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. . . .

July 27th, 2014

NCN on Vacation

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

 

On the road

It’s time to hit the road again.   We’ll be back on August 25 October 6.  Truth be told, the vacation has turned into a last push to get our next book to the Press on time.  We’ll hope that you are busy, too, but not so busy that you’ll forget to check back later in the fall.

Movie still from On the Road (2012).

July 16th, 2014

Collective Torture in Burma

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Burma camp Nachtwey

This photo is a beautiful affirmation of human dignity, commitment, and compassion, in a place that is the work of tyranny, betrayal, and brutality.  The two individuals are in a concentration camp in Burma/Myanmar, one of several camps holding over 100,000 Rohingya and other Buddhist ethnic minorities.  Now that aid workers, including those who could provide medical care, have been removed from the camps by the government, the condition of the internees is deteriorating badly.  Time Lightbox reports that “In June a top U.N. aid official who traveled to Rakhine said she had never before ‘witnessed [such] a level of human suffering.’”

The caption said that “Abdul Kadir, 65, who has a severe stomach ailment and malnutrition, is cared for by his wife in one of the camps.”  But she isn’t caring for him, she is comforting him.  That’s all she–or you–could do without access to the right food and medicine.  The photograph reveals just how limited our individual capacity for action usually is, and how forced deprivation makes it more meager still.  Love and a lifetime together count for a lot, but stripped of the support networks that define a normal society, all humane values can be made to look helpless.

As an aside, it’s moments like this that make me really irritated with those on both the right and the left who say that the problem then lies with those values (often empathy or compassion is the target), rather than with the forces that overpower them.  And for the same reason I now am even more disgusted with the extent to which popular entertainment peddles magical capacities for action, whether seen in steroidal superheroes or prissy British kids with magic wands.  There are no magic wands in the camps, and heroes get sick and die.

These digressions may hint at an important dimension of the photograph, placed as it is within Time’s photo essay on the persecution of the Rohingya.  This larger implication begins with how the photo captures both the nobility of and limits on caring for another human being.  That double observation alone could be used against the idea of compassion, not least as the woman’s behavior elicits a similar impulse from the very distant spectator, but that would be mistaken.  Instead, the photograph underscores how neither the cause nor the remedy of the man’s distress is a matter of individual action.  We each act individually as we are given the resources to do so; when crucial resources have been intentionally, systematically taken away by those in power, there often is little one can do to help another beyond the simplest gestures.

Let’s say it: concentration camps are a form of collective torture.  It is torture, because the withholding or food, water, and medicine while forcing people to live in squalor and do hard labor while malnourished causes constant suffering that is intended to destroy them psychologically and then in every other way as well.  The process is collective in two senses: a large group of people are being tortured at once, and they are being tortured by another group of people.  Whatever may be said about it, one cannot claim that this is the work of only “a few bad apples.”  The deprivation is the work of a government, and of a government that is having no trouble enlisting large numbers of its citizens and their religious leaders as accomplices.

While the world is fixated on Gaza, the Muslims in Burma/Myanmar bear the added trauma of being ignored or otherwise considered not worth saving.  I don’t see the Saudis or Qatar pouring money into the camps, and I don’t expect to see the American Secretary of State making a visit any time soon.  Such actions at some point would involve individual decision-makers, but they would remain powerfully collective responses.  What the photograph above shows is not only the limited scope of personal action by ordinary people, but also the moral and political scandal of their abandonment.

Photograph by James Nachtwey/Time Lightbox.

Cross-posted at Bagnewsnotes.

July 14th, 2014

Ruins, Objectivity, and Peace in the Middle

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

I had a difficult time selecting a photograph for today’s post, as everything I looked at couldn’t help but be about the bloodletting in Gaza.  The images of the day either were from that war zone or seemed to be a way to avoid thinking about it.  Since these obviously are subjective reactions, let me add that neither option seemed acceptable.  The latest escalation is producing wreckage across the board: in the streets and homes of Gaza, in Israel’s identity and reputation, and in the prospects for dialogue anywhere.  Apparently this is what the extremists on each side want, and they seem to always get what they want, don’t they?

