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. . . .

January 31st, 2008

A Jewel of a Planet

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Many of the intellectual habits of Western culture have been subjected to devastating critique in the last few decades. This period of vital academic work has been much decried by conservative commentators, most of whom neither read nor practiced the tradition in question. There are times, however, when an antique idea may have limited application, not least as a starting point for understanding what an image can teach us. The idea that I have in mind today is that what is beautiful is also good. Those of us who look best on radio know the limitations of this claim, but it might make more sense when applied at a larger scale than individual appearance. Like this:

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The photograph accompanied a New York Times story on how climate change can cause endangered ecosystems and species to migrate from the nature preserves designed for their protection. So it is that the Chandeleur Islands that you see here might go under water entirely, taking a bird habitat with them. The story spoke of the “preservation predicament,” but environmental advocacy faces a continuing rhetorical predicament as well, which is that it is difficult to provide definitive examples of systemic change. So it is that every cold snap produces sarcastic jokes about global warming, while every heat wave can be discounted as merely a local phenomenon. Nor can this photo do the job: although water is overtaking the land, that’s what you might expect of low-lying barrier strands. And isn’t it more aesthetically interesting because the water is there?

But let’s back up a bit. Forget about documentary evidence. The image is beautiful, and not just typically so. This is not what you expect to see in either landscape photography or at the seaside. Instead of nature’s wonder spreading beyond our limited horizon, here we look down from above. That god’s eye view makes what is in fact a geological landform look like an ornament. I saw not islands so much as a piece of artisan jewelry. Instead of water, recently molten metal; instead of land, delicately wrought ceramic; instead of accident, design.

The point is not that you should see it the same way. But to see the island as a thing of beauty is to grant it special status as a good thing. And it will be a good thing regardless of any calculation of utility, whether by a real estate developer or an environmental protection group. And if it is a good thing because of its beauty, then we should appreciate that this beauty comes from its inherently variable and fragile nature. Neither sea nor land nor sky, the image gives us these things in precarious equilibrium. The message is not that the earth is warming or that change is inevitable anyway, although either conclusion can be drawn. No, the photograph says something more basic: This is a beautiful planet. Admire it. Love it.

Photograph by Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press. For an earlier post on aesthetic design in nature, see The Photographic Cosmos. The beauty-is-good idea was a stock item in the Renaissance; see, for example, Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier.


January 30th, 2008

The Public Face(s) of Power

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

I watched the State of the Union Address on Monday evening. If you tuned in you know that we didn’t learn very much about the actual state of the union. It was worth watching however, if only to mark the many psychodramas being played out (and to try to figure out which of the many opportunities Jon Stewart would take advantage). We make much of photojournalistic representations of hands and feet here at NCN, but last night it was the faces that were most interesting. And they are all featured in a slide show in yesterday’s Washington Post. I want to consider three of these images, but feel free to comment on others if you are so moved.

First is the President himself as he ritualistically delivers copies of his speech to the Vice President and Speaker of the House.

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The President sports his signature smirk, as smarmy as ever, as if to say, “you’re going to just LOVE what I’m about to say and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.” But it is the Speaker’s smile that I found most interesting, especially because it shows up so seldom throughout the remainder of the speech. It is obviously a practiced smile as she no doubt knows that the camera will be focusing on her, but in the particular context it implies another message as well, something like, “say what you want, but this is MY house big boy and no lame duck is going to tell me how to run it.” The stress and strain between this President and this Speaker is pronounced and real, to be sure, but perhaps more important is how the picture displays the character of that tension.

This is not just a matter of two leaders of a loyal opposition doing public battle for the good of party or country. No, it is a deep and personal enmity. These people genuinely dislike one another and they are not going to allow the demands of decorum and civility mute their mutual disdain. Note, for example, how both hold their stare, as if in a game of chicken. Neither looks to the envelope as he hands it to her or as she takes it. And note too how the President crosses his hands to deliver the envelopes with the speech in it, a subtle move that seems almost designed to disrupt the ritual and to suggest that he is still in control. That the Speaker is undaunted—that she fails to blink, as it were, holding the line of vision even as she accepts the envelope—underscores both the political game they are playing and the equipoise between two powerful individuals caught in a contest of will.

