NO CAPTION NEEDED
ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

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

December 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 jhyman@brynmawr.edu 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 (www.aschcenter.org) 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 (www.informaworld.com/dac), 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

November 26th, 2012

Under the Weather (#1)

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: Greenland Glaciers, Slim Allagui/AFP/Getty Images

 

November 5th, 2012

Not With a Bang, But a Whimper

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe

Natural disasters seem to come and go.  Tsunami’s, earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes wreak unimaginable damage, literally erasing neighborhoods—and even cities—within the blink of an eye.  One minute there is a thriving or peaceful community.  The next, nothing but rubble.  It is hard to fathom, particularly if it is not literally in our own backyard, even as the power of photography manages to reduce the distance between “here” and “there,” and in the process activates the human empathy needed to lend a helping hand across all manner of social, political, economic, and geographical borders.  And yet there is something troubling about such images for even as they give presence to the immediacy of such tragedies there is a sense in which they fragment each event, inviting us to treat them as an isolated and individual events effecting these people—always them, never us—here and now.

I thought about this some this past week as I perused the many photographs of the fury unleashed by Hurricane Sandy on places like the Jersey Shore, New York City’s east side Battery, and  Breezy Point on Long Island.  And in the process I found myself thinking about the natural tragedies that don’t seem to cull such easy images of nature’s fury and destruction.

The photograph above is from Hay Springs, Nevada.  It was taken just three months ago and what it shows is one of the many dried up river beds that are becoming more and more prevalent in the plain states and in the upper Midwest as a result of recent and increasingly intense droughts.  The image is hardly as dramatic as the scenes we see in the wake of hurricanes and tornadoes, in large measure because here nature’s violence is slower and more exacting, creeping and gradual, rather than bold and arrogant.  And the damage itself is harder to see, its human effects harder to imagine.  The water has disappeared, and the river bed is cracked, but the grass on the other side, however far away, remains green (for now) and the cattle continue to have space to roam (for the time being).  But if you look closely enough to the horizon—and the point is that you have to look closely to see it—you will notice that the plains are more brown than green and it is not hard to imagine that before long they too will suffer the same fate as the river bed.  And where then will the cattle go?

The point, of course, is not to ignore the dramatic effects of the natural disasters that grab our attention and compassion for a moment in time, only to be forgotten as an isolated event, but to recognize that such events are connected and symptomatic  of a larger problem, one that is gradual and more enduring, and which we can see—but only if we look closely—as unfolding slowly and  in real time.

Photo Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Public Sphere: America A Changing Place

October 31st, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and Nature’s Inexorable Path

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

There really isn’t much to say, is there?  In the real world–the one where climate change isn’t a myth–nature has a way of calling in the chits. If you’ve got a levee, you might be OK, and if not, not.  If you have a new electrical grid designed to withstand more than a Christmas card snowfall, then you might be OK; if you have the aging, jerry-rigged network that passes for standard in the US, not so much.

If you understand that it is the job of government to plan, invest, and build as necessary to provide the transportation network, electrical power, clean water, waste management, and other common necessities for the general welfare and individual prosperity, then you know that a natural disaster is not entirely natural, but rather an empirical test of how well a society has been distributing its resources and otherwise making the tough decisions required for sustainability.  If, however, you think that government is the problem and that the patriotic thing to do is to drown the beast, well, then I guess you might as well let nature take its course.

Which it will do, which is why I like this photograph.

No one is likely to nominate this image for an award, not least because it was taken by a security camera. You are looking at water surging into the PATH subway station in Hoboken, New Jersey.  The station is deserted–good job by the government on that one–and thus its bland, gritty functionality is all the more evident.  Electrical cable tubes are exposed along pillar, ceiling, and walls; cheap surfaces, ugly paint, and impersonal signage look no better in the harsh lighting; the scene looks like it was designed more for the machines in the front and rear of the frame than for human beings.

Any subway system is likely to be vulnerable to flooding, and even in the good times it will endure a lot of wear and tear, so functionality is hardly a basis for indictment.  Even so, I can’t help but think that this system has been overused and underfunded for too long, and that it is far short of having been retrofitted for better environmental security.  And didn’t Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, kill an interstate plan to built a new transportation tunnel between NJ and NYC?  Well, yes, he did.

