and then goes on to detail the “particularly intense” fighting that is going on in and around the city. Of course the fighting is not immediately present in the photograph, but what we see might be more demoralizing for that very fact as what we are witnessing is not the death of individuals (which is tragic enough and in its own right) or the demolition of buildings (which can and in all likelihood will be rebuilt by whatever regime takes over), but the utter destruction of civil society. The surrounding buildings mark a modern society, as does the road on which the woman stands; but for all of that she apparently has no water running in her home and so she is reduced to scooping what she can from the ice melting on the street. The garbage strewn around her makes it clear that this is not without its risks, but the will to survive is strong and one cannot live without water; so she does what she can. And when winter gives way to spring and summer and the ice is gone, who knows what she will do.

War’s horrors and tragedy comes in many shades, but as this photograph testifies its effects ripple throughout a society at the most fundamental levels, their most devastating effects implicated by the day-to-day demands on subsistence that stand as a constant challenge to the human spirit and make it hard to imagine the reconstruction of a vibrant and colorful society. The color cast of the scene in this photograph is grey and dreary, and it seems to offer little hope for the future—indeed, multiple shades of grey give little respite, but then this isn’t a movie in a fictional world.  That said, what the photograph may well be showing us is the future—or at least one possible future—that could well test the limits of human resilience.

Photo Credit: Sergey Polezhaka/Reuters

 

March 1st, 2015

Sight Gag: Majority Ruse

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

clownCOL

Credit: Stuart Carlson

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.

February 27th, 2015

Paper Call: Sixth International Conference on the Image

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

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

We put this up before, but the deadline was extended and now is very close again: March 5, 2015.

Conference information is here.  Instructions on submission begin here.

February 25th, 2015

The Face of Battle in the Ukraine

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Ukranian POWs

One of the myths of modern journalism is that essence of war is found in the heat of battle.  On this premise photographers risk their lives to get as close as possible to the action, while pundits and propagandists alike remind us that no one but the soldier can ever understand the experience of actually being there–an experience that can never be communicated to those who are only spectators.

These conventional beliefs represent important truths about both war and representation, but they are seriously misleading as well.  War is far more than battle, from the extensive organization that is required to project power and hold territory, to the thousand ways that it disrupts, distorts, corrupts, and shatters entire worlds.  In seeing battle–if that really can be seen–you would see how war is fought, up close and terrible, but you would not be seeing all that war is and does.

Professionals and the public have reason to complain about censorship, embedding protocols, and other restrictions on media coverage, but these issues also reinforce the sacralization of combat while distracting attention from its consequences.  In fact, photojournalists are teaching the public how to visualize war, and not as a scene of singular intensity, but rather as a condition-one might say a catastrophe–that can slowly engulf all of society.  As they do so, they also reveal how war’s predations expose the deep vulnerabilities in the human condition.

So look carefully at the face of battle as we have it in the photograph above.  These Ukrainian prisoners of war are the lucky ones: they are still alive, still able to walk on their own, and on their way back to their own territory as part of a prisoner exchange.  That’s the good news.  For the rest, it seems evident that they have been beaten–and cold, sick, humiliated, and afraid, and probably poorly equipped and poorly trained, and otherwise sacrificed one way or another.  Of course, I’m reading in some of what I already know about their situation, but the picture does prompt that reading.  From the bad eye to the fact that an experienced fighter (note how the nose had been broken previously) has been disarmed to the fact that army includes an middle-aged man in civilian clothes: these are the signs of systematic impovrishments.  (You can see more of the same at this slide show.)

The photograph could almost be an allegorical painting, with each of the figures an older version of the same man. There we see a younger man’s sense of personal misery, followed by the more reflective endurance of middle age, giving way to the renewed sense of shock and terror as the elder man confronts mortality itself.  Set against the black background, they become figures of humanity rather than of any specific event or circumstance.  The photo still exposes telling details of the dire condition of the Ukrainian army, but it exposes more fundamental weaknesses as well.  Not that we will all age and die (some won’t: they will die young), but that war is relentless in its ability to find ways to make people suffer.  The suffering of war goes far beyond the terror of battle, not least because it brings everyone closer to deprivation.  That may be its real advantage after all: no matter how far from the battlefield, everyone lives not far from their own frailty.

