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Why Photographs Don’t Stop the War

Because it’s the photographs’ fault, apparently.

Today the New York Times featured Michael Kimmelman’s impassioned critique of the lack of public response to the carnage in Syria.  “They keep coming, both the bombs and the images from Aleppo, so many of them.”  The theme, and pathos, of the article is that while the bombs are effective, the images are not.  Worse, they are not as effective as other images from previous catastrophes.  Referring to photographs such as the Accidental Napalm icon from the Vietnam War, we are told that those images “drove news cycles for weeks, months, years, helping tip the scales of policy.”

The question naturally becomes, what’s wrong with us?  The usual suspects are trotted out: bigotry, social media, and compassion fatigue not least among them.  Well, sure, all of those factors could be in play, but once again photography is being framed.

Let’s start with the facts: First of all, coverage of the war in Syria–and the refugee crisis it has created–has motivated many governments and many individuals to help.  Hundreds of millions of dollars in government and charitable aid have been supplied, and thousands have opened their doors around the world.  The photographs probably had something to do with that.  The fact that some of them are as recognizable as earlier icons attests to their likely contribution, as do many testimonials.

But they didn’t do it all, which gets to the next problem.  Those great images from the past did not drive news cycles for years.  Those of us who have studied iconic photographs have learned that their value does not depend on a direct causal effect.  The news cycle moves on regardless, while the iconic images develop over time.  (If they don’t persist, they aren’t iconic.)  They come to have many uses and may have long wave influence, but they don’t end the war or the famine or otherwise stop history in its tracks.

And neither does anything else, which gets to the next problem with the conventional critique of photography’s ineffectiveness.  How many words have been written about Aleppo?  How many articles and editorials and blog posts?  How many special reports and pastoral letters and letters to the editor?  Why don’t these texts have to bear the burden of ineffectiveness?  They, too, are ephemeral, they don’t drive the news cycle for long periods of time, and although they bear witness they don’t provoke mass protests.

Nor does this mean that the public is hopelessly indifferent.  As we’ve argued before (here and here), for anything to be persuasive, a lot has to be in place.  A political process, just to take one example.  The public has not been indifferent, it still has stores of compassion, we are perfectly capable of using social media and caring at the same time, and support from the bigots isn’t needed.  But there have been massive failures of governance and diplomacy, and political leaders should be held accountable.

The catastrophe in Aleppo was not inevitable, and there still is great need to resolve the conflicts there and elsewhere in the region.  Kimmelman is right about the most important things:  We should feel horror and shame when watching the destruction of Aleppo.  The public should demand help for those are displaced and destroyed by war, and for an end to the war.  He also is wise in suggesting that an effective protest movement is likely to require “slow, brick by brick construction.”  It always has–and those doing the killing can count on that.  The problem is complex, and so many alternatives  large and small need to be tried.

If social media can help as well, so much the better.  If photographs can make a difference, we should be grateful we have them.  But let’s not kid ourselves.  The fault is not  primarily in ourselves or in our media.  Aleppo has been allowed to die, and while it has happened on our watch, those who are responsible have yet to be confronted.

 

UPDATE: Readers might want to see similar arguments set forth (in French) here and summarized here.

Cross-posted: a slightly adapted version is at Reading the Pictures.

 

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Aleppo/Hiroshima

We might want to think of Aleppo as the Hiroshima of the 21st century.

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This photograph brought the analogy to mind, and yet it would seem to argue against the comparison.  The Hiroshima mushroom cloud was not as large, symmetrical, and awe-inspiring as the Nagasaki explosion or many of the atomic test explosions to come, but it was bigger than this blast plume over Aleppo.  This smaller image is closer to those from the tactical nuclear weapon tests, and even so, the nukes would still be worse, so what’s the point?

The point is that a hazy, moody photograph of the aftermath of an explosion might make someone stop and think.  To consider, for example, just how many people have died in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.  (Here’s a clue: more than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)  To consider how much conventional warfare is excused because it is assumed to be less destructive than nuclear weapons.  To realize that for those burnt, maimed, shocked, sickened, starved, orphaned, and killed by the unrelenting violence, the mechanism doesn’t really matter.  To ponder just how much is lost when a city is allowed to die.

One consolation of the analogy is that Aleppo, like Hiroshima, could be rebuilt to become a vibrant modern city again.  But don’t get your hopes up.  The analogy is imperfect from the start, and that may be part of the message.  The destruction now is not the product of a single bomb but instead of thousands upon thousands of bombs over days, weeks, months, and years of warfare.  Likewise, the damage may be evident for generations, a continuing witness to the politics of revenge and abandonment.  The first salvos of atomic warfare were effectively the last, whereas the violence unleashed on Aleppo is part of something that may be spreading across the globe: a dark age where localized violence occurs persistently enough to terrorize millions while tearing down civilization itself.

