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… The Third Time as Kitsch

The Afghan Girl is a photograph deeply etched within the western collective consciousness.  Most probably cannot identify the photographer (Steve McCurry) or the girl’s name (Gula). Perhaps more to the point, I doubt that most who easily recognize the photograph cannot recall the specific circumstances that led to its being taken and featured on the cover of National Geographic, not once but twice:  The first time as the representation of an orphan of Soviet bombings in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s; the second time, seventeen years later, after the once young girl was rediscovered in a refugee camp as a middle-aged woman, the focus being on how her identity was confirmed with “certainty” by state of the art biometric technology which matched the iris patterns in her eyes with the original image.

Marx amended Hegel’s notion that history repeats itself by adding, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” But what about the third time?

AG Girl II

The above photograph appeared recently in a NYT slide show under the title “An Afghan Voice for American Troops.”  The title does not appear to have been crafted to refer to this specific photograph—referring instead to the first image in the slide show of a female Afghani interpreter working for the US military … perhaps that is who this young girl will become when she grows up—but the presence of the image halfway through the slide show with the title hanging over the photograph makes that a little bit ambiguous.

The resonance between the current photograph and the original Afghan Girl photograph cannot be easily scanted, though differences abide.  Shot here in middle distance rather than close up, the eyes are less pronounced and less haunting, and the effect is to alter slightly—but significantly—the affect of the demand that they issue.  By making the eyes the center of attention in the original photograph the point of identification is with the girl herself—as much a woman as a child—and the depth of her humanity.  By pulling back the camera in the second photograph to show most of the body—as well as the Arabic alphabet primer she appears to be carrying around with her—the locus of identification is shifted from the plight of refugee women to this girl, from the universal to the particular.  No longer a girl on the verge of becoming a woman, we have a child in need; and not just any child, but one rooted in a non-western ideology. And the result is palpable.  The original photograph evokes a clear sense of the depth of human tragedy, but here the structure of feeling inclines more to the conventional sense of pity and compassion one finds in any sort of philanthropic venture designed to help the abject.  While the original McCurry photograph demands that we identify with the tragic affect of the circumstances of Afghan women qua their humanity, this image seems to ask us to donate to the cause.

But what exactly is that cause?  What “voice” does she speak to American troops?  Part of the problem, of course, is that as the war in Afghanistan drags on into its ninth year it is increasingly difficult to remember why exactly we are there (note: it was originally in response to the 9/11 bombings and in an effort to hunt down Osama bin Laden) or what exactly we hope to accomplish.  And in the meantime we have spent nearly 300 billion dollars and counting, suffered over 1,000 U.S. casualties, and inflicted over 12,000 civilian casualties among the Afghanistan population.  The photograph of the new Afghan girl would seem to suggest that we are there to protect her, even though that was never part of the deal in the first place (and since her refugee status is in some part animated by a military occupation its hard to know what positive  effect we’ve actually had here).

It would of course take a great deal of cynicism to imagine some sort of “Wag the Dog” sensibility operative here as a rationale to support our continuing involvement in a war that never seems to end.  But having said that I find myself at a loss to explain the photograph that immediately followed the image above in the NYT slide show in which it was featured:

Wag the Puppy

The caption reads, “A marine gave cereal to a stray puppy at an outpost in northern Marja, Afghanistan.  An Afghan man was detained after being suspected of links to a series of recent roadside bomb attacks against American troops the area.”

The first time as tragedy … the third time as kitsch.

Photo Credits: Muhammed Muheisen/AP; Mauricio Lima/Agence France-Presse—Getty Images


Ganges, River of Life

It’s Holy Week and Passover, so naturally I thought of the river Ganges.  A crescent moon over the river would have been a nice touch, but that’s not a picture you see often.  With this bit of irreverence, we have four great faiths and secularism in play, but the question of which image to use didn’t get any easier.  That’s when convention comes to the rescue, and there is a typical image of the Ganges as a spiritual symbol.  This photograph provides one version of that stock image.

