NO CAPTION NEEDED
ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

February 12th, 2014

Refugee World: Where a Camp Is a City and a City is a Camp

Posted by Hariman in a second look, catastrophe

I’ve written before about the first photo below, but today another image prompted a second look.

An aerial view of the Zaatari refugee camp near Mafraq, Jordan

This is an aerial view of the Za’atari refugee camp near the Jordanian city of Mafraq, some five miles from the border with Syria.  As of July, it housed 144,000 refugees.  In the desert.  But for the lack of little things like trees, it could almost be mistaken for the grid plan of Chicago that you see when flying into O’Hare.   The rectilinear neighborhoods and long arterials, including a few on the diagonal, are evidence of good urban planning.  Density is given legible units while access to services is managed efficiently.  The urban core remains a vital center of administration, while continued growth can spread in long rows of housing and distribution facilities across the plain.  Close your eyes and you can almost imagine the desert blooming with suburbs and malls.

I wouldn’t want to bet that no one has floated such insanity as a development option for Za’atari, but of course the reality on the ground is hardly the stuff of either comedy or fantasy.   This is a slow moving tragedy in the making, a catastrophe hardening into something like a permanent condition, yet one where those living there will have to approach every day as a struggle, every day as an endurance test that can push them to the limit of resourcefulness, and yet never to get ahead, improve their lot, escape to a place where they can have a future instead of another day, month, year of harsh fatality.

Camps can become cities, as those in the Occupied Territories, Pakistan, Thailand, and elsewhere know all too well, but they never become cities like Chicago, or Peoria for that matter.  Za’atari currently is the fourth largest city in Jordan, but I don’t think you will read about it soon in either the business or travel sections of the newspaper.

And I’ve said this before, so why bring the photograph up again?  One of the conditions of photography is that there always is another photo to replace the one before, always another image of another disaster.  Both the events and the images are produced by powerful forces shaping the modern world, and they seem to run together into one long-running humanitarian movie.  Refuge World, with a cast of 45,000,000, coming to a theater near you.  And we know how effective that would be.  So, what’s new about refugee camps?

Maclean-Desert-Hou_2804513k

Well, perhaps it’s notable that they are being built in Las Vegas.  And I don’t mean the detainment centers for deportees–that’s another, sadder story.  Today I’m talking about this “desert housing block,” which is not–despite the label–a prison.  But it doesn’t it look somewhat like that camp in Jordan?  Sure, it’s neater, more compact, and affluent (you can see that even at this distance), but you can observe the same design principles, the same harsh environment, the same geographic isolation.  In fact, the most obvious difference is that this looks more like a camp–even a Roman military encampment–while the camp looks more like a city.  But guess which one will have all the rights, powers, and privileges of a city?

I think both photographs are shocking, not least because of how each reprises and bleeds into the other.  The camp should not be so large and well organized, so close to becoming a permanent city.  The city should not be so isolated and placed in such a barren, arid environment.  The camp should not look so modern; the city should not look like a frontier outpost.  Each photograph can trouble the viewer, that is, move the viewer from information relay to critical reflection, because each already contains the template of the other.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, individual images can acquire critical resonance because the photographic archive is so large and redundant.  Instead of dulling viewer response, photography’s ability to overlay image upon image can activate the imagination.

And so it is not difficult to imagine what might happen to that camp in Las Vegas.  A city charter is one thing, and one’s relationship to nature is another.  As with the other photo, a catastrophe is in the making, although this time the result will be abandonment and ruin.  The desert will not sustain such development, even though here the fantasies have had the benefit of capital investment, cheap mortgages, and all the rest that goes with the crazed optimism of American real estate development.  And for what?  To become refugees in their own country.

Photographs by Mandel Ngan/AFP and Alex MacLean/Beetles+Huxley.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

October 7th, 2012

A Second Look: A Kiss is Just a Kiss … Or is it?

Posted by Lucaites in a second look

It is perhaps the most famous kiss in the annals of kisses.  But the question has now been raised, is it more than just a kiss?  And more, could it be an instance of sexual assault in full view of the public?  There is much to suggest that, as it has typically been portrayed, the photograph is the representation of a joyous kiss celebrating the end of a war and the return to normalcy.  And perhaps the most important evidence here is the reaction of the members of the public who look upon the heterosexual kissers approvingly, smiling rather in the way we might imagine an older generation’s response to the exuberance of young love.