The photograph is not news, but something else.  An elegy, perhaps.  The damage has been done, and for many it is too late even to mourn.  By turning the fog of war into an atmosphere of remembrance, the photograph suggests that history changes only the names and the weapons, but not the slaughter.  It also asks: If the world wants to prevent another Hiroshima, why not stop the bombing of Aleppo?

Photograph by Omar Sanadiki/Reuters.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

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The Price of Milk

Post by guest correspondent Sarah Lingo

Presidential candidates are expected to know the price of milk. Do they? Do we?

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This photograph comes from a series by photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur, taken during her visit to an organic farm in 2010. The photo-essay chronicles the aftermath of a calf’s birth at a facility for milk and veal production; of 30 photographs on McArthur’s blog recording this visit, this one in particular brings me up short.

Reading from left to right, we first see a cow nuzzling her iridescent newborn calf whose legs are still bent beneath it; this birth has just occurred. The mother’s attention is strictly on her calf. As our gaze moves right, we see an audience of three more cows who direct their own gazes toward the birth event. A gate and an expanse of hay and mud separate the cows; these divide the photograph diagonally. All three cows to the right stretch their necks through the gate, getting as close as possible to the birth event. Their desire to participate in the scene, as they stretch their necks to the limit, unites them in shared longing.

Although this photograph does not show us explicit suffering—no blood, no slaughter—suffering is nevertheless present. The photograph makes a particularly effective and damning argument against the dairy industry precisely because it only implies suffering; the photograph engages the spectator’s imagination, forcing them to participate in and complete a cycle of ongoing violence.

In this case, violence is the violence of separation, isolation, bewilderment, heartache, and loneliness. The photo’s caption tells us “Dairy cows who have had their babies removed from them so that we can drink their milk, watch the new mother bond with her calf.” The calf that will immediately be taken away so that the mother can be returned to milking and be impregnated again. The calf that will be taken to a crate, where she will spend the rest of her life until slaughtered for veal—unless she, too, becomes a dairy cow.

We might expect the intensity of the new mother’s gaze, fixed exclusively on her calf. As Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen explain, “the elements placed on the left are presented as Given … a familiar and agreed-upon point of departure for the message” (181)—here, motherhood and its presumed instincts. We tacitly accept a demonstration of mothering so commonly assumed to exist across all species.

But the focused gaze of the other cows reveals another intense engagement. Their interest might surprise us. What investment do these cows have in a birth that is not their own? For that, we can look to the right of the photograph as it “present[s] … something which is not yet known, or perhaps not yet agreed upon by the viewer, hence as something to which the viewer must pay special attention.” These cows are “‘problematic’ [and] ‘contestable’” even as “the Given is presented as commonsensical, self-evident.” What is “problematic” and “contestable” about this photograph is the future that awaits mother and her calf, a reality embodied by the cows to the right.

We see here the past, present, and future simultaneously. For the new mother and her calf, this is their present: a moment of intimacy before an inevitable separation. For the cows to the right, the new mother and her calf represent a past, as all three of these cows have almost certainly given birth themselves and have been subsequently separated from their calves. The gate creates a diptych, dividing the past and the future and telling the story of all the cows that give birth on dairy farms.

The still photograph perpetually delays the inevitable suffering experienced by these and other dairy cattle. It suggests but does not show those impending traumatic events—the separation of mother and calf, the calf’s death. I am reminded of Barbie Zelizer, who writes of about-to-die images that such photographs are “situated within the final moment in which it is still possible to hope, where the inevitability of death might yet be avoided” (58).

Instead of documenting a single event, this photograph presents the suffering that is always about to happen: the ongoing violence perpetuated within the dairy industry. Such violence is never over, never resolved. The spectator must fill in the blanks, extrapolate from the cows on the right—who also are spectators—to face what is to come. The photograph forces us to put the pieces together ourselves, to see what has been, what is, and what will be all at once. It reveals the emotional and moral costs hidden in the price of milk: a bill of suffering that we would rather not see.

Darkness presses in from above, and the spectator has to strain to make out the photograph’s finer details. This required effort is representative of the spectator’s larger task of making up for what is unstated and unintelligible about the photograph. We must work to make meaning, to carry the narrative presented here to its logical conclusion; the photograph requires an act of imagination to complete its narrative. Such engagement makes this photograph particularly persuasive because it calls the spectator to actively participate in the violence the image itself only implies.

As Zelizer writes, those “depicted may or may not die, [but] that is incidental to the fact that they stand in for those who do. Because death lingers as a potentiality only, it is up to the public to make the contingent death certain by inferring death from what is depicted” (72). The spectator, having participated in this violent narrative, is left only to wonder, what is required to disrupt this sequence of events, if not for these particular cows, for innumerable others?

