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Sight Gag: The Flag of Our Fathers


Credit:  Matt Wuerker

“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.


Exhibition: In the Vernacular

In The Vernacular

Vernacular pump


Art Institute of Chicago

February 6–May 31, 2010

Vernacular photographs—those countless ordinary and utilitarian pictures made for souvenir postcards, government archives, police case files, pin-up posters, networking Web sites, and the pages of magazines, newspapers, or family albums—have been both the inspiration for and the antithesis of fine-art photography for over a century. In their struggle to gain legitimacy in the art world, fine-art photographers at the turn of the 20th century endeavored to distance their work from the amateur, commonplace, and practical photographs that had become so familiar in everyday experience.

This exhibition presents the work of artists who chose instead to strategically use photography’s everyday forms as a source of inspiration, consciously appropriating, reworking, and interrogating the aesthetics, content, and means of distribution associated with vernacular photography. Photographs by Walker Evans, Andy Warhol, Lee Friedlander, Cindy Sherman, Martin Parr, Nikki S. Lee, and others represented in the Art Institute’s permanent collection challenge us to reevaluate the impact, value, and status of the photographs we encounter in our daily lives. These images persuade us to consider the ways in which photographs function as significant bearers of complex meaning, rather than mere descriptions or reflections of the world, whether they grace the walls of a museum, the pages of a magazine, the files in a cabinet, or a living room mantel.

Please note: Some images may be inappropriate for younger visitors.

Photograph: Martin Parr, Fashion Magazine: Fashion Shoot, New York, 1999.  Art Institute of Chicago, David C. and Sarajean Ruttenberg Arts Foundation Purchase Fund.


The War in Iraq and The Return of the Repressed

Troops in Afghanistan

The war in Iraq has moved on to Afghanistan and the (relatively few) pictures we are being shown from there lately, such as the one above,  tend to depict a somewhat ordered and ordinary, workaday world—at least for what we imagine everyday life in Afghanistan to be like. The U.S. military seem more like police officers than an occupying force—delighting local children, gathering information, searching out bad guys, and so on.  And for the locals it seems like business as usual, with weekly Shura’s, sellers pedaling their wares in the marketplace, etc.  The Taliban is still a threat, of course, and has to be sought out and neutralized, but all in all, things seem to be going well for our troops who take out time to exercise, help locals with development projects, and look forward to returning home once the job of security is turned over to local police—or so the photographic record would seem to suggest.  Of course, this all ignores the nearly 600 US and allied soldiers who have died in Afghanistan in the past year, including more than 40 in the last month alone—or for that matter the nearly $300 billion dollars we anticipate spending to support the occupation in 2010 alone—but there is a different point to be made.

The photograph below appeared on the front page of the NYT. One might imagine that it records a severe car crash somewhere in the western world.  The car is an SVU and the girl, bloodied and in distress, nevertheless bears all the markings of a western, middle-class or higher existence—notice the clean blouse, stylish sweat pants, and colorful sandals. But there’s the rub, for we would almost never see such a photograph of a U.S. citizen, at least not in the mainstream press, and not of members of middling or upper classes (and certainly not of children). That fact alone should clue us to locating the image in another world—distant and distinct from our own, both physically and culturally.

Baghdad Explosion

The caption solves the mystery, as it notes that “A girl sought help on Monday after three bombs exploded within about 10 minutes during Baghdad’s afternoon rush, killing her mother.” The bombing was the result of a regular and coordinated effort by the insurgency to undermine the state’s authority in the face of upcoming parliamentary elections.  From whom the young girl is “seeking help” is not exactly clear, but the photograph’s oddly prominent position above the fold without an accompanying front page story makes it seem that somehow a visual demand is issuing forth from the national unconscious – a vivid reminder not only that all is not well in Iraq, but forever how much we would like to move on from involvement there, we simply cannot. And perhaps this is as it should be, for there is no question but the U.S. must bear a large portion of the responsibility for the current political instability and insurrection in Iraq.  And that responsibility does not abate simply because we chose to leave, having declared our mission a success.

