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Optical Noise in Iraq

Coverage of the war in Iraq has been showing signs of fatigue lately, and for good reason. Now into the fifth year of the war, yet another parade of generals in Washington provided little consolation amidst the steady death toll–32 US soldiers in March, 46 so far this April, as well as hundreds of Iraqi deaths–and the many, many more who are wounded, traumatized, or refugees. But how many photos can you take of troops tramping through homes or dispensing medical care or just killing time? How often will we look at another bombed out vehicle or another general on PR duty? The carnage continues, but we all know that the political situation is not getting any better, everything is on hold until after the presidential election, and everyone is getting tired. Perhaps that’s why there have been a number of images lately like this:


It may be the season for sandstorms, but you wouldn’t have known it in previous years. Now, however, the slide shows have many variations on this shot. The sand is so comprehensive that it acts like an optical filter. The soldiers seem suspended like a prehistoric bug in amber. The one on the left has become doll-like, a GI Joe figure to be moved around but incapable of changing anything. The one on the right could be lost in thought. Everything is slowed down, grinding to a halt, as if there were sand in the gears of history.

If there had been only one of the sandstorm images, I would have let it pass. But they kept appearing, and then I noticed that there was another series also being spooled out. Images like this one:


This is a photograph taken through the night vision equipment used by US troops. The fact that the photo is taken through a scope or similar instrument while on patrol gives these images some sense of action, but there still is the sense that everything is happening in slow motion. Slow probably is good when men are walking around with guns at night, but the photo creates a sense of suspended animation. The green filter is not eco-friendly green but rather something from a heavy dream. Warriors stand in archetypal tableau as if at the gates of some netherworld. The green air is noxious, miasmic. The war is not a place for action; it is a place that will never change.

Both images may be surreal–or prophetic. They also might be examples of what we could call “optical noise.” That term could refer to the visual din in images cluttered with signage, but I’m referring to something else. Each photograph is an image of the war, but one in which the visual equivalent of white noise is omnipresent. That noise doesn’t occlude the image but it does interfere with emotional response. And, of course, it is tiring.The first photograph shows a scene that could be clear at another time; the second shows something that would be invisible without the cyborg eye. In neither case are we able to see clearly. In both we have a metaphor for the present state of the war, one in which we have seen too much and yet not enough. A war in which everything seems mired in sand, trapped in a bad dream, waiting for change, for clarity.

Photographs by Alaa Al-Marjani/Associated Press and Rafiq Maqool/Associated Press. (The first is from Najaf, Iraq; the second is from Mandozi, Afghanistan. There are many night vision images from Iraq, but this was the one close at hand when putting up this post. There are differences between the two wars, but both now are subject to optical noise, which is created by the repetition of stock images while providing a metaphor for the current stalemate.)


Greenwashing the Softporn Aesthetic

The connection between edgy, avant-garde, fashion photography and a soft porn aesthetic is nothing new, especially in high end fashion magazines like Vogue. When it shows up in the NYT it can create a flap, as it did when the 2007 Holiday issue of T featured a photo shoot of 17 year old model Ali Michael in a series of seductive images, including one photograph that revealed the barest glimpse at an out of focus breast. Sex sells, of course, and as one NYT Magazine editor justified the decision to publish the photographs, “We’re well past the point in our culture when there is a bright line that separates sexually charged images of men and women just short of 18 from art.” Of course, the line would seem to be a bit brighter between a woman just short of 18,” such as Ms. Michael and, say, 15 year old teen idol Miley Cyrus (aka, Disney’s “Hannah Montana”) whose topless and semi-clad portrait by Annie Leibovitz is featured in the current issue of Vanity Fair.


Leibovitz’s portrait has created a controversy of its own, with advocates on one side worrying about the effect of the image on the preteens who look up to Cyrus as a role model and those on the other side concerned with the effect it will have on the “wholesome image” that underwrites the projected billion dollar industry that has grown up around the Hannah Montana brand. No one so far seems to be concerned with the degree to which Cyrus herself is being exploited in all of this, but that is a topic for another day.

