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. . . .

June 13th, 2014

FYI: Reuters Digital News Report

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

This blog is devoted to photographs, not data, but hey, “all media are mixed media,” so let’s not forget about our friends in survey research.

News interest by country

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has released its Digital News Report 2014.  You can see summaries in various media at the website, or download the entire report.  For video of a discussion of the report in the UK, go here.  That video had received 20 views when I was there, so it’s not yet a hot item.  Perhaps a good photo would help. . . .

 

 

March 6th, 2013

Labor, Capital, and Virtual Reality

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

Yesterday the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit an all time high.  Yet, as the New York Times reported, the response was relatively muted.  There probably are several motives for being wary of the results, but one of the better reasons is that the good times on Wall Street are not quite so evident on Main Street.

As the Times noted, “The strength of the stock market is not strongly reflected in the real economy. Consumer confidence is well below the level it hit during the last high in October 2007. The unemployment rate was then 4.7 percent, compared with 7.9 percent now.”  Not to put too fine a point upon it, but the Dow need not reflect the “real economy,” which would be the one that actually employs people.  People, that is, who then can make a living, have less need of social welfare funding, and pay taxes that can fund the government and reduce the national debt.

Instead of assuming that  all boats rise with the tide, we now need to think more carefully about how the labor and capital might or might not work together.  The Times phrasing is instructive:  there is the real economy and a virtual economy, and they are somehow close to one another and yet not necessarily working together or benefiting the same people.   Not an easy thing to understand, which is why I like this photograph.

Nikkei palimpsest

It’s from Japan, not New York, and the white line of the graph is from the Nikkei exchange, not the Dow, but these details are not relevant to what is being shown.  The data and the people on the street are both reflected in a brokerage window–a transparent surface that, through the photograph, becomes a medium for reflection.

The image, like the reality it represents, is ambiguous, for it presents both dream and reality.  On the one hand, labor and capital are seamlessly integrated into a single system.  In that system, the relatively abstract, fluid investments are backed by the labor they fund and organize, which in turn prospers from that investment to acquire the many benefits of modern life–benefits such as good clothing, shelter, health care, transportation, communications, and all the rest.

That’s the dream, which has been realized more often than not.  Oh the other hand, the photo also suggests that labor and capital can become strangely alienated from one another, so much so that the “real” work, lives, and interests of most people can recede behind a screen of financial activity that moves upward while they become increasingly secondary, ghostly, unreal.  Indeed, they almost seem to be behind bars, as if crowded into a camp where they will become increasingly unknown, unheard, impoverished, and forgotten.   In the process, “all that was solid melts into air,” and real and virtual realities change places.  As in the photo, capital superimposes its image on labor, creating a society that has the form of a palimpsest, with the older values and social contract covered over by another picture priced to sell.

That doesn’t have to happen, but it is happening.  The more that profits are disconnected from jobs, and the greater the disparities in income within corporations and societies, the more the virtual economy displaces material benefits. One reason it need not happen is that the same policies can benefit both capital and labor: for example, stimulus money from the Fed and other central banks can both support investment and create jobs.  But that’s not a market solution, which is a problem in some quarters.  So look again at the photograph: those white masks are another example of what happens when the side-effects of economic development are not checked by government regulation, and the fatigue evident on some of the faces is another clue that being driven by capital can have very real consequences that are not reflected in stock market data.

Another reason the virtual reality metaphor is so compelling is that a host of conservative pundits have been predicting an Economic Doomsday ever since Barrack Obama took office, and those dire warnings are repeated as fact again and again in online comment threads by lesser writers who insist that Obama has “wrecked the economy.”  Yes, the economy was wrecked–in the final year of the Bush era, because of unrestrained greed and folly on Wall Street, and then kept that way for too long due to conservative pressure to reduce government stimulus policies.  And Wall Street is prospering now because of the 4 trillion dollars the government provided to save the financial system, but don’t call that big government, or a stimulus, or money given to a bunch of takers who will only develop a greater sense of entitlement (as is said of all social services spending).  In short, the ideologues’ history and judgments regarding the use of government monies are part of a virtual reality game very different from what actually happened.  And why should they do otherwise if they never are held accountable: if you batted 0 for 50 in most leagues, you wouldn’t be sent back to the plate, but in Fantasy Politics you can have the same record and be the designated hitter.

One reason verbal illusions may be so easy to reproduce is that it is hard to visualize economic processes, and particularly those processes that involve inversions of value.  But they can be visualized, at least in part or through a glass darkly, if we take the time to look.

