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Tanks for the Memory

I’ve spent the last several days looks at hundreds, maybe thousands, of photographs of the political unrest in Egypt.  At first blush there didn’t seem to be anything that distinguished the photographic record from the images representing political strife in other Middle Eastern countries in recent times – Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, Greece, Tunisia, etc.: burned out buildings and cars aflame, streets littered with rubble and trash, images desecrated or burned in effigy, hands and fists raised in rage and protest, the spray of water cannon and the haze of tear gas, jack booted police wielding automatic weapons and bullet proof masks and shields standing off against sandal and sneaker clad protestors armed with sticks and stones, injured or dead bodies, makeshift funerals, and tanks … lots and lots of tanks.  On careful examination it was the photographs of tanks, such as the one above, that really set this collage of chaos and violence apart.

The tank, of course, is a visual trope for oppressive regimes, whether employed by autocratic rulers or occupying forces.  Think of the Nazi Blitzkrieg or the Prague Spring or Tiananmen Square or the ground assault in Operation Desert Storm, or more recently the deployment of  Israeli tanks in Gaza.  Wherever we find it, the tank is visualized as a faceless, inhuman, mechanized marker of military might. While not truly invincible, its sheer size and robotic appearance nevertheless casts it as simultaneously magnificent and terrifying, an intimidating—perhaps even sublime—symbol of power and force. An instrument of technological rationality, it leaves no space for reason.  Indeed, its very presence implies a “take no prisoners” sensibility, and where tanks appear there is normally no occasion for dialogue.

But in Egypt in recent days something strange has happened, as the military tank has taken on something of a human(e) face.  In the photograph above the driver of the tank is actually engaged in a discourse of some sort with the protestors.  According to the caption the protestors are imploring the tank driver to join their opposition to the Mubarak government.  There is no way to know if that is what is actually taking place here, but in a sense it really doesn’t matter, for the very fact that talk has mitigated (if not actually replaced) physical violence suggests the possibility of a less than tragic outcome.

Of course, one tank driver talking to a group of protestors can hardly be taken as the liberalizing of an autocratic regime. But the fact is that there are numerous such photographs circulating throughout the various news outlets  that indicate the presence of the Egyptian military as something of a stabilizing force, managing the tension between the protestors and the police (apparently the active and oppressive security arm of the Mubarak regime) especially in and around Cairo’s Tahir (Liberation) Square.  So, for example, there are numerous images of protestors taking time out to pray en mass as members of the military standing on tanks look on—and in one sense, at least, appear to be “looking over” the protesters.

Perhaps the most poignant of such tank photographs is the one below:

It is hard to know exactly what is going on here.  It would seem that the protestor is handing the baby to the soldier on the tank.  But why?  There is no way of telling for sure, but perhaps that is the point.  The offer of the child is not driven by an obvious or inexorable instrumental rationality, but rather is something of a more open, reasoned  symbol of unity or solidarity between the people/protestors and those charged with securing their “freedom”—whatever that term might mean in the Egyptian context. And in the process, the negative symbolic resonance of the tank is neutralized or domesticated —notice the smiles on everyone’s faces— as both those above and those below are connected by touching their common future. In this context, the tank, and by extension the military itself, becomes a productive buffer between the people and the government as events work themselves out.  To get a sense of why this might be important, consider the alternatives if the military were to side with either the Mubarak government against the protestors or visa versa.

Of course we should never forget that tanks are weapons of war.  And more, that they are commonly used as instruments of oppression and control, both rhetorically and otherwise.  But at least in this one instance they seem to have been deployed—or at least recast—as symbols of a more reasonable public culture in which the tension between opposing forces is held in stasis.

Credit:  Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images; Asmaa Waguih/Reuters.

Cross-posted at the Shpilman Institute for Photography blog.


Sight Gag: “And, the winner is ….”

Credit: Kids Prefer Cheese

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  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 might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look.




Nomadikon, the Bergen Center of Visual Culture, has extended the paper call for its conference, Image=Gesture, to be held in Bergen, Norway, November 9-12, 2011.

