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. . . .

April 2nd, 2014

Humanity Among the Ruins

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

It is understood that one of the challenges, and responsibilities, of photojournalism is to capture “the decisive moment”: that instant when intention becomes action or action becomes effect to define an event and perhaps change the course of history.  This encounter with history’s eventfulness is not the only task facing either the photographer or the viewing public, however.  To note another, perhaps equally daunting responsibility, we might ask how photography can represent history’s longer, more repetitive patterns.  What happens when suffering is prolonged, destruction becomes routine, war is normalized, and searing images turn into genres of catastrophe?

Aleppo ruins 2014

This photograph from Aleppo is one answer to this predicament.  It’s another scene from Rubble World, and images of wrecked urban neighborhoods in Syria have become so common that Reuters has gathered some of them into a slide show, which also helps the public face up to what is happening.  We need to admit to the frequency and redundancy of these images.  We need to grasp that war is now business as usual for too many people, and that no photograph is likely to change that.

So what can a photograph do?  Perhaps it can show us how much is at stake, and how much already has been lost.  It may have become too easy to see wrecked concrete as another occasion for urban renewal–hey, war is a job creator, come to think of it–or to see a broken city as merely a reason for pulling up the drawbridge–well, we don’t want that to happen here–or to accept the repetitiveness of the news as a reason to pay less attention rather than become more troubled.  The photograph above challenges all of that and more.

Admittedly, this image has more aesthetic quality than some of the others in the series, but that is precisely why it is the more important political statement.  The dark ruins on either side contrast with a stream of light flowing from the hazy shaft of space in the background to the muddy sheen of grey roadway in the foreground.  It seems that one can move through this space, albeit slowly and carefully, but that there is no chance that one could live there.  And so we get to the sole figure in the middle.  He is walking through, and looking, perhaps in stunned amazement, perhaps with a specific curiosity, but slowly and carefully.  What else can he do?  What else can we do?

This emphasis on his nomadic movement and contemplative gaze is underscored by that fact that we see him as the silhouette of a human being.  No more ascriptive marker is provided: you can’t limit his identity to Freedom Fighter or Aid Worker or Resident.  Instead, he is much closer to a philosophical figure: the Existential Subject who, with his civilization in ruins and only empty space for a god, now has no choice but to consider how civilization and barbarism are two sides of the same thing.  He could be that thing, the abstract human being that usually is clothed in this or that social identity, but now–like the city itself–has been stripped down to reveal how close it always was to desolation.

The war in Syria has gone on for four years.  Add to that ten years and counting in Afghanistan, plus the “sectarian violence” (i.e., continuing warfare) in Iraq, the many wars periodically erupting across Africa, the drug wars in Latin America, . . . . If any of this is to stop, something more than another decisive moment is needed.  The pressure for peace will have to be as it always has to be: slow and wide and insistent and then more insistent.  If that is to become a decisive process, it will need habits of representation and spectatorship to match.  Fortunately, some of what is needed is already available.  The question remains, what, or who, is still missing?

Photograph by Hosam Katan/Reuters.

February 16th, 2014

A Winter’s Tale: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe, no caption needed

Atlanta Black Ice 2014-02-16 at 10.24.40 PM

I like winter.  I really do.  The cold can be bracing, but it is also refreshing.  There is something life affirming about seeing one’s breath as it floats in the air.  And the snow often has a mystical quality about it, even as it always gives way to a more down-to-earth reality.  It falls quietly, even in blizzard conditions.  It blankets everything in its path with a degree of equanimity that is both amazing and, in a certain way, comforting.  It appears pure—hence the phrase “pure as the driven snow”—and thus reminds us of such a possibility, but before long it bears the footprints, tire tracks, and other markings of life and activity that remind us no less how nature is subject to human presence and how provisional any appeal to purity always is.  But even at that our sense of winter often leaves us with romanticized images of a wonderland with children bundled in snowsuits sledding down hills.  Such a view is just a little bit too much like a scene from Norman Rockwell, of course, and even at its pragmatic best it ignores the harsher realities of snow and ice and sub-zero temperatures and all of the miseries that this can too often entail.  The photograph above is a case in point as it pictures a landscape in which winter has brought all commerce—indeed, all human activity— to a halt.