Only minutes later, of course, the demeanor and resonance changes.

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With the economy on the verge of ruins, the President decides to focus his attention at the beginning of the speech on the budget and the pressing issue of “congressional earmarks,” threatening to veto any budget that includes them, and more, announcing that he will issue an Executive Order that directs federal agencies to “ignore any future earmark not voted on by Congress.” Now there is no doubt that congressional earmarks complicate the budgetary process (though maybe not so much as, say, an extended war of occupation), but as the NYT reported, the President didn’t seem to be so exorcised by them prior to the 2006 elections when the Democrats took over both chambers of Congress. And truth to tell, as much as they are politically correct to oppose, they are probably an important legislative tool that helps the wheels of government turn—at least when they are not excessive or used without any and all restraint. But look at the picture which occurs at the moment that the President threatens his veto and promises his executive order.

He directs his remarks to his right, the Democratic side of the chamber. His countenance is serious and stern, his words punctuated with his pointing finger, almost as if he were in the process of declaring war. And, of course, that is precisely what he is doing, although the war he is declaring is on the Democratic Congress, not an alien foe from a distant land. It is hardly an auspicious beginning to what will be a year that demands a good deal of bipartisan outreach if anything productive is going to be accomplished. And then look at the Speaker of the House. Notice how tightly her lips are pursed, the corners of her mouth pulled back as if to say, “This guy is absolutely UNbelievable.” Finally, look at the Vice President who stares straight ahead, his eyes cold and pointed slightly down, ignoring the members of the chamber sitting in front of him and to his right, as well as the Speaker to his left. Here, it would seem, we have the guy who is really calling the shots, but who doesn’t want to acknowledge either the histrionics of those carrying out his desires, or those who might appeal for moderation. Indeed, his pose is the very model of the tunnel vision that might well be emblematic of the current administration. The photograph, in short, is another picture of the face of power in Washington these days, and once again it underscores the animosities that seem to be stifling any kind of effective political deliberations in our nation’s capitol right now.

The final image that I want to feature is of the audience listening to the address.

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We are looking at the Democratic side of the aisle and the face that stands out belongs to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, sitting just to the left of center (no pun intended) and wearing bright red. She stares straight ahead and the look on her face is stately if not actually stoic. As one of the front runners for the Democratic nomination she is obviously “on stage” and no doubt she performs the decorous countenance of one who is seriously engaged with the speech. But what really caught my attention were those surrounding her. Notice how many of them seem bored or distracted, with some reading from what I assume is a transcript of the speech, perhaps looking ahead to see if maybe it comes out better than they anticipate. But most interesting is the Senator sitting just to the left of Clinton. It appears to be Joe Biden. No longer a candidate for his party’s nomination the motivation to be constantly “on” for the camera is lessened, and here we catch him in a less than stately pose, as he rubs his eyes as if to keep himself awake (or maybe to clear his vision because he can’t believe what he is witnessing). And indeed, if one were to listen closely enough I wouldn’t be surprised if they could hear him saying, “wake me when this is over.”

Eyes may well be the windows to the soul, but in the political world it is one’s public face that seems to tell the story. And, of course, there are many stories to be told. We only have to look to see them.

Photo Credits:

January 29th, 2008

Love in the Ruins

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Compassion fatigue may be one problem confronting photojournalism, but as long as photographers continue to provide images of emotional intensity and depth, the viewing public has the opportunity for greater understanding, solidarity, and response. Two photographs, one from this week and another from a month ago, provide object lessons in thinking about powerful forces shaping the globe today. The first image is from China:

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The Washington Post caption said, “A couple witnesses the demolition of their house in Beijing. With soaring housing prices, some urban residents say they are being evicted to make way for new development without being compensated enough to buy new homes.” The imagetext is highly paratactic: we are to infer that this couple was evicted and inadequately compensated. It could be that they decided to move–time to downsize, perhaps–and got a good price but are shaken anyway by leaving what was a beloved home. Maybe, but I think we can assume the worst.

They look as if they are being crushed by the great weight of uncontrolled loss. Each is distraught, so much so that rather than “witness” the demolition, they can’t bear to look. She cleaves to him as if she would collapse otherwise; though supporting her, he looks as if something is giving way inside. Though joined to each other, each seems isolated by their common desolation. Their winter coats heighten the sense of vulnerability: she is bundled up but still hugging him; his sweater is exposed, perhaps because he is wearing two coats. They seem to be wearing all they have, already succumbing to homelessness.

