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Home Again, Again

Guest post by Lisa Carlton

Literary and visual tropes of homecoming are essential to narrating war.  Take, for instance, the timeless Greek war mythology of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  Both of these poems invoke the theme of “nostos” or homecoming.  Or we might think of the iconic WWII image of the Times Square Kiss. Typically, homecoming tropes signify an end to a time of national conflict and strife—a relative return to normalcy.  But the wars of the new millennium are perpetual.  They resist narrative’s conventional markers of a beginning, middle, and end.

The image above was taken at a homecoming ceremony for the South Dakota Army National Guard’s 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade on May 3, 2011.  It appeared in the Memorial Day collection of “In Focus,” The Atlantic’s news photography blog.  According to the caption, the little boy in the photograph is four-years-old and the little girl is two.  This means the boy was born around 2007 and the girl was born in 2009.  By then, the war in Afghanistan had been underway for over five years and almost ten.  These children were born into a culture where war is the norm.

The uniformed father figure is identified by the caption as Major Jason Kettwig of Milbank, South Dakota.  An officer-level rank suggests that Kettwig has been in the Army National Guard for quite some time; Probably before his young children were born.  The photograph’s caption explains that this particular “group of approximately 200 soldiers has been serving in Afghanistan for the past year.”

One year ago the little boy in the photograph was three; and the little girl was just one-year-old.  In the image her hands lovingly and gracefully cup her father’s neck.  She is not clinging to him, as we might expect a young child to do to her father.  Instead, her head is pulled back from his.  She gazes at his face with a mature, furrowed brow, a look of relief, concern, and wonderment, commonly identified on the faces of adults.  She has not seen this face in one year and she appears to be studying it, searching for traces of change since the last time she saw it.  It reminds me of the way parents look at their teenaged children after their first long stint away from home.  But her father does not return her gaze.  He appears to be looking at his son.

The son, who is four-years old, stares off into the distance over his father’s shoulder.  His facial expression is less engaged than his sister’s.  His lips part and turn upward, but the smile looks almost hesitant.  Perhaps he has experienced this homecoming scenario before.  Maybe, by his ripe old age of four, he has experienced his father’s deployment and return once already.  The boy wears a green tee shirt, almost identical to the color of his father’s desert camouflage.  And his short, clean haircut adds to the father-son likeness.  As the father looks at his “mini-me,” the reader is invited to wonder if military service is in this little boy’s future.  So as the father looks at his son, and the son looks off into the distance, and we, the viewers look at these children, all of the gazing that animates this image is oriented toward the future.

While the children are the most salient figures in this photograph, with their adorable, round faces and the light bouncing off their shiny, sandy blonde hair, the father figure is positioned as central.  However, it is the back of his shoulders, neck, and head.  We cannot see his face, and as such, we have a harder time identifying emotionally with him.  We can only imagine what his face looks like.  Does it express happiness?  Relief?  Melancholy?  The back of his head does not provide cues for how we should feel.   Perhaps the absence of his visage marks a loss of his humanity while at war, or perhaps it symbolizes an anticipation of his death, or maybe it’s a social commentary on what has been described as a faceless war effort.

The photograph’s composition is an uncanny inverse of Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother.  Instead of identifying with the mother — or the absent father figure — as we might have with Lange’s image, this photograph turns our attention to the children’s faces for a model of how to feel and how to interpret the action in the scene.  This important shift in subjectivity positions the viewer as childlike—an infantile citizen who, like the four-year-old and two-year-old in the photograph, has become a little too acclimated to a culture of perpetual war.  When we take on the gaze of the confused and bewildered child, we as citizens are invited to remain complacent and uncritical.  Again.

Photo Credit: Eisha Page/Argus

Lisa Carlton is a Ph.d student in Communication Studies at the University of Iowa.  She can be contacted via e-mail at lisa-carlton@uiowa.edu.

