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 30th, 2007

Sight Gag: "DO NOT play with …"

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

communism.jpg

Our primary goal with this blog is to talk about the ways in which photojournalism contributes to a vital democratic public culture. Much of the time that means we are focusing on what purport to be more or less serious matters. But as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert often remind us, democracy needs irony, parody, and pure silliness as much as it needs serious contemplation. For our part, we will dedicate our Sunday posts to putting some of that silliness on display in what we call “sight gags,” democracy’s nod to the carnivalesque. Sometimes we will post pictures we’ve taken, or that have been contributed by others, or that we just happen to stumble across as we navigate our very visual public culture. And we won’t just be limited to photography, as a robust democratic visual culture consists of much more. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.

Credit: Rocky Davis, Illustrator

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September 28th, 2007

Death Camp: The Second Time as Irony

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

I have been troubled by this photograph since it appeared recently:

ap47405iu_israel_wome_01ezo.jpg

The photograph was taken December 20, 2006, during the final stages of a training march in southern Israel. It was circulated the week of September 17, 2007 to accompany stories about a commission report recommending that Israel’s military should allow women into front-line combat positions, including special forces.

This topic is a minefield, and I doubt I can say anything without offending some readers. The question of policy activates commitments to gender equality and the defense of Israel, as well as criticism of Israel’s security strategy and of militarism more generally. Equally important, each of these issues carries arguments about who has more or less authority to speak at all on the matter.

I have typically progressive positions on these issues, but I doubt that alone explains why I was stopped short by the photograph. I don’t just see the image alone, but two others that lie beneath it like a palimpsest. It draws its rhetorical power from one of these images, while the other raises a horrific specter that should be stated in the hope of critical reflection.

The first image to which the photo alludes is the typical shot of military troops, often special forces, deploying in full combat gear including the camouflage face paint applied for battle. We see these images in newspaper photographs, recruiting ads (Army Rangers, Navy Seals), movies and movie posters, and video games. In like manner, the woman in the front of the frame and the tall woman in the middle both are streaked with the black paint. That, along with the canteen and the caption push the viewer to see the women as combat troops in the making: trained, tough, and ready to go. If you look at the second and third women, they almost already have the thousand yard stare.

And maybe that’s what reminded me of the second image that lies latent within the photo: the image of Jewish women standing in line in a concentration camp. There actually are a number of such images; you can see one set here at the Yad Vashem web site. Look again at the photo above. Maybe you see only the gear and strong women. I see that and I also see Jewish women standing in a line, captives of the national security state.

What makes judgment so difficult in this case is that both images can be true at the same time. Israeli women are and will be everything one could ask of a special forces commando. And these women could be killed because of self-destructive state policies that are the issue not only of concerns about security but also of militarism and paranoia.

I have to add that all this is still far better than anything Hamas would do. Israel is not the reason the IDF needs women on the front lines. Israel is not where we need to worry about women being confined and denied basic civil and human rights. And as my friends who are hawks love to remind me, Israel is a vibrant democracy. This last point is exactly why I have to say what I saw in the photograph. There is reason to speak because Israel is a democracy and therefore open to public opinion, not to mention the financial, military, and political support that is provided by the US government and thus the legitimate concern of every US citizen. Perhaps I’m mad to be haunted by the image, but I believe that at times Israel, like the US, like many powerful states historically, can be dangerous to others and to its own people. Should the women in the photograph have to die in the defense of Israel, I see no basis for criticism of the report’s policy recommendation. But that defense may not be necessary, or, most important, may be more likely to occur precisely because of state policies that rely too much on military superiority and the normalization of war. Perhaps the question of Israel’s defense has nothing to do with my reaction to a photograph. It may be, however, that a photo shows more than we would like to admit about how people can become enslaved by force, even when it is of their own making.

Photograph by Oded Balilty/Associated Press.


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September 26th, 2007

"… the World is Yours!"

Posted by Lucaites in the visual public, visual memory

You don’t need to have a passport in order to be a U.S. citizen. But, as the brochure included with the new passport I recently received in the mail announced, “With Your U.S. Passport the World is Yours.” Well, sort of anyway. The first thing we learn upon opening the brochure is that this is an “Electronic Passport.” It’s not exactly an ankle bracelet, but “the information stored in the Electronic Passport can be read by special chip readers from a close distance.” One can only wonder what that last phrase might mean. The Department of State website assures us that it is “centimeters” and that the process is further secured by the latest “anti-skimming technology” (a fact that will no doubt impress every fourteen year old hacker paying attention). One less skeptical about how the current administration uses language and executive authority in the interest of national security to monitor its citizenry would probably not be paranoid, but then, as the saying goes, “just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Truth to tell, however, it was not the electronics that made this new passport stand out for me, but its visual presentation.

