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. . . .

June 29th, 2016

Fires, Floods, and Photos

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

Want to see what a wildfire leaves behind?

A freshly scorched landscape is seen in the early morning hours of June 18, 2016 at the Sherpa Fire near Santa Barbara, California. A fire in the Los Padres National Forest had expanded to two square miles (five square kilometers) by Thursday, making it the "largest since 2009" in the area, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Information Center told AFP. / AFP / DAVID MCNEW (Photo credit should read DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)

Not much.  This image of the immediate aftermath of a fire near Santa Barbara, California is disturbingly empty, almost abstract.  It could be anywhere, as whatever was there has been obliterated.  Or it could be at almost any scale: the scorched hide of an animal, or embers in a fireplace, or the surface of a dying planet.

Given global warming, “dying planet” may not be too far off the mark.  The wildfires have many causes, of course, but human behavior figures in most of them.  What would be occasional events in a “state of nature” have become more than that: signs of systemic disruption by a species too powerful for its own good.

I’ll admit that I love to stare into the embers of a controlled fire, and the photos from the wildfires can’t help but have a similar appeal.  Many of them capture the eye: the fires themselves, the planes dropping brightly colored retardants, the huge clouds of smoke, the stoical firefighters illumined by showers of sparks. . . . Images such as these appeal to experiences deep in species memory, and to myths of conquest and control.  They also can turn melancholic as one looks into the embers and sees dying dreams, empires, galaxies.  Fire is more than a great leveler: when literally scorching the earth, the future seems to have gone up in smoke.

It’s not that simple, of course, as underneath the ashes the forest is already growing anew.  But let’s not jump too quickly to visions of renewal and hope.  The fire has something else to teach us: as in the photograph above, when faced with a large fire one is pushed to scale up one’s thinking.  Fires are no respecter of persons, and their images may appeal to us because they are resolutely about collective conditions: a shared danger or common fate and the necessity of responding as a  group.  If the image of a firescape is abstract or impersonal, there is something to learn from that.

Fires move fast and unpredictably, and they can consume everything one might need to recover afterwards.  Everything except the rivers, that is.

flood aftermath photos

Floods, or the increased incidence and severity of floods, also can be due to global warming.  Even if not, they too become disasters that inundate landscapes, disrupting or destroying the lives that were there.  But there are differences as well.  Floods often develop slowly, and recede at the same pace.  They affect some but not others in the same locale: the difference of a foot can be the difference between desolation and business as usual.

There may be another difference as well.  In surveying wildfire photos, it is easy to find dozens that don’t contain people.  In surveying photos from floods–for example, from the West Virginia flooding last week–many of the images contain people and many feature them.  Again, water doesn’t kill as fire does: you can be OK while up to your waist in the middle of a flood but you wouldn’t want to be half aflame in the middle of a wildfire.  The harm done often is different as well: many possessions are damaged, not destroyed.  Many things are still in place, although rotted and covered with muck.  While fires rage, floods distend time, slowing everything down as you have to sift through the waterlogged mess, making decisions one item at a time.

Which is why the photograph above is so evocative.  She sits, as there is time to sit.  The waters have left, the sun is out, and she is laying pictures out to dry.  There is plenty of other work to do as well–note that she is sitting on what was once a fence–but this small task of conservation also is important.  Memory work, you might say, so that more than possessions will be saved from the waters’ oblivion.

Floods are collective disasters that require collective responses, but there also is something personal about them.  Even the dead bodies still are recognizable.  The task of restoration has to work through what was there before, not simply replace it.  The community has to respond as a community, but so many of the measures have to concern individual people and places, particular habits and specific concerns, and labor that will take time and then more time before enough has been done.

There is something to learn from photographs of the wildfires, and from photographs of the floods.  Not the same lessons, but they are linked in ways that might escape notice at first.  Like fire and water, you might say, or two photos that seem to have little in common, but together show us a world that is in grave danger and yet worth saving.

Photographs by David McNew/AFP/Getty Images and Sam Owens/Charleston Gazette-Mail via the Associated Press.

April 6th, 2016

Listen to the Ruins

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

For some in the US this week, the big event was the NCAA men’s basketball final.  For others, it was opening day of the baseball season.  Some have been focused on the presidential primaries and the endless spin and speculation that goes with that.  Almost no one will have been thinking about the Nuclear Security Summit meeting that concluded last Friday.