Photograph by Yuya Shino/Reuters.  For earlier posts on photos that superimpose financial data on human beings, go here, here, and here.

February 8th, 2013

Visions of Austerity at Fashion Week

Fashion Week lasts far longer than a week, which is perfectly in keeping with its comprehensive commitment to excess, and also with its uncanny ability to capture the spirit of the age.  And this year, the buzz is all about austerity.

austerity model Bottega Veneta

The New York shows have started, and the Times has two articles and a slide show to point out “a Conservative Touch” that will provide “Thrills Without the Frills.”  Really.  And, of course, no frills doesn’t actually mean doing without frills, as you can see on the hips of the model posed above, but by the standards of the high end shows, the look is definitely, unmistakeably austere.

I can’t say why the industry has converged on this minimalism, and the answer would have to include the natural oscillation between styles that fashion needs to exist at all.  What I find more interesting is how the shows can double as political allegory.

Only a year ago, the Milan show captured the Aristocratic Dreams that lie behind the acceleration of income inequality around the globe.  Now, after a year in which the draconian austerity policies of Europe and the UK have withstood both continuous public debate and comprehensive failure to meet their own objectives, the US  is approaching yet another self-inflicted recession brought on by the same ideology.

The model above may suggest how this s0-called discipline feels inside the elite compound.  She doesn’t look too happy, but she isn’t starving either.  (Well, ok, she’s a model, so she is starving, but she’s getting paid for it.)  She also looks wary, and as if accustomed to wariness–that is, to keeping a close watch on what’s her’s and making sure that no one else gets any of it.  Perhaps there is a touch of fear mixed in as well–after all, if resources are thought to be scarce, then wealth makes security a preoccupation.  She stands almost as if at attention, as financial and military elites will naturally converge around shared conceptions of order and control.  At this level, austerity isn’t so much an economic necessity as a style for ruling in a Hobbesian world.

Which is how we get to this image.

austerity model Narciso Rodriguez

After the shows are over, this should be put on the cover of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  (Just as Fashion Week mimes social theory, it also can channel science fiction.)  Young, wrapped in a functionary’s costume much like she is trapped in a corner, and yet like her shoes elevated and fetishized, this could be the image of an imperial concubine.  But the Lords of Finance pride themselves on being liberal in more ways than one–two, actually–so she also could be a ruler in training.

Like the fictions it evokes, Fashion Week pretends to be about the future while being finely turned with the present.  Which is why it might have something to teach us: For those in power today, austerity is just another way to clothe the politics of greed.

The New York Times slide show features photos from the pre-fall collections previewed last month.  The two dresses shown here are from Bottega Veneta and Narcisco Rodriguez.  If you have any doubt regarding my claims about the failure of financial austerity policies, read Paul Krugman.

October 22nd, 2012

Public Life; or Living in Public

Posted by Lucaites in economic optics

On any given night there are more than 600,000 homeless citizens of the United States who do not have indoor shelter.  Most live in urban communities and are consigned to finding places to sleep wherever they can, beneath bridges or in parks, alleyways, and culverts, sometimes in tents and sometimes not, sometimes in cars and sometimes simply on public streets and walkways.  Their presence is often perceived by those not so unfortunate as a public nuisance and so, not surprisingly, there has been something of an explosion of  laws nationwide that criminalize all manner of behaviors which penalize people for being homeless.

The assumption, it seems, is that we can address the “problem” of homelessness by making it more or less invisible in public spaces, and if we can’t do that then we will at least label it as deviant by making it illegal.  It is not entirely clear how effective such a strategy might actually be, since such laws are typically not accompanied with sufficient alternatives to “house” or otherwise accommodate such individuals.  But there is a larger problem, for it assumes that homelessness is a moral aberration that somehow mitigates one’s rights as a citizen to occupy and utilize public spaces.  The issue is not whether the homeless are “deserving” or not of their condition, nor for that matter whether their very presence undermines economic commerce in certain areas or neighborhoods, but whether a liberal-democratic society can function effectively by refusing civic (or human) rights to citizens on the basis of their socio-economic status.