The second image also was taken during a time of dislocation.

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The New York Times caption said, “A Luo mother and daughter fleeing the fighting in Nakuru waited to be evacuated by the Kenyan Red Cross on Saturday.” They are lucky, as they have not yet been mutilated, raped, or killed, and the Red Cross trucks that are there for them may arrive too late for others. But they are facing deportation and perhaps the permanent loss of their home; even if they return, their sense of security may be gone forever.

An image of backs, not faces, and a long view of canvas-covered trucks might seem to have little emotional resonance. The mother and daughter are deeply evocative, however. The mother is not yet old, nor the girl yet an adult, but the girl’s age tells us that both are moving toward unknown and inevitable change. (If they are lucky enough to grow older, they are likely to grow apart.) But now they are walking together, beautifully so. They are linked most obviously by their clasped hands joining them at the hip, but also by the alteration of red and white in the clothes, and by their heads each turned enough to have their lines of sight intersect on the truck moving down the road ahead. They are separate people yet bound together in the mutual obligation and trust of family life. The mother has not only her daughter’s hand but also a shoulder bag and another bag in her right hand. She will keep the girl close to her and try to provide for them both. The girl carries only herself. That is plenty, as she is the future.

The first picture is at odds with the incredible increase in prosperity and living standards experienced by many in China today, and so it is easily rationalized as another example of “creative destruction.” The Nike swoosh on the man’s jacket marks that dimension of the photograph; the degree of irony is up to you. As far as many Chinese are concerned, this might be a very good gamble. The photograph bears witness to something else, however. The destruction is never creative for those being destroyed.

The second photograph goes against the grain of the news from Africa. Once again, years of slow progress are lost in days as another nation plunges into civil war and anarchy. Once again, we read of ethnic violence, marauding gangs, horrible atrocities. And yet this photograph poses the deportees as if they were looking into a vista of economic development and prosperity. They should look like the couple in the first image, yet they seem poised, interested, and ready to move forward. (Likewise, boosters for capitalism would tell the Chinese couple to buck up and look like these two.) The point here is not that one can flee for progress, but that amidst the ravages of African violence many people will remain capable of loving and caring for one another.

Both photographs have a capacity for emotional resonance that can help us better understand global change. Economic development and political violence are two of the most powerful forces at work in the world today. We need to remember that the first can harm people, and that people can survive and overcome the second. To think otherwise in each case is to render people disposable.

Photographs by Oded Bality/Associated Press and Evelyn Hockstein/New York Times.

January 28th, 2008

Shot, Reverse Shot

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

The Florida primary is upon us this week, and many are predicting that it could be the last hurrah for Rudy Giuliani’s campaign. We’ll have to wait and see. But as I was listening to the Sunday morning pundits yesterday I was reminded of two photographs that appeared in a NYT on-line slide show a few weeks back, as the ex-Mayor of New York was campaigning in Miami while everyone else was in New Hampshire.

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The first shot looks to be a scene from a small town Fourth of July celebration where congressional representatives frequently show up to press the flesh and to be seen with local political dignitaries. Parades are typically the order of the day, and they usually include marching bands, local civics organizations, fire trucks with their sirens screaming, and, of course, an abundance of red, white, and blue. There are usually lots of young children running around, and a good time is had by all.The parade in this photograph, however, does not take place in small town America, but rather Miami’s “Little Havana.” And the event is not the Fourth of July, but the annual Three King’s Day Parade, a traditional Hispanic holiday that honors the Epiphany; in Miami it is attended regularly by more than 400,000 people. Here the ex-Mayor rides on an antique fire truck festooned with campaign posters (an odd adornment for a religious festival, but it is the political season!). The sky is blue, sprinkled with white clouds, the American flag flaps in the breeze, and a smiling Giuliani poses at the front of the truck, in charge as if leading an army. One is reminded of the scene from the movie Patton where General Patton leads his troops into Messina after liberating it from the German occupation. Like Patton, Giuliani doesn’t wave, but stares directly ahead, his purpose more to be seen than to see. The picture suggests that all is well, and we can almost hear the cheering crowds. After all, “Florida is RUDY country.”