Too bad.  It was important–unless, that is, you don’t mind having Your Town looking like this.

A view of the abandoned city of Pripyat is seen near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine March 23, 2016. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich - RTSBZGE

The photo was taken at the abandoned city of Pripyat, Ukraine.  That’s right–an abandoned city.  And we are not speaking metaphorically: for example, “Detroit has been abandoned by the powers that be.”  I’ve said much the same myself, but this photo is about something far worse that the typical stories of political or economic malfeasance.  Pripyat had the bad luck to be located near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.  Thirty years ago this month the reactor exploded, and today the “exclusion zone”–the dead zone–covers 1000 square miles.

And what did it take to take down 1000 square miles?  A mistake made during a routine test.  Yes, it was the exception; there will have been millions of tests undertaken at the many reactors around the world that were conducted safely.  But the relationship between the small scale of individual human action and the enormous consequences of nuclear destruction should not to unnoticed.

Just as the relationship between a small terrorist action and the enormous consequences of nuclear destruction should not to unnoticed.  Even if it is harder than one might think, it doesn’t take an army–or a Manhattan project–to create a crude tactical nuclear weapon today.  And there should be no doubt whatsoever that there are people and organizations in the world that would use it at the first opportunity.  Not use it as a bargaining chip, not use it as a status symbol to join the nations in the nuclear club, but use it to destroy a city.

That’s why the Summit mattered.  Convened in Washington and hosted by President Obama, it received precious little coverage.  It was derided, of course, for being too small, too weak, all talk, etc.  Some of that had the marks of what should be said by a loyal opposition, and most of it was the all too predictable Obama bashing and saber rattling by the usual gang of idiots.

Either way, there is need to listen to what the ruins have to say.  Every summit matters, every initiative, all the talk, whatever money is committed or technical support provided.  If there ever was need for Democrat and Republican to work together, and opportunity to be able to work together pragmatically and effectively, this should be it.

Tough talk may even have a place, but far more important will be building collaborative relationships and rigorous practices to protect all the available nuclear material.  Even then accidents can happen, but no one should think that there is time to waste, or that the odds are on our side, or that ideology is more important than security.

Listen to the ruins.  They know what people are thinking: how we don’t assume the worst, and how we are easily distracted.

A playground in the deserted town of Pripyat, Ukraine, some 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant Ukraine, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. Workers on Tuesday raised the first section of a colossal arch-shaped structure that is planned to eventually cover the exploded reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Project officials on Tuesday hailed the raising as a significant step in a complex effort to liquidate the consequences of the world's worst nuclear accident, in 1986. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

And they know what can happen next.

Photographs by Gleb Garanich/Reuters and Efrem Lukatsky AP.  For the Atlantic Monthly’s slide show on the exclusion zone, go here.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

February 19th, 2016

Progress and Catastrophe at the World Press Photo Awards

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

The 2016 World Press Photo Awards were announced yesterday.  As always, the awards are an occasion for marveling at the quality of contemporary photojournalism.  And as always, they probably have prompted some controversy, although I would expect less of that this year.  The winning photograph channels Robert Capa’s great D-Day photograph, while its black and white tonality and “you are there” action shot will allay concerns raised in the last few years about the presence of painterly or other explicitly aesthetic values.

A wide range of artistic inflection is still on display at the awards, however, and good thing, too.  (Keep in mind that all the photographs are digitally altered–not least the black and white images, which have the color subtracted from the original raw file.)  Photojournalism is a vital, vibrant public art, and the “82,951 photos made by 5,775 photographers from 128 different countries” will provide a rich archive of life on planet Earth today.  Note also that this WPP quotation says the photos are “made,” not taken.  The modernist assumption about transparent representation of the world finally is being replaced by recognition of the fact–and I would hope, value–of mediation.

From the look of the winners, it seems clear that the artistry that is on display brings us closer not only to the world as it is, but also to the world as it is unfolding from past to present to future.  By putting two of the category winners side by side, we can see how this public art is challenging us to think about whether a global future will be one of progress or catastrophe.

China, WPP award, Freyer

The WPP caption says, “Chinese men pull a tricycle in a neighborhood next to a coal-fired power plant in Shanxi, China.  A history of heavy dependence on burning coal for energy has made China the source of nearly a third of the world’s total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the toxic pollutants widely cited by scientists and environmentalists as the primary cause of global warming.”

