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. . . .

October 31st, 2007

"Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered"

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visual memory

bewitch1.png

The picture is of a life size statute of “Samantha Stevens,” portrayed by Elizabeth Montgomery in the 1960s television show Bewitched, and arguably America’s most famous witch. Witches are typically cast as ugly and scary beings, and hence their prominence on Halloween. But Samantha Stevens was a beautiful and loving witch (as well, we might note, as an excellent housekeeper and the perfect wife and mother). For my generation, “Sam” Stevens stood in stark contrast to Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of the “The Wicked Witch of the East” in The Wizard of Oz, and even to this day she maintains a fairly large fan base supported by websites, collectibles, and the like.

As a photograph the picture is really quite unremarkable. An altogether ordinary, slightly off-center “snapshot” of a statute; precisely the kind of image we might find in a private photo album documenting a family vacation. What makes the photograph notable here is that it was shot by a NYT photographer and that it appears in a NYT travelogue feature that regularly promotes places to which members of the upper middle classes might “escape” the rigors of everyday life, such as Aruba, St. Lucia, and Jamaica. Titled “The Ghost’s of Salem’s Past,” this slideshow promotes the devil may care attitude of Salem, Massachusetts, a quaint and quiet New England town that is represented by the NYT as operating at the juncture of the sacred and the profane, part historical landmark and part theme park. These attributions may not be inaccurate, as Salem relies almost exclusively on tourist traffic for its economic survival. And so it not only has to trade on its history, but it has to make witchcraft desirable – literally a commodity that consumers are willing to buy. And therein lies the problem, for the truly important lesson of Salem’s “history” should be addressed to its visitors as citizens and not as consumers.

Salem, of course, is the home of the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692, generally understood to be the most notorious (if not actually the first) “witch hunt” hysteria in the nation’s history. By the time the hysteria had ended over nineteen men and women had been hanged on Gallows Hill for allegedly practicing the dark arts, and another, octogenarian Giles Corey, was pressed to death under heavy stones, defying his executioners to his very end by taunting them to use “more weight!” The trials are regularly acknowledged as one of our darkest moments and are frequently pointed to as the first and most enduring challenge to what eventually emerged as the promises of civil liberty and social justice grounded in a commitment to religious toleration. Put differently, its legacy as a “usable past” is as a reminder to what can happen in the face of mass hysteria and the irrational fear of others within in our midst (which is not to say that all fears of the other are by definition necessarily irrational).

However much Salem attempts to retain a sense of its usable past, and thus to altercast its visitors as citizens with a responsibility to the sacred demands of civic democracy—and there are important efforts to do so, such as with the Salem Village Witchcraft Victims’ Memorial in neighboring Danvers—it nevertheless is confronted with powerful economic realities that animate its profane, consumerist, theme park sensibilities. So it is, that when the Samantha Stevens statute was dedicated in 2005, the television show being memorialized was described as “timeless” without even a hint of irony, let alone recognition for how its prominent placement in Salem risked overshadowing and domesticating the towns’ truly timeless and tragic history. It is as understandable as it is regrettable, at least for the residents of Salem.

But look at the picture one more time. Although shot by a professional photojournalist, it actually looks like it could have been taken by an amateur. Indeed, studiously so. The framing of the image—whether the statue or the man and child in the background—is off-center. Shot with a long lens but at a moderately wide angle, and with the shutter stopped down, the foreground and background are both in relatively sharp focus; the effect is thus to emphasize how cluttered the scene looks to be. And the exposure is all wrong as well, highlighting strong contrasts between the statue and the multiple backgrounds, and thus emphasizing shadows that make it very hard to know where one should direct their gaze. In short, it perfectly imitates what we might imagine to be an amateurish snapshot found in a personal photo album designed to document a family vacation. And as such, it invites the viewer to identify with it as a private consumer and not as a public citizen; come to Salem, it beckons, not to reflect upon your nation’s tragic past, but indeed, to “escape” that past by experiencing a “timeless” and happy fiction. What seems less clear are the stakes that the NYT has in all of this. Indeed, what is somewhat understandable, even bewitching, in Salem, MA, is both bothersome and bewildering when valorized by one of our leading institutions.

Photo Credit: Robert Spencer/New York Times; and with thanks to Stephen Olbrys Gencarella for introducing me to the carnivalesque atmosphere that pervades Salem, MA, and not just on Halloween, where it is the site of one of the largest public parties in the land, but to the ongoing struggle within Salem to negotiate the tension between economic survival and social justice.


