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The Stain of War

Violence in Iraq is slowly rising again as US troops are being moved to Afghanistan, but many of the photographs being published continue the narrative of successful pacification that has been keeping the war off the front page for months. Against that backdrop, this photo struck me as all too evocative of the continuing violence in the Middle East.

The New York Times caption read, “A blood-stained bed at the hospital in the Kadhimiya district of Baghdad after two suicide bombings on Friday.” The fine-grained detail in the caption–right down to “the Kadhimiya district,” should you want to put another pin on the map–contrasts with the refusal of intelligibility in the image itself. We see only an ugly smear, not the precise details of injury or death. Only the bloody aftermath, not even the event itself. Whatever drama played out in this ER, it’s over. Only the stain remains.

Perhaps because it looks like an inkblot from a Rorshach test, the drying blood invites the viewer to make sense of what is there. But what is there doesn’t make sense. Instead of meaning, narrative, purpose, or resolution, we are confronted with the inchoate. Instead of a body, only the bloody trace; instead of presence, absence; instead of the peace and repose of clean sheets and healing, only more of war’s bloodletting, waste, and loss.

Of course, even meaninglessness is a form of meaning, and stains invite further reflection. Sin is understood metaphorically as a stain in some cultures and one rather pertinent religious tradition, as Shakespeare knew when writing Macbeth. It is easy to imagine how the war in Iraq has stained America, and how the stain of war will persist there long after it has been forgotten by people elsewhere. Such thoughts are a legitimate use of imagery, as is true of the deeply metaphoric nature of language itself. But they also can carry one too far into the realm of thought and so of abstraction. It is more fitting sometimes to simply stare at the image and let it enter your soul–as a stain, a bloody stain.

Photograph by Christoph Bangert/New York Times.

American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are reported at icasualities.org. Civilian deaths in Iraq are reported at Iraq Body Count. Civilian deaths in Afghanistan are reported here.


The Public Veil of Death

The photograph above is a haunting image of Sandra Cantu, an eight year old girl who was abducted, sexually molested, and brutally murdered, her lifeless body found stuffed inside of a suitcase in an irrigation pond near her home in Tracy, California.  The image is part of an eight foot poster that emerged in a spontaneous public memorial outside of the trailer park in which she lived, along with candles, stuffed animals, flowers, balloons, etc.  What makes the photograph so evocative is the way in which it underscores the function of the writing on the poster-sized photograph as something of a public shroud that veils the precious and innocent life so tragically cut short, even as it accents the vitality and penetrating demand of her eyes.

There was a time, not so terribly long ago, when post-mortem photographic portraits of loved ones—and especially children—were taken and cherished as private momento mori, reminders of the fragility of human life and of our own mortality.  Such images today are considered morbid.  Instead, now we remember deceased loved ones by photographs of them taken while they were still alive, and usually such images are the candid snapshots that fill our family photo albums, the nostalgic Kodak moments that seem to be the accoutrements of middle-class, private life.  Indeed, it is not rare to attend a private wake in which digital slides shows of such snapshots become the center of attention, as much if not more than the casket or urn.  In the photograph of Sandra Cantu, however, the private snapshot has been refashioned as a public image, albeit with a significant difference.

The snapshot in a private wake functions to invoke and reinforce the identification between the deceased and the bereaved in very personal terms.  Here, however, the point of identification is more public than personal—more a demand for protection (and perhaps a public reflection on that demand) than a simple reminder of innocence and happier times—and as such it invites our consideration as a symbol of our civic and political relationships.  Hence, what was once a candid snapshot has been reproduced as a larger than life portrait and fixed in a very public setting, its political voice announced and secured.  But there is more, for note too how the collective public signature weaves a scrim that separates the viewer from the girl, almost as if to protect her from the voyeurs’ gaze.  And yet, as in this case, such protection can only go so far.  The photograph thus takes on the quality of a civic momento mori, an allegorical reminder of both our civic responsibilities as well as how fragile public efforts to protect one another—and especially our children—can be.

Photo Credit:  Michael Mccollum/AP


Sight Gag: Our Better Angels

To see the back of the t-shirt click here or on the image.

Credit:  Avenging Angels

The “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.


Photographer's Showcase: Peter Turnley's "The Family of Man"

Peter Turnley is an occasional contributor to NCN and today we feature images from his version of “The Family of Man.”

To see the full show click here or on the image above.  If you are interested in the opportunity to work with Peter Turnley he hosts a number of highly acclaimed workshops.  For more information click here or contact Peter at peter@peterturnley.com.


