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Staging Humanity

One of the most basic distinctions in human social consciousness is between being on stage or off stage.  We understand, for example, that staged performances might be somewhat larger than life or a bit over the top.

Not your typical get up for a job interview at the firm, is it?  This performer at the Notting Hill carnival in the UK might have a regular job–looks like he could be in finance, if you ask me–but here he’s way too gorgeous for the nine-to-five.  The elaborate, gender-bending theatricality screams play rather than work, not to mention carnival’s imaginative, ritualized inversion of the standard social order.  But the change is only temporary: it is understood that the play ends on time, that the performers take off their costumes, and that everyone returns to their usual routines.

But, of course, the usual routines are staged as well, and both the job interview and the job itself require being on stage, playing one’s role, following the script.  If your co-workers were on a continual carnival, the work wouldn’t get done and you’d all be out on the street, which is an even tougher act.  So it is that we come to treasure those places and times when we can be off stage–back in our apartment or out in the garden or walking along the beach or wherever it might be that we can take off the mask and “just be myself.”  But often it’s not that simple.

If I had to pick one image to represent the human condition, this might be it.    We are back stage, yet both in and out of role.  He still wears the mask that is so much a part of his performative self, but instead of the rest of the costume we see his soft, aging, vulnerable flesh.  This is the human being: at once irrevocably both natural and social, typified and unique, locked up in silence and yet profoundly communicative.

The photograph is from the Gay Not Gray fashion show in Berlin.  The point of the show is “that being gay and old can be fun and does not have to mean isolation.”  OK, and I’m all for that.  In fact, let me be clear: my point is not that we should feel sorry for this person or any group of people.  The individual may be happy or sad, but the photograph is not about the single person.  (He has the same expression in three other photos, one on stage and two backstage, so he may simply be staying in role for all of them.)  I see a real artist: one who has given us a moment of acute vulnerability and honesty that goes far beyond the theme of the fashion show.

Of course, the first photo is also a portrait of human being.  (I think he looks like he breathes chlorine, but it doesn’t hurt to see ourselves as aliens.)  Nor would I want to live in a world of relentless vulnerability and honesty, and fortunately life can include being young and healthy and enjoying our performative needs.  That’s the easy part, however, and so there is reason to be thankful when we are given a deeper look into our real selves.

Photographs by Toby Melville/Reuters and Thomas Peter/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Street Fashion and Casual Friday at the Revolution

It’s been there in plain sight, hardly worth mentioning: the Libyan rebel fighters include a lot of guys in street clothes.

Nothing new about that, of course.  Guerrilla fighters have been everywhere: Gaza, Iraq, Somalia, Congo, Sri Lanka, Peru, Chechnya–the list goes round the world.  Just like high-powered weapons, mercenary soldiers, and the CIA, one might add.  The media seem drawn to the informal look, however, even when the supposedly asymmetrical warfare is backed by round-the-clock NATO air support.

What really gets me are the shoes of the guy on the left.  Is that a fashion statement, or what?  The guy on the right is wearing unlaced combat boots and camouflage pants–perhaps he defected from the Libyan army–but that now looks so last year.  This year it’s high tops, baby, and you better be ready.

The photo above also could have come from any of a 1000 TV dramas or Hollywood movies.  At some point, it no longer matters whether art is imitating life or the reverse.  The common aesthetic is both masking and exposing something fundamental about the nature of modern war.  Thus, we can see the breakdown of the nation-state’s monopoly on violence, the mass distribution of weapons of personal destruction, the rise of militias and corresponding decline in military professionalism, the increasingly thin line between civil society and civil war, and more as well.  And since it all looks so cool and like something that anyone could do, it becomes all too easy to neither see nor think about who is funding the war and likely to lock up the economy and lock down democracy afterwards.