There is much to comment on here, not least the story of America’s “manifest destiny” that is told in monochromatic drawings and photographs on every page, captioned with quotations that extend from George Washington to John Kennedy and include scriptures from the “Golden Spike,” the Statute of Liberty, and a Mohawk “version” of a Thanksgiving Address. I will revisit this archive in the weeks ahead. Today, however, I want to take a look at the inside front cover of the passport as an allegory that contains and directs the iconography of the whole.

passport-1ab.jpg

The first thing one encounters is a lithograph of Moran Percy’s 1913 depiction of Francis Scott Key gesturing to the garrison flag flying above Fort McHenry on the morning of September 13, 1814, following a massive, twenty-five hour long bombardment by the British Navy. Two weeks earlier the British Army had ransacked and burned down portions of the White House in Washington, D.C. Defending Baltimore Harbor was vital to repulsing a full scale British invasion and the 1,000 troops garrisoned at Forth McHenry proved to be up to the task.

The script written across the image is from Key’s poem “The Defense of Fort M’Henry,” and as most schoolchildren learn, it was subsequently set to music, renamed “The Star Spangled Banner,” and finally designated as the National Anthem in 1931. All of this might seem like trivial information but for the fact that references to the flag as it “yet waves” over the “land of the free and the home of the brave” became a fairly common trope in the wake of 9/11. There is no explicit mention of the more recent aerial attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon, of course, but the linkage between past and present is activated by a complex allegorical semiotic.

To see how, begin with the letters “USA” embossed in gold and placed on the lower left corner of the page. They stand apart from the painting and the script written across it, and yet they are very much one with both, a thoroughly modern caption for what purports to be a 19th-century imagetext. Indeed, boldfaced and uniformly blocked, the three gold letters stand in stark contrast to the pen and ink scroll that cuts across the image and bleeds onto the antique, elliptical matting of the painting. The aesthetic thus marks both the differences and continuities between then and now. Then we fought to secure our place among the world of nations, a newly birthed and independent nation-state emerging out of old world Europe, just as today we assure our continued sovereignty and security in (some might say hegemony over) a globalized, late modern world, now the gold standard among nations which, as the quotation from Abraham Lincoln on the right page intones, “shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln’s words operate in several semiotic registers. First, they are written in a contemporary font and in all capital letters. They thus function aesthetically to triangulate the relationship between Key’s 19th-century script and the modern typography of the golden inscription of the “USA.” As it was then, so it is now, and so it shall always be. The point is further reinforced as we realize that the entire two pages are printed across the image of the “Star Spangled Banner,” a flag tested in battle, and punctuated beneath Lincoln’s words with the imprimatur of the national seal. The eagle looks to the olive branch of peace and not the thirteen arrows of war, but we know how quickly that can change. Thus note how Lincoln’s words from the “Gettysburg Address” situate the overall image within the traces and contours of the U.S. Civil War, another challenge in a progressive history of such battles that have tested the sovereignty and resolve of the American nation. And thus the image that announces the U.S. Citizen to foreign lands, seeking passage “without delay or hindrance,” functions less as an introduction and more as an allegorical warning: for just as “confederates” were subdued then—and here one has to think of Sherman’s scorched earth policy—so now those who threaten the nation risk the wrath and retribution of all out war and occupation.

One might need to know a fair bit in order to develop this reading, but it is all common knowledge for anyone with the rudimentary understanding of U.S. history that one gets as part of their secondary school level high school education. We might wonder then who the primary audience for all of this is? Is it the heads of state implicitly identified by the Secretary of State’s “request” to “all whom it may concern,” repeated three times in English, French, and Spanish (what happens when one travels beyond the boundaries of these three Romance languages)? Or is it the “American people” who will have been “educated” to appreciate and perform the pious celebration of national strength and bravado as a ritual of national public memory—and to what particular ends? After all, as the brochure accompanying and explaining the passport declares, “With Your U.S. Passport the World is Yours!”