Digg!

October 30th, 2007

The Post-Human Peasant

Posted by Hariman in boots and hands

The following two images each merit their own post, but I also want to point out how they suggest a larger pattern. First, there is this shot from a morgue in Pakistan following the attack on Benazir Bhutto’s arrival in Karachi.

paki-feet-dead.png

I noticed the photograph because it was another instance of photographing only feet rather than the upper body or entire body. Readers of this blog may have noticed that “boots and hands” is one of our archival categories, as John and I are interested in why these truncated images appear frequently in mainstream photojournalism.

The feet featured here are bare, brown, worn (look at the back of the heel), and charred. They may have belonged to a middle class accountant, but it is difficult not to see them as peasant feet. The burns look like dirt, and feet have symbolized peasantry in the discourse of the body politic from antiquity to today.

Above all, these feet are dead. The awkward angle suggests a broken body, and the caption cues us to see the stiffness of rigor mortis. Most important, life itself seems to have been thrown away as the blood spilled on the floor forms a hopelessly large, ugly stain on the tile floor. It is as if the body had been drained prior to being preserved, and the feet do look like a specimen. More to the point, the photograph makes this stiff, dismembered, emptied, anonymous body into a specimen, as if it were something awaiting taxonomic classification before being filed away in a natural history museum.

It is easy to claim that the photographic gaze objectifies human being, and I usually avoid that critique. Surely it is not the camera but rather a bomb that turned this living person into a thing. Indeed, perhaps the photograph is doing something else: not objectifying but creating a visual allusion to the Holocaust, that is, to the images taken there of bodies stacked like cordwood. If so, that again points to those using weapons, not journalists using cameras.

Fair enough, but let’s look at the second photograph.

hands-in-bowl.jpg

This is a beautiful image. Edward Weston once remarked that color photography should be taken seriously when the photographer could see “colour as form” rather than a decorative addition to the black and white image. (There’s more to color than that, of course.) The artistic intensity of this image comes directly from the formal power of its dense richness and subtle variations of brown and bronze, all captured through the silver light that seems to have been painted by a Renaissance master. Likewise, the circle of the bowl is repeated in miniature by the circles in the solution and the half-circle in the lower right of the frame, and so the formal completeness of the circle is fused by color and light with the brachiated pattern of the arms and hands, which converge and then branch out again.

And yet, something is missing. The body, for example. Once again, we have a dismembered, anonymous peasant, in this case a man painting “earthen lamps at his workshop for the Hindu festival of Diwali.” The “painting” is crude, simply immersing objects in the paint, and the lamps are “earthen,” the sort of thing that comes from a workshop rather than a factory.  Even that humanizes, however, for the image itself gives us something beautiful but also alien, almost arachnidal as those hands spider across the surface, breathing paint and light.

What is most interesting to me is how, again, life is being separated from the body. In this case, the inanimate nature of bowl and paint seem to have already recast his hands and are moving up his arms. It’s as if his primitive workshop is the early form of some later fusion of human and nonhuman processes in a Blade Runner shanty town. The lamps are being changed by his labor, but he is being changed by the metallic solution coating his hands. As it is, the paint may kill him, but the image suggests a post-human worker who won’t have that problem, as life already will have been altered to become part of a process of production.

Each photograph is a distinctive portrait of a specific event, yet together they suggest a third thing: the idea that the peasant is disposable because not really alive. After all, there aren’t supposed to be peasants in a modern world. The good news is that other, more Romantic concerns are well off the table: You see no noble savage here. But you also see common people as either specimens of natural history, or as artistic premonitions of the post-human. In neither case are they alive—in history, in the present, or in the political imagination.

Photographs by Paule Bronstein/Getty Images and Parth Senya/Reuters. Weston’s remark is cited in Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment, pp. 190-191.


Digg!

October 29th, 2007

Seeing Torture

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Saturday’s New York Times included these stories: First, the confirmation of Michael B. Mukasey for attorney general had hit a “rough patch” because Democrats were suggesting that they might oppose confirmation if the nominee “did not make clear that he opposed waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques that have been used against terrorism suspects.”  Second, a review of the movie “Saw IV” advised viewers to “Imagine every conceivable form of torture, then add the inconceivable.”   Third, a report on the photographs, and photographer, used by the Khmer Rouge to document the arrival of those who had been brought to the Toul Sleng prison to be tortured and killed.  You might see a pattern. . . .

