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The Silence of the Lamb

Often political art is unimaginative, predictable, and didactic, but sometimes it can be horrific.

Sana'a, Yemen: A boy wears a paper mask to depict silence

The boy is wearing a mask outside the UN office in Sana’a, Yemen.  He is there as part of a protest “against the silence of the international community over the plight of Muslims in regions of conflict.”  The caption sounds like it was written by a party communications officer, and I doubt that it was the boy’s idea to march down to the UN office.  Nor is that mask something that was made in the schoolyard.

I wish it had never been made at all.  Awful, terrifying, gruesome, grotesque: one shudders with each attempt to describe its effect.  The lips sewn shut are profoundly disturbing, and all the more so for being placed over the child’s mouth.  The ghastly distortion of the torture is magnified further by its now disproportionate size against his small, delicate features.

One assumes that the boy’s mouth has not been damaged, but one can’t shake the sense that he has been harmed by the mask.  His lips are sealed so that he can’t speak, his mouth covered and nostrils almost covered, his body controlled by unseen adults ready to use him for their own political ends.  There is something monstrous about the image he now presents to the world, and perhaps some demon lies behind it.

While protesting silence, he is there to be seen but not heard.  More to the point, he is there to be photographed.  And he was, and the image traveled well, and so the combination of two mute media–the mask and the photograph–creates a kind of speech.  It is speech that can be easily understood: for example, I may have misread the situation regarding the specific protest, how it was organized, and how he got there.  But it is precisely the ability to push everything else out of the picture that contributes to the rhetorical power of this close-cropped portrait.  One art has relayed and amplified another, and by bringing the spectator into an almost intimate relationship with an unsettling depiction of suppressed speech, someone got the word out.

Still, I can’t help think that the child was used.  Not to mention being made party to an act of symbolic violence that is perhaps overwrought, unnecessary, and even likely to habituate one to torture and other forms of actual violence.  Perhaps this claim is itself overwrought and unnecessary, but it at least has the excuse of being provoked by artwork that was designed to be provocative.  And really, what silence?  The news sources I read are full of stories and images about Muslims suffering in regions of conflict.  Today the stories included executions in Syria, riots in Egypt, civil wars in North Africa, more land grabs in the Occupied Territories, protests in Bahrain, and on and on.  And, frankly, “Muslims” is a suspiciously broad category, is it not?

If there is silence, some of it may be self-imposed, and some of it  might be inflicted on those who could have been allowed to think and speak for themselves, instead of being enlisted in yet another conflict.

Photograph by Mohamed Al-Sayaghi/Reuters.


Public Witnesses to an Execution

Public hanging

There is something that is both ironic and perversely democratic about this photograph.  The location is Tehran Square in Iran and the people on the other side of the barricade are witnesses to a public hanging.   Many are photographing the event, some appear to be looking in anger or in anticipation, others reveal expressions of pain and grief or simply cannot look at all.  But all are public spectators to a state sponsored execution.

To understand the irony and the perversion you have to remember that there has not been a public execution in the United States since the hanging of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, KY in 1936, despite the fact that there have been 1,320 state sponsored executions between 1976 and 2013. The irony, of course, is that Iran is run by an autocratic dictatorship while the U.S. is an open democracy, but at least in this instance the former, it would seem, is far more open and transparent than the later.  Iran’s motivation is hardly democratic inasmuch as the purpose for the public spectacle is to serve as a brutal warning rather than to inculcate the legitimacy of its actions, and hence it is in this sense a perversion of democracy, but there is also something compelling about the idea that if the state is going to exact such punishments that the public—and not just a hand full of journalists—ought to stand in witness to the action.  We don’t endorse the death penalty at NCN, but the larger point here is that it seems fundamentally undemocratic to engage in such an extreme form of punishment outside of the public eye and apart from the full participation of the people.

If we think of the above photograph in cinematic terms as the “shot,” then this second photograph might function as the “reverse shot” or what the spectators are viewing.

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In Barbie Zelizer’s terms, we might call it an “about to die” shot.  But what makes it important for our purposes is how it captures the complexity of emotions that the spectacle of a public execution can put on display.  What is particularly telling is how even the hoods designed to conceal the identity—and not incidentally the affective responses—of the executioners are ultimately incapable of masking what can only be a moment of human compassion as the hangman on the left comforts one of the individuals about to meet his fate.  And one can only wonder if the reason we don’t have public executions in the United States is because we are afraid of letting the public witness the brutality of the punishment, or alternately, is it because we don’t want them to witness the displays of ambivalence of those responsible for performing their charge as executioners?

