No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

April 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.

April 8th, 2013

On the Surreal Relationship of Stones and Balloons in Everyday Life

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe, no caption needed

Screen shot 2013-04-07 at 8.42.48 PM

Photographs of Palestinian youth throwing stones and brickbats at Israeli troops are a dime a dozen.  Barely a day goes by that one or two don’t show up in one or another of the major news media slideshows.  And they are generally all the same more or less.  The photograph above, which appeared in several media sources this past week is typical and altogether unexceptional when compared to all of the others.  The Palestinians are rarely recognizable beyond their jeans and the face masks they wear, and, of course, the fact that they are brandishing primitive weapons—stones and sometimes slingshots—against a modern and state based military.  The Israelis are no less typecast, wearing military uniforms and wielding the accouterments of contemporary warfare—automatic weapons, tanks, etc.  Sometimes the Israeli’s are not visible within the photograph, but their physical presence is always implied and it is hard not to imagine them looming  just outside of the frame of the picture. Usually shot in neutral tones of greys and browns, the sky typically overcast and the scene shrouded in smoke, the aesthetic is altogether dreary—an affect occasionally accented as by contrast with images of burning tires or other kinds of explosions.

Such photographs are so common that I barely pay any attention to them anymore, which raises the question, why do they keep appearing and with such stereotypical ubiquity?  This is not a rhetorical question that I will answer later in this post.  I truly don’t understand why such images appear with such frequency.  Surely such images play to both sides in this long and fraught controversy, Israeli supporters seeing vigilantes and guerilla warriors threatening national security and Palestinian supporters seeing the oppressive forces of an occupying power, but such appeals in themselves doesn’t seem quite enough to warrant their near constant publication and circulation.  Nor do they seem to have an especially powerful effect on those who don’t know quite which side in this controversy to favor.  I suspect that many simply don’t see the images at all, glancing at them at best—as have I in the past—as their eyes move to the next image in an on-line slide show or turn the page in a magazine or newspaper.

Two things called my attention to the image above this weekend.  The first was a slideshow at “Daily Life.”  This is a regular feature at The Boston Globe’s Big Picture in which sluice of life images from around the world are brought together to create something of a “feel good” affect, though I don’t mean to suggest that all that we see are pictures of puppy dogs lapping up ice cream cones.  Rather, the images call attention to the rhythms of everyday life across the globe, often featuring a sensibility that makes “us” and “them” simultaneously similar and different from one another.  Sometimes the pictures feature the altogether ordinary and sometimes they feature a devil may care attitude, but always they underscore daily living.  And so we see everything from Indians praying to the God Shiva to window cleaners in Bangkok to a skier relaxing in Juneua, Alaska to a high school principal kissing a snake to two lovers on a bench in a piazza in Rome, and the list goes on.  What we don’t see, of course, are Palestinians hurling rocks at Israeli soldiers, and yet this would seem to be every bit a part of daily life – and perhaps more so – as what we are shown.  And again I ask, why?  Part of the answer is that there is nothing “feel good” about the battle between Palestinians and Israeli’s but that only begs the larger question, why are we inclined to ignore this facet of daily life with its incredibly tragic overtones for virtually all involved.

The second thing that caused me to contemplate the image above is the photograph below.

Screen shot 2013-04-07 at 9.35.36 PM

It is a picture of a Palestinian boy carrying toy balloons past Israeli border guards in Jerusalem.  It is a photograph that could easily have appeared in the “Daily Life” slide show, although it did not. And that too raises the question: why not?  But there is perhaps a different point to make, for as with the stone throwers, the individual identity of the Palestinian child is obscured, here hidden beneath and behind the colorful array of beach balls which lend a bizarre quality to the image.  Indeed, the boy seems altogether out of place as this does not appear to be a market square of any sort and the Israeli border guards seem to be ignoring him—or in any case not treating him as if he as any kind of threat.  And, at least on the face of it, he is not.  I am not at all sure I understand why he is there or what he is doing, but it does seem peculiar that the security guards show no concern.  What is important, I believe, is that his individual identity is hidden (like that of the stone throwers) and can only wonder if the photograph doesn’t underscore as by contrast how surreal daily life is for Israeli’s and Palestinians alike.

