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. . . .

September 20th, 2016

The Family of Man Redux

Posted by Hariman in reviews

on-display

 

“Redux” means bringing back, as if from war or exile.  The Family of Man was born into two wars: the Cold War, and a series of attacks by Roland Barthes, Alan Sekula, and others that derided its popularity, its humanism, and its vision of photograph as a public art.  The result was exile.  As part of the paradigm shift currently underway in photographic theory and practice, there now are several revisionist engagements with the exhibition, which is itself getting a permanent home.  On Display is the most recent of these re-considerations.

The links for ordering the book won’t work in this reproduction of the flyer, but you can start here.

September 1st, 2016

Announcement:  Photography and Civic Spectatorship

Posted by Lucaites in conferences & shows

Photography and Civic Spectatorship

Robert Hariman, Northwestern University and John Louis Lucaites, Indiana University
A National Communication Association Seminar
Philadelphia Marriott Downtown
November 9, 2016
9:00 AM – 5:00 PM

nyc-street

Since its inception photography has been understood as a fundamentally democratic technology, but throughout the past century it has been dogged by an iconoclastic attitude—a hermeneutics of suspicion—that has treated it as a problematic medium and mode of representation that undermines political awareness and public deliberation.  The tide seems to be slowly turning in recent years with increasing attention to the role that photography might play in animating civic imagination and engagement. This seminar explores some of the questions, assumptions, and arguments that can move scholarly and public discussions of photography beyond the older paradigm and toward more engaged civic spectatorship.  These issues include rethinking the relationship between analog and digital technologies, the role that de- and re-contextualization plays in interpreting and thinking with photographs, and the relationship between realism and imagination.  The seminar will be divided between exploring (a) a robust conception of photography as a public art in the 21st century, and (b) two topics that are central to photography’s history and critical potential: modernity and war.  Throughout the focus will be on the development of interpretive practices and ethical norms for civic spectatorship

Requirements: Applicants should submit a 250 word statement that indicates their interest in the study of visual media and spectatorship, as well as a brief description of one of their research projects that might benefit from and contribute to the themes of the seminar.  Applications should be sent as a pdf file to John Lucaites (Lucaites@indiana.edu) no later than September 16, 2016. Those selected to be in the seminar will be notified no later than October 1, 2016.  Subsequently a few common texts and images will be distributed for study prior to meeting at the convention.

Photograph by Suzanne DeChilo/New York Times.

August 18th, 2016

Killing, Seeing, and Being Seen

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

WALKER_160720_COD_19604x

Let’s get a few things straight: the fish is being tagged, not killed.  The fish is a fish, and I’m not, so I don’t know what it is seeing.  Because the fish is a cod, it will eat lots of other fish, including other cod, many of them while their hearts are still beating.  If you want sympathy, don’t expect to get it from the fish.

But does the fish nonetheless deserve sympathy–or compassion, or whatever you want to call an act of moral resonance?  And should the fact that we can see it seeing be the basis for that sympathy?  Reason would suggest otherwise, but I’m not sure I want to be so reasonable.  Not at the moment, anyway.  There is plenty of time to revert to the more utilitarian arguments for not destroying the wild fish populations, for keeping the ecosystem in balance, for sustaining resources for future generations. . . . But this photograph requires a different answer, because it is asking a different question.

That question is, why kill?  Why should we kill, or at least, why should we kill those species we can live without?  Of course we slaughter micro-organisms by the trillions, but that consideration is largely a distraction from where morality really lies: that is, where individual and collective decisions are possible.

This photograph is as good an argument for vegetarianism as I’ve seen in awhile.  First, it got to me, and that has to happen if deep cultural habits are to be changed.  Second, it got to me for reasons that are easily dismissed and yet somehow persistent.  The large eye evokes cross-species identification, as if the eye is window to the soul.  That’s a cliche, but hard to shake.  The large head, open mouth, and sagacious visage suggests a capacity for self-consciousness, even reflection; no matter that the suggestion comes from those 19th century drawings and Kitchy paintings of animals in suits or sitting around the poker table.  The gentle, supporting embrace of the technician evokes an ethic that channels every sentiment of parenting or of loving care for one’s pets–even though he holds neither child nor pet and his work is geared toward increasing the fishing quotas.