If they live long enough, one side or the other might be able to win, to triumph, to rise to great heights as they reveal the full potential of their glorious civilization, and then if they really go the distance they could come to this:

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The photograph is from the Wells of Memory, a story in the July National Geographic magazine about a journey through back country Saudi Arabia.  The ruin is the remnant of a tomb at Madain Salih created by the Nabataeans, an ancient people who have left few traces of their once proud culture.  Ruins are object lessons, and one lesson here may be that both the Palestinians and the Israeli’s have done better than many other peoples at staying on the surface of history.  Perhaps it is better to fight than assimilate, and to persuade outsiders to fund you as you do it.  Except that the Nabataeans did all of that, too.

What strikes me about this image of a ruin is how devoid it is of melancholy.  That mood doesn’t have to accompany the fragments of ancient civilizations, but it often does and for the good reason that it has been an important resource for thoughtful reflection on the course of history and human finitude.  But something else is being offered here.  The building looks almost like a movie set: not some part of a previous whole, but rather something constructed to create an illusion of monumentality when seen from the right angle.  It looks massive, but also mobile, as if it could be moved around as needed for the shoot.  The sharp edges and strong contrasts in the lighting enhance this sense of instrumentality, as does the lone figure peering within.  This may be a matter of curiosity, not melanchony; a footnote to history, not its endlessly recurring story.

The shift away from romanticism need not stop there, however.  There can be more than one kind of ruin, as there is need for more than one type of allegory.  I’ve posted recently on how the material production of ruins is continuing, and perhaps changing, in ways we should find troubling.  Any time a photographer creates an image of a ruin, whatever the age of the object photographed, we are provided with another opportunity to think about the relationship between past, present, and future.  In that light, the achievement of this image might be that it has replaced melancholy with a sense of objectivity.  This is a stronger epistemological attitude than curiosity, and one that can offer something to those thinking about a real time tragedy.

This objectivity asks that we place the furor of the present against the full historical record, in order to recalibrate the political and moral discourses that have come to dominate a controversy.  Against the long succession of regimes in the region, against the continual mixing of cultures, much of what passes for reasoning becomes so much nonsense.  Admittedly, one response that remains is sheer Realpolitik: interstate politics provides no alternative to the struggle for survival in a state of nature, which requires the use of power and especially military force without regard for morality.  As some of us have argued elsewhere, that argument is simplistic and often self-defeating.  (For the record, that doesn’t rule out all use of power.)  In any case, one can at least consider that another lesson might be available and perhaps even pre-emptive.

Perhaps the Nabataean ruin suggests that the only time we are actually here is now.  Keynes’s observation that “in the long run, we’re all dead” applies to politics just as much as it does to economics.  For all the effort put into permanence, the record is one of continual change.  Ironically, peoples and religions can persist, but their involvement with states and other powers is not necessarily the source of that achievement, and where it does contribute it also corrupts.

The question the ruin raises, then, is whether political actors might behave better, trying to get more for their people in the short term, if they realized just how unlikely the long term was.   It’s hard to say, but I do note that the enemies of peace in the case at hand, on both sides, seem to be resolutely committed to a long view.  How much they will sacrifice for that illusion remains to be seen.

Photograph by John Stanmeyer/National Geographic.

July 9th, 2014

Photography in the North Korean Worm Hole

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Governments are still in the business of producing posed photographs, and many of those look posed, but not many look as if they were posed 60 years ago.  For that, you have to go to North Korea.

Korean leader & troops

It’s no secret that North Korea is living in a relative dark age–literally, when you see satellite photos of it at night, and in many other ways as well, not least in having a gulag of prisons in which hundreds of thousands of people have been tortured, murdered, and worked to death.  But nobody’s perfect, right?