The road above leads into the city of Atlanta, the ninth largest metropolitan area in the nation.  Georgia is not accustomed to snow and ice storms and this winter the meteorological patterns have been especially cruel with two major storm fronts separated by only a few weeks.  Several weeks ago in the midst of the first storm the road above was literally covered with abandoned cars as drivers surrendered to the snowy and icy conditions and found their way home or to shelter on foot.  That scene had a comic quality to it as major thoroughfares were reduced to ad hoc parking lots. This time around, however, what we see is eerily apocalyptic, somewhat akin to a ghost town. The markings and vestiges of civilization are prominent, but all humanity is absent, the barest of life erased from a scene reduced to the conditions that nature has ruthlessly and arbitrarily imposed upon it. The city rises tall in the hazy background, its promise as a haven of progress and culture and community altogether inviting, but the black ice that covers the roads leading into it—barely seeable and all the more treacherous for that very fact—make it appear impossible to approach and enter. The line between comedy and tragedy, it seems, is ice thin.

Soon the snow and ice will melt, of course, and people and vehicles will once again populate the roads leading to and from the city.  Commerce will return and all will be normal, at least until the next catastrophic weather event appears.  It could be a drought or a tornado or a hurricane, it is hard to say.  But whatever it is it will remind us—once again—that we are subject to forces that, like the black ice above, can be hard to see, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore them.  Or put differently, we ignore them at our peril

Credit: Tami Chappell/Reuters

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.

November 11th, 2013

And Life Goes On

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe, visualizing war

Life Goes on 1

The Civil War in Syria rages on.  More than 100,000 have died by so-called “conventional means,” plus however many thousands more by chemical means.  Horrific images abound of bombs exploding, burned out buildings and vehicles aflame, child warriors, tortured and dead bodies, random limbs strewn about and more.  In some ways, however, the most disturbing images are not those that put the conflict on display in all of its goriest details, but rather those photographs that slip through to show a society that seems to have accommodated itself to the war as if it were a normal and ordinary event.

The photograph above is from the north of Syria near the Turkish border in the city of  Ras al-Ain.  According to the caption his living room has been “damaged” by an attack perpetrated by Kurdish militia and we see him rehanging a painting of Jesus Christ on his wall.  It would be easy to make a good deal out of the iconography of Jesus as we view this conflict from the Christian West, but there is a different and more subtle point to be made.  Buildings are “damaged” by storms and floods and earthquakes and fires; although there are exceptions, these are typically natural phenomenon over which humans have little if any control. Often they cannot be anticipated or predicted with any precision, and their main effects are primarily material and economic.  War, of course, is different.  No less physically disastrous than natural phenomena, its effects are as much psychic—if indeed not more so—as they are corporeal. Such psychic trauma is often difficult to see, marked usually in images of demonstrable grief or the now famous “thousand yard stare.” Or as in the image above, it can be altogether invisible, made to appear as part of the natural, ordinary business of cleaning up as if after a storm or an earthquake.  Yeah, sure, there was a mortar attack.  But now we just fix the windows, pick up the furniture, put the painting back on the wall and go about our day.

The point is driven home by the photograph below of a father and daughter making their way through the city of Aleppo on a cart. The caption says that they are in the process of

 Life Goes on 2

migrating from the war torn city. The physical effects of the war are present everywhere, from the rubble that covers the alleyway to the burned out bus stacked on top of another vehicle in the background.  But what makes the photograph so potentially disturbing—horrifying even—is that no one seems to notice.  The father and daughter make their way through the city without any sense of distress or particular attention to the ruins that surround them.  Others go about their business as well, apparently unimpeded by the physical destruction.  It is just another day in Aleppo.  Indeed, the young girl seems more interested in the person taking the photograph than anything else in her environment, a sign no doubt that she has fully incorporated the apocalyptic state of war into her consciousness as an ordinary and everyday event barely worth paying attention to.  The caption underscores the point, noting that she is “blow[ing] a bubble” as if to signal that she really doesn’t have a care in the world.

