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Nature’s Image: Finding Unity in Deception

This weekend the photojournalism community was flooded with debate regarding an exposé at BAGnewsNotes.  The charges included deception and plagiarism and, in response, unprofessional reportage.  Along the way, a number of people remarked that, aside from the specific case, the issues reverberated across wider circles of concern, from norms of photojournalism to the role and impact of new media forums to basic questions about the relationship between image and reality.  When extended to this outer arc, one might want to encourage a more vital relationship between photojournalism and fine art photography.

animal flower pod

“Artistic license” is, of course, nothing less than a license to fabricate, whether in stone, words, or images.  It is for precisely this reason that photojournalists are trained to keep their work firmly grounded in recording what is, rather than fabricating what might be.  Along the way, this discipline on behalf of the public interest can lead to a doctrinal hostility to artistry, and good photojournalists then become very skilled in an art whose name can’t be spoken.

The division of labor between documentary and fine art photography has many institutional forms, and is replicated in blogging as well: for example, one reason we do so little with fine art is that it is covered so well at Conscientious. But today is different.

Is it a seahorse?  A worm?  Some small animal that may have inspired the image of a dragon?  Or is it imitating some other organic form in order to hunt or escape predation?  This beautiful image presents something that at once seems to be uniquely itself and yet also allusive, enigmatic, or evocative.

You are looking at a pod of the flowering legume Scorpius muricatus (common name “Prickly Caterpillar”).  What might have seemed animal is vegetable.  What might have seemed to be a parasite is part of a plant.  What could have been an ornament from fantasy fiction or perhaps even some ancient culture is just a tiny fleck of nature.

But, of course, it is a fleck of nature that has been depicted artistically, framed for a special act of perception, capable of creating its own resonance with a much wider, deeper, richer sense of being.  One can sense that animal and plants alike are all emanations of  a beautiful, endless flow of form and energy.   If there is any deception in the plant or its presentation or (most likely) in the mind of the spectator who can’t help but see several possibilities at once, this trick is in the service of opening the viewer to a profound sense of connectedness.  Indeed, “deception” and the very idea of a hard discrimination between appearance and reality is no longer the appropriate framework for understanding.  Sometimes that distinction matters a lot–it can be everything–but sometimes we can set it aside on behalf of other ways of being in the world.

The dissension and debate of public life is a very good thing, but we need repose and unity and wonder.  And not just as individuals, but as a way of living together.  Fortunately, photographers are providing the images that are needed for that as well.

Photograph by Viktor Sýkora.

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The Visibility of the Everydayness of War

Allepo Catapult 2

With sequestration staring us in the face and all of the teeth gnashing concerning the possibility that the Department of Defense will be confronted with $500 billion dollars in budget cuts over the next ten years—no small chunk of change, but nevertheless a relatively small part of the overall DOD budget—I was intrigued by the photographs, such as the one above, coming out of Syria that show the primitive and makeshift weaponry employed by the Free Syrian Army.

The slingshot or catapult can be traced to ancient and medieval times, but in the contemporary era it is usually associated with rebel or guerilla warriors (think of all of the images we regularly see of Palestinian youth using slingshots to hurl rocks at Israelis), in large measure because it requires so little in resources to make it work. State sponsored armies have budgets that can be cut, rebels and guerillas … not so much.  And so the later cobble together whatever is available, converting the objects of ordinary life into weapons of war.

It is this last fact that bears some attention.  Elsewhere we have talked about how war has been normalized by being made more or less invisible in the United States, such that the accouterments of warfare have been converted into everyday objects that appear to have no connection to war (think of Jeeps and Humvees, or the way in which camouflage  has become something of a fashion statement, not to mention the AKC-47 assault rifle cast as a hunting rifle), but here we see everyday objects employed to the ends of death and destruction.  This too is an act of normalization, but one that runs in the opposite direction, putting war on display as quotidian, making it visible as a normal part of the everyday experience.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this inversion, but I am reminded of Elaine Scarry’s characterization of torture as “world unmaking,” converting the objects of everyday life into instruments of pain.  Doctors become administrators of pain, refrigerators and filing cabinets become bludgeons, bathtubs becomes miniature torture chambers, etc.  Watching someone creating weapons out of everyday objects for their own use is not exactly the same thing, since there is no clear identification of torturer and tortured; then again it is arguably all the more torturous inasmuch as those producing and using such weapons seem to have little real choice in the matter as they become the active agents in unmaking the world around them.  It is, in its way, the most perfect and efficient form of torture; a perversion of a perversion in which the torturer and the tortured are one in the same person.