Lest We Forget

The third Monday of April is celebrated as Patriot’s Day in commemoration of the battle of Lexington and Concord.  Since 1998 it has coincided with In Memory Day, a memorial remembrance held at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for those who “died as a result of the Vietnam War, but whose deaths do not fit DOD criteria for inclusion upon the wall.”  It is hard to know just how many of the 3.5 million men and women who served in Vietnam fit in this category, but the In Memory Day Honor Roll now includes 1,800 names, most of them having died as a result of the effects of “Agent Orange exposure or emotional wounds that never healed.”

There are numerous photographs of the event but the one above of an anonymous veteran putting his hands on the Wall is perhaps the most visually provocative. Shot from behind and in medium close distance, the polished black surface of the granite blends almost perfectly with the black t-shirt and hat, inviting the momentary illusion that the veteran is literally one with the Wall.  Only the glare and shadows near the very top of the image disrupt the spell by just barely illuminating the names etched into the Memorial and thus invoking the linear perspective that enables a degree of visual separation between the two; at the same time, however, that very perspective complicates our understanding of the relationship between those who died in combat and those who presumably survived the conflict only to contribute to the “body count” in a different register.  That tension is further underscored visually by the way in which the orangish tint of his arms and hands draw our attention from the black Wall to the orange legend on the back of his t-shirt, a stark verbal reminder that the devastating human costs of the Vietnam War have extended—and continue to extend—long past the final battle and retreat.  The red, white, and blue matting that frames the photo he holds up to the wall is an equally poignant reminder of where the responsibility lies—not with individual soldiers, anonymous or etched in stone, but with the nation state that fostered the war in the first place.

If the photograph was simply a journalistic representation of a particular memorial event, or more, even an evocative representation of the continuing sufferance of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, it would easily deserve to be displayed throughout the land for citizens and leaders alike to see and contemplate.  But the context for interpreting the meaning of the image cannot be so easily contained, especially at our current moment in history as the war in Iraq morphs into the war in Afghanistan, and so the photograph speaks in more than a simple or literal voice.

By official estimates there have been 4,274 U.S. military deaths in Iraq since the beginning of the war in 2003 plus an additional 678 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan.  But if our Vietnam experience has taught us anything it is that such literal “body counts” are only the beginning. By even the most conservative estimates 1 in 6 (or 16%) of all returning veterans from Iraq suffer from some form of PTSD (i.e., “emotional wounds that never heal”) that has been linked to excessive levels of obesity, alcoholism, and drug addiction, as well as “epidemic” levels of suicide—with far too few getting needed or effective treatment.  As in the past, it is often difficult to see such psychic wounds, or worse, it is all too easy to see past them; and yet, as the photograph above seems to suggest, the degrees of separation between combat deaths and other forms of the “body count” is often something of an illusion that we retain at our own peril.

And so the photograph takes on the quality of an allegory for the complexity of war’s costs; indeed, perhaps it is a visual analog to George Santayana’s warning that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty IMages


Is Photography Too Human to be Holy?

Most of the photographs put up during Easter could double as an argument against religion–and for anthropology. Spiritual yearning is reduced to cultural performances characterized by pre-modern costumes, ritual processions, and other forms of excess. But then I saw this:

This photograph doesn’t break with the prevailing conventions for documenting religious spectacles, but it gets past them to touch some basic questions about both photography and religious experience.

You are looking at Despina, an 89-year-old Greek Orthodox nun in Northern Cyprus. You can’t see the candles she is lighting, but perhaps you can see their light reflected in her face. Or would, if you could get past looking at her face. Cowled in black, without visible hair and certainly without feminine makeup, her person is concentrated in her face. But you probably looked at her face, rather than into it, because you were scandalized by the wrinkles etched into her flesh like deep channels on a barren planet. Add the enlarged nose and blotched skin, and aging is staring you in the face.

Photography, Susan Sontag reminded us, has been keeping company with death from the beginning, and this photo seems a stark testament to the art’s insistent revelation of human mortality. Photography is being featured because of the contrast between the sharp clarity of her image with the painted icons stacked on the wall behind her. They are antique and at once hazy and luminescent, and so easily symbolize religion as an institution. Now think of Walter Benjamin’s insight that the aura of a work of art is deeply embedded in the fabric of tradition. In this photograph, the aura of religion is deeply embedded in the fabric of tradition. But the photograph itself does not have an aura, nor does Despina due to the stark clarity of her image.

Thus, the photograph contrasts two arts and two conceptions of religious experience: religion as the luminous representation of the divine, and faith as a personal encounter with mortality. One is set in the rear of the picture, painting rather than photography, and the past; the other is set in the front of the picture, in the photograph itself, and in the present. The first view of religion is a nostalgic image–literally bathing the icons in a warm glow as they recede in ascending order toward the vanishing point. The second view is critical–the icons will outlast her, and perhaps her vocation, and nothing she believes will change her mortality and perhaps the passing of all human things, including the church.