The real horror of war may well be the way in which those in its midst are forced to assimilate to its damage and destruction as a function of the sheer everydayness of ordinary life.  The real horror of war, in other words, may well lie in the ways in which its effects are invisible to the naked eye.  And that is what photographs can often put on display.

Photo Credits: Ras al-Ain/Reuters; Karam al-Masric/AFP/Getty Images

November 1st, 2013

Aesthetics, Morality, Politics, and Disaster

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

Perhaps not every drought is beautiful, but this one is.

Yangtze dried-up riverbed

The dried riverbed of the Yangtze looks like gracefully aged wood.  The undulating landforms perfectly match the sinuous water.  The great river must be powerful, yet here it suggests a quiet serenity, as if the basins were holding a gently receding snowfall.  Water and earth lie woven together; as they extend to the horizon, one can easily sense how the scene is the result of vast natural forces seamlessly, namelessly unified.  In the words of Wallace Stevens, “the swarthy water/That flows round the earth and through the skies,/Twisting among the universal spaces, //Is not Swatara.  It is being.”

Against such a backdrop, the human figures in the foreground appear small, tentative, and very temporary.  The motor is out of the water, already becoming useless as the waters disappear in yet another year of drought on a steadily warming planet.  This species may poke around for awhile longer, but once they’ve burnt enough of their ecosystem that will be that.  And the forces that made the river will flow on without a ripple registering our moment of disruption.

So how on earth can we say that the drought is beautiful?  Nor can you evade the issue by saying, oh, it’s just the photograph that is beautiful, not the drought itself.  Yes, there is artistry involved in making the photo, but the aesthetic reaction is to the material forms themselves.  Few would be dead to this tableau if standing there, but then light up with delight when looking through the viewfinder.  Indeed, no one would think to take the photograph at all, if not already marveling at the scene itself.  It’s not the art or culture alone, but a human capability for seeing the world, a capability that then leads to arts and other products of the human imagination.  So this drought can be beautiful, as are firestorms, floods, and melting glaciers.

And that’s a problem, right?  When the waters dry up, people suffer, and as heat waves spread people are suffering around the globe.  To then take a picture and admire the view would seem to be obscene.  Aesthetics and morality must be two very different modalities, and if the former can interfere with the latter, shouldn’t we be wary of that risk?

And we’ve even been here before.  Recognition that these two powerful dimensions of human being are in fact not seamlessly coordinated was one of the traumatic experiences of the twentieth century.  Nazis listened to classical music while overseeing genocide, and so Adorno drew the terrible conclusion that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”  (Go here for a good brief explication of the quote.)  If art could be used so easily alongside of evil, and worse yet to aid its operation, surely the only ethical option was a severe renunciation of aesthetic pleasure.

With the passage of time, it has become easier to reconsider the problem.  Perhaps the separation was artificial, a crucial construction for a particular phase of modernity, but one that is becoming increasingly untenable.  The two modalities are still not coordinated explicitly–as if, for example, bad would be ugly and good delightful–but there may be an ecology to human consciousness that we are just beginning to understand.

Instead of being wary of our aesthetic responses, perhaps they could contain hidden resources for solving the very problems they seem to deny.  Perhaps aesthetic and moral responses can work together like water and riverbed.

To see that, we would have to shake off the old suspicions that come from the prior distribution of our aesthetic and moral senses.  Unfortunately, those suspicions are still the dominant habits in most of the humanities and qualitative social sciences.  Not everyone, of course, and that list includes scholars working in political theory and in visual culture: for example, Jacques Ranciere, Frank Ankersmit, Roland Bleiker, Davide Panagia, Crispin Sartwell, Mark Reinhardt, Holly Edwards, David Levi Strauss, Ariella Azoulay, and others (including moi).

Wallace Stevens knew as much.  In the same poem he says, “And these images/these reverberations,/And others, make certain how being/Includes death and the imagination.”  Disaster and imagination here are continuous, both part of that great stream, and perhaps each able to say something about the other.

So, perhaps the time has come to admit to how beauty is part of both the best and the worst that can happen, and perhaps particularly so when facing environmental catastrophe.  The effort involves nothing less that trying to bring all human capacities to bear on the most pressing problems of our time.  That can’t be such a bad thing.

