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NCN’s Fourth Birthday

Once again, this is a time to say “Thanks” and to take stock.  Thanks to all our readers, and not least to those who comment on the posts.  If anyone would like to give us any advice about the blog itself, now is a good time to do it.  We can’t say we’ll follow that advice, especially given our limited resources, but it always is appreciated and sometimes one thing can lead to another.  You can comment below or email us at and

We will celebrate–if that is the right word, which it isn’t–by taking two weeks off to get caught up on some other work.  We’ll continue to read our mail, however, and hope that you’ll be back on July 6 as we start another year at NCN.


No Caption Needed: The Paperback!

Buy ’em by the box!  Great for June weddings, Fourth of July picnics, August vacation reading, back-to-school gifts, course syllabi, holiday stocking stuffers. . . .  You name it, we’ve got it.  Or not.  But we are pleased that the University of Chicago Press has released the paperback edition of our book.


Curiously, it’s more expensive at than the cloth edition, but that will sell out soon and this edition will become the standard copy.

Can an e-book be far behind?  Don’t hold your breath, but stay tuned.


Seeing Double in Afghanistan

It is such a simple photograph, and yet strangely evocative.  If you think about it, this photo may be one answer to the question that hangs over the war in Afghanistan.  That question is, what are we seeing, really?

One man handcuffs another.  They are different men: enemies, one shackling the other; one in uniform and combat boots and the other in ordinary clothing and civilian shoes; one blindfolded and the other wearing glasses and looking intently; one a prisoner and the other heavily armed.

And yet they are the same man: each in the same crouch, head forward, hands exposed, the same coiled intensity, neatly spaced as if in formation on the same ground before the same wall.  The gun, a piece of equipment projecting backwards, is balanced by the scarf, now an instrument of detention, in the front.  If they were kids, they could be playing leapfrog.  If they were allies, they could take turns helping one another, covering each other’s back.  But they are enemies–if not before the man was detained, surely so by now.  Or perhaps not completely so, as the attitude of the Marine need not be hostile: just doing his job, right?  One might wonder if there is any symmetry in the political situation to correspond to the parallel poses in this picture.

Here we are seeing double, which may be the only way to see straight on the borderlands of the American empire.  One man has been pulled into a war not of his own making–but which one?  One man has become a prisoner of war–but which one?  One man’s country is being ruined by war, ideology, and corruption–but which one?

The US military occupation of Afghanistan continues with no favorable resolution in sight.  The reportage, such as the story alongside this photograph, has all the marks of another imperial morass.  The mission is succeeding and conditions are improving, but everything being accomplished can only be sustained by continued occupation and enormous expenditures that either ignore or exacerbate the structural problems.

In the midst of all this, to see straight, you may have to see double.  To see not only what is different, but also what is the same; to see not only the costs on one side, but also the costs on the other side; to see not only the future, but also how much it resembles the past; to see not only the successes but also how entire societies can become habituated to failure; to see not only progress but endless war, waste, and loss.

Photograph by Massoud Hossaini/Agence France-Presse–Getty Images.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Sight Gag: The Three Little Pigs For Modern Times

Credit: Toles

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.



The Invisible American Family

By guest correspondent Rachel Rigdon

Despite the Great Recession and the escalating rates of both poverty and economic inequality within the United States, finding images of poor Americans within the news often feels like a process of excavation. There is a curious deficit of photographs of the 44 million Americans living in poverty, and in lieu of using photographs, many articles on welfare or economic inequality feature graphs and charts. One result in a dominant framing of poverty as a purely economic category rather than as a condition of life.

One of the few photos that I have found accompanying an article about poverty is this image from Time Magazine’s blog. Taken at a soup kitchen in Detroit, the focus is primarily on the family sitting at the table in the bottom right of the frame. The background subjects are blurred, creating a sense of a rushed, noisy environment surrounding the family, and yet the large open space of the maroon table offers a small sense of calm. But the photograph also is off-center, tilted, and unfocused, and thus it captures the incongruity of the private, domestic ritual of a family dinner occurring in a public setting. By positioning the viewer slightly above the edge of the table as if about to take a seat, we are invited to imagine poverty as the backdrop of an otherwise normal life.