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Human Waste Disposal

Both Patti Smith and Don DeLillo have said that something to the effect that the key to civilization may lie in the transformation of waste.  I assume they were talking about shit and bad food and everything else that might come under the label of garbage–except human beings.  But people are called garbage and treated worse.  Like this.

A drug cartel has dumped two truckloads of bodies on a road in Veracruz.  The New York Times emphasized that bystanders provided updates on Twitter during the traffic delay.  Really.  That kind of moral and emotional insulation isn’t free, but there is plenty available.  The unusually long distance between the bodies and the viewer helps as well.  Perhaps for that reason, I find a forensic mentality also seems appropriate.  Look closely and you can see that some of the men have their hands tied behind their backs, while all have been partially stripped.  Criminal executions are fodder for a brazen display of power against an ineffectual state, while the yellow curb stands in for the tape that will mark the crime scene when the authorities do arrive.

Like the police, the spectator may want to dote on literal details: Have the bodies been moved?  Was anything moved before the photo was taken?  These questions can be the key to successful prosecution, but for those of us not working in criminal justice, they also become another way of distancing oneself emotionally from the horror, loss, indecency, and threat to civil society that this image represents.

Others may not have the luxury of distance.

The caption at the Guardian said that “a rebel fighter looks at the charred remains of burnt bodies at the Khamis 32 military encampment” in Tripoli, Libya.  True enough, but the text is also a euphemism.  He is looking, and he also is gagging, and that is the more important gesture here.  He may be a young man, but it is more to the point to say that he is someone capable of an honest, humane reaction to the horror of war.  His soft, civilian clothes and shoes and lack of a helmet testify to his amateur status, and, frankly, he is lucky that he is not yet battle-hardened enough to be insensitive to human remains.  The question remains whether that has happened to us.  By not being able to smell the charred flesh or stare into the body cavities while still glancing at the photograph, it becomes easy to react without feeling.

Sure, war is hell, including drug wars, but what about the steady destruction of human beings because of larger political, social, and economic failures?  Think of the continuing violence in Mexico, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo, and many more areas where drug cartels, civil wars, mercenary armies, and the rest of anarchy’s legions are turning people into human waste.  If nothing else, disposal could become a problem.  Burnings don’t last long enough, mass graves can be dug up, drowned bodies wash ashore–you might as well let people live.

But they don’t let people live.  One of the challenges civilization faces today is not becoming habituated to the insidious, localized, but persistent and awful ways that human beings are being transformed into waste.  One could do worse than following the example provided by the ordinary individual in the second photograph: that is, to look at the carnage and choke on the close encounter with inhumanity.

Photographs by Veracruz en Red/European Pressphoto Agency and Louafi Larbi/Reuters.  You can see more of the Libyan photos, along with comments that support my point that literalism can be a means for moral and emotional denial, here.


“Out, Damn Spot!”

Fighting a war against terrorism is one thing.  But apparently there’s no good reason not to maintain personal hygiene. And what better way to do that than to brush one’s teeth after a tasty MRE while on duty?  What is striking about the photograph, however, is not just the fact that we have a U.S. soldier massaging his gums while poised in a bunker between two machine guns, but that he seems somewhat—but only somewhat—nonchalant while doing so.  Leaning relaxed against a wall of sandbags, his right hand comfortably in his pocket, he seems to be without a care in the world.  But of course he is wearing a vest and a helmet, which suggests that the risk to his safety might be a little more serious than gingivitis or bad breath.

And so the question is, what exactly is the point of this photograph?  I must admit that in some ways I don’t have a clue.  He is part of the “No Fear” task force of the 2-27 Infantry in Kunar, and so there might be something here about looking death in the eye and laughing.  But there is also this:  If you work your way through the very many slideshows of the U.S. military stationed at outposts in faraway places like Afghanistan or Iraq you are bound to come across more than a few photographs of U.S. personnel washing or shaving or cutting their hair in what might otherwise be understood as primitive field conditions.   “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” and we should not ignore the sense in which the display of such behavior even under the harshest of conditions subtly visualizes a cultural commonplace that gestures to an Americanized, Christian sensibility.  But more than that, it points to something more subtle still.  Yes, such soldiers might be stationed far from home and under less than normal circumstances, their lives may be at risk and they might even be called upon to kill or die in the name of God and country, but for all of that the basic habits of a civilized people abide.