You can bet that this guy is ready to be one of the winners.  The caption at The Big Picture said, “A Libyan rebel fighter sits at a check point in Tripoli.”  Yeah, and you also can say that a Libyan rebel fighter sits in an office chair at a check point in Tripoli.”  Putting the chair in the street will be one small example of how any war can disrupt ordinary life, not least as troops adapt creatively to make do amidst the mayhem.  But somehow the symbol of business combined with the sharp blue jeans, gun, and attitude suggest casual Friday in some neoliberal, post-apocalyptic start-up.

The photograph provides another example of how war itself is changing.  On the one hand, major state conflict is being scaled down from conventional warfare under the threat of mutually assured destruction.  You wouldn’t know it from the US defense budget, but developed countries can’t afford to fight one another and there is no reason to anyway.  On the other hand, imperial occupations, border wars, genocide, and anarchy are consuming entire regions of the globe and civil violence is expanding insidiously everywhere.  One possible outcome is near total destruction of civil society, with the remains controlled by economic and military warlords.  Warlords who would be happy to hire this guy, who would be more than willing to work for them.

By looking at seemingly trivial things such as street fighter fashion, we might see just how close we are to living in the wrong movie.

Photographs by Zohra Bensemra/Reuters and Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images.


Sight Gag: Hurricane Irene—Follow The Bouncing Ball

Photo Credit: Chang W. Lee/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.


Conference Paper Call: Considering Vietnam


17th-18th February 2012

Imperial War Museum, London

with Don McCullin, Philip Knightley and other guest speakers

The Vietnam War is evolving from contemporary memory into history. Fifty years on, it still serves as a benchmark in the history of war reporting and in the representation of conflict in popular culture and historical memory. This conference seeks to explore the legacy of the US involvement in South East Asia and the resonances it still has for the coverage of contemporary warfare. In particular, the conference will reassess the role of the media in covering the war and the implications this has had for the coverage of subsequent conflicts, the impact of the war on popular culture, the ways that wars and their aftermaths are experienced on the ‘home front,’ and issues around memorialisation and memory, particularly in museum culture. The conference will bring together practitioners, academics and curators in an interdisciplinary engagement with this complex but important issue.

This conference is organised by the Imperial War Museum and the University of the Arts Photography and the Archive Research Centre (PARC) in support of IWM’s major exhibition SHAPED BY WAR:  PHOTOGRAPHS BY DON McCULLIN.

We welcome proposals for 20 minute papers discussing the representation of the Vietnam War across the following areas:

  • Photography
  • Film & television
  • Written journalism
  • ‘Mythologizing’ the Vietnam War in cultural memory

Please send a 250 word abstract and one-page c.v. to Dr. Jennifer Pollard at considering.vietnam@arts.ac.uk by September 30th 2011. Notifications will take place by October 28th 2011.

A special issue of the journal Photography and Culture is planned in response to the conference, including selected papers from the event.



After the Revolution, What is Peace?

The Libyan rebels are close to victory, and the papers are already rolling out photographs of populist exuberance.  Let’s hope this revolution isn’t betrayed like so many others from Russia (pick your date) to Egypt (ditto).  Even if Libya achieves the unusual, however, too much of the rest of the world will continue to be trapped in cycles of violence.

Yes, that’s blood.  Residents are cleaning out a Sunni mosque in Ghundai, Pakistan after a suicide bombing.  Over 40 were killed and many others wounded.  Although the effect of the explosion on those within must have been amplified by the brick walls, the solid construction also saved many more lives.  And then the hoses and brooms were brought out and the clean-up begun.  More solidness–this time in the local community that can matter-of factly get on with the responsibility of living together.

There is much to admire in the practicality of ordinary people responding to the ongoing disasters that plague the early years of the 21st century.  And yet I can’t help but think, that is the hell of it. They, and we, and everyone seems trapped in damage control rather than in making some of the obvious, albeit large-scale changes needed to move beyond political violence.

The photograph captures this paradox.  On the one hand, it is a picture of functionality: a simple, well-built building and people working together to get the job done, no frills and no drama.  On the other hand, that horrible river of human blood–and the knowledge that innocent people have been reduced to sewage.  The scene appears too ordinary to be a picture of war, and yet I shudder to think this is what passes for peace.

