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Sight Gag: Tranny Bunny

Photo Credit:  Mark Ralston/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“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.


Symposium: The Aesthetics of Catastrophe

Symposium: The Aesthetics of Catastrophe

Northwestern University
Friday, June 5, 2009
Annie May Swift Hall Auditorium

This symposium addresses questions of visual representation and public advocacy as they are evident in contemporary economic, environmental, and political disasters. Events such as floods, fires, terrorism, and genocide generate heightened media coverage, compelling images, and questions about the limits of photographic representation of events that involve massive disruption and loss. In the US, a series of disasters including 9/11, Katrina, and the economic crash have pushed photojournalists and media scholars alike to ask whether the available conventions for documentary witness need to be extended or reworked. This symposium provides images and arguments dedicated to provoking and guiding extended discussion of topics such as the violent image, visual fragmentation and political distribution, emergency status and citizenship, and the iconography of a “catastrophile” society.


9:00 – Coffee

9:30 – Ann Larabee, Michigan State University, “Brownfields, Ghostboxes, and Orange Xs: Reading Disaster and Catastrophe in the Urban Landscape”

10:45 – Robert Lyons, Photographer, “Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide”

1:00 – David Campbell, Durham University, UK, “Constructed Visibility: Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza”

2:15 – Aric Mayer, Photographer, “Representing the Unrepresentable: Disaster, Suffering, and Locating the Political in the Viewer-Image Exchange”

3:30 – Lane Relyea, Northwestern University, “From Spectacle to Database: On the Changed Status of Debris and Fragmented Subjectivity in Recent Art Culture”

4:45 – Reception

Free and open to the public. Organized by Robert Hariman. Sponsored by the Program in Rhetoric and Public Culture, the Center for Global Culture and Communication, the School of Communication, and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, Northwestern University. For more information, please contact Patrick Wade at wpatrickwade@gmail.com.


The Half-Life of Cold War Images

To the untrained eye, including many of us who grew up seeing annual photos of Soviet military hardware being paraded in Red Square, this could be an image from the 1960s.

The planes are flying over Red Square for the annual photo-op that the Soviet–oops, Russian–government provides each year to commemorate the end of WW II. A slide show at The Big Picture provides this and other photographs, many of which are picture-perfect renditions of typical images from the Cold War: massed soldiers tightly entrained as they pass the reviewing stand, and huge missile launchers, tanks, and other lethal vehicles passing in front of ornate, 19th century buildings. Russian might is on display–as the massive, industrialized concentration of disciplined masses serving an ancient authoritarian state.

That is one Russia, and perhaps one that still should be taken seriously, but other images provide evidence that the world is changing around the government’s stage. One photograph features a young couple kissing as they walk in parallel to the parade, indifferent to the public show providing a backdrop for their personal relationship. In another, the photo of the weaponry includes a TV crew, suggesting that the military is becoming relegated to a sideshow in the information age. In another, a young boy runs past a memorial, his brand-name athletic clothing and free spirit an obvious contrast to the stolid monumentalism of the national security state. The photographers seem to be saying that the parade comes out of the past, while the spectators are the future.

It would be easy to conclude at this point, as if the Russian government were the only remaining source of Cold War culture, as if they alone remain mired in the past while more liberal democracies were creating a global civil society of free markets, continuous media, and consumerism. But then I came across this image:

This photo offers a peek into Digilab at the Open University in the UK. The Guardian’s caption mentioned that the individual shown was working at a computer–as if that were something very special. To cut to the chase, this is another example of Cold War image culture. The public is given a glimpse of a technocratic elite who work in highly modern workplaces that are carefully guarded against more intrusive public access. The image itself is of an interface: the small, circular, specially sealed windows could almost double as gauges, or lights, or conduits for optical beams, or ports for flexible hoses. The flat, monochrome surface with its odd, supposedly pleasant color completes the composition. This is a world of uniformly managed surfaces to maintain a supposedly rational distribution of skills and risks.

In other words, Cold War imagery continues to be produced on both sides of the former iron curtain. And in each case the images can continue to legitimate different versions of the old dispensations. It wasn’t all bad, but I certainly hope that we can move on to better things. With that in mind, I find this last image particularly poignant.

Missile launchers are waiting their cue to enter the Square for a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade. The golden cannisters could be something completely different than weapons, and they could be to any scale–say, a child’s toys. The domed cathedral in the background looms Oz-like in the fog. The vehicles and the buildings each seem to have their own source of light, and their own secret purpose. The entire scene is dream-like.

As if the whole era had been a dream, a fantastical dream of beauty and terror, and one that you can’t quite get out of your head.

Photographs by Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP-Getty Images, Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images, Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press.