I was struck by the broad implications of this thought when looking at the picture below:

Phone Bombs

Once again the photograph is of members of the Free Syrian Army.  And once again the soldiers we see are involved in producing a homemade weapon of war.  Here, however, there is no pretense of primitive weaponry; characterized in the caption as an “anti-aircraft weapon,” it is thoroughly modern, even if it does not display the most sophisticated and up-to-the-minute technology.  Indeed the bright colors of this image suggest a degree of contemporaneity that is muted by the drab shadows and colors of the photograph of the catapult.  But what is most striking is the use of a smart phone to arm and guide the missile.  Here we have an everyday object—and an item that virtually everyone reading this post has in their pocket—that has made it possible to create community across time and space, allowing us, as Ma Bell used to say, “to reach out and touch someone.”  It does that here as well, of course, but only after perverting the normal and ordinary usage of an otherwise salutary and everyday instrument of communication.

The United States is a far distance from Syria in just about everyway that one can imagine, economically, politically, culturally, and so on.  And yet, looking at these images—almost as if through Alice’s looking glass— has to give us pause as we recognize our own pretenses and patterns of  acclimating ourselves to the visual everdayness of a culture of war.

Credits:  Asmaa Wagulh/ Reuters; Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters.  Elaine Scarry’s provocative  discussion of the relationship between torture and war appears in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.  New York: Oxford UP, 1985.


Sight Gag: A Man, A Tank, and a Computer


Credit: Manny Francisco, Manila Times

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.


Science, Fashion, and the Post-Human

“Science” and “Fashion” are not often found in the same sentence, but welcome to the 21st century.  As the design arts and sciences become the central constellation in a new organization of knowledge, the older distinctions between science, art, technology, fashion, engineering, entertainment, and other domains of modern culture will become increasingly outmoded.  To get a sense of how things are changing, take a sniff of this.

synthetic cell nose

You are looking at a synthetic nose in a petri dish.  By coating a polymeric cast with human cells, the University College London’s Department of Nanotechnology and Regenerative Medicine can produce organs that can be transplanted without risk of immune reactions leading to bodily rejection and other complications.  Noses, ears, and even a windpipe are now possible, with much more to come.  (For a frothy, not very informative report on the lab, go to this story by the Daily Mail.)  Gives new meaning to getting a nose job, doesn’t it?

Jokes aside, one does wonder where it could end, and what strange sights might become commonplace along the way.  The artist Stelarc has already been cutting a trail in that direction, not least with through the surgical construction of a prosthetic ear on his arm.  (I’ve had dinner with the guy and seen the thing myself.)  But we expect that from artists, right?  Well, not exactly, but after the fact we come to believe that was the provocation we might expect.  And despite the lengths to which artists will go to break through to the other side, their efforts can remain merely provocative precisely because they are still framed by the cultural category of art.

Which is one reason to look again at fashion.  Although an even more limiting categorization, it also is a form of visionary design that can slip under the radar precisely because it is assumed to be so superficial and ephemeral.  Which it is, but not before it can be downright disturbing precisely because it might be modeling the future.


These creatures are from the Erdem collection during London’s Fashion Week.  Don’t they look like they could come from a vat in the lab?  The gush at The Daily, the industry publication for the show, got it exactly right: “Clone-like, robotic girls made up a beautiful model army at Erdem. The pièce de résistance? A dusting of neon orange to the inner lip. ‘It’s as if they are grasping a neon bulb in their mouth and it’s glowing,’ explained the show’s make-up man Andrew Gallimore.”  And some day we’ll be able to design for that more extensively.  Plug and play, you might say.

Which brings up the matter of gender, doesn’t it.  Just where will designing women end?  Equally chilling is the idea that the lab would select for such extreme whiteness.  Now that we have an image of the cloned body, and not just the part, we can realize once again that the real problem may not be the technological capability, but how it could be used to reproduce a retrograde politics.

That’s the kind of reflection that art is supposed to provide.  As one design art is used to reflect on another, perhaps the post-human can become a future that is not only possible, but worthwhile.

Photographs by Seamus Murphy and Morgan O’Donovan and Shaniqwa Jarvis.  FYI, I’ve mentioned the post-human before here, here, here, and here; as you can see, I haven’t even settled on the spelling yet.  I’ll hope that my understanding of the subject is, well, evolving.


World Press Photo Contest: Why is the World not Weary of War?

The 2013 World Press Photo Contest Winners have been announced, and the news is not good.  I’m not referring to the quality of the judging or the photographs–far from it–but rather to what they show us about the world today.


Frankly, the world revealed by these photographs is a shit hole.  All too many of the images depict the ravages of war or of other conditions that are war by another name (gang violence, the brutal subjugation of women, poverty).  And as you can see above, a common denominator to these many sad stories is that a place where people were just trying to live decent lives is being wrecked, with little hope that anything good will come of it.  Or to put it another way, what seemed to be a modern world, or at least a part of the world on the way to full modernization, may in fact be going in the opposite direction.