Put differently, it seems likely that the condition of homelessness is not about to go away anytime soon—indeed, as some have argued it is endemic to the social, political, and economic worlds in which we live—and its not clear how the polity is served by treating the homeless as a group whose civil rights are nugatory.  The man sleeping on a public street in Berkeley, CA in the photograph above has been homeless for ten years and it is not likely that his condition will change anytime soon.  Declaring him a criminal and denying him access to the public parks and streets does nothing to address either the “problem” of homelessness or to promoting a democratic culture predicated on egalitarian principles.  At their best, such laws simply cast the homeless as scapegoats for a situation with which we are otherwise uncomfortable, and thus making it less visible to the public gaze.  But even at that, we have to recognize that, as in the photograph above, there will always be those like the young child who stare cannot be fully controlled. How much better might it be to imagine the homeless as citizens and to accord them the basic right to be in public spaces?

Credit: Ramin Rahimian/NYT

September 30th, 2012

SIght Gag: Know When to Hold ‘em, Know When to Fold ‘em …*

Posted by Lucaites in economic optics, sight gags

* Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run!

Credit: Bennett

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.

September 26th, 2012

Free Market Football

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

It’s not a particularly good photograph, but it’s spot on as a metaphor for Republican ideology.

The caption could read, “Scab referees blow the biggest call of the Seattle-Green Bay game.”  One of these replacement workers is signalling a touchdown, as if the Seattle Seahawk receiver had caught the ball, while the other one is signaling a touchback, as if the Green Bay Packer defender had caught the ball, which he did.  Earlier in the play, the receiver had committed offensive interference, which was not called.  I probably don’t need to mention that this was the final play of the game and that it decided the outcome.

The reason competent referees are on the field is that the NFL owners have locked them out.  Anyone can do their job, right?  Well, no, not even close.  The lack of competence and the corresponding deterioration of the game has been evident from the start, and it has gotten worse, not better, as the weeks have gone by and the stakes have gotten higher.  Monday night’s incident may break the stalemate, as now Everyone is incensed and saying so.  I hope the pros are let back onto the field, but once that happens a teachable moment will be over.

What the referee lockout demonstrates is nothing less than the stupidity of excessive deregulation.  Referees are regulators, after all: nothing more and nothing less.  And their work is very important: if the players (and coaches, are you listening New Orleans?) don’t follow the rules, you don’t have a more aggressive or competitive or entrepreneurial game–you don’t have a game at all.  More to the point, those who are watching the game–people like spectators and investors–lose confidence in it and go elsewhere.

So, the refs need to be there, and they need to be competent and have sufficient enforcement power and have adequate resources such as good salaries and pensions so that they can work effectively and without corruption.  When they work well, you largely don’t see them, although someone is always a bit aggrieved because they got caught, and everyone can prosper.  When they don’t work well, just about everybody loses.

Business culture loves to compare business to sports.  The CEO is the quarterback, we’re all on the team, discipline and hard work and uniforms are expected, . . . you know the score.  But the comparison disappears the minute government regulation comes up.  Then we are to pretend that no rules are necessary, that any regulators should be underfunded lest they become tyrants, and that rules benefit only the weak and not the strong.  Tell that to the Packer who actually caught the ball.

As a friend likes to remark, we need fair markets, not free markets, because there is no such thing as a free market.  The choice is between fair markets and unfair markets, good referees or putzes.  Only then is the better athlete likely to win, and only then can other people trust the game.

Which brings us back to the photograph.  It might seem to be a bad photo, and certainly so by the standards of sports photography.  The focus isn’t on the players, who are clumped awkwardly after the play has ended.  The refs call for attention, but because one is looking at the other whose face is obscured, the focus is diffused there as well.  And then there is everything and everyone else: the background is packed with other figures, tiered masses of spectators, stadium decor and signage, and even a stray hand waving in the upper left.  Contrast this with the daily output of high definition, close-cropped, freeze-framed dramatic clashes and balletic action shots, and there’s no contest.

Nonetheless, it’s a good photograph. As we’ve noted elsewhere, photographing economic realities may require giving up other aesthetic conventions to get inside banal, ordinary, everyday experience.  That’s where the work is, and that’s where the damage is done when the Lords of Finance and their ideologues rig the game.  By capturing how the decisive competitive moment actually depends on competent application of a set of rules, and how not just the few players but the general welfare benefits from fairness, the photograph provides a lesson in how a modern society should be governed if it is to have sustainable prosperity.

And so maybe life is like sports.  If you want to enjoy the game, there have to be rules and people paid to enforce them.  If you’re not adult enough to understand that, fine, take your ball and go home.  But don’t spoil it for the rest of us.

Photograph by Joshua Trujillo/seattlepi.com, via Associated Press.  You can read more about the incident here.