Put differently, such photographs in general serve as a reminder that war is dirty business even as they feign to suggest that one can fight a war and still maintain clean hands.  The presence of the guns that frame the scene above, and to which the soldier is destined to return, make this photograph unique in this regard, for they stand as a reminder that, as with Lady Macbeth, one cannot completely avoid the tragic stain of war’s inevitable ignominy.

Credit: Erik De Castro/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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Sight Gag: War of the Words

Credit: Clay Bennett

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.  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 by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.

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Errol Morris and the Road Not Taken

Review of Errol Morris, Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) (New York: Penguin, 2011).

One might imagine two different paths for the interpretation of photographs.  From the first perspective, any photograph can provide a limited but accurate representation of the objective world: the tree really was there, as were the power lines that you hadn’t noticed when you took the picture.  And, “Oh My God, did I really look like that?”  Here interpretation is focused on considering how the fragmentary image could be a valid representation of a larger event.  Was it altered?  How much did things change before or after the 1/500th of a second in which the photograph was taken? Was the caption biased? What really happened?  We might label this perspective the representational model.  It constitutes the ground floor of visual literacy.

From another perspective, photography is a medium of social interaction: photographs depict people in relationship with one another, they are used to make sense of the social world, and they create and inflect relationships among those who use them.  “Oh My God, did I really look like that?” is a question not only about what happened, but also about social acceptance.  And about politics: in Ariella Azoulay’s terms, photography creates a “civil contract” among all parties to the photographic event and thus joins viewer and viewed as virtual citizens.   We might label this model the relational model.  Not surprisingly, it opens to the door to a much wider range of questions about what an image might mean, in what contexts, for what reasons, to whom.

These two perspectives are not entirely inconsistent with one another, but it is also the case that they travel in different directions—and with potentially important social and political implications.  Errol Morris, a brilliant director of documentary films (e.g., The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure), seems inclined to take the first path in his recently published Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography).

The volume is a beautifully written and often quite engaging set of detective stories, what Morris refers to as the “Mysteries of Photography” in the parenthetical half of the title of his book.  And as others have noted, Morris is a careful (indeed, obsessive) Sherlock Holmes as he interrogates the facts of the matters before him: Can we determine where and when a photograph was taken? What is the order of photographs in a sequence of images? Is the placement of objects in a scene empirically verifiable? And so on.  His answers are generally well wrought, even elegant in places.  But what is notable is that the mysteries of photography are altogether secondary (literally parenthetical) to Morris’ primary concern, which, as Kathryn Schulz observed, is epistemology.

This shift from photography to epistemology is exemplified by the first half of Morris’s title: Believing is Seeing.  His phrasing reverses the terms of the cultural aphorism, “seeing is believing.”  This is not just a stylistic affectation.  The more common phrase calls attention to the activity of “seeing” as the source of belief.  As such, it carries an assumption about how we come to be (and to believe) in the world.  As Aristotle remarks in his Metaphysics, “Not only with a view to action, but even when no action is contemplated, we prefer sight, generally speaking, to all the other senses.  The reason of this is that of all the senses sight best helps us to know things, and reveals many distinctions” (980a).  To “see” is more than just to “look” at or to “gaze” upon; to see the world is to be in it and to be of it; it is to understand the world actively and in a way commonly captured metaphorically by the phrase, “I see what you mean.”  By reversing the terms Morris prioritizes “belief” as the active agent that controls seeing, and in the process he reduces the later term to a condition of passivity.

