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Getting Above the Chaos: Science, Photography, and Beauty

Astronomers travel to the high plateau of the Atacama Desert in Chile to get above the moisture, air-borne particulates, and ambient light that distort the night sky at lower and more populated altitudes.  Many of us need to get above pollution and distortion today, and I’m not talking about the environment.  In a political climate gone chaotic, ordinary experience can be awash in fear, anger, disorientation, and a pervasive sense of helplessness before forces beyond control or reason.   The world can seem lost to white noise and alternative facts, lurid emotions and garish displays of moral ugliness, miasmas of insinuation and threat that make even the brightest lights glow hazy in the gassy, swampy air.

Which may be why I find these images from the Observatory in Chile to be so comforting.

The Milky Way arcs across the sky above four of the telescopes at the Cero Paranal observatory.  (Yes, those large buildings are telescopes, which have come a long way from what used to be seen in hobby shops.)  Or we could say that the high-tech structures on the ground appear as stations on the way to a cosmic plateau, as if for pilgrims or astronauts ready to journey to the heavens.  Or perhaps that one type of intelligence is arrayed for contact with another, far larger and largely unknown, of which it is but a small part.

Or perhaps something else.  As Kaja Silverman has suggested, the genius of photography is that it schools us in learning through analogies: to see not what is but how each is like something else.  The photograph above is not showing us how our galaxy actually looks in some objective sense, or marking the proportions between that reality and our own, or doing much of anything except giving us a beautiful image: an image that prompts us to marvel, to wonder, to imagine something far grander and more ordered than the mess we make of our own world.

One of those analogies is between the beauty of the photograph and the beauty of the natural world.  Another is between science and beauty.  What might have seemed strange in the official dispensation in the mid-twentieth century now is becoming evident and ever more important.  When chaos has been unleashed by those who fully intend to benefit from its destructiveness, perhaps a commitment to the good life for all can draw strength from the idea that reason, beauty, and careful attention to natural order can be life-sustaining.

These photos and the telescopes they show are the work of the European Southern Observatory.  That’s right: European, but in Chile.  Obviously, someone forgot to build a wall.  The ESO is a consortium of fifteen nations, and it is a fitting example of what international cooperation can do.  The investments are huge, and for what?  It may be a job creator, but that’s not the point.  The advancement of knowledge, and with that of civilization, will come not from a reactionary nationalism, but from working together across borders.

If the result is a wormhole to another universe, that may be a good thing, but I don’t need to see it.  The better lesson is to take our cue from the streak of white light on the left, cutting across the grain.  Like an Afghan carpet that has been given a flaw to avoid vanity before God, the image can remind us that even our best efforts at order and understanding can lead to disaster.  The universe exceeds our images and our imaginations.  Where we want to see symmetry, there will be imbalance; where we want to see determinism, there will be contingency.

And yet we can see, and imagine, that our habitat glows with reflected light, and that we can live together in harmony.

Photographs by Miguel Claro/ESO and G. Lambert/ ESO.  Additional photographs can be seen at the slide show at The Atlantic’s In Focus website.

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Trump: Don’t Blame the Photographs

Several people have asked me which photographs were the most important for Donald Trump’s electoral victory.  The question makes sense:  Trump is a creature of the media.   We know that visual media can be influential.   Any political event that appears surprising or irrational is assumed to be due to emotional contagion, excess, or impact of the sort associated with photography.  The question almost answers itself.

Not even he expected to win, and yet here we are, careening down the rapids into the Jurassic park of Trump World.   What was the image that so distracted or dazzled the Trump voters?  What image framed the Clinton campaign so badly so that the election really did become a rigged game?

The envelop, please. . . .

There wasn’t one.  Or two.  Or twenty, including all those remakes of Hillary that Alt Right trolls consider so hugely creative.

Although it is a deeply ingrained habit of media criticism to blame photography for society’s problems, you can’t lay this one on the images.  Look at the data: identify the photos and track their circulation, and then take the Tweets and all the other sound bites, the little lies and the big lies, the alternative facts and the bald-faced denials, the slurs and the toxic memes and all the rest–and track that.  And ask the Trump voters whether unemployment has gone up or down in the last eight years, and how many votes in the presidential election were due to voter fraud, and whether they prefer Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act.

It is essential that this catastrophe be seen for what it is: a profound failure of language.  There may be arguments for Trump that bear consideration–most notably, that the system needed a shock and that the working class had been abandoned by both parties–but they are not directly pertinent to the damage that already has occurred and is likely to get worse.  Let me say it again and then some: Trump’s election is due to a relentless attack on and failure of language.