What the controversy calls attention to for us, however, is that while we seem to live in a public culture that worries about the way in which adolescent sexuality is portrayed with real adolescents, we don’t seem to be worried when otherwise, presumably mature women are portrayed as if they embody a seductive, adolescent sexuality. At some point we have to ask, what difference does it make?

Consider, for example, this fashion photograph that appeared in this week’s Sundays NYT Magazine.


We are never told the name of the model and there is no way to know her age. Nor does it matter. For whether she is fourteen or twenty-one, the point is that she is portrayed as a young Lolita, her supple body barely covered by a dress that seems to be in tatters. The expression on her face simultaneously performs a cultivated innocence and a primitive sexuality, the two reinforced by her bare feet and skinny, pale legs spread seductively around the back of a folding chair. Her long hair is both combed and yet unkempt, simultaneously complementing and accenting the tensions between nature and culture that pervade her pose and animate the adolescent sexual energy of the image. Shot in the grey scales of black and white photography and with the slightest hint of a soft focus, it has a subtle dream-like quality to it which invokes a surrealism that adds to its erotic appeal. (In this regard it contrasts with the muted, desaturated colors in Leibovitz’s portrait of Cyrus, which produce a harsher, somewhat gothic effect that seems hardly erotic at all.) And the question is, if we are troubled by Leibovitz’s photograph (or others like it, such as those of Ali Michael), why is there no hue and cry about images such as this which pretend to represent a seductive adolescent sexuality for mass consumption?

Part of the answer, no doubt, has to do with the vexed relationship between art and pornography. And so, of course, we have to take context into account. This photograph is one of six images that appeared as part of a story titled “Green With Envy.” The story focuses on eco-conscious fashion being marketed to a “well-heeled audience” by Earth Pledge and Barneys New York. It thus operates within the soft porn aesthetic of high fashion photography. The woman above is wearing a Maison Martin Margiela dress made from “silk head scarves that were bleached, cut into strips and asymmetrically woven by hand.” The price is available on request, though the eco-conscious fashion wear on display in the other five images ranges in price from $910 for a smock dress made of “undyed cotton” to $10,000 for a ruffled dress made from “biopolymer—a corn-based alternative to polyester.” What we have, then, is the greenwashing of a soft porn aesthetic, where one progressive cause (save the environment) seems to trump another (protect our youth from sexual exploitation).

Apparently there is no end to what sex can sell, including a sustainable earth. Surely this is no way to save the planet.

Photo Credits: Annie Leibovitz/Vogue; Earth Pledge and Barneys New York


Paper Call: Memefest




Memefest, the International Festival of Radical Communication–born in Slovenia and rapidly reaching a critical mass worldwide–is proud to announce its seventh annual competition. Once again, Memefest is encouraging students, writers, artists, designers, thinkers, philosophers, and counter-culturalists to submit their work to our panel of renowned judges.

This years festival theme is RADICAL BEAUTY. Participants will respond to an excerpt taken from themovie Rize and comment on it with their works. Here is how we defined radical beauty: Beauty is a cultural creation that expresses dominant values. In the 21st century beauty is often extremely commercialized. Radical beauty is a cultural creation that expresses the desire of a change in society. Radical beauty is about changing dominant values through action and creation. Grassroots projects are often the vectors of these changes.

As always, those whose work does not take a conventional format can enter the Beyond… category,where the name of the game is challenging mainstream practices and beliefs! Beyond… continues togrow in popularity as a category not only because of its avant-garde appeal but because it is open to non-students as well.

Memefest occurs completely on-line at www.memefest.org, and all entries will be available for full access and commentary in the site galleries. In 2007, Memefest received almost 500 entries from participants of every continent on the globe (except Antarctica). We hope to get bigger, and to spread more of those good infectious ideas, so keep thinking- and creating.