“The face of battle” alludes to the fine book by John Keegan having that title.  Keegan argued that those who conducted wars needed to understand how warfare was determined by the vernacular conditions and experiences of the battlefield, which could go unrecognized or undervalued in the strategic calculations of the commanders.  That would seem to be another argument for getting close to the action, but it has other uses as well.  In this case, the face of battle is to be found in both victory and defeat, and the particularities of failure may be the better basis for bringing distant audiences to understand or care about the specific situation.

There is another sense to seeing these faces of battle.  As Emmanuel Levinas has said, the face creates the most direct ethical encounter with the other: it presents the most basic sense of human alterity and vulnerability through the experience of another self, with the inescapable implication that “thou shalt not kill.”  They are as we are, caught between suffering and death, irrevocably apart and profoundly dependent, and capable of being called to life only through their association with others not like them.  As Judith Butler says, this encounter is at bottom a “wordless vocalization of suffering” that calls to us more deeply than can be communicated directly  (Precarious Life, p. 134).  So once again we are at the limits of representation, but with a difference.  Now the gap is not between acting and watching or experience and abstraction.  Instead, we recognize the profound difference between any two human beings, and how that gap both motivates murder and demands that we not kill.

Wise counselors will say war is a stern teacher, but how often do they reconsider what it has to teach?  Look again at the photograph and ask yourself what can be learned from that sad retreat.  Perhaps one reason people long for scenes of battle is that it is harder to face war as it really is.

Photograph by a stringer for Reuters, near Zholobok, Ukraine, February 21, 2015.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

February 23rd, 2015

The Deep Freeze and its Coincidental Other

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe

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In case you missed it, the weather has been in the news a good bit this past week. The extreme cold seems to have gotten everyone’s attention and photojournalists everywhere have made a point of putting it on display (e.g., here, here, and here), illustrating both its aesthetic beauty and somewhat apocalyptic overtones: record breaking snowfall in the New England area, subzero temperatures in the southern regions, and as in the photograph above, a burning building encased in ice from the water used to tame the blaze. And yet, for all of these irregularities, my otherwise well educated next door neighbor could say (without a hint of irony): “I guess this gives the lie to global warming.”

My neighbor—as well as so many others—misses the point of global warming, which is not just about lowering the earth’s temperature and the melting of the polar ice caps (though it is very much about that), but also about effecting historically normal weather patterns so as to create radical shifts in the climate such as the irregularly severe cold and excessive moisture we are currently experiencing in large portions of the country. The irony of the above photograph is telling—perhaps even prophetic—in this regard, as it puts one possible future on display: a world where the simultaneous extremes of unregulated heat and cold will make it almost impossible for us to preserve the social and economic structures we rely upon.

But, of course, in other parts of the country the problem is not extreme cold and excessive moisture, but the very earth-cracking, dust bowl style, lack of moisture. The drought in California is ongoing and severe—“exceptional” and “extreme” are the official terms; that is somewhat old news, however,  and the news cycle is nothing if it is not driven by what is both “new” and most dramatically immediate. And so we aren’t seeing too many stories about the draught these days.  And yet, if we look carefully we will see that photographs like the one above are actually inflected by photographs such as this, which appeared in the Sacramento Bee:

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Those boots stand on 125 acres of land in the San Joaquin Valley that have gone fallow due to lack of water. And while some will argue that the drought in California is not directly caused by human induced global warming, there is also little doubt that such global warming exacerbates the effects of an otherwise extraordinary dry spell.

The point is that the deep freezer and the big drought are happening at the same time. One only has to remember to look past the most immediate representations to see it—and to consider the implications of the coincidence.

Credit: Jacqueline Larma/AP; Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee

February 16th, 2015

On The Road Again

Posted by Lucaites in a second look, visualizing war

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Your NCN guys are on the road again this week, but fortunately the World Press Photo Awards came out this past week.  We didn’t write about the winner, but we did post several times on Tyler Hicks’ second place award winning photograph for spot news (here) as well as a different version of the scene by a different photographer (here and here).  We encourage you to revisit what we had to say and how others responded … and perhaps also to consider what distinguishes the two photographs from one another.  We will be back with our regular schedule on February 23rd.

Credit: Tyler Hicks/NYT, Stringer/Reuters

February 15th, 2015

Sight Gag: The New Math

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Bruce Plante Cartoon: The answer to Oklahoma's $600 million doll

Credit: Plante, Tulsa World

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.

