Apr 30, 2010
Mar 10, 2014
Sep 03, 2010
Oct 04, 2007
Jul 25, 2007
Apr 24, 2008

Signifying Shoes

You might think that a high end fashion item would seem more valuable for being rare, hard to get, almost one of a kind.  Everyone should want one of the items, but it should be clear that not everyone will have one.  So it is that this display of Christian Louboutin shoes seems counter-intuitive.  How can there be so many of something so pricey?  Why pay so much for something that appears mass produced and uniform?  The Louboutin website opens with a pair of heels under glass, as if they were a rare treasure that should be protected from the open air, whereas this display of indistinguishable copies invites comparisons with the knockoff items that you can buy for a few bucks on the New York street.

But the curator who created this exhibit at the Design Museum isn’t in the business of selling shoes.  Like the designer, she is keenly aware of how shoes signify, but the focus here is on prompting reflection on fashion as a design art.  Two of the contradictions within modern fashion are that “exclusive” products typically are mass produced, and that consumers strive to distinguish themselves using identical items.  These conditions make good design harder, not easier to achieve.  Instead of individualized tailoring whereby everyone could be outfitted uniquely, clothing, furniture, and everything else has to be appealing and functional for many different people despite having a single, impersonal form.  By acknowledging these constraints, the exhibit captures Louboutin’s achievement: even when one pair of shoes is shown to be exactly like all the others, they still look really good.

It’s also interesting to see how focusing on one art can reflect back on another.  The display of the shoes makes each pair interchangeable with the others; what are real shoes become mere copies of an absent original.  Thus, the mere awareness of mechanical reproduction subverts a secure sense of the reality or worth of the object.  Photography, of course, suffers the same fate: the ease in making reproductions of any image heightens awareness of how each one is a copy of another reality.  One result, particularly in the hands of some theorists, is to fault the art for cheapening our sense of what is really real.  What happens, however, is that some images prove to be all the more exceptional for that.  Their artistic achievements become more obvious, not less, when set against many others much like them.  And that competition for attention amidst a pervasive process of copying is another of the constraints in fashion design.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that one way to distinguish each of the shoes above is by the way it catches the light.

Nor need the comparison stop there.  Fashion and photography can intersect not only in the museum but also out on the street.  Or at the Golden Gate Bridge.

This commemorative display was created by the Bridge Rail Foundation, which advocates for measures to prevent suicides at the structure.  Turns out there is more than one design problem involved.  On the one hand, the bridge proves to be superbly suited to a wholly unintended use; on the other hand, perhaps the most deep-set objection is that preventative modifications mar the bridge’s aesthetic appeal, which is one of its principle design features.

In any case, it is interesting that a display of shoes can say so much about the tragic cost of inaction, and comparison with the first image can identify some of the reasons why.  Whereas in the first image multiple copies enhanced distinctiveness, here the obvious uniqueness 0f each of the pairs heightens a sense of common fate. Each person wearing the identically recognizable Linboutin shoes will stand out in a crowd, and the status markers proclaim that they have the personalized flair that comes with being among society’s winners.  Each of these motley yet varied shoes at the bridge marks a single individual no longer visible, someone who ended up at the bottom of life, caught in an undertow of despair that lead to the same darkness.

However cheap, each one of those shoes was a small fashion statement before it became a means for civic advocacy.  The shoes’ second significance is extended further by being copied by the camera.  Shoes, like photographs, are social objects, and so can talk by being seen and communicate further by being displayed.  This photograph expresses the advocates’ intention, but it also prompts the viewer to think about who is seen and valued, who is granted attention or other social goods and who is left to walk by unseen–as if just another copy of the one before, even if on their way to the bridge.

Photographs by  Jonathan Short/Associated Press and Noah Berger/Associated Press.

 1 Comment

Sight Gag: Place Your Bets!

Credit: Cagle

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.


Online Gallery: I Speak of Congo

Nasololi Na Congo Kinshasa/I Speak of Congo

HEAL Africa is pleased to announce the launch of ispeakofcongo.org, which intends to broaden the conversation taking place about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Too often, the country is portrayed in the mainstream western media as a country of victims and perpetrators.  This oversimplification masks the beauty, depth, and complexity of the vast and diverse country, its history, and its citizens.