Why, we might ask, should such compromised emotional attachments prevail?  Why should this photo push me further away from eating meat?  Let me suggest that the deep structure of the image is doing important work on behalf of overcoming our moral blindness regarding other species.  The clue to what might be happening is provided by Kaja Silverman’s remarkable book, The Miracle of Analogy: The History of Photography, Part I.  Silverman suggests that photography’s genius lies not in providing direct reproductions of what is seen, but rather in disclosing the many similarities that constitute the world in its deepest sense.   Instead of thinking of reality as something prior to the image, we should consider how reality is “a vast constellation of analogies” (11) that can be brought to light through the image.

Analogies between fish and human beings, for example.  Similarities that are not so much thought as felt.  Patterns of continuity that become expressed by many and often odd means: cliches, cartoons, and comparisons with pets among them.

And if you think about that, it might become harder to kill.

Photograph by Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe.

August 10th, 2016

Citizens of Photography Research Positions

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

headshot

The Department of Anthropology at University College, London is seeking two MPhil/PhD candidates and two postdoctoral researchers to participate in an exciting project “Citizens of Photography: The Camera and the Political Imagination” co-ordinated by Professor Christopher Pinney. Participants will be required to conduct fieldwork in one of the following locations: Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Nicaragua. “Citizens of Photography” is an empirical anthropological investigation of the relationship between photographic self-representation and different societies’ understanding of what is politically possible. Prolonged ethnographic fieldwork will study how local communities use photography to represent individuals, families, and other identities and explore whether this plays a role in the manner in which people articulate their political hopes and demands.

Additional information is available here (for MPhil/PhD) and here (for postdoc).  Interested applicants are encouraged to contact Christopher Pinney at c.pinney@ucl.ac.uk for further details.

August 2nd, 2016

Why Spectators Matter: The Resolution of the Suspect

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

Kratsman:Azoulay

Radius Books, in conjunction with Harvard’s Peabody Museum Press, has released The Resolution of the Suspect, a collection of photographs by Miki Kratsman with accompanying text by Ariella Azoulay.  The work draws on decades of documentary engagement in Palestine to expose the operations and effects of the Israeli occupation.

Prepare to be disappointed: if, that is, you want to see searing moments of human drama, striking images evoking strong emotions, and compelling indictments of political leaders.  Such photographs have their place, but to show how oppression eats into the bones of all who are involved–victims and perpetrators and spectators–one has to give up drama for banality.

Aware of both the moral capacities and the limitations of texts and images, Kratsman and Azoulay refocus conventional documentary practices to explore how power shapes the act of seeing.  They expose the dominant gaze of military occupation, but more as well.  Across the terrain of power, they trace the countless gestures, silences, concessions, commitments, and sheer persistence that make up a politics of presence for those who are denied the status of citizens.  The result is a slow, disruptive look into a place where everyday life is lived–and degraded–under the twined optics of nonrecognition and surveillance.

What is most distinctive, and  perhaps astonishing, is how Kratsman and Azoulay call for the active participation of the spectator.  “Active participation here means to resist the assumption that the insecurity of the lives of those photographed is unrelated to your own status and mode of being as a citizen of a given political regime”; it  is to understand instead how “the constitution of your own citizenship is what keeps them vulnerable and exposed to disaster” (28).  Nor is this a simple scolding; instead, “We are encouraged to harness our imagination” in order to recognize how we already are being harmed by the illusions of non-participation, and how we have forgotten our right not to be complicit with the perpetrators, and how we, too, can become subject to forces of degradation and destruction.

In place of drama and strong emotional identification with the victims, we are offered a long view and photography’s “civil contract” whereby all who are governed can experience an egalitarian solidarity across the arbitrary restrictions of sovereignty.  That contract is available every time you look at a photograph.  It becomes a political resource as you allow the photo to prompt and guide your civil imagination.  Only then can you enter into what really is happening on the ground while considering what could and should be otherwise.

