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. . . .

August 31st, 2008

Sight Gag: Homeland Dream

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

“The beauty of a global state is difficult to communicate in words alone.”

Credit:  Safety State

“Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture.  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.

August 29th, 2008

Yes We Can

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Robert and I were trained in the discipline of rhetoric where we cut our teeth as scholars by studying the great speeches of the past, beginning in antiquity with Demosthenes and Cicero and extending through the nineteenth century with the likes of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and culminating in the last century with the orators like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.  Some insist that the venerable art of oratory has died in the late modern era, but it was alive and well tonight in the Mile High City where over 80,000 people congregated in a football stadium to listen to political speeches. And what speeches they were, from first to last, including both a former vice president and Noble Prize winner and a retired nurse from Pittsboro, North Carolina. The apogee was reached by the guest of honor, whose words and tones subtly and eloquently channeled the strains of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream,” delivered 45 years ago to the day. But for me the final speaker’s oration recalled memories of another Democratic National Convention Speech delivered 28 years ago in New York City that ended with these words, “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream will never die.”

Yes We Can!

Photo Credit: Stephen Crowley/New York Times

August 27th, 2008

The Other Woman

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

One result of Hillary Clinton’s speech at the Democratic convention has been another round of stories about her supporters who still harbor resentment over having to yet again watch a male grab the nomination. For awhile, the Angry White Woman voter will loom large, much like the Rural White Male who is such a problem for the Democrats except when giving Hillary her biggest primary victories. But if you look around the convention you can see another group of women who are having, if not the perfect day, a convention for the ages. I’m referring to the black women who are doubly benefiting from the Obama nomination.

You can see lots of images like this one in the slide shows or on the tube. From the look of things, these women realize that the Obama nomination is a truly historic moment, one that will empower many people, male and female, who have been waiting too long for their share of the American Dream. Equally important, they probably understand that Michelle Obama may be as important as her husband for redefining America’s image of itself.

No Hillary supporter should deride those who would expect to benefit from standing beside a president. To be fair, however, the anger many women feel is too deep to be taken lightly. Susan Faludi’s editorial yesterday provides an historical account of how little came of the passage of the 19th Amendment 100 years ago, and how much has been lost recently. She could have gone back to the passage of the 15th Amendment, when the suffrage movement was told, after working for the abolition of slavery, that the woman’s hour had not yet come. For educated white women who know they have been passed over before, this story must be getting old.

Faludi also reports that 25% of Clinton voters favored “the clear insanity of voicing their feminist protest by voting for John McCain.” If otherwise intelligent, politically engaged people feel pushed to that extreme, they must be hurting. More to the point, such deep anger reflects a genuine sense of injustice, one that should not be forgotten amidst the glare and good vibe of an Obama nomination. Nor should otherwise progressive commentators turn women against one another; that old trick will get enough play on the right this fall.

So, let’s give Hillary her moment in the sun, but let’s not forget who remains in the shadows. Obama’s nomination means many things, and one result is greater empowerment for those who have had to endured discrimination due to both race and gender. Indeed, as I’ve suggested before, Obama is where he is not because he is speaking about an ideal future, but because he is speaking to an America that is already changing for the better. The photograph above is one more example of how the future evoked by the Democratic candidate is already present among us.

Black women are an important part of that picture. Today, however, they are likely to be invisible–again. Let’s hope that doesn’t last. It shouldn’t: all we have to do is look around the room.

Photograph by Joe Amon/The Denver Post.

Update: I wrote this post before hearing Hillary Clinton’s speech last night, so I want to add that if the pro-Clinton resistance to Obama continues, you can’t blame her.  Hillary reaffirmed her commitment to those who have been invisible to their government, and she drew her concluding inspiration from the African-American abolitionist and suffragist Harriet Tubman.  The reference apparently was lost on some.  The television network I was watching seemed to think that Chelsey Clinton was the face of the speech, and news coverage today was back on the Angry White Woman.  Different pictures from different media, all of them partial, but I’ll bet that photojournalism is providing the best account of the demographic reality of the convention.

August 25th, 2008

Dulce et Decorum est, Pro Patria Mori

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visualizing war

I’ve written previously about my eighth grade teacher, Abraham Elias, who taught me to memorize poetry when all I really wanted to be able to remember were things like batting averages and shooting percentages.  I did it because he inspired me to do so, but I was never really sure how well the exercise would ultimately serve me.  And yet, as the years have passed I’ve found myself returning to those poems over and again—almost as if I can’t help it—as I try to make sense of the world around me.  And so it is today with this photograph of two “Russian military officers tak[ing] part in a Flag Day Holiday in St. Petersburg” that appeared last week on-line at the Washington Post.