Ganges, Allahabad India

Someone is walking into the great river for a devotional immersion.  The human being is naked or nearly so.  The river is calm, dark, and expansive.  The human being is vulnerable, small, singular; the river appears enormous and eternal.  It is easy to imagine it as “The swarthy water/That flows round the earth and through the skies,/Twisting among the universal spaces” (Wallace Stevens).  This cosmic flow of being envelops all, and we see ourselves standing apart from it only briefly, while lost in illusion.

This photograph captures that sense of isolation and yearning against a horizon of eternal being.  It adds a somewhat darker inflection as well: the birds can suggest that the body below them is so much carrion, while the murky clouds imply a universe that is pitched toward obliteration rather than salvation.   The river is eternal, flowing outward and back, absorbing all of creation, and the best the individual human being might find is calmness, serenity, the peace that comes from passing into nothingness.

But like I said, that’s a conventional view of the river.  And here’s a different view:


This view of the river was taken during the Ganga Dussehra festival in Haridwar, a city whose name means “Gateway to God.”  One might title it “I sing the river electric,” except that some of the lights are oil lamps.  It is ablaze with light and energy of every sort, and so seems to be a very different river from the one above.  Thronged with people, this is no place for solitude.  Lights, pavilions, and other delights clamor for attention, and the river becomes a conduit for the many flows of social life: commerce, religion, entertainment, arts, technologies, and sheer human hubbub press against the banks and surge down the channel.  This river carries civilizations, each of which will continue in some way in those that supersede it.

Some will want to point out that the second river already is encompassed by the first, and that any celebration of the vitality along the banks is only another example of being distracted by the veil of illusion.  But one also could say that the first river is a part of the second, one of the many ways to understand life, but not the only way of life available.  Rivers have birthed many cities, and the cities themselves become great channels of human energy, and human diversity.

It may be reassuring, even a source of spiritual solace to imagine the Ganges as a river of eternal return.  That is not the only Ganges, however, or the nature of India.  During a time of spiritual reflection, let’s also marvel at the vitality of the human world this side of eternity.

Photographs by Rajesh Kumar Singh/Associated Press and John Stanmeyer, VII/National Geographic.  The Stevens’ quotation is from his poem, Metaphor as Degeneration.

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Sight Gag: Che's American Dream



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.


Photographer's Showcase: On The Fringe at Carnaval


Peter Turnley, a frequent contributor at NCN, returns this week with his most recent work from the recent Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro.  The Rio Carnaval is one of the largest annual public festivals in the world, and it is not hard to find  photo slide shows that feature the colors and the “flair, charisma, spontaneity, sensuality and joy” of the event so emblematic of life in Brazil.  In this photo essay Peter turns the attention of his lenses away from the main event—the parades and dance competitions that take place in the  Sambodromo, the stadium of Samba—to the fringes of the celebration that include everything from preparation to aftermath.


To view the photo essay click here.


Water, the New Oil


Oil, we are often told, is the lifeblood of late modern, industrialized civilization (here, here, and here) and certainly there is plenty of evidence that we behave as if we believe it.  But as the photograph of Iceland’s Kolgrima River shot from somewhere in the heavens suggests, the real lifeblood of any civilization on earth is water. I say shot from the “heavens” because it is less realistic than what might be the most recognizable photograph shot from outer space, William Ander’s iconic Earthrise, a clearly mechanically produced image that implicitly foregrounds the technology that enabled it.  Here the image has something of an abstract expressionistic quality to it that nevertheless underscores the naturalistic blending of land and waterways, a surface manifestation  of an underlying essence accented by the soft contrast of the muted pastels.  One can almost imagine the earth as a living entity, the blue veins throbbing in unison as they work to carry the nutrients necessary to bolster and sustain the ground.  It is a beautiful and compelling—almost utopian—God’s eye view.