But there are also reasons for concern.  The sailor is clearly the aggressor and the nurse is clearly passive.  Take note of the fact that she is not returning his embrace.  Indeed, from one perspective, at least, she appears to have gone limp, succumbing but hardly complicit.  And then there is this: The most recent woman to be identified as the nurse, Greta Zimmer Friedman, reports that “[i]t wasn’t my choice to be kissed.  The guy just came over and grabbed!”  And more, “I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in his vice grip [sic].”  And then this, “That man was very strong.  I wasn’t kissing him.  He was kissing me.”  If this were to be reported today it is pretty clear that we would judge the sailor’s behavior as more than just inappropriate but as a sexual assault.  The question seems to be, should we impose contemporary norms on what we might imagine as a somewhat distant culture?  The answer is not obvious.

Perhaps we should begin with some context.  Everyone remembers the photograph as an icon of VE Day.  What most forget is that it was one of a series of images in a Life magazine photo essay titled “The Men of War Kiss From Coast to Coast,” and more to the point it was the last image in the array and the only one to occupy a full page.  To a number all of the other photographs depict lascivious if not downright transgressive public acts (here,  here and here).  But, and here is the point, in almost every instance, the women appear to be—or are described in the captions—as being complicit.  When we turn to the “Times Square Kiss” in this context we see something that seems to be the model of restraint: two kissers lost in passion even as they enact the decorum that is the necessary discipline of public life.  We hardly attend to the original caption that notes, “an uninhibited sailor [who] plants his lips squarely on hers.”  It was clearly a different time.  As one soldier from the “Greatest Generation” was quoted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1944, among the things we fight for is “the priceless privilege of making love to American women.”  And in their own way, this full array of Life photographs makes the point.

And yet there is something altogether dissatisfying with leaving it at that.  And not just because times have changed.  Ariella Azoulay has recently asked, “Has anyone ever seen a photograph of a rape?”  Her point is not that such photographs do not exist – they do, however rare.  Nor is it that they are not available for viewing – they are, although again their circulation is rather limited.  Rather, her point is that even as we have reconstituted our notion of rape since the 1970s in ways that liberalizes the meaning of sexual assault and underscores the responsibility of the state to protect women, it continues to be an invisible object in the public discourse, an image that we proscribe from showing and, more importantly, fail to see even when it is before our eyes.

The real challenge here then is not so much to critique the blind sexism of an earlier moment in our history, however much it might be mischaracterized as a golden past, but to question why we continue to refuse to see what might now be before our eyes. Put differently, the question is not what does this photograph tell us about our past, but rather what does our refusal to see the photograph in the context of Greta Zimmer Friedman’s memory of that day tell us about our present.

Photo Credit: “VJ Day in Times Square, August 14, 1945,” by Alfred Eisenstaedt, © Time Inc.

We have previously written about this photograph on this blog (hereherehere, here, here, here, and here) and in print (here and here).

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

May 9th, 2012

“Oh, The Humanity”: A Second Look at the Hindenburg Explosion

Posted by Lucaites in a second look, catastrophe

This past Sunday marked the 75th anniversary of the explosion of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, NJ.  As we have indicated elsewhere, when it occurred on May 6, 1936, the event, prominently depicted in the above photograph, was immediately and subsequently identified as a gothic image of a “brave new world” that invited a bleak and cautionary attitude towards the catastrophic risks of industrialization and technology—a dystopian icon of an emerging, universalized, technocratic modernity.  What is especially important to note is that the explosion of the Hindenburg, resulting in 36 fatalities, was neither the first nor the most deadly of such explosions—the explosion of Britain’s R-101 dirigible killing 46 passengers five years earlier on October 5, 1930.  The key difference was that in the case of the Hindenburg the media was present with live radio coverage and, of course, we have the above photograph, which quickly became the iconic representation of the disaster.

The last point is especially important, as it stands as a reminder of the centrality of the mass media in creating disasters.  I don’t mean, of course, that the mass media cause disasters in a direct cause-effect fashion, but rather that what is recognized as a disaster is largely a measure of its status as a discernible “event” and outside of local and immediate experience.  Such discernability is largely a function of the role that the media play in depicting and disseminating occurrences of one sort or another.  As Rob Nixon has recently demonstrated in his book Slow Violence, tragedies that defy easy representation as a discrete occurrences—say disease and death caused across generations of the members of a community by toxic waste—are very difficult to cast as disasters because we simply cannot visualize their longitudinal effects.  A graph marking deaths across time simply lacks the presence and verisimilitude of a photograph.