What you can’t do is see it all.  That incapacity is fundamental to Resolution, which offers a collection of fragments that suggest instead how low-level violence can tear, gouge, and distort reality; how it breaks continuities of trust and vision; how sharper resolution is but the ironic echo of an inchoate abyss.

That said, the book is strangely hopeful.  I’m not sure why, but perhaps the authors know that cynicism only perpetuates the status quo.  I also suspect that they believe in the spectator.  However hard it may be to believe, they believe in you.

July 15th, 2016

Into the Twilight Zone in Nice

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Again, yet again.  Another massacre in France.  This time with a truck.

Nice truck masscre

Next time perhaps with a boat or a bookstall or a suitcase. . . . As Elaine Scarry observed about torture, the use of everyday objects is designed to make all of reality terrifying, with nothing that can be trusted.  And something like that may be happening in the collective consciousness.  The politics of too many nations already is marked by too many symptoms of ethical dysfunction, and so one form of violence can resonate with all the others.  Even as the routines of containment also become more visible, more professionalized, and so obviously part of the system that is the real target of the attack.

Which may be why the photographers are on to something when they capture the strange, unreal, or uncanny aspect of the disaster.  These are not photos of emotional drama.  They could be from Invasion of the Body Snatchers or an updated Twilight Zone or any other sci fi movie.  Instead of the lifeworld being torn apart, its technocratic control system is revealed.  Instead of bodies torn apart, technicians in protective clothing and corpses under wraps, waiting to be tagged.

Nice massacre bodies

And yet, there is nothing wrong with these photos, or with the conduct of the police and other first responders.  We live in both lifeworld and system, and we need both human connection and technologies for living together as citizens in modern cities rather than as clans in small scale tyrannies.  Nonetheless the images are showing something important.

The world seems to be pitching into another reality, one that is more unreal than real, both present and still to come, and defined primarily by separation and violence, and by madness and helplessness.

A world in which everything appears as if it could be in a movie–and the wrong movie.  Out of order, disjointed, and not for creative expression or bold endeavors, but for what?  Killing, and cleaning up after the slaughter.

As violence becomes familiar, the world becomes strange, even to itself.  Action is legible, behavior is disciplined, everything is handled with skill and often with care–and yet, it’s not right.  The mood is wrong, the atmosphere stained, and something is odd about the light.  These things are not easy to say, and harder to explain, but you can feel them.  And now they can be seen.

Photographs by Eric Gaillard/Reuters.

June 29th, 2016

Fires, Floods, and Photos

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

Want to see what a wildfire leaves behind?

A freshly scorched landscape is seen in the early morning hours of June 18, 2016 at the Sherpa Fire near Santa Barbara, California. A fire in the Los Padres National Forest had expanded to two square miles (five square kilometers) by Thursday, making it the "largest since 2009" in the area, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Information Center told AFP. / AFP / DAVID MCNEW (Photo credit should read DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)

Not much.  This image of the immediate aftermath of a fire near Santa Barbara, California is disturbingly empty, almost abstract.  It could be anywhere, as whatever was there has been obliterated.  Or it could be at almost any scale: the scorched hide of an animal, or embers in a fireplace, or the surface of a dying planet.

Given global warming, “dying planet” may not be too far off the mark.  The wildfires have many causes, of course, but human behavior figures in most of them.  What would be occasional events in a “state of nature” have become more than that: signs of systemic disruption by a species too powerful for its own good.

I’ll admit that I love to stare into the embers of a controlled fire, and the photos from the wildfires can’t help but have a similar appeal.  Many of them capture the eye: the fires themselves, the planes dropping brightly colored retardants, the huge clouds of smoke, the stoical firefighters illumined by showers of sparks. . . . Images such as these appeal to experiences deep in species memory, and to myths of conquest and control.  They also can turn melancholic as one looks into the embers and sees dying dreams, empires, galaxies.  Fire is more than a great leveler: when literally scorching the earth, the future seems to have gone up in smoke.

