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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. . . .

March 31st, 2010

… The Third Time as Kitsch

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

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

4 Responses to ' … The Third Time as Kitsch '

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  1. rhetorician76 said,

    on March 31st, 2010 at 6:34 am

    I think the little girl is actually carrying an alphabet primer and not a Koran.

  2. Lucaites said,

    on March 31st, 2010 at 7:37 am

    Rhetorician76: Thanks. Point well taken. I’ll make the correction.

  3. Cynthia Roderick said,

    on April 5th, 2010 at 8:55 am

    Is this the right photo that was on the cover of Geographic… I seem to remember a red dress or headscarf and actually bulging eyes and a girl a bit older? I don’t claim any real knowledge… just memory and having seen the photo I mention referred to as the most looked at… or some such…and not the one you have posted…

  4. lucaites said,

    on April 7th, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Cynthia: If you read a bit more closely you’ll see that the image posted is not the original Afghan Girl picture (though there is a link to it). The argument is that the image posted is something of an allusion to the original … and somewhat farcical (or kitsch-like) at that.

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