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

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

November 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

July 9th, 2012

Wildfires, Taxes, and the American West

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

Every summer, it’s the same: forests flare up like kindling, tired emergency crews fall back along the firebreaks, home owners stand guard on their roofs with pitifully thin garden hoses, and the skies are crossed with planes and helicopters cutting through the smoke to drop the equivalent of a teacup of water on the blaze below.  Perhaps that’s why I liked this photograph from among the many more dramatic shots taken in the last two weeks.

Although cropped to feature the plane in action, the image still suggests that we are looking at a child’s toy, or at least a movie made for the younger set.  Although lacking the spectacular power of Air Force flyovers on July 4th, this nondescript supply plane would be thrilling to anyone still capable of being dazzled by simple technological prowess.  And the red fire retardant swooshing behind it bundles together work, warfare, firefighting, fire, drama, and good works alike into a visual emblem of adventure.  The West still evokes the majestic, thrilling chords of romantic heroism, even as it burns like the gates of Hell.

The photo doesn’t just play the old tune, however, for it captures as well the miniaturization of human effort when set against the vast backdrop of nature.  Westerners get that, although they also forget it from time to time.  How can you blame them, for modern civilization is a story of harnessing nature’s power and of living far beyond what the terrain alone would allow.  In the past 100 years, the US  has damned the rivers, pulled water, oil, and coal from deep in the earth, provided electrical power for everyone, and made the desert bloom.  All it takes is a good fire, however, to remind us that human scale is a small thing.

Until, that is, the cool rain finally falls and amnesia returns.  I’ve posted on the fires before (here, here, and here), and I suppose I will again.  Every summer it’s the same.  Except, of course, when it gets worse.  As Timothy Egan points out, the combination of global warming and Republican ideology can only lead to disaster.  Unrestrained growth while cutting government services (as for fire prevention and fire fighting) gives new meaning to hubris.  Need I add that currently these services are underfunded?  For example, the small fleet is aging and some planes have had to be grounded, and states and municipalities espousing low taxes once again are turning to the federal government for a bailout rather than burn to the ground.

By trying to live well on the cheap, people are playing with fire in more ways than one.  And when a political party or a society develops an excessive appreciation of its own powers, nature is sure to provide a harsh lesson in humility.

Photograph by Kim Raff/The Salt Lake City Tribune.

May 9th, 2012

“Oh, The Humanity”: A Second Look at the Hindenburg Explosion

Posted by Lucaites in a second look, catastrophe

This past Sunday marked the 75th anniversary of the explosion of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, NJ.  As we have indicated elsewhere, when it occurred on May 6, 1936, the event, prominently depicted in the above photograph, was immediately and subsequently identified as a gothic image of a “brave new world” that invited a bleak and cautionary attitude towards the catastrophic risks of industrialization and technology—a dystopian icon of an emerging, universalized, technocratic modernity.  What is especially important to note is that the explosion of the Hindenburg, resulting in 36 fatalities, was neither the first nor the most deadly of such explosions—the explosion of Britain’s R-101 dirigible killing 46 passengers five years earlier on October 5, 1930.  The key difference was that in the case of the Hindenburg the media was present with live radio coverage and, of course, we have the above photograph, which quickly became the iconic representation of the disaster.

The last point is especially important, as it stands as a reminder of the centrality of the mass media in creating disasters.  I don’t mean, of course, that the mass media cause disasters in a direct cause-effect fashion, but rather that what is recognized as a disaster is largely a measure of its status as a discernible “event” and outside of local and immediate experience.  Such discernability is largely a function of the role that the media play in depicting and disseminating occurrences of one sort or another.  As Rob Nixon has recently demonstrated in his book Slow Violence, tragedies that defy easy representation as a discrete occurrences—say disease and death caused across generations of the members of a community by toxic waste—are very difficult to cast as disasters because we simply cannot visualize their longitudinal effects.  A graph marking deaths across time simply lacks the presence and verisimilitude of a photograph.