But it’s not quite that simple. By positioning the icons behind her head, they provide her with a faint aura. And the contrast between the two media can go a step further: each represents different ways of seeing and thinking. The religious icon is never one thing–it is both material and spiritual–and it is a pedagogy of immanence–of seeing God in all things. Those habituated to Western painting and a doctrine of transcendence learn to see differently, and that can include a sharper distinction between material and spiritual realities. Say, between the sharp image of an individual human face riven with aging, and a hazy image of God placed in a separate sacred space.

And so look at the photograph one more time. See how she is set in a series with the icons behind her. One might say, with the other icons. If we were to look at her as if she were a religious icon, that is, within the Greek Orthodox optic, we might see that she is much more than one thing.

Photograph by Murad Sezer /Reuters.


Sight Gag: In Critical Condition

Credit:  Dusan Petricic; Gene Case & Stephen King/Avenging Angels

The “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.


Old/New Media on Old/New Europe

By guest correspondent Elisabeth Ross

When President Barack Obama returned last week from his first official visit to Europe, a flurry of photographs documented the enthusiastic reception by a welcoming European public.  During the trip, Obama spoke of mending relationships and of the need for adjustments and self-reflection on both sides in order to rebuild an alliance between Europe and the United States that would withstand the demands of the 21st century.

The new millennium had been marked by the souring of relations with European allies under the Bush administration, a deterioration memorably accelerated by then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s 2003 dismissal of France and Germany as “old Europe” for their opposition to the Iraq war.

Two recent images from Obama’s trip speak to the question of an old and new Europe and to why Rumsfeld got it all wrong.

The first image shows President Obama meeting with president Vaclav Klaus of the Czech republic, a country Rumsfeld would presumably have us believe is part of the “new” Europe, given its relatively recent NATO membership.  But the two leaders, off-center and passive, are dominated in the frame by the towering portraits adorning the walls of Prague Castle.  The portraits appear to challenge the authority of the diminutive figures beneath them. These rulers from the past bear all the trappings of their nobility: from rich robes and furs to powdered wigs and armor, their imposing presence a reminder of centuries of Austria-Hungarian dominance in the region.

The new media of press photography highlights here the assertive presence of old media, and the ceremonial portraiture recalls Jürgen Habermas’ description of representative publicness, which relied on “demonstrations of grandeur”: the staging of authority and status before a public which was excluded from participation.

The stage is entirely different in a second image that appeared the next day when Obama addressed the Turkish parliament in Ankara:

Against a sheer white background, Obama is an animated speaker before an attentive audience; the listeners behind him reciprocate his style of dress and hold their focus on him in a neutral stance.  Even the Turkish flag, unceremoniously cropped, with its crescent moon and star hidden by its own red folds, appears deferential, as if too shy to do its work.

Whereas the past dominated the Prague photograph, here the bare walls represent a clean slate. Turkey is, after all, seeking admission into the European Union, a process begun years ago and a prospect that arouses deep anxieties among EU member nations.  Rather than emphasize a glorious past, the photograph presents the democratic basis for a new era of statehood.

Obama praised Turkey for its strong secular democracy and promised to support its bid for EU membership.  Much has been made of the so-called European identity crisis, in particular when it comes to fears over the admission of a majority Muslim country into the EU.  These contrasting images speak to how to define Europe – old and new – and, of course, other players on this stage as well.  By reading between the images, old media and new media work together to reveal the complicated portrait of a union of states which, like the US, defies simple representation.

Photographs by Todd Heisler/The New York Times.  Elisabeth Ross is a graduate student in the program in Rhetoric and Public Culture, Department of Communication Studies, Northwestern University.  You can contact Elisabeth at e-ross@northwestern.edu.


Real Style and Imaginary Citizens

There is an ongoing discussion in the public media about the dangers of photographs being altered or otherwise faked. To put it bluntly, you can make good money warning the newspaper reader about the dangers of visual deception. Never mind that many of the quotations and all of the verbal descriptions in that paper will be somewhat inaccurate every day of the week. But the photograph seems so real, we are reminded, whereas everyone knows that words are unreliable.

But people also know that photographs are unreliable. In fact, society now has over 150 years of experience in dealing with photographs–taking pictures, having our pictures taken, showing them to others, examining them as evidence, and seeing them every day in advertisements. One result is that photographs can be used to identify relationships between reality and illusion that are much more interesting than the question of whether an image is true.

