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. . . .

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.

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

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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

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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

 

July 20th, 2014

In the Name of ‘Ole Glory

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

147884_600Credit: John Cole/Scranton Times-Tribune

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.

July 18th, 2014

Madness, Madness . . .

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

July 17, 2014.  The day started with this photograph front page above the fold at the national print edition of the New York Times.

Gaza, Tyler Hicks

The Times published a report on the image by the photographer, so they must have known that, amidst the hundreds of photographs of the Israeli assault on Gaza, this one touched something deeper that the rest.  It had moved a friend to send it to me after it appeared the night before in the digital edition, and I was torn about whether to write about it.  On the one hand, it is a work of art that confronts the viewer with more than the public wants to know, it exposes the moral obscenity on both sides of the tragedy in Gaza, it highlights the incongruity between the suffering there and the desire everywhere to live with some semblance of prosperity and hope, and it  does so by using photographic conventions that have long been ridiculed for their superficiality, sentimentality, and manipulative bad faith.  On the other hand, I didn’t want to say anything because I’m just sick with the madness of it all.

And that was before the news that came in during the afternoon.

Ukraine downed airliner

This is what is left of the Malaysia Airlines flight 17 after it was destroyed over the eastern Ukraine.  It looks like a garbage dump in hell, complete with minor functionaries overseeing the wreckage.  When coupled with the graphic tracking how all commercial flights subsequently are detouring around Ukrainian airspace, it also doubles as an image of what war does for economic development.  You can bet that the one pattern will become a model for many others.  But that is the least of it.  Look at the photograph again.  There used to be 298 people sitting in rows, minding their own business, and now they have been obliterated.

That may be why the few people wandering through the wreckage are an important part of the photograph.  They are looking, because that is all they can do.  That is all the viewers of the photo can do.  There is no possibility that the photo might impel some action that would make a difference to those now destroyed.  No one is able to reverse the flow of time, pull the incinerated flesh and shattered materials back together, bring everything back to life as it was being lived, as it should be lived.  We have arrived at a crime scene, and too late to do anything but ask why.

And not the only crime scene.  Girls are still enslaved by militias, villages terrorized by gangs, populations herded into camps. . . . Despite vast numbers of people living in relative prosperity and safety, that same world seems to be coming apart at the seams.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, if the 21st century is experimenting with forms of violence, they would be visible at the margins: in failed states and quasi-states, occupied territories and zones of anarchy. Photography is already there, documenting the texture of destruction that is unfurling around the globe.  Perhaps some day we will look back and say, “Oh, there clearly was a logic to it.”  But that will be more than hindsight, for it also will be a mistake.

Whatever is happening, it is madness.

Photographs by Tyler Hicks/New York Times and Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press.

July 16th, 2014

Collective Torture in Burma

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Burma camp Nachtwey

This photo is a beautiful affirmation of human dignity, commitment, and compassion, in a place that is the work of tyranny, betrayal, and brutality.  The two individuals are in a concentration camp in Burma/Myanmar, one of several camps holding over 100,000 Rohingya and other Buddhist ethnic minorities.  Now that aid workers, including those who could provide medical care, have been removed from the camps by the government, the condition of the internees is deteriorating badly.  Time Lightbox reports that “In June a top U.N. aid official who traveled to Rakhine said she had never before ‘witnessed [such] a level of human suffering.’”

The caption said that “Abdul Kadir, 65, who has a severe stomach ailment and malnutrition, is cared for by his wife in one of the camps.”  But she isn’t caring for him, she is comforting him.  That’s all she–or you–could do without access to the right food and medicine.  The photograph reveals just how limited our individual capacity for action usually is, and how forced deprivation makes it more meager still.  Love and a lifetime together count for a lot, but stripped of the support networks that define a normal society, all humane values can be made to look helpless.

As an aside, it’s moments like this that make me really irritated with those on both the right and the left who say that the problem then lies with those values (often empathy or compassion is the target), rather than with the forces that overpower them.  And for the same reason I now am even more disgusted with the extent to which popular entertainment peddles magical capacities for action, whether seen in steroidal superheroes or prissy British kids with magic wands.  There are no magic wands in the camps, and heroes get sick and die.