It’s just a pity that it took so long, as time may be running out.

Photograph by a stringer for Reuters.  The poem by Wallace Stevens is “Metaphor as Degeneration,” and can be found in Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind, edited by Holly Stevens.  You can read an earlier post on the topic here.

October 23rd, 2013

Waiting for the Cosmic Bus at the Australia Stop

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe, the visual public

Of course the fire makes the picture, but it’s the silhouettes that have the most to say.  Which is interesting, as they are enigmatic.

Firefighters take part in a backburning operation near Bilpin, in the Blue Mountains in New South Wa

Silhouettes often are, which may be why they can stand for a dimension of photographic representation that we often overlook.  Behind the realism, there is a formalism that is especially important for visual meaning; and behind the detailed textures of specific people and places, there is embodiment of the impersonal poses and attitudes that structure social behavior.

This is not to choose one dimension of the image over another, but to respond as prompted by the photographer’s art.  And by working into the image along that path, interpretation can lead to much more than documenting circumstances.  Those circumstances may support reflection or become irrelevant for the time being (and only that), but they no longer are the primary content of the image.

So it is noteworthy that this is a photograph of firefighters in a backburning operation in New South Wales, but they could be in LA or Arizona or Greece or many other places.  And if the poses still have the traces of British clothing and deportment, that may be fact or conjecture, but there is no need to make too much of it, even for a joke.  Jokes to come to mind, however, and so the trace might be a good clue that something interesting is lodged there.  Stiff upper lip and all that, you know.  Say, do ya think the coach is due, mate?  Aussies will howl, but like I said, the details don’t really matter.

So what does matter?  That’s a double question here.  First, what matters in the composition?  The answer seems to be the stark contrast between the holocaust in the background and the calm, silent, reflective poses of the people in the foreground.  Keeping their distance from one another, staring in different directions, hands in pockets, each seems to be lost in thought, while all of them seem to be standing as if waiting for a bus or train, strangers on street or platform, nothing out of the ordinary, just another day in the life.  They stand as many stand while enduring the obligatory routines of traveling through impersonal public spaces, safe but not familiar with the strangers around them, biding time until they can get to where they are going, each on a private journey made possible by but still separate from what they have in common.

Even when what they have in common is territory on fire on a planet that is getting hotter every year.  Which gets us to the second sense of what matters, that is, what the photo is about.  The answer to this question takes us both closer to those in the picture and farthest from the actual circumstances of the moment.  More detailed knowledge of the scene probably would verify that they are a close-knit, well-trained work crew, that the fire (which they set) is under control, and that no one is at risk because of their skill, knowledge of the terrain, available escape routes, and similar precautions.  My take on the image moves away from all of that, to get closer to what is being shown.

What matters is that people can get used to anything, that Western culture will follow its commitment to controlling nature to the gates of hell, and that denial of global warming comes as easily as waiting at the bus stop because it comports so well with maintaining the routines which are among the few anchors we have in an era of rapid change.  So, we can wait for the cosmic bus to come and take us away to some better place, or we can turn and look around, and look at each other.

What matters in the world today is that people stop pretending that there isn’t a fire raging in the background.  The photo shows us just how close we can get while still in denial.  “Just a back burn; we’ve got this one under control; move along now, these aren’t the causes you want.”

Even the beauty of the conflagration is there to help: if we could at least recognize that, it would be step forward.  Fire is beautiful, but cinders–not so much.  Take a look, while you still can.

Photograph by Brad Hunter/Newspix/Rex Features.  FYI, for other posts on silhouettes, go here; on wildfires, go here.

October 2nd, 2013

Governing and the Archaeology of the Present

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

There isn’t a single photograph that begins to capture the Republican Party’s decision to shut down the US government, so let me provide one.

abandoned subway

This is actually a double image.  On the one hand, it’s an image of what happens when states are governed well. Civilization can be hewn out of rock, common goods such as transportation facilities can be gleaming monuments to efficiency, everyone can benefit from this investment in shared infrastructure for enjoying liberty and prosperity, and this can be done not only well but beautifully.