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September 25th, 2007

Why They Hate Us

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

I don’t like to belabor a point, but as long as a few Republican senators stonewall any serious attempt to withdraw from the war in Iraq, the press and the rest of us will have to keep up the drumbeat for change. So we have yet another set of images from Iraq, these in conjunction with a special series in the Chicago Tribune that followed a troop of soldiers Inside the Surge. The photo essay shows the troops in camp, on the move, playing with kids in the street, and the like. The usual stuff of embedded coverage. And as happens often enough, they catch something of the other side of the myth of GIs handing out candy bars. Like this:

 

surge-search-picture-2.png

The caption reads, “The sister and nephew of a suspected insurgent cry during a nighttime raid of a house by soldiers in Bonecrusher Troop.” Hey, someone might say, it could all be an act. Ok, it could, although we are told later in the story that the suspect was released. And even if mom is acting, or perhaps trying to be reasonable, look closely at the boy. He is terrified. Hunching down into himself, close to crumpling, his face a mask of fear and shame and pain; he will not forget this night.

I’m also struck by several other elements in the photo. One is the standard of living. These are not the wretched poor of the “Arab street.” It is much more likely that they are middle class, exactly the people who were least likely to object to the changes promised by the Bush administration. Their usual preoccupation of the evening probably would be not building bombs but rather keeping the boy at his homework. I also notice that the room is so clean and spare. The emptiness of the room might be an indirect sign of the boredom and general social deprivation that is the common experience of so many civilians trapped in the war zone. In order to avoid the danger of life outside, they are confined to a few rooms and left with each other and the TV, if the power is on.

And then there is the gun in the right foreground. (That gun has appeared more than once in American photojournalism, as John noted here.) Sure, it’s pointed down, but were it to be raised boy and mother would be right in the immediate line of fire. No wonder the boy is afraid. Cordoned by soldiers on each side, mother and child beseech one who turns his back to them while the other holds them under the gun.

And they are not the only soldiers in the house. Here is another photo:

surge-search-picture-1.png

The caption reads, “Staff Sgt. Stephen Yacapin of Bonecrusher Troop’s 3rd Platoon searches a bedroom for weapons or other evidence of insurgent activity during a raid in Baghdad.” Like the mythical WMDs, he will not find weapons here either. We can see what does turn up, including a purple comforter, a hairbrush and comb, hair gels or something of that sort, snapshots of family or friends, a magazine or folder in English, a purse–not exactly the raw materials of a terrorist cell. We also can see that he’s tearing the room apart. Maybe he’s going to put everything back in place, but it is going to be hard to stack the drawers again and put square corners on the bedsheets while outfitted like a storm trooper from Star Wars. I do not question his need to be outfitted for combat, but what is the Bonecrusher Troop doing in anyone’s bedroom?

And from the look of it, it could be anyone’s bedroom. I’ll bet I could get everything there from Target. Putting that room back together may not be hard to do, and the mess may be be a great harm, but surely they will feel that this raid was a violation of their intimate space, for that is what has happened.

These photos are not the whole story, nor are they any more true literally that those that show soldiers being friendly. But they should remind us that the Iraqi citizens’ experience of the US occupation is deeply personal. Pundits who pretend to ponder the great question of Why They Hate Us need look no farther then these images. This is not about the clash of civilizations, the supposed oxymoron of Islamic democracy, or any other Big Idea. This is about being terrified in one’s own home.

You would think Americans could empathize: Recall these words from the Declaration of Independence:

He [the King of Great Britain] has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us . . .

Of course, many Americans do understand, in part because they have seen photographs like these. The general public is not the problem.

Photographs by Kuni Takahesi for the Chicago Tribune.


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September 24th, 2007

Heads Up in River World

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

I pulled this photo out of the Images in the News at the Chicago Tribune online a month or so ago:

otter-heads.jpg

Unfortunately, I’ve lost the photo citation, but maybe that will turn up. I’ve decided that the picture is too striking to be buried for want of a footnote. The paper knew as much, for the photograph certainly isn’t “News.” You are looking at four river otters swimming, something they do every day.

The image captures much more than four otters in the water. The silver sheen fuses light, water, and animals into a single, perfectly unified event. The otters are completely at home in the water, moving together with the flow of the river, the flow of all of nature’s energies. And yet they also look like they are made of molten metal, crafted forms emerging out of a bath of silver alloy. Caption it “Metal World” and you have a movie still. More seriously, the photograph alludes to the art and history of photography, as if a silver gelatin substrate has been beautifully brought to the surface of the image.