These digressions may hint at an important dimension of the photograph, placed as it is within Time’s photo essay on the persecution of the Rohingya.  This larger implication begins with how the photo captures both the nobility of and limits on caring for another human being.  That double observation alone could be used against the idea of compassion, not least as the woman’s behavior elicits a similar impulse from the very distant spectator, but that would be mistaken.  Instead, the photograph underscores how neither the cause nor the remedy of the man’s distress is a matter of individual action.  We each act individually as we are given the resources to do so; when crucial resources have been intentionally, systematically taken away by those in power, there often is little one can do to help another beyond the simplest gestures.

Let’s say it: concentration camps are a form of collective torture.  It is torture, because the withholding or food, water, and medicine while forcing people to live in squalor and do hard labor while malnourished causes constant suffering that is intended to destroy them psychologically and then in every other way as well.  The process is collective in two senses: a large group of people are being tortured at once, and they are being tortured by another group of people.  Whatever may be said about it, one cannot claim that this is the work of only “a few bad apples.”  The deprivation is the work of a government, and of a government that is having no trouble enlisting large numbers of its citizens and their religious leaders as accomplices.

While the world is fixated on Gaza, the Muslims in Burma/Myanmar bear the added trauma of being ignored or otherwise considered not worth saving.  I don’t see the Saudis or Qatar pouring money into the camps, and I don’t expect to see the American Secretary of State making a visit any time soon.  Such actions at some point would involve individual decision-makers, but they would remain powerfully collective responses.  What the photograph above shows is not only the limited scope of personal action by ordinary people, but also the moral and political scandal of their abandonment.

Photograph by James Nachtwey/Time Lightbox.

Cross-posted at Bagnewsnotes.

July 14th, 2014

Ruins, Objectivity, and Peace in the Middle

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

I had a difficult time selecting a photograph for today’s post, as everything I looked at couldn’t help but be about the bloodletting in Gaza.  The images of the day either were from that war zone or seemed to be a way to avoid thinking about it.  Since these obviously are subjective reactions, let me add that neither option seemed acceptable.  The latest escalation is producing wreckage across the board: in the streets and homes of Gaza, in Israel’s identity and reputation, and in the prospects for dialogue anywhere.  Apparently this is what the extremists on each side want, and they seem to always get what they want, don’t they?

If they live long enough, one side or the other might be able to win, to triumph, to rise to great heights as they reveal the full potential of their glorious civilization, and then if they really go the distance they could come to this:

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The photograph is from the Wells of Memory, a story in the July National Geographic magazine about a journey through back country Saudi Arabia.  The ruin is the remnant of a tomb at Madain Salih created by the Nabataeans, an ancient people who have left few traces of their once proud culture.  Ruins are object lessons, and one lesson here may be that both the Palestinians and the Israeli’s have done better than many other peoples at staying on the surface of history.  Perhaps it is better to fight than assimilate, and to persuade outsiders to fund you as you do it.  Except that the Nabataeans did all of that, too.

What strikes me about this image of a ruin is how devoid it is of melancholy.  That mood doesn’t have to accompany the fragments of ancient civilizations, but it often does and for the good reason that it has been an important resource for thoughtful reflection on the course of history and human finitude.  But something else is being offered here.  The building looks almost like a movie set: not some part of a previous whole, but rather something constructed to create an illusion of monumentality when seen from the right angle.  It looks massive, but also mobile, as if it could be moved around as needed for the shoot.  The sharp edges and strong contrasts in the lighting enhance this sense of instrumentality, as does the lone figure peering within.  This may be a matter of curiosity, not melanchony; a footnote to history, not its endlessly recurring story.

The shift away from romanticism need not stop there, however.  There can be more than one kind of ruin, as there is need for more than one type of allegory.  I’ve posted recently on how the material production of ruins is continuing, and perhaps changing, in ways we should find troubling.  Any time a photographer creates an image of a ruin, whatever the age of the object photographed, we are provided with another opportunity to think about the relationship between past, present, and future.  In that light, the achievement of this image might be that it has replaced melancholy with a sense of objectivity.  This is a stronger epistemological attitude than curiosity, and one that can offer something to those thinking about a real time tragedy.

This objectivity asks that we place the furor of the present against the full historical record, in order to recalibrate the political and moral discourses that have come to dominate a controversy.  Against the long succession of regimes in the region, against the continual mixing of cultures, much of what passes for reasoning becomes so much nonsense.  Admittedly, one response that remains is sheer Realpolitik: interstate politics provides no alternative to the struggle for survival in a state of nature, which requires the use of power and especially military force without regard for morality.  As some of us have argued elsewhere, that argument is simplistic and often self-defeating.  (For the record, that doesn’t rule out all use of power.)  In any case, one can at least consider that another lesson might be available and perhaps even pre-emptive.