Photo Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi/Fars/AP; Amir Pourmand/Iranian Studewnts News Agency/AP



Sight Gag: In Hot Water

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Credit: Steve Greenberg

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.



Time Lost to Violence in Syria and Texas

One of the basic ideas that I bring to this blog is that a lot can be learned from photographs that are not striking, dramatic, or otherwise visually assertive.  Of course, most of the time I’m still working with high-grade professional images, but the distinction holds all the more for that.

Aleppo rubble

Few photography instructors would advise their students to take a distant, poorly lit shot of people walking aimlessly across a pile of rubble.  But they might need to think otherwise if they were preparing those students for a tour of duty in a war zone.  This is an all-too-typical scene from Aleppo.  The electronics remaining along the roof line suggest this had been a high-tech building, but now it’s been bombed back to the stone age.

Instead of downloading, people are scavenging.  Not for food (not here and not yet at least) but more for something to do.  And that is what the photo reveals: not just destruction, but how much war is about killing time.  Soldiers know all too well how bursts of activity can be separated by long stretches of boredom, but that is nothing compared to what many civilians experience.  War imprisons them–whether in their homes or a refugee camp–while destroying virtually all work, schooling, or play.  As the built environment around them is degraded more and more every week, their opportunity to do anything productive becomes ever more constricted and difficult.  Time looms large as something to be filled–with what?–but in fact that time is being lost.  Lost to them and to the rest of society.  Time that could be used to do so much: to learn, work, entertain, invent, and not least to actually live and not merely survive. . . .

Look at the photo again and consider how you can see what I’m talking about.  Not just the destruction of the building, with all the hardship that will cause, but also how time is actually present in the photograph, expanding to fill the craters and exposed buildings, spreading across the rubble that now blocks any attempt to do anything in that place.  Look at how helpless those in the picture are to beat back the emptiness.  Even the playfulness evident in the figure on the right will soon be exhausted, and more time will be lost to the bewilderment and hopelessness evident in the other boy and the adult to the left.  Their time will be like the space in the photo: there is too much of it, now that it can no longer be productively organized by the buildings and routines of ordinary life.

So you might ask, Is that just one photo, or can we see the same thing elsewhere?  My guess is that you can find the same problem wherever there is persistent violence.  In the US, for example.

Lone Star students

These students at Lone Star College are killing time as their campus is being locked down following a gunfight.  Apparently two guys were carrying, and so we now all are witnesses to an example of NRA-style conflict resolution.  Of course, it didn’t exactly play out the way it was supposed to.  Instead of two rugged individualists settling their differences with frontier justice, someone else was caught in the crossfire and thousands of students and staff at several institutions in the area had their day seriously disrupted.  (Has anyone measured the collateral damage in lost time and productivity from all these shootings?)  But the details here are not the point.

No, the point is that this, too, is an image of war.  The circumstances differ in many ways, of course, and so the definition is being stretched too far, but consider how one effect may be the same in both countries.  Shooting in both Syria and Texas is not only destroying people and property, it also is killing time.  Killing it by making it useless and a burden to be borne rather than a precious resource to be used and enjoyed.

If the NRA had its way, every college and university would be required to allow people to carry concealed weapons on campus.  Welcome to the war zone.

Photographs by Muzaffar Salman/Reuters and Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle.


SIght Gag: The Anti-Gun Conspiracy




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.


 1 Comment

The Ghost in the Machine During Fashion Week

Fashion Week never ceases to teach me something.  And now that the week lasts most of the year as the shows blossom one after another around the globe, there is much to learn.  Not least about photography.


This image is from the New York Show last September.  Fashion isn’t timeless, but the photographer’s artifice has captured something about photography itself.  Perhaps the over-the-top artifice of the shows gave the photographer more artistic license than usual, for most would not intentionally overexpose the model that supposedly is the focal point of the event.  By focusing on the audience, however, the image both brings them out of the darkness while turning her into a creature of light.  Which she always was, of course.