70% of the earth is covered by water, but 97% of that is found in oceans and seas, with another 2.4% in glaciers and polar ice caps.  That leaves very little fresh water for all of its various needs, including most importantly consumption, sanitation, and agricultural production. This has not yet proven to be a disasterous situation in the United States—despite some scares as the recent drought in the southeast—where the average resident consumes 100 gallons of water a day.  But to put it in context we need to note that in some places in the world the most indigent people subsist on 5 gallons of water a day—when they can get it.  Nearly 50% of the people on earth do not have water piped into their homes, and in some developing countries women walk an average of 3.7 miles a day to get what they need.  And the most sobering fact of all is reported by the Water Resources Group (sponsored by the World Bank Group and a number of global financial, industrial, and agribusiness concerns), which notes that by 2030 water demand will exceed supply by over 50% in some developing regions of the world effecting over 1.5 billion people.

And so, to return to earth from the heavens there is this image of a reservoir in China’s Yunnan Province:


The contrast between the two images could not be more stark.  Here the earth is dried and cracked, its parts broken and fragmented rather than blended.  There is nothing that approximates movement in the photograph; indeed, there are no signs of vitality at all.  One of the often claimed effects of such desertification is a dangerous reduction in biodiversity, but here it is hard to imagine any biology at all.   Of course, even the slightest accumulation of moisture might change that, resulting in a dessert oasis, but the extreme close-up of the photograph locates the image in the here and now.  It is a human’s eye view,  and it underscores the immediacy and palpable effects of the threat.

Water, not oil, it would seem, is what is most essential to life on earth.  One can only imagine what the world will be like in 2030 if we don’t come to terms with that sooner rather than later.

Photo Credits: Hans Strand/National Geographic; Ariana Lindquist/Bloomberg.  March 22, 2010 was World Water Day.  The April issue of National Geographic features the importance of water to life on earth.  We thank The Big Picture for calling our attention to the topic.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


When Things Speak Louder Than Faces

As much as I’m committed to progressive photojournalism, I have to like this cover from the Onion:

Onion Cover Child photography

The nice touch of imitating the New York Times Sunday Magazine only gilds the lily, as the photographic convention being lampooned is used everywhere: glossy magazines, newspaper ads, direct mail, web sites, billboards, photography books, TV documentary trailers, and more.  You can donate or you can turn the page, but you can’t avoid seeing the picture.

There actually is a continuing debate among human rights advocates and cultural critics about such rhetorical appeals, and the Onion cover neatly summarizes a number of key arguments.  First, the problem of human deprivation is given a human face, but at the cost of reinforcing damaging stereotypes.  The poor (and the Third World) are portrayed as essentially dark, passive, weak, simple, and dependent (need I add that images of want usually are of women and children, and often female children?).  Second, analysis has been replaced by the direct emotional impact of the visual image, and reasoned commitment by a sentimental appeal.  You are asked to help an individual child who seems so close that you could pick him up and hold him, although the money will in fact go through many hands and may make no difference whatsoever in his life.  Third, the poster child’s innocence and obvious dependency dissociates charity from any serious attention to structural change, an inattention that often excuses how the US and other affluent nations are also among the causes of the problem.  Fourth, the magazine’s tony production values suggest that there is money to be made off of human misery, and even the photographers’ mixed motives are exposed–indeed, are the point of the parody.  Fifth, the enduring contrast between deprivation and the affluent world of the magazine audience is all too obvious: $5 per day is not going to set anyone back on this side of the street, and yet mere charity is all that is imaginable, not serious redistribution.  Finally (for now, anyway), the audience may experience the perverse pleasure of indulging in feelings of pity about the suffering of others while giving their middle class conscience an easy out.  Whether I donated or not, I gave at the magazine, so I can feel sorry for the poor and good about myself–and turn the page.