Do you also see a sliding scale?  Say, from the torture we do, which the administration would like to think is a matter of semantics, to the torture we imagine for cheap thrills, which receives the stern rebuke of an R rating while remaining business as usual at the cineplex, to the torture done by others, which is the subject of documentary reportage.  Even so, the Times story on the prison photographs is a service.  The problem they, and we, face is how to confront torture without inadvertently contributing to its normalization.  News media should be faulted at times for not showing the harm done by those acting in our name, but we don’t want the news to become “Saw XXX” in real time.  It should be said, however, that surely it becomes too easy to minimize torture when both Gonzales and Mukasey have said they oppose torture while condoning its practice, and when audiences watch torture scenes on film and TV that they know involve no real pain.  That is why we need to see this:

cambodia-torture.png

This is one of the images at the Tuol Sleng Museum website.   It should be said that the Times did not include this photo in its story.  Perhaps they should be faulted for that.  I don’t think so, because what they did show was even more horrific:

cambodian-girl-nyt-2.png

She is another “unidentified prisoner.”  She also is a young girl who subsequently will have been tortured and killed.   I can’t imagine. . . .  And if anyone says that at least the US government doesn’t torture little girls, we already have slipped too far into the abyss.

Photographs from the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, http://www.tuolsleng.com/.

October 28th, 2007

Sight Gag:Doctor Madison Avenue

Posted by Hariman in sight gags

camel-ad.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.

October 26th, 2007

The Anthropological Moment

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

There is a type of visual experience that we might dub The Anthropological Moment. Most people haven’t taken a class in cultural anthropology, but they have paged through National Geographic, watched this or that documentary on the cable channels, or looked at a newspaper photograph such as this one:

hand-face-cross.jpg

As with much popular anthropology (and some would add, much anthropology until recently), one effect this image is able to reinforce the cultural presuppositions of the viewer. The caption certainly goes well down that road: “Act of faith
. A man kisses a cross in the hand of a spiritual guide immersed in a small body of water that is believed to be miraculous, during the commemoration of the spiritual birth and physical death of the man known as El Nino Fidencio, in Espinazo, Mexico, Thursday. El Nino Fidencio or “The Child Fidencio,” the faith healer who lived in this dusty northern Mexican town in the 1930′s, is believed by the faithful to have worked miracles.”

You’d think the caption was written to cover the image with a blanket of words.  A description of what we can see–a man kissing a cross in another’s hand–carries a second description of what we can’t see–the cultural meaning of the ceremony. And it is a ceremony: we don’t see people walking, conversing, working, or doing any of the activities of everyday life. Instead, the man is immersed within ritual, which in turn carries fantastic beliefs, which are at once foreign (been to Espinzao lately?) and exotic (seen a faith healer?). The key verb is “believed”: the water is “believed to be miraculous,” and the faith healer is “believed by the faithful to have worked miracles.” Such things are not what they are believed to be, of course, and so the “act of faith” is safely cordoned off by being placed in a ritual present that refers to a remote place and time where, then as now, people were deluded to the extent that they were encultured. So it is that a modern, secular, rational worldview is constituted through implicit contrast with folk customs that are marked as primitive, religious, and irrational.

It is not difficult to see how the photograph can work this way. (For example see Reading National Geographic by Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins. And, by the way, don’t conclude that National Geographic today is the same magazine they describe; in has changed remarkably, quite likely in a good faith response to their critique.) The mud-caked face and chalky finger coloring allude to thousands of images of African and other traditional cultures, and it is only on close inspection that one can discern that the man is clothed.

I’d like to think that there is something else there to be seen. For all that the caption does to shape comprehension, the photograph is a compelling depiction of emotional intensity. The image is one of great compression: the cropping concentrates our vision on the intensely evocative human face which is intensified further by the symbolic power of the cross, the communicative power of hands at once open and clasped, and the intimacy of a kiss. Not only are two bodies being brought together, but they are enacting a powerful moment of public intimacy. The one hand is open and yet needing to be taken up; when taken it confers a blessing that is both accepted, as if in prayer, and returned as he lovingly cradles the hand holding the cross. The man’s closed eyes suggest a vital interior life, as if he were drinking deep from water that sustains the soul.