On Monday I posted on a photographer’s use of a mirror to help the viewer think about the political spectacle. By showing two political leaders accompanied by their reflections, the photograph highlighted both the performative dimension of political leadership and the public use of images. Today’s photograph shifts out attention from elites to ordinary citizens.

One man walks down a street along life-size photos of six other people in an advertisement. The photo is mildly comic: They could be fellow citizens, were they real; he could fit right into the ad, were he an image. They have been carefully posed to model what the retailer wants people to wear; seemingly by accident and without needing to buy a thing he is wearing clothes that qualify as suitably stylish. The caption embellished the point: “Real style on display as a man walked by an ad for clothes in Pristina, Kosovo.” He is real while the photographs are not real; likewise, his style is real while theirs is imaginary, artificial, fake.

The caption also provides an example of how words are unreliable. The sentence could mean that the ad displays real style while the man walking in front of the ad is but the lesser approximation of that style. That interpretation is less likely because it isn’t supported by the typical contrast between reality and images, or by the real man being placed in the foreground of the photograph. The ambiguity, however, runs deeper than a case of sloppy sentence construction.

Someone ought to say it, so I will: the man isn’t real either. As in the image on Monday, the photograph has created a sense of its own reality through an internal contrast between a transparent image and another that is obviously a copy of something else. We know that the real models are no longer in the advertisement, yet we assume that the man on the street is really there.

This use of visual composition to activate a discourse about illusion to create a reality effect is more than mere deception. I think the image raises a number of interesting questions. Isn’t “real style” located more in the collective imagination rather than individual statement? (Would he be dressed as he is if he didn’t already imagine himself as part of that line, albeit today without the additional items of consumption being promoted in the ad?) Aren’t we always walking down the street amidst imaginary citizens whose presence keeps us on the straight and narrow, provides assurance that the street is safe, allows us to feel both connected and individuated, and otherwise constitutes civic space? Of course, that presence also creates social pressure, distributes social goods unfairly, places unreasonable demands, and leaves us unsatisfied, but it is there as surely as that ad was on display in Kosovo.

In other words, the photograph reveals the role that photojournalism plays in creating the civic strangers populating the imaginary space necessary for citizenship.  The man in the photo is in the same relationship to us as the six figures in the ad are to him.  He is one of the imaginary citizens placed beside us by the media.  Instead of seeing images as copies of real people, why not, once in awhile, see ourselves as people who live among images?

The contrast between image and reality often is used to ward off awareness of how society depends on seeing, copying, and imagination.  Photojournalism suggests not only that the contrast might be overrated, but also how it can be used to explore and perhaps understand our virtual world.

Photograph by Amend Nimani/AFP-Getty Images.

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The Public Mirror

Both academic and public discussion of photojournalism is fraught with anxiety about the danger of images displacing realty. Writers such as Daniel Boorstin and Susan Sontag have issued dire warnings about the moral and political decline that is sure to occur as visual media create a world of pseudo-events, manufactured experiences, and the cult of celebrity. When you look at a photograph like the one below, you might think the critics have a point.

As the Prime Ministers of Great Britain and Brazil walk toward the camera, their mirror images are captured alongside them. The photograph depicts its own ability to create an image out of reality, while also hiding the slight of hand by which it appears to us as the real thing. Thus, we look at the photograph and see the figures on the right as the real Prime Ministers–in contrast to their images on the left–but, of course, the figures on the right are images, not the PMs themselves who now probably are continents apart. In short, the photo makes one think that it is the equivalent of the real, when it is actually is an illusion taking the place of reality.

Not that this bothers the ministers. They are having a fine time together; indeed, they look like two seasoned troupers hitting the stage for an encore. A politics of photo-ops for stage-managed pseudo-events (like the G20 meeting that was the pretext for this picture) doesn’t bother them. Their attention to political performance is captured by every aspect of the photo, including the elocutionary behavior (bodies entrained in conventional costumes, postures, smiles, and gestures directed toward an audience), the stage created by the raised walkway, red carpet, and supernumeraries, and the mirror’s duplication of the actors, which throws them into an aesthetic space for depicting social reality.

But wait a minute. If the mirror highlights performance to reveal social habits, it might be exposing illusions rather than creating them. Isn’t the primary illusion in the political performance itself, not in the photograph? Or could it be that real Prime Ministers still have to act like Prime Ministers, and that this photograph captures that relatively complex relationship between image and reality. Likewise, featuring the mirror might be one way that the photograph is encouraging reflexive consideration of the transformations between image and reality in the public media, including photojournalism, rather than suppressing such awareness.

If you want to see reality in a world of images, sometimes it might be enough to hold up a mirror.

Photograph by Evaristo Sa/AFP-Getty Images.