Actually, there are additional criticisms, and all of them can (and have been) developed in great detail.  So why does the debate continue?  There will be many reasons, but one is inescapable: the images work.  Despite having become highly conventional, images of needy children open purse strings.  Furthermore, if the appeal is not effective, no one else is likely to step in and make up the difference.   So, damned if you do and damned if you don’t, and most advocates conclude it is better to do than to do nothing.

Other options remain, however, especially for photographers looking for another angle on a problem.  Instead of the exceedingly conventional character of the typical humanitarian image, one might want to ponder this photograph:

Chile aftermath aerial view

Of all the images of the Haitian disaster, I find this one to be surprisingly eloquent.  And it shouldn’t be: I shows no people, only property, and instead of the close-up that might grab one personally, we have the distant and distancing impersonal perspective of an aerial view.  Nor is it an action shot, and there are no dramatic special effects such as smoke and fire.  One might think the most likely reaction is simply, “well, at least it’s over, and although there is a lot of damage, it’s only property damage, not lives lost.”

That’s not what I see or feel when caught in this photograph.  Somehow it reveals the massive dislocation that remains after a catastrophe–the profound wreckage, disorder, waste, and raw mess that remains.  It also reveals that disaster has its own full weight of inertia.  Nothing that has been crushed together in that picture can be pulled apart and moved back or out of the way, much less restored to what it was, without labor, effort, work, and much more of the same, just to get back to even.   And imagining it being sorted out–or, more likely, bulldozed–starts one thinking about how it got there, and about what ought to be put back and what ought to be built anew but differently.  The photo reveals the enormous forces that were involved, and requires that one imagine what the city should be.  In short, it demands more than is required to give five bucks to a child (or a photographer).  And if people aren’t evident, neither are the denigrating associations that pull people down.

Communication depends on conventions of representation, but it can become trapped in them.  As much as humanitarians rightly insist on the value of the individual person, there may nonetheless be times when we don’t need to see another face.  Given the scale of the humanitarian disasters now and to come, more thought might be given to how even things can speak.

Onion Magazine cover from issue 45-45, May 2, 2009; photograph from Chile by Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press.


SIght Gag: "… and the second time as farce."


Credit: John Sherffius, Boulder Daily Camera

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.


Photographer's Showcase: Shaped By War

Shaped by War: Photographs by Don McCullin

Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, England

Screen shot 2010-03-18 at 10.42.26 PM

For more than 50 years, Don McCullin’s images have shaped our awareness of modern conflct and its consequences. His courage and integrity, as well as the exceptional quality of his work, are a continuing inspiration and influence worldwide.  The Imperial War Museum is collaborating with McCullin in  featuring a major exhibition of over 200 photographs, objects, magazines and personal memorabilia that shows how war has shaped the life of this exceptional photographer and those across the globe over that past five decades.  The exhibit runs in the Special Exhibitions Gallery of the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, England, from February 6 to June 13, 2010.  It is free to the public and will travel to Bath (September to November, 2010) and London (October 2011-January 2012).  To see a slide show of McCullin’s photographs click here, to see a brief interview with him click here.

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When Can We See the Police?

Photographs of policeman, often in riot gear, are legion this week.  The rioting in Israel/Palestine is one reason for the images, but there have been earthquakes and demonstrations as well as bombings and other flareups of violence around the globe, and in every case the reassertion of law and order is part of the story.   Of course, that story is not without irony: you can see people being cordoned, kicked, shot at, detained, arrested, and in some cases even protected by the police, and it often is not at all clear that the cops are on the right side, or that there is a right side.  That might provide the most cynical justification for state violence, but the distinction between police and soldiers rests entirely on the assumption that the police are to be defined by just procedures, restraint in use of force, and direct accountability to their fellow citizens.  Perhaps the political and moral complications of today’s civil wars are one reason (but not the only reason) why it both is and is not easy to see the police.