This is not just a chicken and egg question.  To privilege belief in this way underscores the question of “truth.”  Or more to the point, it directs attention to the relationship between truth and non-truth in fundamentally narrow ways.  So, for example, in the first essay in the volume Morris attends to two famous Roger Fenton photographs from the Crimean War.  In one photograph the road is covered with cannonballs.  In the other photograph the cannonballs are on the side of the road.  And the mystery here is, what accounts for the movement of the cannonballs from one location to the next? And which of the photographs was shot first?   The first question is never fully answered, though Morris does ultimately provide an obvious answer to the second (to be fair, it is “obvious” only once it is actually figured out). But what, really, does it tell us about the truth of the matter?  Or more to the point, the truth that it uncovers seems ultimately trivial when measured over and against the horrific conditions of the war that were being reported—a truth that doesn’t change no matter where the cannonballs actually landed.

Morris’ epistemological preoccupation grounds his project in the philosophical assumptions of 20th century modernism.  As that context has defined photography theory, the art is singled out to bear the full weight of what could be called the burden of representation.  Thus, following the example of Susan Sontag (here and here), the photograph is subjected to an intense interrogation of its cognitive value, while ignoring or at least downplaying that the same problems haunt every medium, including, most notably, the printed text.  And Morris does privilege the text.  To begin, we have the oddity of a book about photographs that doesn’t have a single photograph on its outer cover.  This is an admittedly trivial example, but as the chapters unfold it becomes evident that the photographs can be understood only by clothing them with interviews that help to unravel the clearly epistemological mysteries.  Indeed, in a chapter that focuses on Walker Evans’ photographs of a sharecropper’s cabin that appear in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the authenticity of the photograph is measured by James Agee’s inventory of what was in the cabin.  Now Morris clearly acknowledges that on par we might challenge Agee’s words as less than accurate, but in the end it is those words that remain as the implicit standard for judging the photograph.  And by the time we get to the final chapter in the volume, an altogether intriguing tale of the life of Amos Humiston, a soldier found dead on the battlefield of Gettysburg, the photograph that animates the story turns out to be not much more than a prop that gets us to the “real” evidence, which turns out to be a series of letters sent home from the battlefield.  After all, believing is seeing, and words—not images—apparently are the appropriate medium of belief.

The point, of course, is not to ignore epistemology or avoid the burden of representation.  We believe, however, that interpretation of the visual image should be dedicated to understanding how seeing is an active engagement with the world, and how photography at its best can communicate profound truths about the human condition while calling people into a democratic community.  Of course, profundity and community each are grounded in both objective representation of the world and right relationships with other people.  Thus, they don’t argue against a somewhat pedantic conception of objective truth, but one might legitimately ask how often the representational model will lead to asking and answering more important questions.  Morris’ book deserves a large audience, but it also is a bit like having a literary critic who writes about nothing but plagiarism.  In each case one might conclude that we are hearing about an interesting problem but still well short of taking the measure of the art.

From the relational perspective, documentary photography is not simply a mechanism for capturing the world as it is, but is rather a capacious public art that participates with all other media in making reality meaningful.  And to follow this road is to recognize that the simple movement of an object in a scene—a cannonball, a clock, or a toy on a bombed out street—is less significant than the visions being evoked by the small world of the photograph.  In addition, as images are circulated throughout a public culture, they can lead to important truths about what it means to see and to be seen as citizens—a result more important than whether objectivity has been sanctified one more time.

Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites


Photography and Ruptures in Time

Ezra Pound famously remarked in The Spirit of Romance that “All ages are contemporaneous.”  This was not the temporal equivalent of a flat earth claim, but rather his announcement of what was to become one of the great poetic doctrines of twentieth century modernism.  For most of us, however, the past is past.  Sure, Faulkner knew better, and there are vital cultures of memory, but modernity is about an endlessly expanding future.  Even as that dream has been steadily degraded of late, the incessant demands of ordinary life amidst a continual stream of news, weather, and sports continues to keep most of us living from day to day.  The timeline isn’t quite so narrow as that of an Alzheimer’s patient, but American society might be suffering from a similar loss of temporal bandwith.  Forced to live in a continually collapsing present, personality becomes brittle and fear can contaminate everything.  For that reason, then, there actually may be good reason to see something closer to what Pound had in mind.