Lest one want to dismiss the scene as something limited to a particular region or  religious antagonisms, consider that there are many more photographs that tell a similar story.

Here we go from the tragic to the ridiculous.  A member of a bomb squad in Kathmandu, Nepal is leaving the scene of a false alarm.  He’s carrying a pressure cooker, which apparently was the cause for alarm.  Silly, right?  Just like those announcements in the airport: “Do not leave your personal baggage unattended.  If you see an unattended bag, please report it to airport security.”

This photo captures how any society can become habituated to monstrous distortions within everyday life.  That overstuffed suit and massive headgear could be a metaphor for the national security state, and the photo an allegory of how cycles of violence have become routine disruptions within civil society.  Like the bystanders in the photo, we give the security apparatus momentary attention and then get on with the business of living, even though we have just seen something that appears alien and excessive.  And so we become habituated to local adaptation rather than systemic change, and to continuous war rather than a just and sustainable peace.

Photographs by A. Majeed/AFP-Getty Images and Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters.



“… Trust the Invisible Hand”

Perhaps you saw the Sunday Doonesbury cartoon yesterday.  After one character points out, with some exasperation, that the top 400 richest families hold as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the population, the other character notes, “[I]f each group has the same amount, what exactly is the problem?  Sounds totally fair to me !”  When the first interlocutor begins to question this foxy logic, the second cuts him off, “It’s all good … Trust the invisible hand.”

The numbers here are astonishing, to say the least.  And they don’t get any better when we recognize that between 2008 and 2010, as working Americans on average lost 25% of their 401K accounts to the recent recession, the richest 400 Americans increased their wealth by $30 billion. At no time in our nation’s history has the inequality of wealth been higher.  Not even close.  And so one has to wonder how the invisible hand actually works.

The photograph above, which appeared online in the WSJ, is captioned “Off the Hook” and it offers one possible account.  It is important to note that we don’t see very many photographs in the mainstream media that call attention to the palpable disparity between rich and poor as indicated by the numbers above.  Yes, we see photographs of people standing online at job fairs desperately seeking employment, and we see photographs of factories and home foreclosure signs, and even the occasional tent city, but such images all imply that everyone is sharing in the recession with some degree of equity.  What we don’t see are the machinations of the invisible hand.  And what especially we don’t see is how the market makes the numbers above possible, not just as mathematical abstractions, but as a moral reality that somehow legitimates such inequities as in any way fair or socially desirable.  Instead we are encouraged to have faith in an idol that we cannot see.

And so back to the picture.  With no hand in sight, the phone is “off the hook.”  Does this mean that the hand of the market has abandoned any and all logic?  Incapable of communicating any sense of moral or economic direction?  Or does it mean that the market abjures all responsibility for how it has been interpreted and used, literally taking itself “off the hook.”  There is no way to know, of course, but then that’s the point.  For as with any idol, the invisibility of its logic is its most potent attribute making it impossible to challenge. But not to worry. After all, “It’s all good ….”

Photo Credit:  Lucas Jackson/Reuters

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Sight Gag: The Pulpit Bully

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.

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Interactive Exhibition: What Happens Now?

What Happens Now?  Proposals for a New Front Page

What should we be looking at? The extraordinary number of photographs taken on September 11 made it the most photographed event in history and may have signaled the birth of citizen journalism. However in our impulse to record, we have not formulated new strategies to gain a better understanding of today’s pressing issues of a globalized world.

Ten years post-9/11, at a time when we are more overloaded with information than ever but cannot access it in a coherent manner, Aperture will create a visual café for collective social engagement with the question: What Matter’s Now? and turn it into an evolving exhibition space. During a two-week period Aperture will turn itself “inside out,” letting participants engage in the editorial process of weighing questions, ideas, and images, and proposing conceptual and curatorial solutions. Both invited guests and gallery visitors will be asked to participate.