I think it’s also telling that many of the slide shows featuring the winners–here, here, and here, to mention just a few examples– have selected images that don’t avoid this emphasis but may soften it a bit.  Certainly they haven’t led with the most horrific images, and neither have I.  Few of us really want to look at how awful life can be, and there is a great deal of peace, prosperity, and beauty in the world, and not much we can do about the rest anyway, right?

Right.  Sure.  Whatever you say, boss.  And that’s part of the problem.  In a period of time when in fact most of the world is at peace, in fact far too much of the world is at war.  And while terrible social, cultural, economic, and political degradation is spreading across the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere as well, the rest of the world goes about its business, as if business were all that there was to living with others.

That’s why I picked out the image above.  It was not a big winner–second prize, Spot news stories–and it’s certainly not a particularly striking image or one that with sharp emotional intensity.  It’s not even quickly legible, and you have to peer at it to see the lone rebel fighter aiming his grenade launcher in the direction of Syrian forces.  But for the same reason, I think it captures something important about the world being revealed by all of the photos.  A place where people have lived for millennia is being ruined, and with not much more than emptiness and the smoke of another battle on the horizon.  Just as bad, the lone human being in the picture is a puny part of the scene–a bit player, really, as larger historical forces crash together to create continuing upheaval.  Sure, he has the power of action, but even justified revolution turns too easily into just another cycle of violence.  At the end of the day, all we may be left with is a long night.

Of course, there may have been a bias in the contest toward bad news.  That is the nature of news, and so we should not be surprised that the stories told here are harsher than those at, say, National Geographic.  And this comparison reminds us that the quality of photography need not depend on its subject, so perhaps more of the winners could have been taken from the sunny side of the street.  But that would miss the point, which is the reason World Press Photo exists.

There comes a time when the most important thing is not how well the photo was taken, but what it reveals about the world.  In the words of William Carlos Williams, “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”  These photos are the poems for our time.

Photograph by Fabio Bucciarelli.  The William’s quote is from his poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”

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The Eyes of Carnival

“Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectators…. Eccentricity is [its] special category, organically connected with the category of familiar contact; it permits–in contcretely sensuous form–the latent sides of human to reveal and express themselves….[It] brings together, unifies, weds, and combines the sacred with the profane, the lofty with the low, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid.”

                                  — Michael Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 122-23

 Screen shot 2013-02-17 at 10.48.20 PM

Dancers of Carnival

Eyes of Carnival

Teeth of Carnival

Camera Carnival 2013-02-17 at 10.15.41 PM

Photo Credits:  Ricardo Moraes/Reuters – Images 1, 4, and 5; Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images; Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images;

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Sight Gag: In The Name of Smaller Government


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.

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Remittances: Images of Migrant Labor by Robert Gumpert

Given the date, I’m tempted to label this one, “Valentine’s Day, The Day After.”  It’s a beautiful, beautiful image of what love is all about: the deep bond and real beauty that can be found when people face life’s struggle together.

Gumpert Remittance 8

I could go on about the richness of this image–the fruit on the table on the left, as if out of a Dutch still life; the varied cultural associations, all powerful, caught up in her red shirt; the tension between repose and anxiety in her clasped hands. . . . But these and the other details, both light and dark, in this remarkable photograph are not there for merely artistic appreciation.

The photo is one from the Remittance series by Robert Gumpert, a photographer working out of San Francisco on behalf of prisoners, migrant laborers, and other human beings.  (Warning: this link to his website will take you to some heart-stopping photos.)  This series is a meditation on migrant earnings–the remittances–that flow back across borders as yet another form of alienated labor.  Gumpert notes that, according to the World Bank, remittances to developing countries are expected to increase 7 to 8 percent annually, reaching $467 billion by 2014.  Thus, capital flows at the bottom of the economic hierarchy much like it does at the top: transnationally, and in a manner that can abstract, displace, or destabilize social relationships.  The difference, of course, is that the flows at the top hurt other people, while the social costs at the bottom stay there.

Gumpert Remittance 6

Which is one reason why this highly enigmatic image is so moving.  It could be a work of performance art, but it’s not.  The decor suggests that she is doing fine, but the mask, well, that’s another story yet to be told.  Asthmatic?  Factory worker?  Sex Worker?  (In fact, she works in a nail salon.)  She is both present and concealed, and somehow alienated from us and even it seems from her own environment.  She seems too enclosed for her own good, and yet that enclosure may be all she has left of herself, with her money, chance of getting ahead, and control over her own life already sent elsewhere.

