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Hurricane Sandy and Nature’s Inexorable Path

There really isn’t much to say, is there?  In the real world–the one where climate change isn’t a myth–nature has a way of calling in the chits. If you’ve got a levee, you might be OK, and if not, not.  If you have a new electrical grid designed to withstand more than a Christmas card snowfall, then you might be OK; if you have the aging, jerry-rigged network that passes for standard in the US, not so much.

If you understand that it is the job of government to plan, invest, and build as necessary to provide the transportation network, electrical power, clean water, waste management, and other common necessities for the general welfare and individual prosperity, then you know that a natural disaster is not entirely natural, but rather an empirical test of how well a society has been distributing its resources and otherwise making the tough decisions required for sustainability.  If, however, you think that government is the problem and that the patriotic thing to do is to drown the beast, well, then I guess you might as well let nature take its course.

Which it will do, which is why I like this photograph.

No one is likely to nominate this image for an award, not least because it was taken by a security camera. You are looking at water surging into the PATH subway station in Hoboken, New Jersey.  The station is deserted–good job by the government on that one–and thus its bland, gritty functionality is all the more evident.  Electrical cable tubes are exposed along pillar, ceiling, and walls; cheap surfaces, ugly paint, and impersonal signage look no better in the harsh lighting; the scene looks like it was designed more for the machines in the front and rear of the frame than for human beings.

Any subway system is likely to be vulnerable to flooding, and even in the good times it will endure a lot of wear and tear, so functionality is hardly a basis for indictment.  Even so, I can’t help but think that this system has been overused and underfunded for too long, and that it is far short of having been retrofitted for better environmental security.  And didn’t Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, kill an interstate plan to built a new transportation tunnel between NJ and NYC?  Well, yes, he did.

Which gets us back to the photo.  It would be enough to illustrate that the PATH system was already degraded, already undergoing a slow-moving catastrophe called the Decline of America.  But this photo does more as well, for it shows how nature cannot be stopped, cannot be held at bay forever by merely looking the other way and pretending the “once in a century” storms will never happen in this century.  (Where I come from “once in a century” floods now come along about every decade. . . .)  Floodwaters are no respecter of human habits: you might think an elevator shouldn’t be used to sluice water to where it can do the most damage, but the water has other ideas.

Or, worse yet, no ideas at all: the water doesn’t have to think, and it can’t be lied to.  You can’t tell it that climate change isn’t happening or that prudent investment in infrastructure is socialism or that this wouldn’t happen if we had more confidence in the market.  In place of that magical thinking (to draw on Paul Krugman’s astute analyses of right-wing ideology), the photo responds with its own fantasy of terror: the waters bursting through the mechanical doors evoke an image from a movie trailer for The Shining, when blood flowed from an elevator like water.  Here the water almost flows like blood, that is, as if the arteries in subway system were rupturing.

No matter how you try to describe it, the important point is that nature will not be denied.  It can be controlled, but that takes foresight and solidarity and many other political virtues that once were not in such short supply.  Maybe, just maybe, there still is time to learn that natural disasters are also products of human obtuseness.  If that lesson is not learned, nature some day will reclaim the city. And as in the photo, perhaps by then only the machines will be left to watch as they too are destroyed.

Photograph by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.


War Games

At first glance, the photograph is an excruciating example of what Barbie Zelizer refers to as an “about to die” photograph, but a quick read of the caption notes that it is an actor dressed in a Japanese military uniform as he “pretends to kill a man dressed as a plainclothes 8th Route Army soldier.”  The performance is taking place at an Army Culture Park in Wuxiang county, part of China’s Shanxi Province.  I might have treated the image as little more than a curiosity but for the fact that I encountered it on several different slide shows, often accompanied with other photographs, such as the one below, showing adolescents and teenagers role playing Chinese soldiers  in war game simulations at what is described as a “guerilla warfare experiential park.”