 

Photograph by Jo-Anne McArthur/http://www.weanimals.org/gallery.php?id=90#ph1.

Sarah Lingo is a student in the doctoral program in Rhetoric and Public Culture at Northwestern University.  She can be contacted at sklingo@u.northwestern.edu.

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Now Available: The Public Image

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Our new book is out! We’ll hope that modesty does not forbid this moment of self-promotion. Thanks to an extraordinary commitment by the University of Chicago Press, the book includes 48 color photographs and yet is priced at $35, $26.77 at Amazon. It also is available as an e-book.

The Public Image argues for a fundamental shift in understanding photography and public culture. In place of suspicions about photography’s capacity for distraction, deception, and manipulation, we suggest how it can provide resources for democratic communication and thoughtful reflection about contemporary social problems.

As Suzie Linfield comments, “With intelligence and passion, Hariman and Lucaites challenge us to re-think what documentary photographs can and can’t do, what they hide and reveal, and how we do and don’t see them. Most of all, the authors make clear why these questions are of such great urgency to the violence-saturated world in which we live and to the future of modernity itself.”

You can read more about it at the Amazon page or the page at the Press, but, hey, why not see for yourself?

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The Family of Man Redux

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“Redux” means bringing back, as if from war or exile.  The Family of Man was born into two wars: the Cold War, and a series of attacks by Roland Barthes, Alan Sekula, and others that derided its popularity, its humanism, and its vision of photography as a public art.  The result was exile.  As part of the paradigm shift currently underway in photographic theory and practice, there now are several revisionist engagements with the exhibition, which is itself getting a permanent home.  On Display is the most recent of these re-considerations.

The links for ordering the book won’t work in this reproduction of the flyer, but you can start here.

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Announcement:  Photography and Civic Spectatorship

Photography and Civic Spectatorship

Robert Hariman, Northwestern University and John Louis Lucaites, Indiana University
A National Communication Association Seminar
Philadelphia Marriott Downtown
November 9, 2016
9:00 AM – 5:00 PM

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Since its inception photography has been understood as a fundamentally democratic technology, but throughout the past century it has been dogged by an iconoclastic attitude—a hermeneutics of suspicion—that has treated it as a problematic medium and mode of representation that undermines political awareness and public deliberation.  The tide seems to be slowly turning in recent years with increasing attention to the role that photography might play in animating civic imagination and engagement. This seminar explores some of the questions, assumptions, and arguments that can move scholarly and public discussions of photography beyond the older paradigm and toward more engaged civic spectatorship.  These issues include rethinking the relationship between analog and digital technologies, the role that de- and re-contextualization plays in interpreting and thinking with photographs, and the relationship between realism and imagination.  The seminar will be divided between exploring (a) a robust conception of photography as a public art in the 21st century, and (b) two topics that are central to photography’s history and critical potential: modernity and war.  Throughout the focus will be on the development of interpretive practices and ethical norms for civic spectatorship

Requirements: Applicants should submit a 250 word statement that indicates their interest in the study of visual media and spectatorship, as well as a brief description of one of their research projects that might benefit from and contribute to the themes of the seminar.  Applications should be sent as a pdf file to John Lucaites (Lucaites@indiana.edu) no later than September 16, 2016. Those selected to be in the seminar will be notified no later than October 1, 2016.  Subsequently a few common texts and images will be distributed for study prior to meeting at the convention.

Photograph by Suzanne DeChilo/New York Times.

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Killing, Seeing, and Being Seen

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Let’s get a few things straight: the fish is being tagged, not killed.  The fish is a fish, and I’m not, so I don’t know what it is seeing.  Because the fish is a cod, it will eat lots of other fish, including other cod, many of them while their hearts are still beating.  If you want sympathy, don’t expect to get it from the fish.

But does the fish nonetheless deserve sympathy–or compassion, or whatever you want to call an act of moral resonance?  And should the fact that we can see it seeing be the basis for that sympathy?  Reason would suggest otherwise, but I’m not sure I want to be so reasonable.  Not at the moment, anyway.  There is plenty of time to revert to the more utilitarian arguments for not destroying the wild fish populations, for keeping the ecosystem in balance, for sustaining resources for future generations. . . . But this photograph requires a different answer, because it is asking a different question.

That question is, why kill?  Why should we kill, or at least, why should we kill those species we can live without?  Of course we slaughter micro-organisms by the trillions, but that consideration is largely a distraction from where morality really lies: that is, where individual and collective decisions are possible.