I can hardly believe that I’m posting on this photograph, which is a standard propaganda image that puts a smiling face on a brutal totalitarian regime.  Most of the time, this blog tries to feature photojournalism as it is an artistically and politically significant public art.  I select the images almost solely because of how they stop me, grab me, speak to some part of me.  I begin with that intuitive, emotional reaction, load the image into the WordPress software, and try to figure out what the photo has to say.  No art can avoid repetition, and journalism couldn’t exist without it, but for the most part you won’t see me spending my time ruminating over stock photos taken by a government news agency.  Of course, when the photo is of Kim Jong Un, the door is wide open for ridiculing the Dear Leader, and there are plenty of examples of that around, but cheap satire hasn’t been our thing at NCN either.

So there must be something to this photograph after all.  I’ve seen many others of the Dear Leader–he seems to be stock figure, or running joke, in the slide shows–but none caught my attention.  So what is it?  Let me suggest several answers that reflect various dimensions of the photographic encounter.  Perhaps the first hook is the contrast between the smiling figure in the center of the group and everyone around him.  He’s having a ball; the others, not so much.  That simple distinction comes out of photography’s most basic elements: its combination of focus and frame to depict the behavior and relationships of vernacular life.  Those relationships often are layered, as here we see the conventional groupings of the posed photograph, the work team, a celebrity mingling with the little people, and the political leader visiting the provinces.  Each of these in turn suggests that additional information or insight may be available: we can see modern image culture, the less than impressive soldiers in what looks like a make-work group, the fact that Un actually has picked up a thing or two from the Western media, and an allegory for the distribution of happiness in North Korea.

The next dimension of the photo becomes evident if we step back to consider a sense of historical context, as then the retro look is particularly obvious.  The photo’s composition goes right down the checklist for Taking Good Pictures: vertical interest on the right, horizontal interest on the left, etc.  The green gun mount and boxy/baggy uniforms have 1950s written all over them.  As does the setting: coastal defense, who does coastal defense today?  Artillery, that’s your high tech?  And look at that blue water: shouldn’t they be putting up a seaside resort?  North Korea is not exactly a leader in resort development, so we are left with something else: a photograph of the way the world used to be.  As with much else in that sad place, photography in North Korea can be a trip down a worm hole into the past.

This is not photography as an aide-memoire, but rather an image of what still persists even though we would be better off without it.  The world today is a mess, but at least the relative “innocence” on display in this photograph from North Korea is rarely an option.  It’s just a photograph, but consider how much repression has to be in place for it to exist as it does.  From this perspective, the photo becomes a form of documentary evidence, a valuable addition to the archive.  This is how a nation looks, when it shouldn’t look that way at all.

Photograph by the North Korean Central News Agency.

 

June 20th, 2014

NCN Turns Seven

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

best-dog-birthday-party-ideas0

Once again it is a time to say “Thanks” to all our readers, and not least to those who mention, retweet, or favorite us on Twitter.

We won’t be posting for a few weeks.  We plan to return on Monday, July 7 to begin another year at NCN.

Photograph by J. Sander/plainpicture/Corbis.

June 18th, 2014

Frame and Form

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

A frame is always a specification: look here, not there; inside, not outside this space.  Photography’s framing of the world seems to be essential to both its success and its liabilities.  It allows specific persons, places, things, and events to be seen, and always without most of what surrounds, constrains, qualifies, or otherwise defines them.  So it is that captions are thought to be essential: only they can say what lies outside the frame.

The 140th Running Of The Kentucky Derby

But that doesn’t mean they would tell you much, or that the additional context contributes to perception.  Let me suggest that this photo will be diminished, not enhanced once you learn that it is showing steam rising from a thoroughbred horse in Kentucky.  That caption has widened the frame, but only to make the image less distinctive, less focused, less intense, and less suggestive.  It has displaced what are acutely aesthetic properties, substituting instead a common sense understanding of a routine world.  In that world, horses and steam are very familiar things, and things rarely seen without some larger interest controlling perception.  What is the temperature?  Will he run well today?  You might as well ask What’s for lunch?  Whatever the answer, it comes with a very wide and very conventional sense of context.