There is no real conclusion here, except perhaps for this:  Photographs rarely stand in isolation of one another.  It is up to us to look at them carefully and closely and in comparison and contrast to one another, and to wonder why we see them where and when we do and how they might function in their collectivity and relationship to one another to provide a picture of the world we might otherwise miss or ignore.

Photo Credit:  Nedal Eshtayah/APA Images/Zuma Press;  Menahem Kahana/AP

January 14th, 2013

The Winters of Our Discontent

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe

Slow Violence 1 2013-01-13 at 9.01.45 PM

I wish I could claim sole authorship of the title for this commentary, but in fact it is an adaptation of a recent article in Scientific American (which adapted it from the title of John Steinbeck’s last novel who in turn borrowed it from Shakespeare’s malevolent characterization of Richard III).  But for all of that it is no less a compelling characterization of our current state of climactic affairs as we find ourselves confronting the acceleration of what has become known as “slow violence.”

Slow violence refers to environmental disasters that occur so gradually that we barely see them, but which reap long-term, catastrophic outcomes.  Recent global warming trends top the list and what makes such phenomena all the more problematic is how they can often appear to be incredibly, breath takingly beautiful, approaching what we might even call the sublime—representations that in some measure transcend reality, transporting us to a place that defies the very capacity for representation itself.  The photograph above is perhaps such an image where sky and water bifurcate the horizon of here and there as variations in lightness and darkness mark the temporal distance between now and then (or perhaps past and future).  The orange and magenta tones of the sky cast a calming shadow upon the sea which masks the mysteries of who knows what within its otherwise murky depths.   And overall the image invites both our approach and avoidance as if a heavenly and sanctified location.  It is hard to not look it and to be in awe.  Only the protuberances that emerge from the bottom of the frame call attention to the fact that this is a photograph and not a scene that fully transcends human occupation.

What we are actually looking at is “haboob,” a white shelf cloud of dirt that has been stirred up by a ferocious dust storm in the Indian Ocean off of the coast of Western Australia.  This dust storm, one of many that has caused brush fires over nearly one million acres is the result of uncharacteristically hot temperatures peaking at more than 119 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of Australia.  The result of those brush fires invites consideration of sublimity’s counterpart, the grotesque, as a second photograph from New South Wales pictures the carcasses of sheep incapable of breaking free of a fence that contained them while a wildfire consumed the earth on which they stood.

Slow Violence 2 2013-01-13

The bodies are not human, and so the tragedy is not as pronounced as it might be—not that we should scant the lives of sheep or other living beings—but it is not hard to imagine that they could be human bodies.  The image is hard to look at, but that would seem to be the point, as it works as a powerful, visual counterpoint to the awe-inspiring beauty that all too often and all too easily diverts our attention and placates (gratifyingly so) our acceptance of slow violence in the first place.

This is the third winter in a row that we have faced extreme weather patterns throughout the world.  These are the winters of our discontent. How much longer will they go on before we respond responsibly as global citizens is the real question we need to be asking.

Photo Credit: Brett Martin/Reuters/; Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

December 17th, 2012

The Missing Photograph From Newtown, CT.

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe

Newtown 1

The tragedy that betook Newton, Ct. this past Friday leaves one searching for words, but there has been no shortage of photographs.  My initial impulse is to see that as one more piece of evidence to support the general claim that we make here at NCN that photography is a technology that provides access to a world of affect and understanding that is not easily or efficiently represented by words—or by words alone.  But careful review of the archive of images being published gives some pause for concern, as many (if not most) of the photographs we are seeing have an increasingly generic quality to them that makes them seem rather like visual commonplaces.  As Michael Shaw and Alan Chin noted at the Bag, clichés emerge when something is repeated over and again to the point that the thing represented is something of a taken-for-granted assumption that loses the power of presence it once animated.  Look at the full archive of images from Newton, CT. without captions or historical context and it would be easy enough to imagine that we are looking at a scene in Columbine or Blacksburg or Aurora or Oak Creek, and the list goes on.  In some measure the visual record has fallen prey to the success of its production and circulation, a mode of artistry that has succumbed to its own conventionality.  In a sense, just as we find ourselves searching for the right words we are left searching for photographs that invite us to understand and empathize without reducing everything to a cardboard cliché.