A month ago I posted about the peculiar return to medieval clothing and weaponry in security forces.  I suggested that what may seem to be a superficial analogy could be documenting a regressive transformation of political power.  Globalization, excessive capital accumulation, and other structural changes may be leading not to the march of progress, but rather to the breakdown of modernity itself.  The photograph above supports that idea, except that now I’m looking at it while in a different mood.

The medieval horseman rides through the modern street, almost as if he were riding out of and then back into the past.  In the background, the signs of modernity are rather slim–primarily the diction in the graffiti.  The steel fixtures in the foreground provide the more reliable assurance, as they literally frame the horse and rider.  Fire seethes in the left of the frame, but it seems self-contained by the metalwork and lack of other material to burn.  The tableau could be an artist’s construction, perhaps by one who had been reading Pound.  Medieval past and modern present are contemporaneous: uncannily yet easily captured together in the artistic medium.  At the moment the medium is photography, the art that traps any moment–but 1/500 of a second–in an eternal present that can be seen as it was endlessly, anytime, out of time.

Art does mirror life, however.  The horseman really was there, and the photograph can remind us that time need not be linear, that the past need not be past, and that a medieval world may already be present among us.  Modernity may be riven with ruptures where what was thought to be safely superseded continues to lurk, resurface, or reassert its power.  These remnants of the past need not be the absolute opposite of modern time, as with the myth of eternal return, but rather something much more capable of displacing and redirecting the course of history.

But I’m getting grim again.  This post began, if that is the right term, with a commitment to enjoying contemporaneity, or at least appreciating how public arts could be restoring a sense of the past that is uncanny and provocative rather than conventional.  Like this:

The caption placed him at the Gay Pride parade in New Delhi on July 2, 2011.  I think he walked right out of Renaissance Italy.  Again, the slogan in the background reminds us of the present, but otherwise he could have fit right in at Florence.  And they would have understood that mask more than we can imagine.

Any photograph is another reproduction of modernity’s endlessly unfolding present, but this one also offers a glimpse into another time.  Thus, the photograph itself is a tear in the modern fabric of time.  And through that narrow aperture, we can see something eternal.

Photographs by Victor Ruiz Caballero/Reuters and Prakash Singh/AFP-Getty Images.

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Ingenues and Aliens at Fashion Week

First, let’s think of all those girls who’ve wondered, “Why can’t I look like that?”  We now can say, here’s why.

Sure, bone structure has something to do with it, but, jeez. . . .  Four attendants, all pros, working attentively to get her perfectly turned out–this is not something even the most dedicated 13-year-old can match.  And, of course, the kids are working off of magazine photos and we haven’t even talked about air-brushing.  Femininity is the work of many hands, not to mention rigorous training for intense competition in highly mediated arenas.  It’s no accident that there are two bottles of sport drink in the background.  It’s too bad that we can’t apply a warning label: don’t try this at home.

This month Fashion Week (or I should say, Fashion Week!) has moved through New York and London on its way to Milan and then Paris, and the modest knockoffs will be coming to a mall near you soon enough.  Everyone involved understands that the scene is intense, over the top, and pitched high, high above the budgets and day-to-day realities of ordinary women.  But it’s also anxious, ritualized, and a strange combination of visual imagination and pragmatic calculation, and so not so different after all.  What fascinates me is how this very limited theater can still reveal so much about how society itself is fashioned.

The ingenue is a stock figure of innocence, and the young woman above would seem to qualify.  Her candid willingness to cooperate so precisely with those who are shaping her for her public presentation is an endearing type of poise, and yet one that also exposes extreme vulnerability.  One who can be made up so willingly and well will surely become beautiful, but she also could be made into something else entirely, so much as to lose her soul.