The repressed, it seems, always returns.  And that should give us pause as we witness the photographic record of how well things seem to be going in Afghanistan.

Photo Credit:  Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP; Ayman Oghanna


Sleep, Denial, and Death in Afghanistan

The current Washington Post/ABC News poll reports that the war in Afghanistan is listed as a priority for the President and the Congress by two percent of the electorate.  Don’t tell that to these guys.

foxholes-graves Afghanistan

For the record, they are sleeping, not dead.  The photo is gruesome, nonetheless, as it reminds us that there is little difference between a foxhole and a grave.  The long, shallow holes in the earth are too close to the shape and size of a coffin; the soldiers’ bodies are bent as though broken or stiff with rigor mortis, and they are wrapped in sheets that look all too much like shrouds.  The bare face and feet of the figure in the center add to the sense of vulnerability the suffuses the scene, while the covering over the face of the one on the left implies death’s finality.

In this context, one of the blessings of sleep is that you can wake up; another is that before awakening you can forget about where you are.  These Marines were in their holes because they could be attacked at any time.  The deserve some escape from that reality, and sleep is the best they can do in that regard.  The American public probably wants to forget about Afghanistan, too.  There doesn’t seem to be anything anyone can do about the situation at the moment, and God knows we have plenty of problems at home, right?

Sleep is one thing, denial another.  The willful forgetting of the fighting in Afghanistan may be understandable, but it is not excusable.  The press has largely retreated into feel-good stories about the war, and that, too, can be explained.  (I had to reach back half a year to pull this photo up.) This normalization of war should be resisted, however, as it only abets collective denial of the suffering that is war’s eternal harvest.

Like the soldiers in the photograph, everyone needs to sleep, and denial may be universal as well.  But these Marines were not left unguarded as they sleep, and, likewise, they should not be dropped to the bottom of the list of national concerns.  Because as they are forgotten, the truth of the photo will be completely exposed: the difference between a foxhole and a grave–and between a sleeping Marine and a dead one–is only a matter of time.

Photograph by David Guttenfelder/Associated Press.


SIght Gag: Global What?

Global Warming

Photo Credit:  Luke McGregor/Reuters; Graffiti Attributed to Banksy

“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.


WANTED in Times Square

By guest correspondent Rachel Hall

Times Square is an iconic point of arrival for aspiring actors, international tourists, and now criminals.  Last week, the FBI announced that it would begin screening wanted fugitives on an electronic billboard donated by Clear Channel Outdoor.  The police and the press have long collaborated on outlaw displays, but the FBI’s move is significant in terms of both scale and placement.

Compliments of The Today Show, you can see Belle Chen, Assistant Special Agent in charge of the FBI’s violent crime unit in New York, and Harry Coglin, President of Clear Channel’s Outdoor New York staged like two television personalities hosting the ball drop on New Year’s Eve.

Today Times Square

The FBI’s larger-than-life notices are reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Thirteen Most Wanted Men mural commissioned for the 1964 World’s Fair.  In a characteristically cheeky moment in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, the artist provided a caption for his mural: “Nowadays if you’re a crook, you’re still considered up there.  You can write books, go on TV, give interviews—you’re a big celebrity and nobody even looks down on you because you’re a crook.  You’re still really up there.  This is because more than anything people just want stars.”


The wanted poster’s authoritative tone inspires fear, moral indignation, and patriotic fervor for law and order.  And yet as Warhol understood, the public’s desire for images of crime and punishment often exceed the bounds of patriotism in order to produce pleasures based in outlaw identifications, frontier nostalgia, or the desire for a dose of danger in everyday life.  Like Times Square, the wanted poster simultaneously attracts and repels us.  In his book, Where the Ball Drops: Days and Nights in Times Square, Daniel Makagon observes: “Times Square is a place, both real and imagined, where historical images of a vibrant public sphere collide with contemporary cultural practices triggered by a proliferating consumer society.  It is a place where some long for increased security in public space while others gravitate towards its historical reputation for sex, sleaze, and the thrill of danger” (xiv-xv).

