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. . . .

October 29th, 2014

What Is Near and Far in the Geography of an Image?

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Hay bales, Belyo Lake, Siberia

It’s not quite a Monet, but I think it deserves to framed.  Cezanne might be the better comparison, but this photo is more about distance than mass and volume.  And curiously, just where it gets close to abstraction, it also gets closest to the stiff demarcations and solid identities of American folk art, which may seem stranger still for an image from Siberia.

The photograph was one of many in a slide show at In Focus on autumnal beauty.  Fall is my favorite season, and In Focus one of the best photography sites on the Web, but even so I was prepared to be underwhelmed.  I expected to see the same images we always see at this time of year, the same colors, the same sameness.  Perhaps this photo seems no different to you; harvest scenes are part of the repertoire and the transition into dormancy and quietude is part of the seasonal mood, so the conventions still are in place.

Consider, however, how the image sits a bit off center, like the hay bales in the photo.  The mood is not so much autumnal as more profoundly liminal.  Not so much fall in all its glory, but as if we are on the edge of winter, just as the field is on the edge of the lake.  And is that deep, solid blue a fall color?  It seems to be something out of time, almost as that lake seems out of place in the midst of a harvest scene.  For these reasons and more, the photograph strikes me as more distinctive than many of the stock images of the season.  And both more beautiful and somewhat unsettling for that.

So what is unsettling, beyond simply deviating a bit from convention?  Let me suggest that this image is a masterful study of photography’s subtle deconstruction of spatial perception.  Notice how the composition is a series of  borders: the strip of snow in the foreground, the strip of field immediately beyond that, the rest of the field, the beach, the lake, the far beach, the strip of trees, the sweeping uplands, the mountains (or are they clouds?), the sky. . . . The visual expanse is a continuous succession of separate, parallel spaces, each of which becomes a border between two others.  As they eye transverses from front to back along the empty center axis to the vanishing point, one might conclude that there is no there there.  More to the point, the swaths of color and dabs of light seem to have been laid down on the flat surface of a canvas: the distance is but an illusion, a trick of the eye.

And yet we also see the sheer particularity of the pieces of hay sticking out of the two bales in the foreground.  They are unquestionably near, while the other bales are far away.  So it is that reality and illusion continue to interrupt one another.  The same holds across the visual field of the photograph.  Every place within the scene has a sense of extension yet also is interrupted by another; each one is unique and yet unable to either connect with or subordinate the others to create a sense of unity.  Hence the comparison with Cezanne, as the material autonomy of each part of the work reveals an underlying sense of form, but one that refuses to channel a transcendental unity, leaving instead the specific weight of each part of the painting itself and with that its autonomy, a substitute for transcendence, as a work of art.

But it’s not a painting.  And those bales and Lake Belyo are actually in Siberia, which is a very long way from where I am writing this post.  Photographs are valued because of how they can bring distant views close at hand, and they are faulted for introducing unnecessary distance between the viewer and reality itself.  Both reactions capture important elements of photography’s geographic capacity.  This photograph fits either one perfectly: it has brought a distant scene into view, and it encourages aesthetic habits that could buffer my experience of the seasonal changes happening right outside my door.  I may become accustomed to scenes that are empty in more ways than one, and yet I have been given a view of a beautiful world that extends far beyond the borders of my daily life.

Let me suggest that the photo takes us beyond this standoff.  It suggest not only that any photograph is both far and near (and we knew that), but also that what matters are not the distances but the relationships.  The image reflects the compositional processes that create photography’s internal space, with each photograph a virtual world in which space–and time–can expand and contract almost at will, but not to obliterate the distinctions that had been laid down in reality.  Likewise, each photograph can be thought of as a liminal space: a threshold between two worlds, each of which in turn can lie between two others in a continuous succession of experiences, none dominating the other.  Some appear to be near, others far away, but that may be the most complete illusion.

Photograph by Ilya Naymushin/Reuters.

