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. . . .

June 22nd, 2009

Second Birthday for Nocaptionneeded.com

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Today nocaptionneeded.com celebrates its second birthday.

second-birthday-part-deux

There is a lot to be said for the Web, but virtual parties are not likely to be high on the list. Even so, we’re still here and somewhat amazed about that, and still growing and somewhat amazed about that.

As we did last year, this is a time to say “Thanks” and to take stock.  Thanks to all our readers, and not least to those who take the time to comment.  We don’t always like what you say, but you don’t always like what we say, and that’s what we should expect from an honest and engaged discussion.

We also want to pause a moment and take stock.  If you would like to give us any advice, now is a good time to do it.  What works and what could be improved?  What might be added?  Where should we be headed?  Advice might not be heeded, especially given our limited resources, but it always is appreciated.  You can comment below or email us at rhariman@gmail.com and lucaites@indiana.edu.

We’ll be taking two weeks off from posting—first, to lead a week-long seminar at the Rhetoric Society of America’s summer institute for scholars, and then to get of out of Dodge for awhile.  Both should provide additional context for our assessing what we do here, and we’ll continue to read our mail. . . .

See you July 6, as we start another year at NCN.

June 21st, 2009

Sight Gag: Digital Liberty

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

matson

Photo Credit:  Matson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“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.

June 19th, 2009

When Dissent Lacks Drama, It's Still Dissent

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

The riveting images and real time coverage of the events in Iran this week are about as good as it gets for those who celebrate public demonstrations on behalf of progressive social and political change.  The power of the people is there to see, as are the democratizing effects of modern media technologies when they are used to organize and amplify what is happening on the street.  The interlocking institutions of authority and corruption begin to look like the walls of Jericho, cracking as they are about to come tumbling down.

May it be so, but let’s not forget that the media also features one story at a time.  There always are other protests, other causes, other appeals to the international community that are, have been, or will be overlooked.  Equally important, perhaps, is the recognition that most protests are frail things that seem pathetic at the time and inconsequential thereafter.  Most important, we should celebrate the fact that people protest anyway.

When it rains, for example.

hand-in-rain-dissent

This photograph from a demonstration in Tbilisi, Georgia captures so much of the dismal side of dissent.  A single hand strives to hold plastic sheeting together to keep out the rain that is ruining the demonstration.  It’s hard to make your case in the public square when you can’t be seen and no one is going to be there anyway.  The hand is all that remains of the citizen, who is reduced to a small act of self-preservation.  So much for the will of the people.  The sheer vulnerability of the protester is emphasized further by the white sheet, which could as well be a burial shroud.  And yet he lives, and waits for another chance to stand for his cause.

As does this demonstrator in Jakarta.

whitened-dissenter

This might be titled the activist’s very bad day.  He has gone to considerable trouble to make a statement–body paint, a performance that will have been scripted and rehearsed, all to be presented before an audience who probably couldn’t care less.  Yet he, too, is a study in fatality: white as a corpse, looking as if beaten, nakedly vulnerable, and alone but for his fatigue and discouragement while the public looks elsewhere.  It was Earth Day in Indonesia, which has a terrible environmental record including 70% deforestation and some of Asia’s worst air pollution.  Let’s hope that next year things go better.

Heroism can’t be the staple of democratic dissent.  I won’t for a minute belittle those who are standing up to brutality today, but let’s not forget the many others who have been keeping up the struggle in other settings.  They, too, keep the spirit of democracy alive, and they do it by withstanding humiliation and failure.  Heroism is a rare and beautiful thing, but for those bad days, a different kind of courage may be required.

Photographs by Shakh Aivazov/AP and Mast Irham/EPA.

June 17th, 2009

Showing Political Action: Images in the Iranian Protests

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

Commentators on photography frequently claim that the image is a counterfeit of reality. Beware the image, we’re told, as it is not the real thing.  But it you look at what people do with images, you can see far more than people being mislead.  What I find particularly notable is how ordinary people are enlisting images as foot soldiers in public demonstrations.  Instead of displacing reality, images are being used to increase the scale and impact of democratic advocacy.

