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Sight Gag: Sadly, This is No Joke

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.


Casualties of War: The Toys

Remember the war?  Sure you do, but have you seen much of it lately?  With the worst threat to the country in the House of Representatives, inattention to the wars in the Middle East might seem understandable, but the casualties continue to mount.  So it is that we need artists who can help us both see anew and reflect on how much remains unseen.

Perhaps this plastic toy soldier will seem merely odd or offensive to some.  For those of us who spent countless hours of our childhood playing with World War II combat figurines, this molded amputee is a shock to the memory system.  I was at once transported back to childhood’s idyll and confronted with the harsh reality of the present.  What seemed harmless becomes patterned denial of the human costs of war, and real damage done today seems already on the way to oblivion.  The miniature scale, cheap industrial material, and obvious naivete of a classic war toy have been reworked artistically to capture how easily people can get used to the suffering of others.  If we imagine these toys being moved around on the carpet, we begin to grasp how war is insinuated into the small spaces and formative experiences of ordinary life–and with that, easily forgotten once preoccupied with the more pressing business of adulthood.

Unless you’ve served in a combat zone, of course.  Then you might have seen and done things that are hard to forget.  Were you designing the toys, the typical idealization might be reversed.  Instead of the usual figures of rifleman, machine gunner, and the like–straight shooters, never wounded, incapable of PTSD–you might think of what happened to the women, or your buddy’s suicide.  And if that isn’t something anyone should dwell on, it does need to be recognized, as these are casualties, too, and not ones that show up so neatly in the government body counts.

Most of the time, however, the heavy “collateral damage” is hidden away behind more reassuring images; images that work like toy soldiers, you might say.  And to get a sense of how common that is, all you have to do is look at these disturbing alternatives.

That’s the idea of this work from Dorothy, a design group not above making people think.  You can read more about the set here.  Fortunately, they are not for sale.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Citizen Action When Systems Fail

This photograph won’t win any awards, but it tells an important story.  A story within a story, to be exact.

The larger story is that a terrorist attacked both a government center and a civics camp in Norway, killing at least 72 people.  That story includes all the madness you might expect.  The attacker wanted to protect Europeans, so he murdered Europeans.  To oppose Islamic groups advocating authoritarian rule to enforce cultural conservatism, he called for an authoritarian takeover of European governments to enforce cultural conservatism.  He got as far as he did by exploiting the freedom and social trust that he deplored.

Sadly, we know that story all too well.  It also is a story of how ordinary precautions didn’t work, how the state does not maintain a monopoly on violence, and how even advanced societies are sure to fail.  Which is why the smaller story is so important.  The photograph captures what can happen in the aftermath of system failure.  One person is comforting another who has been wounded by the blast in Oslo.  She appears to have a head wound, and he is responding appropriately by applying a compress while keeping her head elevated.  His posture can’t be comfortable, as he is on his knees while supporting and steadying her body.  Equally important, he is comforting her: holding her closely, talking and listening, being deeply attentive to her person despite all the mayhem surrounding them.

The scene is a moment of civic intimacy.  They are framed by the ordinary decor of the city street: pavement, a metal and glass door, the signage, chair, and trash bin of a cafe, yet they are closely attuned to one another.  Nor is this a merely personal incident, as we can see from the shattered glass strewn across the sidewalk.  She hasn’t simply fainted or had a seizure, and the person helping her may not have known her at all–the caption identified him as a “passer-by.”  They were strangers who have been thrown together by the blast–and his kindness.

His action is underscored by their ambiguous ethnicity.  Is he Norwegian?  Is she?  Could he be one of those dreaded Islamic immigrants?  Fascist ethnic typing is scrambled by this act of compassionate citizenship.  For whatever passports they might have, he has made both of them citizens: strangers having obligations of equality and assistance regardless of other differences.  As Ariela Azoulay argues, any photograph implies that relationship; here the citizenship conferred by the camera reinforces what is already evident on the street.

