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 23rd, 2014

Dismantling Modernism in Bangladesh

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Regarding the question of income inequality, JFK famously remarked that all boats rise with the tide.  But that was then.  In the global economy of the 21st century, it seems that low tide is the best some will ever see.

shipbreakers-hauling-winch-cable-890

These workers are hauling a 10,000-pound cable to a beached ship at one shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh.   The photograph is part of a story at National Geographic on The Shipbreakers, which documents the dangerous working conditions and high profit margins that are business as usual in Bangladesh’s maritime demolition industry.

These shipyards are not exactly case studies in either worker safety or environmental protection, but they are marvels of recycling.  Enormous cargo vessels are striped of everything that can be carted off, and then cut to pieces so that the steel can be rerolled.  You’ve got to admire the extent to which the market can motivate additional use of industrial waste, and generate income all along the redistribution chain as it does so.  At some point perhaps the margins are such that demolition would not be profitable, but obviously we are not there yet as business is booming.  And workers are getting poisoned, maimed, and killed.  Even if the country is better off having these jobs, it also remains poor enough that unionization is not a likely option.  Obvious questions arise about just how amoral capitalism should be.  Are we really supposed to believe that these men–and boys–couldn’t be treated better?  Data presented in the article suggest that the industry can succeed in other countries with better regulation, but for the most part the prevailing international attitude remains the same: let the worker beware.

Up to this point, this post has been following the line of the National Geographic story, and particularly its logic of documentary photography on behalf of social reform.  The photograph is their signature image for the story, and it serves the documentary purpose admirably.  But it caught my eye for other reasons as well.  It is more than another image of substandard working conditions.  The image documents something else as well: the shift in modernism from a utopian to a dystopian trajectory.

To see what I mean, think back to the many images we have seen of ships, buildings, and other marvels of modern technology.  There are at least three characteristics of most of those images that are pertinent here: the technological marvels are displayed when they are new, and as  engines of progress, and as if they are controlled by their designers and operators.  There are exceptions to this optic, of course, but these are examples of the occasional mishap–the ship that ran aground or the plane covered with fire retardant foam because it went off the runway–not metaphors of a global distribution of wealth and poverty.

Now look at the photograph again.  The ships are old, beached, and yet looming over the workers below.  Even in their decrepitude, they seem to be the masters, and the men on the chain gang their slaves.  That would be a mystification, of course, but it points toward another form of invisibility: the owners of the yard, who are the masters, are not seen here (or in any of the photographs in the story, which were taken despite the company’s ban on photography.)  Enough is being revealed, however: the muck that mires and tires the men, the long expanse showing the many ships and the sea that will bring many more (not the rare exception, but the new normal), and above all the sheer magnitude of the steel hulks, which clearly are worth more and objects of greater interest than the men below.

Ironically, the demolition business may be a triumph of sorts for modern economics, but the photograph reveals a larger problem.  Modern technologies and economic development are as powerful as ever, but the idea that progress will bring prosperity to all may now be only a myth.  An idea that is being dismantled day by day–and if not in your neighborhood, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Photograph by Mike Hettwer/National Geographic.

April 21st, 2014

Seeing With Our Feet

Posted by Lucaites in boots and hands

Boston Strong2014-04-20 at 8.59.57 PM

Hopkinton is a lazy New England town in Massachusetts’s Middlesex County, population approximately 2,500 residents.  It features an annual Polyarts Festival, as well as a Fourth of July celebration that includes most of the locals, and a summer concert series in the town commons.  It also happens to be approximately 26.2 miles from Boylston St., Boston and so this morning—as on the third Monday of every April, a day also designated in Massachusetts, Maine, and Wisconsin as “Patriot’s Day” in commemoration of the Battles of Lexington and Concord—it will host approximately 36,000 runners from around the world prepared to compete in the 118th running of the Boston Marathon. Of course this is no ordinary running of the race, as it comes on the one year anniversary of last year’s tragic bombing at the finish line that killed 3 and injured 264 more, some quite seriously as indicated by the photograph above which shows one of the survivors participating in a Relay that traversed the course of the Boston Marathon this past week in an effort to raise money for children in need of prosthetic limbs