October 27th, 2014

Seeing Protest Up Close and At A Distance

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Protest 2

Photographs of protests from around the globe abound.   But whether taken in Hong Kong, the Ukraine, Greece, or almost anywhere else—including United States—it is often difficult to discern little more than an opposition between police clad in riot gear, wielding shields, batons, and tear gas or pepper spray squaring off against scantily clad dissenters seeking to maintain their presence in a public space. Some protestors prove to be violent, to be sure, though the cause of provocation is never all that clear. But the point is that at least in recent times there appears to be little that distinguishes the unrest that is unraveling state authority almost everywhere. Or to put it differently, it seems like the legitimacy of state power is increasingly pushed to the furthest limits of authority and required to use force to sustain its primacy. Isaac Asimov has one of the main characters in his Foundation trilogy note that “violence is the last resort of the incompetent,” and the point is doubly significant when it is directed at those entrusted with the maintenance of governmental authority.

The photograph above is of a “lego” display that appeared outside of the government headquarters in Hong Kong this past week and the yellow umbrellas clearly mark it as signaling the pro-democracy protests that have dominated news coming out of China for the past month. But apart from the umbrellas that signal the protests in Hong Kong, this could be a conflict anywhere in the world, positioning a faceless state authority against a diverse population of individuals (comparatively diverse, that is, but then there are limits to what one can accomplish with lego figurines). And notice the attitude of the opposition, with the military forces cast in the darkest of tones, carefully arranged in preparation for a military style assault and “the people” dressed in brightly arrayed, ordinary clothing with no particular order to their arrangement, rather as one might expect to find a democratic populace, each moving in its own direction without actually getting in the way of the other.  What is most pronounced, however, is the barely visible fence that divides one side from the other and leaves no room for negotiation or compromise.   The opposition between state and citizens is stark, and Order must be regimented and maintained at any cost, even at the risk of destroying the society that the state presumably represents and is consigned to protect.

That the meme represented by this lego display (and a scene reproduced in photograph after photograph from conflicts all over the world) is so easily recognizable—even for someone who has paid no attention to the protests in Hong Kong—should alert us to the possibility that there is something larger going on here than a local battle. Of course every particular conflict is rooted in local concerns and animated by very specific objections and complaints that need to be considered, but the larger point is that increasingly the opposition between state authority and the voice of a democratic polity seems to reveal few opportunities for accommodation. And it might leave some wondering if there is room for democratic dissent anymore.  It is hard not to be pessimistic.

Occasionally, however, one encounters photographs that offer a more optimistic possibility, and this overhead view of demonstrators gathered in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district might be a case in point. Like with the lego display the vantage point is

Protest 1

from above, though the protest site is now at a greater distance from the viewer. And what we see is both more and less. The immediate sense of opposition is neutralized (or veiled?) by the fact that we see the protest framed by the larger cityscape. The markers of difference between state and citizenry are impossible to discern or distinguish, as one would hope to be the case in a properly democratic order. All are equally cast in a natural darkness, though all are equally illuminated by streetlights and buildings (and perhaps a bit of moonlight), and so the opposition of lightness and darkness loses much of its normative force, and more it is clear that the darkness will soon return all to the light of day, if only for a bit. More important, perhaps, is that the scene marks a high modern society that blends both skyscrapers (and notice the cranes, which indicate continued construction and development) and multitudes of people who appear to be in some measure of harmony with both the city and one another. Indeed, the protest notwithstanding, there is a degree of everyday orderliness to the display, with tents and shelters dispersed through the scene and people milling about as if at a street fair. Order here does not have to concede to rigid regimentation and oppositional dissent does not necessarily have to reduce to drawing a line in the sand.

Of course, the multitudes could become outraged by continued efforts to deny their voice or the state could choose to wield force to have its way, and tragic, bloody violence could easily end up being the order of the day. The point here is not a call for a Pollyanna sensibility about the possibilities for peaceful protest and democratic governance. Rather, it is to suggest that the photographic conventions that too easily pit the state against the people in simplistic terms (as demonstrated by the meme represented by the lego display) are not the only possibility (however “real” they might be in some register), and that taking a longer view (and at some distance) sometimes allows us to imagine other ways of imagining the possibilities available to us.

Credit: Tyrone Siu/Reuters; Philippe Lopez/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

October 22nd, 2014

Mirroring Ebola

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Health workers enter the high-risk zone as they make the morning rounds at the Bong County Ebola Treatment Unit, in Sgt. Kollie Town near Gbarnga.