But which is stranger: to see an all-white silhouette, or to see the act of spectatorship offered to view?  One answer is that both are strange, with the emphasis depending on where you want to go philosophically.  By focusing on the model, images of haunting come to mind, and one might recall how images of ghosts, fairies, spirit worlds, and other premonitions of life beyond death were a prominent part of the early history of photography.  Ultimately (but not completely), realism trumped that exercise in imagination, but photography has remained a medium in several senses of the word ever since.  As the bare outline of the model suggests, the camera is only capturing traces of what is there, with the rest to be supplied by the imagination.  Likewise, one can imagine how images are already within the camera, waiting to be released, and also floating unseen through the air, waiting to be captured.  Haunting is omnidirectional, I imagine.

But is there one ghost or many?  As the members of the audience are brought out of the shadows, we are reminded how they also haunt the camera: always there unseen and often unbidden, waiting for the image to appear.  Without the audience, there is no need for the image, so in one sense they have to always be there, unseen, as the potential force that allows the camera to flash.

They are more like us than any of us are like the model.  They double our viewing, as we do theirs.  I find the experience of seeing them seeing to be a bit troubling.  (If you want to get a good dose of the experience, sit through the scene in the film Amour when the concert audience is waiting for the performance to begin.)  We might ask why that is, but I don’t have time to consider that question today.  I’ll close instead by noting how much there is to see about seeing.

The gazes in the audience shown above are by turns appraising, calculating, desiring, distracted, bored, and more.  Some are extended into taking photographs, thus also doubling the act of taking this photo.  Photography is a study in plurality, extended further by its own reproduction, and ultimately about itself only when it is showing what it means to see and be seen.

Or perhaps I should have said, to see what often goes unseen, even during Fashion Week.

Photograph from the J. Mendel Spring/Summer Show, New York, September 12, 2012, by Andrew Burton/ Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.



Aleppo University and the Banality of Good

I supposed I’m biased: a university professor would be expected to take a university bombing seriously.  Likewise the journalists, who use their university educations every day, and so the 80 people killed in the attack on Aleppo University yesterday might be receiving more than the usual amount of attention.  What is 80 more in a civil war that has claimed 60,000 dead and driven ten times that number into refugee camps?  Civil wars aren’t civil, so why should a university expect to be spared?

APphoto_Mideast Syria

One answer can be taken from this photo of some of the physical damage from the blast.  There is nothing exceptional about the photo–it’s just another entry in the ever expanding archive of rubble world–and there is nothing exceptional about the building.  And that’s the point: what you see is in fact thoroughly ordinary, mundane, routine, to be expected.  Square rooms, identical radiators, standardized fittings and furniture–just another block of rooms designed for low-impact activities such as reading, talking, writing, or sleeping.  It may have been a dorm or perhaps a set of faculty offices, but the purpose in any case was civil.  No one was there for the amenities, but no one had to worry–it seemed–about being killed.

The blast brings to light the building’s routinized design and construction practices.  Instead of asking “Is this your room” or “Is this your office,” viewers are led to ponder the sameness of things: same square spaces, same concrete and metal materials, same bomb, same indiscriminate carnage.  Once the building was up, most of the people using it never had to think about how it was built, where the pipes ran through the walls, or how long some of the maintenance could be deferred.  They had better things to do, and the point of the university was to created a space where those things could be done.  The higher learning benefited from other forms of thoughtlessness, a kind of peace that had been acquired by drawing on many of civilization’s arts, including architecture, engineering, and management.  Because others had been thinking professionally, one could be free to learn those skills and many others, not least the arts that can improve civic association.

Put another way, by providing a not too emotionally charged photo of a damaged building, the photograph asks us to consider how damage extends beyond the personal tragedies of death and maiming to include the structure of society as a whole.  Because the building is placed in the middle distance, our position as viewers is placed in a corresponding spot: neither completely distant from nor intimately involved in the scene, we are invited to understand but left too far away to directly participate.  In short, we are put in a civic relationship with those in the wreckage: they are neither wholly foreign nor familiar, but inhabiting a common social structure that extends from their space into ours.   A structure that, like the building, can be both taken for granted and deliberately damaged.