Perhaps the Nabataean ruin suggests that the only time we are actually here is now.  Keynes’s observation that “in the long run, we’re all dead” applies to politics just as much as it does to economics.  For all the effort put into permanence, the record is one of continual change.  Ironically, peoples and religions can persist, but their involvement with states and other powers is not necessarily the source of that achievement, and where it does contribute it also corrupts.

The question the ruin raises, then, is whether political actors might behave better, trying to get more for their people in the short term, if they realized just how unlikely the long term was.   It’s hard to say, but I do note that the enemies of peace in the case at hand, on both sides, seem to be resolutely committed to a long view.  How much they will sacrifice for that illusion remains to be seen.

Photograph by John Stanmeyer/National Geographic.

July 13th, 2014

Sight Gag: At The Creation: Rediva

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

150494_600

Credit: Siers/Charlotte Observer

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.

July 11th, 2014

Zaatari and Urban Development in the 21st Century

Posted by Hariman in a second look

It seems the New York Times has a thing going for the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordon.  Along with regular reports, they’ve provided an interactive graphic and a multimedia feature story on camp growth.  The stories always include attention to the considerable suffering involved in getting there and living there, and to the resourcefulness of the people in adapting to their difficult circumstances.  You would never have described the reportage as upbeat, but that may be changing.  The latest report was titled “Refugee Camp Evolves as a Do-It-Yourself City,” and it was pretty clear that we may be looking at a model development–indeed, an “urban incubator” that has exciting prospects for a world with 50,000,000 refugees.

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The slide show accompanying the story is suitably banal, but this photo did a good job of capturing the deep ambivalence that I think lies beneath that narrative.  Supermarket shelving stocked to the brim with packaged foods is one of the stock images of the abundance provided by modernization.  Indeed, I never get completely past marveling at this everyday institution, which typically will stock 45.,000 products in a single store.  (As a member of the latte-drinking liberal class, I should know better than to marvel at rows upon rows of product extensions of junk food, much less making a fetish of the whole capitalist system, but I can’t help myself.  Besides, it beats poverty.)  In the photo above, the message should be pretty clear: they have it pretty good, all things considered.

OK, they do, and it sure beats being crushed in the queue for the food truck, which is what we’ve seen in too many other camps.  And I can’t help thinking that the woman behind the cart is laughing, whether at a joke or the act of being photographed, which either way would be another type of abundance.  She may simply be avoiding the camera, however, or even overcome with worry or discouragement.  Whether wanting privacy or more than that, the sense of privation is picked up bot the empty spaces behind the products lined up on the shelves.  And despite the basic conformity with supermarket design around the world, that ceiling is too low, the lighting too spotty: this is not the same as getting that high-end store in the new urbanist development near you.

And, by the way, they are refugees.  They have fled a war that is destroying the real cities where they and their families had lived, perhaps for generations.  And nothing that happens in the camp is likely to have any effect on the outcome of that war.  They are coping, but here that means dealing with effects, not causes; being resourceful, but not being able to believe in a viable future; getting by, but still dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Hence the ambivalence.  Zaatari is not a good solution to the problems that created the refugee crisis, but it may be the best option for coping with that crisis.  More to the point, there is a lot there that Jane Jacobs would like, and that therefore might be a basis for thinking about urban politics not only in the camps or the Global South but everywhere.  But I can’t believe that will address the root problem, which is that war is expanding across too many countries and displacing far too many people.

Boosterism aside, the Times article is well written and makes a very important argument.  If ordinary people are given the opportunity to turn a camp or a slum or any other disaster zone into a city, they will do that.  (Detroit, are you listening?)  Life, not merely bare life, will grow like weeds.  As cities always do, prosperity and culture will be created and shared.  The people thinking about refugee camp management are right to be valuing the achievement on the ground at Zaatari.  “A number of forward-thinking aid workers and others are looking at refugee camps as potential urban incubators, places that can grow and develop and even benefit the host countries.”

So we get to what might be a distinctive form of urban development in the 21st century.  Can host countries create new cities out of the camps that are being created by the wars that are wrecking other cities and other countries?  It’s a rotten question, but it seems to be one we need to face.

No city has to have a noble beginning, but the question of where it will end should not be taken lightly.

Photograph by Adam Ferguson/New York Times.  It turns out that I have a thing for Zaatari too.  I’ve posted on it twice before: here and here.  I wouldn’t say those posts are out of date, but the story continues to evolve.

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