Whether you see the aesthetic unity of the image as the eloquence of nature or art, the question remains of what it has to say. And the otters aren’t so much at home as on the move. They seem to push purposively through the water, tightly coordinated, like a team or other work group. The four are entrained, and entrainment is both an important feature of social life and an artistic technique in photojournalism. Entrainment also can be suggested by mechanical reproduction of the same image, so once again the image channels the art, in this case, the aesthetic element and cultural anxiety marked by Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” This photograph provides the multiplied image within the frame rather than through reproduction of the photograph itself (as I’ve done), but it is the more fitting for that.

The photograph fundamentally isn’t about itself, however. I think the uncanny quality comes from the combination of the light, the entrainment, and the implicit analogy between one species and another. They are coordinated very much as humans can be: working together while each still exhibiting individuality. Although each is looking in a different direction, these four animals may look much more uniform than individuated, but that may be due to our inability to see them from inside their own social experience. Is the difference between humans and otters that they are much the same while we are each an individual person, or is that belief merely the mistaken result of our ignorance, our inability to enter their world? The photograph, which may have been selected for merely “aesthetic” reasons, poses significant questions about who we are and what we value.

Such comparisons may be more than academic exercises. The river otters are among the many species endangered with extinction. Seeing them as if they were artificial otters in some liquid metal bath of the future, perfect reproductions of the extinct species, makes me realize that they then could just as well be a team of specialized workers finely engineered for the industrial environment of that world. Looking at the picture again, I see the complexity and beauty of nature, and also a possible future that includes not only the otter’s extinction but ours.


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September 23rd, 2007

Sight Gag: Who We Were, Circa 1950

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

this-is-america.jpg

Our primary goal with this blog is to talk about the ways in which photojournalism contributes to a vital democratic public culture. Much of the time that means we are focusing on what purport to be more or less serious matters. But as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert often remind us, democracy needs irony, parody, and pure silliness as much as it needs serious contemplation. For our part, we will dedicate our Sunday posts to putting some of that silliness on display in what we call “sight gags,” democracy’s nod to the carnivalesque. Sometimes we will post pictures we’ve taken, or that have been contributed by others, or that we just happen to stumble across as we navigate our very visual public culture. And we won’t just be limited to photography, as a robust democratic visual culture consists of much more. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.

1950s Poster Produced by U.S. Government


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September 22nd, 2007

Kern Conference on Visual Rhetoric

Posted by Lucaites in conferences & shows

Announcing the 4th biennial
William A. Kern Communications Conference

Visual Communication: Rhetorics and Technology
April 10-13, 2008

Rochester Institute of Technology
Strathallan Hotel, Rochester New York

Call for Papers: The first Kern conference on Visual Communication took place in 2001 and provided a wide-ranging forum for scholars and practitioners to share their work. Since then, the interdisciplinary study of visual communication has continued to grow, generating a variety of projects, books, journals, studies, and methodological approaches to research and critical studies. The fourth and final Kern Communication conference on visual communication continues the conversation with a renewed commitment to interdisciplinary interests and scholarship. Visual Communication: Rhetorics and Technology (2008) focuses on the study of visuality and communication with a special interest on the interconnections between visual rhetoric and visual media technologies.

We invite individual papers, panels and presentations that address this theme in the widest ways we can imagine. How does scholarship in visual communication interact with traditional approaches to the processes of human communication, inclusive of rhetoric and communication media technology? How do individual cases of visual communication, visual rhetoric, visual documentation and creative innovation enlarge our understanding of human communication? How does the history and practice of visuality inform our teaching of communication, media and rhetoric? What is the state of the field? Where are our individual research projects taking us? Individual papers, presentations, experimental “work in progress,” panel proposals and workshop proposals are welcome.

Send complete papers or 500 word abstracts via email as a Word document attachment to Diane S. Hope, [dshgpt@rit.edu], or by paper mail to Diane S. Hope; 92 Lomb Memorial Drive, RIT, Rochester, Institute of Technology, Rochester NY, 14623, by December 1, 2007.

Confirmed plenary speakers include:

Paul Martin Lester, author of the text, Visual Communication: Images with Messages and incoming editor of the journal Visual Communication.

Roger Remington, Massimo and Lella Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design, School of Design, Rochester Institute of Technology, who will present a talk on visual communication and posters.

Ron Osgood, documentary film maker, Indiana University, who will present and screen his new film “My Vietnam, Your Iraq.”