It’s not that simple, of course, as underneath the ashes the forest is already growing anew.  But let’s not jump too quickly to visions of renewal and hope.  The fire has something else to teach us: as in the photograph above, when faced with a large fire one is pushed to scale up one’s thinking.  Fires are no respecter of persons, and their images may appeal to us because they are resolutely about collective conditions: a shared danger or common fate and the necessity of responding as a  group.  If the image of a firescape is abstract or impersonal, there is something to learn from that.

Fires move fast and unpredictably, and they can consume everything one might need to recover afterwards.  Everything except the rivers, that is.

flood aftermath photos

Floods, or the increased incidence and severity of floods, also can be due to global warming.  Even if not, they too become disasters that inundate landscapes, disrupting or destroying the lives that were there.  But there are differences as well.  Floods often develop slowly, and recede at the same pace.  They affect some but not others in the same locale: the difference of a foot can be the difference between desolation and business as usual.

There may be another difference as well.  In surveying wildfire photos, it is easy to find dozens that don’t contain people.  In surveying photos from floods–for example, from the West Virginia flooding last week–many of the images contain people and many feature them.  Again, water doesn’t kill as fire does: you can be OK while up to your waist in the middle of a flood but you wouldn’t want to be half aflame in the middle of a wildfire.  The harm done often is different as well: many possessions are damaged, not destroyed.  Many things are still in place, although rotted and covered with muck.  While fires rage, floods distend time, slowing everything down as you have to sift through the waterlogged mess, making decisions one item at a time.

Which is why the photograph above is so evocative.  She sits, as there is time to sit.  The waters have left, the sun is out, and she is laying pictures out to dry.  There is plenty of other work to do as well–note that she is sitting on what was once a fence–but this small task of conservation also is important.  Memory work, you might say, so that more than possessions will be saved from the waters’ oblivion.

Floods are collective disasters that require collective responses, but there also is something personal about them.  Even the dead bodies still are recognizable.  The task of restoration has to work through what was there before, not simply replace it.  The community has to respond as a community, but so many of the measures have to concern individual people and places, particular habits and specific concerns, and labor that will take time and then more time before enough has been done.

There is something to learn from photographs of the wildfires, and from photographs of the floods.  Not the same lessons, but they are linked in ways that might escape notice at first.  Like fire and water, you might say, or two photos that seem to have little in common, but together show us a world that is in grave danger and yet worth saving.

Photographs by David McNew/AFP/Getty Images and Sam Owens/Charleston Gazette-Mail via the Associated Press.

June 10th, 2016

When Gag Photos Are No Joke

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

As a matter of course, we just don’t do gag photos at this blog.  After all, we’re providing serious public commentary, right?  And we feature many outstanding photographs.  As the gag photo often is assumed to be the sure sign of amateurism, you wouldn’t expect to find it among the images of the week.

TOPSHOT - The Finance Minister in Brazil's interim government, Henrique Meirelles, offers a press conference in Brasilia on May 20, 2016. The new economic team of the acting President Michel Temer updated the 2016 budget deficit expectation. / AFP / EVARISTO SA (Photo credit should read EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)

And you’d be wrong.  You’d be wrong in the specific case, as with this photograph of Henrique Meirelles, the Finance Minister in Brazil’s interim government, at a press conference in Brasilia.  And wrong more generally, as one of the very best professional photographers, Elliott Erwitt, produced dozens of visual jokes very much like the one above.  In fact, this image looks like a signature Erwitt photo, but I doubt it’s even an homage.

I was tempted to write that Erwitt “had a weakness for” visual jokes; that’s how conventional discourse does our thinking for us.  It wasn’t a weakness, however, but another angle on the human condition.  Likewise, is the photograph above really of Henrique Meirelles, who I’ll bet does not have two antennae protruding from orange eyes?  If it’s not an image of the person named in the caption, what is it?