Just as the close cropping can enhance the idea that this is a ritual practice, it also can suggest something quite different: the individualism and human dignity of Renaissance portraiture. (Thus, I can link the anthropological moment to one variation on a photographic Renaissance.) It that is too much of a stretch, it’s enough for me to believe (note the verb) that photographs can create an important tension between maintaining the public sphere and extending it, not only to include others but to challenge those within a modern mentality. If it is easy to see “culture” as the mark of the Other, an eloquent image also can remind us that the modern world can become spiritually and emotionally impoverished.

Culture both limits and connects. That is equally true in a “dusty northern Mexican town” and in a newspaper being read in a North American metropolis.

Consider in this context the German word for moment: Augenblick, or literally a blink of the eye. Like the aperture of a camera in reverse, the eye closes and opens. A moment is a hinged thing, containing an instance of blindness and of sight. Photojournalism’s anthropological moment is an invitation to both see nothing but our own self-conception confirmed, or to see others anew.

Academic disclaimer: These remarks don’t begin to account for the influence of anthropology on the visual arts, not least modern painting (Picasso’s masks became iconographic, for example) and film (Nanook of the North, Mondo Cane, and periodic takes on the Third World). Nor am I talking about the development of the subdisciplines of visual anthropology and visual sociology. Both are now Wikipedia entries, and suffice it to say that each field involves extensive discussion of the epistemological, political, and moral problems of representation. By contrast, the anthropological moment is something that most people encounter outside of the context of scholarly argument. They see the image without safeguards against ideological manipulation, but still having an opportunity for wonder and identification.

Photograph by Alexandre Meneghini/Associated Press.


Digg!

October 25th, 2007

Firestorm on the Blue Planet

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

As the California wildfires burned this week, online papers put up dozens of photographs to document the who, what, where, and when of the disaster. (They said less about why; can you guess what might be a factor?) Stock images soon emerged: firefighters standing amidst the blaze or sagging from exhaustion; homeowners fighting back with garden hoses or staring in numbed disbelief at the extent of their loss; buildings exploding into flames and charred cars lying aslant in the streets like ad hoc tombstones. Then there were a few that somehow caught sight of something deeper. This one, for example:

ca-fire-streamers.jpg

If nothing else, this image highlights one cause of the blaze: the wind that can make embers from a burning brand stream wildly across the open country. But the image is more elemental than that. We almost could be looking at a physics experiment. What is in fact fire also appears as electrical currents arcing outwards, crackling and flowing with the same chaotic necessity found in the atom or in the sun. The transmutation of nature’s surging energies is suggested by both the light of the full moon above, reflected from the sun, and the seething intensity of the little fire pits burning into the earth.

I had moved on from this image, thinking it merely unique, until I saw this:

ca-fire-tree.jpg

Again, the wind whips the fire forward. Again, along the course of the firestream we can see nature’s underlying structure. The fire races through the tree the same way it arcs through the air. The bright tracery of limbs and branches reveals how water, wind, and fire flow. Nature’s order is but a snapshot of energy’s relentless surge and spread.

And so we get to this:

ca-fire-smoke-sea.jpg

The caption said, “A picture released by the European Space Agency shows fierce desert winds blowing smoke from wildfires Monday in Southern California.” Another imaging technology, another view, but one with the same capacity for insight. The harsh energy of the fires now is seen as smoke being carried along by winds capable of circling the earth. The scene is at once gentler and yet all the more conclusive: natural processes are ever present, enveloping, and flaunted only at our peril.

And there is something else in this photo that might be a sign of hope: the blue, blue water. Now the tableau is complete. Hot, arid land, as if bleached by the fires on its surface, produces the white ash of the smoke, which flows across the cool waters that soothe the planet. There is irony, too, as the land burns with all that water nearby, but the conclusion should not be that we need bigger helicopters for water bombing the canyons.

I see a beautiful, beautiful planet. How sad it would be look back someday as we stare in numbed disbelief at the extent of our loss.

Photographs by Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2007; Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2007; AFP/Getty Images, October 23, 2007.


Digg!

October 24th, 2007

The Compassionate Conservationist

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

20071020-2_d-0122-1-637v.jpg

“Protecting the Environment.” That’s one of the rotating headlines used at the White House website to announce this photograph, taken at a photo-op last week to promote the education war environmental presidency at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel Maryland. The occasion was for the president to sign an executive order protecting striped bass and red drum fish populations, as well as to announce tax incentives designed to protect migratory birds like the screech owl seen here posing with the president.