One might wonder why the Chinese are promoting a theme park that offers a “guerilla war experience,” but the  question here is, why are we seeing such images and in such profusion?  And why now? And without any extended commentary? China is of course one of America’s premiere competitors for world power, and so there is all manner of curiosity about who they are and what they are doing.  Many of the images that we see of China these days call attention to the ways in which their economic and technological progress stands as a threat to global capitalism or they underscore the Chinese government’s efforts at political oppression and their potential military strength. The photographs of professional actors and children role playing as soldiers—both past and present—at the Army Culture Park operate at the nexus of these concerns as we see a military culture being advanced for what appears to be China’s middle classes through a theme park experience that converts war into play.  While the actors have a serious countenance—as commensurate with their roles—everyone else seems to be having a good time.  And the presumed and potential threat to the western world—both economic and military—could not be more palpable as we watch children who might grow up to be our enemies enjoying the experience (both economically and militarily).

Before we feel too superior in judging the Chinese, however, we need to look more carefully within, for a simple search on “children” and “war games” in the United States brought up a reference to the Virginia War Museum in Newport News, VA, an “incredible, safe, and fun experience for children, 8-12” with  both summer and winter World War II Youth camps (here and here).

And perhaps the question should be, what’s the difference?  Or, of what should we really be afraid?

Photo Credits: Jason Lee/Reuters; Ross Taylor/Virginia Pilot


Sight Gag: Trick or Treat … 2012

Sight Gag 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.


Artsia.com’s Online Art Market: The Photos

Post by guest correspondent Lindsey Davis

Photographers all over the world have been selling their prints online through a new curated art market. Artsia.com, representing the Society of International Artists, was launched last month as an attempt to better connect professional artists to those who love and want to buy their work.

Herve Constant is a photographer on Artsia, a London-based French artist whose pieces work to convey narratives or statements about society and the way we communicate with one another.  “Although I may have different interests along the way, insofar as one travels, one more or less arrives at the same point of departure.”  His piece “The Same Story” was published in conjunction with a poem by Mary Kay Rummel in the Original Limited Edition called ARTLIFE, and is now in the archive collection of the Los Angeles Museum Contemporary Art. 

Giovanni Capriotti is an Italian artist working in Toronto, Canada. His passion lies in documentary photography, and he’s traveled and lived globally, keeping track of his path in photographs.  His piece “All I Need” from the project “Moon Safari” shows a scene outside a fast food restaurant called Tim Hortons, a couple entering and a man leaving the eerily lit parking lot. He adds that “In my early work I was focused on the effects that we have manifested in our reality, now I find myself trying to articulate the trends and causes that we, as modern humans, are making on our world.”

Guilherme Ghisoni is a Brazilian photographer born in Santa Catarina with a background in philosophy and music. While researching the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein for his Ph.D. at the Federal University of Sao Carlos in Brazil, his reading began to affect his photographic art and layers of meaning began to emerge.  His piece, “Yet Present – Itapema” features a hummingbird flying gracefully with beak proudly lifted, in front of a nondescript purple background surrounded by layers of white airy bubbles.  He remarks that”My current works can be seen as a consequence of my interest in the contemporary philosophy of time and its bearing on photography.”

Artsia is working to create and support a community of passionate professional artists like these in every kind of medium, and is now representing more than 500 carefully selected artists worldwide.


Palin Heavy: Paul Ryan on the National Stage

Someone needs to say it: Paul Ryan is this year’s Sarah Palin.  This comparison is not to deny the considerable differences between then: Ryan has far more government experience, influence within his party, and facility with the English language.  Indeed, he is touted as the intellectual among his Republican peers, the man of New Ideas and Big Ideas.  Palin, by contrast–well, we don’t need to go there.  In any case she was known primarily for her clothing and performative panache.  No professor or liberal, she.  Or he, for that matter:

This image of Ryan hitting the stage in Fisherville, Virginia, could be right out of a country western concert.  Look at those boots, for example–not typical gear in either Wisconsin (where he lives) or at Miami University of Ohio (where he went to college), but he’s stylin’ now.  (Likewise,  Sarah from Alaska had no trouble shopping in New York City; it’s where you’re going, not where you’re from, right?)  More to the point, every detail of Ryan’s entrance is pitched perfectly for the big stage.  He is a young, energetic, accomplished performer, and he knows how to play to the crowd.

