NO CAPTION NEEDED
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. . . .

October 31st, 2010

Sight Gag: Late Modern Halloween

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

gcampbell

Credit: G. Campbell

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.

October 29th, 2010

NCN Hits the One Million Mark

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

00240794.jpg

According to our WordPress statistical report, this week NCN passed 1,000,000 views.  That’s views, not dollars, but we’re not complaining.  The blog actually will have passed the mark some time ago, because RSS feeds are not likely to be included in the WordPress report.  But it will include robots, guys looking for porn–hey, we love you, too–and perhaps an occasional space alien, so we might as well take the count we have as a good enough reason to celebrate.

Since John and I live in separate states, the celebration will be rather low-key.  Much more important, however, is that the day gives us another opportunity to thank our readers.  We don’t get any credit in our day jobs for doing the blog, so the fact that you are reading it, and that some of you comment from time to time, means a great deal.  So, thanks: for your interest, your comments, and your suggestions, which always are welcome.

Photograph by J. R. Eyerman/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

October 27th, 2010

Our Cops, Ourselves

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

It is a commonplace that one can become like one’s adversary.  Sometimes the mimicry is especially arresting.

French cop & student

This confrontation between a student and and a police trooper occurred during a demonstration at the Place de la Republique in Paris.  The place name is significant, for the gendarme and the student stand as two sides of the republic: the administration of its laws, and the citizens they are to serve.  That mutuality is signified by their commonality in costume and stance: The black, zipped up jacket mirrors the black uniform, as hat mirrors helmet, erect posture is balanced by erect posture, and extended right arm is matched by the raised right hand. Each is impassive, and together they form an almost classical tableau; if one had the right narrative, one could imagine them as a commemorative statue in the public square.

The similarities are not the end of the story, however, for they also underscore the differences.  Black and white, to be sure, and also force and speech, for the one holds shield and club while the other’s hand assumes an elocutionary gesture.  Yet both are restrained: force used only to block, speech not yet voiced.  What is most striking is that law enforcement appears so alien–as if the carapace of body armor were the outer shell of something no longer wholly human.  And so the matching coloration also becomes disturbing, as if the citizen also were becoming deformed by their co-evolution in the 21st century.

What saves them, for the moment, is the near-perfect stasis of the image.  Neither is moving or likely to move, and at the end of the day the photograph may be recording a relationship of respect.  Each is equipped for their respective roles in the demonstration, yet they still stand as equals.  As that is one of the dearest principles of civic republican government, this may be a picture of political sustainability.

In any case, the photo documents a political culture.  As does this:

cops on football field takedown

If you live in the US, you know the drill.  A fan has run onto the field during a football game, and the troopers assigned to the tough detail of providing security–i.e., watching the game from the sidelines–have run him down and tackled him.  The fan’s behavior is intentionally comic–a silly stunt done on a dare or, more likely, just for the hell of it.  The cops’ behavior is unintentionally comic: they pile up like a bunch of Barney Fifes, probably picking up an injury or two, with hats (symbols of authority) flying and their guns and other equipment useless at best (you have to hope that nothing goes off).  The parodic doubling of the actual (official) game makes the scene all the more carnivalesque, which is one reason it fits into the larger spectacle.

And speaking of fit, did you notice how fan and cops mime one another?  The intensity of the fan’s expression is mirrored by the other two faces that we can see, just as their bare arms, skin tones, and haircuts mirror his, and even his casual clothes seem similar to their uniforms, and they all are jumbled up together anyway.  The cops probably aren’t drunk, so that could be one difference, but, as above, the similarities suggest a common culture.

And so the real difference is not within the photograph but between the two images: one serious and the other a study in mindless distraction.  In one, the state is the subject of politics, and in the other, the state provides rent-a-cops for the entertainment business.  Neither culture is perfect: in one, the cops appear alien even when behaving with respect; in the other, the cops appear thoroughly human but hapless.  The important point is that these photos aren’t really about the cops at all.  They depict two very different conceptions of what it means to be a citizen.

Photographs by Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters and Jeff Gentner/Associated Press.

October 25th, 2010

When We Decide to Know

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

IED victim bad

Usually I avoid rubbing your face in it, but not today.  This image, which has been sitting on my desktop for a few months, is offered out of anger, grief, and extreme frustration with the press, the public, and the Obama administration–and most of all with the public.

The photograph records a badly maimed soldier being delivered to a military hospital in Kandahar.  Think of how many times you have read about IEDs and about wounds suffered from IED explosions.  Did you ever imagine anything like this?  Think of all the photographs you’ve seen of soldiers standing guard, walking on patrol, talking with villagers, or deploying for another mission.  Did you ever consider how those photos were being used instead of images like this one?