Deadline for submissions is May 20th 2008! Good luck!


Sight Gag: "Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You …"


Photo Credit: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

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.


BUILT: Huddled Masses, Living Here?

BUILT explores the changing city in the US and the challenges that will affect housing, infrastructure, neighborhood cohesion, and equity in the coming years. BUILT is a series of research, installation, dialogue, interview, and performance events of varied scale, including the opportunity for public conversation offered at this blog.

In the coming years, the population of the US will continue to expand with increasing concentration in urban areas. There is no one plan for how that will happen. Where will we live? Will we be thoughtful about that? Can we imagine better cities, neighborhoods, and homes? Will we act to achieve that vision?

And who will be involved? As before, we begin with a photograph:


In the BUILT process, we’ve been working around notions of place, power, ownership, and voice. This photo of Chicago residents marching in last year’s national immigration rally foregrounds the role of democratic dissent in urban life. It poses a deeper question as well, one regarding national history (whether in the US or elsewhere): how do we, and how have we, shared space? What factors determine, influence, and establish the right to inhabit space–to claim and name a place?

BUILT is a performance/civic dialogue project and a collaboration of Northwesten University’s Theater Department & Portland, Oregon’s Sojourn Theatre, led by visiting artist Michael Rohd.

Photograph by Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press. The full text of the poem alluded to in the title of this post is available here.


In Search of "the people"

The tradition of transporting the Olympic torch from Mt. Olympia to the Olympic Stadium via relay was inaugurated at the Eleventh Modern Olympiad, more commonly known as the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and under the watchful eyes of Adolf Hitler and the German Third Reich. Needless to say, there was no question that the spectacle, captured by Leni Riefenstahl in her documentary Olympia, served an explicit political purpose; and equally certain, there were no dissenters present at the event (or at least visible to the cameras that captured the occasion for posterity). Any discussion of the recent protests for human rights surrounding the relay of the torch to Beijing for the Twenty-ninth Modern Olympiad needs to begin by remembering the origins of the tradition.

China’s record of human rights violations have been featured in western photojournalistic venues recently, oscillating between images of the often brutal oppression of Tibetans and images of protesters around the world urging a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. And, of course, photographs of protesters challenging the Olympic relay have been especially prominent. The photograph below, however, is somewhat unique amongst such images and in its own way it is a provocative allegory for the problem that China and the International Olympic Committee face.


What we are looking at is the route that the Olympic torch was to take in New Delhi along Prakash Vir Shastri Avenue, the major boulevard that runs throughout most of the city and eventually passes Rashtrapati Bhavan, the palace and official residence of the President of India, seen here in the upper right hand corner of the photograph. Shot from on high and at a distance, the image situates the viewer as a spectator looking down upon the scene, but apparently not part of it. The wide angle underscores the fact that we are in a public space as it captures a major intersection in the road; the sharp contrast of shadow and light draws our attention away from the buildings on either side of the avenue to the width of the boulevard and the vectors that divide and guide the street traffic. According to the caption that accompanied the picture in the NYT, the people standing in the street are “officials wait[ing] for the torch … along a boulevard purged of spectators.”

The Olympic relay is designed as a spectacle, its ostensible purpose being to generate visible and worldwide enthusiasm for the pageantry and athletic events soon to follow. But, of course, a spectacle needs spectators, and here, the caption tells us, they have been “purged.” The choice of words is ominous, as is a midday image of a major boulevard in a major city absent any sign of its people. India is a democratic republic with a constitution that guarantees its citizens a wide range of civil rights, including freedom of speech and expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly. The dissent that is the product of such rights is essential to a vital democratic polity, but here apparently, the simple fear of anti-Chinese protests was enough to keep the public—supporters and dissenters alike— far enough away from the event so as to avoid “marr[ing] its appearance.” The irony is that in the process the Olympic relay in New Delhi was made into something of a caricature of itself. Designed to silence those who would urge a boycott on the Olympics, the photograph shows us what the effect of such a boycott might actually be: a spectacle without spectators.