The anniversary commemoration of this event points to a different point as well.  The iconic photograph above  lacks any nationalistic markings of any kind.  Although the name “Hindenburg” clearly designates this as a German airship, the photograph effaces that fact.  It is impossible to say that this is the reason why this photograph quickly became identified as the icon for the event, but there are good reasons to believe that it didn’t hurt the cause, both because of the prevailing desire to downplay nationalist tensions between Nazi Germany and the United States, as well as the way in which such erasure made the photograph more about technology of a universalized modernity than about politics.  But, of course, the extant photographic record suggests a different story.  And so it is that the Atlantic frames its remembrance of the event not in terms of modernity’s gamble, but precisely in the context of international politics.  So, for example, they begin with an image that shows the Hindenburg in all of its grandeur and magnitude, hovering over Manhattan.  But what is most pronounced in the photograph is the swastika that sits on the tail of the vessel.

Several such images—few of which were originally seen, or at least prominently displayed in the media of the time—follow, carefully marking the national origins of the dirigible.  And then, after a series of images that move the viewer through the ritualistic, everyday banality and catastrophic fatality of the attendant technological innovation of transatlantic air travel, it reinforces the nationalist origins of the whole event with photographs of a funereal  scene.  These photographs, replete with multiple caskets draped in swastika clad flags and Nazi salutes (images #31 and #32), are chilling in their effects, even if our contemporary reaction is marked by a presentist understanding of the horrors of Nazism that most viewers would not have been in a position to acknowledge in 1936.

The point is a simple one, but nevertheless worth emphasizing: photographs are always involved in a dialectic of showing and veiling.  If we think of the iconic image in terms of how it is often captioned with reference to radio announcer Herb Morrison’s lament, “Oh, the humanity” it is easy to see how it fits within the logic of a dystopian, technological modernity.  In short, it is a catastrophe that resists and challenges the positive resonance of modernity’s gamble.  However, when we return the swastika to the tail of the dirigible in all of its prominence, and when we locate the event within the particular narrative of twentieth-century politics animated by Hitler’s Third Reich, the meaning of the icon is overshadowed by a much larger tragedy and its dystopian resistance to the positive affect of modernity’s gamble is mitigated if not altogether erased.  It truly is a matter of what we see … or perhaps more to the point, what we are shown.

Photo Credit: Sam Shere/MPTV; AP File Photo

February 17th, 2012

World Press Photo of the Year: The Debate

Posted by Hariman in a second look

One sign of a healthy public art is that people argue about it.  Photojournalism appears to very healthy, as once again the World Press Photo Awards are provoking discussion.  As is happens, an earlier post at this blog was pulled into the fray.  Back on October 24, 2011 I wrote about this image, which recently received the Photo of the Year award.

I had raised the issue of how one might come to terms with seeing the image through the cultural lens of Christian iconography: by seeing the outline of the pieta, one’s response could be both emotionally true and otherwise distorted.  After the award was announced, Michael Shaw at BAGnewsNotes prompted renewed discussion, summarizing my post along with commentary by another BAG contributor, Madeleine Corcoran.  The comments that followed expanded the discussion further, including an entry by one of the contest judges, Nina Berman.  At the same time (a day earlier, actually), Jim Johnson voiced his “disappointment” with the selection, arguing that it was derivative not only with regard to the pieta but also within the history of photography, and that it depoliticized the Arab Spring, reinforced traditional gender roles, and interfered with understanding the complex politics of modern Islam.  Jim provoked a dozen comments, and once again Nina weighed in.  On the same day, the New York Times Lens Blog started out with a celebration of the selection (and quoted Nina), but the discussion there soon turned up some of the same issues.  And over at Conscientious, Joerg Colberg added to the critique, pointing out that reliance on conventional iconography makes it too easy to project our own beliefs–and, with that, our military forces.

Joerg also points out that one solution to the problem is increased visual literacy, which is precisely what each of these blogs is trying to provide.

Photograph by Samuel Aranda/New York Times.

Update: The debate is curated much more thoroughly at bitly.