Through in-depth interviews and portrait style photography, the all-Congolese staff of the HEAL Africa media team have captured a broad cross-section of society – military men, mothers, cobblers, shop keepers, tailors, farmers, and more – and given us a window into these individuals’ thoughts and perspectives on life in DR Congo, the on-going conflict there, and their hopes and dreams for their country and future.

You are invited to browse through the gallery and to return regularly to see more interviews and stories.  New content will be posted regularly with the hope that each story you read about and each person you meet in these interviews will help to expand your knowledge and understanding of the Congolese people.

 1 Comment

Amping Up the Culture War at Huff Post

The headline at The Huffington Post screamed “HOLY WAR.”  The subhead added “Notre Dame Sues Obama.”  And this was the image:

I thought twice about saying anything: as a Huff Post junkie, I have little basis for faulting how they mash up images and stories.  Every story gets an image, no matter how distant in space, time, or topic it might be.  Some of these visual captions are clever and some are cheap come-ons that work even though I should know better, but what the hell, it’s free, right?

Well, yeah, but “free” usually means that someone else is paying the cost.  And in this case, we all lose something, for the mashup does just about all that can be done to misconstrue the issue.  Just for starters, the debate over extending health care coverage to include contraception isn’t a holy war, and the lawsuit is addressed to the United States government, not the Obama administration.  Nor is Notre Dame bringing the lawsuit by itself; instead, it is one of a number of Roman Catholic organizations listed as plaintiffs.  But these distinctions are small change compared to what is being said by the visual juxtaposition of Obama and You Know Who.

If this direct comparison of Obama with Jesus Christ doesn’t play to conservative invective, I don’t know what does.  The triumphant Obama stands in the place of Christ, while the movement from left to right suggests temporal succession.  Obama wants to replace Jesus, and doing so would replace Christian Civilization–signified by all the lesser figures in the religious image–with a secular society where the right values no longer constrain political power.  (This would be the semblance of a rationale behind the references to Obama as a dictator or someone hell bent on dictatorship–claims that are legion on the right and evident in the comments following the story.)  Thus, the legislation reflects not a difference of perspective about the scope of federal laws, but a struggle over who shall have the ultimate authority over all: God or this political leader defined solely by his ambition.

There’s even potentially a racist element to the comparison, if you see Obama as imitating Christ rather than acting on his own accord, but I’m not going there.  The fact is, it’s bad enough as it is, and not least because it obviously is intentional.  This was not what Obama was doing in response to the lawsuit or on the same day–instead, a photo from a campaign rally or political convention has been pulled out of the file precisely because of the iconographic similarity with the Christ figure.  And, of course, Obama loses legitimacy no matter how you make the comparison.  If he is like Christ, then he still is deficient in virtue: egocentric and awash in hubris instead of self-sacrificing and salvic.  And if he is not like Christ, then he has no prerogative to challenge religious authority.

But it gets worse yet.  The policy in question is in fact not the directive of a sovereign leader, but rather the result of routine legislative and administrative processes.  Likewise, the objections to the policy do not in any way, shape, or form come from Jesus Christ, but rather from the leadership of a religious denomination regarding its own administration of large bureaucratic organizations.  And it is not inappropriate to add that said denomination has had plenty of reason of late to question its own claim on moral authority, and that hubris and other abuses of power have been all too evident as well.  But you wouldn’t know that from these images.

Those who complain about “the liberal media” would like us to forget that all media are subject to the same vices.  Culture wars may be stupid fabrications contrived to mobilize voters for reactionary ideologies, but they also sell papers and keep eyeballs on the screen.  Fair enough, as we all have to make a living, but I still wish that the media claiming to represent my interests knew where to draw the line.

(No photo credits are given, as none were provided.)

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


What If They Held a Protest and No Photographers Showed Up?

Democracy relies upon dissent. Not just the theoretical possibility of protest implied by the First Amendment, but the very thing itself—flesh and blood individuals speaking truth to power and thus embodying  the possibility of popular sovereignty in contexts that demonstrate both the risk and safety of political opposition.  Of course, in a mass society of over 300 million people, “speaking” truth to power has less to do with words per se—although sound bytes, posters, placards, graffiti, and 140 character tweets do play a role—and more to do with visibility.  Put differently, political protest is as at its root a matter of public spectacle, and its success or failure is generally a measure of who controls what is seen and by whom.  Of course, governments and political operatives have known this for quite some time, and each seeks to manage the dialectic between seeing and being seen to strategic benefit.  Photographers know it as well, and they too use it to strategic effects.