And that’s where the comparisons start getting more than skin deep.  Palin and Ryan are energizing the same, extreme, right-wing base of the Republican party.  They both look good where it really counts: they are ideologically doctrinaire, populist demagogues who can light up a stage because they have boundless ambition and no qualms about anyone or anything else.  And, most important, they are equally vacuous about any of the policies they pitch.

Despite his superior polish, Ryan has said nothing that is any better than Palin’s garbled nonsense.  His new ideas are the same tired, flawed, failed ideas that Republicans have been pushing since 1980: cut taxes, cut government services, and deregulate all business, all to transfer wealth upward in the hope that a bit more will trickle down again.  And big ideas?  Well, these are the same ideas as above but scaled up for maximum impact: Don’t cut taxes, make them ever lower at the top and ever more regressive across the board; don’t negotiate workable solutions, ram through draconian policies and count on the market to take care of everything else.  Ryan can’t deliver the goods–actual programmatic details, actual budget numbers, independent budget assessments–any more than Palin could.  He just sings better.

It gets worse, as Palin probably was so out of her league that she didn’t have to lie.  She could just make stuff up because that’s all she knew.  With Ryan, however, it’s harder to believe that he isn’t knowingly bending the truth.  The Times article accompanying the photo put the matter well when it said that “his convention speech was like Christmas morning for fact-checkers.”  Which is odd, because intellectuals aren’t supposed to lie, or to be so deluded that they can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction.

Paul Ryan is no more an intellectual than Sarah Palin.  In fact, he is Palin Heavy: just a more expensive, higher impact version of the original.  Neither one should be entrusted with the hard work of actually governing in a democratic society.

Photograph by Josh Haner/The New York Times.  The photo accompanied this profile of Ryan in the New York Times Magazine.

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Public Life; or Living in Public

On any given night there are more than 600,000 homeless citizens of the United States who do not have indoor shelter.  Most live in urban communities and are consigned to finding places to sleep wherever they can, beneath bridges or in parks, alleyways, and culverts, sometimes in tents and sometimes not, sometimes in cars and sometimes simply on public streets and walkways.  Their presence is often perceived by those not so unfortunate as a public nuisance and so, not surprisingly, there has been something of an explosion of  laws nationwide that criminalize all manner of behaviors which penalize people for being homeless.

The assumption, it seems, is that we can address the “problem” of homelessness by making it more or less invisible in public spaces, and if we can’t do that then we will at least label it as deviant by making it illegal.  It is not entirely clear how effective such a strategy might actually be, since such laws are typically not accompanied with sufficient alternatives to “house” or otherwise accommodate such individuals.  But there is a larger problem, for it assumes that homelessness is a moral aberration that somehow mitigates one’s rights as a citizen to occupy and utilize public spaces.  The issue is not whether the homeless are “deserving” or not of their condition, nor for that matter whether their very presence undermines economic commerce in certain areas or neighborhoods, but whether a liberal-democratic society can function effectively by refusing civic (or human) rights to citizens on the basis of their socio-economic status.

Put differently, it seems likely that the condition of homelessness is not about to go away anytime soon—indeed, as some have argued it is endemic to the social, political, and economic worlds in which we live—and its not clear how the polity is served by treating the homeless as a group whose civil rights are nugatory.  The man sleeping on a public street in Berkeley, CA in the photograph above has been homeless for ten years and it is not likely that his condition will change anytime soon.  Declaring him a criminal and denying him access to the public parks and streets does nothing to address either the “problem” of homelessness or to promoting a democratic culture predicated on egalitarian principles.  At their best, such laws simply cast the homeless as scapegoats for a situation with which we are otherwise uncomfortable, and thus making it less visible to the public gaze.  But even at that, we have to recognize that, as in the photograph above, there will always be those like the young child who stare cannot be fully controlled. How much better might it be to imagine the homeless as citizens and to accord them the basic right to be in public spaces?

Credit: Ramin Rahimian/NYT


Sight Gag: The Binder That Matters

Credit: Adam Zyglis

Sight Gag 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.