Gumpert Remittance 2

I don’t know what Robert Gumpert had in mind when he took these images, but I do know that he has given us something to think about, and something to think with.   Each image captures a profound sense of reality without out telling us exactly what that is.  What is unsaid is as important as what is being said; if, that, each side of the image is used to understand the other.  This back and forth is not an arbitrary exercise in interpretation, however, but essential to understanding a reality that is defined by people and capital constantly moving back and forth across so-call borders, and often leaving only desolation in between.

Photographs by Robert Gumpert.  The series is not yet available for public distribution, but I’ve provided these examples with his permission.


The Paradox of the Global Individual

THe Global Village 2013-02-12 at 10.53.39 PM

The scene is a recycling plant.  It could be anywhere in the world, but in this instance it happens to be in Lahore, Pakistan.  The plastic bottles, either clear or lime green, are recognizable, not only by their labels—some because they are in English and clearly mark internationally recognizable brands, and many others because they simply reproduce a common form of branding—but also by the general uniformity of their size and shape.  Not perfectly identical, they are nonetheless similar enough to mark a common commercial product.   Almost to a number they were used to sell sugared drinks or bottled water, but in any case each was generally used one and only one time.  That they are being recycled rather than burned or buried or simply left to deteriorate  at their own glacial pace is a good thing, to be sure, but their sheer volume, accented by the tight framing of the photograph, suggests that something is remiss.

If you look closely you will see that there is an individual in the very middle of the image.  He is barely recognizable. Nearly buried by the bottles that encompass his body, his face all but occluded by two bottles that he appears to be juggling, only his dark skin distinguishes him from the commercial colors that surround him. And therein likes the paradox of neoliberal globalization for all too see.  Cast in the center of a sea of products reliant upon and marketed to his individual needs and desires, his individuality has been almost totally effaced, made unrecognizable by the commercialization and mass production of a product that for all intents and purposes lacks any nutritional value.  And one can only imagine what will happen when he has been thoroughly absorbed by the waste.  Here, it seems, we see one version of the future of the global individual.

Photo Credit:  Rana Irfan Ali/Zuma Press


Repurposing Public Arts

Statues of civic heroes are not placed in the town square to become splattered with bird shit, but that is what happens.  In fact, birds pay attention to the monuments long after human attention has faded.  Once the work has become part of the background of daily life–not to mention an antique artform–it takes a second act of dedicated looking to capture the initial sense of monumentality.  And even then, the birds can alter the visual effect.

Birds roost on the rifle of a statue of Benjamin Milam at dusk

You might say they’ve become part of the picture.  (You can see another example here.)  What’s remarkable about this photograph is how it captures simultaneously both the original intention of the art work and its mildly comic appropriation by the birds.  Indeed, it blends intention and use in interesting ways.  The defiant gesture is beautifully highlighted by the contrast between the dark silhouette and blue and grey sky, while the bird’s behavior also makes perfect sense, not least as they are spaced evenly almost as though part of the original design.

This blending of different perspectives (gun or perch) is reflected symbolically as well.  On the one hand, the doves could seem to be an implicit criticism of the martial citizenship that has been set in stone.  Instead of the Sturm und Drang of history, they seem to have admirably simple concerns.  Instead of battling for sovereignty, they represent another kind of liberty.  Instead of trying to make a statement in stone, they alight and fly away as they please.  And at the end of the day, it seems that war is trumped by peace.

On the other hand, that bird on the end almost seems to be shot from the gun, and one could say that war buys peace and liberty.  This monument in San Antonio to Benjamin Milam celebrates the Texan war of independence, and that political act might acquire the aura of natural law once it is seen as so easily coordinate with a cloudy sky, the symbol of peace, and an act of soaring into space.  If you don’t think so, just consider how opinions differ on gun laws.  The fact that this image appeared in a slide show during a time of renewed debate about those laws may not be entirely coincidental, and it may well capture a basic dilemma at the heart of that controversy.

Public arts can be used in more than one way.  Birds use the statue in ways not intended, and humans do the same.  More to the point, the artwork never has only one meaning, even at the moment of dedication.  No design can compel only one response, and the meanings vary because viewers vary.  The passage of time works in more than one way as well: the public artifact becomes increasingly part of the background, seen but not seen, while the society’s range of possible responses becomes ever larger and more complex.

Photography is a public art, and it records other artworks.  Thus, it is subject to all the problems that come with being placed in the public square, but it also can reactivate awareness of what can be seen and how we see in civic spaces.  I hate the word “repurposing,” but it captures exactly what has become a common habit of a media-intensive society.  Images and other fragments of public culture are continually being put to additional use that may go far beyond what was originally intended.  So it is that the image above need not be about the birds or the stature, but about what it means to look at a photograph.

Photograph by Eric Gay/Associated Press.