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New Look at the BAG

Michael Shaw, founder of BAGnewsNotes, the innovative blog on visual politics, has brought a new look to the BAG.

BAG header

The changes are part of a significant upgrade across the board.  Although I haven’t spoken with Michael about his sense of what he has accomplished, it seems to me that he is creating a digital magazine on par with what Harper’s was in the traditional media system, while keeping his focus directly on photojournalism and concerned photography.

BAG line-up

John and I have been fortunate to have some of our posts cross-listed at the BAG, and we will continue to be contributors there–the same posts you see here, so you don’t have to go there to read us.  But there are many other reasons to go there, and we encourage our readers to bookmark the BAG.


Variations on the Visual Trope of Totalitarianism

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The scene here is Ramallah, February 2002.  The tank is Israeli and the people blocking its path with their hands raised as if under arrest are Palestinians.   The photograph is part of a NYT slideshow featuring the work of the recently wheel chair bound Palestinian photojournalist Osama Silwadi, who continues to photograph Palestinian life, albeit from a “new vantage.”  His work, both prior to being crippled in 2006 by two bullets that shattered his spine and subsequently, is a testament to the power of photography to document the ever present tension between the tragedy and soulfulness of human life.  The image that caught my attention, however, was the one above, which features the visual trope of the tank as the symbol of the totalitarian state.

Developed by the British during WWI, the tactical and strategic capacity of the tank was revolutionized by the Germans during WW II, where it became a central element of the military strategy of “lighting warfare” known as the blitzkrieg. Known for the combination of offensive and defensive mobility, as well as its strong fire power, the tank was understood to be a formidable, if not altogether unassailable, weapon of modern warfare, and its technological development was a key feature of the Cold War “arms race.” More important to the purpose here, it was during the Cold War that the “tank” took on symbolic significance as something more than just a military weapon as it was regularly featured as an emblem of state power, typically by eastern bloc nations.

The symbolic connection of the tank to totalitarian regimes in particular was marked visually not only by its size, but more importantly, by its panoptic quality: thoroughly enclosed and sealed off from any outside observation or unwanted intrusion, the arbiters of state authority residing inside of the tank are nevertheless in position to monitor and control the outside world with near invincible power.  But, of course, as powerful as they are, tanks are not invincible, just as totalitarianism is not unconquerable, and so the visual trope of the tank has developed across time to call attention to the power and capacity of unarmed (and armor less) humans to challenge and even overcome totalitarian regimes, generally in the name of human rights.  The first such image to make the point might well be the photograph of revolutionaries standing atop a Soviet tank in Budapest during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, though no doubt the most famous of such images would have to be of the lone individual standing down a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square.

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Silwadi’s photograph draws upon the visual trope of the tank as the signifier of totalitarianism in powerful ways, but it does it in a manner that make it importantly distinct from the famous Tiananmen Square image. Shot at a low angle, as if from the perspective of the humans beings being assaulted, Silwadi’s tank looms large, dominating both the frame and the scene it purports to represent.  No faces are evident, as the tank functions as the mask of the totalitarian state, and those being imposed upon have directed their gaze away from the camera to the immediate power that challenges and confronts them.  At the same time, the gun barrel is directed at the viewer in the manner of a visual demand that encourages identification with the crowd and in opposition to the authority of the tank.

By contrast, the Tiananmen Square photograph is shot from on high and at a distance, invoking an optical consciousness that James C. Scott dubs “seeing like a state.”  The viewer is here insinuated as a distant observer of the scene and not an immediate participant in the drama that is unfolding.  But more, note that it is a lone individual who challenges the authority of the state, and not a collectivity, and so in a sense the viewer of the image is encouraged to identify with the scene as a liberal individual.  As we have argued elsewhere and extensively, the Tiananmen Square photograph activates a cultural modernism that displaces democratic forms of political display and opposition (remember that the protests in Tiananmen Square included thousands of students and nearly a million protesters in all who had organized in various groups) and plays to western conceptions of individualism and apolitical social organization.  Thus, while the  photograph of a man challenging a tank can function as a progressive celebration of human rights, it also risks limiting the political imagination to narrowly liberal versions of a global society.