Sight Gag: Noncontact Sport (Kids: Don't Try This At Home)

Photo Credit:  Mark J. Terrill/AP

“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.

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Embedded in Afghanistan

By guest correspondent David Campbell

Embedding photojournalists with combat units was one of the military’s greatest victories in the Iraq war. By narrowing the focus in time and space to the unit they were with, the images produced put brave soldiers front and center, with both context and victims out of range. Now, with the Obama administration’s “Af-Pak” strategy being questioned, we are being offered similar visual cues from Afghanistan.

Three soldiers peering into a remote valley, rifles at the ready, the enemy seemingly elusive. High tech weaponry is readied against the elements. This is a war machine looking for a reason, certain a threat is out there but unsure of its form. There’s even a moment of pathos, with the man on the left in his pink boxers and exposed legs lining up with his comrades. Then there is the second photo, shot from behind in the same place, but showing a strongman taking time out for a gym session. One shows a vulnerable body, the other a muscular physique, but in each case the American soldier is the subject of the photograph.

What unites these pictures is their location – the Korengal Valley in northeastern Afghanistan. The embedding process is taking photographers and reporters to this location above all others, and photographers have been prominent in the coverage of US operations there. Balazs Gardi and Tim Hetherington travelled there in 2007, John Moore spent time there in November 2008, producing both stills and a multimedia piece, and Adam Dean and Tyler Hicks have filed stories from an April 2009 embed. (See background to the Hicks’ story here.)

Although the visual skills of these practitioners are not in doubt, the stories they have produced are remarkably similar in both content and approach. US forces are the locus of the narrative and combat scenes are repeatedly pictured. The local community is lalrgely unseen, except for when they encounter the Americans, and never heard. They are rendered as part of an inhospitable environment in which civilians are hard to distinguish from ‘the enemy’.

The effect of concentrating on one location and one side has been to badly limit our understanding of the strategic dilemma that is Afghanistan. The photographers might want to do otherwise but the embedding process is designed to produce this constraint. Its success can be judged by the way these stories effectively structure the visibility of the war in a way that foregrounds American military interests.

How we judge the photographers’ responsibility here is difficult. Logistically, being embedded is the only feasible way to cover some frontline locations. Without it we might not see anything. But the consequence of embedding is the production of a visual landscape that too easily fits with the idea that more troops or heavier fighting could lead to victory. This political effect was part of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s critique of Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press Photo-winning image of an American soldier in the Korengal. (Hetherington responded with a statement about photojournalism’s continuing political significance, which I have considered here).

Picturing the Af-Pak war comprehensively and in context is a major photographic challenge. It cannot be easily disentangled from the politics of the war. We are stuck with the consequences of the Bush-Blair military intervention, but there is no simple military solution in Afghanistan that will guarantee security. Yet, as much as it might be wished, withdrawing international forces from Afghanistan is unlikely to be helpful in the short-term.

In this context, photography has its work cut out for it. The stories most effective at addressing the broader issues to date have been multimedia presentations (see John D McHugh’s series Six Months in Afghanistan, especially the film “Combat Post”), and more work of this kind is urgently needed if the human and political dimensions of the struggle for security in Afghanistan and Pakistan are going to be better understood.

Photograph by David Guttenfelder/Associated Press.


Learning For Life

The scene above has a familiar aura about it: It could be a photograph of a drug bust somewhere in Mexico or Colombia, or it could be a rescue scene from an episode of a TV show like 24 or The Unit.  But it is none of these things.  Rather, it is a photograph of a group of Explorers in California “portraying Border Patrol agents rushing into a room filled with fake poison gas” and “aiming their weapons at a man before realizing he was a wounded hostage.”

Explorers is a coeducational affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America that is currently run under the auspices of a program called “Learning for Life.”  According to the Learning for Life website, the primary goal of the program is “career exploration … designed to help young people make intelligent decisions regarding their future.”  Explorer posts in the U.S. boast over 145,000 youth members, 35,000 of whom  participate in the specific program dedicated to careers in “law enforcement,” which, among other things, works to train youth (age 14-21) in how to “to confront terrorism, illegal immigration and escalating border violence.”  In short, it is something of a paramilitary version of the Jr. ROTC programs that populate many of our high schools and which functionally reduce citizenship and patriotism to the model of military life—a rigidly hierarchical world in which independent thinking is not only frowned upon, but severely disciplined. Military and paramilitary organizations are vital and necessary arms of government, to be sure, and we would be poorer as a nation without their presence or the many dedicated individuals who serve in them.  That said, one has to wonder if such militaristic “Learning for Life” programs offer the most effective model for animating critical thinking and a productive civic life amongst our most impressionable citizens.