Sony World Photography Awards 2013

The World Photography Organization manages the Sony World Photography Awards, which offer several levels of competition ranging from amateur to professional photography.  This year’s deadline for submission is January 4, 2013.  Information is available at the website, along with images of previous winners and notables as well as current entries.

“Bear’s Claw,” Moorcroft, Wyoming, by Mitch Dobrowner, 2102 SWPA Photographer of the Year.


What Can’t Be Seen in Afghanistan

I’ll get straight to the point: What can’t be seen in Afghanistan is no reason for being there.  Now let’s consider how “seen” is more than a metaphor.

So, what can be seen?  No one photo–no hundred photos–could answer that question, but let’s look at the image above, which appeared yesterday.  A soldier is receiving emergency care after being wounded by a roadside bomb in Logar Province.  The photo captures key features of US military behavior: the troops are thoroughly provisioned, very well trained, directly engaging the enemy, and disciplined under fire, and they take care of one another.

For all the conservative anxiety about letting African-Americans, then women (yes, they opposed that, too), and now Muslims and GLBT citizens serve in the military, you don’t have to worry about unit cohesion with this company, or any other.  One soldier is tending carefully to one of the leg wounds, while another checks on the soldier himself, and it is easy to imagine (and confirmed by other photos) that the rest of the troop is deployed to make sure that everything gets taken care of, from the man down to the mission.

The uniforms include US flag arm patches, but that identification is well short of the patriotic rhetoric that put them there.  Instead of grand pronouncements, we see dirt and gear.  Instead of lofty projections about democratization, we see only a small swatch of terrain: grass, trees, grass, trees leading into the nondescript background.

Alan Trachtenberg has remarked that the shift from illustration to photography in the 19th century lead to “a loss of clarity about both the overall form of battles and the unfolding war as such and the political meaning of events” (Reading American Photographs, pp. 74-75).  Thus, the realism that rightly displaced idealized illustrations of war came at the cost of a coherent narrative that would justify the fighting.  Thus, it might well be that no photograph can provide a strategic rationale for war–although it certainly could challenge any rationale that substituted illusion for the facts on the ground.

In short, it might be that one could never “see” a reason for being in Afghanistan, and that the medium of photojournalism was biased against supporting any overarching rationale for war.  One might think that war then should be left to military experts and political leaders: that is, to rational assessment of forces, strategic calculations, and the political will to accept those sacrifices that are needed on behalf of raison d’etat.  But what if those reasons really aren’t there in the first place?  What if the original reasons no longer apply, and we are left only with inertia, an unwillingness to accept sunk costs, political face-saving, and other  examples of war’s well-documented ability to corrupt decision-making?

At that point, perhaps the inability to see grand purpose in a photograph could stand for the actual absence of purpose.  And what if the photo also showed what happened when the battlefield no longer served the national interest: that is, how the soldiers rightly focus on the only good intentions left: doing their jobs well and caring for one another.

This older photograph, which just as well could be from any day this year, puts the problem in starker detail.  The soldier is a lot worse off, and the medical response is ramped up as well.  He was lucky enough to get to the Heath Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.  Again, we see key elements of military organization: both high-tech medical support and the caring attentiveness and reassurance of a fellow soldier, all in the service of nation.  But while the flag was small and utilitarian in the first photo, here is is overlarge and distant.  Whether too small or too big, it has been tacked on to what is really happening.  (Note how the flag above hangs awkwardly over the more functional decor below, as useful as a politician’s bluster back home.  There will be another reason it is there, however, as it has to compensate for the really bad news often occurring below.)

Sadly, the flag does not provide a reason to be there.  Afghanistan once harbored terrorists who deserved to be punished, and were.  But it no longer presents any threat to national security, while continued occupation has lead to the Taliban’s resurgence as a key player in local politics.

These photographs of American military sacrifice show much that is good about the US military effort in Afghanistan.  But no matter where you look, it seems, you can’t see a reason for them to be there.

Photographs by Munir Liz Zaman/Getty Images and Patrick Barth/Frontier Africa TV.