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Visual History and the Times of Crisis

Reuters and MediaStorm have collaborated on a multimedia history of the current financial crisis.  The online project is entitled Times of Crisis.  In their own words, “The project has two parts – a short web documentary and an in-depth visual timeline. The latter contains hundreds of entries woven together into a visual stream of information to show how the crisis has touched lives everywhere.”


It’s a savvy project, and the interactive time line is a good example of how photoj0urnalism has become woven deeply into public communication.  The images are not the whole story, but they clearly provide resources for thought, association, and action.  The project also provides a case study in perspective: if you hang back and look at the thumbnails, you remain disengaged from a radically fragmented world; if you enter the individual panels and move from place to place, you begin to recognize both the many different injuries suffered around the globe and the deep continuities in need, anxiety, and adaptation.

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Visual Ironies

Our language is fettered with visual clichés. “Seeing is believing,” but also “don’t believe everything you see.” And don’t forget that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Of course, our very favorite visual cliché here at NCN is “No caption needed.” As the title of both our book and blog, some readers often assume that we mean to be arguing that photographs speak for themselves and that captions are truly not necessary. In point of fact, our use of the phrase is meant to be ironic (it would actually be in quotes in the title of our book so as to call attention to it as a cultural saying and thus to set ourselves apart from it, but our publisher insisted that using quotation marks would confuse search engines and make it harder for people to find the book). The irony points in two directions. On one hand we mean to argue that in most instances captions are very much needed, and on the other hand, we mean to argue that whether needed or not, they are virtually unavoidable.

Both points are driven home by a recent NYT Lens showcase titled “Stirring Images, No Names.” The showcase reports on a photographic exhibit about to open in London titled “Beware the Cost of War.” The exhibit consists of violent and often gruesome images from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict taken by both Israeli and Palestinian photographers. And what makes the show unique is that it “lacks captions and credits next to the images.” The point, according to Yoav Galai, the photographer who curated the exhibit, was to “tear [the photographs] away from their narrative” under the assumption that (according to the NYT reporter) “without words, the pictures will be freer to speak for themselves.” The problem, of course, is that a “picture is worth a thousand words” but without some minimal narrative framing to guide and contextualize image for the “hearer,” it may as well be speaking in tongues.

The first image in the exhibit is a case in point.


It is really hard to know what this is a photograph of, let alone to have any sense of what it might mean or say. The person laying in the field appears to be a soldier. That much we can presumably tell from his uniform and gun. But can we be sure? And if he is a soldier who does he represent? Why is he alone? Or is he alone? After all, we cannot see outside of the frame. Perhaps he has friends (or enemies) surrounding him. Is he fighting a battle? Did he dessert his unit? Is he asleep or dead? And how did he come to be in this place? And where is this place? And on and on … There are no doubt a thousand things—or more—that the photograph could be saying. But apart from some narrative it is hard to know what the point might be. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that as art should be evocative in ways that speak to each viewer differently. But even there, no viewer comes to a picture as a blank slate to absorb the pure sense of the image without some baggage—some narrative frame—that directs their attention and guides the understanding.

That leads to my second point, which is that like it or not, captions (and the narrative frames that they impute) are unavoidable, even when a curator decides that he wants to tear the image “away from its narrative.” Look at the above image a second time, now as it is actually displayed in the exhibit and as viewers encounter it for the first time:


The title superimposed over the photograph is, of course, a caption. And it very clearly directs the viewers attention to a specifically normative interpretation of the image. That interpretation, guided by a warning, is reinforced by a prior warning that precedes the photograph to announce that the images in the exhibit are “graphic.” Taken together, the two warnings function as a less than subtle vector for guiding the viewer to “hear” what the image has to say in a very specific voice.

But even if the narrative framing here was not so obvious—and so explicitly verbal—there are a multitude of other ways in which the photograph is more subtly and effectively captioned and framed. For one thing, it is featured in a photographic exhibit in a London gallery, which if nothing else marks it as a special artistic or documentary artifact and guides our engagement with it. Were we to encounter it in a newspaper or on a billboard or in a Soldiers of Fortune magazine the specific meaning of the form of mediation would be different, but the general effect of its form as a mode of captioning and framing would still be palpable. Additionally, the many images in the exhibit (as with the selection reproduced by the Lens) are placed in a spatial and temporal relationship to one another so as to create a flow or montage effect according to which the meaning and force of any individual image is accented and implicated by the images that surround it.