The immediate next frame in the slide show, however, tells a somewhat different story.

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Here, presumably, we see what the candidate and his entourage would see if they were actually looking. The crowd, of course, is sparse; indeed, it is no crowd at all. If there were hundreds of thousands of people at the celebration earlier in the day, they have now dispersed. And the remaining stragglers don’t seem to be in any mood to cheer. Indeed, what is marked is the utter lack of enthusiasm for the passing scene: The attention of the child in the lower right is distracted by the person standing next to him, but then he is a child and no doubt easily distracted; but notice the man in the upper right, who has his back turned and is walking away—he seems to be carrying a camera, but apparently the scene on the street has no interest for him, even if it does include a presidential candidate. Others seem to be looking in the direction of the passing fire truck, but for the most part their expressions are blank, totally devoid of any affect or interest. It is hard to know what any of them are thinking, but it is equally hard to imagine that they are going to rush out to vote for Giuliani.

What is most conspicuous, of course, is the adolescent boy posing in the middle of the scene. Apparently standing on the parade side of the barricade (which is also the camera side of the barricade), he is separated from the folks that surround him. His bright red hat and t-shirt add a modicum of affect to an otherwise drab and visually muted scene, and if there is anyone the viewer is invited to identify with in the picture it is surely him. Like Giuliani, he too seems to be performing a role. But while the candidate seems to fashion himself as something like a liberator, the youth leans against the barricades with an attitude that is in equal parts nonchalance and arrogance—one is reminded of a young Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones. The tilt of his hat marks him as someone who identifies with hip hop music and the gangster culture it has spawned, hardly a demographic that one would imagine the Giuliani campaign works very hard to cultivate—a point which doesn’t seem to be lost on the boy. And what is most noticeable is the look of utter skepticism and disdain, as if to say, “how dumb do you think we are?” The contrast between the two photographs could not be more pronounced and their contiguity suggests that they should be read in dialogue with one another.

The point I want to make is a minor one, and it has more to do with developing a sense of visual literacy than it does with what seems to be the ill-fated Giuliani campaign for President. The pairing of these two images in a slide show produces what cinematographers call the “shot-reverse shot.” It is a fairly common technique (or visual logic) for filming a dialogue between two people. The camera focuses in middle distance on an individual talking, it then reverses its orientation on what appears to be a 180 degree pivot to show another person talking, creating the effect of a dialogue that moves back-and-forth. The larger effect is to identify the external viewer (i.e., “you”) with the point of view of the internal viewer; and because that point of view switches back and forth in a coordinated series of reversals, the external viewer is positioned as an omniscient spectator who presumably sees all that there is to see. It is, of course, an illusion troubled by many entailments, not least the assumption that the suture between shot and reverse shot is seamless and transparent, that there is nothing in the space between two frames that effects the meaning of their relationship. The illusion here is especially pronounced in cinematic representation, where the cutting back and forth is often quick and adopts the register of real time, but it can be no less effective in the placement of still images next to one another in a slide show, especially in a rhetorical culture habituated to the visual logic of shot-reverse shot.

The assumption in linking these two photographs together in imitation of a shot-reverse shot sequence is that the spectator will recognize that Giuliani sees the dwindling audience, the bored citizens, and the disgruntled youth, and yet he continues to smile anyway as if they aren’t there or don’t really matter; or worse yet, he simply doesn’t see them at all. In either case, the effect is thus a visual argument that coaches an attitude of cynicism towards the Giuliani campaign who seems to refuse the opportunity for dialogue. But of course this assumes as well that the two images were shot at roughly the same time and that they actually exist in physical proximity to one another. What if they were actually shot minutes or hours apart? Or at different places along the parade route? I have no reason to suspect foul play here—largely because past experience tells me that the cyncism is well placed—but the point is that there really is no way to tell what the time-space relationship of the two images might be without actually having been there. And of course that is not always a possibility. The value of the photographs as positive evidence of something like objective truth is thus mitigated.