Confirmed plenary sessions include:

“Blogging Visual Politics,” a panel of visual rhetoric scholar/bloggers, explores the blog as a compelling public forum for visual engagement and political critique. Chair, Cara Finnegan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign http://caraf.blogs.com/caraf/ ; participants, John Lucaites and Robert Hariman (http://www.nocaptionneeded.com/), Jim Johnson, University of Rochester, http://politicstheoryphotography.blogspot.com/, Michael Shaw, http://bagnewsnotes.typepad.com/bagnews/).

“Visual Rhetoric: Past Present and Future,” an occasion to reflect on past studies of visual rhetoric with an eye to priority setting for the future of scholarship in the area. Chair, Lester Olson, University of Pittsburgh, author of Emblems of American Community and Benjamin Franklin’s Vision of American Community; Carolyn Handa, University of Alabama, author of Visual Rhetoric in a Digital Age; Charles Hill, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and Marguerite Helmers, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, co-editors of Defining Visual Rhetoric.
(Others to be announced).

Keynote speaker to be announced

Please check the website: www.rit.edu/kern for updates, further details and on-line registration information.

September 19th, 2007

A Second Look: Courting the American Dream in Ramadi

Posted by Lucaites in a second look

Today we introduce a new feature at No Caption Needed that we call “A Second Look.” One of the lessons we have learned (and continue to learn again and again) is that the “meaning” of photographic images is dynamic and multidimensional. No matter how hard we try to situate the affect or idea-content of a photograph, the image rarely fully accommodates us. Part of the problem is that human perception can be annoyingly monocular and myopic. We fixate our attention on one aspect or dimension of an image and then stubbornly (if not intentionally) ignore other aspects and dimensions. Only days or weeks later do we realize our short sightedness. Another part of the problem is that one of our primary interpretive tools for discerning the meaning of images is “convention,” and the conventions of realist representation in particular have a powerful hold on both what we choose to see and what we choose not to see, even when we are sensitive to the need for reflexivity. And yet again, our interpretations of images are relentlessly culture- and time-bound, their meaning and usage subject to difference and change based on one’s social and political experiences, as well as location in time and space. Accordingly, from time to time we will dedicate our daily post to taking “a second look” at an image we have previously considered, sometimes to correct the errors of our ways, sometimes because “shit happens” (as the bumper sticker says) making it possible for more to be seen and said.

To inaugurate this feature we want to take a second look at two images that we recently compared and contrasted with one another:

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The first is of two angelic young beauties in Anywhere, USA, encountering the joys of the marketplace, perhaps for the first time; the second is of a “young boy selling lemonade” in Ramadi. The point in juxtaposing these two photographs was to underscore the irony of locating the mythical American “lemonade stand” – a trope that marks the space of a safe and secure free marketplace – inside of a war zone being guarded by thousands of occupation forces and deputized insurgents. I’ll not repeat the analysis except to reprise the concluding line: “To accent the point one need only visualize the scene of the two girls at the top—innocent, pure, and white—with the soldier and his weapon framing and overshadowing the scene. It is virtually unimaginable.”

But on reflection, it may not be quite so unimaginable after all. Or at least for it to be unimaginable we have to concede a host of assumptions about the idyllic world represented in the first picture. One assumption, pointed out by a commentator to our first post, is that the state maintains an invisible presence in the image, ever at the ready to intercede if and when the safety and security of the marketplace is breached. And we do have photographs of where the state has interceded in such situations, such as images of six year old Ruby Bridges being escorted by federal marshals into a New Orleans elementary school, or the slightly older Little Rock Nine being escorted into Central High School by the Arkansas National Guard. But, of course, these were moments of national crisis and no one would mistake the photographs as representations of a normative or safe and secure public sphere.

This calls to attention a second assumption that seems necessary to make the transposition of images unimaginable: the viewer must be able to identify with the white, Anglo-Saxon world depicted in the photograph of the lemonade stand. While one obviously doesn’t have to be white to run a lemonade stand, the vast majority of images one finds in a google image search for the phrase “lemonade stand” are of white Caucasian children. There thus seems to be something like a cultural norm being marked by the trope, and one that clearly excludes those at the margins of racial difference. The question then has to be, what does someone who cannot identify with the “lemonade stand” mythos of the American dream see when they look at the photograph from Ramadi?