In response to the limited numbers of photographs of U.S. poverty within the media, a group of photojournalists joined together to create as a shared space to publicly document the lives of the poor. The website automatically opens with a short slideshow of photographs accompanied by dramatic music and text. Opening with the phrase: “For decades American poverty has been invisible,” it then quickly cycles through several images, mostly of children and families, before pausing on an image of a young, white girl in front of a trailer house. Here text emerges, saying, “It’s not invisible anymore.” The photojournalists’ goal is that by rendering visible what has been invisible, viewers of the photographs will demand social change.

This appeal to potential advocates is present in the choice of photographs for use in the slideshow. All of the photos are of sympathetic subjects such as children and families. Many of the images feature the subject, usually a child, looking directly at the camera as if asking the viewer to see them. These subjects demand a response from the viewer—by virtue of both their embodiment of the large-scale realities of poverty and economic inequality and their identity as equal citizens living unequally.

One of the more engaging photographs within the video is this one of several children playing in New York. The primary focus of the photograph is the reflection of the boy in the middle. His face is serious, his eyes intently focused on the reflective surface before him. This use of the mirror mimics the active work of photography by providing an image of a moment that seems to be of reality, while also announcing the existence of the apparatus that can only provide a partial and fractured glance at its subject.  The camera’s position is aligned with the boy’s, making what we see within the photograph representative of his viewpoint. The photograph reveals a moment of American life, and our own understanding of it, to be as fractured and incomplete as the boy’s reflection.

In contrast to the boy’s resistant gaze, the girl who holds the mirror is downcast. In the literal sense, she is showing us (the boy, the photographer?) something: a piece of broken mirror. She is also revealing the sad resolve of the boy’s reflection, the proof of poverty’s withering effect on the soul, and the loss of a happier childhood being modeled by the three children playing behind her. The children in the background are playing with bubbles next to a tall, metal fence. The combination of the fragility of the small children and the bubbles with the harshness of the broken mirror and the prison-like connotation of the gate results in a sense of unease. The happier moment playing out in the background seems destined to disappear as the harsher realities of life reveal themselves in ever sharper relief.

Both of these images point to the ways in which poverty transforms the daily activities of life into moments that are both familiar and foreign. They produce a sense of dissonance through the combination of familiar practices with the realities of need. The ritual family dinner becomes displaced by the family trip to the food kitchen; playtime involves bubbles and broken pieces of an automotive mirror. These photographs not only attempt to render visible what is invisible; they also try to render legible the normalcy of poverty. By illustrating scenes of daily, familial life, viewers are encouraged to both identify with their familiarity and be horrified by the inequality they unveil.

Unlike the graphs and diagrams that so often stand in for the visual experience of American poverty, these photographs draw upon powerful values about family life, the protection of children, and our shared sense of horror at their violation. They also challenge the ideology of American exceptionalism and the promise of liberal democracy to provide a high quality of life to all of its citizens. And perhaps this is the real reason that these images and these people remain invisible—they are American yet they trouble our sense of just what that means.

Photographs by Spencer Platt/Getty Images and Brenda Ann Kenneally.

Rachel Rigdon is a graduate student in the program in Rhetoric and Public Culture, Department of Communication Studies, Northwestern University. She can be contacted at


Seeing the Environmental Problem

This past Sunday was World Environment Day (WED).  Unless you are especially attuned to such matters you probably did not know that. And it is little surprise since the day seemed to be missed almost entirely by the mainstream media despite.  Indeed, the only reference I found to it in the major national media  was in the caption to this photograph in the WSJ of June 6, which read: “SIFTING THROUGH GARBAGE: A boy who collects items to earn a living for his family searched through dirty water in Karachi, Pakistan on Sunday, World Environment Day.”