The caption said, “Health workers enter the high-risk zone as they make the morning rounds at the Bong County Ebola Treatment Unit in Sgt. Kollie Town near Gbarnga, Liberia, Oct. 6, 2014.”  Good to know, but not all that is being shown.

So what is being shown?  A mirror image, but what is that?  And what’s with the visual tricks: isn’t Ebola a serious threat, and shouldn’t the press be emphasizing transparency, clarity, and accountability rather than playing with artistic techniques?  We need to know the truth, not be confused about the distinction between image and reality.  Or is this a political ruse, taken to suggest that there are more emergency personnel available than is actually the case?  Or a critical comment that the number of health care workers needs to be doubled?

Whatever the answers, it might help to ponder the fact that the photographer risked his life to create this photograph.  And once at risk, he certainly could have concentrated only on straight-forward reportage, keeping any obvious distractions out of the picture.  Yet here we have a photograph that comes with a built-in distraction: divided between a mirror image and the scene reflected, one’s gaze is pulled back and forth, never able to settle on one focal point without having the other as a peripheral vision that disturbs concentration.

Curiously, the second image is troubling precisely because it is too similar to what is being seen directly.  Just about anything else could either be disregarded or given direct attention, but the double image keeps undercutting its own validity even as it demonstrates its representational power.  Instead of demarcating reality, the image is too close for comfort, uncanny, and suggestive of a truly profound disorientation.  Which side is real?  How can we tell?  What if the mirror has been mirrored?

This discomfort is part of photography’s DNA.  Originally valued for its ability to replicate nature, the technology also has fueled anxieties about reality being displaced by an image world.  When photographers feature mirror images, they automatically make viewing reflexive, bent back to include both the subject of the photograph and its techniques of composition.  The double image reminds us that we are seeing an image rather than reality, and suggests how we can see more, not less, because of that.

The media panic about Ebola has involved massive injections of fear regarding viral replication, contagion, and the ultimate displacement of death, so perhaps an image of photographic doubling can channel or otherwise contain some of the excess emotion.  Instead of panic, the doubled image is reflective, creating a space for a slower, more meditative response.  Instead of death by contagion, we see an artificial replication that is benign and yet perhaps suited to representing the social system that develops quickly to contain the disease.

And yet, like the oscillation in the image itself, this reflective moment can’t be entirely comforting.  The scene is doubly surreal: as if hazmat suits and goggles, emergency tents and water brigades, and the transformation of extraordinary suffering into routines of risk management weren’t enough to deal with, those many dislocations of ordinary life have been doubled, replicated, cast into a space of reproduction that could extend repeatedly around the globe without every becoming a place one would want for one’s own.

You can decide how much of that picture is image, and how much is reality.

Photograph by Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

October 20th, 2014

A Realist Imagination (or is it An Imaginary Realism?)

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Realism and the Image

By some persistent, traditional accounts photographic representation is driven by a technological determinism that derives its power from the mechanical capture and reproduction of an event. Accordingly, the fundamental measure of a photograph is its indexicality, i.e., the photograph establishes that the thing was there to be photographed. This position has been critiqued by those who underscore the difference between analogue and digital photographs as if the question of indexicality could be reduced to measurement of a positive reality. But of course there are two problems with this that underline what seems to be a naïve and simplistic sense of “the real.” First, of course, we can never fully test the accuracy of the positive existence of the indexical reality presumably represented because every photograph is always a representation of a transient moment in the past. The best we can measure it against is human memory which, as we know, is fallible in multiple registers. Second, even the best analogue photograph offers a two dimensional representation of the scene recast which inevitably flattens the thing represented (and even stereographic representations, analogue’s predecessor to 3D digital technologies, was an illusion of two dimensional representation).  If the “real” is to mean something useful in the discourse of photography it is going to have to avoid such naiveté and offer a more complex sense of photographic realism.

