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. . . .

March 31st, 2008

Radiant Agriculture

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

Every spring and fall the photographic record in the US includes a few stock images of agriculture. Spring images include tractors turning the earth and kids holding newborn lambs; typical autumn fare includes combines moving across the Great Plains and pumpkins waiting to be carved. Modern agribusiness and a mythic county life each get their due. For the most part, however, we don’t see where our food comes from. The near-complete separation of the production and consumption of food is more than a distribution of labor–it is one of the things that makes us feel modern. Not surprisingly, it also ensure that “food” becomes very elastic, so much so that the local supermarket can have over 100,000 different products for sale.

The absence of images about food production is part of this willful dislocation of eating from growing, killing, and preparing food. It also isn’t a big loss much of the time. Who wants to watch wheat grow? Even so, once in a while an image comes along that can stop me in my tracks. Like this one:

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The photo is of a rice field in Yunnan province in Southern China. It’s displayed both as a photo of the day at National Geographic online and at the Yunnan entry at Wikipedia. I think it belongs in the tradition of Chinese fine art. Indeed, if it seems familiar that probably is because it evokes earlier art works. Those paintings also may have captured terraced fields on landforms that seem so dynamic that they might be clouds. They, too, will have showed a place as if it were both uniquely particular and some fantastic otherworld. They also have mastered the exquisite tension between energy and order that makes the scene appear at once airily ephemeral and so beautiful that it could be eternal. The photograph stands alone, however, because of how it captures the light. The bright-hued light doesn’t so much shine on the landscape as radiate from within it.

The photo’s sense of aesthetic harmony amidst powerful natural energies might carry over, through the caption, to the idea that this also is an image of the good life: carefully manicured fields hug the wild mountain, and one can imagine that farmers are serenely engaged in sustainable agriculture as they have been for millennia except when drunk on sunshine. In fact, Yunnan has been a poor province that only now is producing enough rice to feed itself thanks to the addition of high-tech seeds and other modern practices. And so we get to the next photo:

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This image from North Dakota seems almost funereal. The land is cold and empty, the sun is setting, and all that remains are a line of metal railroad cars that are evenly spaced as if sprockets in some cosmic abandoned factory. This is mechanized commodity crop production, and it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to be in the picture. The image accompanied a report on North Dakota’s population decline; the story was entitled Not Far from Forsaken.

That’s not the whole story, however. This barren winter desert is an unbelievably productive source of food that is shipped all over the world. So let’s look at the photo again, for it, too, suggests the promise that was so vivid in the first image. As Kathleen Norris learned, Dakota also is a place of heavenly energy. Look at the sun in this photo as something radiating constantly through the land, through the networks of exchange that define every meal we eat, and, most important, through the wheat that lies in the rail cars waiting to be converted into food and all we can do when we don’t want for food.

Photographs by Eugene Richards/New York Times; Jialiang Gao.

March 30th, 2008

Sight Gags: Play ball?

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

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Photo Credit: John Lucaites

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.

March 28th, 2008

Journal Announcement: Photography and Culture, Volume 1

Posted by Lucaites in conferences & shows, no caption needed

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For more information–including special two year subscription rates for individuals–go the Photography and Culture website.

March 27th, 2008

The Silent Costs of War

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

Several days ago we talked about the “faces of death” in Iraq. Today I want to talk about the costs of that war. The obvious costs are astonishing. Over 4,000 American personnel dead with at least seven times that number injured—and this doesn’t include those inflicted with some version of PTSD—and an additional 90,000 Iraqi deaths plus who knows how many injuries. Some media outlets have scandalously reported that this is far few casualties than in comparable wars in the past, but the number remains stunning, all the more so for a war fought under false pretenses. Locating the costs in dollars and cents is no less stunning. Through 2007 the war has cost 522 billion dollars; that’s $1,800 for every resident of the U.S. and it doesn’t take into account the 70 billion dollars already allocated for 2008 with no end in sight. But as I say above, these are the obvious costs.

But there are other costs, no less shocking or troubling, even if words to describe them are harder to come by and if we have to look harder to see them.

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I came across this picture in the Guardian while meeting with some friends at the coffee shop in my local Borders Bookstore. It looked like just one more of the numerous pictures of destruction that we see quite regularly coming out of Iraq and to which, if you are like me, you have become somewhat anesthetized. And then I read the caption: “A man stands in the Mutanabi books market [Baghdad], once a thriving intellectual hangout.” Sitting in a book store where I regularly meet with friends and colleagues to discuss the events of the day I was struck by the irony that what I was looking at was not just the tragic destruction of an ancient and majestic city, but the obliteration and erasure of civil society itself. With enough money and manpower cities can be rebuilt, but without the obligations and social capital generated by the relationships cultivated by civil society they are barren places; totally devoid of affiliation with friends and strangers alike, they are little more than political and economic facades that ultimately leave us alienated and alone, rather like the old man in the photograph, searching in vein for some sense of meaning lost amidst the wreckage of history.