I find it difficult to understand why WED would slip by with barely any notice.  It’s not as if there have been major breaking stories in the past week that would eclipse all other news, unless, of course, your count concern for Congressman Weiner’s problems with his twitter account.  Nor is WED an insignificant event.  Sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme since 1972, it is an annual affair designed to stimulate global awareness of the environment and to promote “positive environmental action.”  Hosted this year by India, the particular theme is “Forests; Nature at Your Service,”  and given the impact of deforestation and forest degradation on climate change, water quality and supply, and general biodiversity—not to mention the fact that over 300 million people worldwide live in forested areas and that millions of acres of forests are lost each year—one would think that the day and its particular theme would warrant a couple of column inches and a few photographs.  But alas, no.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is the difficulty we have in visualizing the degradation of the environment—or at least the difficulty that the mainstream media has in doing so in ways that don’t mitigate prominent corporate, national, and multi-national agendas.  And so we come to the photograph above.  It is all but certain that this unnamed boy seeks to “earn a living for his family” by searching through these dirty waters on more than one day in the year, but the image takes its significance here from the fact that here he does it on World Environment Day.  The question is, why?  The cynical answer, of course, is to take the implication that the serious environmental problems, the places that most need attention, are not in the industrialized and corporatized west, but elsewhere, places like Pakistan, where “earning a living” by “sifting through garbage” in polluted waters is a matter of survival that displaces concerns for environmental sustainability.  By this read the “real” problem of environmental degradation is localized and fragmented rather than global, and the caption to the photograph underscores the irony of WED.  It is a day of little interest because it doesn’t identify a problem that is of real interest to the west.

But there may be another, more productive reading, one that resists seing the image in an ironic register and instead sees it as a synecdoche—a part-whole relationship—for the sense in which the problem of the environment is truly global.  From this perspective the photograph invites us to see the world (the whole) in the particularities (the parts) of a young boy reduced to sifting garbage in polluted waters.  Yes, this is Pakistan, but it could also be anywhere else in the world, if not actually today, then someday, and maybe even soon.  If we can bring ourselves to embody this optic it is hard to understand why WED passed without barely a mention in the western press. And whether we choose to honor this day in the future or not, we ignore the global problems of environmental degradation at our peril.

Photo Credit: PPI/Zuma Press

Note:  The relationship between visuality and  environmental concerns is of no small significance.  The editors of Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture have just announced a special issue on “Visual Environmental Communication.”  For more information you should contact Anders Hansen at the University of Leicester.  The due date for manuscripts on a wide array of topics is 30 November 2011.



Natural Form and Visual Analogies

Beautiful, isn’t it?  And beautifully engineered: the sleek design, the precisely machined pleats in the plastic surface, the undulating surface transferring energy back to the water as the strong prow slices through the water–these are the marks of technological prowess taken to near perfection.

Or would be, if it were a machine.  Instead, you are looking at a whale opening its jaw to channel water and krill into its feeding pouch.  But are you really seeing what has just been described?  I still don’t quite see an animal feeding.  I see an elegantly complex shape that is further distinguished by beautiful lines carrying a waveform along a dazzling array of parallel lines.  I see an astonishing combination of strength and suppleness, and I see something that is at once a model of precision and completely organic.  The structure is both a bold assertion, a statement rising above the uniformly horizontal surface of the sea, and yet profoundly a part of its environment, so deeply adapted that is is part of a larger harmony.   And, of course, it is both completely functional and seemingly so uniquely itself that is could be a work of art.

I don’t mean to rhapsodize, but words do come up a bit short when captioning this photograph.  Or at least it’s fair to say that my abilities as a stylist don’t begin to match the beauty evident in the image.  The point is not simply to marvel, however.  I do think that awe and similar emotions are not only appropriate but also necessary to understand what is before our eyes, but that is not enough.  This photograph provides an opportunity to reflect on why “design” need not be surrendered entirely to pseudo-science, and why visual media provide important resources for seeing how nature works and how human beings might live in closer harmony with natural processes.