One answer might be that it is a portrait of an official.  Not a specific official, but an idea or at least a caricature of officialdom.  In that respect, it may be closer to the reality of modern finance than the idea it displaces: why continue to believe that decisions are being made primarily by prudent individuals, rather than being pushed one way or another by data flows and the abstractions that accompany them?  Does he see the material hardships of ordinary experience, or does he see instead through the optics of financial instruments?  Is he one of us, or does he represent the many levels of alienation that stand between ordinary experience and the decisions made at the top of elite institutions?

As that gap grows, it leads to more anger from below.  Growing inequity leads to reactions on both the left and the right, and to more demonstrations and other protests, and to violence.

And to more gag photos.

Orange County Sheriff's deputies take a protester into custody near the Anaheim Convention Center Wednesday, May 25, 2016, in Anaheim, Calif., after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump held a rally at the convention center. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Here the term “gag” may acquire additional meaning, although the Orange County Sheriff’s deputies may be well trained (may be; it’s possible), and the Masked Marauder seems to know the drill.

But is it a gag photo?  In one sense, no: the surreal juxtaposition of Halloween mask and riot gear is in the scene, not an optical illusion created by the camera.  But in another sense, yes: compared to the other demonstrators at the Trump rally, he probably is featured because he’s got the most unexpected costume, producing an image that most of the time would have to be created by special effects.  But in yet another sense, no: it’s not funny.  But in another sense, yes: he’s probably wearing the mask to provoke a laugh or at least something edgy enough that it’s on the edge of nervous laughter.  So, once again, we might ask, what is it?

One answer is that, similar to the image above, we are not being shown a specific demonstrator but rather an idea or at least a caricature of political unrest today.  In any case, one that is closer to the truth than what a more “unmasked” portrait of the individual would provide.  The grotesque mask (and hair) seamlessly fitted to the cameo clad bruiser suggests that we are seeing Trump’s alter ego: the surreal forces of unreason and violence that lurk below the surface of his campaign.  The many similarities with the police restraining him suggest the alignment or affinity between forces of disruption and those promoting “security” and “order” at the expense of civil society.  The fact that he probably is protesting against Trump suggests that the Left can get sucked into the same downward spiral.

Not funny, not funny at all.  Makes me want to see something light, even silly.  Maybe a dog’s head in place of its owner’s.  Just a gag, you know. . . .

Photographs by EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images and Jae C. Hong/Associated Press.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

 

May 31st, 2016

When Cotton Was King

Posted by Lucaites in visual memory

Memory32

Photographs serve many purposes, not least witnessing and memory. Here we have a photograph of a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta near the town of Money. But what is being witnessed or remembered?

You probably have never heard of Money, Mississippi, but you probably have heard of Emmett Till. An African American born in Chicago, he visited relatives in Money at the age of fourteen during the summer of 1955. While there he allegedly “flirted” with a married woman—a white, married woman—in a local grocery store. And for that “crime” he was stripped, beaten and shot in the head, his face mutilated beyond all recognition, and his bodied tied to a cotton-gin fan and deposited in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral and the now famous photograph of the disfigured Emmett Till appeared first in Jet magazine before being picked up by the mainstream media. The two perpetrators—Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam—were found “not-guilty” by an all white jury who deliberated for less than an hour in a segregated courthouse in nearby Sumner, Mississippi.

One might imagine that a contemporary photographer seeking to memorialize the lynching of Emmett Till might photograph the dilapidated grocery store—or its historical marker—where Till violated the rigid codes of the Jim Crow South, or perhaps the spot on the river where Till’s body was eventually discovered. Or maybe even the Sumner, Mississippi courthouse. Instead, Andrew Lichtenstein chose to photograph a nearby cotton field.

It is hard to know if the sun is rising or setting here, but whether you imagine that the camera is facing east or west there is no question that cotton is cast within a metaphorical timescape. The sun is either setting on cotton and hence a reminder that by the 1950s the economy that relied upon it was in full decline, or the sun is rising on it, and a reminder of the new day soon to be be ushered in by the nascent Civil Rights Movement. In either case, the photograph of a cotton field in Money, Mississippi is a poignant testament to the fact that while Bryant and Milam lynched Till and tied his body to a rusted cotton-gin fan, it was truly cotton—and the economic and social order that it animated—that killed him.