You could see it as Chinese parents held photographs of children killed when their schools collapsed during an earthquake, and you can see it now as Iranians protest their government’s attempt to fix the presidential election.

protest-photo-in-protest

Here a protester is not only marching in the street but displaying a photo of another protester who was shot by a government thug in an earlier demonstration.  For an example using an earlier photo of state violence, look at the bottom of this post, and see others in photograph 9 at The Big Picture. That’s only part of the repertoire, however.

photograph-mask-iran

I doubt anyone thinks this guy actually is Mir Moussavi, so the protectors of reality can stand down for a moment.  He is doing something much more significant than imitation, anyway: by making the photograph a mask for this political theater, he puts the political leader’s face on the body politic that is the multitude of people in the street.  The leader, who actually is living on the edge of house arrest, is given the force of the people, whose identification with his cause and their right to a fair election is given specific statement.

There may be more going on as well.  This carnivalesque mashup may also be a response to the State’s attempt to mobilize the same means of persuasion on behalf of their theocratic regime, as they do here:

photo-in-protest-pro-gov-iran

These women are holding photos in a demonstration on behalf of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  The stock portrait of Leaders with the Flag and corresponding production values are in sharp contrast to the dynamic documentary witness in the first image above.  If you want to communicate Order and Stability instead of change, however, this state-sponsored image will do.

It’s tempting to leave it at that: a contest between competing images that reflects the two sides of the polarized confrontation in the street.  The  disenfranchised people, their candidate, and a dynamic visual culture on one side, and traditionalist social orders, clerical leaders, and propaganda on the other.  But I want to tip the scales further on behalf of democratic public art, which, after all, should be too brash and ungainly to be easily categorized.  For that and other reasons as well, you really ought to get a look at this:

che-tatto-iran

The photographs are from the slide show at the Huffington Post.  Photographs 1-3 are Getty images; I don’t have an ID on 4.

June 15th, 2009

Twittering Past the Bloodbath

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

The new media have been giddy with their up-to-the-minute coverage of the events in Iran this weekend.  Direct comparison, compliments of Twitter, with CNN’s poor showing made the contrast all too obvious: The new media reports coming out of Tehran were equivalent to CNN coverage of the 1991 bombing of Baghdad.  Better yet, the “revolution” unfolding today had erupted because Mousavi supporters had been able to text around state censorship of major media networks.  Add to this the early photographs of hip, attractive students showing V signs and you might think that the whole thing was one big Obama rally.  Except for this:

injured-iranian

This guy got nailed. Broken nose, for sure, and maybe some teeth.  His protest is over for the day.  You can see how the injury has refocused his attention down to a single zone of pain and perception, the single preoccupation of holding his body together, the single act of getting himself to a safe place.  The cloth that he is using to staunch the blood does additional work for us, as it can imply that he might want to weep, not for himself but for his cause, or that he might want to hide his face in shame, not from the blood but from the larger stain created by his government as it makes a sham of a democratic election.

But this is not the time for symbolism.  As the government and its vigilantes are becoming increasingly violent, images (and videos) like this probably will become more prominent in the next day or two.  With that, viewers are going to have to adjust the frame that was created by the initial news coverage online.  Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been devouring reports by bloggers, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages, all via various online aggregators.  Even if some may be caught up a bit too much in promoting their own role in making history, the new media definitely are a part of the story.  But the heart of the matter is that people have been putting their bodies on the line.

And let’s not forget that history still is being made the old fashioned way–by brutally beating people.  Note this report on anti-Mousavi thugs from Samson Desta, a reporter for CNN (!), as printed at the Huffington Post: “They were plain clothes, carrying baseball bats. They were carrying metal pipes, and they were just beating up anyone that was that was in that area. Today, I went to a second protest…probably the most violent that I’ve seen, that we have seen.  . . . No uniforms but they had weapons such as metal pipes, and they were actually just driving around, intimidating people, beating up people, anyone that was in the street, anyone that was in the road, anyone that dared to chant “Mousavi, Mousavi,” they were beating them senseless.”

Baseball bats, metal pipes, and blood.  All we see here is the blood, which is but a trace of the violence.  But it is a vital sign.  Let’s not support the protesters because they are young and beautiful and connected; they should be supported because they are willing to risk all that for democracy.

Photograph from Getty Images/Huffington Post.  Currently 41 photos of the demonstrations and reprisals are available at The Big Picture.  Unfortunately, the point I’m trying to make here is vividly evident in the arc from the first image to #41.  The list also includes another photograph (#16) of the man shown above.  NCN readers may remember other posts on showing blood, including this one.

UPDATE:

bloodied-iranian-photo-poster

June 14th, 2009

Sight Gag: Judicial Temperament

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

judicialtemperament

Credit:  Knickerbocker

“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.