As a critical and heuristic trope, the gestural galvanizes many of the most pertinent areas of inquiry in contemporary debates and scholarship in visual culture and related disciplines:
a) Ethics: Images and their values and affects.
b) Ecology: Iconoclastic gestures and spaces of conflict.
c) Experience: The human as acts of mediation/product of the gaze.
d) Epistemology: Archive, document, memory.
e) Esthetics: From visual essentialism to transesthetics and synesthesia.

Abstracts should not exceed 400 words. Please include a short bio. Deadline for submitting abstracts: March 1, 2011.

A more extensive description of the conference and submission guidelines is here.

Photograph by Ruth Frenson/New York Times.  Because Nomadikon has not offered an image for the conference, we thought we’d supply one–as a gesture, you might say.


Scale and Magnitude in Public Culture

Skyscrapers are big, and walking through the concrete canyons of a major city can make one feel small.  But you can go to the observation decks high above the rest of the city, and everything looks small even though you know you are seeing miles upon miles of large buildings and great thoroughfares.  You can walk through the busy streets and feel enlarged by the social energy coursing through the city, or you can lean while lost against an anonymous building and feel desolate, not much different from the scraps of paper blowing down the alley.  If things go well, you might take a picture or send someone a postcard of the spectacular cityscape, but that, too, has been miniaturized by the technologies of visual reproduction.  So it is that contemporary artists draw on distortions of scale to make one stop and think about where we are.

Lorenzo Quinn’s sculpture, “Vroom Vroom” is now on display in Park Lane in London.   The Fiat 500 is held by an aluminum hand, as if the car were a child’s toy.   The title of the work is not ironic, as the artist says that he wanted to recapture the innocence and excitement of childhood.  By contrast with the stress of driving, parking, or dodging cars in crowded downtown streets, this artistic license seems a good way to go: Stop, smile, and think about how exciting simple things once were and can be, and about you already may have gotten your wish if you would but take the time to remember it.

That simple advice actually is harder to follow than it seems; one might say its about as easy as seeing a car as a toy car.   As children, it was easy to see toy cars as cars, but now we need an artist (and considerable public investment) to recover such freedom of imagination.  As well we should, and not as merely a break in a busy day, for good civic life requires just such inversions to be able to see  problems, solutions, and possibilities.  Public art, like the city itself, can school us in these shifts in scale so that we can become more likely to make sound judgments of magnitude, that is, of how much or how little needs to be done collectively for the general welfare.

And shifts in scale are not the only available inversions.  When I looked at the photo above, which I saw without the title, I had a sense not of excitement but of something closer to foreboding.  (No, I didn’t have a terrible childhood.)  Sure, the idea of a child playing with a car is there, but the child is not so innocent in such moments, as the ability to play god is also involved.  Perhaps I’ve seen too much science fiction or read too many Puritan sermons, but a hand coming out of the sky isn’t necessarily such a good thing.  The artwork may suggest the role of chance in life, something more easily felt when aware of how small one is relative to the sheer numbers and size of city life.  Cars are not plucked out of the air, but lives are crushed by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and cities will not thrive if contingencies, including problems of scale, are not managed with imagination and vision.

And so one might even speak of light in the darkness.

But a table lamp?  OK, a very big table lamp: this giant was placed in Lilla Torg square in Malmö, Sweden over the holidays.  Not so much excitement here.  As the man pulls his bag across the cobblestones of the otherwise deserted square, he seems a lonely figure, hunched a bit into his overcoat against the cold, left to his thoughts–so much so that he seems oblivious to the enormous artwork glowing in front of him.  Yet the lamp highlights his isolation, for it has twice transformed the scene: first, by its inversion of scale, and second, by placing an artifact from the home in the public space.  Instead of moving through a small square, he now appears dwarfed by the city, and instead of heading for home or hotel, he seems fated to be alone in any space, public or private.  Perhaps the lamp was intended to brighten up the square with the light and decor of a gracious home, but it can just as well suggest that the city makes everyone homeless.

Inversions also can teach us that no one condition need be permanent.  These artworks involve inversions of scale and of affect, and together they suggest both that big things can be made small and that small things can loom large.  Questions of magnitude, otherwise known as the quality of life.

Photographs by Stefan Wermuth/Reuters and Yves Herman/Reuters.


Global Warming and Family Life: When Caring Isn’t Enough

I’m about to get sentimental about a small photo.  Small in several senses: the copy I have is smaller than what we usually post, the photo depicts only a few birds on a tiny spot of land, and neither they nor their image is likely to change much of anything.  In fact, this is an image of incapacity, even futility.