From a slightly different vantage point, however, the photograph reinvests the viewer with a certain moral force, for while the framing distances us from the scene, it also nevertheless positions us as witnesses to a “purging.” And in this context it calls to mind the iconic photograph of the lone individual standing down a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square, shot on a similar public thoroughfare and from a comparable vantage. The difference, of course, is that the earlier photograph featured the liberal individual by his heroic presence, and here we are confronted with a democratic people by their forced and pronounced absence. What we need to remember is that in the end a functioning liberal-democracy requires both in some measure of equipoise and that we can never—not ever—let the fear of dissent compromise our commitment to either lest we destroy what we intended to save in the first place.

Photo Credit: Vijay Mathurs/Reuteurs


Have You No Sense of Decency?

This photograph stopped me in my tracks:


The power of an image depends on both composition and context. To explain the impact of this photograph, I need to say a few words about the moral dimension of contemporary public life.

Although some don’t like to admit it, democratic politics rightly includes a certain amount of ethical sloppiness. Instead of authoritarian enforcement of moral order, democracy encourages people to negotiate with others, overlook differences in lifestyle, and settle for agreement on outcomes rather than principles. But if the competition for votes and the enforcement of policies becomes completely separated from ethics, democracies can become corrupted.

Recent events in the news have made the this growing danger all too clear. Three items need to be connected. First, we now know that torture was not the work of rogue soldiers, but rather was discussed and approved at the highest levels of the administration. Nor was this done in a general manner, but rather through highly detailed accounts of specific methods of abuse in tandem with carefully planned strategies for institutional protection of the government. In other words, the case has been made for prosecution of the current administration as war criminals. Second, the New York Times discovered that the “independent” military analysts giving “objective” assessments on the television news channels have been dutifully relaying administration propaganda to promote the war, and doing so while also in the employ of defense industries profiting from the war. In short, an influential sector of the press has become the propaganda organ for a criminal administration. Third, there was the ABC presidential nomination debate, which seemingly was modeled on “American Idol” while avoiding all major questions of policy, save for when the questioner promoted further reduction in the capital gains tax. What should be a forum for deliberative argument became instead a lesson in how to use entertainment and ideology to avoid thinking about reality.

In this context, it will be very easy for people to lose their ethical bearings while cynicism triumphs. “All politicians are alike.” “There’s nothing we can do.” “At least we’re not fanatics.” Perhaps it was because of this background of ethical complacency or defeatism that I was shaken by the photograph above.

Let’s look at it more closely. A man is carrying an injured woman after a car bombing in Baqouba, a provincial capital northeast of Baghdad. (The bombing was part of yet another attack in the insurgency and civil war unleashed by the US invasion.) Behind the man, another woman is also being helped as she holds a cloth to her face. Behind her, a boy has been bloodied as well. The background also includes a police vehicle and personnel, and then a curb, fence, trees, and the rest of an orderly, pleasant scene like you might see in any suburban neighborhood in the US. But for the women’s garb and the beret on the soldier, they could be entering a suburban hospital. Thus, there is a declension of violence from most injured to uninjured, and, for many viewers, a declension of identification from least familiar in the foreground to most familiar in the background. Working against this tendency, the wounded are being brought into the viewer’s space, as if from a common background through a rupture created by war to further disrupt our world.

But the war is not materially disruptive for most Americans. It is easy to forget the harm being done. Until you look into his eyes. That look is what stops me from turning the page, changing the subject, and no longer caring. The rest of the scene is now a staple of world news; the victims are offered to us for our reactions, which may also become equally habitual and brief. No strong demand is made. By looking into the camera, the man activates the visual grammar of demand, but he is not demanding. This is not a call for vengeance or justice or mercy or help. It does beyond that. He stands there not as a victim but as a human being, and he asks for one thing–the most important thing–which is to look at what we have done. Facing a culture of willful blindness, he looks us in the eye and asks that we see.

