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. . . .

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.

May 13th, 2013

About to Die (But not in the USA)

Falling Man.2013-05-12 at 9.18.41 PM

The man we see here is in the clutches of death. Still alive, but only for a few seconds before his body meets with the pavement five floors below, his death is imminent and all but certain.  As Barbie Zelizer points out, such “about to die” images sanitize the visual representation of death, emphasizing the contingency of the moment while nevertheless gesturing to the only logical conclusion.  Such images not only neutralize the emotional affect and spectacle of a broken and mutilated body, but they serve as well to draw the viewer into the scene, inviting contemplation of the subjunctive moment and to consider the possibilities inherent in the image (if not in history itself).  Photographs of death have a finality to them that the visual trope of an “about to die” photograph challenges.  And because the still image stops the action for all time it leaves open—for all time—the tentative possibility of alternate outcomes.

The photograph above is of a man who has “fallen” from a burning building in Lahore, Pakistan.  Or at least that is how the caption for the image typically reads.  It is more likely that he jumped to his death—as did at least four others—to avoid the immolation that killed at least seventeen people.  But whether he jumped or fell, it is clearly an “about to die” image.  It was reproduced in many of the “pictures of the day/week” slideshows that are now featured at most journalistic websites.  What drew my attention to it, however, had less to do with the simple fact of its quality of an “about to die” image and more with how it reprises similar images of people plunging to their deaths from Manhattan’s Twin Towers on 9/11.

There is no official count of how many people jumped from the towering infernos on that fateful day, but the lower end estimations put the number at nearly 200.  Many of the jumpers were captured by videographers and a number of still photographs appeared in newspapers, though almost never on the front page.  More importantly, these photographs disappeared from public view almost as quickly as they had originally appeared, virtually erased from the public record through at least the tenth anniversary of the event itself.  One can now access some of these photographs by searching on the internet, but the larger question has to be why it was deemed inappropriate to broadcast and publish such images then, and yet now it seems acceptable to document the tragic fire in Lahore with virtually identical images and, indeed, to feature the photograph in institutionally sanctioned journalistic websites?

One answer to this question is the assumption that foreign lives count for less than American lives; it is hard to abide such cynicism, but events in recent years make it an answer that we should not discount altogether.  Nevertheless, I think there is something more going on here than an hyperbolic and over-extended American exceptionalism.  One of the features of the “about to die” photograph is that it activates an audience engagement with the image that bridges the distance between here and there, implicating the viewer in the scene being depicted by requiring them to complete the event frozen in time, both cognitively and affectively.  This can produce an especially powerful identification when the actors portrayed are strangers, distant others, as we would imagine most Pakistani citizens to be for most American viewers.  When the actors are easily identified with—by type if not as particular individuals—the problem is reversed, as there is an emotional need to provide some measure of distance.  In the immediacy and aftermath of 9/11 the problem of distance from those who died in  the terrorist attack had to be managed differently as the photographs operated in an interpretive register that distinguished social identity (which arguably needed to be pushed to the background so as to mute social pain) from political identity (which needed to be placed in the foreground to animate the anger needed to spur collective action).

The point is a simple one, but worth emphasizing:  as with linguistic conventions, so with the conventions of visual representation, literacy dictates attention to context at multiple levels: historical, social, cultural, political, and so on.  And perhaps most important in recent times, international and global.  And more, it is in learning how to interpret and engage with such images that we begin to get a sense for what it means to see and be seen as citizens in all of these different registers.

Photo Credit:  Damir Sagolj/Reuters

April 24th, 2013

What Do We See When We See Tears?

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe, no caption needed

There have been many tears shed this past week, like every week.  Somehow those of a woman in China seem especially evocative.

China quake elderly woman

She is siting outside of a house that was damaged by the earthquake last Saturday in Sichuan province, China.  Her family’s house, we can assume.  You can guess that someone has moved the couch into the courtyard and parked her there, while other items are also being salvaged so that they can have water and perhaps a meal.