Even the viewer is made to feel a bit inept, as you have to lean forward and peer into the photo to see what is happening.  The dingy colors of fading snow stained with–what? urine?–and the dim water offer little contrast in the dull light to the black and white uniformity of the birds.  There seems to be no focus, no action, no drama, and certainly nothing like the grandeur of nature with its magnificent, triumphant struggle for existence, as typically portrayed in TV documentaries.

So what is happening?  The caption at the New York Times story coupled with the photo said “Adélie penguins struggle to save eggs submerged by snowmelt.”  It seems that climate change is producing particularly distinctive effects in the polar regions, and one consequence is that this penguin colony is having its reproductive cycle disrupted while also suffering greater exposure to predation.  Sudden adaptation is difficult in a harsh environment, and the prospects for the species are not good.

At this point, one might expect conservatives to jump in and save the penguins.  After all, the March of the Penguins, a documentary movie set in Antarctica, became a hit because of its supposed demonstration that monogamy, heterosexual parenting, loyalty, and other traditional virtues were natural law.  As with all such allegories, the facts were another story, as penguins are about as monogamous as our own species, which is nothing to crow about.  In any case, the point never was to care about the penguins themselves, and no one is likely to now.

But I’m going to get sentimental anyway.  What is happening is that the snow has melted under some of the penguins’ eggs, and because they are trapped in the water they can’t be incubated.  The water will be warmer than the snow but not warm enough, while washing away any heat that could be supplied by the parent.  The eggs will die.  And the birds seem to know it.

One could say that these are but a few eggs, and that the species will adapt as the birds that place their eggs on better snow will reproduce while the others don’t.  Nature is a harsh teacher, but one can learn, right?  Wrong, actually, if that is your theory of evolution, but that’s another discussion.  What grabs me is that the birds want to adapt to the change and can’t.  They are congregated around the eggs as if trying to figure out how to solve the problem, and they are trying to do what they can that situation: roll the eggs out of the water.  That is what any engineer might do, if the engineer lacked arms and tools.   The penguins are doing everything they can do to save those eggs, and that means that they care about the eggs and, as their efforts are failing, understand that a disaster is slowly befalling their little community.

Obviously, the sentimentality here is not mine alone: witness the word “struggle” in the caption.  But is it misplaced?  I don’t think so, because once again the story really isn’t about the birds.  I happen to believe they are capable of emotional intelligence and rational problem solving, albeit while severely limited in their manipulative capability on land.  That is beside the point, however.  What the sentimental response does is open the viewer to understanding what the photograph is really about.  That is, to see why it is not such a small thing after all.

The pathos of the photograph is that the penguins are standing amidst a slowly unfolding catastrophe but handicapped as they try to deal with it.  That deficiency is due to biological limitations, including their lack of hands.  Just as important, however, is that they are only dimly capable of comprehending the full extent of the danger, and lack the cognitive, social, and political resources needed to adapt successfully.  They care about their young, but caring is not enough.  To avoid what is fast becoming their fate, they would need to analyze the terrain, organize and deliberate about the options, and adjust their habits for sustainability.  They aren’t wired to do that, of course.  Those are human capabilities, right?

Long story short, we may be like the penguins after all.

Photograph by Fen Montaigne, as part of Fraser’s Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica.


Sight Gag: The Angel in the Details

Credit:  Sherffius

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  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 might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look.


Grant Opportunities: Shpilman Institute for Photography

The Shpilman Institute for Photography (The SIP) has announced two calls for papers for its 2011 Grants Program. The first is devoted specifically to research in philosophy and photography; the second is a general call for research in the field of photography. The SIP invites scholars and independent researchers from all over the world to submit their applications through its website, where guidelines, themes, the application process, and submissions can be found. Grants for individuals and group research will range from US $5,000 up to $15,000. The deadline is March 1, 2011.

Academic faculty at accredited institutions of higher education, currently enrolled Ph.D. candidates, previously published independent scholars, photographic practitioners, and research-oriented curators are invited to apply. Grants are based on proposals for research leading to the completion within the grant period of a written document, whether an essay or extended research paper, showing deep consideration and thorough, original research on the selected topic.

