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Memorial Day in A Global Environment

1.3 millions Americans military personnel have lost their lives in wars since the founding of our nation.  Memorial Day, invented after the Civil War, the most costly war in U.S. history accounting for nearly half of all such deaths, is a day for remembering their sacrifice.  It should be a solemn day and one can only wonder why it has become as much a day for pre-summer sales and commerce as for remembrance.  But there is another point to be made, which is simply tthat such remembrances and mourning is not just American but cosmopolitan.  Somewhere between 22 and 25 million military personnel died in World War II (and that pales in comparison to the total loss of 62 million people overall).  Of that 22-25 million, approximately 416,000 were Americans, a grim reminder that such remembrance and mourning should be located, at least in part, as a matter of cosmopolitan interest and concern.

The photograph above shows a slice of such remembrance, as the caption identifies a  woman who pauses in the Potocari Cemetery (Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina), which holds the remains of some of the more than 8,000 victims of the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, the largest mass murder in Europe since WWII. Bosnian Serb troops led by Ratko Mladic carried out a genocidal spree of rape and murder on the mostly Muslim refugees who were there, a previous UN ”safe area.”

Photo Credit: Fabrizio Lasorsa/Eidon Press/


Sight Gag: Economic Vultures

Credit: Bleer

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.


Jonathan Hyman: Flesh and Metal, Bodies and Buildings

Flesh and Metal, Bodies and Buildings

Works from Jonathan Hyman’s Archive of 9/11 Vernacular Memorials

Duke University has put up an exhibition, including online galleries, of an outstanding collection of work by Jonathan Hyman.

The work can be seen at the Duke Special Collections Gallery, Perkins Library , from May 9 through October 16, 2011.  Hours are here.

Photograph by Jonathan Hyman, Bleeding Statue of Liberty, Manhattan, 2002.



Sitting on the Verge of Catastrophe

The photograph above appeared on the front page of the NYT a few days ago in conjunction with a story concerning a series of bomb blasts that rocked Baghdad killing twenty people, including 8 Iraqi policemen and two U.S. soldiers.  At first glance, the image is altogether banal. The remnants of the wreckage in the foreground are barely recognizable, with only a single tire giving a clue as to its identity as a vehicle.  The absence of security personnel or emergency vehicles make it apparent that the explosion did not just happen.  And the individuals sitting and standing in the background are altogether relaxed, if not nonchalant, their attention dispersed in multiple directions, making it difficult to know what event the photograph is actually recording—the scene in front of us, whatever is outside of the frame of the image, or something else altogether.  Indeed, on the face of things the photograph does not appear to be an image of anything in particular at all.

At second glance, however, it may well be the very banality of the image that makes it especially worthy of our attention.  An explosion has taken place, or more specifically, as the caption directs the reader, “a series of attacks” have taken place, and yet any sense of urgency in dealing with the situation is altogether elided.  Everyday life  has been disrupted, to be sure, tragically so with the violent loss of life, but the event is shown to be so routine, so commonplace, that its status as a horrifying emergency claim goes unnoticed and unaddressed. The photograph thus purports to be the visual representation of a slice of life in a society that has become conditioned to such everyday violence, so much so that it lives, in Ariella Azoulay’s terms, “on the verge of catastrophe.”  This is not an appeal to the now tired idea of “compassion fatigue,” which claims that we become so weary of images of violence and disaster that we simply stop noticing.  Rather, it suggests the sense in which “the contours [of the scene represented] are indistinct; one could easily fail to notice it, passing in front of it without stopping.”  It is portrayed as a nonevent, however quotidian it might be, and thus it never rises to the level of an emergency claim. Put simply, the everydayness of the scene, which should alert us to the profound, catastrophic condition of the society, actually veils—if not altogether erases—the tragedy before our eyes.

To get the point, compare the photograph above with the photograph and slide show that the NYT published in conjunction with the 2008 bombing of a U.S. Army recruiting station in Times Square.

No one was injured in this blast, the physical damage to the building was relatively minor, and disruption to the city lasted for only a few hours, but nevertheless, all of the signs of urgency and emergency are present and pronounced.  Yellow tape marks the scene as the site of a dangerous criminal act.  Members of the bomb squad—state officials—stand post in front of what appears to be a technical expert dressed in a hazardous materials suit as he examines the bomb’s residue.  And note too that the explosion took place in the early morning hours and the street lamps in the background are still on, suggesting the immediacy with which the event was responded to and handled. Everything in the image casts this as a special event and in so doing initiates the conditions for classifying it as a catastrophe.

The point, of course, is that catastrophes come in a variety of forms.  The problem is not in reducing the conditions for defining a catastrophe to a singular event, but in how we visualize those conditions as a matter of urgency.

Photo Credits:  Karim Kadim/AP; Chip East/Reuters.  And with special credit to Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008). Esp. 289-373.




Post-Apocalyptic Visions

Well, the world didn’t end, so the catastrophe continues.  As Suzanne Ross has remarked, “We need no divine intervention to destroy the world–we are perfectly capable of doing it ourselves, thank you very much.”  Even so, the major fail of the latest Last Days prediction opens, for only a moment, a curious window for seeing things anew.  The snide but understandable pleasure in seeing another media evangelist make a fool of himself extends only so far, and beyond that the invocation of new heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65:17) remains a distant yet radical promise.  That promise can be understood not as an assurance of divine intervention, but rather as the insistence that human societies can provide prosperity instead of exploitation and peace rather than war.  In short, that the the order of things can be turned upside down.

Like this, perhaps.  Were the two machines reversed, the 52-ton tank would crush the spindly treadmill.  But, for once, in a rare moment of imagination, leisure trumps warfare.  The art work by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla is part of an exhibition scheduled for this summer’s Venice Biennale.  The work is delightfully not didactic, and yet it invites reflection on pragmatic questions.  The machines seem to be going in opposite directions, yet neither is going anywhere.  They seem to be opposites in many ways: e.g., the human runner would be outside the treadmill, while the crew would be inside the tank.  Yet they also are complements: both are machines, and fitness is needed for warfare, and the middle class workout may be complicit with the national security state.  Most important, the artwork not only raises questions but also performs the process of inversion. And when the imagination is freed to think about what could be and ought to be possible, the answer is not going to be more of the same.

I could stop there, but one public artwork can evoke another, however accidental the connection might be.  This is one of the “Strandbeests” made by the Dutch artist Theo Jansen.  The work invites many associations, but I see a large, endangered species lumbering along a shoreline.  Perhaps it is the animal’s last shore, the liminal, nearly empty space where it will at last lay down and die.  Like an old tank, you might say, when the last of the oversize military hardware is being abandoned to its fate as ruins of an era no longer even remembered.  Or perhaps it is something beyond that: one of the delightful creature-crafts that could emerge once the war machines no longer ruled the land.

In reality, of course, the artworks are far less permanent than the military-industrial complex.  War will continue, as will economic exploitation and untold suffering perpetrated by those who know only too well that God is not going to intervene.  Photojournalists will continue to bring us the bad news, and risk their lives to do it.  Photography also can relay other public arts, however, and with that the opportunity to turn from cynicism, however pleasurable it can be, to whimsy, imagination, and the brief possibility of genuine transformation.

First photograph by Daniele Resini and Vincent G. Allora.  Second photograph by the Spacex gallery.


SIght Gag: Refunds Available?

Photo Credit: Earl Wilson/NYT

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.


Conflict Zone at the Chicago Cultural Center

CONFLICT ZONE is a collection of images from the front lines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, captured by some of the world’s leading combat photographers and journalists.

The Conflict Zone exhibit is running through June 18 in a gallery across the street from the Chicago Cultural Center.

The Poynter Institute is collecting reactions to the exhibit in text, photo, or video here.

Photograph by Jason P. Howe.




Through The Looking Glass

Many if not most of the photographs that we have seen coming out of Afghanistan in recent weeks have emphasized the theme of normalization: adults working, students studying, happy children playing—lots of happy children playing—and of course the Afghan police doing their best to maintain peace and order. If we see people hurt they are being attended to, usually by U.S. military and medical services who seem to display a generally happy countenance.  The colors in these photographs tend to be richly saturated and it would seem as if we had stepped through the looking glass on Alice’s mantel and entered the alternate, topsy-turvy universe of the mainstream media.

In this alternate universe we do not see attention directed to the 177 coalition fatalities that have occurred since the beginning of 2011, or the predictions that IED explosions—responsible for more than 55% of such fatalities—will increase in the months ahead.  The rising incidence of  suicides among U.S. veterans is only occasionally mentioned and never visualized.  There are no pictures of the “accidental” killing of Afghani citizens by NATO-led forces, and reports of the “sport killing” of Afghanis by U.S. military don’t show up on the front page, if they show up at all.  For all the happy children we see in the alternate universe, there doesn’t seem to be any recognition, visual or otherwise, of the report that on average two children were killed each day last year in Afghanistan for a total of 739 deaths, 17% of which are attributable to U.S. and NATO-led forces.  Neither do we see the effects on the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced from their homes by the conflict alone.  Nor for that matter do we see the impact of bombing on the natural environment as the endangered species list in Afghanistan has increased from 33 to over 80 in a short five years.  And the list could go on.

But alas we come to the photograph above from Kabul.  One more scene of the normalization of life in Afghanistan.  It appeared prominently at nearly everyone of the mainstream media slideshows that I visited, including the NYT, the WSJ, and the LAT.  The captions were all  different. The NYT noted the “street scenes” reflected in the mirrors, as if to direct attention to the reality of what is outside of the frame of the image, what the viewer could not see directly, a vivid portrayal of a vital and local commerce.  The WSJ emphasized the mirrors themselves  and the fact that they “were displayed for sale,” underscoring their status as commodities, and thus the economic normalcy of the scene itself. Only the LAT seems to have challenged the theme of normalcy by observing that the “display of mirrors in a street market takes on the look of a carnival fun house,” and in so doing they may well have captured the important and ironic complexity of the image as something of an allegory for recent visual representations of life in Afghanistan.