But the cost of war exceeds even the destruction of civil society.

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I have seen many photographs of the war in the past five years that have had a strong effect upon me, but few have been as poignant or as troubling as this AP image of an Iraqi girl who “checks out the damage” of a suicide car bomber that killed 7 and wounded 14 more. The girl cannot be more than nine or ten years old. Her smock and blouse are neat and clean, and her hair is carefullly braided and adorned with yellow ribbons. And, of course, she is eating ice cream, surely one of life’s simplest pleasures, especially for children. She belongs in a park playing with friends, or perhaps in a schoolroom somewhere. But here, instead, she is framed by the remains of an insane act of destruction. What makes the picture so deeply troubling is that I cannot avoid the conclusion that what I am looking at is not the picture of innocence but a horrifying portrait of the utter normalization of war. She “checks out” the damage of a suicide bomber with the same nonchalant curiosity that my own young daughter would display when noticing a simple car crash for the umpteenth time: Interesting to be sure, but nothing she hadn’t seen before or didn’t anticipate seeing again—a mere fact of life, something to “check out” in passing, but certainly nothing to disrupt the pleasures of eating ice cream. One can only imagine with dismay how the young girl in the photograph will “see” the world as an adult.

No more tragic than the loss of lives, the scenes on display in these two photographs are no less tragic either, and perhaps all the more so because we so seldom include such scenarios in the ledger when we calculate war’s bottom line. But if we look real closely we can surely see the devastating effects of war’s silent costs. And we should mourn. And we should be horrified.

Photo Credits: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and AP

March 26th, 2008

When Machines Die

Posted by Hariman in afterimages, catastrophe

I suppose I’m getting sentimental in my old age, but this photo brings me to the first pangs of sadness, even grief.

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A forty-year-old DC-9 is being dismantled after being damaged by a ground vehicle at Midway Airport in Chicago. After being stripped of its avionics and other high-end materials, it’s being broken apart for scrap. Something about the scene really gets to me, as if it were a beloved old dog being laid to rest. But this is the fuselage of a plane, one I probably never even flew in, and what if I had? This is like getting sentimental over a bus stop bench that you drove by once or twice. Who cares?

Perhaps it’s because the the wings are gone and the plane is broken in two and laying at an angle on the ground; that, along with the appearance of a face and mouth makes it seem like an animal, something that once was alive and now is returning to the earth. This organic feeling is heightened by contrast with the machine that is tearing into it–and looking like some large insect predator feeding on a carcass. I would no more identify with a garden slug or snake or any rotting backyard mammal than with a machine, but the innate fear of being prey may have changed all that. A broken machine has become the embodiment of mortality, and with that the horror of being killed and eaten, or, almost as bad, dying alone and unmourned.

This is not the usual reaction to seeing machines hit the scrap heap. Usually there is some fascination with the heaps of twisted metal and similarly mangled objects following any accident, but no grief. “Was anybody hurt?” we ask, not referring to the vehicles. Sometimes we go further, taking out our rage against the machine in delightful visions of cars exploding or other familiar objects getting what they deserve. Like this:

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I once read about a place in New York City where you could take your small appliances, put them at the business end of an indoor firing range, and blast away. I’d absolutely love to go there. But that’s personal. There is something collective, and importantly so, in the reaction I had to the DC-9. Something like what was captured in this painting about the Hindenburg explosion.

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John and I included this in No Caption Needed (the book), and I’ll repeat a bit of what we said there: “By drawing on the traditional form [of the pieta] and making the machine so palpably organic, the work fuses two contradictory tendencies: she mourns the burning body and so the humanity burning in a fire of their own making, and she mourns the machine itself, a beautiful, almost living thing, a life form of the machine age that, like the age itself, is doomed to catastrophe.” Maybe the photo from Midway touched the same nerve. If we don’t mourn the death of a machine, we are in some degree indifferent to our own demise.

Photographs from the Chicago Tribune, SomethingAwful.com, and Bruce Duncan.