I cannot offer such a theory here today, though we begin to develop such an approach in forthcoming work, but the photograph above does offer something of a gesture to what such a theory might include. Here we have a photograph of a man painting a scene which is included in the photograph. The painting has an impressionistic quality to it underscoring the role of the imagination in recasting the scene before him. But the photograph is not simply about the painting of the scene or the man doing the painting, but rather calls our attention to how his creativity is important to making sense out of the photographic event itself. In an important sense the photograph is divided between foreground and background, of the man and his painting and of the scene that his being painted. The lens is wide open and so the depth of field is wide, teasing the eye to move back and forth between the shaded areas in the foreground and the natural light that illuminates the background. And in the end it is almost impossible to settle one’s vision on one vs. the other for very long. In short the photograph implores us to reflect on the relationship between the role of realism and imagination in making sense out of what we are seeing.

We might thus call this photograph a representative anecdote for the “photograph matrix” that always and already consists of both a referential (or indexical) orientation and an imaginative orientation. Any photograph is both more or less a record of what has happened, and more or less an artistically enhanced experience, both more or less empirical, and more or less interpretive, both more or less accurate, and more or less suggestive.  The point here is that photographs –whether analogue or digital—operate in the interspace between reality and imagination. The camera records the surface of the world like no other instrument, but the truth of what is shown can be realized only through an act of imagination. Stated otherwise, the photograph is inherently not reducible to a simplistic realism, but is instead a heterogeneous object where different sources of meaning intersect, and the intersections are lodged in the formal design and explored through interpretation. How those intersections occur is the subject for another time, but for now it is enough to note the need for a complex photographic realism that is not reduced to a simple or naïve notion of indexicality and such a conception needs to think hard about the inherent– necessary–connection between the real and the imaginative.

Photo Credit: Carols Barria/Reuters (Caption: An Artist paints a picture of a pro-democracy site near government buildings in Hong Kong.)


October 15th, 2014

White Swans and Photographic Seeing

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Flying swan

The caption says, “A white swan (lat. Cygnus olor) flies over the Main-Donau canal in Bamberg, Germany, 06 October 2014.”  Not that you can see the canal, or Bamberg, or the sky, or anything except the bird suspended in a black void.  Nor are the feathers pure white, which you can see in the stock photos that will pop up on Google Image.   The bird seems to have been stained by mists of oblivion, as if it were a message traveling through some fantastic system of communication in Middle Earth.  Such fantasies may be invited by the stark contrast of the lighted figure and dark background, which makes the bird seem to be a silhouette despite still being visible as a specific individual.  The image is both the literal trace of a single animal in a single moment of time, and an abstraction in some undefined cognitive space.  There once was a bird passing over a canal, and there is the Swan, a Bird, token of Nature, passing through Life, again and again and again.

Many people spend their entire lives seeing swans without ever seeing a swan.  From the preschoolers’ first picture books to Disney movies to advertising to the arts and back again, swans are not rare birds.  They are tokens of culture, not a familiar part of nature.  One might hesitate then about focusing on photography alone, but the image above does provide an object lesson in photographic seeing.  Joel Synder has pointed out that cameras don’t capture images–they make them.  The image doesn’t exist until the camera clicks.  The image above is a near-perfect demonstration of that distinction.  There never was a swan suspended against a black background; those effects were created by the camera.  In fact, a swan was flying through a night sky, but the movement has been stopped and the details of the actual optical field have been abstracted out of the picture.  And a similar transformation is true of every swan photograph that you have ever seen.  Those swans never existed in the rectangular box of the photograph; they are found there only in the image.

Of course, as we have become habituated to photography, we also become accustomed to projecting images: to imagining how photographs could be taken and how scenes are more or less photogenic.  We also become accustomed to collecting images: to filling our phones and tablets and heads with expansive vistas, glorious sunsets, and thousands of small ornaments: raindrops on a leaf, leaves on the surface of a pond, the moon reflected in the dark water.

And that’s the hell of it, according to some critics of the medium.  Most notably, Susan Sontag argued that “so successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful. . . . Photographs created the beautiful and–over generations of picture-taking–use it up.”  Perhaps that’s why we’re down to one swan.  Indeed, this “habit of photographic seeing–of looking at reality as an array of potential photographs–creates estrangement from, rather than union with, nature.”

Now that is a serious charge, and although Sontag offers no proof whatsoever, it would seem to be supported by Synder’s account of the image.  That silhouetted swan is pure culture, and although the photograph promises to bring you closer to nature, in fact you only are being brought close to an optical illusion.  The photo says, “Look, you can see a bird that you never would have seen otherwise,” but you still haven’t seen that bird as it actually moved through a material environment, much less while you were a part of that same environment.

