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A Rocket, a Tomato, and a Slice of Bread

Still life photography, the photographic depiction of inanimate objects, is arguably the genre that provides the photographer with the most flexibility in controlling the conditions of his or her practice.  In the typical still life photograph the variables of light, space, and time are all subject to the photographer’s volition.  Even with its close kin, the portrait, the photographer is at the mercy of the cooperation of the subject being photographed.  But in a still life the object of attention lacks any will.  As such, and perhaps more than in any other photographic genre, the still life photograph underscores the epistemological tension—perhaps even a paradox—that rests at photography’s claim to be a medium of representation:  on the one hand, it relies upon the realist aesthetic that underwrites our faith in the transparency and truth of mechanical reproduction (however limited they might be), and on the other hand, it relies on the artistry of the photographer him or herself.

It is probably because the still life photograph embodies this tension so clearly that we rarely find such images in photojournalistic venues that tend to privilege the realist aesthetic over the artistry of the photographer.  But of course sometimes such photographs work their way past editorial gatekeepers.  And so we have the image above which recently appeared in a slide show titled “Syria’s Long, Bloody Uprising.”  The caption reads, “A slice of bread and a tomato sit next to a rocket at a position manned by Free Syrian Army Rebels in Idlib on February 22, 2012.”

As is conventional for still life photographs, the caption is altogether minimalist, purporting to tell us no more and no less than is patently obvious in the image itself.  And in this sense the caption reinforces the realist aesthetic of the image, for clearly we are looking at a rocket, a tomato and a slice of bread as they “sit” next to one another. But, of course, no sooner than we acknowledge the correspondence between caption and image that problems emerge.  The first and most obvious problems is that technically speaking objects don’t “sit,” they are placed; and whether the placement was effected by the photographer or someone else the point is that their proximity to one another has to be accounted for as something other than objective, self-determination.

The second problem is more interesting, for the caption actually gives the lie to thinking of this as a still life photograph at all, as it situates the three objects not just in in relationship to one another, but in relationship  to a particular place.  And more, that place is not just a geographical location (Idlib), but a subject position “manned by Free Syrian Army rebels.” And of course now the proximity of the three objects to one another becomes all the more significant, for it invites the viewer to consider not just the relationship between objects that give life (food) and objects that take life away (weapons of destruction), but also to sympathize with those who rely upon such simple (indeed, almost primitive) and natural objects.

The larger significance of the photograph and its caption has less to do with how it coaches a political identification with the Free Syrian Army, however much and however effectively it might do that, and more to do with reminding us that all photographs operate epistemologically at the tension between what is mechanically reproduced (what is actually there) and what the photographer artistically creates (how we are invited to view it).  In short, it is a notice that photojournalism is fundamentally a mode of public art and it behooves us to attend to its artistry even when the conventions of photographic representation might otherwise discourage us from doing so.

Photo Credit:  Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

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The Texture of Political Action: Democracy and Dictatorship

Last night millions of people were watching the Academy Awards ceremonies, which might be thought of as Hollywood’s prom.  You might expect that this next sentence would remark that at the same time millions of other people were suffering and fighting for something more important. But let’s not be too quick to separate society and politics.

This photo of Egyptian twenty-somethings uploading video from Tahrir Square is a portrait of political action–and a study in youth culture.  They could get beaten, imprisoned, and tortured for what they are doing–and they are wearing just the right kind of student fashions and working on what is the cool computer for anyone who gets anywhere near a university.  We particularly like how the color of the hard drive matches the laptop, which also gets picked up on the Coke cans and the floral pattern on the tablecloth (we probably can thank mom for that).  But nothing is too neatly coordinated, for that would nullify the wonderful informality and messiness that most characterizes the tableau.  They don’t have to wait for an election: this already is a portrait of democratic life.

Of course, the image also plays on sentimental memories, for those who have them, of student days–the ashtray and toilet paper are near-perfect touches–and these revolutionaries also are middle class (or better), Westernized, and otherwise liberal-democratic elites in the making.  They do not look like those demonstrators who were poorer or embodying more traditional customs and Islamist commitments, and less privileged viewers might be quick to see and resent those who don’t have to go to work as soon as they are able.  No one should conclude that these students are or ought to be the face of the revolution or that democracy can’t include wearing galabiyyahs or that every viewer should warm to the glow of the Macbook Pro laptop.

Still, sometimes you can just see the difference.

This is the interior of a nondescript building somewhere in Damascus.  The New York Times caption had nothing to do with the photo as such: “The escalation in Syria, where Mr. Assad has vowed to end a 10-month-old uprising that he has characterized as the work of foreign-backed terrorists, came within a few miles of the epicenter of his power in the capital on Sunday.”  So, what is the photo doing?  We don’t see a recognizable building or evidence of warfare or anything specific to the day-to-day struggle being reported in the text.  But perhaps it’s there to communicate something about the nature of the regime.

Institutional buildings can be dull, unadorned, vaguely depressing places; that, too, is part of the look.  “See how your money is not being wasted, and how functional and egalitarian your government is, and how the rule of law is applied uniformly?”  Even so, the large photograph of Our Leader is the stock image of authoritarian regimes, matched only by the elimination of most other images and their implications of pluralism.  This photo captures that and more, including a sense of social impoverishment, as if the energy is being leached out of everything.  Even Assad’s portrait is fading into a ghostliness.  Perhaps he’s on his way out (I wouldn’t bet on it), but this photo says that the authoritarian regime has already reduced its society to a kind of lifelessness.  Those flags could be in a mausoleum, whether one run by the state or one used for the state’s internment.  Empty surfaces, listless symbols, and a fire extinguisher: welcome to the Syrian government.

Egypt is doing better that Syria but is still a long way from becoming a democracy, so easy contrasts are not the point here.  But one can consider how politics is textured: that is, how the social context and consequences of political action are evident on the surface of things.  By paying attention to the social surface, we can understand how both individual experience and collective action might be shaped by many different factors coming together in a particular place and time.  And we can see how different political practices can make the world more richly interwoven and vibrant, or more relentlessly ordered and depressing.

The genius of the camera is that it captures everything that is there on the surface, whether we intended to see it or not.  Photographers are taking considerable risks to photograph the political events of our time.  To better understand what is happening, one might want to pay more attention to the surface of things, and to how life is being textured.

Photographs by Ed Ou and Tomas Munita for The New York Times.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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Sight Gag: In the Name of “Limited Government”

Credit: Mike Luckovich

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.


Ruben Salvadori’s Photojournalism Behind the Scenes

Ruben Salvadori is a young Italian photographer with a BA in Anthropology from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  While covering the ritualized clashes between Palestinian youth and Israeli security forces, he became interested in the gap between the practice of photojournalism and the images that were shown to the public.

His video, Photojournalism Behind the Scenes, turns an ethnographic eye on the photographers’ relationship with their subjects, and on how that part of the photographic encounter is edited out of the picture.

Salvadori does a fine job of exposing this tacit dimension of conflict photography.  Unlike some critics, the point is not simply to trash visual media on behalf of some supposedly innocent alternative.  In fact, none of us are innocent, and one might well ask how these and other representational conventions contribute to the stalemated catastrophe in Palestine.  Would that we could stand back a bit further and see, not only the photographers, but how many others are all too habituated to crafting illusions of dramatic conflict, rather than achieving an equitable resolution to a political tragedy.

For additional commentary, see the discussion at Planext.


The Silent Erasure of Executive Order 9066

Tule Lake, Minadoka, Heart Mountain, Grenada, Topaz, Rohwer, Jerome, Gila River, Poston, Manzanar: their names should be etched on our national consciousness as a reminder of how quickly fear can blind us to the “better angels of our nature” and activate the dark side of our democratic sensibilities.  But of course they are not; indeed, in all but a few cases the names are barely recognizable.   This week marks the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, President Franklin Roosevelt’s ignominious decision to “relocate” some 110,000 Japanese-Americans—over two thirds of whom were U.S. citizens—in the ten internment camps listed above and scattered throughout the western portion of the nation.   Roosevelt signed the order on February 19, 1942, and that the national media has chosen not to acknowledge the occasion of its anniversary only compounds the original tragedy by contributing to the erasure of its memory.

The photograph above was taken twelve years ago at Manzanar, a relocation camp located five miles south of Independence, California—the irony of its name should not escape us—and home to over 10,000 interned Japanese-American residents. The rusted and bent barbed wire that frames the landscape, emphasizing the wide open spaces and the big sky, is at home in the American west where it was a tool used to establish the boundaries of land ownership in an expansive frontier, and to contain and control cattle or other livestock.  Ordinarily such a framing of the landscape would not warrant a second look as perhaps anything more than a photographer’s affected representation of the relationship between nature and civilization.  But here, of course, the barbed wire is not a tool of civilization but a weapon of war, its purpose to imprison a race of people whose only crime was that they didn’t quite look like “us” and whose ethnicity identified them with a country that was at war with the United States.

When located in relationship to its proximate political history the focus invites us to shift our attention from the background to the foreground, from the majesty of the sky and the distant mountains to the violent protrusions of the barbs, from now to then. While all else seems to have been erased—the stables that were initially used to house humans, the eight guard towers that surrounded the compound and provided twenty-four hour surveillance, and indeed the compound itself—the barbs, cast almost but not quite in silhouette, linger as a twisted reminder of our own violent and unjust past, of what once was and risks being again if only because it risks being no more in our collective, public memory.

Photo Credit: Getty Images North America

Manzanar is now a national historical site maintained by the National Park Service.


Seeing Double During Fashion Week

Fashion Week in New York has ended, with the show moving on to London, Milan, and Paris.  Each event will strive to distinguish itself as it jostles for pride of place on the international circuit, yet one doesn’t have to step back very far to see them as alike as peas in a pod.  Which may be one reason why photographers on the fashion beat like to capture double images.

Which side is the mirror image?  Does it matter?  Isn’t any fashion model already a reproduction of a type that is used to motivate imitation?  As with the replicants in Blade Runner, we might come to learn that they, too, have feelings, personalities, and lives, but that is hardly the point.  More likely, the process provides just enough human features to ensure conformity while subverting any attempt to further humanize the model or those around her.  So it is that we see this model reading, as if she has an interior life of her own, but that interest is then quashed by the duplication that emphasizes her impersonal appearance and replicative function.  All models might read, but so what?

One could place the image in a long lineage of paintings of the woman reader,  If that could restore enough of an aura of authenticity, the viewer might become interested in a considering a woman’s private experience as it can be found in the act of reading.  But that possibility raises the prior question of what one should be looking for in the first place when viewing a double image.   One answer might be some assurance of what is real, or some cue regarding how we might know.  The double image creates an initial skepticism–which side is reality and which is appearance?–and that in turn prompts more careful scrutiny to identify the reflective surface.  Carried far enough, that examination extends to the photograph itself.

Let me suggest that there is much more to be learned than whatever might be gleaned from that philosophical exercise.  And one key to unlocking the power of the double is to turn from the exact duplicate to images could be seen as double images, but need not be.

You want uncanny, you got it.  Or, if you want to shake off the really disturbing vibe, just pretend that they are two very, very different people and focus on either one or the other.  “What a freak” or “What a nice guy” will each work the same–and it doesn’t matter which way you apply them.  The power of this photograph, however, comes from the fact that it, too, is a double image, and one that taps a far deeper fear than the first photograph.  In the first image, whatever lay under the surface could be assumed to be as docile as the well-groomed body on the soft bench.  After all, whatever the content, she’s only reading.

But what if the nice boy in the sweater and the Mad Max outlaw are the same guy?  Because they are, of course: each carefully styled in a different idiom, bodies neatly complementary from top to bottom (look at their legs and hands, for example), with similar clothing (the same V-neck color scheme), and, of course, very comfortable together.  It’s as if the each could fit comfortably in the other’s skin, each the other’s alter ego, good boy and bad boy, the date you can take home to mother and the figure in every slasher movie looming in the dark outside the window.  And, of course, they can be one and the same person.

A subculture dedicated to the production of appearances proves to have more depth than we might think–at least when it becomes a subject for photographic artistry.  A world of social display and mechanical reproduction can also be one in which surfaces can be deceiving.  In place of surface and depth, however, we might want to think about how we always are choosing between simplicity and complexity, and between familiarity and fear.

Photographs by Carlo Allegri/Reuters and Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images.  This is one of several posts I’ve made over the years on double images, although don’t ask me if they form a coherent argument.  For the record, you can see those that a quick search pulled up here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Sight Gag: “God’s Biblical Blueprint For an Ordered, Just, and Fair Society”

(Note: Click on the pic to find out who really spoke the quoted words.)

Credit: Tea Party Jesus

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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World Press Photo of the Year: The Debate

One sign of a healthy public art is that people argue about it.  Photojournalism appears to very healthy, as once again the World Press Photo Awards are provoking discussion.  As is happens, an earlier post at this blog was pulled into the fray.  Back on October 24, 2011 I wrote about this image, which recently received the Photo of the Year award.

I had raised the issue of how one might come to terms with seeing the image through the cultural lens of Christian iconography: by seeing the outline of the pieta, one’s response could be both emotionally true and otherwise distorted.  After the award was announced, Michael Shaw at BAGnewsNotes prompted renewed discussion, summarizing my post along with commentary by another BAG contributor, Madeleine Corcoran.  The comments that followed expanded the discussion further, including an entry by one of the contest judges, Nina Berman.  At the same time (a day earlier, actually), Jim Johnson voiced his “disappointment” with the selection, arguing that it was derivative not only with regard to the pieta but also within the history of photography, and that it depoliticized the Arab Spring, reinforced traditional gender roles, and interfered with understanding the complex politics of modern Islam.  Jim provoked a dozen comments, and once again Nina weighed in.  On the same day, the New York Times Lens Blog started out with a celebration of the selection (and quoted Nina), but the discussion there soon turned up some of the same issues.  And over at Conscientious, Joerg Colberg added to the critique, pointing out that reliance on conventional iconography makes it too easy to project our own beliefs–and, with that, our military forces.

