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 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?


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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

November 11th, 2013

And Life Goes On

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe, visualizing war

Life Goes on 1

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

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

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

 Life Goes on 2

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

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

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

November 1st, 2013

Aesthetics, Morality, Politics, and Disaster

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

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

Yangtze dried-up riverbed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 23rd, 2013

Waiting for the Cosmic Bus at the Australia Stop

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe, the visual public

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 2nd, 2013

Governing and the Archaeology of the Present

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

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

abandoned subway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

August 26th, 2013

Photography, Beauty, and Catastrophe

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photographs bt Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

« Previous PageNext Page »
FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains images and excerpts the use of which have not been pre-authorized. This material is made available for the purpose of analysis and critique, as well as to advance the understanding of rhetoric, politics, and visual culture.

The ‘fair use’ of such material is provided for under U.S. Copyright Law. In accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Section 107, material on this site (along with credit links and attributions to original sources) is viewable for educational and intellectual purposes. If you are interested in using any copyrighted material from this site for any reason that goes beyond ‘fair use,’ you must first obtain permission from the copyright owner.