The SIP, founded by Shalom Shpilman in 2010, is a research institute whose mission is to initiate and support innovative scholarly work that will advance the understanding of the varied meanings, functions, and significance of photography and related media. Through its grant programs,The SIP commissions and sponsors individual and group research projects, with an emphasis on philosophical concerns, including scholarly papers and publications in print and online, conferences, symposia, and other events.


Blonde on Blonde on Blonde

The recent assassination attempt in Tucson led to calls for civic unity, and that event was followed by the national commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr., which included celebrations of diversity.  Unity and diversity are good things, and they are especially good when found together.  Political rhetoric doesn’t neatly follow society stratification, however, and so this might be a moment to consider how some of the time society seems dedicated to a third option: homogeneity.

Newspapers no longer announce that they have what once were called “society pages,” but they have them nonetheless.  This photograph from the New York Times is a priceless example of high status social reproduction.  And I don’t use the term “reproduction” lightly, as you are looking at a mother and daughter.  Even accounting for the differences to be expected between a young woman and a woman of a certain age, mother and daughter are not particularly similar in appearance.  Until, that is, you notice their hair.  Neither may be a natural blonde, but what does that matter?  Both are definitely blonde, and that includes a lot more than a narrow slice of the visual spectrum.  This is a picture of wealth, status, and the pride and poise that comes with those gifts.

The photo also is a study in what can’t be hidden by any lifestyle.  (Fashion always reveals more than itself.)  Mother and daughter are nicely balanced as figures in the composition, but they also are visibly separated by each other, joined only by the train of the dress as if it were a golden yoke.  Growing separation between parents and children is a necessary feature of this phase of their life together, but one wonders how much each is trapped within the many demands of her respective role.  The daughter is clearly posed, almost like a prize poodle on a leash, but the mother also is posed, indeed, is the more distant and cold for not looking at the viewer.  Both are offered for view, but the mother is almost pure object, a sculpture of a woman; one can’t help but think she now is paying the price for benefiting earlier from the femininity on display.  And while both are bathed in yellow light, the mother is wrapped in black that blends into the dark background.  The daughter seems encased more than clothed in her golden gown, but at least she appears vibrant, while her mother is already fading to dark as if being slowly drawn into the oblivion of death.

So youth is still growing into its social skin while mortality stalks us all.  No news there.  What matters is how society deals with its universals, and here the picture turns harsher yet.  These women are creatures of light–you can see the photographer’s flash reflected in the back of the room–and that light is a product of social hierarchy.  What seems a static composition, carefully posed within a tableau of elegance, is a portrait of enormous social energy being forced into narrow channels.  That may be one definition of discipline, but it also is the base reality of how elites reproduce their social order.

And so a photograph of a blonde mother showcasing her blonde daughter is a study in competition and exclusion.  The two actual persons may have the best of relationships, but the photograph captures a deep tension of aristocratic life: the heir in waiting.  Is the queen really ready to let go and step into the darkness?  Is the heir apparent really ready to wait so long, and isn’t she already taking pride in her youthful vigor, her ability to already displace the older woman where it really counts?  If peace reigns for a while, isn’t it because they remain united against all those they are keeping out–those who can only hope to imitate the standard they embody?

Others do imitate, of course–why are there so many blondes?–and there is nothing like a fashion show to expose the fangs behind the social smile.

Blonde on blonde on blonde. . . . . multiple imitations of the same, right down to the black jackets, and ready to pile it on or cut each other off as needed to win the male gaze.  Young women and an older woman, united by fashion if not by blood, they are creatures of light drawn to the light–in this case, a guy who needs only to show up to activate a contest for recognition.  The brunette in the background is the only hint of difference.  (She’s not even looking in the right direction and may actually be having a conversation; must be a reporter or something equally ridiculous.)  And unity?  It had better get in line.

Homogeneity is neither diversity nor unity, but something else entirely: a regime of social reproduction that succeeds by pushing both difference and unity down the social hierarchy.  It is both natural and artificial: like the blonde.

Photographs by Deidre Schoo and Casey Kelbaugh for the New York Times.

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Sight Gag: Second Amendment Solutions

Credit:  Paul Constant, The Stranger.  With thanks to Emily Cram for bringing this to our attention.

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  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 might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look.

 1 Comment