Silwadi’s photograph confronts this logic by reinterpreting the visual trope of the totalitarian tank and reminding us that what is at stake here is not just a challenge to universal and liberalized human rights that can be observed and contested from afar, but that indeed we are all implicated in and by the presence of totalitarianism wherever it occurs … and not just as individuals but as citizens in a democratized, global public culture.

Photo Credits:  Osama Silwadi/Apollo Images; Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos


When Beauty is Humility

One of the standard academic criticisms of photojournalism is that it “aestheticizes” its subject.  Catastrophes and suffering are not only documented but transformed into beautiful images, and any reaction to those images can’t avoid being compromised by the pleasure of viewing them.  Instead of poverty and the political disaster behind it, we are shown an artistic portrait of a mother and child.  Instead of the brutality of violence and the moral ugliness behind it, we are shown victims whose bodies are still beautiful.  More generally, by continually framing the world for aesthetic appreciation–each image internally balanced, formally appealing, sensually evocative–photography remakes the world into a picture.  That sense of the world provides continual reassurance that the reality being depicted is well-ordered and that whatever is wrong isn’t really, deeply, irrevocably wrong.  In the same manner, the image world is one in which the spectator should remain just that–someone who only looks at what happens instead of trying to change it.

With that critical framework in mind, one would be expected to tear into this photograph of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burning fifty miles offshore from Louisiana.

Gulf oil rig burning

The oil platform exploded last week and is continuing to pour 42,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf.  Yet another environmental disaster that can be traced back to the US oil habit, the likely consequences and costs are all too apparent.  As still more nonrenewable resources go up in smoke and pollute the seas it is easy to launch into denunciation of America’s addiction, capitalism’s amorality, and modernity’s hubris.  That and more is needed to demand better engineering, regulation, and accountability as well as the technological, economic, and cultural development to get beyond the Age of Oil.

Likewise, the image could be faulted for being part of the problem.  It minimizes the spill: making it seem small, distant, a single pillar of smoke almost like a bonfire; worse yet, it looks like a natural disaster rather than one caused by a giant machine owned by a major corporation.  And above all it makes the spill seem to be part of the beauty of nature.  The smoke billows upward to become another cloud while sky and sea spread out serenely around it.  Not to worry, it says: this small disruption is part of a much larger harmony, and in nature’s time all will be peaceful again, so all you need to is marvel at nature’s beauty.

Even if that is how the image affects many people, I think it also can evoke a different way of seeing.  Disaster coverage typically relies on dramatic images, and all photographers strive to get close to the action, but that intensified exposure can carry another illusion: the belief that the human being is naturally at the center of things, and not only in political matters but in regard to the behavior of the planet.  I am not about to suggest that humans don’t increase global warming, but I am going to suggest that comprehensive change might come from stepping back rather than plunging into the inferno.

Iceland volcano

Of the many images of the recent volcanic activity in Iceland, I found this one profoundly beautiful–and all the more politically valuable for that.  Instead of the overheated accounts of the economic disaster befalling the airline industry, here the obviously explosive force of the volcano is both exposed and yet minimized, put back into wider and more expansive sense of scale.   Because of the airline shutdown many small businesses were hurt, many lives were disrupted, and billions of Euros lost, and that should all get its due recognition, but it the midst of the economic drama it became easy to forget that we always live within nature.  Not just when something blows, but always.  And nature is very big.

By letting this photograph work, the hubbub of coverage is replaced by a sense of awe–and not at the volcano, but at how a volcano can be a small thing.  Although the eruption looks like a solar flare it also is a tiny part of one planet, which is a minute part of the cosmos.  For all the problems caused by the ash, the economic event was a tempest in a teapot.  For all the talk–including my own–about how humans are going to destroy the planet, humans are not going to destroy the planet.  We pride ourselves perversely on being able to do so, and we are able to make a serious mess of things, but the planet will thrive long after we are gone.