The phrase that instantly came to mind was the question posed by attorney Joseph Welch to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy Hearings. Finally reaching the limit of his tolerance of the Senator’s abuse of the privileges of free speech and congressional power, Welch asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” To regain our moral center, the citizens of the US must do what the administration and too many members of the press have willfully refused to do: Ask the question this photograph is asking: How can you do this? Have you no sense of decency? No sense of shame?

Photograph by Adem Hadei/Associated Press.


The Challenge to America's "Greenest Generation"


By most accounts Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima’s Mt. Suribachi is the most reproduced photograph of all time – ever! Claims to universality always invite dispute, but this one tends to go uncontested and for the life of me I can’t think of another photograph that might seriously challenge its primacy. Such reproductions have occurred not just in traditional print media, but on stamps (twice), commemorative plates, woodcuts, silk screens, coins, key chains, cigarette lighters, matchbook covers, beer steins, lunchboxes, hats, t-shirts, ties, calendars, comic books, credit cards, trading cards, post cards, and human skin, and in advertisements for everything from car insurance to condoms and strip joints. Additionally, it is frequently parodied in places like The Simpsons and it is a common trope in editorial cartoons where it draws its rhetorical force from both the power of its familiarity and the logic of substitution, whether to pious or cynical ends. And if there is a point to be made here it is that the image is regularly invoked to a wide range of patriotic and resistant or counter-cultural ends, thus marking the interpretive tensions invited and invoked by the original photograph.

All of this is to say that on the face of things there is nothing particularly noteworthy about Time’s appropriation of the image this week to frame and promote its “green” agenda in a special issue on the “War on Global Warming.” The original photograph works in three registers, emphasizing by turns a commitment to egalitarianism (the men are anonymous and without rank, while working together to a common purpose), nationalism (the raising of the flag on foreign territory is a symbolic expression of national sacrifice and victory), and civic republicanism (heroic sacrifice and commitment to the common good often commemorated in statuary designed to display civic virtues). Time’s usage of the photograph operates in all three registers as it substitutes a tree for the flag, and inserts color into what was originally a black and white image (as well as substituting a “green” border for the magazine cover’s traditional “red” border). The appeal, then, is to invoke a national effort of heroic proportions that will require equal sacrifice from every citizen in a war against an enemy that presumes to pose at least as large a challenge to world security as the axis powers. Just as the “greatest generation” brought the full force of its resources and resolve to vanquish fascism and make the world safe for democracy, so the image seems to say, the “greenest generation” can do battle to produce a greener, postcarbon world. The key difference, of course, is that here the enemy is ourselves, though that doesn’t really receive very much attention in either the photographic appropriation or in the lead article that accompanies it.

In short, the appeal of the cover image appears to be altogether innocuous. And given U.S. contributions to the problem of global warming, as well as our refusal to endorse the Kyoto protocols (even with their arguably flawed accords), there is no question that we need a serious and sustained national environmental policy designed to reduce our carbon foot print. And yet, there is something just a little bit troubling about the image. “Green,” we are told in something of a caption on the inside of the magazine, is the “new red, white and blue.” The lead article concludes, “The U.S. has enjoyed an awfully good run since the middle of the 20th century, a sudden ascendancy that no nation before or since has matched. We could give it up in the early years of the 21st—or we could recognize—as we have before—when a leader is needed and step into the breach. Going green: What could be redder, whiter, and bluer than that.” And there is the rub, for just as the title on the cover employs a martial metaphor to announce a “War on Global Warming,” so the photograph frames it—and all that follows—in terms of “the good war” remembered in not so subtle imperialistic terms.