This does not mean, however, that we should disavow the power of the photograph (or the slide show for that matter) to represent the social or cultural truth of such events or to invite insight into the complexities and nuances of social relations. Indeed, much to the contrary, we believe here at NCN that the artistic use of photography is a vital component of a vibrant democratic public culture—quite literally a way of showing us what it means to see and to be seen as citizens. What it should remind us, however, is that as a technology of communication the photograph is not so much different in its power and capacity to represent or constitute the world than is the technology of the “word”: neither offers unmediated vision, and both rely equally upon a critical understanding of formal and cultural logics of articulation (such as the shot-reverse shot, but much more as well), genres and conventions of representation (such as the common metaphors and narratives used to represent political campaigns, youth culture, etc., including often vague references to history, popular culture, and the like), a sense of ethos, etc. Additionally, and perhaps more important, it should remind us of the responsibility we have as citizens to make critical judgments about the messages we encounter and the assumptions that they draw upon, regardless of the media in which we encounter them.

Photo Credits: Eric Thayer/New York Times

January 27th, 2008

Sight Gag: Irony or Synchrony?

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, sight gags

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Photo Credit: Damon Winter/New York Times, On the Trail, January 19, 2008

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 such momens on display in what we call “sight gags,” democracy’s nod to the ironic and/or 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. Sometimes the images will be pure silliness, but sometimes they will point to ironies, poignant and otherwise. 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.

January 25th, 2008

Photographer's Showcase: Campaign 2008 – On The Road

Today we are introducing a new feature that we call the “Photographer’s Showcase.” From time to time we will post the work of photographers whom we believe exemplify or extend photojournalism as it is an important public art. We will feature their work without commentary, although we do of course encourage you, our readers, to comment and link on behalf of our common interests.

There are many fine photographers and the authors of this blog know only a very few of them. We spend our days in the university, not the newsroom, and have little opportunity to meet with working photographers, attend exhibitions, or otherwise make connections that could lead to work being posted here. If you know of photographers whose work should be featured, please contact us. Self-nominations are welcome, as photographers today have enough problems without having to be modest as well.

We inaugurate the Photographer’s Showcase with the work of Patrick Andrade. Patrick is a freelance photographer affiliated with the Atlas Press. His work has appeared in the NYT, Newsweek, and Paris Match as well as many other places. He is currently following the campaign for the presidency. The work posted here is a series of black and white photographs that feature the people of Campaign 2008 – On The Road. Click on the photograph below to see the full slide show.

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January 24th, 2008

Kissing War and Tasting Victory

Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “Times Square Kiss” is among the most famous photographs ever taken.With the exception of Joe Rosenthal’s “Raising Old Glory on Mt. Suribachi,” it is possibly the most reproduced, imitated, and performed photograph of any in the pantheon of U.S. photojournalism or documentary photography. It is, as Time/Life might say, the center piece in the American family photo album, a representation, as one caption of the image has it, of “The Way We Were.” It should come as no surprise then, when critics draw upon it to call attention to the hypocrisies and tragic ironies of U.S. policies and cultural practices. The most recent case in point is this digital illustration by Koren Shadmi that appears in “Artists Against War,” a collaboration between The Nation and The Society of Illustrators to showcase the work of 60 prominent graphic artists whose work “challenges the self-destructive ignorance, indifference, incompetence and corruption that is the result of the U.S. Middle East foreign policy.”

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The illustration is easily recognizable as an imitation of Eisenstaedt famous photograph, but of course the differences are both pronounced and resonant. The original is a bright and fairly high contrast image produced in the grey scales of black and white film and according to the strict conventions of realist photography; there are shadows, but they are barely recognizable, and in general the visual tableau invokes the symbolic brightness of a new day, just as the occasion of V-J Day invited the promise of the return to a golden past. Following the visual conventions of the graphic novel, the illustration above is drawn in muted tones and tinctures, only slightly more colorful than the black and white photograph. The kissers here are cast at the edge of a dark shadow (emanating from the space of the viewer, and pointing, no doubt, to the future), the background of the drawing enveloped in either billowing smoke or black clouds, and in any case the overarching tonality of the image is dark and ominous rather than bright and joyful, menacing rather than hopeful.