One can withhold credits and specific captions from individual images, to be sure, but to believe that doing so allows the pictures to “speak for themselves” in any pure sense is simply mistaken—more a fantasy than a real possibility. The problem here is not that we might not learn something by valuable by bracketing or withholding the specific captions that name or frame a particular image—and indeed, the power of “Beware the Cost of War” is really quite valuable in this regard as it evocatively underscores the human tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … and maybe of all human conflict; rather, the problem is in the risk that we might be fooled into forgetting that photographs are artistic creations—not ideologically neutral or wholly transparent windows on the world—and in that register they never entirely speak for themselves.

Photo Credit: Uriel Sinai


Third World Hands and the Denial of History

In Western culture and particularly in its visual arts there are strong conventions that place peasant life close to nature, in a realm of slow time that is largely impervious to historical change, and limited to the core functions of human subsistence.  Obviously, none of this precludes being the subject of a striking artistic image.


This photograph from Mumbai of a potter’s hand working the wet clay is a stunning composition.  The odd yet graceful configuration of the hand, the exceptional tonality of the light on the grey mud, the tension between the immobility signified by the drying mud on his hand and the continuous motion of the spinning artifact–these combine to create a richly textured image.  It remains an image of a primitive world, however: we see a human body caked in the primal mud from which it came and to which all return; that hand is engaged in artisanal labor to fashion a simple object (a lamp for a religious festival); and it even hints at affinity with the animal kingdom, as the dried clay looks like elephant hide as the extended finger then becomes a prehensile trunk, sensitive but still confined within brute nature.

I hate to reduce a fine photograph to a finger puppet (even if it is there to be seen).  And I could have said more–in fact, I have said more in a post on a similar image (see the second photo in the post) in October 2007.  As today, that image was taken during preparations for the Hindi festival of lights.  (Primitive life is thought to be cyclical but is more than that; journalism is thought to be continuously new but actually is cyclical.)  I’m featuring the current photograph because it is one of several images this week (and a steady stream of such images throughout the year) that feature fragmentary images of hands from the third world.


If you showed an image of a poor old woman today and captioned it “crone,” you would rightly catch hell.  But this photo is close to that.  We see the old woman’s hand scratching across the dirt for the pistachios, as if to furtively grasp her widow’s mite.  She might actually be a person of considerable status and wisdom, as the caption merely said that the nuts had been spilled, but the photograph alone presents a social type, not a person.  As above, there is a hint of culture (jewelry, like the pottery, is the basic stuff of museum collections), but this is an image of bare life.

Note the same elements predominate in this image:


Again, a rudimentary sign of culture (the prayer beads) serves to emphasize the dirty hands and rough clothing of someone living in a world of manual labor.  The worn nail is particularly harsh–like the first hand, some wearing process pushes the viewer back into nature, into a visceral, painful, inevitable mortality.  Religion seems an obvious consolation, and so, once again, a person and his society are denominated as essentially simple, pre-modern, and located within conditions and cultures that are changeless.

All three photographs appeared in slide shows at major newspapers this week.  None of them were taken with the intention to demean their subjects.  Nor do they, by themselves.  But surely one cumulative effect is to further consolidate a cultural geography that places some people in a modern world of continuous change while keeping others in a timeless realm where survival for another year is thought to be enough.

This fragmenting vision is wrong, of course, but more than that, it is a morally flawed pattern of denial.  Instead of reproducing images that make poverty seem timeless, there is need to recognize that everyone lives in history.  Only then can one fully understand how all are connected in a web of obligation, and why continued suffering is a collective failure, not least by those most capable of being agents of change.

Photographs by Arko Datta/Reuters, Ahmad Gharabli/AFP-Getty Images, Ahmad Masood/Reuters.


Sight Gag: In The Name of Free Markets


Credit: Adam Zyglis, Buffalo News

“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.


Kid Stuff

Kids have been in the news a good bit lately. A few months back you may recall the big flap when President Obama delivered a speech before school aged children and was accused of attempting to indoctrinate them with his “socialist ideology”: stay in school and work hard. Children, it seems, are especially susceptible to the siren song of presidential eloquence and need to be protected. Since then I’ve taken notice of the fact that children—much like animals—appear to show up more or less randomly in lots of the “pictures of the day” slide shows one finds on the websites of most national newspapers. What I mean by “randomly” is that such images oftentimes seem to have no direct connection to stories or events otherwise being reported. And yet it happens so regularly that it seems reasonable to assume that something is being communicated. But what? Consider three images that showed up this past week at the Wall Street Journal.