The Chicago Tribune’s report on the attack was on page 26 of the Sunday edition.  I can’t believe that the story of a fundamentalist killing 72 people in a European country would have been buried had the attacker not been Christian and blond.  (Don’t like the Christian label?  Then stop labeling Middle Eastern terrorists “Muslim.”)  The Tribune is another example of system failure–in this case, the way the story will be underplayed in most of the American media.

Fortunately, as important as institutions are, we don’t have to rely on them alone.  Disasters demonstrate again and again that, amidst large-scale disruption, small-scale action by ordinary citizens is vitally important to limiting damage and restoring order.  The photograph above is one example of true citizenship.  More will be needed, and in response to disasters ranging from terrorist attacks to economic catastrophes.

Photograph by Scanpix/Reuters.


The “Advance of Civilization”

I had the opportunity this past week to visit the Museum of Westward Expansion which is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and is housed underground beneath the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.  According to the museum’s website it  “preserves some of the rarest artifacts from the days of Lewis and Clark” and allows visitors to “explore the world of American Indians and the 19th-century pioneers who helped shape the history of the American West.”  Imagine my surprise then when I came across the floor to ceiling photograph shown below in the middle of the first exhibit room dedicated to a timeline of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

You will of course recognize it as the iconic image of the “mushroom cloud” explosion over Nagasaki, the second of two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August, 1945.  Since this event has no obvious connection to the Louis and Clark Expedition, I expressed my surprise to one of the museum’s docents who responded by noting, “… the museum is [also] about the advance of civilization as part of the nation’s movement westward and we want to show some of the key moments from the twentieth century.”  And indeed, not far from this display one finds a comparable floor to ceiling photograph of Neil Armstrong saluting the U.S. flag on the moon.

In as much as the space program was originally framed as an extension of the American frontier—marked here by the stage coach—the photograph of the moon landing makes a modicum of sense, but the explosion of a bomb that obliterated a city killing nearly forty thousand people and set off what became known as the Cold War’s “arms race” does not sit easily with the theme of the “advance of civilization,” and its connection to the notion of “westward expansion” is even more difficult to fathom.

Upon more careful inspection, however, I noticed that the photograph of the mushroom cloud, which otherwise lacked any caption or explanation, is inscribed with a quotation from Alfred Einstein in 1939 that reads: “… in the course of the last four months it has been made probable … that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium elements would be generated … This new phenomenon … would lead to the production of bombs and it is conceivable, though much less certain, that extremely powerful bombs of a new type constructed.”  The quotation stands in odd opposition to the photograph itself inasmuch as it frames the bomb as a less than certain outcome of a scientific advance in nuclear technology.  The bomb may have been “much less certain,” but sure enough here it is as a documented, photographic reality.

One might want to read this as a ham handed expression of  America’s “manifest destiny,” and I don’t want to ignore the implications of that possibility.  But I think there is another and more subtle point to be made.  Einstein’s words precede the explosion by six years.  And as such they caption the image in terms of what Hariman and I have described elsewhere as “modernity’s gamble,” the wager that the long-term dangers (and anxieties) of a technology-intensive society will be avoided (or managed) by continued progress.  Yes, the ability to “set up a nuclear chain reaction” is a mark of scientific and technological progress, but of course it comes with a risk—the possibility of the production of “extremely powerful bombs of a new type.” That in this case the possibility became a catastrophic reality is mitigated by the necessities of the gamble itself, i.e.,  such risk is the cost of progress in an advanced technological society.  And as the second photograph purports to show, sometimes the gamble pays off.  The problem, of course, is that those who paid the costs of such gambles with their lives are nowhere to be seen in either photograph.

In short, the exhibit articulates our history of westward expansion with our cultural vow to technological progress, and as such it reinforces our commitment to the rationale of modernity’s gamble.  More specifically, it contributes to the domestication of our memory and understanding of the explosion of the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki by casting them as simple “advances in civilization.”  And that should give us pause.

Photo Credit: John Louis Lucaites



Sight Gag: Branding

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.