It is the thorough absence of joy and hope that determines the affect of the illustrated kiss. The photograph represents a joyful moment, its kiss a passionate and public performance of the release of nearly four years of repressed desires. Thanatos gives way to eros, marked not only by the kiss itself, with the promise of greater release yet to come, but by the way in which civilian spectators witness the event with approving smiles. This is the world we want to live in, and there is a sense in which the bodies of the kissers channel the emotional energy—the hopes and desires—of the people that surround them as the vectors of the image vaguely recall the “V” for victory, men on his side, women on hers.

By contrast, the illustrated kiss is neither joyful nor passionate, but rather decidedly foreboding. The awkward and somewhat restrained left hand of the sailor in the photograph now holds a gun poised for use (although the enemy remains unseen and thus anonymous), while his right hand is covered in red blood that blemishes the purity of the nurse’s white uniform and forces us to acknowledge that eros and thanatos are inextricably entwined. The kiss is made to seem all the more impersonal—if not also somewhat transgressive—by the fact that the kisser is wearing night goggles as well as a wide array of weapons and military accoutrements. And note too that the pair are no longer surrounded by ordinary citizens—an indulgent and approving public—but by an anonymous and armed military force. It is not clear that the surrounding soldiers even notice the kissers, and even if they do, they certainly offer no signs of approval. Overshadowed by the events of war, both the presence and voice of the public has been erased—a telling cipher, perhaps, for our current political condition. If victory has been achieved here, it clearly seems to be short lived.

The Eisenstaedt photograph is often captioned as a “return to normalcy,” and on one popular poster for sale, it is titled “Kissing the War Goodbye.” From this perspective the normal world is a rejection of the dark and dreary culture of war, and with it the eternal return to a bright and joyful place where the sexual obsessions of private life can operate in tandem with the decorum necessary to the discipline of public life without the hint of tension or irony. By contrast, Shadmi’s illustration is titled “Tasting Victory,” and thus frames the image as the embrace of war, rather than its rejection. From this perspective, the normal world seems to be a culture where one eroticizes the taste of military success and in which wars are cultivated and eventually normalized in a never ending cycle of violence.

It is easy, of course, to prefer one image over the other at any given moment in history, entranced either by the romance of the photograph or the critical skepticism of the illustration. But what we need to acknowledge is the fundamental sense in which the two images are inextricably connected. Treated apart from one another, each underwrites a more or less simplistic political fantasy of civic life that invariably falls short of the complex social and political needs of the late modern world; treated together the two renditions remind us that each representation is a limited construction of the world and that a healthy polity needs both romance and skepticism—and more—in order to enable and sustain a robust public culture.

Illustration Credit: Koren Shadmi

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January 23rd, 2008

Joy and Grief in Kenya

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

World news coverage of late has been filled with images of violence in the streets. Typically these are photographs of demonstrators battling with police or rival mobs. Sometimes there are scenes of looting or beating–often of the police laying into someone–or of spectators such as children or shopkeepers looking anxiously at the still unfolding madness around them. For all that, the many images look much the same, as if there were one endless demonstration playing out continually across the world, one long-running political spectacle in the theater of the Arab/African/Asian/Latin American street.

That may be why this image is at once familiar and yet scandalous:

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Instead of the usual backdrop of the demonstration along an otherwise busy city street, here we see real wreakage amidst what otherwise was already a slum. And instead of the stock characters of earnest citizens and bullying cops, or outraged citizens and cautious cops, or mob frenzy and state terror, or any other political scenario, here we see a man exulting in the sheer ecstasy of destruction. An obscene truth is being revealed: what is violence and burning and horror to some is for others an experience of raw freedom as it can be perversely but powerfully known only through violent revenge and ruin. The sound track should be the Ode to Joy.

We’re not supposed to see that truth, and many others appear once that Pandora’s box is opened. Violence persists not only because so many are denied so much by so few, but also because it remains the best shot some have at feeling powerful. Freedom comes from democracy and prosperity, but the experience of freedom can be had by destroying those that have what others lack. I could go on, but you get the point. And that’s why it also is important to look at the next photo:

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The Washington Post caption says, “A woman finds the body of her brother lying by the roadside in Nairobi’s Mathare suburb.” This also is a terrible picture. We see not violence but its aftermath of death. And, as if it matters, useless, sad, lonely, ignoble death. But that doesn’t matter. A person–a brother, son, friend, and more–has been destroyed. The terrible absence of the head could be an optical illusion, but one fears the worst. The boulder, which could have killed him and seems to be his severed head, lays there as if the reality of the body alone weren’t enough to communicate the harsh brutality and finality of his murder.