Hannah Arendt, who cared a great deal about civic life, is known in part for developing the concept of “the banality of evil.”  This somewhat counter-intuitive phrase should not be summarized lightly, but it is fair enough for the moment to say that she was focusing on how evil benefits from a certain form of thoughtlessness.  That was how Adolf Eichmann and other Nazi executioners could sleep at night, by thinking about only their technical responsibilities while accepting unthinkingly the false beliefs and hideous values that made genocide seem normal.  Much has been said for and against Arendt’s argument, both in respect to the particular case and the problem of evil more generally.  I want to add a small emendation that is brought to mind by the photo of a ruined buiilding in Aleppo.

The point is offered by the deep asymmetry in the image between the routinized, taken-for-granted infrastructure and the unexpected but intentional act of destruction.  In this case, thoughtlessness was largely in the service of the good.  Indeed, that’s why the university was so vulnerable.  By not having to think about security, and by having a temporary reprieve from the throat-tightening anxieties of the war, people were able to think–and probably to think as Arendt would have wanted, that is, by questioning and improving the basic assumptions of the society to combat the banality of evil.

A student at the university remarked that,”with all the brutality, no one could imagine [the government] shelling a university.” The LA Times story goes on: “The woman, who crosses multiple rebel and government checkpoints to reach school each day, had been determined to pursue her education despite the violence. But now she is rattled. ‘This is not the way schools are supposed to be,’ she said.”

Not thinking about material infrastructure is not the same as not thinking about violence. but my point stands: a well functioning civil society is one in which you don’t have to worry about civil war.  The university represented the last space where that was possible, and now that has been lost as well.

The thoughtfulness desperately needed in Syria, the Middle East, and everywhere else around the globe requires its own forms of thoughtlessness.  Ignoring ethical ideas leads to the banality of evil, but there is another kind of inattention that one might call the banality of good.  How do we know?  Because in Syria we can see it exposed to view, as it is being destroyed.

Photograph by the Syrian Official News Agency.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


The Winters of Our Discontent

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I wish I could claim sole authorship of the title for this commentary, but in fact it is an adaptation of a recent article in Scientific American (which adapted it from the title of John Steinbeck’s last novel who in turn borrowed it from Shakespeare’s malevolent characterization of Richard III).  But for all of that it is no less a compelling characterization of our current state of climactic affairs as we find ourselves confronting the acceleration of what has become known as “slow violence.”

Slow violence refers to environmental disasters that occur so gradually that we barely see them, but which reap long-term, catastrophic outcomes.  Recent global warming trends top the list and what makes such phenomena all the more problematic is how they can often appear to be incredibly, breath takingly beautiful, approaching what we might even call the sublime—representations that in some measure transcend reality, transporting us to a place that defies the very capacity for representation itself.  The photograph above is perhaps such an image where sky and water bifurcate the horizon of here and there as variations in lightness and darkness mark the temporal distance between now and then (or perhaps past and future).  The orange and magenta tones of the sky cast a calming shadow upon the sea which masks the mysteries of who knows what within its otherwise murky depths.   And overall the image invites both our approach and avoidance as if a heavenly and sanctified location.  It is hard to not look it and to be in awe.  Only the protuberances that emerge from the bottom of the frame call attention to the fact that this is a photograph and not a scene that fully transcends human occupation.

What we are actually looking at is “haboob,” a white shelf cloud of dirt that has been stirred up by a ferocious dust storm in the Indian Ocean off of the coast of Western Australia.  This dust storm, one of many that has caused brush fires over nearly one million acres is the result of uncharacteristically hot temperatures peaking at more than 119 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of Australia.  The result of those brush fires invites consideration of sublimity’s counterpart, the grotesque, as a second photograph from New South Wales pictures the carcasses of sheep incapable of breaking free of a fence that contained them while a wildfire consumed the earth on which they stood.

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The bodies are not human, and so the tragedy is not as pronounced as it might be—not that we should scant the lives of sheep or other living beings—but it is not hard to imagine that they could be human bodies.  The image is hard to look at, but that would seem to be the point, as it works as a powerful, visual counterpoint to the awe-inspiring beauty that all too often and all too easily diverts our attention and placates (gratifyingly so) our acceptance of slow violence in the first place.

This is the third winter in a row that we have faced extreme weather patterns throughout the world.  These are the winters of our discontent. How much longer will they go on before we respond responsibly as global citizens is the real question we need to be asking.

Photo Credit: Brett Martin/Reuters/; Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images