Reading the Ruins of an Ephemeral State

Guest Post by Bryan Walsh

While ruin gnaws at the promises of American democracy, photography serves as an invaluable technology for visualizing our increasing vulnerability to social and political abandonment—and just maybe for defending against it.  Consider the above image of a classroom in Detroit’s St. Margaret Mary School: empty desks are scattered throughout, littered course papers amass on a burnt and charred floor, lectures and exam dates are faintly scribbled on a chalkboard, closets are stripped of their possessions, windows are broken and boarded-up, lighting fixtures dangle from a moist and moldy ceiling, and what appears to be a broken ruler lies on top of a desk in the bottom right of the frame.  Despite being reduced to rubble and debris, the objects are nonetheless glaringly clear.  The wide-angle offers a perspective to the viewer that encompasses the totality of the classroom while the deep focus enhances the details and intricacies of the landscape and its objects.  The composition of the photograph effectively brings the space to life, offering all its complexity to the careful contemplation of the viewer.

But what does this photograph want us to contemplate?  Note the spatial layout of the remnants of the school: the chalkboards, windows, papers, closets, and most of the desks are relegated to the periphery of the room.  Complimented by the circular formation of the desks and the directionality of the lines on the windowsills and chalkboards, the fallout of the classroom orbits around an invisible but nonetheless noticeable center.  Indeed, there is something missing here and the photograph renders  it a ghostly presence that glares back eerily at the viewer.

Put bluntly, St. Margaret Mary School is haunted by the everyday activities that once animated it.  Even if you didn’t live in northwest Detroit, or attend Sunday services at the St. Margaret Mary parish, or endure lessons taught by an Order of Sisters, the landscape and its remnants are identifiable for most Americans: I once sat at those awkward desks and wrote childish nonsense on those papers; I gazed in reverie through those windows; my teacher scribbled on those chalkboards and demanded my attention with that ruler.  In short, this photograph displays a powerful paradox: what is so overwhelmingly visible within these spaces is also what is so painfully absent–the everyday activities that sustain and are sustained by a flourishing and hopeful city.

Despite its collapse, this  photograph of an abandoned classroom in the St. Margaret Mary School  calls forth the memories of a more promising past.  Such is the topic of concern for Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s photographic project “The Ruins of Detroit.”  Depicting Detroit’s dilapidated metro-stations, schools, theaters, banks, industrial facilities and other civic spaces, Marchand and Meffre’s photographs invite a range of interpretations that put past and present in tension with one another: they could evidence the extent of Detroit’s civic and infrastructural abandon, or that of a weathered and beaten civilization, or for that matter they could even foreshadow the impending doom of American Empire.  Invoked by the images, such memories are nostalgic and mournful, at least insofar as they eulogize a flourishing cityscape buzzing with prosperity and modern mass production.

Detroit now stands (leans?) as a veritable wreckage of infrastructural and social disaster: not only have a quarter of its population fled the city in a desperate search for employment, but city officials and enforcement agencies have displaced families from their homes and boarded-up entire neighborhoods, leaving it in nothing less than a thorough state of collapse.  Just last spring, roughly 5,500 teachers and 250 administrators received pink slips, while seven public schools have been shutdown, and 45 others have been packaged to charter school developers, 18 of which will be closed if they don’t find a buyer.  This photograph of  a single classroom in the St. Margaret Mary School does not tell this part of the story, but it does provide resources with which communities can make sense of—and intervene in—the perpetuation of personal injury, social inequity, and political abandonment.  The image, then, does not  “exploit a city’s misery” through a “decontextualized aesthetics of ruin”; rather, it tangles the past with the urgency of the present, reminding viewers to acknowledge both the vulnerability of the people of Detroit as well as the imperative to do something about it.