Photographs index an objective reality, and there is no getting around the painful and horrible experience of losing one’s leg in a terrorist attack.  Photographs do more than mark objective realities or the most literal of truths, however, and can also activate the imagination, inviting the viewer to see the world differently or anew.  Sometimes that is done by invoking a perspective by incongruity as when, for example, a photograph takes the view of a non-human animal appearing to pass judgment on its human counterparts.  Or at other times it can occur when a photograph emphasizes incidental features of everyday life that turn out to be quite significant. And there are many other possibilities as well.  One increasingly common visual convention relies on the trope of synecdoche, substituting the part for the whole (or visa versa), and thus inviting the viewer to imagine a scene as a matter of scale.  Think, in particular, for how the face becomes the representation of a whole body, or the individual can stand in for the collective.

The photograph above is a case in point, as it reduces a collective of individuals to their feet—and more, to the shoes that they are wearing.  The ersatz patriotism displayed on the shoes in the foreground and worn by the most obvious of victims is pronounced, and so we cannot not ignore it, but it should also be noted that no one else seems to have coded their footwear with their politics, or at least not so explicitly and boldly.  And indeed, the longer you gaze at the photograph the more it becomes clear that the shoes in the foreground call attention to themselves precisely because they are so pronouncedly performative.  Appearing to stand at attention, they indicate the (undoubtedly justified) pride and motivation of the person wearing them, but it is the distinct, multi-colored shoes—all running shoes to be sure—of everyone else that define the collectively that has congregated.  And note how they all appear to be moving in different directions and yet don’t seem to get in the way of one another. They are something of a community, perhaps all committed to the mantra of “Boston Strong,” but they are also not driven by an overwhelming stylistic uniformity that demands anything like a stultifying unity.

What are we to make of that?  If all we see here are a set of feet, there might be little to say.  But if we stand back for a moment and see with the feet then we can acknowledge how the photograph activates a traditional way of thinking about politics—the body politic—as it has been adapted to the conditions of public representation: the body politic appears to be fragmented rather than totalizing, realistic rather than idealized, and provisional rather than essentialist.  Put differently, in its fragmented, dismembered form we are seeing a body politic that is no longer whole yet still quite active. Perhaps this part-for-whole image of the bodily fragment signifies the distributed body of modern social organization, and in particular the pluralistic body of modern civil society.  “Boston Strong” may be an effective rallying cry, but it is the rhetoric of bodily experience that here eschews facial recognition and ultimately finesses one of the primary problems of contemporary society, i.e., the problem of the inclusion of difference.  Note in particular how even the affective presence of the prosthesis and its “stand at attention” pose that mimics so many photographs of wounded soldiers, is ultimately mitigated by the overall scene of the image as such difference itself is elided and ultimately accepted as one part of the community.  Perhaps this is what “Boston Strong” is all about.

The standard convention in photography is to focus on people’s faces, or of people looking at one another and communicating with one another. And yet even these common and standard conventions of photographic representation rely on photography’s inherent fragmentation of perception, always only showing a sluice of what there is to see.  Photographs of fragmented and disembodied feet, such as the image above, are not as rare as you might think, although I doubt you will find very many of them in your family photo album; when they do appear, however, they often function imaginatively to disrupt our most common and taken for granted ways of looking at the world.  And if we are willing to see with such images they just might serve to help us to reflect on how the ways in which we see and are seen as citizens are fundamentally and characteristically plagued by problems of fragmentation, separation, and the pathos of communication.  And maybe, sometimes, they might even help us to imagine new and different futures, as say a world in which community is not reduced to unity.

Credit:  Bryan Snyder/Reuters (Note:  For a fuller consideration of our take on the convention of photographing hands and feet see “Hands and Feet: Photojournalism, the Fragmented Body Politic and Collective Memory” in Journalism and Memory, ed. by Barbie Zelizer and Keren Tenenboim-Weinblatt.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.  131-47.)

April 20th, 2014

Sight Gag: Ready, Aim … Click

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Camera gun

Credit: Anon (With Thanks to Saul Kutnicki)

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 18th, 2014

Conference on the Visual Culture of the News

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

Timby_Fig1_newsstand

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

Screen shot 2014-04-06 at 12.50.21 PM

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

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