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. . . .

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

June 15th, 2014

“… ‘Till Death Do Us Part”

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe

 

Screen shot 2014-06-15 at 9.12.51 PM

The post today can be somewhat brief, not because there isn’t much to say, but rather because, well, we’ve said it several times already (e.g., here and here), most recently two weeks ago (here).  Today’s photograph simply makes the point in dramatic fashion.

Wildfires are overrunning different parts of the world and in ways that are completely out of synch with normal weather patterns … and in ways that really ought to be of some serious concern. They are catastrophic in their effects, both economically and environmentally. But the bigger catastrophe—or perhaps the proper term is “tragedy”—is that we seem to have begun to take them wholly for granted, treating them as the new normal. Or, as in the photograph above, treating it as an interesting backdrop to an otherwise romantic scene of personal avowal and commitment. What better way, after all, to secure one’s wedding vows—“for better or for worse, through sickness and in health”—than to locate the beginning of one’s life long future with another person against the conflagration that apparently promises to be there forever and anon.

It really is hard to know what to make of this photograph. For one thing it has appeared at a number of different “pictures of the week” slide shows for different national news groups, none of which otherwise pointed to or commented on the wildfires burning in the background. And even if there was something “new” to report on this account, its not like one more photograph of the fire is adding probative evidence to make a claim about basic facticity. I mean, does anyone really question whether these wildfires exist (even as I write that I know that there have to be “fire deniers” somewhere in the world, but for the remaining 99.99% of the population, do we really need one more picture of a wildfire to make the case that such fires are and have been raging out of control?). That said, it should also be noted that the photograph is being taken by a photojournalist, not a wedding photographer, and yet it is also something of a mashup of two photographic genres.  So if the photograph is not contributing to the “news” what is it doing?

One answer to this question might be that it is offering evidence of a pervasive attitude—and attitudes, of course, are incipient actions.The caption identifies a couple near Bend, Oregon posing for a wedding portrait.  It is hard to register the photograph as anything other than a publicity stunt, perhaps an advertisement for the next apocalyptic movie to come down the pike.  But, there you have it, its a “real” photograph of a real couple.  Why settle for a lake or a pond or a nestled grove of trees to mark your nuptials for posterity when you can have a raging wildfire in the background! The fire was apparently close enough that the minister performed a “shortened ceremony” so that the wedding party could be safely transported elsewhere for the reception, but then again it was not so close that the couple seems distracted by it from the passionate fires that burn within their own breasts (or so we might assume). The irony is astonishing. Then again, perhaps the irony here cuts in a different direction if we can assume that this woman and this man are actually dedicated environmentalists and that they are using the occasion of their union to call attention cynically to the inanity of such rituals and ceremonies when in fact the world is ablaze—and the fire is getting ever closer. Perhaps in the next moment (or at least after their reception) they peel off their wedding vestments and don the attire of activists concerned to alert the world to the need to address the problem. Maybe. It’s hard to know.  It would certainly make for an interesting movie.

However you read the photograph—whatever attitude you note or potential action you see— there can be little doubt that it pictures a profound problem that surely predicts a troubling future.  Right now it seems to point to a tragic outcome, particularly if we persist in accepting the background in the photograph as just another backdrop for a dramatic wedding portrait. The fire, after all, will only continue to burn brighter and to get closer.  If we continue to ignore that problem, however, or worse, if recast it as something which is altogether normal,  it is  possible that the story which points to a tragedy will end as a farce.

For better or for worse … indeed.

Credit: Josh Newton/AP

 

June 2nd, 2014

Connecting the Dots on a Global Scale

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe

Screen shot 2014-06-01 at 3.45.53 PM

One of the difficulties with global warming is that it is kind of hard to see. We can see the effects of a tornado or a hurricane or a wildfire, but “global warming” seems to be a somewhat abstract concept. Yes, winters have gotten colder and summers hotter; sure tornadoes and hurricanes have become more frequent, and are both more extreme and less predictable; and yeah, we seem to be having more draughts, floods, and weather disasters worldwide, but who is to say that all such occurrences aren’t “normal” aberrations or “random” climactic events. Well, climate scientists, for one, who are almost of a single mind that global warming exists and is getting worse—and they even seem to be wholly in agreement as to its primary cause—but as a grand phenomenon it still remains something that is difficult to see. We can see the parts, but the whole seems to be ever so elusive to sight. And because we can’t see the whole there is a too easy tendency to treat it with a certain nonchalance—indeed, to act as if it isn’t there at all.

The recent wildfires in San Diego are a case in point. Wildfires in the southwest are not particularly new, a more or less regular effect of the dry Santa Ana winds that turn trees into combustible tinder. But the most recent wildfires, which consumed 25,000 acres, were wholly out of season. As one fire chief put it, “This is unbelievable. This is something we should see in October … I haven’t seen it this hot, this dry, this long in May.” Nor were such fires restricted to San Diego, as similarly unseasonal fires have occurred in both Arizona and Alaska! And yet there remains a popular tendency to think of these disasters as singular events, unconnected to one another, and so as damaging as they might be we fail to make the connections to common causes—or to the fact that perhaps we are looking at what might be the new normal.