June 12th, 2009

Interchangeable Women: East and West

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

One of the questions one might raise about coverage of the Middle East is how much to feature women under the veil.  Despite the range of positions in the region about body covering, the tendency in the US is to feature burqas (of whatever kind or name) when emphasizing deficits of rights and modernization.  But, of course, the matter is not so simple.

three-burqas-snapshot

For the record, these women are wearing the Afghan chadiri.  If you look closely at this photo, you can see that it might confound several assumptions about living under the veil.  Instead of uniformity, each outfit is individually decorated.  Instead of a primitive society, the women are standing in a pleasantly modern setting.  Most peculiar, perhaps, is that they are standing to be photographed.  How, one might think, can a photograph matter when their faces can’t be seen? (To see how mistaken this question can be, go here.) They may expect to be recognized by what can be seen, or they may be indulging the request for a photo precisely because they are protected from public scrutiny.

These subtleties may be obvious inside their culture, whereas to the Western gaze the women are interchangeable: anonymous, uniform, and uniformly subjugated.  Given their confinement to private life, in public they are not citizens but merely women, interchangeable women.

Before anyone gets too righteous about the Western alternative, we should take a look at this:

These Florida State fans are definitely not under the veil.  They are, however, another example of cosmetic cloning.  (Let’s set the little girl aside, although notice that she is a Florida State woman in training, right down to the bracelet.) Sure, we can identify them as separate individuals: one belly has a navel stud, one doesn’t, and the third has a tattoo, what more do you want?  But they are more closely entrained than the three women in the first photograph: bare midriffs, identical shirts, hats, buttons, bracelets, hairstyles, makeup, and gestures.  Even their faces look like close copies of each other.

We could point out that they are free to choose how they display themselves in public, but this doesn’t seem to be a great example of independent decision making.  My point is that they might as well be in burqas–they are interchangeable women, as much under the sway of gender-specific norms for appearing in public as anyone else.  Their aggressive femininity is little different than the gender segregation of the burqa; both might be labeled variant forms of cosmetic fundamentalism.

None of this need be complicated: many people rightly oppose any gender rules that confine women to subordinate status.  But if  images of women are to be used to subordinate East to West on the grounds that a denial of visibility is a denial of rights, then it’s only fair to raise equivalent questions about how rights are being used to keep women locked into limited gender roles closer to home.

Photographs by Margaret Orwig and Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel.

June 10th, 2009

Then and Now

Posted by Lucaites in afterimages, no caption needed

Can you name the location of this photograph?  If you need a hint click on the image.

tsquare-today

Even those who actually recognize the scene probably misidentify it.  Most westerners would be inclined to say that it is Tiananmen Square, though it is actually Changan Avenue, which is a bit east of the square.  On its face that small detail of misnaming would seem to be relatively unimportant, after all, what really matters was the event, right?  And the iconic photograph nails that as a lone individual stands down a row of tanks. Of course, when we say “iconic photograph” we have a bit of a problem too since there are at least four different photographs that are commonly referred to as “the” photograph.  But again, perhaps that too is just a trivial matter as each image is really quite similar and collectively they appear to confirm the relevant facts—a man, a row of tanks, a public thoroughfare, etc.  So what if the four images are not identical to one another—if in some you have a close-up and in others you can see the wide street and bus, or if in some the man is carrying a bag in each hand, but in at least one he no longer has a bag in his right hand?  What difference does it make?  Maybe nothing.

Then again, perhaps it calls our attention to the ways in which photographs become reductive representations of places and events that can (and often do) direct (or misdirect) our attention and, subsequently, our memory.  What was the dance between the man and the tank all about?  Was it about a lone, heroic individual standing up against incalculable odds in a scene that might have been played out in the mythic American west with Gary Cooper cast as the man holding the bags?  Or was it one small part of a mass, collective demonstration, a radically democratic  (and potentially dangerous), grass roots  revolution?  Did that photograph inflect a liberal or a democratic moment?  Perhaps the photograph above coaches an answer.

It is not hard to see this photograph as a visual quotation of the iconic image of the man and the tank.  Taken from almost the identical vantage of the iconic photograph(s), it shares many of the high modernist aesthetic conventions of the original that make it easily identifiable to western audiences:  It is universal rather than parochial (it could be anywhere in the world), it is geometric rather than organic (notice how the scene and all that it contains are disciplined by rigid angles and vectors), it is functional rather than customary (the street is designed to “move” masses of people from one place to another rather than to accommodate social interaction), and so on.  But more, it is shot from on high and at some distance.  The viewer thus looks down upon the scene with a degree of objective detachment that James C. Scott affiliates with “seeing like a state,” a panoptic vantage “that is typical of all institutional settings where command and control of complex human activities is paramount.”  That the iconic photograph has circulated mostly (and almost exclusively) in the west is a clear indication of who is viewing whom, and who presumes cultural hegemony. But what is being naturalized here?