The words that billowed forth from consciousness when I saw this photograph are originally from the Odes of Horace (iii 2.13): “Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.”  In English: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”  But truth to tell I’ve never read the Odes.  Where I encountered these words was in Wilfred Owen’s anti-war poem, “Dulce et Decorum,” written in 1917 during the Great War, the first of “the war to end all wars.”  Owens’ point, of course, was that Horace’s aphorism was a lie told to boys and young men in an effort to nurture a desire for military glory and to mobilize their bodies to national interests without regard to question or cost.

What is most striking about the photograph is the uniform intensity of the youthful faces staring straight ahead, teenage boys trying ever so hard to look like the men that they want to be, strong and in control.  Note the cold and emotionless expression on their faces.  It is perhaps what we might call the look of a killer, and thus altogether out of place on young boys who we might otherwise imagine playing soccer on a school field or trying to steal their first kiss.  But here that stoic look is legitimated and glorified by the adornment of military regalia and the national flags that simultaneously cover and substitute for their bodies. It would be hard to mistake these boys as anything but interchangeable instruments of the nation state.  And indeed, the very proportionality of the image, with their faces barely peeking out from behind the unfurled and flapping flags, underscores the sense in which they stand behind the nation in a doubled sense, both subordinate to it and propping it up at the same time.

The photograph here is from an eastern European country, and it would be easy to deride and dismiss it as the artifact of a once and future totalitarian nation-state, but of course the image is less about Russia than it is about the apparatus and mechanisms of nationalist desire, which seem always and everywhere to feed upon its youth regardless of its particular geographical location.  Those could be young American faces and US flags, and of course we have encountered such images all too frequently.  What remains is for us to see them for what they are. 

Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori, indeed.

Photo Credit:  Sergei Kulikov/AFP-Getty Images

August 24th, 2008

Sight Gag: Behind Every Great Leader … Is His Behind

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Credit: Fish

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.

August 22nd, 2008

Picturing America, Past and Present

Posted by Hariman in afterimages

Recently Laura Bush was in New Orleans in tandem with the Picturing America project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The project involves reproductions of 40 works of art that are available for use in the classroom. Freedom, equality, and similar civic virtues are featured as themes for the collection, which includes works from a range of periods and media. Many will be familiar to adults and none of them are likely to offend the protectors of public morality. Indeed, the lack of a critical edge is all too predictable, which is why this photograph has added value.

Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother is one of the 40 art works, but here it has become a part of work number 41. This photo of the two students raises many of the questions that could but perhaps would not arise during discussion of the iconic image. The fact that they are placed in equivalent positions to the two children in the Lange photo makes the point sharply: These are now the children at risk, and they are here, in real time and living color, waiting to see if their government will respond as it did during the crisis of the 1930s.

There has been no New Deal for New Orleans, of course, of for anyone else below the million dollar line during the seven years of the Bush administration. Another difference between the two photos provides some consolation, as the two students look attentive and capable rather than wholly dependent. Progress has been made in spite of everything, but that should be no excuse for not having good schools, levees, health care, banks, and all the other little things that once were understood to be the obligations of a good society.

Photograph by Bill Haber/Associated Press.

August 20th, 2008

Peace in Iraq

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

In one of the early posts on this blog I asked, what does peace look like? One answer, I suggested, was that peace appears when you start seeing soldiers as kids rather than as warriors. Let me be clear: I don’t mean that you would see grown men and women as if they were small children, only that you would see that many of the soldiers are still very young. Young adults, perhaps, but young. Like this:

This photograph was taken in Baghdad about a month ago. You can’t predict the future from a photo, but this was the first time that I thought real change for the better might be occurring on the ground. The American has let his guard down so much, the Iraqi is so comfortable in his presence, the photographer is able to capture the moment–all of this bodes well as an indication of a sense of security in ordinary life.

Of course, the soldier still is intruding into someone’s home–something protested in the Declaration of Independence–and both the floor and the view through the doorway suggest that war has turned a nice place into a fixer-upper. More generally, the troop levels, expenses, bases, and everything else being negotiated in the draw-down agreement all portend a protracted and costly transition and then continued military engagement in a client state for decades to come.