September 21st, 2011

Photography and Ruptures in Time

Posted by Hariman in a second look

Ezra Pound famously remarked in The Spirit of Romance that “All ages are contemporaneous.”  This was not the temporal equivalent of a flat earth claim, but rather his announcement of what was to become one of the great poetic doctrines of twentieth century modernism.  For most of us, however, the past is past.  Sure, Faulkner knew better, and there are vital cultures of memory, but modernity is about an endlessly expanding future.  Even as that dream has been steadily degraded of late, the incessant demands of ordinary life amidst a continual stream of news, weather, and sports continues to keep most of us living from day to day.  The timeline isn’t quite so narrow as that of an Alzheimer’s patient, but American society might be suffering from a similar loss of temporal bandwith.  Forced to live in a continually collapsing present, personality becomes brittle and fear can contaminate everything.  For that reason, then, there actually may be good reason to see something closer to what Pound had in mind.

A month ago I posted about the peculiar return to medieval clothing and weaponry in security forces.  I suggested that what may seem to be a superficial analogy could be documenting a regressive transformation of political power.  Globalization, excessive capital accumulation, and other structural changes may be leading not to the march of progress, but rather to the breakdown of modernity itself.  The photograph above supports that idea, except that now I’m looking at it while in a different mood.

The medieval horseman rides through the modern street, almost as if he were riding out of and then back into the past.  In the background, the signs of modernity are rather slim–primarily the diction in the graffiti.  The steel fixtures in the foreground provide the more reliable assurance, as they literally frame the horse and rider.  Fire seethes in the left of the frame, but it seems self-contained by the metalwork and lack of other material to burn.  The tableau could be an artist’s construction, perhaps by one who had been reading Pound.  Medieval past and modern present are contemporaneous: uncannily yet easily captured together in the artistic medium.  At the moment the medium is photography, the art that traps any moment–but 1/500 of a second–in an eternal present that can be seen as it was endlessly, anytime, out of time.

Art does mirror life, however.  The horseman really was there, and the photograph can remind us that time need not be linear, that the past need not be past, and that a medieval world may already be present among us.  Modernity may be riven with ruptures where what was thought to be safely superseded continues to lurk, resurface, or reassert its power.  These remnants of the past need not be the absolute opposite of modern time, as with the myth of eternal return, but rather something much more capable of displacing and redirecting the course of history.

But I’m getting grim again.  This post began, if that is the right term, with a commitment to enjoying contemporaneity, or at least appreciating how public arts could be restoring a sense of the past that is uncanny and provocative rather than conventional.  Like this:

The caption placed him at the Gay Pride parade in New Delhi on July 2, 2011.  I think he walked right out of Renaissance Italy.  Again, the slogan in the background reminds us of the present, but otherwise he could have fit right in at Florence.  And they would have understood that mask more than we can imagine.

Any photograph is another reproduction of modernity’s endlessly unfolding present, but this one also offers a glimpse into another time.  Thus, the photograph itself is a tear in the modern fabric of time.  And through that narrow aperture, we can see something eternal.

Photographs by Victor Ruiz Caballero/Reuters and Prakash Singh/AFP-Getty Images.

April 20th, 2011

A Second Look: The Family of Man

Posted by Lucaites in a second look

Last month I commented on the profusion of photographs showing up in slideshows reporting on the discovery of snapshots and family photo albums in the detritus left in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  The title of the post, “The Family of Man,” was borrowed from the most famous photo exhibition ever, curated by Edward Steichen in the 1955 and viewed by more than nine million people throughout the world.  The point of the exhibit was to call attention to a common humanity that presumably transcended cultural differences worldwide, and the point of my post was to underscore the way in which the snapshot or family photo album was a modern affectation that marked something of a common humanity designed to activate a powerful stranger relationality.  On reflection, however, I believe that I was only partially correct and there is much more to be said.

The photograph above appeared on the front page of the NYT this past week (4/13/11), occupying the top half of the page above the fold.  Prime space!  It was not connected to any front page story.  The caption notes that they are photos that had been damaged by the March Tsunami and had been recovered, cleaned, and left to dry.  And indeed, the image indicates both the magnitude of the task and the almost surgical care with which it is being executed.  These photographs, snapshots that one might find in any family photo album, clearly matter.  And it should not escape notice that they are all photographs of beautiful young children, markers of both the modern family and the national future.  There are many other similar photographs of such snapshots floating about the web and I probably would have ignored this one but for the prominent placement in the newspaper and the second sentence of the caption: “The nuclear alert level was raised on Tuesday.”  The apparent non sequitur notwithstanding, I was struck by how a  people ravaged by a devastating natural disaster and facing a continuing and dangerous nuclear emergency nevertheless have the time and resources to recover and preserve the family photographic record.    And I was struck too by the fact that the NYT would feature it without connecting it to an apparently relevant news article.  My original point about the importance of representing a common humanity and a powerful stranger relationality seemed secure.