The exhibition What Matters Now? Proposals for a New Front Page will combine the crowd sourcing of images and ideas with the curatorial engagement of six experienced individuals, each hosting a table and a conversation within the space, where on corresponding walls each group will present its proposals for the contents of a ‘New Front Page’.  Hosts include a variety of visual image specialists: Wafaa Bilal, Melissa Harris, Stephen Mayes, Joel Meyerowitz, Fred Ritchin (who conceptualized this project) andDeborah Willis.

Contributions will be solicited from people around the world who are not able to visit in person. By sending files to dedicated email addresses set up for each table, as well as a general account, remote participants will be able to add their suggestions of imagery, multimedia projects and websites as part of the exhibition in-process.

Exhibition in progress: September 7–September 17, 2011; Monday-Saturday, 10:00 am-6:00 pm.  The exhibition is sponsored by the Aperture Foundation with support from Canon.  More information will be available soon at the Aperture website.

Photograph by Lorie Novak.


London Rioting and the Descent into Feudalism

Riots happen more often than you might think around the globe, but when they happen in London the shocked response is always the same: how could that happen here?  This is the West, for Christ’s sake: civilization, democracy, and continual progress are supposed to be the order of the day.  Why would the people riot against representative government, and why destroy the businesses lifting up your own neighborhood?  The combination of a European locale and the seeming lack of reason have lead some to label the violence a peasants’ revolt.  The modern world is not supposed to contain peasants, and thus irrational behavior by the urban masses can be dismissed as a senseless throwback to more primitive impulses.

But what if the same analogy holds for the state?

These warriors could be time travelers from the past, transported in their armor, helmets, and shields to stand before Big Ben in some Gothic fantasy movie.  The photo has been sitting on my desktop for months–yes, that’s right, it is not from the most recent riots, and it, too, was taken in London.  I’ve kept the photo because it so perfectly captures a dark tendency that is spreading across the globe: what might be called a new feudalism.  In place of the egalitarian principles and shared prosperity of the twentieth-century social contract, we see a savage reassertion of economic power backed by ever greater investments in security forces.  And, whether accidentally or otherwise, those forces increasingly look like the private armies of the late medieval period.

And it’s not just London.  These knights are patrolling amidst the destruction last year in Vancouver.  Again, the one on the right could be riding out of the 14th century.  And we can still feel the effect that cavalry have when seen from ground level by relatively unarmed opponents.  As working people have been driven down in the economic order, they also have been driven down in the political process; taking to the streets becomes the only remaining option when the government has been captured by the same elites that are grabbing and hoarding the society’s wealth, common resources, and its future.

Riots always play to the worst elements in a society, but those are not their causes.  The late-medieval uprisings were the result of conditions that sound all too contemporary: expansion of the income gap between the rich and the rest, corrupt government serving elite greed, massive deficits caused by expensive wars, and environmental changes that degraded everyday life.  Yet it remains all too easy, even among those who recognize the underlying lesson of the analogy, to deny its full implication: the riots and the police response are merely matching symptoms of the same disease.  As the social order is transformed from a modern to a neo-feudal system, riots will become all the more common while money that could address the causes of the unrest will be poured instead into security.  Perhaps it should be no surprise that those security forces are looking more and more like something seen in a distant mirror.

So take a look at the look of the future.

I’ve lost the citation for the first photo, and Tin Eye can’t find it either; any help would be appreciated.  The second photo is by Rich Lam/Getty Images, and the third is by Stefan Wermuth/Reuters.



On Vacation: In the Mosquito’s Gaze

Like a fair number of our readers, we’ll be on vacation for the first two weeks of August.  Travels include some time in Minnesota, where one becomes the subject of the mosquito’s gaze–surely an under-theorized facet of visual culture.  Thanks to the FEI Image Gallery, however, we can see the apparatus itself.

This electron microscope image is described as a frontal view of the compound eyes of a mosquito.  They actually don’t see very well, but that hardly matters as their antennae can sniff out your blood every time.  Perhaps the vacation can be used to think about incorporating other species and other senses into the study of visual culture.  Yeah, we’ll get right on that. . . . .

Posting will resume on August 17.

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