Like this, perhaps.  A battle-hardened older woman?  Lady of the night?  Vampire?  Space alien?  You can take your pick (speaking of imagination . . .).  In any case there is something otherworldly about this scene, and whatever it is, it’s trouble.  Personally, I like the aliens angle.  She could be planted among us, a secret agent preparing the way, with the first of the ships arriving from above.  Or perhaps she is a leader, ready to start implementing The Plan.  There certainly could be fury behind those eyes, and there is no doubt that brutal calculation also will be involved.  Such conjectures are pure fiction, of course, but like films ranging from The Stepford Wives to Blade Runner, each fantasy points toward an unsettling truth.  As girls are made into models of femininity, they reveal how all social life is the product of human artistry.  And more to the point, they reveal yet another path by which our drives to please, to compete, and to perfect our creations can lead to self-destruction.

Photographs by Jonathan Short/Associated Press and Eric Thayer/Reuters.

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Sight Gag: “Just the Facts, M’am, Please, Just the Facts”

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.  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 by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.



Vernacular Photographer Herman Krieger

This week we feature the photo essays of Herman Krieger, an independent photographer living in Eugene, Oregon.

There may be less irony in this photograph than you think.  Herman’s photo essays include everything from candid contrasts to captions that are as corny as anything you’d see in a flea market, but they are neither judgmental nor superficial.  Instead, he achieves an intimacy with and understanding of his subjects that is rarely found among other hobby photographers.

You can learn more about Herman by watching this brief PBS video, or by going here (including the link to the New York Times review) and here.  But I’m sure he would be the first to say that the photo essays are not about him, but rather about appreciating the small pleasures–one might even say “authentic delights”–of ordinary life.


Inflating the National Value

I expected to see a lot of U.S. flags on display for the 9/11 anniversary and commemoration this past weekend.  And of course my expectations were fully met with ersatz versions of the Stars and Stripes represented in virtually every size and variety imaginable, ranging from lapel pins to newly inked tattoos and decorated cakes to a flag the size of a football field requiring hundreds of people to manage its presentation.  What I didn’t expect to see were three thousand flags clustered together in one place, as in the photograph above of Forest Park in St. Louis (and repeated in other places across the country as well).

I don’t think of myself as a curmudgeon in such matters and I do pledge allegiance to the flag on the appropriate occasions, but I also find the excess of display in the photograph above as more than just a spectacle of national hubris.  Rather, it strikes me as symptomatic of a larger cultural problematic. The flag, of course, is a national symbol.  And it means many different things to many different people, affecting the full gambit of civic emotions from patriotic piety to nostalgia to cynicism.  But the question is, what do three thousand flags represent that a single flag cannot stand in for?  Or perhaps more to the point, given the presumed gravity that we commonly grant to the meaning of the flag as the national banner–that which marks us as “one nation, indivisible,” and for which we are willing to sacrifice all–how can they represent it better?

One might see the field of flags as symbolic of the actual fatalities on 9/11, but the numbers don’t quite add up, with the official casualty count just short of three thousand, and so the potential for the mystique of identification with individual victims is not satisfied. But even if the numbers did add up, the question would still abide in some measure for the massive replication and concentration of flags in a single space has something of an inflationary effect on the symbolic currency of the national icon.  And there, I think, is the rub.  For there is little doubt that the symbolic value of the flag has diminished in recent years in proportion to the diminution of our domestic and international stature.  The multiplication of flags in such huge numbers thus perhaps functions as something of a symbolic palliative for our current psychic anxieties about national greatness.  We simply need more flags to fund our national urge.

What the photograph reminds us is that as with the effects of inflation on the dollar, the flag simply doesn’t buy as much as it used to.  And more, that at some deep level we know that but don’t want to admit it.

Photo Credit: J.B. Forbes/AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch