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Summer Institute: Photojournalism and Public Culture

Visual Rhetoric: Photojournalism and Public Culture

summer institute for graduate students and faculty

June 22-26, 2009

Pennsylvania State University

Directed by Robert Hariman (Northwestern University) and John Lucaites (Indiana University)

Using photojournalism as our leading example, this seminar will explore basic questions regarding the analysis of visual images as artifacts for experience, advocacy, deliberation, and reflection in democratic societies. Images will be drawn from historical and contemporary news media and trade publications as well as alternative media, cultural forums, and vernacular practices. The seminar also will address concerns regarding the objectives, methods, and rigor of scholarship regarding visual culture. Participation in the seminar will include writing for possible publication online at nocaptionneeded.com or other blogs.

The workshop is part of the biennial summer institute sponsored by the Rhetoric Society of America. The fee is $400 ($450 for nonmembers, which includes a one-year membership in RSA) and includes lodging and some meals.

For additional information, including scholarship opportunities, click here. The application form is here.


For Sale: The Bush Years

With six days until the election, the hope is so strong that I can taste it. Soon the final, mad rush of campaigning and reporting will rise to its final crescendo, and then there will be the day of reckoning. After that, a party or two, but then the sober realization of just how much needs to be changed. Where to begin–with a long, dazed look backwards at what actually happened, or all around to assess just how bad the damage is? What will it mean to take a hard look at where we are and what habits are still in place?

Well, it might mean looking at how artists from around the world have depicted Bush’s America.

This bubble-head figure is from an exhibition by Phillip Toledano entitled “America – The Gift Shop.” Toledano asks, “If American foreign policy had a gift shop, what would it sell?” His answers involve an uncanny fusion of criminal government policies and commercial brick-a-brack. In a stroke, Toledano captures the enormous gap between day-to-day experience in the US and the terror perpetrated by the Bush administration in Iraq. Equally disturbing is his demonstration of how the crimes might be miniaturized or otherwise diminished by those whose lives are defined by retail consumption. I’ve seen many appropriations of the iconic image from Abu Ghraib, but this is the only one that really drained it of most of its moral force. What might be disregarded as merely clever artistry in fact does something much more difficult: it reminds us that human beings can get used to anything.

It is imperative that Americans not become accustomed even in part to the policies of the past seven years. The clock needs to be turned all the way back at the justice department, state department, treasury department–just to name the obvious–and elsewhere, even as the government and the society move forward to do better than that. Until that happens, the change that is needed will be too little, too late.

Bad habits die hard, and there always will be those at home and abroad trying to use them to their own interests. Too many people have made a lot of money or acquired a lot of power off of the War on Terror. All the more reason to turn to those artists and intellectuals who can reveal just how much went wrong and why one can’t assume that wrongs will be righted and habits changed as a matter of course.

America the Gift Shop is an exhibition at The Apartment, a design agency in New York City. Abu Ghraib Bubble-head; moulded resin, 7″, 2008. Regions destablized while-u-wait; neon, glass, 20″ x 30″, 2008. Thanks to Conscientious for finding this great work.

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The American Gulag

The prison system in the United States gives a hard meaning to the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Just as the prison keeps its inmates out of public view, the buildings themselves are placed well off the main roads in what are often economic dead zones. Few ever go by the place, and no one ever needs to go inside unless you work there, are making a delivery, or want to visit with an inmate. And most of those people won’t be allowed to see anything like this:

This stunning photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein shows a prisoner’s hands being held out in order to be handcuffed before he is taken to a shower. I find the image deeply disturbing–as if it were something I would see because I was already insane, looking down the asylum hallway and still accosted by hideous visions distending reality. The hands lie there as if the body is a corpse, worse, as dismembered body parts. The sickly green color scheme, hard surfaces, and sharp, metallic fixtures are a nightmare of institutional authority gone horribly perverse. The red stains on the wall and the white stains on the linoleum floor look like traces of bodily fluids, and the yellow lines suggest a steady traffic in gurneys and terror always rationalized by official procedures.

The image doesn’t tell only one story, however. Those hands may be murderous. Tattoos are commonplace today, but in this tableau the heavily tattooed arm seems demonic, as if the outer sign of snakes writhing within. There seems to be no place for innocence in this world, which can only provide further justification for rough justice, inhumane conditions, and policies that do more to perpetuate violent crime than prevent it.

This marked, abject body waiting to be shackled is a fitting reminder of the cesspool at the end of America’s criminal justice system. (“Criminal justice system”–a phrase in which each term twists the others.) The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world; only Russia is even close, and the European states are far, far below. The causes include both excessive income inequality and the disintegration of the family. Given that both conservative and liberal arguments are proved correct, you might think that a strong bi-partisan effort could be made to keep millions of Americans out of prison. Think again, for why would anyone bother to fix something they never see?

This image and others like it can be seen in the exhibition “Behind Bars: Photographs by Andrew Lichtenstein” through January 4, 2009 at fovea in Beacon, New York. Lichtenstein’s portfolio includes the eloquent book Never Coming Home, which documents the funerals of eight soldiers killed in the Iraq war. You can see one of those heart-rending images in an earlier post at this blog on Shared Suffering in Iraq and America.


Sight Gag: Breaking the Glass Ceiling


Credit: Anonymous (brought to our attention by Cara Finnegan)

“Sight Gag” 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.


What We See and What We Know

Guest post by Aric Mayer.

Consider for a moment these two mundane photographs taken this morning. In their differences lies a subtle insight into the Western mind.

In the first image, the columns and porch are recorded looking up with the vertical lines receding away from the viewer and converging somewhere in space off the top of your screen. For the second image I have corrected this so the vertical lines are parallel. In both the brick in the foreground creates receding lines that emphasize the horizontal space moving away from the viewer. For the purposes of this post I will skip the technical means by which this is done in camera and instead focus on what this means for how we see.

To understand this better, let us travel back in time to the early fifteenth century when there comes into painting the theory of two point perspective. This opens up the world for realistic depictions of a single point of view. For the first time space is rendered as though it is being seen through a single eye, rather than through the multiple viewpoints of the previous ages. It is architecture that makes this possible, for the theory of two point perspective relies on the understanding that the world, or at least the man made world, is made up of parallel lines that remain equidistant from each other in reality and in perception appear to converge as they recede away in space.

If you spend time with paintings from the Renaissance to Modernity, you will see that the sophistication of the way space is rendered as it moves horizontally away from the viewer grows. But almost universally the vertical axes remain vertical. This corresponds to how we know the world to be. Up is up and down is down. But this is not how we see. If you stand at the base of a tall building and look at its middle, you will not see it as a rectangle, but more as a cone where the top is much smaller than the base. The vertical axes are not
straight up and down. They conform more to the way space is rendered in the first image.

Optically speaking, vertical axes are possible only when our eye is pointed directly at the horizon, thereby creating a balance between earth and sky, with each occupying an equal amount of perception. In this case the viewer is visually located between the two. To experience this personally, stand near the base of a tall building and look through the building towards the horizon. You will perceive with your peripheral vision that the vertical lines of the building above you do not converge but go straight up as we know them to do. The ground will also occupy about the same amount of perception as the building does. Perceiving vertical axes seems to ground us with a sense of balance.

Consider again the above images. The first image seems to dominate the viewer, looming slightly while the second is arranged in the picture frame in balance as we know the building to likely exist. The feeling is subtle but distinct in its difference. As you look at photographs, pay attention to how these axes are recorded. They can be manipulated to create different senses of space and feeling within the image.


Vernacular Photojournalism in the War Zone

For all the excitement of the US presidential election, Iraq and Afghanistan are still war zones where people are struggling to live in conditions that fall far short of the American Dream. You wouldn’t know it from the American media, however. Fortunately, there are other reminders of both the damage done and the people still there–in short of obligations that remain.

Baghdad Calling, by Geert van Kesteren, is a remarkable collection of images taken by ordinary citizens in Iraq and elsewhere in the Iraqi diaspora across the Middle East. The photo above has strong resonance with professional war photography. Coverage of the Iraq war has included many scenes framed by a car window, and of dead bodies on the ground which harken back to the famous photograph by Mathew Brady of “Federal Dead on the Field of Battle of First Day, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.” But the photo above is hardly a study in artistic allusion. Knowing that this is a scene from daily life gives it a special fascination and horror. This is not “the war” but somebody’s neighborhood, a place where kids might be scrounging around looking for cool junk. Or worse, the car could be driving through the back lot because those inside are hoping they won’t find the body of a loved one.