But there is an something more to be said.  We have written regularly here at NCN about what we call the “normalization of war,” a collection of cultural practices which naturalize and reinforce a war culture that in turn animates a pernicious cycle of violence (e.g., here, here, and here).  I was reminded of this process of normalization by the picture above, which was embedded in a NYT slide show that included a number of photographs of Explorers “playing at” hunting down suicide bombers, hijackers, snipers, and illegal immigrants with toy guns  Setting aside the fact that the vast majority of  “illegal immigrants” are otherwise law abiding citizens—and in any case, certainly not terrorists—the larger point to make is that collectively the photographs teeter back and forth between an implicit and certain playfulness and dead seriousness.

This ironic tension is a palpable reminder of the fine line between the attitudes of play and serious business, and how the former can seem innocent (and in some contexts even ambiguously endearing, as in this image that recently appeared in the Washington Post and was the topic of discussion over at the Bag), even as it coaches (and too easily converts into) more solemn and severe behaviors.  Notice how the same toy guns that seem harmless in the top photograph appear threateningly dangerous in the bottom image.  Put differently, these photographs visualize the very logic that underwrites the production of a war culture: making warlike behavior seem harmless—and indeed fun—even as it gestures toward a putative, if not ominously mistaken, larger purpose. Learning for life, indeed.

Photo Credits:  Todd Krainin/NYT  Crossposted at The Bag.


To: Bush Administration; Re: Wrath of God

Yesterday GQ broke the latest story about the alternate universe known as the Bush administration. It seems that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld didn’t think that getting the latest intelligence on the war in Iraq was good enough for the president.  So the Secretary tricked up the daily top-secret reports on the invasion with photographs of US military personnel or weaponry–and captioned the photos with Biblical quotes selected to strike the proper note of self-righteous moral superiority. (You can see the photographs in the GQ slide show here.)  To take one example, imagine a battle tank bathed in the red rays of the setting sun, along with the injunction from Ephesians 6:13 to “put on the full armor of God.” In Rumsfeld’s Bible, it seems, “armor” is not a metaphor. And for the daily briefing in the Bush war room, neither was “crusade.”

And a trillion dollars and roughly 100,000 civilian deaths later, we have images like this.

The scene has shifted to Pakistan, where oil tankers that were to supply the US military are burning following an attack. I like to think of Rumsfeld out of work and spending his days captioning photographs by the hundreds, pouring through his shiny Bible–not worn from years of use–for quotes to spin the images. But he no longer has to persuade a born-again president, and the current president probably knows that the US government is not supposed to be fighting religious wars.

So, what’s left?  How about a game: Can you caption this image? With a Biblical quote, of course. How about “he has poured out his fury like fire” (Lamentations 2:4)? Or perhaps “I will let loose my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, I will punish you for all your abominations” (Ezekiel 7:3)?

Obviously, one of the problems with using the Bible is that it can be, well, a two-edged sword (Proverbs 5:4). (The Biblical phrase only meant sharp, but the Bible does cut both ways.) For all the flaws in Rumsfeld’s political judgment, his scriptural references raise several important issues regarding use of the Bible. For one, there may be no better source for finding sacred sanction for war. The seamless fusion of God’s righteousness with secular conquest and a willingness to sacrifice others in God’s name may be a serious problem within the Abrahamic religions. Closer to home, the use of the Bible often reflects serious errors in application–whether in understanding the point of the passage being quoted, or in the assumptions made about one’s claim on God’s favor. Most important, the Biblical God never wants to stay with war, or to glorify war.

The Biblical God wants justice, mercy, and peace. And so we can end with another game. I’ll supply the quotation, and you supply a photograph. Here’s the text:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness; and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah, 6: 8).

Photograph by Adil Kahn/Reuters. All translations are New Revised Standard Version.

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Sight Gag: Let's Have a Tax Holiday!

Photo Credit: www.crooksandliers.com

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.

 1 Comment

Active Archive: The 50 States Project

Photographer Stuart Pilkington brings word of The 50 States Project, a special archive that 50 photographers are building this year. Each of the participants, one from each of the fifty states in the US, will produce six images during the year to represent some aspect of their state. Photographs like this one from North Dakota:

Each of the six images is on a common theme–the first three have been People, Habitat, and Landscape, with three more to be announced later in the year. Each photographer is given two months to complete the assignment, and the images are available online by theme and state. The archive is up and growing, and twitter, Flickr, and email links are available as well.

Do the math, and there will be 300 dedicated images there by the end of the year. You can see what already is up and watch the archive grow here.

Photograph of “Ice Fishing Hut on Devils Lake, North Dakota” by Dan Koeck.

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