Put text and image image together, and you have a problem.  Coal-fired plants in China needs to be replaced for the common good, right?  Yes, but it’s cold in Shanxi.  And that massive plant is helping people haul themselves out of centuries of poverty.

The caption refers to a tricycle, but motorbikes are there as well.  Progress is there, but hardly at the level of Saudi elites living lavishly in London.  It’s still a slog in Shanxi.  The fact that the province is now an exhibit for deplorable labor conditions is one measure of where it is on the developmental scale.  One question that arises is whether this is a photograph of how rural China is climbing the stages of industrialization toward First World prosperity, or of how the “temporary” costs of industrialization are now unacceptable because of permanent damage to the global ecosystem.

Which brings us to the photo’s artistry.  Is it a photograph or a 19th century genre painting?  Is it a photograph or a Soviet-era poster promoting industrialization?  Both the painterly hues and the modernist iconography are key elements of the composition.  The artistic implication is that this is a photograph of the past.

In Reading National Geographic, Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins made the astute observation that the ideology of progress sees the developing world is if “their present is our past” (p. 125).  Many, many photographs have carried that message.  With this photo, I’m not so sure.  The the two men in the foreground are moving the non-motorized vehicle away from the power plants.  The plants are being left behind, while the men are walking on a road that seemingly  would become colder, harsher, more tiring.  In place of electric heat, they will need that fur blanket that is draped over the trike.  As in a genre painting, they become a portrait of a simple, agrarian life, albeit now one that comes after industrialization instead of before it.  Progress is part of the picture, but it has become dangerous.  The two men almost could be refugees.  And perhaps they are.

But where might they go?  How are things going in the advanced nations?  The flip side of the Lutz and Collins observation is that those elsewhere could look at our present to see their future.  But what if our present already contains another future, and one that no one would want?

Australia, WPP award, Kelly

The WPP caption says, “A massive ‘cloud tsunami’ looms over Sydney as a sunbather reads, oblivious to the approaching cloud on Bondi Beach.”  Welcome to the affluent world: life is a beach, and better than that when you’ve also got your digital reader.  Industrialization is somewhere off stage here, while global information technologies, consumer consumption, and warmth can be taken for granted.  Taken for granted, that is, until you stop what you’re doing to look at what is coming.

Perhaps it’s just another storm.  Weather, not climate change.  A need to take shelter for awhile, not change the way you live.  That is the difference between a literal reading of the photograph and seeing it as a work of public art.  The photographs taken in 2015 record what is still a present moment, but they also can recall the past and reveal something of the future.  A future, perhaps, that looms like a terrible, dark storm.

Photographs by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images (WPP 1st prize singles, Daily Life) and Rohan Kelly/Daily Telegraph (WPP 1st prize singles, Nature).

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

May 6th, 2015

Mirroring the Sadness in the Post-Soviet Catastrophe

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe


Anastasia mirror copy

We have been allowed to look in on a moment of stunning intimacy.  Some say this shouldn’t happen–the camera should not be so intrusive, and the voyeurism is obscene.  Furthermore, my emotions of sadness or pity are an indulgence of middle class sentimentality that adds further insult to injury.  What they don’t consider is that without those risks, nothing can be shared or learned.  Care needs to be taken–by the photographer and by the viewer–but that can be done in order to bring people together in a public world.

And was done: the photographer Tamas Dezso spent several years in Romania and Hungary to document those who have been left to contend with the ongoing catastrophe to which they were abandoned.  The exhibition at The Guardian is titled “Postcards from the Ruins,” and it includes this photograph of Anastasia looking into a mirror.

We see her in the mirror–as an image–and also in front of it, and so the photo cues a reflexive awareness.  She confronts her image, and studies it, and we can do the same with the photo.  She ponders the toll time–and work and illness and worry and much else–has taken.  We can do the same.  She looks into a ruin of a mirror that is propped up against a curtained wall, between curtained windows behind which blank white light forms another wall.  It’s as if everything can be seen only through a veil, as if everything were shrouded for premature burial, as if she were looking at herself in preparation for her own funeral.  This world, it seems, is constant deterioration, while the next offers only blinding nothingness.  We might want to think about how things got to that point.

And yet, for all the melancholy that suffuses the scene, she is beautiful.  The mirror’s portraiture captures so much, from the vibrant blue in her dress to the combination of strength and gentleness in her hands to the daunting candor of her self-examination.  It is not hard to imagine that she is seeing not only who she is, but who she was, and perhaps more as well.  She knows something about living among the ruins, and though hard earned, it is hers.

I hope she finds consolation in what she has learned, and joy to match and exceed the colors still remaining in her world.  The question for us is, what are we to learn from what we have seen here?  Good photography can offer something like intimacy, and that can be an occasion for getting close to the knowledge of oneself and the world that intimacy offers.  If it is applied only to those in the photo, it probably is only a semblance of knowledge.  But if we are willing to see ourselves in her, perhaps we might ponder how her fate overlaps silently with ours.

I’m already old enough to know what it means to see one’s own decline in the mirror.  I hope you live long enough to have the same experience, but not for that reason.  Part of the beauty of this photograph is the dignity she confers on that experience. May we do so well.

One might consider also how her world is not as remote from this side of the screen as we might think.  Some of the bad policies and bad luck that produced post-Soviet poverty also apply to more affluent sectors of the geopolitical system, with the effects buffered only for the time being unless better decisions are made.  In a neoliberal economic order, protracted deprivation and indifference can become the order of the day anywhere, even in those places where ruins are still hidden in the mirror, waiting to be seen.

Photograph by Tamas Dezso/the Guardian.

April 15th, 2015

Spring Time in the Dust Bowl

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

It’s that time of year when we can enjoy the annual photographs of cherry blossoms, tulips, and daffodils; not to mention birds building their nests while lambs and puppies and babies delight in the warm spring sunshine.  Winter has finally moved on, and hope springs eternal.

China dust storm

Unless, of course, you are caught in a dust storm in Dunhuang, China.  I realize that we are all too familiar with the dust storms of Dunhuang, but let me bring up the subject one more time.  Yes, I want to introduce a sour note into the seasonal chorus, and no, it’s not something I usually do.  You shouldn’t blame me anyway, because it’s this photograph’s fault.

Any part of the planet can have a bad day, and I don’t want to single out Gansu province, which would be a tad hypocritical when my own country is dealing–and not dealing–with a drought and other adverse weather that of course has nothing to do with climate change.  And like most photographs, the value of this image really isn’t in its news value, but rather in how it helps to orient us toward conditions that we already are experiencing.

To that end, this photo’s artistry provides at least three suggestions that merit further reflection.  One is how all-encompassing the storm is.  Of course, that is an illusion created by the limited purview of the camera: somewhere outside of the frame, there is no dust storm.  But in the scene we see, which extends to the horizon, the dust is sovereign.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see that total transformation of the local environment as the result of enormous natural forces.  This incredible feat of lifting thousands of tons of earth into the air is the work of vast weather systems wheeling about the globe.  In case it wasn’t clear enough, consider also the contrast with the human being walking through the storm.  He can endure it, wait it out, survive it, talk about it afterwards, but he cannot control or conquer it.

The second suggestion comes from that high-quality fence.  This is not your grandfather’s dust bowl.  The beautiful design may be made of concrete–that is, of sand, a silicone dust–but in any case it sits serenely in the storm, almost as if it, too, could patiently wait it out.  The omnipresent tonality of the photo creates a homology between the dust storm and the patterned roadway, as if the built environment and the natural environment were seamlessly coordinated (in harmony, the Chinese might say).  And there is an important moral there, I think: if the dust all blows away, or if it grinds the structure down to dust, or if it gently buries it 100 feet underground, it’s all the same to the dust and to the structure.  The continuity of nature and human engineering that we rightly prize, works just as well in reverse.

Which brings us to the third design element in the composition.  Both roadway and the lone individual are directed toward the vanishing point of the photograph: a place in this image of pure obliteration.  Sight, distinction, every separate thing is consumed by the storm, converted into total meaninglessness like a last, uniform expanse of cosmic dust at the far end of time.  Against the hubris that comes with building beautiful structures and complex civilizations, we see instead a trajectory toward a common dissolution.