Joerg also points out that one solution to the problem is increased visual literacy, which is precisely what each of these blogs is trying to provide.

Photograph by Samuel Aranda/New York Times.

Update: The debate is curated much more thoroughly at bitly.


St. Valentines Day As A Global Holiday

The origins of St. Valentine’s Day are somewhat obscure, but most tend to agree that whoever he actually was, St. Valentine was a Christian martyr who lived in the second or third centuries of the Common Era.  The connection between St. Valentine’s Day and romantic love was first asserted by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Parlement of Foules, a 14th-century poem written to honor the anniversary of the  marriage of King Richard the II and Anne of Bohemia, but it was not popularly feted as a day for love and romance until the late 17th Century.  Today it is celebrated around the world in Christian, Hebraic, Buddhist, and Islamic countries alike—a point emphasized by the many slide shows (e.g., here, here, here, and here) that have put such images on display— where it is accompanied by the  annual sale and delivery of nearly one billion greeting cards, as well as numerous other commodified gifts, including, most commonly, candies, flowers, stuffed animals, and jewelry.  If capitalism has been successful in taking the “Christ” out of Christmas, it seems to have been no less successful in colonizing the celebration of love for economic gain, and in a global register.  Or at least in nearly a global register, for the holiday is not without its ideological detractors, as it is banned and roundly vilified in Islamic Pakistan, a country where, it turns out, the holiday nevertheless continues to be celebrated.












Photo Credits:  Francois Lenoir/Reuters; Andrew Milligan/AP; Shaun Best/Reuters; Adrian Bradshaw/European Pressphoto Agency; Dado Ruvic/Reuters; Sabah Arar/Baghdad; Muhammed Muheisen/AP; Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters; Ali Hashisho/Reuters; Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty; Aamir Qureshi/AFP;


Is Athens Burning?

Yes, it is.  And German Chancellor Angela Merkel tweeted that she had “Upgraded Greece from Hellenic to Heroic.”  (Isn’t that clever!)  I can think of a number of reasons that she might want Greece to no longer be Hellenic.  Some of the arguments fall on one side of the debate about how to manage the Greek economy, for the Greeks had made social welfare into an art form and need reform on several levels.  And some of the arguments fall on the other side, for the EU policies are draconian and probably counter-productive while making the EU look more and more like Greater Germany.  So, what is it to be?  I’ve already alluded to the movie Is Paris Burning?, which tells how the German commander of Paris disobeyed Hitler’s order to destroy the city before it could be rescued by the Allied forces.  One also could imagine a variation on a scene from Chinatown: as Jack Nicholson slaps Faye Dunaway repeatedly, she answers with each blow: Hellenic – Heroic – Hellenic – Heroic – Hellenic – Heroic.  As in the movie, the answer isn’t quite what you were supposed to hear.

As the news broke in the US Sunday evening, the headline at the Huffington Post screamed, “Historic Buildings Torched by Rioters as Austerity Vote Passes.”  I immediately imagined the Acropolis in flames (which would take some doing).  Turns out the scale was well below that level of “historic.”  But the symbolism was there implicitly: Athens, the source of Democracy and Western Civilization was burning.  Somehow the West really is declining, collapsing into civil war, convulsed with deep antagonisms, incapable of resolving political and economic problems of its own making much less delivering on its promises and realizing its full potential.

The photos that first popped up on Twitter seemed to both confirm and complicate this story.  The image above lies outside the narrative, as we don’t think of Starbucks as a historic structure (even if it could be located in one), and yet I find it all the more disturbing.  I’m not one to cry for multinational chains, but there is something particularly martial and vicious about torching a familiar storefront.  There are times when protecting the present can be a much more serious business than preserving the past, and I’m not just referring to security operations.  The fact that the cameraman’s hat looks like a storm trooper’s helmet deepens the sense that something like war really is happening, and that a city and perhaps a civilization really is being burned rather than handed over to those who live there.

Analogies should only go so far, of course.  Merkel is not remotely like Hitler, and the demonstrators who are burning local businesses are not freedom fighters.  But one could rightly suspect that a great deal of damage may be done by bankers following orders.  Despite the warnings of those such as Paul Krugman who really do know better, political elites in both Europe and the US are more committed to dangerous neoliberal doctrines than they are making democracy work as it should.

And so we get to another image from last night.

Hellenic or Heroic?  A citadel of democratic aspirations or a city under fire?  The ominous shadows, lurid hues, and a tower of smoke that looks like a tactical nuclear explosion all give the scene an apocalyptic tone.  What truth will be revealed, and what rough beast is slouching towards Athens to be born?  Who really is destroying the city, and are the fires in Athens a symbol of collapse or a sign of the essential struggle between mass and elite come round again?

Photographs by Martin Geissier/Twitter and Nectar de Angel/Twitter.


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