We can (and should) debate the propriety of war metaphors as a basic strategy for dealing with global problems, but my interest here is in mapping out how the particular appropriation of the original photograph coaches an attitude that seems to rely on tired and clichéd conceptions of American exceptionalism. The key is in recognizing how the substitution of color for black and white on the cover is far more significant and complex than it might at first appear. Put simply, it is not just an appeal to be “green” (although it is that), but it also functions to translate the meaning of being “green” into a symbolic register that both defines environmentalism in terms of U.S. nationalism—“green is the new red, white, and blue”—and, more, makes something of an imperialistic fetish out of it.

If all we had was the Time cover to support this claim we might be rightly subject to the charge of over interpretation. But when we turn to the nine page cover story we find a series of what Time characterizes as “photo-illustrations” —not exactly the realist photographs of conventional photojournalism, but the medium of photography combined with creative photoshop skills that produce more or less surreal effects—that make the point visually over and again, ad nauseum.

The story begins with a full page color photo-illustration of a U.S. flag attached to a sapling that is growing out of a planter and being watered by an anonymous hand. Where the cover image substitutes the color green for the grey scale rendition of the red, white, and blue flag, here we get the reverse, a red, white, and blue flag substituting for ought to be green leaves; the anonymous hand completes the connection with the cover image as it stands in as a cipher for the anonymous soldiers. Two pages later we have another full page, color photo-illustration of two toddlers raising a green leaf up a flag pole on what would appear to be a mountain top. Nationalism and environmentalism are thus sutured in a naturalistic register, and all the more so as both are reinforced by the apt attention and simple innocence of children. That they appear to stand on a mountaintop draws the connection to Mt. Suribachi and further accents the natural, generational association between the “greatest generation” and the “greenest generation.” Turn the page once again and we come to a third full page color photo-illustration, this time of a sapling that appears to be exploding through a wooden floor that might otherwise contain it, its leaves bursting out in a full array of reds, whites, and blues as if part of a fireworks display on the Fourth of July. Whereas the first image shows a flag attached to a sapling, and the second shows nature being colonized by human hands to nationalistic ends, this third image completes the transformation as here nature has become fully and expressively one with the nation despite obstacles that might stand in its way.

Three other half-page photo-illustrations interspersed throughout he article underscore the claim to the “natural” connection between nationalism and environmentalism, as well as a more implicit appeal to American exceptionalism. The first and most stunning is of a tree branch with five green leaves, the most prominent one in the middle of the image growing in the shape of the United States. The last is a photo illustration of a man pushing a reel lawn mower as he sculpts the image of Old Glory in a giant lawn. Each underscores the sense in which both nature and nation are animated by the same impulse, whether driven by both geography (the “natural” boundaries of the map) or ideology (the histories and traditions marked by the “March of the Flag.”). It is the middle photo-illustration that makes the point most subtly, for here we have two men dressed in white and painting the white stripes and stars on the U.S. flag green: By contrast to other places in the article where “green” is substituted for “red, white, and blue,” and visa versa, here the two are imbricated with one another in a manner that makes being green a matter of nationalist identity and ownership, even as it implies the natural legitimacy (and thus authority) of national interest.

And lest we think that too much is being made of six images that occupy half the space of a nine page article that purports to be about how to solve the problem of global warming, we would note that there are only four 1¾ inch photographs of various alternative technologies for fighting global warming, each barely visible, let alone recognizable, and certainly neither informational nor memorable.

Let’s be green by all means, but let’s do it as citizens of the world, not as the dying vestiges of last century’s American exceptionalism with all that it implies.

Credits: Cover photo-illustration by Arthur Hochstein/Time and Joe Rosenthal/AP; Photo-illustrations by Anne Elliott Cutting and Frederick Broden; Petroalgae LLC. For a more detailed discussion of the Rosenthal “Iwo Jima” photograph and its history of appropriation, see No Caption Needed, pp. 93-136.


Sight Gag: The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse


Photo Credit: Dara Greenwald, Justseeds: Visual Resistance Artists Cooperative

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.

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