The image could have been of a submarine or other craft built to imitate a whale’s capabilities.  Or perhaps it could inspire any number of other analogies and applications, whether in agriculture, building ventilation, whatever.  A friend and I recently played a game where I would send him an image from nature without comment and he would reply with another of a machine: say, a bird and a plane, etc.  It quickly became evident that we could go on a very long time, and for the simple reason that our modern, industrialized civilization already had become very proficient at imitating nature.

To a point, that is, for we know very well just how out of whack that civilization is with the deep processes of nature–the processes that must be understood if we are to achieve an adequate degree of sustainability.  How to feed everyone, for example, without adding to global warming that in turn makes it harder to feed everyone.  That is but one example, and the list of what needs to be done is a very long one.  Perhaps one more item should be added, however: to look, marvel, and see what nature already knows.  The knowledge, that is, that is locked up in our capacity to see nature’s beauty.

Photograph by Hiroya Minakuchi, Minden Pictures, via National Geographic.


Sight Gag: House Republican Roulette

Credit: Carlson

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.



Exhibition: Hiroshima, Ground Zero, 1945

The International Center of Photography has opened an exhibition of photographs taken to document the destruction of Hiroshima by the atomic bomb dropped on August 6, 1945.  Long classified, these images are now presented for public viewing.

A slide show of images from the exhibit is also available at the New York Times Magazine.

Photograph by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division, [Rooftop view of atomic destruction, looking southwest, Hiroshima], October 31, 1945. International Center of Photography.


Civic War and the Normalization of Violence

It looks like a traffic accident, doesn’t it?  And it is, if roadside bombing is part of the traffic pattern.  Except this photo isn’t from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Lebanon has been largely forgotten, somewhat like the invalid living in the house down the block.  The country may never be healed or whole again, but at least it seemed to have recovered some civic equilibrium, some distance from bombings, mayhem, and ruin.  Perhaps that’s why the driver–an Italian peacekeeper–looks so stunned.  Beyond the shock of the explosion, he seems to be struggling to comprehend what has happened.  Although wearing a military uniform, he sits there as though the victim of a civilian crash.  “Am I alright?  What happened?  Is everyone OK?”  The medical technicians and ambulance fill out the scene (and note that there is another victim in the lower left frame).  Even the wrecked vehicle seems as much like a trashed SUV as damaged military hardware.  Only the Jaws of Life are missing.

But it wasn’t an accident.  Bombings are intentional acts.  The attempted (and perhaps actual) murder apparently is a part of life on this thoroughfare.  Civilian first responders do their job; after all, the military presence of the “peacekeeper” was already part of the urban fabric.   The violence is undertaken to blow up the settled arrangements of civil society, and to replace the daily negotiations of traffic and politics alike with a new order of force and fiat.  Of course, the old order was also grounded in force and fiat, for Lebanon has been a country wracked by armies and inequities for decades.  The point here is not to sort out its political gerrymandering, but rather to note how it is a small example of larger processes by which war becomes woven into the normal operation of society.

The photograph seems to have revealed the exact line between civic order and political violence.  It can been seen as an image of guerrilla attack and military casualties, or as one of the small disasters that punctuate ordinary life on the street.  It is both, of course: an example of civic war: the condition of citizenship being overwhelmed by violence, and of that violence becoming part of the fabric of civilian life.

The ambulance and first responders signal that the emergency here is the “accident”–the specific vehicle and victims–but not the broken country itself.  Yet Lebanon lives in a permanent state of emergency, and though relatively quiet compared to some neighborhoods in the region, the bombing reminds us how it is still kept on the verge of catastrophe.

The vehicle seems to be leaning to our left.  Perhaps the photo has revealed not only an invisible line but also a tipping point–the moment when the country could again fall from being a relatively civil society into a binge of assassinations, assaults, and invasions.  Or perhaps a new equilibrium is already in place, the steady state of civic war and its new normal of everyday violence.

Photograph by Sharif Karim/Reuters.  For more on the term “civic war,” see Peter Alexander Meyers, Civic War and the Corruption of the Citizen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).