Which gets us back to the photo.  It would be enough to illustrate that the PATH system was already degraded, already undergoing a slow-moving catastrophe called the Decline of America.  But this photo does more as well, for it shows how nature cannot be stopped, cannot be held at bay forever by merely looking the other way and pretending the “once in a century” storms will never happen in this century.  (Where I come from “once in a century” floods now come along about every decade. . . .)  Floodwaters are no respecter of human habits: you might think an elevator shouldn’t be used to sluice water to where it can do the most damage, but the water has other ideas.

Or, worse yet, no ideas at all: the water doesn’t have to think, and it can’t be lied to.  You can’t tell it that climate change isn’t happening or that prudent investment in infrastructure is socialism or that this wouldn’t happen if we had more confidence in the market.  In place of that magical thinking (to draw on Paul Krugman’s astute analyses of right-wing ideology), the photo responds with its own fantasy of terror: the waters bursting through the mechanical doors evoke an image from a movie trailer for The Shining, when blood flowed from an elevator like water.  Here the water almost flows like blood, that is, as if the arteries in subway system were rupturing.

No matter how you try to describe it, the important point is that nature will not be denied.  It can be controlled, but that takes foresight and solidarity and many other political virtues that once were not in such short supply.  Maybe, just maybe, there still is time to learn that natural disasters are also products of human obtuseness.  If that lesson is not learned, nature some day will reclaim the city. And as in the photo, perhaps by then only the machines will be left to watch as they too are destroyed.

Photograph by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

August 27th, 2012

“I Guess, You Know, Stuff Happens”

Posted by Lucaites in boots and hands, catastrophe

You might have heard that there was a shooting in midtown Manhattan late last week.  It was in all of the papers and on the nightly news. Of course, then again, such events seem to be routine so maybe you missed it.  The perpetrator got off five rounds, all aimed directly at his target; the police got off seventeen shots.  Nine bystanders were hit with bullets.  Do the math.

The photographic record of the event ranges from the somewhat clichéd representation of yellow and blue police line tape and numbered crime scene markers shot from on high and at a distance to mark the official response to a somewhat voyeuristic image of a dead body resting in a sea of red blood to the absolutely bizarre snapshot of smiling tourists (from France, no less) posing in front of the scene where the carnage too place.  But it is the photograph above that tells the story that really needs to be told.

The woman, Madia Rosario, is one of the nine innocent bystanders hit by police bullets (that’s right, all nine were wounded by police bullets or ricochets).  She is thankfully in stable condition, as are apparently the other eight bystanders who were wounded. But what should concern us is that she and the others were shot at all.  There have already been calls to investigate whether the officers were following regulations when they discharged their weapons with bystanders at risk, but there is a different point to be made.  Or maybe two.

The first point is that this is just one more of a continuing—weekly if not daily—litany of such shootings, each of which is treated as if it were an entirely individual and isolated event.  A disturbed individual goes berserk and shoots up a school yard or a campus or a church or a movie theater. As one of the bystanders hit by a police bullet put it, “You know, stuff happens.”  But of course these  are not isolated events, for what connects them quite palpably is the simple fact that in each case the perpetrators all had too easy access to automatic or semi-automatic weapons.  There is no easy way to represent that connection photographically, and so we resort to commonplaces that individuate the problem by emphasizing the perverse psychology of the perpetrator and/or visualizing the official response.  But of course  in countries with more restrictive access to such weaponry events like this happen far less frequently. On this point the facts are incontrovertible.  Once again, do the math.

The second point is really a response to those who claim that everyone will be safer when we all have guns and can thus protect ourselves from such violence and bloodshed. But the photograph of Madia Rosario suggests perhaps otherwise.  The police are enjoined never to “put civilians in the line of fire.”  And more, they are trained in how to respond to crisis situations in which chaos reigns and human behavior is animated more by fear and the rush of adrenalin than reason or common sense. And on par they do a pretty decent job.   And yet for all their training and preparation, “stuff happens.” One can only imagine what stuff would happen if bystanders not trained in crisis management of any sort were carrying weapons and started shooting.  Just do the math.

Photo Credit: Uli Seit/New York Times

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