February 11th, 2015

Facing The Terror of the Image in Millennium Park

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

Face Millennium Park

Terrifying, isn’t it?  A disembodied head, as if from some hideous experiment or alien communication: gargantuan, strange, yet familiar enough to be uncanny, both human and nonhuman.  Seemingly imprisoned in a mechanical frame, and yet haughty, as if in a position of command and sure to judge harshly.  The central monument in a civic plaza, yet looking more like an idol demanding sacrifice, the image radiates a dark vibe across the urban space. Looming buildings, ice-shrouded railings, bare trees, wind-driven snow, empty spaces, and stragglers in the storm–all these signs of winter’s desolation seem warm and reassuring by comparison with the aggressive presence of that digital face.

I had been trolling through the online slide shows: pictures of the day, pictures of the week, editor’s choice, carnival, fashion week, you name it.  Many were images with little news value, images obviously selected for their storefront appeal: human interest, eye candy, call it what you will.  Amidst these litanies of the same, images every one, there was nothing that stopped me to take a second look, nothing that pushed me to the edge of my comfort zone, nothing the created anything like an encounter with the medium itself.  (You can say I’ve seen too much of this stuff, and you’d be right, but it also was a slow day at the slide shows, which much of the time are archives of remarkable photojournalism.)  And then I saw the image that is the equivalent of a terrorist attack on public spectatorship.

For the record, you are looking at the Crown Fountain video sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park.  The artwork is one of two that bookend a wading pool, with the faces changing every half minute or so.  In the summer, the plaza is thronged with kids and sightseers, and you see the faces of happy strangers everywhere–including on the large video screens.  Even then, however, the sculpture is not simply a precipitant for civic amusement, for it still doubles as a work of art: always a bit uncanny, always a copy of someone and no one and everyone, always a familiar yet anonymous face that is expressive but following some impersonal logic of mechanical display.

By catching that face amidst the winter storm, the photographer was able to pull out this second sense of the artwork.  By doing it with a photograph, he made the artwork doubly reflexive: the disembodied face is now saying something about photography.  Or “saying” might not be the right verb.  It is showing us one thing, the image as image, to evoke another: the terror of the image.  As W.J.T. Mitchell has noted, every theory of imagery is likely to have a fear of imagery lurking within (What Do Pictures Want?, page 342), and the same is true of all of us with our more intuitive relationship to the image world.  Human beings, no matter how modern, project animate powers into images, and fear is an unavoidable consequence.  Indeed, a statement of Mitchell’s can double as a description of the photograph above: “Pictures are things that have been marked with all the stigmata of personhood and animation: they exhibit both physical and virtual bodies; the speak to us, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively; or they look back at us silently across a “gulf unbridged by language'” (page 30, quoting John Berger).

And so the idolatrous face stares at us across a gulf unbridged by language.  The result is a form of terror: the deep anxiety that lies within our relationship to our media technologies and images of every kind, the fear that we may be duplicated or displaced, and that we already have been so, already become images to each other and even to ourselves, strangers in a strange land.

But fear not.  You can’t see it easily in this photograph, but the challenge is there.  The face you see, even in the mirror, is the face of the other; to see the other, you have to see a face.  Here I am channeling (very roughly) Emmanuel Levinas, and especially as articulated by Judith Butler in Precarious Life (pp. 131 ff.): to see the face of the other, wherever one might find it, is to enter into the extreme vulnerability of human life, the precariousness of living with one another.  It is the beginning of an ethical relationship, and the essential condition for peace.

If Butler and Levinas were wrong, it would not be troubling to see that a face is an image.  The image seems inhuman, because a face is the face of humanity.  The image above presses the point, as it seems that that image wants to kill you.  (What do images want?  Your head.)  And no doubt there are things to fear: objectification, mechanization, and other elements of human viciousness and modern society are very real dangers, always.  (Setting them in a place known as Millennium Park is hardly reassuring: welcome to the new millennium, slave.) But let me suggest that the idol in the park doesn’t want a sacrifice.  So what might the sculpture, and the photograph, really want?

Perhaps they want what every image might want: to be seen for what it is, a face.  Perhaps our images provide opportunities to turn terror into something else, something better suited to living with others.  If we could go to school there, perhaps we wouldn’t have to go to war later.  After all, what is terror but a fear of our other self.

Photograph by Jim Young/Reuters.  Recommended reading, though having no responsibility for any errors of my own in this post: Hagi Kenaan, The Ethics of Visuality: Levinas and the Contemporary Gaze.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

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