That emotional response to the photograph is supported by a realism that makes it a worthy heir of Brady’s image. Brady showed the world that “the fallen” become corpses that bloat in the heat. Now look closely at the photo above. The man on the right has his arms tied behind his back. One of those on the right may have been dismembered. Despite our familiarity with photographs of destruction, this is not what one wants to see while riding in the car. Welcome to Baghdad.

And what would you do if you had to live amidst violence? Well, one solution is to get a hot car.

This photograph may be more jarring than the one above. It certainly is not what one expects to see coming out of coverage of the war. Nor would you see it at an automotive fair or a fashion show. This guy is not rich and not cool, neither sleek nor fast, yet he’s doing what he can to to make that small car into something beautiful, and his life into something of his own making.

The scene is perfectly still–perhaps even more so than the first, which carries the sense of the interrupted motion of the car and the transitoriness of human life. Yet the motionless pose contains a cascade of contrasts. This is a domestic scene, not men at war; his casual clothes are further diminished by the sheen of the car; the car is diminished by the ideals of automotive power and design it evokes; he appears clownish by comparison to the Hollywood fashions implied by the hat, sunglasses, and car. The result is a complex emotion of both the vicious derision within all social hierarchy and astonishment or even admiration at his being there at all. Isn’t he supposed to be dead, or killing someone, or at least staying out of sight behind the imperial guard?

This image documents reality just as deeply as the first does. Where one exposes how war terrorizes people while turning them into trash, the other documents the sheer persistence of the desire to live a normal life. The image captures a triumph of self-respect, and precisely because he can stand up even though everything he has is less than ideal. That is exactly how each one of us gets through the day.

The problem, of course, is that some people have to do so against much worse obstacles than others. And what is needed is not sentimentality, but political accountability.

Van Kesteren’s work is also part of an exhibition “On the Subject of War” at the Barbican Art Gallery through January 25, 2009. Note also the commentary by Geoff Dwyer at The Guardian. You can link to the book at Amazon.com here, or to his earlier book on the Iraq war, Why Mister, Why?


In Search of the "Real Economy"

The recent economic “downturn” is being treated as a world historical event and that means that photo editors have been searching furiously to find the iconic image of the event, a problem made somewhat difficult by the fact that economic traumas are not nearly as easy to visualize as wars or natural disasters.  And the result is somewhat amusing as one after another the various newspapers emphasize an almost endless parade of images of stock brokers and fund managers from around the world depicted in various degrees of emotional distress, mute witnesses to a roller coaster of numbers scrolling across black and green screens and monitors. Elsewhere, and at the same time, news stories wonder when the effects of the most recent “bubble” to burst will be felt in the “real economy.”  To be sure, the effects of the current economic situation are palpable; many who don’t deserve it face serious financial hardships in the years ahead, and I don’t mean to diminish the significance of that in any way. And yet, two photographs that appeared in tandem as part of a slide show at The Seattle Times this past week (10/17/08) put it all in a perspective that it would be good for us to think about.

The first image is of a young child in Lagos, Nigeria playing in a dirty and rusted out oil drum in what appears to be a garbage dump of some sort.  The picture is used to promote World Poverty Day and it channels all of the pathos of images commonly used by NGOs to encourage charitable contributions—perhaps you can’t solve all of the poverty in the world, such ads typically intone, but surely you can save this child for only pennies a day.  The power of the appeal is simple and direct: the child is looking directly at the camera in the manner of a demand and all we have to do is substitute the image of our own child (real or imagined) to understand the pattern of identification that is being encouraged.  

The problem, of course, is that we encounter such images so frequently that it is easy to become inured to their appeal or simply to look past them as if they were not their at all.  And I might have done exactly that but for the photograph that followed it:

What we are looking at is a man smoking a “Golden Zeus,” a cigar that has been dipped in pure gold and is “on display” at the Millionaire’s Fair—a luxury goods and trade show “open to the public”—being held in Munich.  Unlike the photograph of the child in Lagos, there is no demand made here upon the viewer; the smoker is completely self-absorbed in his own private desires, a decadent pleasure offered up to the “public” (by some accounts over 40,000 people paid the $50 admission fee to attend the show and we can only assume that most were not millionaires) for its own perverse consumption.  It is, in a phrase, an exhibition of “class voyeurism.  Left on its own, the photograph would operate in a pornographic symbolic economy, but of course when placed in direct contrast to the earlier photograph it is hard to imagine it as anything but obscene.