The anniversary commemoration of this event points to a different point as well.  The iconic photograph above  lacks any nationalistic markings of any kind.  Although the name “Hindenburg” clearly designates this as a German airship, the photograph effaces that fact.  It is impossible to say that this is the reason why this photograph quickly became identified as the icon for the event, but there are good reasons to believe that it didn’t hurt the cause, both because of the prevailing desire to downplay nationalist tensions between Nazi Germany and the United States, as well as the way in which such erasure made the photograph more about technology of a universalized modernity than about politics.  But, of course, the extant photographic record suggests a different story.  And so it is that the Atlantic frames its remembrance of the event not in terms of modernity’s gamble, but precisely in the context of international politics.  So, for example, they begin with an image that shows the Hindenburg in all of its grandeur and magnitude, hovering over Manhattan.  But what is most pronounced in the photograph is the swastika that sits on the tail of the vessel.

Several such images—few of which were originally seen, or at least prominently displayed in the media of the time—follow, carefully marking the national origins of the dirigible.  And then, after a series of images that move the viewer through the ritualistic, everyday banality and catastrophic fatality of the attendant technological innovation of transatlantic air travel, it reinforces the nationalist origins of the whole event with photographs of a funereal  scene.  These photographs, replete with multiple caskets draped in swastika clad flags and Nazi salutes (images #31 and #32), are chilling in their effects, even if our contemporary reaction is marked by a presentist understanding of the horrors of Nazism that most viewers would not have been in a position to acknowledge in 1936.

The point is a simple one, but nevertheless worth emphasizing: photographs are always involved in a dialectic of showing and veiling.  If we think of the iconic image in terms of how it is often captioned with reference to radio announcer Herb Morrison’s lament, “Oh, the humanity” it is easy to see how it fits within the logic of a dystopian, technological modernity.  In short, it is a catastrophe that resists and challenges the positive resonance of modernity’s gamble.  However, when we return the swastika to the tail of the dirigible in all of its prominence, and when we locate the event within the particular narrative of twentieth-century politics animated by Hitler’s Third Reich, the meaning of the icon is overshadowed by a much larger tragedy and its dystopian resistance to the positive affect of modernity’s gamble is mitigated if not altogether erased.  It truly is a matter of what we see … or perhaps more to the point, what we are shown.

Photo Credit: Sam Shere/MPTV; AP File Photo

March 25th, 2012

The Invisibility of Slow Violence

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe

With global demand on oil at an all time high and with the current volatility in the Middle East it is not hard to understand why oil is understood as the natural resource most likely to lead to increasingly pronounced international instabilities, including war and terrorist activities, in the coming years. And yet there is an equal if not more serious global scarcity facing us: a shortage of fresh water. The problem seems to exist primarily outside of the U.S., as indicated in the photograph of a cow carcas from Mexico which is suffering its worst drought in 70 years, though the Drought Mitigation Center reports that 12% of the U.S. experienced “exceptional drought conditions” in the summer of 2011 and more than 40% of all states faced abnormal dryness or drought.

Photographs of carcasses are something of a visual trope for drought conditions, and images like the one above are numerous.  Collectively, they function as a spectacle that directs attention to the sense that drought is the major problem that faces us with respect to water shortages, and given the effects of recent global warming patterns it is not an altogether unreasonable concern.  But equally problematic—and maybe more so—is the more invisible, and thus less spectacular, “slow violence” produced by usage patterns that place stress upon both ecosystems and socio-economic relations.  It is notable, for example, that the average U.S. citizen is responsible for the consumption of 2,000 gallons of water a day, twice the amount of most citizens in other parts of the world, and that a pound of beef—a staple of U.S. diets—requires close to 1,800 gallons of water, while a pound of chicken requires approximately 460 gallons of water to produce and a pound of soy beans requires only 216 gallons of water.  The effects of such dietary choices on both the ecosystem and worldwide social economies are notable, but of course they defy easy visual representation let alone the spectacle of dead carcasses and dried up and cracked river beds.

Of equal concern are the pollution effects produced by neoliberal economies.  Hydraulic fracking is a process used to extract natural gas from reservoir rock formations and shale.  It is an effective method for tapping deep natural gas reserves, but it comes at the cost of injecting millions of gallons of chemical-laced water under high pressure into the earth. Notwithstanding the pressure that this places on demand, there is the question of polluting the aquifer and in particular of contaminating private wells and reservoirs with high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen.  The issue is currently being contested by the natural gas industry and the EPA but clearly part of the problem is how does one know the problem when one sees it?