In fact, just as there is need to more beyond current energy sources, so is there need to change the way we see if we are to get there.  The aesthetic appeal in these photographs is a resource for seeing anew.  Their beauty offers a kind of humility: the acceptance of our smallness and our finitude.  We should conserve and otherwise work toward more sustainable societies not because we can control nature and are so powerful that we can change the climate, but because we are such a small part of the universe and here for only a sliver of time.

The beauty in the photographic image can distract and displace, but it also can be a source of wisdom.  This explosion, that eruption: each is a small part of a much larger harmony, and in nature’s time all will be peaceful again.  For precisely that reason, human beings should strive to preserve the earth that will outlast them, and to create societies that can work in concert with nature rather than in the pursuit of dominion.  To that end, beauty is a form of moral truth.

Iceland, rocks in lake

Photographs by Gerald Herbert/Associated Press, Halldor Kolbeins/AFP-Getty Images, and Lucas Jackson/Reuters. The third photograph is of rocks  reflected in a lake that has been muddied by volcanic ash from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

 1 Comment

Sight Gag: Tea, Anyone?


Photo Credit: All Hat No Cattle

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.


Earth Day + 1: Aric Mayer on Home and Wildness

By guest correspondent Aric Mayer:

Aric Mayer Turtle Kiddie Pool

For the past three years I have been working on an intimate body of photographs [the slide show can be seen here] made within walking distance of my home and studio. Our property is in the middle of an orchard, parts of which have been left to go feral, the trees growing towards their natural grizzled tangle, while other parts have been bulldozed and prepared for development, only to be left for the weeds and the thistle.

For a time it has been a place grounded between categories, neither kempt nor wild. I have come to see it as a kind of crucible within which local tensions are played out in ways with global significance.

Probably the most significant issue of our lifetimes will be the emergence of global climate change as a consequence of human development. How we picture living with nature has everything to do with what we can imagine as a response to looming catastrophe.

There have been sets of parallel visual expectations that emerged over the last 50 or so years, on the one side there is a vision of nature as pristine ala Eliot Porter’s The Color of Wildness, and on the other side a vision of the American suburb that is bulldozed flat, gridded off and built up in a completely controlled fashion. Over the last few years, that American vision of the huge housing development has become quickly associated with decay and entropy as so many sit unfinished and empty, partially built and partially ruined. Suburbia and wildness developed mutually exclusive visions were neither had room for the other, and yet both have to exist.

A successful city is generally imagined as completely counter-entropic. It is permanent progress. Fully realized. In contrast, nature is understood to be cyclical. It is a system where the counter-entropy/entropy tension is contained and fully resolved within a system that is sustainable. An organism is generated, feeds, grows, dies and decays, returning its components completely to the ecosystem.

There is a dialectical tension between the constant effort required to sustain a counter-entropic city and the tendency of nature to absorb everything into a cyclical rhythm of growth and decay. As Carl Jung said in his essay “Alchemical Studies,” “Nature must not win the game, but she cannot lose.”

This interaction between home and wildness has profound psychological implications for it mirrors the evolution of human consciousness itself. A similar and analogous set of tensions is played out in the interaction between consciousness and unconsciousness, the first being the creator of technology and home, and the second being a product of nature, emerging from millions of years of evolution. These exist in dynamic tension, in constant movement to dominate or subsume the other. In fact, the history of development is in a sense the history of human consciousness, with many of the same tensions and contradictions.

Cross-posted from Aric’s blog.


A Second Look: The Warrior Child


The above photograph is of a group of “young supporters of the Islamic Jihad movement” marching at a rally in Gaza City.  When I posted on it earlier this month I called attention to the expression on the young boys face, noting that his expression teetered between being vacant and deadly serious, but in either case “dissociated from our expectations of an otherwise idealized world of youthful innocence.”  One commenter noted, “How many of his relatives are dead, how many in prison …?  Why do you ignore the context?  Why do you expect an ‘idealized world of youthful experience,’ where this experience clearly has no chance?”  It is a good question as it calls attention to a complexity of the photograph that my original posting assumed but failed adequately to interrogate: the sense in which the image simultaneously activates and resists the trope of “youthful innocence.”