But even as I write that last sentence I must give pause once again, for there is at least one image from Newtown that invites reflection and consideration.  It is a photograph of a young boy and girl standing together in a wooded area presumably looking towards the Sandy Hook Elementary School.  The boy’s hands cover his mouth and nose, but not his eyes, which seem transfixed on the chaos and carnage that is before him.  He is clearly horrified, but he cannot look away.  The young girl has her arms around the boy, making human contact that no doubt comforts both of them, but she intentionally looks away from the scene before her, fixing her eyes on the ground at her feet.  And therein lies the conundrum of the regular and oft repeated mass killings we have been experiencing in recent times—we either gaze in horror or we look away.  But in either case we fail to act.  Like these children we huddle together in search of collective comfort, passively quiescent in the presence of a spectacle that leaves us more or less speechless and incapable of seeing what is clearly before our eyes.

And so that brings me to the question posed by the title for this post: The missing photograph.  As I read the newspapers this morning and listened to the talk shows I was dismayed to hear everyone focusing their primary attention on what motivated the actions of the gunmen.  Did he have Asperger’s Syndrome or had he been mistreated as a child?  Can we do more as a society to diagnose and treat mental health issues?  And so on.  These are important questions, to be sure, and there is no doubt that we need to be much better at promoting mental health.  But they are also secondary questions that completely miss the point of what happened in Newtown, CT.  Whatever motivated the gunmen, it is impossible to imagine that he could have been nearly as destructive as he was if he did not have access to automatic weapons.  It is really as simple as that.  The photograph that is missing from the archive of images of this tragedy is the photograph of the automatic weapons that were used to extinguish twenty six innocent lives.  Until we see that photograph, and I mean really see it as the material cause for what is happening, we will be caught perpetually in the embrace of looking in horror without speaking or looking away.  And soon enough the same clichéd images will reappear, and once again we will wonder why.

Photo Credit: Michelle Mcloughlin/Reuters

December 12th, 2012

Sebastião Salgado on the Winter Planet

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

The Best of 2012 photography collections are ablaze with color, and the above average temperatures and continuing drought keep talk of global warming in the air, so what should a documentary photographer do?  Take us to Siberia, of course.

One species follows another across the frozen landscape.  The reindeer know the way, as the Nenets people have been moving them between summer and winter pastures for centuries.  Sebastiao Salgado’s photograph might as well be from some ice planet in an outer galaxy, the barren field of snow and sky is so uniformly stark, harsh, and endless.  And yet you can almost feel the body heat of the herd, its precious calories being expended in the empty abstraction of the arctic air, and then of the few people and dogs trailing behind them.  The photo at once stretches life almost to the breaking point, as if the herd were a single strand of genetic material in some petri dish, but at the same time makes you yearn to be closer.  And while the two species are clearly separate, and the human train obviously smaller and more precarious, they are intimately joined in their symbiotic journey.  As David Levi Strauss has observed, “Salgado’s subjects are seen only and always in relation” (Between the Eyes, p. 44).

Strauss’s essay on Salgado captures another feature of this photograph as well, which is its “extraordinary balance of alterity and likeness, of metaphoric and documentary functions” (42). The photo is unquestionably of an experience very few humans have, and yet it is immediately recognizable as an example of organic life forms co-existing, and, if you look closely, of the more organized form of human association, at once more powerful and fragile for that.  Likewise, the photo need be only a photo of reindeer and nomadic herders in Sibera–there aren’t too many other places or species that could qualify–and yet it quickly doubles as a symbol of something else, something more general and fundamental to living with others in a condition of necessity.