And while we’re asking questions, did you notice, when looking at the photograph above, how absolutely routine this event is to the medical personnel?  Only the soldier jogging out the door looks a bit concerned, and he may be steeling himself against what he knows he is going to see up close.  Everyone else, including the stretcher bearer, has the postures–that is, the attitudes–of complete habituation.  The guy on the right could be waiting to take a number at the social security office.  Something horrific, catastrophic, and uniquely terrible has happened to the soldier on the stretcher, but to everybody else it’s something they’ve seen a thousand times.

If the war in Afghanistan were vital to national security, perhaps this sacrifice would be worth it.  If you have to fight, you want your military to have the experience and other capabilities necessary to handle catastrophic injuries efficiently.  But we know that national security is not on the line in Afghanistan.

We do know that, don’t we?  Two stories intersect today to underscore my frustration: First, press analysis of the WikiLeaks archive of 391,832 documents is exposing greater than admitted death tolls, abuses by US contractors, and brutality by other US allies, as well as US knowledge or and lying about this information.  Second, New York Times photographer Joao Silva was badly injured by a land mine in Afghanistan.  Leg wounds, and others as well.

One reason I am so angry and frustrated is that there really should be no need for the Wikileak documents, or for brave photojournalists to continue to take risks to inform the public.  I want to take nothing away from those who released the documents, or from Silva, whose work I have posted here with deep admiration and respect.  The truth of the matter, however, is that the public has had plenty of information for many years about the sacrifice of our troops and our treasure in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Likewise, the government has known even more of the costs, and has not yet–in all this time, and across two administrations–been able to provide a single, legitimate, valid rationale for continuing the war.  (For the record, I think the original invasion of Afghanistan was justified, but that now has no bearing on the current operations.  And I appreciate that public opinion polls state that a majority of Americans oppose the war, but that level of opposition obviously is not enough.)

I think the basic problem is that people, at least collectively, decide to know.  It is not the case that we know and then act.  We decide when we will know, and then we are more likely to act.  You can have the truth staring you in the face, but it doesn’t matter until you decide to suspend all the habits of amnesia, distraction, rationalization, and denial that are otherwise in place and reproduced continuously.  Once we decide, we can look back and see that there was plenty of information there all along.  But we have to make that decision.

The question remains, what will it take to get enough people to decide to know that our war in Afghanistan is futile?  Sometimes, a photograph will make the difference.  But how many photographers and soldiers have to be used up until that day arrives?

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

October 24th, 2010

Can You Remember When?

Posted by Hariman in sight gags

Sherffius, Pledge to Amnesia

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.

October 22nd, 2010

Bearing Witness to the Burmese Prison

Posted by Hariman in photographer's showcase

When prisons are instruments of authoritarian rule, the entire country becomes a prison.  When an entire country is a prison, global civil society is degraded.  The illusion that a prison is a single place obscures these larger structures of terror and repression.  How, then, to expose them?  Enigma Images provides a remarkable photographic exhibition of those Burmese who have been released from one prison only to find themselves still restricted by surveillance, exile, and the knowledge that their fellow citizens are still under arrest.   Thus, they reveal that

EVEN THOUGH I’M FREE I AM NOT

Burmese prisoner in exile

Even Though I’m Free I Am Not” is a global documentary photography project.  Traveling to South East Asia, Australia, Japan, Europe, USA, Canada as well as into Burma itself, hundreds of Burma’s former political prisoners who are now forced to live in exile are being photographed to raise awareness of the tragic plight of their compatriots still detained in jail.

Each of those photographed makes the simple symbolic gesture of the palm being shown in the Buddhist Abhaya Mudhra with the name of another prisoner.  Individually and together they are a testament to the fundamental principle of human rights–the autonomy and dignity of the individual person–and to the moral and political solidarity that is essential to securing those rights.  I encourage you to spend some time at the website, which archives an impressive set of projects on behalf of the Burmese people.  And as you look at the photos of the individuals in exile, ask yourself, if they are not wholly free, are you?

October 20th, 2010

Che and the Changing Definition of Revolution

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

The demonstrations in France are getting a fair amount of play at the moment, not least because street spectacles provide more dramatic photographs than mortgage foreclosure practices or candidate debates.  Amidst the tear gas, rioting youth, and phalanxes of police, this photo caught my eye.

Che icon Lille-France

The large reproduction of the iconic image of Che Guevara surely is the point of the photo: otherwise we are looking at someone’s back, a flare in daylight, and a jumbled background of smoke and signage.  The man wearing the icon is a worker with the Solidaires union, which was part of the protest against pension reform.  The French government has proposed raising the retirement age to 62, and in response hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have been taking to the streets.  The government estimate for yesterday was 800,000 demonstrators.  That’s right: 800,000, to fight raising the age to 62.  Such numbers do not compute in the US.