May 20th, 2012

Sight Gag: The Late Modern Laocoon; or, Beauty and Economic Suffering

Posted by Lucaites in economic optics, sight gags

Credit: Bas van der Schot/De Volkskrant

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.

April 30th, 2012

Greece and the Two Faces of Austerity

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

It seems that Greece has become the poster child for social democracy–except that the posters are being made by those who want to dismantle it.  We Must Not Become Like Greece, conservative papers say as they preach the virtues of austerity.  Of course, they don’t mean that we should beware profligate private sector investments and other dangers of global finance.   No, no, the problems all stem from large public sector commitments backed by the foolish belief that government’s first priority should be providing for the general welfare.  Instead, the road to prosperity should be one that separates winners and losers. Thus, Greece is being pushed to get on the right path, and it seems that the whole world is watching.

He walks along the street in Athens dutifully, a picture of anxious, unhappy resolution.  The rumpled clothes don’t quite match the hard briefcase, as if he’s going back to the office on what should be his day off.  He looks like austerity in motion: “I will work harder, damn it, I will work harder, and I will spend less.”  Or is it, “If I work harder for fewer benefits, I might keep my job”?  Or “If I try again, I might get a job, any job, maybe”?  In any case, he is just passing through while the great, green eye stares impassively.  Two public arts have fused perfectly here: the mural remains unchanged on the urban wall while the camera can capture how the space changes moment by moment.  A man who might have seemed self-contained now appears to be small and vulnerable and perhaps disposable.  An image that might have seemed idiosyncratic now can symbolize the terrible gaze of godlike global institutions.

A man tries to get through the day but now is weighted with an additional burden: he has become an object to be viewed, scrutinized, and judged.  In that context, the mural’s Escape key is particularly troubling, as the otherwise human visage becomes at best a cyborg and more likely a soft illusion masking a hard technocratic regime.  One might hit the button, perhaps even as an act of defiance, but all that does is reset the system, not destroy it, and it will blink on again just as relentlessly and devoid of compassion as before.

One eye mirrors another, just as camera mirrors computer, and so the viewer reproduces the gaze emanating from the wall.   All eyes are on Greece.  Caught in the glare of transparency, it is exposed to the full force of market logics.   Enlisted as part of a neoliberal public demanding economization over all other values, the spectator is unwittingly complicit in an act of ritual humiliation at the alter of profit.

This is the first face of austerity: the face of the global financial system that stares and judges and punishes.  It is all eye, a single instrument of enormous power, and one that can stare unblinking at the storm that we call progress.  But there is another face as well.

This one is in Kalamatta.  It is a face of pain and rage.  These emotions have no one home, and so this image could be of the man’s enemy as it is about to devour him, or it could be ventriloquizing all that is pent up within him ready to explode as he is being beaten down by economic hardship.  He could be merely thinking idle thoughts on a cigarette break, and unaware of how close he is to destruction; or he could be finally and willingly sinking down into that dark bright place where everything changes because there is nothing more to lose.  Crouched as if waiting for the assault, his hoodie partially shrouding his face, he could be prey or predator.   Either way, we are seeing the other face of austerity: the face of the suffering and violence that is its gift to the world.

Of course, Greece had problems enough of its own making–stagnation and cronyism not least among them–and some reform certainly is needed.  But the artificial demands and phoney lessons now being promoted are more than simply mistaken and dangerous models for working out of the global recession.  By demanding austerity, one can literally lose sight of what constitutes prosperity. As The Economist recently reported when surveying five decades of economic convergence: “In fact, most countries that were middle income in 1960 remained so in 2008 . . . Only 13 countries escaped this middle-income trap, becoming high-income economies in 2008 . . . One of these success stories, it should not be forgotten, was Greece.”

Whatever the face of austerity, it remains a very open question whether anyone is really seeing Greece: what it is, where it is, how it got there, and how it can continue to prosper.  In fact, those questions could well be applied to any country.  Unless economic policies are crafted with an eye to specific histories of successful public and private sector cooperation, and with concern for both global markets and local consequences, too many countries might end up wishing they were like Greece.

Photographs by Cathal McNaughton/Reuters and Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP-Getty Images.

March 12th, 2012

Labor Among the Ruins

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

It can be quite a revelation when the veneer of ordinary life is suddenly ripped away.   Instead of the banal brick and mortar surfaces of a middle American high school, this:

Twisted metal, shredded drywall, crumpled ventilation ducts, broken cables–what was a solid, efficient building has become a rat’s nest of light industrial trash.  That’s what a tornado can do.