Here we have a mother and her son dressed up in super hero costumes for the “Big Apple Comic-Con.” If you don’t know what that is, well, neither do I, and there is nothing in the WSJ that gives us a clue. And it is probably besides the point anyway. But what is the point? The picture seems to lack any real drama. The costumes seem altogether out of place—notice that no one around them seems to be in costume—and thus direct attention to the one thing that stands out: facial expressions. The mother, whose face is partially veiled by glasses and hair, smiles possessively at her child who in turn stares at the camera with what can only be described as a measure of both skepticism and resignation.

A second picture offers a point of comparison.


The photograph is of a “tribal family” fleeing a military attack against militants in South Waziristan, as they approach a checkpoint near Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan. There is a bit more context here as the military assault against the Taliban leading to over 100,000 refugees was actually covered in the paper, but the affective meaning of the image itself is hard to read. All of the adults are women and their faces are veiled according to the local custom. What draws our attention once again is the face of a child, and once again the child bears the countenance of skepticism and resignation. The difference here, of course, is that the child is not looking directly at the camera—more in the manner of an offer than a demand—even as his countenance seems channeled by the goat in the lower right of the frame who does appear to be looking directly at the viewer.

A third photograph of a mother and her child walking past a pile of debris left by a series of storms in the Philippines provides an additional point of comparison.


Here, the scene is overwhelmed by what appears to be a mountain of rubble. Once again the face of the adult is veiled as our attention is directed to the face of child which channels the affect of the image. Once again that affect is difficult to read. It doesn’t quite seem to repeat the resignation of the first two images, but there does seem to be evoke a sense of discernment as something in the pile has captured his attention, even if he is not so concerned about it that he seems likely to disconnect from his mother and seek it out

I’m not entirely sure what to make out of this collection of photographs, but even though they are separated from one another in the slide show by other unrelated images, it is hard not to see some point of consonance. There is a degree to which the photographs animate a “Family of Man” sensibility as they direct us to something like the fundamental humanity of children from all around the world—New York, Pakistan, and the Philippines. But there seems to be something more going on here as well, as the affective force of each image emanates from the face and facial expression of a child that belies the presumption of their childlike innocence and intellectual naiveté in a way that suggests that children may be a bit more savvy than some think.

“Out of the mouths of babes” is an old proverb that reminds us that children are capable of knowing far more than we can imagine they know. Perhaps here we have something like the visual complement to that old saying that invites us to see the acumen that even the youngest of children can bring to the world.

Photo Credits: Natalie Behring/Reuters; Ishtiaq Mahsud/AP; Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

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Seeing Second Nature at the Gymnastics Championships

Many of the more popular spectator sports involve athletes excelling at games the fans play not as well.  Only a very few can go pro, but lots of people can shoot a basket, throw a football, catch a baseball, defend the goal, or sink a putt.  And then there is gymnastics.


Not only is this athlete doing what you see here, but she is doing it while leaping on a balance beam.  Maybe you might try to jump high into the air and land again on a hard surface that is four inches wide and four feet off the floor, but not me.   Nor am I likely to do a poor back flip with a full twist vault, or a not so good iron cross.   Without years of highly disciplined training, the level of difficulty is way beyond anything to be attempted by a weekend warrior.

But I digress.  Perhaps by now the shock of the photograph above is being to wear off.  There is something horrifying about decapitation, even when we know that the severing is an illusion.  A trick of the camera, an accident of angle, we know intuitively that the head is merely out of our line of sight.  And yet.  The body works so well without it, the musculature is so perfectly developed and disciplined, it could almost double as a science fiction athlete in a future where everything has been genetically engineered for optimal performance, with all other aesthetic and moral values cut away as well.

The photograph may be showing us a glimpse of the future, but it also reveals thing or two about the present.  Genetics aside, the athlete has been engineered for optimal performance, and so the image reveals the extraordinary specialization that goes into the higher echelons of modern sport–and other sectors of modern society.  It also might hint at some of the costs for the individual athlete, who often sacrifices educational opportunities and much else in the short term while enduring chronic physical discomfort or worse later in life.

I think it also reveals a deeper condition that is intertwined with our visual experience.  The obvious distortion in the visual image (the fictive decapitation) exposes the actual distortion of the body that occurs in many forms of training.  Although images of athletes have been used since Greek antiquity to portray the Body Beautiful as a perfect expression of the natural physique, in fact, sport, like art of any sort, involves doing things that are not simply natural.  Excellence in any cultural activity involves making the unusual so ingrained that it seems to be second nature.  The athlete or artist or other performer takes what is arbitrary, contingent, artificial, and otherwise a matter of of choice and effort, and fashions it into an seemingly effortless act.