But for how long?  What might seem to be a timeless image of natural cycles and sustainable culture is also a witness to change.  Reindeer and Nenets alike are threatened by climate change and the encroachment of civilization–if you want to call it that–as the extraction industries move into the region.  Although the arctic environment seems to be the present threat, in fact it has been home to both species for centuries, and now energy production to heat and power the rest of the world is the real danger.  This is not to say that living on the edge of survival should be romanticized, or that the Nenets don’t need or want to avail themselves of modern goods.  But the photo can challenge complacency and rationalization by revealing another dimension of common life: that all humanity lives close to extinction, and that survival requires learning how to live with sustainable resources rather than simply plunder the earth for profit.

But let’s not forget the need to balance symbolic and documentary functions.  Ironically, another ice age is coming, albeit one that will be delayed a bit while this civilization burns up the oil, gas, and forests.  Some say it will begin in 1500 years, which is not that long: roughly from the fall of Rome until today.  It’s not too hard to imagine that a scene like the one above could become the norm rather than the rare exception.  Survival won’t be a metaphor, but a lived reality.  Something that can be seen today, if one is willing to accept the photographer’s challenge to see humanity in relation to itself, other species, and its future–if it is to have one.

Photograph by Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures.  Additional slides can be viewed here.  (Note that the photo was taken in March, when the herd was being moved north to the summer pastures.)

November 30th, 2012

Call For Papers: The Asch Drone Project

The Solomon Asch Center is starting a web project on drones–how they function in the present and what they may become in the future. This project aims to explore the politics of government use of drones for surveillance and interdiction, private and corporate use of drones; privacy and due process issues raised by use of drones, fifth generation warfare using drones, and any issue relating to how the technology used in drones will play out in the future.  The Asch Drone Project seeks contributions from scientists, engineers, social scientists, lawyers, artists, journalists and citizens to provide a multi-faceted online presentation incorporating text essays and visuals relating to drones.  An online gallery will display Afghan folk art, fine art, cartoon, and photographic representations of drones.  The Project is open to all types of interpretations and opinions, and to any length text from a paragraph to a multipage essay.  If you have visuals or links to existing blogs to suggest, or if you are able to write something for the project, please get in touch with Asch Associate Director for Conflict and Visual Culture Initiatives Jonathan Hyman at and identify your inquiry or submission in the subject  field as such: attention Asch Drone Project.

The Asch Drone Project expects to open on the Asch web site ( no later than 1 January 2013.  If enough good essays are contributed, authors may be invited to participate in a Special Issue of the journal Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict (, edited by Asch Co-Director Clark McCauley.

For a decade the Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, now located at Bryn Mawr College, has brought together social scientists from many disciplines-history, political science, psychology, linguistics, economics, law, sociology and anthropology — to analyze the underlying causes of conflict, how conflict can be managed constructively to avoid widespread violence, and how to ameliorate the refugee problems that flow from intergroup violence. 

Credit: File Photo

November 29th, 2012

Under The Weather (#4)

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe, no caption needed

We had hoped to be back this week, but too many travels and the seasonal flu have us under the weather and so we will take another week off.  We will be back on December 3.  But in the meantime we hope to offer pictures of the planet, which is also under the weather.  We trust that no captions will be needed, but of course we invite and encourage your comments.

Photo Credit: Bitterroot National Forest, Montana, John McColgan/USDA

November 28th, 2012

Under the Weather (#3)

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe, no caption needed

We had hoped to be back this week, but too many travels and the seasonal flu have us under the weather and so we will take another week off.  We will be back on December 3.  But in the meantime we hope to offer pictures of the planet, which is also under the weather.  We trust that no captions will be needed, but of course we invite and encourage your comments.

Photo Credit: Argentina’s Upsala Glacier, Top Photo – Unknown, Bottom Photo – Gary Braasch

Photo Credit: David Brashears, West Rongbuk Glacier and Mt. Everest, 1909 v. 2009.  See also here.

November 27th, 2012

Under The Weather (#2)

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe, no caption needed

We had hoped to be back this week, but too many travels and the seasonal flu have us under the weather and so we will take another week off.  We will be back on December 3.  But in the meantime we hope to offer pictures of the planet, which is also under the weather.  We trust that no captions will be needed, but of course we invite and encourage your comments.

Credit: Ethiopia, Oxfam International

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