The FBI’s giant, electrified wanted poster participates in ongoing battles over public spaces increasingly claimed by the interests of multinational corporations.  Clear Channel Outdoor promises to: “Reach the mobile consumer.”  Currently, the company has a presence in 44 U.S. cities and 31 other countries, including China and Russia, as well as many countries in Europe, North and South America.

Artist Jenny Holzer protests the privatization of public space in cities around the world by installing screens on a scale like and in prominent locations characteristic of those currently managed by Clear Channel, from which she transmits critical provocations.


Holzer is trying to confront the media-security-advertising complex directly, but she is outgunned.  Clear Channel’s joint venture with the FBI is modeled on an earlier partnership between Lamar Outdoor Advertising and Crimestoppers.  Over the last decade or so, Lamar has been at the center of heated legal disputes in municipalities across the U.S.  In each new market, Lamar finds itself locked in a struggle with local community members who fear the flashy signs will be a traffic hazard or resent having to bask in the glow of billboards each night.  Over time, the company has become adept at branding its electronic billboards as part advertisement, part public service, stressing the fact that the company donates space and time to screening wanted fugitives and AMBER alerts.  Likewise, in his report on the FBI’s “Broadway debut” for the Today Show Pete Williams told home viewers: “And these electronic billboards can also be used to spread AMBER alerts and seek help finding missing persons.”

The “public service” on offer from companies like Lamar and Clear Channel is ideologically loaded and leans heavily toward the privatization of public space.  The wanted poster and missing notice symbolically mark the border between “home” and the external dangers that threaten its sanctity.  In the context of Times Square, home is what the aspiring actor leaves behind on her journey to stardom.  It is the rights of a particular configuration of family that renders homoeroticism suspect, if not criminal, in Warhol’s ironic mural.  And it is the rights of the family on tour that Mayor Rudy Giuliani violently defended in street sweeping campaigns of the 1990s, which banished sex shops and paved the way for the Disneyfication of Times Square. Like Times Square, and the billboard for that matter, the wanted poster has a long history of animating the tension between private interests and public spaces.

Photograph of the Jenny Holzer installation by John Marchael, © 2007 Jenny Holzer, The Artists Rights Society/. “Spectacolor electronic sign. Times Square, New York, 1986.”

Rachel Hall is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Louisiana State University and author of WANTED: The Outlaw in American Visual Culture.  You may reach her at rchall@lsu.edu or visit her website.  [Thanks to Chris Hardy for calling my attention to the Today Show piece.]

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Widening the Catastrophe

There are now thousands of photographs of the disaster in Haiti available at the major online providers.  The New York Times is even placing their slides in categories such as ruins, crime, aid, prayers, a return to normalcy. OK, so the last one might seem a bit premature, but how much devastation can anyone take?  I find myself backing away from the media’s furious concentration on the collective wreckage, and perhaps that is why I was drawn to this photograph.

Haitian collapses

On the surface, this doesn’t seem to have much to do with Haiti.  Nothing is collapsed or broken, and there is no blood, no open wounds or stumps instead of hands or feet, no burning bodies.  The photo itself is banal: crowded, cropped, with the only identifiable person slumped in some kind of torpor, all in some vaguely institutional hallway–the image is too familiar in one sense and yet still not adequately informative.  No wonder that it was tucked away in a slide show on the New York region.

But then you read the caption: “Alex Alexis collapsed when he learned that his wife and three children had died in the earthquake in Haiti.” His wife and three children.  Dead.  Now it is a different photograph, and informative: We are reminded that Haiti is not only a place but also the epicenter of a diasporic community.  The catastrophe is being measured not only in the damage done at the original scene but also by the long strands of anxiety, pain, and desolation defining the losses felt by loved ones around the globe.  And the coverage of the island’s troubles is revealed to contain a provisional quality, as if everything is somehow already tending back towards recovery.  But there is no way this loss can ever be restored.

And that is why the decor troubles me.  Even with its bland hues and the metal display case for the bureaucratic pamphlets, it still appears affluent, secure, and safe in contrast to the mess on the ground in Haiti.  It reminds me that this is not only a world where many rush to aid those in need, but also a world where vast disparities in wealth are taken for granted.  And why is the husband in New York if his wife and three kids are in Haiti?  In this individual case the reasons could be purely personal or accidental–an estrangement, a business trip, whatever. The likely story, however, is that he, like many others, is separated from his family in order to support them.