This photograph doesn’t tell us anything important that we don’t know, but it does provide the means to think about what we would rather ignore.  When it comes to living on this planet, just who are we kidding, and what do we think will save us?  There have been dust storms for a very long time, and they have buried more than one civilization, but now the stakes are higher still.  Human beings are able to alter the climate, but not control it.  What had been local problems or long term patterns can be tipped into catastrophic changes.  And if hope springs eternal, then there will be reason to believe that one day we’ll all be there, walking along a beautifully engineered roadway into oblivion.

Photograph from the China Stringer Network/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

February 23rd, 2015

The Deep Freeze and its Coincidental Other

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 11.49.16 AM copy

In case you missed it, the weather has been in the news a good bit this past week. The extreme cold seems to have gotten everyone’s attention and photojournalists everywhere have made a point of putting it on display (e.g., here, here, and here), illustrating both its aesthetic beauty and somewhat apocalyptic overtones: record breaking snowfall in the New England area, subzero temperatures in the southern regions, and as in the photograph above, a burning building encased in ice from the water used to tame the blaze. And yet, for all of these irregularities, my otherwise well educated next door neighbor could say (without a hint of irony): “I guess this gives the lie to global warming.”

My neighbor—as well as so many others—misses the point of global warming, which is not just about lowering the earth’s temperature and the melting of the polar ice caps (though it is very much about that), but also about effecting historically normal weather patterns so as to create radical shifts in the climate such as the irregularly severe cold and excessive moisture we are currently experiencing in large portions of the country. The irony of the above photograph is telling—perhaps even prophetic—in this regard, as it puts one possible future on display: a world where the simultaneous extremes of unregulated heat and cold will make it almost impossible for us to preserve the social and economic structures we rely upon.

But, of course, in other parts of the country the problem is not extreme cold and excessive moisture, but the very earth-cracking, dust bowl style, lack of moisture. The drought in California is ongoing and severe—“exceptional” and “extreme” are the official terms; that is somewhat old news, however,  and the news cycle is nothing if it is not driven by what is both “new” and most dramatically immediate. And so we aren’t seeing too many stories about the draught these days.  And yet, if we look carefully we will see that photographs like the one above are actually inflected by photographs such as this, which appeared in the Sacramento Bee:


Those boots stand on 125 acres of land in the San Joaquin Valley that have gone fallow due to lack of water. And while some will argue that the drought in California is not directly caused by human induced global warming, there is also little doubt that such global warming exacerbates the effects of an otherwise extraordinary dry spell.

The point is that the deep freezer and the big drought are happening at the same time. One only has to remember to look past the most immediate representations to see it—and to consider the implications of the coincidence.

Credit: Jacqueline Larma/AP; Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee

December 10th, 2014

The Beauty of LA Burning

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

LA apartment fire

Spectacular.  Beautiful.  Hauntingly Beautiful.  Disturbingly beautiful.  Terrifying and yet enthralling.  Awe-inspiring, except that it shouldn’t inspire at all.  Why does disaster dazzle the eye?  How could the spectator not be faulted for enjoying a holocaust?

Such questions have dogged photography as if they were the sign of an original sin.  The medium inadvertently exposed a disconcerting truth: the good, the true, and the beautiful are not transcendentally aligned.  Not for us, anyway.

From comprehensive theoretical critiques to glib labels such as “disaster porn,” academics and pundits alike have faulted those who are drawn like moths to the flame of the disaster photo.  Mark Reinhardt, Susie Linfield and other contemporary writers have tried to push back against such moralizing, but the suspicion of a guilty pleasure remains, and perhaps it should.  There certainly is no lack of beautiful photographs of devastation, and the enjoyment, fascination, and safety of the viewer’s experience will not be remotely like the experience of many at the scene.  But that’s true of all media, while first-hand experience itself can be inchoate, deluded, and otherwise not only mistaken but in need of precisely the distance, perspective, and other resources that art can provide to make sense of the world.

I won’t say that this photograph is likely to be needed by those closer to the fire, but it is a near-perfect example of how photojournalism continues to evoke a mode of seeing that is simultaneously highly aesthetic and yet focused on moments of disaster.  No artistic stance is immune to misuse, but I think images such as this one are an important addition to public life, and not least because they reveal the seamless conjunction of beauty and moral hazard.  Others pay so that we can see that destruction can be beautiful.  They would have paid anyway, however, and your turn will come, so the hard truth is worth having.