It’s hard to know who seems more out of place and uncomfortable in the photograph, but a good bet is that it is our feathered friend. And probably with good cause. One only has to recall the president posing with children in the weeks running up to his veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to understand why — if children can be used unceremoniously as props against their own best interests, we can only imagine what is in store for lesser beings.

On the face of things, of course, the situation here appears to be quite different. After all, the president really does seem to be looking out for the interests of migratory birds, proposing a “conservation tax incentive” to reward private landowners who will provide much needed “stopover habitats” for the birds on their annual treks south and north. But look again, this time not at the picture, which presumes to show a compassionate conservative conservationist, but at the words used to situate the policy in the larger context of U.S. environmental policy.

According to the White House, the proposed tax credit is part of an effort to practice “cooperative conservation beyond the boundaries of our national parks and wildlife refuges.” The implication is clear: We already practice “cooperative conservationism” inside those boundaries. And so the question must be, what exactly does this normative practice look like? What will we see when we view our national parks and wildlife refuges in a future world animated by “cooperative conservativism”? Perhaps this picture from the Alaskan arctic gives us an idea of what the White House has in mind:

anwroil.jpg

Administration efforts to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were (temporarily?) thwarted by the Senate in 2005. Still, it is hard not to be cynical as we imagine “cooperative conservationism” as a euphemism for “cooperating” with the private interests of the oil, natural gas, logging, and mining industries. But, of course, it is not really cynicism, because we know that this is exactly what is being promoted. And too, we know that however factually accurate, the picture of the owl and the president is a lie designed to misdirect our attention from a larger truth. We’ve seen it all before.

I have a bumper sticker in my office that reads “To Hell with the environment. Vote for George Bush.” It is from the late 1980s and refers to the father, but in retrospect it marks an attitude far more appropriate to the son. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Photo Credit: Eric Draper/White House, and Deepblade. And with thanks to Phaedra Pezzullo for providing background information and web links on current U.S. environmental policy. Be sure to see her books Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Travel, Pollution and Environmental Justice (U. of Alabama, 2007) and Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement, co-edited with Ronald Sandler (MIT Press, 2007).


Digg!

October 23rd, 2007

A New Deal for Gobal Warming?

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

The cover of the New York Times Magazine often is the image of uptown style and one place to look for the latest trend. That’s one reason the photograph on this Sunday’s cover was a bit harsh:

boat-lakebed.png

You are looking at an abandoned boat near Lake Mead Marina in Nevada. It looks like an odd place to put a marina, doesn’t it? The report, The Perfect Drought, states that Lake Mead has dropped to 49 percent of capacity, a decline consistent with the vanishing snowpack, shrinking rivers, and reduced aquifers throughout the American West. The persistent water loss is an effect of global warming that could have catastrophic consequences. If present trends are not stopped, one can easily imagine a reverse migration from that of the Okies and others who streamed west during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

That migration started with a drought and became known across the world due to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Equally important was the work of documentary photographers working for the Farm Security Administration. When looking at the Magazine cover, I recalled one of those photographs:

bleached-skull-steer.jpg

This image from South Dakota was taken by Arthur Rothstein in May 1936. It remains in circulation as one of the classic images of the era. The similarities are obvious: In each we see the cracked ground from which all moisture has evaporated, and only bones remaining where once there had been something vital. There are formal similarities as well: the back-to-front line of the boat and the line across the horns of the skull and its shadow are on the left to right diagonal, and they even start and end at about the same points on each side. Each is a solid structure that also is hollowed out, and the boat’s stripped engine and controls reproduce the machinery of the skull’s eye sockets and sinuses. Although there are tufts of green in the contemporary image, it seems clear in both that as far as large animal life is concerned, we are in a dead zone.

The grass sprouting in the lake bed is not the only difference. Instead of the remnant of an animal, the recent photo shows a dead machine. There is another one in the background, as if in an elephant graveyard. Note two other differences as well: the sublime horizon that is so much a part of the visual understanding of the West, and the rubber tire stuck upright. The wisps of cloud may even hint at rain, but the tire reminds us that it would fall on a society defined by waste, resource depletion, and global warming from excessive use of fossil fuels.