But then this week I learned that three WP photographers had just won the Pulitzer Prize for their work on last year’s earthquake in Haiti.  The photographs focus on bodies.  Many of the images are grotesque and the overall affect is gut wrenching.  But more to the point, they collectively evoke a sense of pity, rather than a common humanity or stranger relationality. One doesn’t find such photos in any of the slide shows reporting on the disaster in Japan, where the emphasis is on destruction to infrastructure and advanced technology—a point vaguely gestured to by the caption for the photograph above concerning the nuclear alert level.  And when one does see pictures of bodies in the archive of Japanese images they are invariably treated with a profound funeral respect.  One might feel sorrow in the face of such images, but not pity. More to the point, not a single one of the WP photographs includes an image of a lost or found snapshot or photo album.  And lest the sample seem too small, a search of the hundreds of photographs of the Haitian disaster that appeared in the NYT, or in slideshows at websites like the Boston Globe’s Big Picture or totallycoolpix.com, confirms the point.

There may be reasons that explain this, to be sure.  Japan is a modern society with a technologically advanced infrastructure, Haiti is an economically undeveloped country mired in massive poverty. In short, all Haiti had to lose were bodies.  And yet for all of that, the disparity of visual representation is telling.   When we look West to Japan we see something rather like ourselves, and the themes and conventions of dignity and decorum that we employ in such representations are the ones that we would employ in representing ourselves.  When we look beyond our borders to the South, however, we see something altogether different, an otherness marked by a shift in both theme and the stylistic tokens of propriety.  And, oddly enough, the distinction here between looking West and South is signified correspondingly by the presence and absence of snapshots and family photo albums, cultural artifacts which, in the end, are less about the family of man and the powerful stranger relationality it purports to animate, and more about the conventions of a narrow and particular kind of economic and technological modernity.

Photo Credit:  Toru Hanai/Reuters

 

August 13th, 2010

"Mythic Visions" Redux: Looking to the Heavens With a Tragic Optic

Posted by Hariman in a second look

Guest Post by Jeremy Gordon

In his recent post Mythic Vision in Afghanistan, Robert Hariman writes that in the face of  “enormous organizational and technological power,” unseen enemies, non-identifiable strategy, unknown objectives, and forces beyond the scope of certainty, photographers have tapped into mythic visions of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.

After reading Hariman’s optical shift to science fiction I was reminded of a Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk and crew come across the ancient Greek god Apollo, who has been waiting for humans to believe in him again.  With faith in their technology and rational systems of knowledge production, Kirk and crew resist.  They spend the episode tearing Apollo down and so he retreats to the stars with all of the other disregarded gods, most likely taking cover as constellations, as seen here:

Afghan night, stars

There are complex themes to be explored by looking at these images with a mythic vision, reflective of a much more complex tension between men and gods (gods here being the virtues and vices of human behavior, unseen forces of contingency, paradox, luck, and chance).  Mythic vision invites various poetic optics through which scenes from Afghanistan are not overshadowed by the instrumental laws of efficiency and technology championed by Captain Kirk.

For instance, as the scene from a Greek tragedy, we might imagine Ares brewing a storm over the camp, and that Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, is part of the charge.  We see all the armor and firepower Hephaestus, the god of fire who armed Achilles with his shield, has fashioned.  But rather than being captivated by the tools at our disposal, the Humvees and desert camouflage give way in looking elsewhere to understand what the scene is about, the unseen actors who were always offstage in ancient tragedy.  The encampment is silent and, as warriors hide amongst their vessels, we can see the gods, or what is left of them, watching, waiting to play their hands.  What is telling about this image of the Cosmos, and Kirk’s denial, is that what awaits us in the future, is what we have left in the past, the faith in gods and understanding that forces beyond our control make moments of domination and victory fleeting.  Using such a tragic optic urges us to look beyond the horizons to corners and edges, to the apparitions that induce us to question if we saw Ares in the .50 caliber round that accidentally discharged, killing a warrior at point blank range?  Was that whisper in the wind the just goddess of war Athene, who blew sand away from a hidden IED?

Recognizing gods requires looking beyond the earthly horizon.