The original point I was trying to make was that “the idealized world of youthful innocence” is a taken for granted assumption for western audiences.  That assumption is conventionally animated by the visual trope of children playing as if adults.  Ordinarily, the key to the effectiveness of the trope is the additional assumption that the viewer recognizes that the child has a very basic understanding of the sense in which s/he is “playing” at being an adult and is thus operating in an idealized world—a world that is free of all that would undermine or mitigate youthful innocence.  The telling marker in such images is the signification of carefree joy being acted out by the playful child.  In the above photograph the children are clearly playing at being adults—note the toy guns, which activate the trope for western audiences—but their facial expressions lack any sense of carefree joy, and hence the image concurrently resists the trope.  And the implication, at least for western audiences, is that these aren’t so much children as warriors, thus triggering yet a different common visual trope used to distinguish the Islamic, middle eastern world from the Christian, western world: “the warrior child.”

The tension connecting the tropes of “youthful innocence” and “the warrior child” is articulated in a somewhat different fashion in this photograph from Craig F. Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo-essay, “Ian Fisher: American Soldier.”

Ian Fischer.American Soldier2

The similarities between the two images are palpable, but it is their differences that are notable. The guns are no longer toys, as indicated by the safety plugs inserted in their barrels; and note too that the disposition of the weapons is more aggressive as they are being aimed rather than held at ease.  These aren’t children playing at being soldiers, they are the real thing, however young.  Attend, in this regard, to the different facial expressions depicted in each photograph. In the earlier image the lead child appears to be working hard to maintain his countenance, to appear like a serious adult, almost as if he knows he is being observed, but there is no question that he is a child; here, however, the expression on the face of the American soldier, while no less intense, nevertheless seems less affected.  The eyes are cold and calculating; carefully and intently focused, they are machinelike, almost as if an extension of the weapon being aimed.  It would not be hard to imagine him as a cyborg rather than a human, let alone a child.  And yet the face of this teenage soldier is nevertheless childlike; both slender and smooth, it belies a physical immaturity that activates the trope of “youthful innocence” even as the photograph as a whole resists it.

In one photograph we end up with the warrior child, in the other we see a childlike warrior. The question is, what difference does the difference make?

Photo Credit: Ali Ali/EPA/WSJ; Craig F. Walker/Denver Post

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English: The International Language of Police Power

Whether covering political conflict or natural disasters, there is a tendency to feature photographs that express the dramatic scale of the event.  Pictures of burning vehicles or of a throng of victims overwhelming an aid station–such images seem to be made for the big screen. They announce that you are seeing News about History in the Making.  Sometimes, however, the devil is in the details.

Thai police

This photo of riot police in Thailand is almost too close to make sense.  Any clear sense of the larger scene lies outside the frame, and our attention is drawn away from the action to focus on the costuming.  And they are costumed.  If nothing else, the neck guards allude to Samurai movies while the face mask adds a classic Ninja accessory, and these guys could be stepping right out of Studio B.  There are fashions in police wear just like anything else, not to mention cultural and national traditions to be donned on behalf of an appearance of authority.  But that’s actually the least of what is being revealed here.

Note the use of English in the police badge: “Riot Control” speaks loudest, and only then the text in Thai below that.  Likewise on the front of the protective vest in the background: “Police.”  Nor is this limited to Thailand: I’ve been able to read “Police” on uniforms, cars, shields, barriers, and cordon tape from dozens of countries around the globe.  The enhanced legibility is to be appreciated, but I also wonder why the police are so likely to be identified in English.

Perhaps this habit of identification is entirely pragmatic.  English is an international language, there are many English speaking tourists and other travelers, double coding uses available space to reduce misunderstanding, state legitimacy requires legibility, and it can’t hurt to accommodate US media.  But uniformed police are easily recognized anywhere without the label, and why is the Anglophone reader being told that these police are riot police?  Are we to believe that they don’t exist otherwise, or that they could only be responding to violence instead of instigating it, or that the event in question is a riot and not, for example, a demonstration of political dissent?  And why tell that to the US or UK or Australian media audiences, and not, say, China?