To get the significance of the LAT caption, notice how each mirror is cut to a different shape, elongating or compacting the image that it produces, and thus accenting the effective distortion reflected by the polished glass surface, just as one might imagine in a carnival fun house.  But there is more, for we have four mirrors sitting next to  one another that display four different scenes.  Jacques Lacan makes much of the “mirror stage” of ego development for a child whose identity is molded by recognizing (or misrecognizing) his/her image in the reflected surface of a mirror as an “imaginary wholeness.”  Here, however, the collection of mirrors precisely resists any such unity or wholeness by specifically fragmenting the scene into separate and distinct parts.  Indeed, despite the proximity of the four mirrors to one another it is difficult to suture their reflected images together as a seamless actuality. The reality of what we see (or more to the point, what we purport to see in the reflection) is thus optically challenged.  And as the mirror, so too the photograph, which pits the vivid colors of the reflected images against the drab and muted tones of the trash that dominates the background and upper half of the scene.

When Alice awakens from her sleep she recalls the admonition from Tweedledee and Tweedledum that her own existence might be little more than a figment of the Red King’s imagination and wonders to what extent all of life is a dream.  The point here is not quite that severe, but certainly the above photograph serves as a cautionary tale for how we have seen through the looking glass that extends into Afghanistan and what we we have found (or not found) there.

Photo Credit:  Hossein Faterni/AP.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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Housing, that Fragile Shell

There is no way that press coverage of the Mississippi river flooding can match the damage, discomfort, and discouragement that is spreading across the flood plain.  Maybe the coverage really doesn’t matter, but if it does, people are getting too little of it.  Nor is this surprising.  Big news from the Middle East continues to overshadow a story driven by the weather.  The news is drawn to dramatic events, while the flood has been spreading slowly.  Tragedies are supposed to be monumental, but the flood is about sandbags and soggy carpets.

You might say that this photograph says it all, precisely because it says so little.  A woman is carrying clothing out of a flooded house.  She is wading through the kitchen, which is standing in a couple inches of water.  The kitchen looks like many other kitchens across America and the world, right down to the magnetic decorations on the fridge.  The one difference is the water, which is not too deep but thick with mud and getting under everything.  Her expression is just right: this is an unexpected, unwanted chore, and one requiring concentration so that you don’t make it worse, but what can you do except wade through it?  Why waste time complaining?  Or making a big deal about it in the news?

The house has not burned to the ground, been devoured by an earthquake, or shattered by artillery shells; it’s just wet.  So it is that floods usually fall short of other disasters in terms of visual interest.  You can only look at so many photos of a boat being piloted down the street of a small town.  But something is being revealed, nonetheless.  The problem is not the nature of the disaster, but of a media system that is not suited to capturing conditions of general deprivation.  The news is drawn to emergencies, and to making emergency claims, but not to understanding how large groups of people may be on the edge of despair or at least having to get by with far less support than others take for granted.  Consider, for example, how the health care debate was hijacked by images of Tea Party protests, allowing millions of people to be shorted and billions of dollars squandered for want of being able or willing to depict systemic problems on behalf of the general welfare.  Also lost along the way was an appreciation for the fragility of human life and the social systems that we erect to protect ourselves from the forces of nature.

Another woman, another room of the house, another natural disaster.  This bedroom was exposed to the elements by a tornado that blew through Alabama not long ago.  (Remember?)  Once again, you see a demonstration of the coping skills that are so essential to everyday life.  The walls have been torn away, but what can you do except sort out the possessions that remain?

What strikes me the most about the scene is that the walls were so close to the bed.  We’ve all been in small bedrooms, but how often do we then feel that we are just on the other side of the outside?  Here we can see that, large or small, a house is but a thin shell between inside and outside, between the forces of nature in all their violent capriciousness and the shelter, security, warmth, and everything else we hold dear when in our own space.

Whether flooded or torn asunder or still intact, a house is a fragile thing.  More generally, housing has proved to be a fragile part of the national economy, one that, if poorly managed, can come crashing down to spread harm far and wide.  When deregulation allowed the housing market to be flooded with financial malfeasance, disaster struck, and ordinary people who had done no wrong were left to pick up the pieces.

We live in shells.  When they are well built and protected, we forget how fragile they are.  When disaster strikes, the thin barrier between ordinary life and catastrophe is exposed.  What remains to be seen is whether anyone else will notice or care.  And care not just about this house or that one, this town or that one, but enough to rebuild a society with the protections and support that ordinary people deserve and need.  It’s called government, by the way.

Photographs by Scott Olson/Getty Images and Butch Dill/Associated Press.


Sight Gag: Socialism American Style

Credit: John 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.