Photo Credit: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, The Ruins of Detroit

Bryan Walsh is a graduate student in the program in Rhetoric and Public Culture, Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University. He can be contacted at


The Real Urban Problem: Graffiti

I didn’t start out looking for graffiti.  I had bigger fish to fry: the bad economy getting worse, and outright catastrophe looming as the GOP prepares to wreck the county rather than anger Grover Norquist.  I can’t just write about national problems, however: there has to be a photograph.  Whether seen as documentary record or public artwork, the image provides writer and reader alike with a basis for thinking about things held in common.  But look around, from the print editions to the slide shows, and you would hardly know that the economy exists, much less that people might be out of work, underemployed, working harder for less, or otherwise worried about the future.  And maybe that’s why the New York Times decided to write about an upsurge in graffiti.

Yes, it’s true: graffiti is on the rise.  This image from LA captures the mood of the article: an empty, urban wasteland degraded further by anonymous vandalism, while all we should be seeing are blue skies.  Now the Times can write about whatever they want, but this story is worrisome for a number of reasons.  One is that it is frivolous, and the times are not.  Would that the paper of record had instead zeroed in on why kids all over the country are more than usually keen on tagging property.

Another problem is that the story repeats a very tired meme that the Times has been pushing for decades, which is that graffiti always is a sign of urban decay; this despite its development as a vernacular art that can just as easily improve a community as harm it.  Imagine if both porn and ballet were labeled “soft-core,” or if all risk taking from the casinos to Wall street were labeled “gambling.”  In each case the label would be true, but something would be lost in translation.  Graffiti can be a serious blight, but the examples in the Times own slide show indicate that there is more to the story.

My biggest gripe is with the way that the story attempts to present a balanced account.  In what may appear to be sophisticated coverage, the Times reports that “The upturn has prompted concern among city officials and renewed a debate about whether glorifying such displays–be it in museum exhibits, tattoos, or television advertisements–contributes to urban blight and economic decay.”  And there, in a stroke, we have it: The Times channeling Fox News.  The leading explanation faults culture, not economics or politics, and suggests that a culture war is underway and the rightful center of public debate, and that the real danger comes from curators and other liberals who promote transgression in the arts and refuse to stand up to media corruption–no doubt because they are relativists rather than values voters.

Of course, in the next line the Times provides the far more plausible explanation: “But it is also stirring a debate about what is causing this recent surge and whether it might be an early indicator that anxiety and alienation are growing in some struggling urban areas in the face of stubborn unemployment and the lingering effects of the recession.”  Oh, ya think?  In fact, even the best uses of graffiti are likely to be on the rise for the same reason, as neighborhoods pull together around the arts when nothing more substantial is forthcoming from their leaders.

The pairing of two explanations–one where culture harms the economy, and the other where the economy affects culture–is not journalistic objectivity; no, it’s a false equivalence, and one that encourages the reader to believe that state should be treating symptoms rather than causes.   The Times is schooling its readers in the same habits of delusion and denial that are at the core of the national decline.  One can easily imagine the likely response: more cops, not more jobs and summer programs.  More gated communities instead of more public investment.  More starving of the cities by state legislatures, rather than raising taxes to nurture economic development.

And the truth gets left in the gutter.  Graffiti can be a sign of decay, and cities large and small, like the suburbs and rural areas around them, are struggling with very serious problems.  Most of those problems have been created by men in suits, however, not by artists in tennis shoes.  Until the voters in this nation (and others) face that fact, there isn’t much one can do–except, perhaps, take a moment when no one is looking to make the best of a bad situation.

Photographs by Eric Thayer for the New York Times.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


The Metamorphosis

The costs of war can be calculated in many different ways: dollars spent, resources depleted, opportunities lost, buildings and infrastructure destroyed, so-called “collateral damage” of all sorts, and of course lives erased.  In the U.S. we often frame that last category in terms of physical death, and such loss is unquestionably the most tragic cost of war—and all the more so because it is borne so disproportionately by the nation’s youth, those who have the most to lose. Less noticed, though not entirely ignored, are the ways in which war impinges upon the psychic life of those who do the nation’s bidding and are otherwise cast in the national narrative as “war veterans.”