And wait a minute. . . . Che, a symbol of the welfare state?  Isn’t this another example of how the French left is out of touch, living in a fantasy world?  Well, that’s one interpretation, but it can’t hold if it is specific to France.

Che flag Iceland

This photo is from Reykjavik, Iceland.  The issue isn’t pension reform per se, but rather housing and other issues believed to be examples of the government’s inadequate response to the economic crisis that began with the financial meltdown in 2008.  So, much the same as above, people are taking to the streets to demand government action on behalf of social democracy.  So it is that young people can be demonstrating for pension plans, and that Che can be a symbol of progressive response to the global recession caused by financial mismanagement abetted by neoliberal economic policies.

If you type “Che” into Google Image, you’ll quickly see that this icon is already an object of conservative parody and invective, and the examples above certainly are fair game in that regard.  That’s not all that can be said, however.  For one, they are examples of how iconic images are used in ways that go well beyond their original context, and how that can include become a visual relay on behalf of both specific solidarities and public culture generally.  In photographing the iconic photograph, the press is reporting on one of its own visual processes for creating a public world, and here that world is one in which workers are united across national borders.

That’s the good news.  There also is this: the transformation of Che from a socialist revolutionary into a symbol of the European social contract may be one indication of just how far the Western democracies have been pushed to the right.  I’ve never been a fan of faux revolutionaries, and the Che icon certainly played to that, but it’s sad to think that revolution on behalf of economic justice has come down to holding the line on a pension plan.  Pensions are very important, of course, but there is so much more that needs to be done.  A post-revolutionary society may be not only more realistic but also a step forward on the march of progress, but only if governments accept that their job is to protect ordinary people from the ravages of a market economy.  Surely that standard is not being met when the people have to beg government to not sell them out.

Photographs by Pascal Rossignol/Reuters and Thorvaldur Kristmundsson/ZUMApress.com.

October 18th, 2010

Respecting the Face of Battle in Afghanistan

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Today the New York Times reported on a “critical assault” against the Taliban in Afghanistan.  There were no photographs in the print edition, and the web version featured only the US commander.  I think we can do better.

Wounded Afghan soldier

This photograph was taken recently in Kandahar, although not during the current operation.  It stands out because of the strange, almost sacral quality of the man on the pallet.  A victim of an IED explosion, he may be raising his head to check on his wounds, or on how he is being maneuvered into the helicopter.  Any bump would be likely to hurt, but perhaps he is merely an interested observer of the emergency routine unfolding around him.  His hand could even be a gesture of thanks; it’s almost as if we were dispensing a blessing.

Strapped in but not resisting and almost meditative, a simple, partially clothed man with unruly hair surrounded by trained professionals and modern military material, his face darkened by dirt or soot yet illuminated as if in a state of grace, it’s as if he were being transported from some other time and place.  As if he were an accidental mummy from human prehistory found in some desert cave, and not one of our allies in the battle against terrorism.

Soldier up close Hicks

In this second photograph, also taken recently in Kandahar, some of the elements of the first photo have been reversed: now the US soldiers are in the center of the picture and we see their faces, which are the only exposed flesh, as they are before being hit instead of needing medical care, while they are calling for air support instead of already having it, as they are going into battle instead of leaving it.  As before, however, the faces are at once arresting and yet don’t quite fit the story.  The lieutenant on the radio is focused but not on anything immediately around him, while the soldier in the background, who is looking directly for the enemy, appears both unsure and worried.  Neither is looking straight ahead, and because they are so close to the viewer their vulnerability is palpable, as if we could reach forward and swat them.

My point is not that the current attack is going poorly or that war is hell or any other counter-narrative.  Instead, note how each photograph doesn’t quite fit into any narrative, positive or negative.   Neither tells a story of strategic deployment; in fact, each is obviously a fragmentary episode that only suggests a larger narrative.  The man must have been attacked and now is being evacuated, but his image is both enigmatic and disturbing, as if at the scene of an exhumation rather than a rescue.  The soldiers must be taking fire while in the field, but it’s not clear whether this is a routine engagement (look at the lieutenant) in Afghanistan or something closer to an ambush in Vietnam (look at the other soldier hemmed in by the thick foliage).

Let me suggest that the value of these images is precisely that they break up the standard narrative of war reportage–a narrative that continually rationalizes war.  Here I am drawing on The Face of Battle, by the eminent military historian John Keegan.  Contrary to the typical focus by both generals and historians on a reconstructed account of strategic deployment, Keegan set out to learn how warfare turned on the actual details of the ordinary soldier’s experience of battle.  How did a horse charge, or an arrow kill?  Keegan believed that the answers to such questions could provide an important corrective on the perspective of those who ordered soldiers into battle–a perspective, incidentally, that depends on seeing things from a distance.