Photographs are so useful in so many settings because of how they provide neatly framed perceptions.  “Here, look at this?” can be a very pragmatic and efficient act.  The uniformity of the physical framing is an important part of that pragmatism, even as it sets up the medium for easy criticism.  (Hint: reality is not prepackaged.  Why that isn’t said about painting is beyond me.)  What may be under-appreciated is how the framing works in concert with a deep tendency toward formalism.  Framing still is tilted toward specificity, but it also can, in some cases, transform perception from being focused on objective subject matter to being attuned to formal patterns.

Patterns, of course, are never merely specific.  They generalize.  They come from somewhere and extend, if only in the imagination, through continued replication.  But to do that, they have to be interrupted.  A continuous pattern soon becomes a blank wall, an empty horizon, a long stretch of ground.  Hence, the importance of the frame: by cutting off perception, it brings form into view.  What remains to be fully explored is how these two elements of all artistic expression combine in photography to create a distinctive capacity for abstraction, or perhaps for something that is no longer merely specific but not quite abstract.  Something that may go without saying in language, but that could perhaps have additional power in a visual medium.

If nothing else, photography at least provides a distinctive availability.   In the right hands, all you need is an iPhone:

 

lake fence

 

Photographs by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images and David Sutton/Sutton Studios.  For an excellent study of abstraction in fine art photography, see Lyle Rexer, The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography (New York: Aperture, 2009).

June 11th, 2014

Photographic Idealization: Delusion or Aspiration?

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

One of the standard criticisms of photography is that it produces an idealized conception of reality.  Framing, depth of field, and many other techniques are used to feature what is attractive and ignore everything else.  Much of the time we see single events, not the surrounding confusion or complexity; clean surfaces, not inner turbulence; smiles, not heartache.  Of course photojournalism and art photography alike strive to escape these conventions, whether to document what is going wrong in the world or to explore extraordinary modes of perception.  But for every one of those images, there are thousands from commercial photography, advertising, public relations, travel and snapshot photography, pornography, soft news–in fact, just about everything else, including those great pictures of distant galaxies from NASA.  And did I mention sunsets?

bp5

If I had a dollar for every photograph like this one. . . . . Yet they continue to appear, and not only on Flickr and Facebook.  The more conventional they become, the easier it is to disdain them.  So, we can point out that this “real” sunset is also a highly idealized portrait of nature.  And of a nature that, like the dog waiting for the stick to be thrown, has been thoroughly domesticated.  Except that you can’t domesticate the sea and the sky, not least on a planet becoming less hospitable to humanity due to modern resource consumption, so we have only a delusion of control and reciprocal beneficence.

The photo also assumes that the woman (and dog) can easily escape any bad turn in the weather, and that she can take the leisurely stroll because she doesn’t have to depend on actually finding enough to eat along the shore.  Her leisure and ours in enjoying the image depend on a prior, taken-for-granted surplus; without it, the photo could only be a weather report or a guide for foraging.  Any thought that somewhere, somehow, sustainable food, shelter, and other protections might be at risk is put to rest by the vision of natural harmony.  Human, animal, and inanimate nature share a common beauty, what more do you need to know?

I think that is one reading, but not the only legitimate reading of the image.  In other posts, I’ve suggested how landscapes and other seemingly superficial images and conventional emotions can provide important resources for living together: for example, by inviting us to a more abundant life than we might think possible.  I will say, however, that until recently I was much less likely to see just how idealized many images were.  And then I saw this photo:

GERMANY-ANIMALS-BIRDS

The caption said, “A crow eats it’s prey sitting on the roof of the Chancellery in Berlin on May 6, 2014.”  That’s a model caption–who, what, where, when–which doesn’t begin to capture what is being shown.  On reflection, of course, we are seeing nothing unusual.  How do you think all those birds you see stay alive?  (They don’t all eat sunflower seeds.)  This is nature up close and personal.  There may still be a small measure of buffering, as at least in this instance the prey is not being eaten while still alive, but I’d say we are close enough, thank you.