Thus, I wasn’t being snarky when titling this post.  LA burning isn’t beautiful because LA deserves to burn.  LA burning is beautiful because we can see it that way.  The interesting question is, what else does that allow us to see?  In the photograph above, we might admit to the close conjunction of civilization and catastrophe.  Note, for example, now the fire and the city towers are each offset from center while side-by-side.  The eye is pulled to the blaze, but then to the gleaming buildings, and then perhaps pulled back a bit to encompass the wider cityscape that now seems aglow with thousands of smaller, safer fires.  The hanging foliage and surrounding sky frames the city within a state of nature where elemental fires burn, ready to consume anyone foolish enough to ignore them.  And yet the city is such an achievement within that frame. . . .  As long as the blaze is contained, that is.  The incredible dynamism of the city becomes framed by a logic of containment, with rupture sure to follow.

I suspect that there are many reasons we enjoy this view.  Light dazzles us, and we like to be dazzled, as the many holiday decorations make clear.  More nasty is the fact that there can be something liberating about destruction.  Where some will see the city enduring and overcoming fires and other occasional spasms of destructiveness, others will sense the possibility of a city consumed in flames–if not in reality, at least close enough that one can feel it.  For those who experience civilization as arbitrary repression or daily humiliation, destruction would become a fantasy of freedom.  And the sheer, almost abstract destructiveness of a massive fire may promise a pure form of liberation.

At the end of the day, however, it does matter that the fire is in LA.  In more than one art form, the city of angels has been America’s harbinger of the apocalypse.  Perhaps this photograph’s visual hint of a mushroom cloud is part of that legacy.  For whatever reason, and by several means, the message continues to be repeated.  A visual spectacle may be the hook, or it may be part of the message.   The question remains, what are we supposed to see?

Photograph by Nancy Yuille/Associated Press.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

November 14th, 2014

Catastrophic Reflections: Depression Era Greece and Beyond

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe, conferences & shows

Fysakis, Nea Helvetia

The Depression Era project inhabits the urban and social landscapes of the crisis. It begins as a collective experiment, picturing the Greek city and its outer regions, the private lives of outcasts, the collapse of public systems and snapshots of the everyday in order to understand the social, economical and historical transformation currently taking place in Greece. It seeks to do so with as clear a gaze as possible. It understands, in its double meaning, that entropy, disaster, uncertainty and insolvency are also states of mind, ushering us to an era where the notion of progress, the idea of growth and the reflex of looking forward to a future are no longer dominant modes of perceiving and creating in the world.

The Depression Era project brings together 30+ artists, photographers, writers, curators, designers and researchers. It seeks to stand outside the media montage and white noise of current public discourse by creating its own mosaic of images and texts. Its immediate goals are the broadcast and dynamic exploration of this mosaic on an online platform, a series of international exhibitions and publications. Its long-term goals include an open call to young artists, the eventual creation of an artistic archive of the crisis and through it, a new digital and physical Commons, an ‘anti-screen’ and ‘sidewalk museum’ that would return its mosaic of gazes back to their places of origin.

The Depression Era collective agrees that its images and texts are not Greek, but European, viewports to the shape of things to come, straddling the red line and offering an alternative, unofficial story to the Crisis.

Work is displayed at the link above, and exhibitions currently are on display via Central Dupon Images in Paris and the Benaki Museum in Athens.

Photograph by Pavlos Fysakis.

November 3rd, 2014

The Hills are Alive …

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe

Lava Flow

No, it’s not the sounds of music. But nevertheless the photographs of the creeping lava flow from Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano are stunning as they illustrate both the inexorable life force of the planet as it pulses and oozes according to its own rhythms and the incredible power that nature exerts over culture and civilization as it creeps ever closer to the small town of Pahoa. It will subsume Pahoa or it won’t, but there is really little that can be done to control the slowly slithering mass of burning, liquid rock which will follow its own path regardless of any manmade roadblocks we put in its way.

The red glow bubbling beneath the grey crust is a reminder that the earth is indeed a life force. Not merely inert material to be used at our will or pleasure, it is driven by an energy  we little understand and there is a dynamism there that seems to communicate something we ignore at our peril. Much is said these days about the catastrophe of global warming that is soon upon us (truth to tell, if science has anything to tell us, the catastrophe is already upon us though we have yet to experience its most tragic after effects) and how it will lead to the death of the planet. And yet photographs like this suggest a different scenario: not the death of the planet, which has the capacity to draw upon a natural energy that follows a pattern of eruption and recovery—leading, as it has for millennia, to survival, albeit in a different form—but perhaps the death of civilization, or worse the extinction of the humanity that relies on the current configuration of the earth.