Our sense of beauty can beguile us on this point, and many photographs of gymnasts and other athletes may serve that denial of how strange, contorted, and otherwise artificial our use of our bodies can be as people dance, paint, do surgery, build houses, or sit at a computer and write.  Nothing we do can be contrary to the laws of nature or our body’s inherent incapacities, but as we live in cultures of bodily discipline we learn to function as bodies without heads, heads without bodies, and many other equally odd designs.

What people don’t do, however, is develop a sense of their bodies as plastic material waiting to be formed and reformed under pressure.  In fact, one use of both images and mirrors seems to be to maintain a sense of a proportionate bodily integrity.  Which is why I am closing with this photograph:


The intact body is visible, but there still is something wrong.  Now it seems that the athlete has become compressed by the powerful gravitational forces built up when torquing around the bar.  The body is still  trained and controlled, and one once again knows intuitively that the foreshortening is a visual trick and not the actual crushing of the body to produce the world’s shortest woman, and yet. . . . Second nature is again exposed: the body’s innate capabilities have been transformed into s specific and astonishing art, one that dazzles the mind.  If you think about what is being revealed, however, you might realize that artistic excellence depends upon deformation, and that because it is a product of culture, the human being has no fixed form.

Photographs by Carl de Souza/AFP-Getty Images and Toby Melville/Reuters from the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships 2009 in London.


Sight Gag: Illegal Aliens


Credit: punditkitchen

“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.


Kitchen Debate Redux

By guest correspondent Elisabeth Ross

A little while ago, the New York Times ran a story about the so-called “family dinner” predicament, which in this latest commentary was anchored by yet another study suggesting an association between frequency of family dinners and adolescent substance abuse rates.

The photograph accompanying the article on the front page of the Style section forecasts the nostalgic, eternal return to that staple of the modern visual lexicon: the mid-century kitchen, complete with iconic 1950s housewife emerging to present a casserole to her adoring family seated at the table.


The faded pastels, washed out background, and dinner table floating in a cloud of whiteness suggest an ethereal quality, interrupted only by the father’s black suit.  He sits slightly off balance, imitated by his son, but not quite able to project full parental authority.  The smile is a little too forced.  Is he nervous?  Maybe he and his wife have just had a fight.  Maybe he’s wondering if that casserole is about to hit him in the head.  Maybe she’s looking at it, gauging just how much she’d have to clean up afterward and if it’s even worth it.

Of course, that’s not what we’re supposed to be thinking.  But we have seen this sanitized domesticity performed so many times, that we should know better than to confuse the ideal with the real.  The image of the dressed-up housewife in her otherworldly kitchen can be considered today in terms of underlying doubt, anxiety, and potential for transgression.  In this way, the image speaks to another photograph from the same article:


In this 21st century family tableau, the mother is similarly turned inward, that is, facing her family and facing away from the viewer.  Comparison with the first image is supposed to be damming: look, for example, at how the four individuals are eating junk food while strapped into seats that keep them separated from one another.  But that’s not the only way to see it.  The space is private but mobile, comfortable, and with modern amenities at hand.  The mother–nothing suggests she is a housewife: no apron, no casserole, no husband, no house–is firmly planted in the driver’s seat.  The pink apron is replaced by business-casual black.  Mom’s in charge.  At least, of dinner.

And that’s part of the problem.

After presenting the inverse ratio of family dinner frequency to teen drug use, the article parenthetically notes that 80% of family dinners are prepared by women (while still holding 50% of all jobs) and then features interviews with 8 women, who describe their commitment to or reluctant abandonment of the family dinner (one woman would only admit to the latter on the condition of anonymity).

Every year for the last decade or so, we hear the same statistics linking family meals to an assortment of psycho-developmental benefits for children.  The data does not show causation, researchers admit, rather, simply an association.  Which means that any number of variables on both sides of the equation would change the actual cause and effect outcomes dramatically.

So what is really going on here?  The Columbia University authors of this latest study are also the folks who created “Family Day, ” designed to promote family dinners.  (This year, it was September 28, in case you missed it).  The website has a “sponsors and partners” link which, when clicked, display giant logos; among others are Stouffers, Coca-Cola, and Smuckers.  And anyone who has visited a supermarket recently will have noticed a revival of food products marketed as quick and easy ways to get the Family Dinner ready.

Keeping in mind that the iconic images of 1950s housewives and their kitchens were strategically deployed to promote an entire postwar aesthetic tied to consumer spending, one should ask what such images really show and what does that have to do with reality, then or now, not to mention quality time with the kids. “I don’t think we really know what a good family dinner is,” one psychologist notes in the article. And apparently we don’t know what one looks like either.