There is one more reason I wanted to compare the two photographs. Rothstein caught hell when it was discovered that the skull photograph was posed: He had dragged it about ten feet to get the contrast between a cracked alkali bed and the shadow of the skull. Republicans pilloried him for deception and tried to make the image into a representative case of New Deal excessiveness. See, the picture’s a fraud, and things can’t be so bad, so why get the government involved?

Of course, It wasn’t deceptive, and the country was deep into a terrible depression compounded in the Great Plains by drought. If you think that the New Deal was not needed, you might as well believe that Rothstein could have ended the Depression by moving the skull back to its original spot. And the same nonsense is going on today: while scientific research and photographic evidence document the rapid acceleration and inevitable peril of global warming, there is a steady stream of chatter on the right about how it’s all alarmism and fraud. If you believe that, I have a marina I’d like to sell you.

Photographs by Simon Norfolk/NB Pictures for the New York Times; Arthur Rothstein/Farm Security Administration. For a scholarly study of Rothstein’s photograph, see Cara A. Finnegan, “The Naturalistic Enthymeme and Visual Argument: Photographic Representation in the ‘Skull Controversy’,” Argumentation and Advocacy 37 (Winter 2001): 133-149.


Digg!

October 22nd, 2007

Performing Humility

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

condihumility.png

[Note: Michael Shaw wrote about this photograph at BAGnewsNotes over the weekend. We too have been thinking about the image since it first appeared late last week and offer our allegorical reading of it as a complement to Michael’s analysis.]

Virtues are dispositions to action that guide moral and intellectual choices. In the political world they are attitudes that mark one’s character, and their performance becomes a public sign of trustworthiness or duplicity. Writing from a Christian perspective in the 4th Century CE, St. Augustine, one of the early Church Fathers and a source of just war theory, noted that “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” I was reminded of this passage when I saw this photograph of Condoleezza Rice this past week in the Washington Post. She is entering the Church of the Nativity through the “Door of Humility” while visiting Bethlehem in an effort to prepare the way for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The Door of Humility is the only entrance into the Church. It was created in Ottoman times as a defensive barrier designed to keep marauding barbarians and looters from entering the basilica on horseback. But there should be little doubt of its additional symbolic significance as it requires anyone—kings, noblemen, beggars, thieves—to perform their humility by bending over as they enter the church, thus forcing even the most powerful among the secular world to acknowledge their human frailties by crouching in humble obeisance to the sacred.

The ironies in the image are just too rich to ignore. Rice’s visit to the Church of the Nativity was an obvious photo-op designed to promote American diplomacy as the (easy) solution to the deeply rooted cultural and religious differences that divide this part of the world. It may well be that a political resolution is the only way to solve this problem, but the notion that the U.S. can be a neutral arbiter in such negotiations is not only arrogant, but surely seen by all involved as a modern day fairy tale ineptly performed by contemporary marauders and looters—and no less surely doomed to failure.

This contrast between the fantasy of US virtue and the behavior of the administration is underscored by the photograph. Rice, the face of the U.S. in the Middle East, a woman who describes herself as “deeply religious” and who, upon leaving the Church, linked herself directly to the mission of the “Prince of Peace,” nevertheless needs the help of two handlers to shuttle her into and through the “Door of Humility.” And look at how much effort Rice is putting into balancing herself as she stoops to enter the church. Clearly this is not a familiar attitude for the Secretary of State.

One can hardly find a more emblematic representation of the Bush administration. They have touted their Christian piety and commitment to freedom and world peace, only to express disdain for world opinion while unleashing the dogs of war. We should not be surprised that they are utterly incapable of persuasively performing anything like pious humility. It is little wonder that few in this part of the world treat the altruism of American claims to peace and freedom as little more than “mere appearance.”

Photo Credit: David Furst/AP


Digg!

October 21st, 2007

Sight Gags: Bah!!!!

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

sheeple.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: Neff/Illustrator

Next Page »
FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains images and excerpts the use of which have not been pre-authorized. This material is made available for the purpose of analysis and critique, as well as to advance the understanding of rhetoric, politics, and visual culture.

The ‘fair use’ of such material is provided for under U.S. Copyright Law. In accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Section 107, material on this site (along with credit links and attributions to original sources) is viewable for educational and intellectual purposes. If you are interested in using any copyrighted material from this site for any reason that goes beyond ‘fair use,’ you must first obtain permission from the copyright owner.