The car that once was parked outside is now wearing the building, but it might be salvageable.  Or the insurance company might just “write it off”–as if it could be moved out of there with a dash of a pen or a few keystrokes.  But someone will have to lift that beam, just as others will have to move the chairs, the brickwork, the sheeting, and everything else that is strewn across the parking lot.  And they’ll have to tear that shattered wall down and cart it away, and then begin to rebuild.

None of this work will involve standing in front of a TV camera or giving a campaign speech or writing a blog post.  It’s called manual labor, something that has become all but invisible in a nation that carted up too many of its factories and shipped them overseas.  Marx identified how capital benefits from hiding labor, but even he might be amazed at how much of modern culture has been pitched toward abstractions, sleek designs, smooth surfaces, frictionless interfaces, and other techniques for forgetting about the work involved in making a product.

Until the storm rips your world apart.  When the surface is shredded, then you can see just how much structure there is in a building–that is, just how many different mechanical, electrical, and construction systems were artfully worked into a building, and how much workmanship goes into making use of the building so free of difficulty.  You complain when the copier breaks–but how often does your ceiling collapse?  Skilled labor and government regulation combine to make it easy to take gigantic skyscrapers for granted, as well as the many small structures and hundreds of thousands of products that we use everyday without ever having to make them or fix them ourselves.

Given this society’s investment in smooth surfaces, the texture of things all but completely hides the labor it took to make them.  And that is part of a much larger indifference.  A friend who consults on construction projects commented that it’s hard to generate public support for good wages for working people, “because it’s ingrained that labor isn’t respectable.  Actually, it’s not disrespect….it’s less than that…….it’s  non-recognition.  Folks that don’t do labor don’t get just how thoroughly ignored labor is.  You would be surprised by the number of people that, after having me carefully walk them through the steps of a complicated job, explain to me how ‘it shouldn’t be that hard.'”  As if they would know.  And all too often, they are the same people who expect “$125 per hour minimum to have a shot at a decent life, but can’t see why a mechanic would need the same amount.”

If you are skilled in abstraction, why would you know or care about how tough it can be to get a conduit to fit around a tight corner?  But this discussion isn’t about the value of labor or the labor theory of value or anything more complicated than having a shot at a decent life.

Because that, too, is what the storm reveals when it tears through a town.

Photographs from Henryville, Indiana by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

February 1st, 2012

Caught in the Shadows

Posted by Lucaites in economic optics

The woman above is a beggar.  The scene is Pamplona, Spain, but there is nothing that marks its location per se.  In point of fact, within the last six months I’ve seen the almost identical scene in New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis.  And my guess is that others have seen it in many other cities and towns as well.  Or maybe not.  For while such scenes are all too present we have conditioned ourselves not to notice, to be blind to the situation.  Indeed, we teach our children that it is impolite to stare at such people, and I fear that we learn our lessons all too well, choosing as adults not just to avoid staring but to take comfort in not seeing them at all.  The problem that is created is a vexing one, as the photograph illustrates:  The poor, the unemployed, the homeless are compelled to perform their abjection in public as a means of survival, but at the same time they must shroud themselves under the veil of a shadow, seeable but not noticeable, observable but not seen.  It is hardly a situation conducive to encouraging public assistance, but then that doesn’t seem to be its purpose. Indeed, it seems to underscore a public-private dichotomy that forces (enables?) us to imagine (but never really see) the downtrodden as private individuals and not as members of a public, civic community.

What makes this photograph provocative is how it reminds us that we are all subject to the veil of the shadow.  Notice how those passing by, whether walking to or fro, cast (or are cast in?) their own shadows. There is a difference, of course, as the shadows of those walking are dynamic, exuding a sense of agency, while those of the beggar are altogether static, belying any sense of intentional action whatsoever.  In an  important sense, however, the difference is minimal, no more really than a function of how the light casts its rays upon us—illuminating or hiding us by turns.  And when we see the photograph in this context it is not difficult to imagine how quickly the roles played by the actors in the scene above can be reversed as casting a shadow morphs all too easily into being contained by one.  In a sense, one might say, the photograph stands as a visual reminder of the cultural aphorism, “there but for the Grace of God …”

It is a humbling lesson, but one all the more important for it if we are to recognize and attend to the precarious and  profound economic differences that seem to separate us.

Alvaro Barrientos/AP Photo

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