But you have seen something, and something that was amazing, and what you would not have seen otherwise.  In that seeing, you have become part of a larger world, and one in which the most ordinary and distant and ephemeral of events–a bird flying across a canal–has acquired special significance.  Not meaning, perhaps, but significance, which may be all that we can hope for some of the time.  (Some readers may hear an echo of Walter Benjamin’s remark that Kafka “sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility.”)  Photography does transmute reality into images, but to create a common world, which now is one where a swan flies through complete darkness, like a message from a distant beacon.

Photograph by David Ebener/EPA.  Joel Synder’s argument is set out in “Picturing Vision,” Critical Inquiry 6 (1980): 499-526.  Sontag’s remarks are from On Photography, pp. 85 and 97.  Walter Benjamin’s insight is in Illuminations, p.1 44.  For an earlier post on this theme, go here.

October 13th, 2014

All The Comforts of Home

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Screenshot 2014-10-12 19.57.48 copy

I have a chair very much like this one in my living room. I sit in it when I am watching television or reading a novel or socializing with friends and family. It is really quite comfortable. Sometimes I even fall asleep in it. But there are differences. My living room is not made of cinder blocks or painted in a bland, institutional beige that matches the color of the chair and the floor and enhances the intensity of the harsh bright lights above; nor for that matter is my living room shaped as an acute triangle that doesn’t seem to be much more than 8 feet across at its base and it doesn’t have a one-way security mirror. And it should not go without mention that my legs are never shackled to the ground when I am sitting there.

 The photograph is of the “Compliant Detainee Media Room” – that is both the caption for the photograph and the actual name of the room –at Guantanamo Bay, where one of the 149 prisoners being “housed” here can watch DVDs for an hour or two if he “follows the rules.” Prisons don’t have to be fully austere or inhumane institutions – and truth to tell it would be best if they were never neither of those things – but there is something oddly perverse about this scene as it underscores the extreme contradictions between comfort and constraint that govern our detention of prisoners who have never been formally charged with a crime or granted anything even approximating the due process of law. There are legal reasons we can get away with this, of course, since Guantanamo Bay is not governed by the U.S. Constitution, but such a technicality aside it surely violates the spirit of our founding documents.

 “To comfort” is to give physical relief or sustenance, to provide support and serve as a source of strength, courage. It is fundamentally a social function. But nothing in this room is designed to do any of these things, or even anything close to them. It serves instead as a reminder of all that has been lost in the process of detention. The chair, which is designed to recline, is constrained by the feet that are shackled to the ground. The appearance of freedom is thus an illusion. All color has been removed from the world and with it something of the possibility to imagine difference. And finally, the very possibility of sociality has been effaced as there is only one chair, the only possibility for interaction with a polished mirror that displays the prisoner to himself (while knowing that others are watching his every move). The room, in short, is something of a torture chamber masquerading as a comfort station.

The contradiction between comfort and constraint is accented by a second photograph by the same photographer, captioned “Detainee Comfort Items.”

Comforts of Home Two

The photograph shows a single person detention cell. Everything is laid out in near perfect order, clothes and blankets clean and neatly folded, shoes shined, hygiene products new and unopened. The blue matt on the back wall is a mattress, and so it is pretty clear that the sleeping conditions are anything but comfortable—indeed, it is hard to imagine that the room is much more than six feet wide. But that turns out to be the least of it. And to get the point, ask yourself this question: In what world would these items—an orange jump suit, shoes, minimal hygiene products, a thin blanket and a pillow, a book—be considered comfort items?

 What we have on display is a troglodyte world. One in which comfort has been recast as a teasing reminder of one’s condition of un-freedom. It is, in short, a world of constant and continual torture. And as we noted in a post at this blog many years ago, we wonder why they hate us?

Photo Credit: Debi Cornwall


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 October 13 (really, we promise this time).  Truth be told, the vacation has turned into a last push to get our next book to the Press on time (and we did; this last delay is for other reasons, and we’re running out of excuses).  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:


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.


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