Perhaps the answer is to just look!  Take for example the photograph above of a woman in western Pennsylvania who fears that her water has been contaminated by a nearby natural gas drilling operation.  State officials report that tests show the water to be safe, and the local gas company which had been delivering drinking water to local households has indicated that they will no longer be making such deliveries.  And perhaps they are right, though judging from what we can see coming out of the tap I’d be inclined to invite them over one afternoon for a tall cool drink of tap water to discuss it.  The resulting photo op might not prove to be spectacular in the manner of a dead carcass, but it might nevertheless make the point.

Photo Credit:  Stringer/Reuters; Keith Srakocic/AP

March 5th, 2012

Poles Apart: Elites and Masses After the Disaster

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe

I joked about this photo when I first it, perhaps because my wife showed it to me.  “I sure feel sorry for that kid.  Picking a fight with a middle-aged man, what was he thinking?”

But the truth is, it really is a mismatch in just that way.  Even if you notice the shiv in the protestor’s hand, the odds are against him.  If caught, he’ll be charged with breaking and entering, assault, mayhem, you name it.  If he gets away, it’s just to return to the austerity, vanishing opportunities, and grim future being forced on Spain by the European bankers’ neoliberal policies.  As for the fight itself, frankly, the guy on the right has the bigger weapon, good heft, and no fear, and he’s aggressively going for the gut or lower yet.

Just what you’d expect from a banker, come to think of it.  Like once sound economies around the globe, Spain is in trouble because of unchecked greed and recklessness by big banks and other financial institutions–a binge of aggressive mismanagement that was promoted by the same neoliberal ideology that now justifies transferring all of the losses downward.  Sure, there’s more to the story and each country is different, but as Cassandra–that is, Paul Krugman–has been warning for a long time now, there is no sound economic analysis that justifies the austerity policies being enforced in Europe and trumpted by Republicans in the US.  The bottom line is that many who did nothing wrong are being sacrificed to protect an elite that behaved very badly.  In Spain, students were demonstrating because the heat was being cut off in their classrooms, and you can bet that isn’t happening on the 45th floor.

If you take a better look at what is happening on the ground, you can see more of the texture of the political situation.  The bank lobby is a scene of conflict–but the demonstrators will get no farther than that.  The shattered glass suggests that the opulent decor is at least superficially vulnerable, but look at how casually the other banker walks through the mayhem: chaos at the edges is just business as usual, another day in the life of creative destruction.  And however lithe the masked demonstrator might be, his clothes aren’t worth the cost of a tie worn by anyone on the other side.  Draconian policies push the masses to confront the elite, but that’s a rigged game from the start.  And at the finish, if democratic government doesn’t do its job.

Which is how we get to this photo of another pole in a very different place.

A man strains to raise a flagpole in Crittenden, Kentucky, after the devastating storm that swept through the town last Saturday.  Perhaps the photo alludes to Joe Rosenthal’s iconic image of the flag raising on Iwo Jima.  If so, both the similarities to and differences from the original photograph are notable.  On the one hand, a common man labors to plant the national symbol amidst devastation, which suggests that he and his fellow citizens have the same patriotism, determination, willingness to sacrifice for the common good, and similar virtues of those that won the battle at Iwo.  On the other hand, times may have changed: the flag is shredded, the pole is bent and spindly, he is all alone, and now even the wind is blowing against him.

Families, friends, and neighbors are pulling together in the heartland, God bless ‘em, and they have to.  As you look through the slideshows on the storm’s aftermath, it becomes clear that these are people who already had been abandoned to economic decline.  Unlike the banker in the the photograph above, for this guy there are few resources at hand, no powerful corporations, connections in high places, or governments that believe in putting your priorities first, last, and always.  Republican governors will call for disaster aid, but try get them to invest in the jobs, education, health care, social services, environmental protection, financial regulation, and other public goods that these people need to live reasonably secure lives.  So it is that a storm has been blowing across the nation for years, wreaking the lives of ordinary people.

Two photographs, both of disasters in the making, neither of which has anything to do with the weather.  The are united by an element of visual composition, but otherwise you might say they are poles apart.

Photographs by Albert Gea/Reuters and Liz Dufour/The Cincinnati Enquirer.

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