On the other hand, it’s also an image of the fate that awaits every government, every state, dare I say many a species including perhaps our own?  Those ancient civilizations that now lie buried were once vibrant, not least when they were overcome by the volcanic ash, moving desert, invading horde, ecological crash, plague, or other catastrophe.  We already have self-made ruins such as missile silos, defunct nuclear reactors, and highways to nowhere, but that’s the least of what could follow.  Better to imagine how something both practical and beautiful could become an empty, abandoned fragment of a lost civilization.  Although this machined space was wrested out of the earth by skill, labor, and organization, the rock will outlast anything not renewed, the silence will reign far longer than any party, and maybe, maybe it will receive the accidental tribute of someone wondering how a people so advanced could have disappeared.

At this point I probably should add that this subway station is in Stockholm, Sweden.  Now, Washington. DC has a fine subway system, so I won’t knock that, but it would be nice if the government above ground were allowed to work as well.  More to the point, this photo from another place and time can stand in for the many failed attempts to say something, anything about the current crisis.

I’m referring to those photos of “closed” signs in front of government buildings, tourist stragglers in front of empty memorial sites, political leaders looking grave, and similar fare.  The fault isn’t the photographers’, as there really isn’t much to see at all–that’s the result of something not happening–and both the reasons and the effects are even less visually apparent, at least for a while.  The fact that the media are putting up dozens of these stock images doesn’t hide their ineffectiveness even as it tries to compensate for it.  But even that’s not the real problem.

Actually, there are two problems.  One is that there haven’t been any strong photographs regarding the recent debate about the shutdown and about “Obamacare” more generally.  Let me suggest that this is one reason we have been witness to such a stunning demonstration of GOP mendacity, press complicity with their tactics, and the seemingly bottomless ignorance and gullibility of the American public.  It’s only a counterfactual supposition, but I think one cause of the low quality of public discourse is that there has been no strong image of harm or corruption to bring people to their senses.

The second problem is that none of the photos we do have are able to do what photojournalism at its best does: expose the deeper truth that lies underneath the froth of the news.  That truth would tell us something that we really need to know if we are to live well: say, something about why American society is becoming so dysfunctional and what might come of it.

Which is why I’ve offered the photograph above for consideration.  One thing that often is irrevocably lost among the ruins is the reasons people gave for fighting one another or not working together or abandoning the principles that had sustained them.  Reasons that they were so sure about, that they thought were so important at the time, that they knew were right.  Such pride goeth before the fall, but few are around to remember it.

So it is that photography might push back against the arrogance that can shut down a legitimate, well-functioning, democratic government.  In this case, it can’t work by exposing the lies, for they are present for all to see.  What it might do, however, is remind us how much can be lost, and lost even when so much else looked so good and worked so well.

Call it an archaeology of the present: the images that would remind us of how close we can be to becoming ruins.

Photograph by Valentijn Tempels/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest).

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

August 26th, 2013

Photography, Beauty, and Catastrophe

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

I suppose we are getting used to reports of Western wildfires, but the Yosemite rim fire is a bad one.  It doubled in a couple of days to burn 125,000 acres by Saturday, and the 2800 firefighters have so far achieved 7% containment.  Nor is this merely a story about the loss of natural beauty, for the fire is threatening San Francisco’s electrical grid and water supply.

Given the large scale and destructive potential of the fire, the pictures from the fire line can seem mundane: guys walk along spraying liquids, either to put out spot fires or start back fires, while above them the monster is creating its own weather pattern that can send it in any direction.  And yet there is one photo that, as improbable as a downdraft, leaps into the imagination to communicate something deeper still.  Not surprisingly, it also is a photograph about beauty.

California, USA: A firefighter douses the flames of the Rim Fire near Grove

I don’t know which is more striking: the radiant tree branches or his nonchalance in the inferno.  It almost seems that he is spraying paint on a canvas, or washing a mural, or waving a magic wand that is creating the luxurious tableau before him.  Some critics might object at precisely this point: the fire has been completely aestheticized, they would say, with any sense of danger or moral significance–and of public response–displaced by the pleasures of spectatorship.  And they might seem to be right, for the fire does seem to have become a painting of a fire, an event so fictive and distant that the balls of white heat triangulated around the man could be distant galaxies.  The image seems to speak to art history–is the influence Japaneese, or Romantic, or from a video game, or . . . ?   It does not bring to mind climate change, environmental politics, or emergency funding.