The NATO protests in Chicago this past weekend are an interesting case in point, as both protestors and police have jockeyed to control the public eye, each enacting what have come to be fairly conventional poses.  The protestors, of course, want to be seen en masse as a way of giving a sense of solidarity and magnitude to their popular presence, but they also want to make it clear that they “see” what is going on behind the closed doors of governments and corporations.  Theirs is, we might say, an attempt to embody a democratic gaze—the people seeing and being seen.  Governments, on the other hand, also want to be seen, but they get caught between official political/diplomatic roles played by recognizable leaders (think of all of those photo ops you’ve seen of the heads of State shaking hands with one another, or relaxing together while watching a soccer match on the television) and the maintenance of public order, (hence lots of pictures of anonymous, paramilitary forces whose task is to “uphold the peace”).  Theirs is a statist gaze or what we might call “seeing like a state.”  Corporations, it seems, are generally content to remain largely invisible—their recently achieved status as individuals to the contrary notwithstanding—in a manner that implies an apolitical neutrality.

Photographers tend to capture all of this in a manner that reinforces the status quo, which is to say it underscores the sense in which our government remains democratic (dissent is allowed), even as government officials perform their tasks (leaders meet, negotiate, do their business), and the police maintain the peace (they “watch over” the scene” and “clash” with those who pose risks to public safety).  Sometimes, of course, the police become over zealous and have to be reigned in (one more sign that the status quo is working) but in general they are professionals doing their job under difficult circumstances.

It is easy to be cynical of such an account, but there is a different point to be made.  For such images also remind us of the importance of political spectacles as a potentially important medium of public engagement that are not entirely controlled by any one agent or set of agents, whether protestors, governments, or the media—or for that matter, the audiences that consume the images. The caption to the image above notes that the police officer shown “watches demonstrators protest”  in Chicago during the first day of the NATO summit.   And the point is that he wants to be seen watching—notice his stance and how he holds his baton as a visual threat to anyone who would challenge his territory or charge; indeed, the point is precisely that he needs to be seen watching in order to enact any sort of agency.  But in this regard he is no different than the protestors who also need to be seen watching.  Both are actors in a political spectacle.

In an important sense, democracy in particular relies on such spectacles as a way of giving presence to its effectiveness and legitimacy.  And that is not an inherently bad thing, for spectacles rely upon the active involvement of a viewing audience to authenticate the experience on the ground even if its members are not directly involved in it.  That said, political spectacles always come with the risk that seeing and being seen can be manipulated as absolute and hierarchical technologies of domination and control.  In the photograph above, are we looking at the legitimate defender of a democratic regime or big brother?  There is no final answer to that question, of course, but it is one that we need regularly and vigilantly to entertain.

Photo Credit: Joshua Lott/Getty Images North America


Sight Gag: The Late Modern Laocoon; or, Beauty and Economic Suffering

Credit: Bas van der Schot/De Volkskrant

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.


Let This Be a Sign: Exhibition by Simon Roberts


An Exhibition by Simon Roberts

 25 May to 01 July 2012 Swiss Cottage Gallery
Swiss Cottage Central Library, 88 Avenue Road, London, NW3 3HA

New work from Simon Roberts looking at the economic, political and social effects of the recent UK recession. Alongside the exhibition, a participatory space will be set up where visitors will be invited to share their thoughts and experiences.  Admission is free.  More information is available at London Festival of Photography and The 6th Floor blog at the New York Times.

Photograph by Simon Roberts: The desk of a trader on the Lloyds Trading Floor in London. Photographed on 30 November 2011, officially known as the Day of Action where public sector workers joined in a mass walkout in London and across the UK to protest against government pension reforms. The Sky News headline feed on the television screen reads “Strike Action.”


Man Down in the Global War on . . . . What?

Whatever your politics, you’ve got to be affected by this photograph of the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Maimanah, Afghanistan.

Even if viewed by an Afghan citizen opposed to the US occupation, I think the image would be mesmerizing.  It has a magnetic pull something like what happens when traffic slows to a crawl as it passes by a really bad roadside accident.