Hawaii’s Big Island is a very small part of the planet, to be sure, but perhaps the current erruption in its ecology is a reminder that we should not take our relationship with it for granted—particularly in arenas where we might actually have some choice.

Credit: Bruce Omori/EPA


July 7th, 2014

Witness to a Demolition

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe, visualizing war

Screen shot 2014-07-06 at 2.15.39 PM

When it comes to trauma and atrocity the photograph is frequently cast in a confounding conundrum: Because it is driven by an indexical realism it is presumed to bear witness to the worst of human behavior; and yet, because it is only capable of showing a fragment of reality in a sliver of time it is doomed by its incapacity to tell “the whole story.” Of course, no medium is capable of “telling the whole story”—and certainly not in objective fashion—but for some reason we seem to place the full “burden of representation” (to borrow John Tagg’s phrase) on photography itself without paying attention to what it might be accomplishing despite its limitations. And more, when it fails to persuade we assume that somehow the onus of blame resides solely with the photograph (or the photographer) rather than, say, with the viewer or the spectator.

Perhaps the photograph above is a case in point. According to the caption you are witnessing the “demolition” of a private residence in the village of Idnha, just outside of Hebron. The home belonged to Ziad Awad, a Palestinian and a member of Hamas, “charged” with killing an off-duty Israeli police officer. His home is being demolished by Israeli security forces “as a deterrent” to future terrorist activity. If Awad was found to be guilty of murdering an Israeli police officer—and there does seem to be sufficient evidence to support the facts of the case—then surely he should be detained and justly punished. But the demolition of a private residence in the middle of a village or neighborhood to punish or deter an individual crime is excessive. Indeed, far more than an “eye for and eye” mode of justice, it seems to fit in the category that Ariella Azoulay dubs a “regime made disaster.”  Regime made disasters are catastrophic circumstances initiated by democratic institutions in full public view; they are rarely identified as disasters per se, and they divert attention from the larger population being effected (focusing instead on the most immediate victims) by deflecting attention from deeper, underlying causes.

As one reads about Awad, for example, journalistic focus is directed largely at the fact that he was a known terrorist—indeed, he had been imprisoned for a number of years and only recently released, that an Israeli citizen had been  murdered, and that the State of Israel was exacting justice. What receives only marginal attention is the fact that the home being demolisthed did not belong to Awad, but his brother, and that now the brother, his wife and five children, and Awad’s wife and six children have been rendered homeless. It could be a scene out of the Old Testament—think The Book of Judges. But the larger point is that what receives no attention is how such actions impact the ecology—social, political, economic, and otherwise—of the neighborhood, already something of a refugee state, in which a home is precipitously razed. Equally ignored—and perhaps more to the point—is any attention to the the deeply seeded, underlying causes that animate the tensions between the State of Israel and Hamas in the first place.

And yet, for all that, the regime made disaster is there for all to see if only we are willing to accept the invitation. But “invitation” is not really the right word, for an invitation implies the right and opportunity to turn away, to reject or resist the entreaty with some measure of impunity. The photograph, by contrast, issues something that is more like an ethical demand to take responsibility for what we are seeing and for how we respond in reaction to it. No, the photograph does not put the act of demolishing this single home on display, though it does show us the immediate traces of smoke and dust as they expand outward beyond the original location and work to encompass and choke the entire neighborhood. Nor does the photograph tell the entire story, focusing on this singular event. But what it does is to put the impending and unfolding disaster before the public eye, insisting that we look, and that we see, and in seeing, that we engage, that is to say, that we stand as witnesses who not only testify to what they see, but who will ask the questions necessary to make sense out of what is before their very eyes and to act accordingly. It requires, in short, an ethics of spectatorship.

In Dispatches, one of the most affecting novels to come out of the Vietnam War, Michael Herr notes that the war taught him that, “you [are] as responsible for everything you [see] as you [are] for what you [do].” That obligation does not diminish just because what we see is mediated from half-way-around the globe.

Credit: Mussa Issa Qawasma/Reuters

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