And yet, it is beautiful, isn’t it?  Both the fire and the photo are dazzling and enthralling, strange and enchanting.  More than that, the photo doesn’t hide its art; instead, by emphasizing the aesthetic distance and coherence of the scene as well as its elements of incongruity, it makes the beauty of the fire an object for serious contemplation.  That prompt can be taken in several directions: for example, one might consider how all disaster photos draw on artistic appeal or manipulation, or how beauty is agnostic about whether sequoias are green or aflame, or how human beings have a rather complicated relationship with fire.

Or, to quote Walter Benjamin, how humanity’s “self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.”  That degraded relationship would seem to be demonstrated by the firefighter in the photograph: standing apart from the scene he actually is in, enjoying the view while casually hosing down an environmental disaster that one way or another will eventually engulf the planet.  His indifference mimics our own, while we can pretend that the conflagration isn’t real simply by being spectators.

But he may not be enjoying the view. and Benjamin’s observation may be applied too easily today.  I think we need to look again.  Nature, like the photographer, could be telling us something–something still inchoate, beyond ready verbalization, and essential.  Something about the close connection between civilization and catastrophe, for example.

Whatever the message, I’m sure that the key to understanding is to value the beauty of the image, rather than try to contain it.

Photographs bt Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

July 10th, 2013

Vegetable Mineral Animals: After the Blaze at Lac Megantic

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

Just what are they, exactly?

fuel train carcasses

The caption at Reuters referred to “the remains of a train wreckage,” and it is that.  The train of tank cars carrying crude oil had exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec, creating an inferno that killed at least 15 people, with others yet to be accounted for.  This human toll should not be minimized, and I will be among the last to grieve over the loss of company property.  Nonetheless, the photo above deserves attention even as it takes us in away from those whose lives were torched by the blast.

The scorched tank cars look like carcasses more than anything else.  Like the bloated bodies of pigs after a flood, or dead fish after an oil spill in a river.  Or, if you like sci fi noir, like pods leaking alien spoor in some industrial wasteland of a long dead planet.  The sense of scale is all off–certainly not to human scale, as the tanker truck and other vehicles on the road are dwarfed by the giant metal rames piled up like so much slag at a gargantuan mill.

But I keep coming back to a sense of organic life now dead.  As if some life form has been decimated arbitrarily, accidentally, without dignity or purpose.  Again, I know that human beings really did suffer that death, but nonetheless I think this photograph captures something important about the larger economy of life and death in a machine age.

The word “petroleum” comes from the Greek petra/rock and Latin oleum/oil, and that etymology captures the sense of being both inorganic and organic.  Technically, oil is not a mineral, yet oil rights are covered under mineral rights, it is pumped out of the dark depths of the earth,  and then it is turned into tens of thousands of materials and other products.  Likewise, the black (and blackened) steel tanker cars represent the black oil they carried, as if two parts of the same whole.  Thus, oil can be thought of as a mineral that once was a mixture of plants and other decomposing matter, and perhaps the photo taps into that deep organic history.  Plants and animals were transformed over vast expanses of geological time into the crude oil that then was used in just over a century of industrialized production to support an incredible expansion of human development, but one not without its costs. And that process of oil extraction, distribution, refining, and conversion into machine power increasingly seems to have developed a life of its own, or at least a great many defenders of its right to exist and expand without limit.  But as the photograph above suggests, even that process can come full circle, destroying its own and leaving nothing but waste that will be much less likely in the long run to change into anything else.

I’ve always enjoyed the family road trip game of Twenty Questions, where you start by asking if the object is Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral.  For the time spent trapped in the car, we could at least share the illusion that all the world could be placed neatly into one of three categories, and with everything either bigger, smaller, or (less often) the same size as a breadbox.  Without cheap gasoline, I doubt we would have played the game.  At the same time, we were being driven toward a world where those simple categories were going to become increasingly intertwined.