In The Civil Contract of Photography, Ariella Azoulay identifies “threshold catastrophes”–situations where a community becomes trapped in chronic misery that is never allowed to become either completely genocidal or adequately alleviated.  Palestine is one example, and Haiti may well be another.  The catastrophe caused by the earthquake widens as its circle of suffering expands outward, but the fact remains that the world knows how to respond to spectacular events such as a natural disaster.   What also is needed is to widen the understanding of catastrophe to include the insidious relationships and multiple failures that perpetuate the condition of poverty and other continuous political disasters.

Widening one’s understanding of catastrophe means looking beyond high-impact mobilization to see how many of the same agencies are complicit in keeping people at the threshold of destruction.  It also means admitting how victims can be complicit in their own oppression, and how personal efforts to escape–say, to a good job in New York–are not going to be enough for systemic change.  These are not easy truths, but they can point toward a common recognition that the catastrophe–any catastrophe–is happening here as well as there.

Photograph by Julie Glassberg/The New York Times.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Sight Gag: Without a Clue


Credit:  Matt Davies

“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.


Remembering Iraq

We are pleased to welcome Joel Preston Smith to our Photographer’s Showcase at NCN.  These images from the early phase of the war in Iraq can be see as aides-memoire for a war already fading into oblivion, and as reminders that war ravages time–by filling it with terror, and creating vast stretches of boredom, and making lifetimes prisons, and giving all that happened the unreality of floating outside of ordinary experience.  Let’s take a moment, then, to look back, as guided by this photographer.

Most of the images I took as a freelancer in Iraq in 2003 cover Iraqi social life, which I felt was overlooked (as it usually is) during the conflict. I hadn’t wanted to illustrate Iraqis as victims, exclusively, but it’s easy to get the impression from such images—that their lives are composed only of sorrow. The same might be said of U.S. troops, in that most images attempt to project them solely as heroes or villains, rather than as people living and working in extremely difficult circumstances.

Al Quds Militiawoman

An Al-Quds militiawoman pauses during an anti-American demonstration in Tikrit, Iraq. The military parade featured roughly 45,000 civilians in an exhibition of Iraqi resistance to U.S. forces. The annual Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Militia parade honors the Feb. 8 birthday of Sadaam Hussein, who was born in a hamlet just outside Tikrit.

Ammar Shakar in death, Baghdad

Physicians at Medicine City Hospital in Baghdad, Iraq, attempt to revive gunshot victim Ammar Shackar, 26. Shackar had been shot in the left tibia 10 days earlier, according to his physicians. He subsequently developed sepsis (bacteria in his bloodstream), and became edemic as his kidneys failed.

Ammar Shakar's mother unconscious

Ammar Shackar’s mother lies unconscious at Medicine City Hospital in Baghdad, Iraq. Physicians had just informed her that her son, 26, had just died in the emergency room.

Daour Mathoub in fear, Baghdad

Daour Mathoub, 12, at the height of fear, while watching the American movie Letters from a Killer on television at her family’s apartment in Baghdad, Iraq. Mathoub is transfixed by a scene in the film in which a red-headed woman, in a New Oreleans apartment, pursues Patrick Swayze with a knife.

Stabbed by uncle, Baghdad

A patient, who said he’d been stabbed by his uncle, waits for treatment while being supported on a gurney by friends at Ali Amouck hospital (also transliterated as Al-Yarmouk Hospital), Baghdad, Iraq.

Soldier Swims Euphrates River, Ar Ramadi

A U.S. Army truck driver from Iowa swims in the Euphrates River, Ar Ramadi, Iraq. Sadaam Hussein’s captured Northern Palace lies in the distance.

Joel Preston Smith is the author of Night of a Thousand Stars and Other Portraits of Iraq (Nazraeli Press: 2006). He teaches photojournalism at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Ore. His website is here. His book is available at Photo-Eye, here.