The template is framed in a figural dialectic defined by the relationship between “then” and “now.”  And from this chronotopic perspective, what is different are the particular figures within the scene.  In 1989 we had a showdown between the heroic individual and the authoritarian state, in 2009 we have the traffic and commerce symptomatic of a busy thoroughfare in any city in the world.  What is important to notice is that in each photograph the anonymity of the actors remains intact, with this crucial difference: then they were defined as political agents caught in a struggle between good and evil, now they are seen as global consumers defined (as so often in the U.S.) by their cars.  What was thus then cast for western eyes as a liberal-democratic revolution is now cast as a liberalized, global economy of undifferentiated, mass consumption. Liberalism, it would seem, is the trump card.  Their present is our past … again.

That could be useful framing of the social order, as it animates the possibilities for trans-global identification, or it could reduce our sense of the possibilities for a global civil society to a neo-liberal economic hegemony disciplined by the narrow and limited conventions of  late modern design.  Its all a matter of what we choose to see and remember.

Photo Credit: David Gray/Reuters  (For more on our consideration of the original “tank man” image and its various iterations and appropations see chapter five in No Caption Needed (the book) and posts here and here.)

June 8th, 2009

Images of Obama's Audience

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

The coverage of Obama’s speech in Cairo continued this weekend with a slide show at the New York Times.  The slides essentially were all the same, with each showing Obama’s televised image in one locale or another.  The set of slides included photographs from India, Africa, and LA, but the majority were from the Middle East.  The point, I assume, was to represent both a global audience and the likelihood of varied responses in diverse settings.  Too many of them, however, might as well have been Orientalist illustrations.

obama-on-screen-cairo

This photo from Cairo was the first in the set and thus capable of setting the frame. Obama is on the TV placed above a Coke machine–the only two electrical machines evident without close study of the photo–while the scene is dominated by the hookahs and Arabic script on the worn wall.  The US is aligned with modern technology, all the better for global distribution of our products and ideas, while those watching in the Middle East are still living in a bygone world of mysterious inscriptions and exotic customs.

The young man in the center of the frame is a particularly nice touch.  Lithe boys were one element of Orientalist iconography, although this kid is fully clothed for the contemporary US audience.  Indeed, he might pass for a young Obama.  Thus, he is the central object of struggle in the drama being constructed.  Will he be influenced by the parochial Arab culture that surrounds him, or by the American president?  Will the TV and Coke machine, which are on the border of this scene, be able to break the spell of the culture represented by the drug paraphernalia surrounding him?  Obviously, we are to hope that he will grow up to become a good citizen like his newly available role model, Barack Obama.  The fact that he will grow up in a dictatorship propped up by billions of dollars in US aid is not mentioned.

Were a Black Panther around, it might be mentioned.  The image of that kind of African-American community organizer has been conspicuously absent from the Obama haigiography, but the following image can bring the Panthers to mind.

obama-on-glasses-in-riyadh

This photo was not part of the Times slide show, perhaps because it complicates both sides of the rhetorical transaction.  Now Obama is projected onto the sunglasses of what could be a stony auditor, someone quite different from the supposedly impressionable young man shown above.  And Obama becomes a small yet garish image of himself, someone distant from the kind of politics represented by black men wearing dark glasses and hard faces.  Perhaps the image still contains a fantasy of media influence, as if the TV image were being projected from the screen through the glasses directly into the eye and brain.  (Note how equipment figures significantly in each photograph.)  But we see instead how an image can be reflected back toward the sender.  Instead of persuasion, we are shown resistance.

The second photo is from Riyadh, and so we should note that he probably is not black and if there is resistance it could be on behalf of privilege and dogmatism.  Both images are studies in some of the problems of persuasion, however, and they provide a basis for thinking about how to think about global audiences.  The first photograph presents an all too comfortable conception of the Middle East; the second suggests a critical counterpoint.  Each is but one account, and far too many others remain ignored.

Amr Nabil/Associated Press and Hassan Ammar/Associated Press.

June 7th, 2009

Sight Gag: Saving Private Walton

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

slightbutsteady_01jpg

Credit:  Somethingawful.com

“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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