This photograph is as good an argument for vegetarianism as I’ve seen in awhile.  First, it got to me, and that has to happen if deep cultural habits are to be changed.  Second, it got to me for reasons that are easily dismissed and yet somehow persistent.  The large eye evokes cross-species identification, as if the eye is window to the soul.  That’s a cliche, but hard to shake.  The large head, open mouth, and sagacious visage suggests a capacity for self-consciousness, even reflection; no matter that the suggestion comes from those 19th century drawings and Kitchy paintings of animals in suits or sitting around the poker table.  The gentle, supporting embrace of the technician evokes an ethic that channels every sentiment of parenting or of loving care for one’s pets–even though he holds neither child nor pet and his work is geared toward increasing the fishing quotas.

Why, we might ask, should such compromised emotional attachments prevail?  Why should this photo push me further away from eating meat?  Let me suggest that the deep structure of the image is doing important work on behalf of overcoming our moral blindness regarding other species.  The clue to what might be happening is provided by Kaja Silverman’s remarkable book, The Miracle of Analogy: The History of Photography, Part I.  Silverman suggests that photography’s genius lies not in providing direct reproductions of what is seen, but rather in disclosing the many similarities that constitute the world in its deepest sense.   Instead of thinking of reality as something prior to the image, we should consider how reality is “a vast constellation of analogies” (11) that can be brought to light through the image.

Analogies between fish and human beings, for example.  Similarities that are not so much thought as felt.  Patterns of continuity that become expressed by many and often odd means: cliches, cartoons, and comparisons with pets among them.

And if you think about that, it might become harder to kill.

Photograph by Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe.

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Citizens of Photography Research Positions

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The Department of Anthropology at University College, London is seeking two MPhil/PhD candidates and two postdoctoral researchers to participate in an exciting project “Citizens of Photography: The Camera and the Political Imagination” co-ordinated by Professor Christopher Pinney. Participants will be required to conduct fieldwork in one of the following locations: Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Nicaragua. “Citizens of Photography” is an empirical anthropological investigation of the relationship between photographic self-representation and different societies’ understanding of what is politically possible. Prolonged ethnographic fieldwork will study how local communities use photography to represent individuals, families, and other identities and explore whether this plays a role in the manner in which people articulate their political hopes and demands.

Additional information is available here (for MPhil/PhD) and here (for postdoc).  Interested applicants are encouraged to contact Christopher Pinney at c.pinney@ucl.ac.uk for further details.

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Why Spectators Matter: The Resolution of the Suspect

Kratsman:Azoulay

Radius Books, in conjunction with Harvard’s Peabody Museum Press, has released The Resolution of the Suspect, a collection of photographs by Miki Kratsman with accompanying text by Ariella Azoulay.  The work draws on decades of documentary engagement in Palestine to expose the operations and effects of the Israeli occupation.

Prepare to be disappointed: if, that is, you want to see searing moments of human drama, striking images evoking strong emotions, and compelling indictments of political leaders.  Such photographs have their place, but to show how oppression eats into the bones of all who are involved–victims and perpetrators and spectators–one has to give up drama for banality.

Aware of both the moral capacities and the limitations of texts and images, Kratsman and Azoulay refocus conventional documentary practices to explore how power shapes the act of seeing.  They expose the dominant gaze of military occupation, but more as well.  Across the terrain of power, they trace the countless gestures, silences, concessions, commitments, and sheer persistence that make up a politics of presence for those who are denied the status of citizens.  The result is a slow, disruptive look into a place where everyday life is lived–and degraded–under the twined optics of nonrecognition and surveillance.

What is most distinctive, and  perhaps astonishing, is how Kratsman and Azoulay call for the active participation of the spectator.  “Active participation here means to resist the assumption that the insecurity of the lives of those photographed is unrelated to your own status and mode of being as a citizen of a given political regime”; it  is to understand instead how “the constitution of your own citizenship is what keeps them vulnerable and exposed to disaster” (28).  Nor is this a simple scolding; instead, “We are encouraged to harness our imagination” in order to recognize how we already are being harmed by the illusions of non-participation, and how we have forgotten our right not to be complicit with the perpetrators, and how we, too, can become subject to forces of degradation and destruction.

In place of drama and strong emotional identification with the victims, we are offered a long view and photography’s “civil contract” whereby all who are governed can experience an egalitarian solidarity across the arbitrary restrictions of sovereignty.  That contract is available every time you look at a photograph.  It becomes a political resource as you allow the photo to prompt and guide your civil imagination.  Only then can you enter into what really is happening on the ground while considering what could and should be otherwise.

What you can’t do is see it all.  That incapacity is fundamental to Resolution, which offers a collection of fragments that suggest instead how low-level violence can tear, gouge, and distort reality; how it breaks continuities of trust and vision; how sharper resolution is but the ironic echo of an inchoate abyss.

That said, the book is strangely hopeful.  I’m not sure why, but perhaps the authors know that cynicism only perpetuates the status quo.  I also suspect that they believe in the spectator.  However hard it may be to believe, they believe in you.

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