The use of the English “police” is clearly political on several levels.  I’ve learned that it is not easy to quickly find the extent of US funding of the Thai police force or of any other police force.  I did learn, however, that despite “legislation prohibiting US agencies from using foreign economic or military assistance funds to aid foreign police,” Congress also granted so many exemptions that the “GAO did identify 125 countries that received U.S. training and assistance for their police forces during fiscal year 1990.”  That was then, but I doubt much has changed (and note that the GAO was having trouble identifying countries, in part because money for police forces flows through many difference agencies).  It certainly hasn’t changed in Thailand, where the US Embassy reports a staff of ten to support police work and even includes a slide show of police training.

I suspect that one reason the police of the world prefer to label themselves in English is that so many of them are being funded, trained, and equipped by the US, with the UK and Australia playing supporting roles.  The English speaking peoples of the world can bask in the knowledge that their common tongue has become the international language not merely of science and commerce but also of police power.  No matter whether those police are corrupt or not (want to place a bet, say, about the Royal Thai Police?).  No matter whether they enforce rule of law or take the law into their own hands.  No matter whether they maintain civic order or brutalize regime opponents, English gets the credit.

Police beating Nairobi

Photograph by Christophe Archambault, AFP/Getty Images and by an unidentified photographer in Nairobi, AFP/Getty Images.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

 1 Comment

Sight Gag: Look to the Left, Look to the Right, Right, Right, Right

Supreme Court Objectivity 2010-04-17 at 4.50.17 PM

Photo Credit: Jim Morin/Miami Herald

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.


Conference: Visual Citizenship – Belonging Through the Lens of Human Rights and Humanitarian Action


In addition to keynote speaker W.J.T. Mitchell others speakers include Ariella Azoulay, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Richard Sennett, Susan Meiselas, Craig Calhoun and NCN’s very own Robert Hariman.  The conference addresses the question, “What does it mean to be a visual citizen–for those who are seen, for those who witness what is seen, and for those who capture what is seen in public? … In what ways do visual practices condition who belongs and who does not belong to a political community.”  For a detailed schedule of presentations, click here.


"The Children's Crusade"

American Soldier Boy

I don’t know what the average age of the American soldier is, but the typical photograph we have seen in recent times suggests that “he” is in his mid-twenties or later. And what such photographs show us are young men who have completed their training as fighting machines; indeed, many such images show us soldiers who have already seen battle and so, as young as they might be, they appear as veterans and far older than their years.  What such photographs fail to show us—and in the process allow us to forget—is how much going to war robs such men of their youth and innocence … and no doubt much more as well.

When I first came across the photograph above I thought I was looking at a group of adolescents “playing” at being soldiers.  Indeed, the shooter in the middle of the image looks rather like “Ralphie,” the young boy from Jean Shepherd’s classic A Christmas Story who pines for a Red Ryder BB Gun only to have a department store Santa tell him, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”  And those around him don’t seem much older as they all look awkwardly out of place in their clean camouflage uniforms and wielding what at first glance appear to be toy versions of automatic weapons.  But of course they aren’t toy weapons, and these apparently prepubescent adolescents are actually recruits in basic training, “prepar[ing] to clear and secure a room.”

The photograph is part of Craig F. Walker’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning, eight part photo-essay “Ian Fisher: American  Soldier,” a report which tracks seventeen year old Ian Fisher (he’s the one on the far right above) from high school through basic training to a tour of duty in Iraq and back home again—a veteran warrior who will carry this experience with him for the rest of his life.  Walker’s photographs are a stark and poignant reminder that those who carry the weight of our military efforts too often (far too often) go off to war as naïve and wide-eyed children—that they only become the adult warriors and heroes we remember in myth and movie after the fact—and those who are fortunate enough to return home will have paid a devastating and incalculable price.

Photo Credit:  Craig F. Walker/Denver Post; The title “The Children’s Crusade” is drawn from the subtitle of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade and commented upon in an earlier NCN Post titled “What Peace Looks Like.”

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.