The two soldiers are survivors, it seems, but even they are stunned and slowly dropping into an immobility and isolation approaching death.  Behind them, someone worse off is being dragged unceremoniously away, whether to a hospital or the morgue remains unclear.  The empty space in the middle of the frame seems to radiate out from the pole, as if reverberating from the blast that already has occurred.  Weapons and body armor are scattered on the ground, or slung over the back of one of the police officers, so this is not a story of projecting power, building stability, or any other imperial objective.  This miniature battle was over as soon as it began, and all that remains is the frenetic running around of some Keystone Cops doing damage control.

The fact that three people in the scene are taking pictures only adds to the sense of chaotic futility.  Shoot all you want–and a lot of good that will do the guys on the ground.  Pan further into the background and you’ll see that for other spectators it’s a lot like driving by a really bad accident.

The photograph was taken in April.  Not this month, and so it’s now being taken somewhat out of context.  Or is it?  April, May, last year, this year, does it really matter to most people?  Ten years and counting, “context” starts to sound hollow–what kind of context is appropriate when images become interchangeable and few are paying attention anyway?  And even if I supplied the rest of the captioning information–April 4, 2012, at least ten dead, etc.–would that create anything like the terrible body blow that knocked those soldiers to the ground?

Contextualization is one of the most important ways of articulating and anchoring meaning, but there also are important ways of thinking that become available through decontextualization.  By letting the image resonate while withdrawing those props that can be used to place, categorize, rationalize, and file away the event, one may, however briefly, be awakened to empathy and thus to serious thought.

Thinking includes comparisons, and another benefit of taking things out of context–which we do all the time when using language, by the way–is that one can make unexpected comparisons.  Like this one, for example.

One picture or two?  Well, two.  In the second image the man down is a civilian and his assailants are right there rather that vaporized.  He isn’t so much knocked into semi-consciousness as struggling painfully to avoid being choked and smashed into the pavement.  And the cops are attacking, not scurrying about, and hurting rather than helping.  In fact, they are all citizens of the same country, though not on the same side.  The photo is of violence occurring at a Labor Day march in Santiago, Chile, which is a long way from Afghanistan.

But not as far as you might think.  This photo, too, could have been taken in many another month or year.  Indeed, the neo-medieval body armor of the riot police suggests that the scene may be more timeless than we know.  And one of the more punishing side-effects of globalization is that the world is coming to have one continuous street.  And that street is the scene for insistent outbreaks of dissent, protest, and other forms of resistance, and for recurrent crackdowns by security forces having varied uniforms and insignia but an increasingly unified apparatus of equipment, techniques, training, and deployment.  And one way or another, it seems that the guys getting knocked down are being betrayed by leaders too complicit with the redistribution of resources up the economic hierarchy.  It’s all one street and sometimes it seems to be all one war.

So perhaps they are similar images after all.  In a world becoming re-habituated to violence, the usual distinctions come to mean less and less. In order to comprehend a world out of joint, sometimes the photos have to be seen out of context.

Photographs by Gul Buddin Elham/Associated Press and Luis Vargas/ZUMAPRESS.com.


In Memoriam: Horst Faas, 1933-2012

Horst Faas photographed everything from wars in Algeria and the Congo to the 1972 Munich Olympics and much  more, but he was most noted for his work in Vietnam and later the horrific conflict in Bangladesh, twice winning both the Pulitzer Prize for Photography(1965, 1972) and the vaunted Robert Capa Gold Medal (1964, 1997).  By all accounts he was responsible for setting new standards for war photography.  His photographs in general displayed a gritty realism and his images from Vietnam in particular depicted the execrable effects of the war on both sides of what he called “this little bloodstained country so far away.”  He was chief of photo operations for the AP in Saigon from 1962 to 1972.  In 1967 he was seriously wounded by a rocket propelled grenade that nearly took his life; but even then, forced out of the field and confined to a desk he was pivotal in insisting that two controversial (and ultimately iconic) photographs were distributed over the AP wire: Eddie Adam’s “Saigon Execution” and Nick Ut’s “Accidental Napalm.”   He was the AP’s senior editor for Europe until his retirement in 2004.

At NCN we mourn his passing and celebrate his vital  contributions to the public art of photojournalism under the most difficult of circumstances.

Photo Credits: Horst Faas/AP