Photographs of such fires have been abundant, but each year they tend to be pretty much the same. Pictures of forests ablaze, oftentimes shot in the evening, which give them an eerily romantic veneer, firefighters working to contain them, and aerial attempts to put them out by dropping water and other fire retardants on them. And, of course, there are pictures of the aftermath as well. The photograph above is somewhat distinct in this regard. It too seems to register a sense of the regular and the ordinary, but it does so with an ironic twist.

It shows a scene from Carlsbad in the San Diego area. The fires have made their way ever so close to this development of houses, but as you can see, the owner (if that is who he is) doesn’t seem to be overly concerned. Casually dressed, he seems inured to the grey and white billows of smoke that seem to be emerging out of his back yard. Talking on his telephone one might imagine that he is calling the local fire department (or is it his insurance agent), but then again it could just be a conversation with a friend for all the nonchalance he seems to display. Indeed, he doesn’t appear to be showing any real concern for the inferno behind his house whatsoever; dispassionate, if not altogether indifferent, he leaves the viewer wondering if he even acknowledges that it is taking place at all.  And truthfully, by the time you read this post the new cycle will have shifted one more time and we will be on to other local tragedies.

And therein lies the rub. For one would think that something truly is at stake here. But perhaps when confronted with impending catastrophe that has been normalized and is so close that we don’t know what to do about it we are inclined simply to look the other way, to make believe that it is not there—even when some of the evidence is in our own backyard—or worse, to assume that somehow we can simply learn to live with the parts and not imagine (let alone worry about)  what it all might add up to. As it is with such fires, so it is it would seem with larger problem of global warming. The parts are everywhere to be  seen, to be sure, but to see the whole we have to work harder to connect the dots.  Unlike the man in the picture, we have to look to our own backyard, even as we cast our gaze farther afield.

Credit: Mike Blake/Reuters

 

May 21st, 2014

Creative Destruction in Homs: The New Order of Ruins

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe, visualizing war

Walter Benjamin once remarked that “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.”  The reverse also holds: ruins are, in the realm of things, what allegories are in the realm of thoughts.  Either way, the expectation is that a message can be found where there remains only a trace of the original medium, structure, or civilization.  Even though both ruins and allegories signify the loss, fallibility, and futility of communication, there is at the same time a suggestion that meaning remains just beyond the other side of representation, and the hope that some connection might be made across the divide between past and present, image and idea, cosmology and history. . . .   But then we come to this.

Destroyed buildings are pictured, after the cessation of fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Syria's President Assad, in Homs city

I am staggered by this photograph from Homs.  Nor is it the first witness to the terrible destruction of lives and infrastructure in the Syrian civil war.  All wars are terrible, but this one seems to have made the cities themselves the primary targets.  Many cities have been bombed over the past 100 years, but usually for what they housed.  In Homs and Aleppo, the city itself–as an organic, living thing with autonomy and purpose–is being tortured to death.

I’ve written before about Rubble World, that swath of destruction that war is spreading the globe, and Syria already had become one of the most disturbing examples of this slow-moving catastrophe.  Since then the death toll and range of destructiveness has continued to increase in Syria and elsewhere.  Of course, buildings can be rebuilt, streets repaved, and no one can say how Syria will be doing in fifty years.  But even if the equivalent of a Marshall Plan were in the works–and it is not–something about the present has already been revealed.

What we may have before us in this remarkable photograph is a new order of ruins.  These are ruins without nobility, as they have not been made by the passing of time, nor will they be able to withstand it.  They are without any secondary value: too dangerous to provide sanctuary from a summer shower, too hideous to be the backdrop for romance or any other idle pleasure.  Where the buildings might have provided an empathic connection with those living there before, instead there is only a twisted warren of barren concrete and industrial filth.  This wreckage demeans memory itself.

These ruins may be different in another sense as well.  Instead of marking the presence of an extinct civilization, they may foretell the demise of our own.  A new order of ruins suggests a new order of war and peace, investment and abandonment, indifference and self-interest, prosperity and brutality.  If this image is representative, we also can assume that the new order is not one in which mercy is a consideration.  Where total war used to be thought of as the ultimate expression of great power conflict, now it appears more like a niche predator, and God help you if you live in that niche.

The new ruin is a photographic artifact, and good thing too, as we would not see it otherwise.  Like photography generally, this ruin can suggest how alternate futures already exist in the present, albeit as merely possible paths for social advancement, sustainability, or decline.  Consider what else is evident in that regard: for example, I see a world with more weapons than water, more displacement than stability, more terror than peace.  For most of us, these possibilities still are on the other side of the divide between present and future.  But to follow the allegory, the traces of the future are already here, waiting for us to see them.  To see, that is, how modernity is already in ruins.

Photograph by Ghassan Najjar/Reuters.

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.

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