As a nation we have slowly and reluctantly acknowledged the all consuming effects—or should we say costs?—of PTSD and the epidemic of suicide among returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.  But what we have a harder time recognizing are the ways in which those who fail to show the discernible symptoms of traumatic disorders nonetheless undergo a telling psychic transformation in the process.  It may not be quite accurate to say that their lives are erased, but then again that might not be entirely off the mark either, as they no doubt come to face the world in ways, however understated, that bear little or no resonance with who they were before their experience as warriors.

Claire Felicie, a Dutch photographer, has tackled the problem in a project called “Here are the Young Men.”  Felice, the mother of a Dutch marine, photographed the members of the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry Company of the Dutch Marine Corp five months before, three months into, and several months after their return from their deployment to Uruzgan, Afghanistan.  Shot as tight close-ups of their faces in black and white and displayed as triptychs that mark time from left to right, the photographs invite the viewer to witness the subtle and yet often unnoticed changes in how these men come to “face” the world.

The photographs above are of twenty-one year old Arnold.  At first glance it is difficult to identify any discernibly significant differences in the three portraits (which in a different context might be understood as mug shots), anyone of which might easily substitute for the others. But on close inspection it is not clear that we are looking at the same young man at all.  The most noticeable features in each photograph are the mouth and the eyes.  The photograph on the left displays a modicum of playful innocence. Note in particular the curl of his lips, slightly up on one side and down on the other, as if he is trying to look tough by avoiding the smile that lurks within.  His cheeks have a youthful pudginess to them that ever so subtly direct attention to his eyes as they invite interaction with the viewer.  It is a face that has yet to experience the world in any profound way.

In the middle photograph it is the eyes that dominate.  Wide open, they seem to look past the viewer, not quite a thousand yard stare, but not far from it either.  Note too the furrow in his brow that makes the rest of the face appear somewhat artificial, almost as if it were a mask that doesn’t quite fit the face it is attached to. And more, his cheeks are tight and gaunt, belying the youthful countenance of the first photograph, but more, suggesting a degree of caution, unsure of the world about him.

The final photograph is shot in a softer light that would ordinarily mitigate the aging process, but here it accents a face that appears to have aged too quickly.  The set of the eyes is similar to the first picture, but rather than to invite interaction they intimate something more like cynicism.  They don’t look past the viewer, as with the middle portrait, but neither do they signal anything like friendliness or trust.  Not beady, as in the middle photograph, they nevertheless have an edge to them that invokes a steely coldness.  The mouth underscores the affect, as it betrays no sense of being posed. The innocence of the first image is completely elided.

Taken as of a piece, the three portraits mark the subtle, psychic metamorphosis of a young man who has encountered the experience of war. The life he once lived has been inexorably erased, replaced by one that few of us who have not had the experience can ever know. Whether you find my reading of this triptych compelling or not, there is a different and more important point to be made, albeit one that is regularly ignored: the costs of war come in many forms, and too often some of the most profound costs are also the most difficult ones to see … unless we look very closely.  We have Claire Felicie to thank for calling our attention to this insight.

Photo Credit: Claire Felicie

Crossposted at BAGnewsNotes


Sight Gag: The Oath of Office

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.


Best Photo Blogs (British Journal of Photography)

The current issue of the British Journal of Photography contains a review of “10 of the Best Photoblogs.”

We’re proud and very pleased that NCN is on the list.  The selection is particularly gratifying as it was done by Jorg Colberg, author of the terrific fine-art photography blog Conscientious.  (And that’s the only reason that Conscientious would not be on the list.)  The others listed are 5b4, aCurator blog, David Campbell’s blog, DLK Collection, Mrs. Deane, Prison Photography, Too Much Chocolate, Unless You Will blog, and Visual Culture blog.  Links to each are in the story at BJP and in our sidebar.

We are compelled to mention that this is not the only list out there.  Most notably, NCN was not included in the 2011 Photo Blog awards, but our good friend Michael Shaw’s BAGnewsNotes was included in that company, and so we’re that much happier to be cross-posted occasionally at the BAG.  As for getting with directly, there’s always next year.  In the meantime, thanks to Jorg and to all our readers.

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