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Photography, Beauty, and 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.


Vegetable Mineral Animals: After the Blaze at Lac Megantic

Just what are they, exactly?

fuel train carcasses

The caption at Reuters referred to “the remains of a train wreckage,” and it is that.  The train of tank cars carrying crude oil had exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec, creating an inferno that killed at least 15 people, with others yet to be accounted for.  This human toll should not be minimized, and I will be among the last to grieve over the loss of company property.  Nonetheless, the photo above deserves attention even as it takes us in away from those whose lives were torched by the blast.

The scorched tank cars look like carcasses more than anything else.  Like the bloated bodies of pigs after a flood, or dead fish after an oil spill in a river.  Or, if you like sci fi noir, like pods leaking alien spoor in some industrial wasteland of a long dead planet.  The sense of scale is all off–certainly not to human scale, as the tanker truck and other vehicles on the road are dwarfed by the giant metal rames piled up like so much slag at a gargantuan mill.

But I keep coming back to a sense of organic life now dead.  As if some life form has been decimated arbitrarily, accidentally, without dignity or purpose.  Again, I know that human beings really did suffer that death, but nonetheless I think this photograph captures something important about the larger economy of life and death in a machine age.

The word “petroleum” comes from the Greek petra/rock and Latin oleum/oil, and that etymology captures the sense of being both inorganic and organic.  Technically, oil is not a mineral, yet oil rights are covered under mineral rights, it is pumped out of the dark depths of the earth,  and then it is turned into tens of thousands of materials and other products.  Likewise, the black (and blackened) steel tanker cars represent the black oil they carried, as if two parts of the same whole.  Thus, oil can be thought of as a mineral that once was a mixture of plants and other decomposing matter, and perhaps the photo taps into that deep organic history.  Plants and animals were transformed over vast expanses of geological time into the crude oil that then was used in just over a century of industrialized production to support an incredible expansion of human development, but one not without its costs. And that process of oil extraction, distribution, refining, and conversion into machine power increasingly seems to have developed a life of its own, or at least a great many defenders of its right to exist and expand without limit.  But as the photograph above suggests, even that process can come full circle, destroying its own and leaving nothing but waste that will be much less likely in the long run to change into anything else.

I’ve always enjoyed the family road trip game of Twenty Questions, where you start by asking if the object is Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral.  For the time spent trapped in the car, we could at least share the illusion that all the world could be placed neatly into one of three categories, and with everything either bigger, smaller, or (less often) the same size as a breadbox.  Without cheap gasoline, I doubt we would have played the game.  At the same time, we were being driven toward a world where those simple categories were going to become increasingly intertwined.

Look again:  the tanker cars are at once bigger and smaller than a breadbox.  More important, or less a trick of the eye, they also are at once vegetable, mineral, and animal.  And so, as this photograph senses, there may be something to mourn there after all.  But just what that is, exactly, I’m not sure.

Photograph by Mathieu Belanger/Reuters.

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The Continuing Catastrophe of Native American Invisibility

Visibility can be an important property, one that represents status, legitimacy, rights, privileges, and powers.  If you don’t think so, ask the women who have been Invisible Wives at corporate dinners, or the men and women who are still trapped in the closet, or the street people who are treated as if they don’t exist, or the elderly who have to endure others talking about them as if they were in another room.  Consider also what it can mean for an ethic group when one of their own achieves celebrity, or when they can see themselves as they are in entertainment and advertisements, or when strangers nod pleasantly as they pass by in the office or at a restaurant.  Sure, the very rich prize not being seen by the masses, but they already have what they need otherwise and are assured plenty of recognition and deference within their own circles of entitlement.  For most of us, however, it’s a good thing to be visible: more specifically, to be seen without social stigma or stereotype and as if we belong in the picture.

Mass grave at the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.

Which is why the problem of Native American invisibility continues to be part of that prolonged catastrophe that otherwise is known as their history.  This invisibility is not for want of paintings and photographs; in fact, they are part of the problem.  Can you think of an image of a Native American that is not of a primitive warrior, or rural poverty, or a casino?  Photographers return to the reservations and urban ghettos, but no matter how hard they try, it seems that the mix of persistent social problems and ritual trappings will defeat any attempt to see anew.  And in any case, this may be a prime example of how, as Errol Morris has reminded us, believing is seeing: the stereotypes are likely to dominate perception no matter what else is intended.  And because of their geographic isolation and how that compounds dysfunction while reducing assimilation, the native peoples of the Great Plains may be in for the worst of it.

This week Time put up a slide show by Aaron Huey centered on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.  Aaron has put years of work into gaining the trust of the Oglala Lakota people living there, and he is trying to break through the wall of invisibility that prevents any understanding of both  the “failures of the reservation system” and how, for all that, people are finding ways to care for one another, preserve their shattered culture, and perhaps even one day receive justice.

I won’t presume to speak for the photographer, but the show is provided to prompt discussion.  I find the image above to be incredibly reverberant, and the news is not all good.  Once again, no one is in the picture; once again, the West can be imagined as both unpopulated and awaiting European civilization.  Once again, Native American culture appears almost immaterial, ephemeral, a collection of feathers, scraps of fabric, and other ornamental flotsam that will be carried away by the next big wind.

But that’s only part of the tableau, for European culture doesn’t come off any better.  That neoclassical monument was never an award winner and it’s gained nothing with the passage of time, but above all it was out of place from the start.  What would simply be overlooked (invisible) in today’s urban park here looks ridiculous; worse, it can stand for all that did not follow, the promises of settlement and development that never came to pass.

Instead of another city of the prairie, we have instead only the fence, and with that the political fact of forced enclosure.  That fence is too banal to really qualify as a symbol, but it will have to do: like the reservation system itself, it’s a cheap but effective barrier, and one that–like the monument–was out of place from the start.

So it is that another roadside memorial tells a story, but not the one that was intended.  Nor is that the whole story, for there is one more thing: that impossible sky.   Thus the photo provides myth and reality: the sad, forgotten memorial, itself a hodgepodge of two cultures that tragically collided, and its backdrop of sublime natural beauty with all the spiritual power and promise that still holds.  To live under that sky is still to be impossibly rich, unless of course you are impossibly poor, sick, abandoned, and traumatized.  There are a few white settlers still living under that sky, and some of them can still see it, but for most of us on all sides, that experience has been lost to either catastrophe or affluence.

It’s odd that the sky could become invisible, but that, too, is part of the history signified by that monument.  I don’t think Aaron breaks through the barrier of Native American invisibility, but I doubt that any one documentary project could do so.  What is needed as well is a change in the audience.  Now that Aaron has done his part, the question remains of who will bother to see what is there.  You might start by looking up, and then around you.  And then?

Photograph by Aaron Huey, Mass grave at the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.


About to Die (But not in the USA)

Falling Man.2013-05-12 at 9.18.41 PM

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit:  Damir Sagolj/Reuters


What Do We See When We See Tears?

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

China quake elderly woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph by a stringer for Reuters.



WItness to a Public Tragedy — One Death At A Time

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

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

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.


On the Surreal Relationship of Stones and Balloons in Everyday Life

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.

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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


The Winters of Our Discontent

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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/fishwrecked.com; Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images


The Missing Photograph From Newtown, CT.

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