March 25th, 2008

The Face(s) of Death

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visualizing war

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The death toll for Americans in Iraq reached 4,000 on Sunday. “It’s a sober moment, and one that all of us can focus on in terms of the number.… The president feels each and every one of the deaths very strongly and he grieves for their families. He obviously is grieved by the moment but he mourns the loss of every single life.” Or at least that is what one of his surrogates reported as President Bush himself was too busy entertaining the Easter Bunny on the South Lawn of the White House to acknowledge and address the gravity of the moment.

The number of U.S. casualties is really rather hard to get a handle on, and the administration treat it as something of a shell game. When it is pointed out that we have reached something of a milestone with 4,000 deaths there is an effort to deflect the magnitude of the number by mourning “every single life”; when attention is turned to individual deaths the focus shifts to how the overall number of deaths has slowed since the beginning of the “surge” or how, as Vice President Cheney emphasized today, “every casualty, every loss” had joined the military voluntarily (as if that somehow mitigates the tragedy of their loss or soothes the pain of their families and friends).

Of course, visually representing the relationship between individual and collective is always a vexing problem. Since social and political collectives are corporate entities constituted by more than the sum of their parts, it is difficult to put the whole on display in any demonstrably real or objective manner. All we can ever really show is a part that presumably stands in for the whole, such as when large groups of people saluting the flag stand in for “the American people.” The typical strategy for representing the collective is through opinion polls or charts and graphs which aggregate individuals into statistical displays. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it removes all sense of the individual from the equation, literally reducing people(s) to abstract numbers. So it is that we can report that the average American family includes 2.6 children.

The NYT has addressed this problem inventively with a graphic representation that literally “puts a face” on war casualties in a manner that imbricates individual and collective losses in an interactive image that holds each in a kind of suspended animation, both the “one” and the “many” present at the same time with neither yielding their magnitude or significance to the other.

What we have above is a photo/graphic representation of David Stelmate, U.S. Army, age 27, who died on March 22, 2008. His face is made up of 4,000 squares, each one representing one of the other 3,999 U.S. deaths since the beginning of the invasion and occupation five years ago. When you click on any single square the name of one of those others appears; if you double click on it the large image changes to that individual. Below, for example is Jay T. Aubin, age 37, a U.S. Marine who was among the very first to die on March 21, 2003. To get to his image you would double click on the first block in the lower right hand corner of the graphic. To see how it works click on either the image above or below.

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Looking at these “faces of death” is excruciatingly difficult, all the more so when we condition ourselves to recognize how each demands that we take account–and responsibility–for the combined magnitude of individual and collective loss simultaneously. These are not just 4,000 Americans, but also and simultaneously 4,000 individuals: husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, friends and, yes, even strangers. And as you gaze upon these faces what you need to acknowledge is that even though the “number” of American deaths in Iraq has gone down since the surge, we are still losing American lives at the rate of “one a day” and there does not appear to be an end in sight. 4,000 American deaths–and lord knows how many Iraqis; a “sobering moment” indeed.

Photo Credit: Gabriel Dance, Aron Pilhafer, Andy Lehren, Jeff Damens/New York Times

Note: For a non-interactive variation on the this visual theme that uses the faces of the dead to create a mosaic that underscores both the magnitude of the collective loss and emphasizes cupability, see this representation at the Huffington Post.

March 24th, 2008

The Deer Hunter and the Fashion Show

Posted by Hariman in fashion/fiction

When looking through the slide shows at the online newspapers there are times when I wonder how some of the photographs could be coming from the same planet. Let’s start with this one:

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A Komi deer hunter is setting meat out to dry near his lodge on the Yamal Peninsula north of the Arctic Circle. You probably have a similar rack of meat in your backyard, right?

To someone who grew up reading popular histories of the Plains Indians, the picture appears to record a lost world. The lone hunter stands near a nomadic tipi with his dogs and fresh kill in a harsh natural environment. The shockingly raw slabs of the deer carcass suggest that he lives on the edge of survival himself. If you look around, however, you might notice that family members are tending to strong sleds while a good fire is going in the lodge. And look at the dog: he is disciplined, not lunging for the meat just above his head. Nor is everything austere, for the hunter has decorative wear on his leggings and boots. Instead of raw meat against a cold, barren landscape, we are looking at a sustainable culture.

But a very different culture from the one that produced this hothouse plant:

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You are looking at one of the offerings from a fashion show in Paris. This show featured ready-to-wear outfits–you know, something you might need when visiting the Yamal Peninsula. Her features might fit in there, and the color scheme features red, white, and black somewhat like the first image, but that’s the extent of the visual similarity between the two worlds.