We could go on at some length about the fundamental contradictions of global capitalism captured in the opposition between the two images, and there certainly would be some value in doing that.  But there is a slightly  different point to be made, for the juxtaposition of these photographs at this moment in time stands as a potent reminder of two key facts: (a) for all the bubbles that burst in the financial sectors, and for all of the claims that capitalism will be fundamentally transformed in the process (and it might well be), nevertheless, the desire that animates the underlying value system of a capitalist economy is far from diminished—and no amount of government regulation is likely to change that; and (b) while much has been lost by many as a result of the current crisis, and while more still is likely to be lost, the  measure of that loss is best calibrated against how much we actually had to lose.

As we search out the impact of our current economic woes on the “real economy” it is perhaps prudent to keep both facts in focus.

Photo Credit:  Sunday Alamba/AP; Christof Stache/AP


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Sight Gag:The Fall of Wall Street

Credit: J.D. Crowe, Alabama, Mobile Register

“Sight Gag” 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.


Downsizing the American Dream

This week we welcome Benjamin Sklar to NCN. A freelance photographer based in Austin, Texas, Ben’s portfolio includes highly regarded coverage of Hurricane Katrina, a Time cover, and regular work for The New York Times, Getty Images, and the Austin American Statesman, as well as his blog.

Amidst all the fears expressed in the last several weeks about losing money, homes, and the American Way of Life, it might seem astonishing to learn that some people are voluntarily deciding to live in radical simplicity–and not near the end of life but while raising young children. Aimee and Jeff Harris are one such couple. This photo essay is a continuation of a slide show that recently was featured at the New York Times. Titled “Voluntary Simplicity,” the Times chronicled the Harris’s preparations to discard most of their possessions in search of a low-impact, sustainable lifestyle. The photographs below pick up the story as they make the transition from their single family home to life in a RV. As Ben’s photographs make clear, no one should assume that this quest is going to be easy.

Jeff and Aimee Harris plan on moving on from their stable lifestyle and careers to pack up their children Quinn, 5 and a half, and Nichola, 1 and a half, to move to a simple life in Vermont. The family will donate all of their goods, even trade their wedding rings for what they see fit.

Jeff and Aimee celebrate after finding their new home.

Jeff Harris walks through their empty home in Austin, Texas

Dinner with the Harris family in the RV in West Texas.

Aimee Harris reading to Quinn and Nichola before bed in the RV.

Quinn Harris on the road with his family during traffic in New Mexico.


Arts Forum: "Torture and Representation"

Arts Forum: “Torture and Representation”
A panel discussion with Daniel Heyman, Julie Mertus, and Katherine Gallagher.

October 25, 2-4 pm

Katzan Art Center, Washington, D.C.

Daniel Heyman, in a recent interview with FPIF Co-Director John Feffer: “I’ve heard now 35 interviews. I’ve heard about people arrested in the middle of the night, so the shock has worn off a bit. But listening to someone telling me these things, the room still fills up with the thread of words coming out of the person’s mouth. The words become a physical thing and weigh people in the room down. So, I wanted the words to feel like an imprisonment, like a cage surrounding a person. At other times I wanted the words to feel like a stream pouring out of a person.”

Artist Daniel Heyman, Professor Julie Mertus, and attorney Katherine Gallagher will explore the issues of artistic and legal representations of victims of torture in a panel discussion moderated by Sarah Anderson. This event is sponsored by Foreign Policy In Focus and Provisions Library and is connected to an exhibit called “Close Encounters: Facing the Future,” also at the Katzen Center, which runs through October 26.

Daniel Heyman is a painter and printmaker from Philadelphia who has been capturing the images and words of Iraqi victims of torture from U.S. facilities like Abu Ghraib. More of his work may be viewed at his website. Julie Mertus is an Associate Professor and Co-Director of the MA program in Ethics, Peace and Global Affairs at American University. Katherine Gallagher is a Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Moderator Sarah Anderson is Global Economy Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies.

This event is free and open to the public.

The Katzen Arts Center is located on Ward Circle at the intersection of Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues in NW Washington, D.C. A map is available here. For museum hours and driving directions, please visit their website.

The “Close Encounters” exhibit is part of BrushFire, a national arts initiative organized by Provisions Library and focusing on social activist art in the run-up to the November elections.