Look again:  the tanker cars are at once bigger and smaller than a breadbox.  More important, or less a trick of the eye, they also are at once vegetable, mineral, and animal.  And so, as this photograph senses, there may be something to mourn there after all.  But just what that is, exactly, I’m not sure.

Photograph by Mathieu Belanger/Reuters.

May 29th, 2013

The Continuing Catastrophe of Native American Invisibility

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

Visibility can be an important property, one that represents status, legitimacy, rights, privileges, and powers.  If you don’t think so, ask the women who have been Invisible Wives at corporate dinners, or the men and women who are still trapped in the closet, or the street people who are treated as if they don’t exist, or the elderly who have to endure others talking about them as if they were in another room.  Consider also what it can mean for an ethic group when one of their own achieves celebrity, or when they can see themselves as they are in entertainment and advertisements, or when strangers nod pleasantly as they pass by in the office or at a restaurant.  Sure, the very rich prize not being seen by the masses, but they already have what they need otherwise and are assured plenty of recognition and deference within their own circles of entitlement.  For most of us, however, it’s a good thing to be visible: more specifically, to be seen without social stigma or stereotype and as if we belong in the picture.

Mass grave at the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.

Which is why the problem of Native American invisibility continues to be part of that prolonged catastrophe that otherwise is known as their history.  This invisibility is not for want of paintings and photographs; in fact, they are part of the problem.  Can you think of an image of a Native American that is not of a primitive warrior, or rural poverty, or a casino?  Photographers return to the reservations and urban ghettos, but no matter how hard they try, it seems that the mix of persistent social problems and ritual trappings will defeat any attempt to see anew.  And in any case, this may be a prime example of how, as Errol Morris has reminded us, believing is seeing: the stereotypes are likely to dominate perception no matter what else is intended.  And because of their geographic isolation and how that compounds dysfunction while reducing assimilation, the native peoples of the Great Plains may be in for the worst of it.

This week Time put up a slide show by Aaron Huey centered on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.  Aaron has put years of work into gaining the trust of the Oglala Lakota people living there, and he is trying to break through the wall of invisibility that prevents any understanding of both  the “failures of the reservation system” and how, for all that, people are finding ways to care for one another, preserve their shattered culture, and perhaps even one day receive justice.

I won’t presume to speak for the photographer, but the show is provided to prompt discussion.  I find the image above to be incredibly reverberant, and the news is not all good.  Once again, no one is in the picture; once again, the West can be imagined as both unpopulated and awaiting European civilization.  Once again, Native American culture appears almost immaterial, ephemeral, a collection of feathers, scraps of fabric, and other ornamental flotsam that will be carried away by the next big wind.

But that’s only part of the tableau, for European culture doesn’t come off any better.  That neoclassical monument was never an award winner and it’s gained nothing with the passage of time, but above all it was out of place from the start.  What would simply be overlooked (invisible) in today’s urban park here looks ridiculous; worse, it can stand for all that did not follow, the promises of settlement and development that never came to pass.

Instead of another city of the prairie, we have instead only the fence, and with that the political fact of forced enclosure.  That fence is too banal to really qualify as a symbol, but it will have to do: like the reservation system itself, it’s a cheap but effective barrier, and one that–like the monument–was out of place from the start.

So it is that another roadside memorial tells a story, but not the one that was intended.  Nor is that the whole story, for there is one more thing: that impossible sky.   Thus the photo provides myth and reality: the sad, forgotten memorial, itself a hodgepodge of two cultures that tragically collided, and its backdrop of sublime natural beauty with all the spiritual power and promise that still holds.  To live under that sky is still to be impossibly rich, unless of course you are impossibly poor, sick, abandoned, and traumatized.  There are a few white settlers still living under that sky, and some of them can still see it, but for most of us on all sides, that experience has been lost to either catastrophe or affluence.

It’s odd that the sky could become invisible, but that, too, is part of the history signified by that monument.  I don’t think Aaron breaks through the barrier of Native American invisibility, but I doubt that any one documentary project could do so.  What is needed as well is a change in the audience.  Now that Aaron has done his part, the question remains of who will bother to see what is there.  You might start by looking up, and then around you.  And then?

Photograph by Aaron Huey, Mass grave at the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.

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