Andrew Lichtenstein, Forgotten Moments

May 24th, 2016

Seeing, Maybe, Another Bombing in Baghdad

Posted by Hariman in a second look, visualizing war

We’ve seen it before.

Iraq bombing aftermath

I’ve even posted on it before. Not exactly the same photograph, of course, but one very much like it.  Suicide bombings are on the rise in Iraq again, and so the news returns to the same crime scenes, the same wreckage, the same helplessness.  The news that, like much else that was needed to prevent the bombing, arrives too late.

Maybe that guy in the cameo is an official of some type, and maybe the state has something to do–a bit of forensic work, perhaps, and some record keeping.  To me, he looks more like the guy with the tow truck, and the only decision to be made is how he’s gonna get that metal carcass up on the flatbed.  As for the rest of those present, well, what can they do beyond what they are doing?  They mill about aimlessly, look for the odd remnant, look around to see who else is there, try to take in the scene as a whole (but what is that?), and generally rely on their presence and the passing of time to somehow bring the world that was there before back into focus.  What else would you expect?  After all, they are spectators.

Spectators like us.  Another bombing, another photo of its aftermath, another moment where you arrive too late to be reminded that there is little you can do anyway.  And what did you expect?  The photo does not make an emergency claim–there are no ambulances, no heroic first responders, no valiant citizens resolved to fight on.  Instead, we see trauma reduced to curiosity as a society, for want of any other option, returns to something like normalcy.

Nor does the photo make a call on our compassion or any other strong emotion.  Instead the scene is emotionally diffuse, even deadening.   Any dramatic actions or reactions are off stage.  In their place is stasis, inaction, banality.  The photo shows us how few options ordinary people have when living amid  violence.  The question remains, are the options any better for the person viewing the photo?

By this point, many writers would have laid the blame for any inability to do much else on the medium of photography.  We’ve been told far too often that it makes us into voyeurs or tourists and exhausts or perverts our moral sense.  That could be true, although frankly I think you are safe.  Let’s consider instead how the photo from Baghdad is doing something else.

It’s not a great photo; it may even be unusually flawed, unless you can tell me what that inchoate white column is in the middle of the main vehicle.  But that doesn’t matter.  Whatever its “quality,” the photograph is a worthwhile realist statement: first, because of how is it one of many like it, all of them keeping the war visible–and I mean the war, not the abstractions that fuel it.  Second,  it shows how large-scale forces are experienced by ordinary people: experienced, that is, as disasters and as ongoing disruptions and as events that will never make sense even as everyone becomes more or less accustomed to coping.  Third, it reminds us that spectatorship alone is an insufficient basis for an effective response to what is shown.

And I’m not just talking about the spectators in the photograph.  If photography is to confront violence, speak truth to power, or meet any other noble aspiration of the public media, it has to be linked to audiences and organizations who can act where it counts.  That may be in the legislature or the refugee camps or a thousand other places, but we have to be able to imagine doing something and then work with others to the same end.  Photographic realism works through spectatorship, but the objective is something more organized.

As far as Baghdad goes, I don’t know if any good options are available within the city or elsewhere in that country.  It may be that the photograph is disturbingly realistic, in the sense that it implies that there is no basis for those in the picture to organize themselves against the next bombing.  They seem to have nothing but the inadvertent associations of a crowd at the scene of an accident.  There are political and military organizations offstage, of course, but they are the problem, not the solution.  In a photo of the aftermath of a bombing, there may be even less to see than we had thought.

As far as the US or other countries that are or could be involved, well, we each need to look in the mirror.  The problem is not what is or is not being shown, but whether there exist any political organizations capable of doing what is needed to move from war to peace.

That said, one symptom of a lack of solidarity or political efficacy is that people acquire a habitual blindness on some topics.  Topics like war, for example.   When you’ve seen it before, and since there is nothing you can do, it’s easy not to see it again.  And then the destruction and despair are sure to continue.

Photograph byKhalid Al-Mousily/Reuters.

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