She stands alone only because she already is supported by a vast social and technological network that includes everything from the media to the microwave oven in which she’ll cook her dinner. And rather than living in visceral closeness to nature, she is immersed in culture. Indeed, her livelihood depends entirely on dressing for display, while the outfit of the moment features a world of signs: fabric appliques mime a face while the smiley icon suggests that everything about her is but distinctive variation within a process of constant circulation. As the circles on her top are echoed by the circular motif on runway and wall, she exists in perfect harmony with a wholly artificial environment.

Can these two worlds converge? Should they? How might each attempt to do so? These questions can be answered from either standpoint–and usually in the negative, I would think–but I don’t have good access to either. There is one example of something like a synthesis, however, also from a fashion show. What might the fashion designer do if confronted with life above the Artic Circle? This is one answer:

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That, anyway, is how someone in Madrid imaged winter wear. He got the color scheme right, I guess, but it doesn’t look sustainable.

Photographs by Vassily Fedosenko/Reuters; Pascal Rossigno/Reuters; Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press.

March 23rd, 2008

Sight Gags: The War President

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

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Photo Credit: Kyrion Quote Confirmation: Sourcewatch

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 Jon 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 moments 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.

March 21st, 2008

Photographer's Showcase: The Reciprocity of People and Environment

Posted by Lucaites in photographer's showcase

This week we welcome Tom White to the NCN community. Tom is a freelance photographer who lives in New Jersey and hails from Bradford, West Yorkshire in the north of England. Tom has studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths College in London and and photojournalism and documentary photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. His travels have taken him throughout Europe, as well as the Far East, Brazil, and India, and his work has been published in the U.S. and U.K. and exhibited in both places as well as in Japan.

The photo-essay below is from a series on the reciprocal nature of people and their environment, focusing on the way people shape the landscape, which in turn shapes the people. We offer the images initially without commentary, but include White’s captions at the very end.

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1. A coal fired power plant in NJ looms over an area which was once a small rural township.

2. A gas station forecourt on I-78 in PA stands empty amongst the vestiges of the surrounding countryscape.

3. Bobby and Richie relax on a step outside a bar just off the Tonelle Avenue 1&9 truck route in NJ.

4. Half Latino, half Chinese, “Chino Chan” stands at Whitlock Ave. Station in the South Bronx, a densely populated and heavily industrialized region.

5. A heavily trafficked area near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel from NJ to NYC.

6. A boy plays basketball surrounded by derelict warehouses scheduled to become luxury condos in Jersey City.

7. Homeless man Randy Vargas sleeps in front of a church affiliated community center in Hoboken, NJ.

8. Members of the New Black Panther Party – a group unrelated to the original Black Panthers – stage a demonstration against street violence in Newark, NJ.

9. A knotted flag on the gatepost of an industrial estate in NJ.

March 20th, 2008

Iraq War Anniversary: Notes from the Charnel House

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed, visualizing war

“Anniversary” hardly seems like the right word, but that’s what is being used to mark five years of war in Iraq. The New York Times is devoting a lot of print and digital coverage to the start of the sixth year of the war. Their interactive time line is particularly depressing, not least because the Times still isn’t admitting to its complicity in the rush to war. For example, the photo selection suggests that Saddam was a casus belli and that the toppling of his statue was a popular uprising rather than a media event staged by the military in concert with our puppet du jour and international pariah Ahmed Chalabi. Even so, the truth gets through. Like this:

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I can barely stand it. Death–stupid, senseless death–is right there in front of us. And mess–the unholy mess of war and especially of this miserable, unnecessary, pathetic war. The whole scene is an allegory: the room obviously is not equipped for the emergency that has developed; the mutilated body (politic) has been bombed and then abandoned, leaving only horror and waste and indignity.

The photograph accompanies notes from the field by the photographer, Max Becherer. The caption reads, “A hospital worker in Kirkuk cleaned up after doctors tried, and failed, to save Mahmood al-Obaidei, a car-bomb victim, in 2005.” What hospital worker? I hardly noticed the orderly, who could as well be a department store mannequin. If you look closely you can see that he is alive but hardly a model of can-do professionalism. Nor can you blame him, as he too is dispirited, pushing a piece of the carnage with his foot like a kid with a mashed toad, not able to leave and not knowing what to do now that nothing really matters any more.

Becherer reports that minutes before the staff had been working furiously to save the bombing victim, who was responding to a defibrillator, only to have the power go out. Mahmood al-Obaidei, Kirkuk, death due to roadside bomb and power failure. The same could be said of the occupation.

Photograph by Max Becherer/Polaris for the New York Times.

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