It is worth noting that the Times story neatly reproduces the rhetorical design that Keegan identifies in the standard narrative: a critical moment will lead to victory because of a commander’s decision, a simplified characterization that fits together with the uniform behavior of the troops, who move as one according to simplified motivations.  You can see for yourself, but suffice it to say that, in the Times’ account, the assault is the “most critical part” of a larger strategy, hundreds of troops move “steadily” and exactly as commanded by General Carter, who expects to know the outcome in 24-48 hours, and nothing is said to indicate any other motivation for “deliberate” military action by the allies and counter-attacks by “insurgents.”  The fact that Afghan soldiers have serious effectiveness issues, that the insurgency is growing because of US military action and economic distress, that the success of this operation will be nullified by economic, social, and political realities on the ground–these and similar qualifications will have to be taken up in another article.

The photographs don’t just tell small stories that might be embedded within larger strategic narratives like so many subplots in a TV series.  We need to see the face of battle not to fill in the picture, but to be reminded that the story itself may be seriously wrong.  And I don’t mean merely the story in the newspaper.

Photographs by David Guttenfelder/Associated Press and Tyler Hicks/The New York Times.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

October 17th, 2010

Sight Gag: Nine Years Later

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

content.cartoonbox.slate.com

Credit: Breen/San Diego Union Tribune

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.

October 15th, 2010

Chilean Miners and the Good Life

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

Sometimes a feel-good story does more than merely make you feel good.  Take, for example, the celebrations in Chile at the rescue of the miners who had been trapped underground for two months.  There is much to like in this story: dedicated, skilled rescuers, a government that capably managed help brought in from around the world, families and friends who maintained long vigils of support for those trapped below, and a perfect ending.  Just consider how much could have gone wrong, and you can begin the understand the elation of those who had been waiting for their loved ones’ safe return.

Chilean miner's relatives

Of the many photographs from the rescue, I thought this one captured the powerful emotional current running through the story.  The caption read, “Relatives of miner Dario Segovia react as watching Segovia on a TV screen during his rescue operation at the camp outside the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile, Wednesday Oct. 13, 2010.”  I’ll bet I know which one is the mother, but that doesn’t really matter.  They all are experiencing the incredible release that comes from seeing their beloved returned to life among them.  Biological functioning had never ceased, but life had been suspended–the life that comes from living together, having shared histories, habits, meals, journeys, arguments, laughs, successes, and failures–everything that makes up the richness of a common world bound by affection.

I like the photo because it captures not only the love that usually lies beneath the surface of ordinary life,  but also the messiness that is always there.  The photo itself is messy, with no sure center but for that odd black hat with the TV logo, and the scene itself is more so: people jumbled together amidst ID cards, jewelry, flags, cameras, both laughing and crying, being in the moment and photographing it–everything is happening at once.

The scene also can remind us what photography is about.  The people in the picture are caught between visual technologies: being photographed while watching TV that is being photographed.  Despite all the media apparatus, however, their emotions and their lives are media’s reason for being.  They deserve the help that was provided by the government, which came in part because they always had the leverage of the public media, and their being presented to us both continues and extends those webs of support.  We, in turn, in resonating to their joy, have the opportunity to live in a richer world, one we share with them and in which people can care, not only for loved ones but for strangers.

And speaking of a better world, the love evident in this photograph gives special emphasis to another dimension of the rescue.  It’s kind of a funny story, you might say.  As the New York Times reported, “Defying grim predictions about how they would fare after two months trapped underground, many of the Chilean miners came bounding out of their rescue capsule on Wednesday as pictures of energy and health.”  And how did that happen?  “The miners’ apparent robustness was testimony to the rescue diet threaded down to them through the tiny borehole that reached them on Aug. 22, but also to the way they organized themselves to keep their environment clean, find water and get exercise.  Another factor was the excellent medical care they received from Chilean doctors.”

In short, they had good food, a clean environment, a well-organized routine of work and other activity, and excellent medical care.  With that, you can live in a hole deep in the earth and come out looking fine.  And now look around you, right here on the surface.  How many people have those “advantages”?  For all the technical wizardry employed to lift the men to the surface, the key to their survival while entombed was to live exactly as one ought to live anywhere.  And so the story provides much more than a warm glow: it’s a story not of heroism, but of good sense, and it’s not a miracle, but what happens much of the time when people are organized so that they can have the basics needed for a good life.

I feel good for the miners, but I grieve for all those who still need to be rescued.

Photograph by Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press.

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