Israeli border policeman at the Wall

This photo of an Israeli border policeman praying before the Wall in Jerusalem is likely to evoke highly polarized reactions.  It is part of a familiar archive of religious militants, especially Jewish citizen soldiers (often in ritual garb such as Tefillin), and the reactions are predictable: on the one hand, muscular defense of the sacred; on the other hand, the moral abomination of holy war.  This photo would seem to be tilted toward a critical reaction: the rough mantle looks almost medieval, the wooden club is worn from repeated use, the small head seems brutish, and the Wall–his object of devotion–is distant and hazy.  It might be titled, “Do Thugs Really Pray?”  But what interests me is that his face is not visible.

That lack of accountability, despite the harsh realism of the photo, may be why I think it can be paired with this seemingly very different image:

Mexican policeman shattered glass

This photograph–and it is a photograph rather than a cheap painting–captures a policeman in Acapulco, Mexico reflected in glass shattered by gunfire between rival drug gangs.  It might seem like something you could buy on the street; or, better, something bought on the street and retouched (defaced) by an artist working with found objects.  In any case, and like the photograph above, the scene is one of violence now temporarily inert, and the cop is both there and not there.  And in each case a hazy scrim provides some kind of moral buffer: both the religious background of the first image and the aesthetic foreground of the second suggest that we are not supposed to see the police by themselves but rather in a context that justifies their presence.

There are many times when a great deal of violence is prevented simply by seeing the individual cop as the representative of the state.  And there are times when it is essential to also see the individual in uniform, and for everyone to see that way.  What may be peculiar about the present moment–and we are a long, long way from The Andy Griffith Show–is that we see strong, often paramilitary police forces, and yet we really don’t see the police–not the individual, and not even the institution.  Displays of force, it seems, are there to intimidate but not to provide accountability for either those who would break the law or those who would act in its name.

Photographs by Menahem Kahana/AFP-Getty Images and Pedro Pardo/AFP-Getty Images.


"… and a little child shall lead them."


The trope of “youthful innocence” is a common photojournalistic convention, often marked by photographic representations of children playing as if they were adults.  Such images can range from the somewhat ordinary and everyday—a young girl selling lemonade to passersby for 10¢ a cup—to the extraordinary—a young boy saluting the passing caisson of his assassinated father.  But in almost every instance what we are being invited to see is a glimpse into a generational future animated by a nostalgia for the purity and  innocence of youth unencumbered by the world of experience.  And even when the world of experience insinuates itself, as with the John-John salute, the point of the photograph seems to be that what these children will become is forecast by how they manage the tension between innocence and experience.  In recent time we have been inundated with images of Middle Eastern children “playing” with guns and other weapons of war, and in this context the trope has become a harbinger of a threatening and dystopian world.

I emphasize the word “playing” in the last sentence because, as with the photograph above, the romance of youthful inexperience is transformed into a tragic mythos in which all sense of the child as behaving “as if” an adult has been obliterated, and with it, all hope that the next generation can see its way to a better or more peaceful future. The above image is of a group of “young supporters of the Islamic Jihad movement,” marching at a rally in Gaza City to show “solidarity with the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.” The toy guns and uniforms are clearly pronounced and thus underscore the potential militancy of the image, but they are not the key signifiers of the shift from romance to tragedy.  To take the full measure of force of the symbolic transformation you have to look at their facial expressions, and more specifically their eyes, which teeter between being altogether vacant and deadly serious, and in either case are wholly dissociated from our expectations of an otherwise idealized world of youthful innocence.

What clearly marks this and other such photographs from the Middle East is the presumption of their sheer otherness.  These simply could not be “our” children for they lack any and all sense of the purity or carefree joy of childhood that presumes to define the western world.  Their experience is not ours.  The conclusion is wrong, or perhaps more accurately, wrong headed, but what is important to  remember is that the idealized, romantic mythos of the relationship between worldly experience and youthful innocence is every bit as much a fiction as its tragic transformation, and that indeed, the former is ever at risk of morphing into the other.

Photo Credit: Ali Ali/EPA/WSJ