Afghan patrol, Gurkhas

The desolation wreaks of endlessness, but the trees blurred and dusted by the winds of the desert emphasize a destination, perhaps the River Acheron, the crossing point at which spirits move to the underworld.  What of the warrior illuminated in dusty green among the shadows?  Is he walking amongst the dead, following and being driven by ancestors?  Are the shadows Hermes like figures?  Hermes protects travelers and looks after boundaries, especially the one between the land of the living and the dead.  Hades’ presence is strong here, as the ground seems to swirl and blur beneath their feet.  The glare is stark and suffocating, and there is no telling what is beyond the horizon for the warrior still in color, but we can guess that violent contingencies may deny him the protection offered by body armor and firepower.  We see a spark of chance, a whisper of hidden secrets, and a hint of mysterious experiences in which the difference between technology and the Cosmos is not so clear.

If Kirk is right and we have outgrown the gods, is it any wonder warriors are instrumentalized to the point where war becomes merely an extreme sport? An ode to Achilles’ mastery of killing, as an extreme athlete?  Is it a surprise that we fail to recognize Hypnos and Thanatos on the heels of these “athletes?” When we outgrow the gods, we fail to grasp the tragic laws in the poetics of the ancient deities, always present but incognito, laying in wait only to sneak back into the rational world of warfare as violent epiphanies, even if present only for a moment, which is forever.

Photographs by Hyunsoo Leo Kim/AP/The Virginian-Pilot and Bay Ismoyo/AFP-Getty Images, thanks to The Big Picture.  Jeremy Gordon is a PhD student in Communication and Culture at Indiana University-Bloomington who pays homage to (and is repulsed by) the gods of war, rhetoric, theatre, and myth.  He can be contacted at jeregord@indiana.edu.

May 26th, 2010

A Second Look: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Fence

Posted by Lucaites in a second look, no caption needed


fence-1.png

When I first wrote about this photograph two years ago I marveled at the utter insanity of thinking that we could actually establish a 700 hundred mile wall fence across an otherwise barren dessert that would secure the 2,000 mile border that separates the US from Mexico.  And, of course, I was right as there is no evidence that the wall fence has done anything to slow down illegal immigration (in fact there is some evidence to suggest that the number of people sneaking past the borders has increased), though there is strong evidence to suggest that it has resulted in “borderland frgmantation” leading to serious destruction of the border ecosystem.  Notwithstanding the continuing need for serious immigration reform, then, the idea that we can maintain an impermeable barrier to secure us from “undesirable” outsiders is a preposterous fiction that only the likes of Stephen King can really pull off.  And, of course, the above photograph underscores the futility of thinking that this can actually work.

I was reminded of this photograph earlier this evening when I read a report that President Obama has ordered 1,200 National Guardsmen to the borders in order to “provide support to law enforcement officers by helping observe and monitor traffic between official border crossings” and to “help analyze trafficking patterns in the hope of intercepting illegal drug shipments.”  But for all that, “they will not make arrests … something they are not trained to do.” As with the photograph, the absurdity of the situation is pronounced, no matter which way we think of it.  If the troops are going to be used for interdiction, it makes no more sense to think that we can secure a 2,000 mile border with 1,200 troops (that’s one soldier for every 1.6 miles—and it assumes that each soldier is working 24/7/365) than that we can do it by building a wall fence.  And yet, if their primary purpose is not active interdiction, but to “help analyzing trafficking patterns,” one can only wonder why so many are needed on site to accomplish that task.

The bigger point to be made, however, is that we are not going to be effective in addressing the problem of our borders by resorting to simplistic and piecemeal military solutions.  I’m quite sure that President Obama knows and believes this, and were he to allow himself to be guided by the “better angels of his nature” he would move in a different direction towards more progressive immigration reform.  What is troubling is that he is doing it anyway, and for what are no doubt pragmatic political reasons that sadly (and ironically) belie an increasingly militaristic society.

Photo Credit: Don Bartletti/LA Times

April 21st, 2010

A Second Look: The Warrior Child

Posted by Lucaites in a second look, visualizing war

EPA

The above photograph is of a group of “young supporters of the Islamic Jihad movement” marching at a rally in Gaza City.  When I posted on it earlier this month I called attention to the expression on the young boys face, noting that his expression teetered between being vacant and deadly serious, but in either case “dissociated from our expectations of an otherwise idealized world of youthful innocence.”  One commenter noted, “How many of his relatives are dead, how many in prison …?  Why do you ignore the context?  Why do you expect an ‘idealized world of youthful experience,’ where this experience clearly has no chance?”  It is a good question as it calls attention to a complexity of the photograph that my original posting assumed but failed adequately to interrogate: the sense in which the image simultaneously activates and resists the trope of “youthful innocence.”