A much younger woman is caught mid-motion, and it is easy to imagine her going back and forth, in and out, attending to the many new problems all around her, but always with the unconscious energy of those not yet old.  She doesn’t need a heavier coat for the same reason, as she will be continuously active throughout the day.  The damage and disruption will be causing her a lot of trouble, but she can be engaged in dealing with that, and the quake already will be moving into the past while she has plenty of future in front of her.

By contrast, the older woman can only sit and absorb the fear and loss still reverberating like aftershocks through her small world.  She is bundled up for the cold and seems vulnerable, even precarious, holding on to the armrest as if she might fall, even though her body seems too heavy to move on its own.  The bright floral cushions and her stylish hat and coat seem almost a mockery of her predicament: instead of an abundant life, she seems on the verge of abandonment.

And she is crying.  Perhaps it’s a delayed physiological reaction to the earlier trauma, or fear of the unknown or of her own vulnerability, or distress at not being able to be helpful, or grief over possessions that have been lost or loved ones who are unaccounted for or have been harmed.  Or, or, or. . . .  There are many reasons to cry.

Critics of photography often fault the medium for a supposed propensity to emotional excess and to evoking the wrong emotions–not least those self-serving, power-laden, condescending, bourgeois emotions such as pity.  This photo could be seen that way, but I don’t think that is really what is being offered.  Frankly, there is every indication that the women is going to be OK.  So what are we being shown, or asked to do?

One might imagine that she actually is being useful in the scene, that she has a job to do.  Her job is to experience the emotional wreckage that is the invisible consequence of the quake or any other disaster.  I’m making this up, of course, but to make a point.  The quake will have spurred many people to high levels of activity, and activity often is used to manage–that is, defer and deny–intensely negative emotions such as fear, sorrow, and helplessness.  That emotional management is necessary to contend with and recover from disaster, and perhaps not entirely a bad thing anyway (let’s not make an art of feeling miserable), but it also is a lost opportunity.  What is lost is an ability to know oneself, connect with others, and actually think about the risk that lead to the disaster–a risk that already is being forgotten.

Even when the disaster is far away, the spectators elsewhere may spend more time watching and then find the rest of their day busier for that.  And they may volunteer, send money, give blood, and so forth  (The photo was used at the New York Times to accompany a story on changes in Chinese philanthropy when responding to disasters.)  Disaster coverage can put powerful emotions into circulation, but it also can energize practices of emotional management.  Amidst all the activity, there could be no one left to cry.

So let me suggest one answer to the question in the title to the post.  When we see tears, we might see an opportunity for knowledge, solidarity, and change that we otherwise would have missed.

Photograph by a stringer for Reuters.

 

April 21st, 2013

WItness to a Public Tragedy — One Death At A Time

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe

Grief in Athens, OH.2013-04-21 at 9.17.15 PM

The anguish displayed in this photograph is palpable. And if one takes time with the image it is hard not to feel this woman’s grief.  But of course the image is not so unlike so many similar representations of pain and sorrow—both foreign and domestic—and it is not surprising that we would be unlikely to linger over the image.  And truth to tell, while I did come across it in a slide show at a mainstream regional newspaper, it has not achieved a great deal of national circulation. Therein lies its importance.

The woman is the mother of a twenty four year old male who was found, with three others, shot to death “execution style” in an Akron, OH, townhouse.  Numbers here are hard to know with exactitude, but according to the interactive website at Slate, he is the 3,788th person to be killed by gun shot since the tragedy in Newtown, CT.   That is approximately twenty five people per day.  Or to take a different measure of the magnitude, that is 811 more than the number of people killed in the 9/11 attacks.  This mother’s grief is no doubt personal, but it is not solitary.  It is shared by the parents and loved ones of at least 3,787 others in the past four months, and who knows how many in the months ahead.   The problem is that there is no way for us to see them in their collectivity, to host or witness vernacular memorials to their loss of the sort that cropped up spontaneously around Ground Zero, or to publically memorialize their loss in the whole.  All we have are fragmented, individual images of the private grief of their closest loved ones.  And because that grief is private—even if made public in images such as the one above—we are inclined to look away or ignore it.  One important dimension of the significance of events like Sandy Hook is that they animate a profound public presence to problems that otherwise remain private and hidden from the public eye.