It is for that reason also an assault on moral seriousness: on what it means to care about more than power and reputation.  What it means to do the work needed to see the difference between reality and delusion, hope and fantasy, thriving together or fighting over the last boats on a sinking ship.

In Trump World, photographs may still be able of exposing lies, and for that reason they can be more important than ever.  Even so, the heavy lifting has to be done elsewhere.  Recovering political speech, political argument, the ability to respond to stupidity for what it is–both a cry for help and a will to power that can destroy everything–these are some of the tasks ahead.  It’s not a pretty picture.

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Activestills: Documentary Photography as Political Activism

It is becoming clear that photography is undergoing a paradigm shift.  Many things will remain the same, and perhaps look the same at first glance, but assumptions, attitudes, and ideas are nonetheless changing.  So John Lucaites and I argue in The Public Image, and one of the most recent examples to come to hand is a book that was published at the same time as ours.  Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel presents some of the work of the Activestills photography collective along with short essays, interviews, and statements to provide personal, historical, and theoretical context for the project.

The collective is a group of Israeli, Palestinian, and international photographers who are dedicated to supporting progressive social and political change in Palestine/Israel.  Their work focuses on “various topics, including the Palestinian popular struggle against the Israeli occupation, rights of women, LGTBQ, migrants and asylum-seekers, public housing, and the struggle against economic oppression.”  They work as documentary photographers, but on behalf of justice rather than press neutrality.  They distribute their work through mainstream, alternative, and social media, and as free exhibitions in those places where the photos were taken.  They sign their work collectively, maintain long-term relationships with the communities where they bear witness, and strive to “shape public attitudes and raise awareness on issues that are generally absent from public discourse.”

The collective also is attempting to open up the visual field to create new public encounters.  In place of showing victims, they feature agency.  Instead of trying to capture the decisive moment, they track the slower, more insidious forms of violence.  Rather than rely on icons, they develop an archive, and foregoing much of the iconography of protest (except on the book’s cover), they follow the odd, often chaotic angles of intimacy amid conflict and its devastating aftermath.  And rather than rely on the supposed power of the image to compel moral response, they assume that it has to work within complicated processes of interpretation.

The result is not eye candy, but it’s not another set of atrocity photos, either.  Alternating between two-page single image displays and many, many smaller images–often seven to a page–the viewing experience can be frustrating.  Even the large images are immersive: tightly copped, or with any background indistinct due to tear gas or desert topography, you may not know where you are unless you read the fine print.  The small images seem to call for a connoisseur, except that the optic is fundamentally banal–ordinary people, places, things, lighting–and the fact that time and again these are scenes of violence, destruction, and loss.

Activestills does not make spectatorship easy, but it is made worthwhile.  By working through the volume, one’s sense of inside and outside begins to shift.  Not to create the illusion that “you are there,” but to realize that violence extends beyond spasms of direct conflict to become a system of domination pressed into the fabric of life.  Likewise, instead of looking for one image or signature event,  you begin to appreciate the weight of the archive, the judgment of history, the profound need to work day after day, person by person, until justice and solidarity prevail.

This commitment is echoed in the essays in the volume, which also make direct contributions to revising the discourse on photography.  The break with conventional wisdom and implications for the future of photography are sketched deftly in Miki Kratsman’s Foreward and in the Introduction by the editors, Vered Maimon and Shiraz Grinbaum.  Ariella Azoulay identifies how Activestills is developing a civil language of photography to counter the imperial discourse of differential distributions.  Haggai Matar and Ramzy Baroud outline the project’s relationship to the media environment and the political environment, while Simon Faulkner discusses the role of the exhibitions on the street.  Vered Maimon explicates the shift in modality from representation to performance, from the indexicality of the image to the collective production of belief and affective community.  Ruthie Ginsberg and Meir Wigoder identify key shifts in temporality, i.e., from “what was there, then,” to “being there now” and signifying potential futures.  Sharon Sliwinski identifies the damning potential of spectatorship to reinforce the condition of standing “before the law”–as in Kafka’s tale, forever locked out of the institution of justice–but she does so to reaffirm the role of the public image in imagining a just political community.

These ideas acquire personal texture in the interviews and statements by photographers and other activists, whose understanding of their work, individually and collectively, reminds us of what may be the most important lesson of all: whatever the technology,  artistry, or means of distribution, photography at its heart is an encounter with the world.  And even, perhaps, one means for achieving a better world.

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