The image is remarkable in its close depiction of predation, but even more remarkable for its rarity.  This is a very unusual photograph, yet one that could be taken every day.  It presents a very different vision of nature from the sunset.  Here survival is front and center, nature consists of killing and being killed, and while there may be pleasure there is no room for remorse.

By focusing without flinching on a single meal by a single bird, the photographer has exposed the pervasive idealization that saturates so much of our mediated experience of the natural world.  It would be a small step from there to conclude that the second image is superior to the first: showing us reality as it is, not as we wish it would be; reminding us that we, too, are animals who kill to eat, not pretending that we treat all animals like pets; showing that nature is wholly indifferent to whether any animal lives or dies, not assuming that we fit seamlessly into a natural order of transcendental beauty.

It would be easy to stop there.  Let me suggest, however, that doing so would be mistaken.  A vigorous realism has to go beyond the claim that life is harsh, and idealization might be one way that we rise above that condition, however precariously.  Consider for example, what it would be like if the second photo were the norm: that we saw thousands of images like it every day.  (One could say we do but don’t know it, because they involve humans preying on other humans.  Let’s leave that for another day.)  Imagine that photography’s consistent message was that nature was cruel, that life was only a struggle to survive at others’ expense, that fairness and every other social value had nothing to do with it, and that there was nothing to be seen that suggested any other way of being in the world.  Of course, that message is being promulgated from one end of the political spectrum, but fortunately they don’t have photography on their side.  (TV and film are another story.)  The consequences probably would be gruesome.

So it is that idealization may not be so bad after all.  Not all of it, and not without criticism and other reminders of how it can be misleading, but compared to a severe insistence on the struggle for survival, visions of a beautiful, peaceful world might be worth having.  Better yet, perhaps they could be inspirations to create such a world in reality.

Photographs by Larry Steagall/Kitsap Sun via the Associated Press and Odd Andersen/AFP-Getty Images.

June 9th, 2014

Imag(in)ing the World Now and Then

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visualizing war

 

D-Day Now

The scene could be a community beach front almost anywhere in the world. Cabanas set up for those who can afford them. Tents and umbrellas for others. White sand, small dunes, and blue sea for everyone—swimmers, sailors, and those who just want to sit and catch the breeze coming in off of water. Sun bathers intermixed with children, families coming and going. Soon, one can imagine, the sun will be down, the tide will be up, and only a very few will remain on the beach. A quiet, restful place, with only the rhythmic sound of the waves beating on the surf, lights perhaps shining from the windows in the buildings lining the beach as a reminder of a living community.

But for all of that, it is not just anywhere. It is Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, France. Seventy years ago this past week it was known as Juno Beach, one of the primary landing zones in the D-Day invasion. Taking this beach head was necessary to provide flanking support to the operations at Gold and Omaha beaches and to give the Allied forces a direct route to a German airfield near Caen. The beach was heavily fortified by two German battalions armed with over 500 machine guns plus numerous mortars, a defensive position enhanced by weather patterns that made it necessary for landing crafts to come as close to the fortifications as possible before releasing troops and equipment. The responsibility to take the beach head fell to the 3rd Canadian Infantry division, which suffered over 1,000 casualties by day’s end—the highest ratio of Allied casualties for anyone other than those landing at the more famous and costly Omaha and Utah beaches.

Photographs, of course, only mark a sliver of time—typically only a fraction of a second that frames the here and the now in stark and radical terms. One cannot know what happened moments (or months or years) before this photograph was snapped, let alone what might happen even seconds after the shutter has opened and closed. Temporal continuities with the past, let alone alternate future possibilities can only be surmised. Such limitations don’t mitigate the value of images, but instead only emphasize the need for us to be imaginative in how we understand the reality that they put on display. And too, it requires us to recognize the ways in which the historicity of an image operates in tension with what it was then (or it what it might be later). It is, in short, part of an archive that has to be curated and engaged.

And so here we have Juno Beach shortly after the D-Day invasion. A crashed fighter plane where families today luxuriate. The detritus of battle washed up against fortifications that protected Axis forces from the landing Allies. The appearance of a solitary ghost town cast in somber grey tones where today colorful commerce flourishes, marked by the flags of multiple nations.

-Day Then

This too, of course, was only a stark sliver in time. A scene of courage and fortitude, of death and destruction that can only remind us that what was before the lens when it clicked was there and then, even as it only framed a reality that could survive only in imagined memories.

Credit: Chris Helgren/Reuters; National Archieves of Canada (for other “before” and “after” pictures of the D-Day invasion click here.)

 

 

June 4th, 2014

Life, Death, and the Future in Somalia

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

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I won’t mess with you: he’s alive.  They’re just kids playing at the beach.  “Hey, cover me with sand, OK?”  “Sure, you wanna be a mummy or a zombie?”  And it was a beautiful day, with lots of  kids and some adults all having a fine time.  And nothing terrible happened to wreck the day.  In much of the world, that wouldn’t be news, but this was in Somalia.

It’s a remarkable photo, of course, even if you don’t know the locale.  Zombie, mummy, initiation rite, mud pack, body cast, bombing casualty, burn victim, corpse, death mask, burial rite, . . . . The photographer has captured something like spontaneous performance art in everyday life: a moment of theatrical technique in the time out of time of a vacation day, and to register some deep sense of the uncanny.  The boy is both alive and dead, whole and maimed, playing in the everyday world and exhibiting the ghastly iconography of a war zone.  It seems that even his pal is starting to sense that something strange is happening.  And something strange is happening: an interlude of play is being overtaken by the possibility of a horrific future.

Somalia is one of the more dangerous places in the world right now. This photograph provided the visual coda for a story on Mohamed Abdiwahab, a freelance photographer who has been taking hundreds of images of the carnage for the past several years.  It’s a small miracle that he’s still alive, and living means that he has to deal with both the trauma of conflict photography and the near total indifference of most of the world to whether Somalians live or die.

Which is another reason that the photograph above is remarkable, for it documents what is most likely to be forgotten and most surprising when brought back to our attention.  Thus, it is a both reminder and a statement of hope.  We are reminded that Somalia is not just a war zone, and that the people there, like people everywhere, continue to do what they can to enjoy life, not least the simple pleasures of a day at the beach.  The point here is not to celebrate the human spirit, but rather to understand that people don’t have to be asking for the moon when they ask for peace and stability.  A normal life will do, thank you very much, and is that really beyond the reach of those who rule them, sell them their Samsung t-shirts, or are otherwise invested in Somalia?

The hope is, as it often is, invested in the children.  They can play, God bless ‘em, even as Death stalks them.  More to the point, the photographer is giving them their day in the sun.  They are not to be seen or remembered only if they are victims, but rather for what they are: kids who, like all kids, deserve a shot at having a future worth having.  As the view stretches beyond them to shimmering beach and blue sky, one can at least imagine that the solution to pulling Somalia back from anarchy need not be impossible.

But then we get back to that mock corpse.  Mocking, insistent, it says the scene holds not one future but two: a future where kids grow up to have kids that play at the beach, and one where younger kids watch their older playmates turn into casualties.  We owe it to the kids, and the photographer, to hope for the first, and to recognize which one is more likely if hope is all they have.

Photograph by Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP-Getty Images.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

May 23rd, 2014

On the Road Again

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

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We’re traveling to conferences this week and next, to return on June 2.

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