Those who opposed the recent effort to legislate even modest federal gun controls laws were fond of arguing that we should not politicize the horrific event that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School; the situation there, they argued, was so fraught with emotion that it would be irrational to respond to this one incident as if in kneejerk fashion.  Admittedly, kneejerk responses are almost never productive, and I am inclined to resist purely affective responses to social and political crises, but to ignore the public emotional force of a near constant, sustained and growing problem is, well, thoroughly irrational. But of course, this is exactly what forty six members of the U.S. Senate did this past week when they chose—in the most cowardly of fashion—to vote against a modest, bipartisan plan supported by 90% of the American people to require background checks for online and gun show sales.  The senatorial opposition supposedly was based on an absolutist interpretation of the 2nd Amendment—a standard that we have never maintained for any other constitutional amendment, including the vaunted 1st Amendment.

The photograph above is not the last one of its genre that we will see in the days, weeks and months ahead.  And each time we encounter such an image we need to force ourselves to avoid the impulse to look  away as if to honor and respect the privacy of personal loss and grief being experienced; rather, we need to see and witness in such images the public tragedy that is accumulating, one death at a time.  And if we can force our legislators to witness and respond to the images each time one occurs, well, all the better.

Photo Credit: Ed Suba, Jr./AP Photo

April 19th, 2013

21st Century Weather: It’s not the Heat, It’s the Humidity

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

It was Chicago’s turn (again) on Thursday: rain, then heavy rain, then more heavy rain.  Soon the infrastructure as was swamped.  Sewers spouted like blow holes, yards and then basements flooded, and highways turned into rivers and then lakes.

Flooded underpass

Too much water may seem an odd sign of global warming, and I don’t expect any sympathy in Australia, but one of the signs of climate change underway is more violent storms.  Annual rainfall might not change much, yet the rains can be less frequent and more intense.  The difference in impact between a rain and a downpour is considerable: much heavier loads on urban infrastructure, with more damage and less sustainability for agriculture.  City planners in Chicago are drawing up strategies for the warming that will come in the next 50 years, but that doesn’t meant that water control is where it needs to be today.

This photo from a Twitter account was one of many that were being collected by local media.  The practice of hooking into social media is a useful response to disasters and part of a larger skill set that is emerging among media providers at all levels.  (Think of the collaborations large and small that developed immediately in response to the Boston Marathon bombing, for example.)  It’s good to see that people are learning to adapt to environmental change, but that hardly excuses the more comprehensive inertia on behalf of doing little or nothing about the big picture.  Society needs to both do all it can to slow down climate change while also investing heavily to prepare for the changes that are likely to occur in any case.

Perhaps that’s why I like this photo.  Sure, it provides a great example of how infrastructure was overwhelmed and individuals sorely affected.  There are at least three people in Chicago who obviously had a very bad day.  Yet it also seems almost elegiac, with the dark water reflecting lights that are impersonal yet warm.  The grey concrete structures and strip of grass could be part of a mausoleum.  The cars have died, but instead of a scrapyard they seem to be waiting internment.

Thus, the photo captures several kinds of immobility.  The drowned cars can no longer move, traffic has been brought to a halt, a dynamic civilization has been stopped by the inexorable persistence of nature, and a society’s inertia–its inability to adapt to changes of its own making–has been exposed.

Yet the photo does more than expose ecological vulnerability and political stasis.  It also adds something: a contemplative tone.  The lack of movement, activity, productivity, and other signs of a society on the go is framed as if one were in a Japanese garden.  The artful quietude and serene tensions suggest that this is not a disaster but rather a place and time for reflection on living in harmony with the world.  Human craft and natural processes can be beautifully aligned, or they can be made into a game of chance where the only thing left to do is pretend it’s not so bad.

And once the roads are drained and the basements dried, who will take the time to think about what is too easily forgotten or denied.  The disaster can contain a hidden gift–the time to reflect on the need for deep change and with that the possibilities for more artful living.

Photograph by Maddy Clary.

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