The original point I was trying to make was that “the idealized world of youthful innocence” is a taken for granted assumption for western audiences.  That assumption is conventionally animated by the visual trope of children playing as if adults.  Ordinarily, the key to the effectiveness of the trope is the additional assumption that the viewer recognizes that the child has a very basic understanding of the sense in which s/he is “playing” at being an adult and is thus operating in an idealized world—a world that is free of all that would undermine or mitigate youthful innocence.  The telling marker in such images is the signification of carefree joy being acted out by the playful child.  In the above photograph the children are clearly playing at being adults—note the toy guns, which activate the trope for western audiences—but their facial expressions lack any sense of carefree joy, and hence the image concurrently resists the trope.  And the implication, at least for western audiences, is that these aren’t so much children as warriors, thus triggering yet a different common visual trope used to distinguish the Islamic, middle eastern world from the Christian, western world: “the warrior child.”

The tension connecting the tropes of “youthful innocence” and “the warrior child” is articulated in a somewhat different fashion in this photograph from Craig F. Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo-essay, “Ian Fisher: American Soldier.”

Ian Fischer.American Soldier2

The similarities between the two images are palpable, but it is their differences that are notable. The guns are no longer toys, as indicated by the safety plugs inserted in their barrels; and note too that the disposition of the weapons is more aggressive as they are being aimed rather than held at ease.  These aren’t children playing at being soldiers, they are the real thing, however young.  Attend, in this regard, to the different facial expressions depicted in each photograph. In the earlier image the lead child appears to be working hard to maintain his countenance, to appear like a serious adult, almost as if he knows he is being observed, but there is no question that he is a child; here, however, the expression on the face of the American soldier, while no less intense, nevertheless seems less affected.  The eyes are cold and calculating; carefully and intently focused, they are machinelike, almost as if an extension of the weapon being aimed.  It would not be hard to imagine him as a cyborg rather than a human, let alone a child.  And yet the face of this teenage soldier is nevertheless childlike; both slender and smooth, it belies a physical immaturity that activates the trope of “youthful innocence” even as the photograph as a whole resists it.

In one photograph we end up with the warrior child, in the other we see a childlike warrior. The question is, what difference does the difference make?

Photo Credit: Ali Ali/EPA/WSJ; Craig F. Walker/Denver Post

September 9th, 2009

Global Reflections on a National Treasure

Posted by Lucaites in a second look

We have written here at NCN on numerous occasions about Joe Rosenthal’s iconic “Raising Old Glory on Mt. Suribachi” (here, here, here, here, here, and here).  While there is much to be said about the photograph our basic approach has been to call attention to how it operates as an eloquent inventional resource (by some accounts, a national treasure) for performing civic identity.  The power of the photograph, we maintain, is in large measure its aesthetic capacity to transcribe three related but nevertheless different (and sometimes competing) commitments to egalitarianism, nationalism, and civic republicanism.  This transcription animates an  expansive public emotionality that opens the image to to a wide array of interpretations and subsequent appropriations or usages that range from reverential civic piety to a deeply seeded public cynicism.

A month doesn’t go by that we don’t encounter new appropriations of the photograph (and we are much indebted to the many readers who direct our attention to them), and interestingly enough, increasingly many of these appropriations come from sources outside of the U.S.  Sometimes such appropriations seem to be reflecting directly on U.S. foreign policy (as with the first two images below), but in other instances the appropriation seems to speak to a more transcendent meaning that the image invokes as it appears to have little or no connection to the location of the photograph in the symbolic economy of U.S. public culture(as in the last image).  We are not entirely sure what to make out of all of this just yet and we will return to the subject of the global appropriation of U.S. iconcic photographs in a subsequent post.  But for now we leave you with three of the most interesting recent appropriations of the Iwo Jima icon and invite your reflections.

die-burger

Die Burger: Iwo Jima (FCB Advertising Agency, Cape Town, South Africa)

museumplein

Raising the Flag at Museumplein (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam)

iwo-britain

Raising the Flag in the U.K.

Photo Credits: Chad Henning, Zoran Koracevic, drawgood

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