Conjuring up 1950s iconography may work for some, but for others it is an invitation to shifting interpretations and resistance.  The housewife and her kitchen should invite interrogation, not surrender.  And one question to begin with might be why, in 2009, we are even suggesting that kids might be turned into drug addicts unless women conform to a model of family life that never really happened.

Photographs by Getty Images and Scott Dalton/New York Times.

Elisabeth Ross, a graduate student in the program in Rhetoric and Public Culture, Department of Communication Studies, Northwestern University, has no idea what her kids will have for dinner this evening.  She would like to salute Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University on this week becoming the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics.  Dr. Ostrom was not permitted to take advanced math in high school because women were routinely advised at the time that they did not need trigonometry or calculus, “if they were going to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen” (NPR interview, 10/12/09).  You can contact Elisabeth at


Abandoning America

“Falling through the cracks” is a common expression for something being neglected, forgotten, or otherwise subject to errors of omission in organizational life.  The same can happen in journalism.  We might even consider how a “news crack” develops: a series of events in several areas of interest will lead to a succession of stories that seem to cover a lot of ground, but one result will be that a genuine subject of concern will be forgotten, not least because a similar concern has been taken up elsewhere.  Thus, the news might cover the recession, health care, the war in Afghanistan, a sex scandal (or two), the rising stock market, and the war again, and one might think that leading issues of the day are being reported much as they actually happen.  In fact, if the public is told that the economy is rebounding and more people likely to be covered by health care, then they could be excused, perhaps, for thinking that the major question remaining is whether we are going to “abandon” Afghanistan.  So it apparently seems to recent proponents of military escalation in that country (note for the younger reader: “escalation” is a word that was used a lot in the Vietnam War).

Let me suggest, as long as we are talking about abandonment, that something is missing.


This is one of the photographs from Kevin Bauman’s collection of 100 abandoned houses.  I didn’t choose it because it was more striking or sad or poignant or provocative than the others in the collection.  The house is one of many such homes–thousands upon thousands in Michigan, Florida, California, and all around the country.  We are still in the midst of the most damaging foreclosure crisis in US history, and the news still could get worse before it gets better.  In any case, it has been surreal in some areas: At one point the Chicago Tribune reported that the median home price in Detroit was $7500.  Now it has rebounded to a remarkable $15,000.  I guess it’s good news when houses once again cost more than the cheapest new car (maybe), but I’d say we still have a ways to go.

And then there is the house in the photograph.  Spectators often resonate to a genuine pathos in these images of abandonment.  We never knew who was there and it is obvious that there is no one to relate to now, and yet the structure seems haunted with the ghosts of forgotten lives.  Houses have stories, and they are full of stories. Each of us can remember some house–it need not even have been our own–where we were running through the doors, gazing out the windows, and gasping with delight or shock while experiencing the many twists and turns of family life.  in place of that, the boarded up house offers only a shabby mausoleum.

There also may be another, less familiar reason for feeling the sadness in this photograph.  America is the most thoroughly liberal nation–in the original, Lockean sense of liberalism that, to put it baldly, has “liberty” deeply entangled with “property.” What is less often recognized is that John Locke (and others) defined property not merely by possession but also according to use.  So it was, they claimed, that the original inhabitants of the Americas didn’t really own the land as they had done so little to maximize its productivity.  I wonder if the sense of failure that pervades images of desolate houses doesn’t tap into that subterranean current of ideology?  If a house–or apartment complex or office building or factory–is shuttered, it isn’t being used productively; and, to Americans, at least, it then follows somehow that the place is returning to the wild.  And if an empty building can suggest that nature is encroaching due to an absence of productive labor, one might sense that the economy and the entire social order–and, with that, the ground of liberty–is being eroded.

Curiously, the photographs of abandoned houses demonstrate that the property is still there, right in front of your eyes, in the sense that the thing to be possessed exists.  But that is not enough, it seems.  Instead, a sense of failure looms, and not merely the failure of someone to pay a mortgage.  Frankly, I think this odd sense of collective danger, despite being based on a dubious idea of rightful use, may be, well, useful.  The house is not just the record of an autonomous individual’s loss in a rational, albeit heartless marketplace.  These houses are empty because they had been abandoned many times over a period of many years: by the banks, the corporations, Congress, various elites, and the press, to name a few.  There is no need to intervene in another country when so much of this one is being abandoned.

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