But still, what a photograph. The American looks like he should be sitting in a classroom waiting for the bell to ring. The pairing with the civilian boy next to him marks his youth, which is accentuated further by being encased in his military carapace. Obviously, they both should be dressed like the boy on the right; everything else is an unnecessary addition there only to serve the interests of an alien machine far larger than either of them.

The flowers on the wall complete the domestic tableau. Everything fits except the uniform and the gun, which is propped uselessly against his leg, barrel down in the dirt. The boy on the left seems to be thinking about what comes next: that when the break ends he’ll have to pick up his gear and walk out of there. The posture and look of the boy on the right say all that and more. He clearly is waiting for the American to leave. After all, it is his house.

More soldiers and more civilians will die before its over, but maybe, just maybe, scenes like this can become more commonplace and more representative of present and future alike. We’ve seen heroes and victims enough; now it is time to see people as they are. After years of war, that might be what peace looks like.

Photograph by Maya Alleguzzo/Associated Press.

August 18th, 2008

Two Views of China and the West

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

You are likely to have seen many photographs from China recently, but probably not this one:

Here models and student designers stand side by side during a fashion show at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. I’ll let you guess which ones are the models. Of course, the drastic contrast between female models and designers who look like ordinary people occurs at any fashion show, but here that difference is accentuated by ethic polarization.

This post is not about the Olympics, except that this week everything is about the Olympics. Despite smug predictions in the Western press, the Chinese are pulling it off. The events are going smoothly, the bad news is not happening or quickly forgotten, and you have to admit that the place looks great. (I’d like to see a marathon course in any US city look half as nice as the one I saw Saturday night.) It looks like Beijing will achieve its objective–again. One result is likely to be a more widely held realization that China has become highly modernized. And so the question arises: On what terms are we likely to imagine Chinese assimilation into modernity?

The photograph above provides the conventional idea: the West is obviously higher, more sophisticated, and literally the model to be imitated. Likewise, modernity is thoroughly raced: the ideal is Aryan, and one acquires all the benefits of modernization by forming oneself along those lines. If there happen to be obvious disadvantages, well, just be patient and they will be overcome in time–the shorter women in the photo are not going to get any taller, but their children could surpass them. And even though fashion is all about hybridity some of the time, here it is clear that the transmission of culture is entirely one-way.

Even so, the image also contains another story as well. The Western women are there only to be draped and displayed, while the brain work is being done entirely by Asians. The West is a model, but passively so, and rendered passive by its own sophistication. If you had to pick three women to take to the moon, or the office, or the future, I don’t think there is any doubt which three should be given the job.

If a conventional image of catching up to the West contains its own internal caveat, that still falls short of more robust ideas of cultural change. Nor do we have to go too far down the road to get a glimpse of what that might involve:

This is a portrait of Li Shurui, a contemporary Chinese artist whom the New York Times says is “quietly emerging” as a talent within the male-dominated Chinese art world. Although the mask could double as a muzzle, there is nothing quiet about Li Shurui in this photograph. The story emphasizes gender equalization–currently, something featured as a sign of the West’s continued lead in the modernity Olympics–but Li is a study in conflated binaries: She is both male and female, Asian and Western, and organic and mechanical. As a cyborg she performs an important moment in modern feminism; with slanted eyes and blond hair she is actively hybrid, and her intensely focused look makes it damn clear that there is nothing passive about this woman.

Most important, perhaps, is that she can represent an alternative model of Chinese modernization–one that includes key elements of Western society and culture without being mere imitation and gradualist assimilation toward a homogeneous ideal. This is likely to be the real China. Nor should anyone be surprised–it also is the likely to be the real West.

Photographs by Alex Hofford/European Pressphoto Agency and Natalie Behring/New York Times.

August 11th, 2008

Gone Fishin'

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

“It’s summertime,” and as the saying goes, the “livin’ is easy.”  Or at least it will be for your NCN guys as we take the week off to recharge our batteries before the political conventions kick in and the new school year begins for us.  It has been a great year for us and we appreciate the support of everyone who has written in with comments and suggestions, criticism and encouragement.  We will be back on August 18th.

August 10th, 2008

Sight Gag: In Search of Human Rights (and Wrongs)

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, sight gags

Credit: Cameron Cardow; Ingrid Rice

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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