This also is a photo about softness, however. Other than the hard-edged boulder, the scene features draped clothing, a woman’s torso, her companion’s kindness, the lavender umbrella, and, of course, the elegiac rain. Nature has obliged to express the appropriate tone for a scene of mourning. And she is mourning, and by standing there without touching her brother she already is giving herself over to the utter helplessness that death lays on the living. Yet by being there and bearing witness to her brother and her loss, she stands for the return of human decency.

The joy in the first photo comes from hate. Hate is something harder, deeper, less changeable, and far more dangerous than other emotions. It also has no place in politics. Hate is in fact one border of the political: You can struggle to live with others, even to dominate them, or you can hate and kill them. Likewise, hate is felt toward groups, while anger is felt toward individuals (see Aristotle’s Rhetoric, 1382a). By seeing the senseless loss created by an individual laying dead on the street, the second photo returns us to a world of persons who deserve justice or protection but not violence.

Grief may be a deeply political emotion. Even though no one can reach the depths of pain felt by the individual stricken with grief, it calls forth empathy and can move us all to cross the borders of our estrangement from one another. It was grief, not killing or victory or glory that finally brought Achilles out of his rage against the Trojans to a moment of decency. Perhaps the recognition of grief can remind us that violence is not just another means for political expression. It is how we end up dancing in Hell.

Photographs by Simon Maina/Agence France-Presse-Getty Images and Boniface Mwangi/Bloomberg News.


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January 22nd, 2008

Fred Thompson, Trouper

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

The papers of late have been full of pictures of the front runners in the presidential nominating races surrounded by throngs of near delirious supporters eager to touch the hem of the political celebrity who has come to their otherwise inconsequential state. (OK, I’ll retract that last remark in respect to South Carolina, which has started a war.) These photos are full of the energy of massed bodies, close encounters, and the charismatic touch. They are representative of important features of our political process, for better or worse, but they don’t tell the whole story. To get closer to that, we have to look elsewhere, like here:

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You are looking at a photo from last week of Fred Thompson stepping onto a stage in Prosperity, South Carolina. The long view allows us to see the candidate as part of a scene, rather someone around whom everything else is compressed. The view also isolates each part of the scene: candidate, bunting, handler, local supporter, and wife-and-kid are each identifiable as if pieces of a grade school diorama. What is most revealing, however, is that we see both stage and backstage in a single view. What would have been The Candidate framed by the Red White and Blue becomes instead a tacky stage set–hey, don’t trip on that cord! And instead of those gathered in his name, we see instead wife-and-kid waiting in the wings, or waiting to make their entrance, but either way now bit players that make Thompson no more than the lead in the school play.

I suspect that this image is presented to remind us that Thompson’s campaign remains a non-starter. One reason I think so is because the shot above called to mind another taken last year:

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Now we’re in Anderson, South Carolina. Not much has changed. Again, the key element of composition is that we are shown both stage and backstage. And as before, the difference between front and back is only a flimsy curtain and our customary inattention to political stagecraft. This photo may be a bit more grim in that we see Thompson just before he puts on his theatrical mask. And we see a bit more of the area behind the curtain–enough to really know that backstage is a cold, harsh, functional place of calculation and paying the bill.

Again, the message is that this guy is not going to win. He’s playing on far too small a stage in too small a place to what barely counts as an audience. (Pop Quiz: how old will Thompson by the time that kid on the left votes?) That’s not exactly news, however. I think the real value of these images is that they show us what every candidate experiences and endures. The big winners only get there by playing before small houses like these in the community theater of American politics. And when some of them make it, the stage gets larger, but there is always a stage.

Photographs by Jim Wilson/New York Times and Mary Ann Chastain/Associated Press.


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January 21st, 2008

Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1968, In Memorium

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visual memory

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Montgomery, Alabama, 1955

 

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Birmingham, Alabama 1963

 

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Washington, D.C., 1963

 

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Oslo, Norway, 1964

 

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Washington, D.C., 1964

 

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Memphis, Tennessee, 1968

 

 

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