There is probably no one answer to this question, but one strong possibility has to be the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a U.S. Border Patrol Agent pointing his MP5 submachine gun at six year old Elian Gonzalez, a Cuban refugee, hiding in a bedroom closet with a local fisherman trying to protect him.

elian2.gif

The”arrest” and eventual deportation of Elian back to Cuba was highly controversial and it polarized the nation, leading to mass protests in Miami, Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. And by many accounts the force of the reaction was affected by this photograph. Whether the image really fueled or otherwise animated the controversy is hard to say, but what is clear is that it has achieved iconic status and is widely recognized, especially amongst subaltern populations. And its connection to the photograph from Ramadi is pronounced. The two boys look similar enough at a distance to be blood relatives; and the weapons, while not identical, are similar enough and, more importantly, functionally dominate the scene. But what makes the picture in Ramadi especially powerful in this regard is not its similarity but its difference from the earlier photograph. There, the horror of the scene is a manifest function of the rifle being pointed at a clearly terrified child; in the later photograph the horror is more latent, a function of the child’s (dis)ease as he cautiously considers the soldier and his weapon and what he might do with it. Of course, the child in Ramadi selling lemonade probably doesn’t know the story of Elian Gonzalez, and thus while he might have his own reasons to distrust the soldiers it is unlikely that he is thinking of this picture; on the other hand, Americans, and especially non-white Americans are very familiar with the picture of Elian, and there is a strong possibility that when they see the picture of the child in Ramadi, what they see is not the safety and security of the marketplace but the threat that the state poses to subaltern populations. And that is not unimaginable at all.

It’s all a matter of how you look at it.

Photo Credits: Central Ohio Center For Education, Richard Mills/The Times, Alan Diaz/AP

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September 18th, 2007

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

John and I will be traveling from the 18th-26th.

planes_trains.jpg

We hope to maintain our schedule of six or seven posts a week, but, well, don’t hold your breath.  Between jet lag, conferencing, and perhaps spotty wireless coverage, some posts may stay up longer than usual.

September 17th, 2007

John-John Kidnapped!

Posted by Hariman in afterimages

The Public Editor at the Sunday New York Times had a lengthy column yesterday, and for good reason: he had a lot of explaining to do. The Times, along with many others, was taken in by photographer Joe O’Donnell’s fraudulent claim that he had taken the iconic photo of John-John Kennedy saluting his father’s caisson:

john-john-rh.png

The problem was that the Times obituary for Mr. O’Donnell had featured the iconic image as his signature photo. As the paper soon learned–and reported–the photo had been taken by Stan Stearns, not O’Donnell. In fact, a second photo shown also had been taken by someone else, and soon a string of deceptions came to light.

Those who love to hate the Times will enjoy their evident mortification, but I’m not among that crowd. They were working at the demanding pace at which they nonetheless produce detailed and reliable stories day after day after day. More important, they were taken in by someone who apparently spent years crafting elaborate deceptions. It’s easy to be fooled by someone who already has fooled many of the people you trust.

The several stories provide an interesting glimpse into both the work of a con artist and the way stories are put together at the Times. They also reveal a thing or two about visual culture today. For one, the fascination with iconic images continues. In an earlier post I asked “Is there an icon for everything?” Well, it seems there has to be for noteworthy photographers. As quoted by the Public Editor, the night photo editor at the Times set aside his reservations about O’Donnell’s claim about the photo because “That the Times was writing the obituary made it ‘a done deal as far as I was concerned,’ he said. ‘I assumed that Joe O’Donnell, famous photographer, had already been verified, and my job was to find iconic images to illustrate his career.’” There you have it: famous photographers, like the great events they cover, must each have their iconic shots. Unfortunately, O’Donnell had taken other images that also deserved to be seen. Instead of yet another Kodak Moment with dead Kennedys, the Times missed an opportunity to show its readers something of the Cold War. Icons are important, but they should not be used to paper over the rest of the visual archive.

A second point allows me to grind another ax. One way or another many people in academia, the press, and more generally have picked up Susan Sontag’s critique of photography. Fortunately, nodding along to Sontag doesn’t inhibit their actual viewing practices–let’s hear it for hypocrisy–but they nonetheless parrot her arguments when talking about photography. Thus, we are re-exposed to her anxiety about the power of the visual image to counterfeit reality, to be manipulated, to deceive, and generally to corrupt our ability to know the world and be ethical. Images can do all of that, of course, but no medium or art is innocent of these charges. And that’s what I love about this episode with John-John. O’Donnell deceived a lot of people about the photograph–but not with the photograph. No, to fabricate reality he used another technology, one that also has a very good track record for deception: words.

Photograph by Stan Stearns/Corbis.


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