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. . . .

May 17th, 2015

NCN on the Road

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

NCN on the Road Again

John and I are hitting the road this week, and then one or the other or both of us will be away for many of the weeks between now and mid-September.  During that time we also will be making the last changes on our forthcoming book manuscript, The Public Image, before sending it to the University of Chicago Press for the production work.  We also hope to do a re-design of this website, to be rolled out in September, but that is well down the road at the moment.  So–are you ready for the big disappointment–there will be no birthday post this year, even though our eighth birthday arrives in mid-June.  That’s the age of the blog, not our mental or emotional ages, although some might wonder about that.  In any case, we need the time off, and we plan to be back in the fall.  If you are new to the blog, please feel welcome to browse around.  There are over a 1000 posts in the archive, and should it be that our best work is behind us, that would be where you would find it.

 

May 13th, 2015

Crossing the Border to the 21st Century

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

boy in suitcase

It is fitting that the first photograph of the 21st century includes an illegal immigrant.

Yes, scanner technology is there as well, and we’ll get to that, but let’s stop and consider what we are seeing.  A stunning image, to be sure, but also one that mashes up a half-dozen critical transformations in the global environment, and yet doesn’t look like a mash-up.  Because the photo has the autonomy of a work of art, it both prompts and resists interpretation.  We see the patterns that already are transecting our lives to construct a titanium cage of biopolitical social organization, and yet we don’t see anything clearly.  The gauzy colors and plastic emptiness of the scan are a parody of transparency, while the dark silhouette of the body blocks any identification above the primal level of embryonic species existence.  The suitcase seems to be a womb; even the placenta is visible.  The photograph itself seems to be floating in some larger womb, some larger context we can’t yet see but only feel all around us, as if the distant sounds of the world to come were reverberating through some invisible fluid.

It’s a boy, by the way.  He was being smuggled into Ceuta, a Spanish territory on the coast of Morocco, on Thursday.  He has a name (Abou), and a father who now is in custody, and we can hope that other family members can be located.  But we already know that his situation is not exactly ideal.  There are over 200 million migrants in the world, and you can bet that most of them are not medical doctors or engineers.  Millions of people have to move across the globe simply to work, while those left behind struggle with all the problems that come from separation within the family and fraying of the social fabric within the community.

There are many photographs of migration, migrant labor, and the like (and see The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis, by T.J. Demos).  This photograph, by showing less, shows more.  We are not shown this or that immigrant and the typical circumstances and deprivations of the diaspora.  Instead, the image points toward the global forces that are converging to make all labor migrant labor, and all of us illegal aliens.

The photo captures by turns the bare life of the human subject in migration; the emblematic equipment of global transportation and, with that, a powerful but harsh global economy that permeates everyday life; the vulnerable individual in neoliberal economic systems who has to be hidden and humiliated to acquire the means to live, and then is hidden and humiliated while working; the digital technologies for comprehensive surveillance of those subjects; the extent to which modern technologies that promised liberation can become cheap instruments of confinement; and not least, via the eerie suggestion of biomedical laboratory equipment, materials, and optics, the planned transformation of human nature.  Indeed, one can imagine that the photo wasn’t taken for a human being, but rather for another machine.

So it is that a digital image from a government scanner of an illegal immigrant can become the first photo of the new century.  The others of the past 15 years have been recording the passage of time, but this one has captured the brave new world that is forming, still largely in the darkness of a time we can’t yet see.   A world, perhaps, where the post-human laborer already is being incubated.

Photograph by Spanish Gaurdia Civil/HO/Associated Press.  A BBC report on the incident is here.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

May 11th, 2015

In Honor of Mothers Everywhere

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

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A Look at the Mom’s of Art history.

We will be back on Wednesday.

May 3rd, 2015

Viewing Conflict at Home and From a Distance

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visualizing war

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This photograph could have been taken in any number of places throughout the world where violent protest and opposition to authoritarian political regimes seem to dominate the news. And to be sure, we have seen it before on many occasions. Indeed, it is something of a visual trope that tells us little or nothing about the particular conflict, but nevertheless signals a world in which the rule of law has utterly failed if it ever had a place to begin with: the desperate, anonymous individual wielding their body and something less than the most advanced technological weaponry–a brick or rock, a sling, a primitive homemade bomb–against an equally anonymous, heavily armored modern militia.

What makes this image unique is that it does not portray a scene from Barundi or Istanbul or Sana or Tel Aviv or any of the other likely hot spots throughout the world, but rather Baltimore, Maryland. Rather than to be viewing violent protest and opposition at a distance, here we see so-called “unrest” at home. Rather than to be confronted with rebels or revolutionaries and political regimes that are often hard to identify with in any particular way, here we see fellow citizens fighting against the guardians of our civic institutions. And therein lies a tale worth considering, for there is no escaping the implication that what we are seeing here at home is fundamentally no different than what we see regularly abroad, and the clear warning that such “unrest” is not just an aberration but the harbinger—perhaps even a prophecy—of the utter breakdown of civil society.

Given the increasing regularity of such “unrest” animated by a growing distrust of America’s police forces it is a warning we should heed with some care.

Credit: Reuters

April 29th, 2015

Painting With Light

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

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I had an opportunity to see Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” as a teenager and I recall being impressed by the size of the painting, but more than that with the way in which it captured so many different perspectives at once, with folks looking in every which direction. Each gaze within the painting seemed to tell, or perhaps invite, a very different story. I was a somewhat new, amateur photographer at the time, and I remember thinking that the painter here had accomplished something that the photographer could not do – the photographer, I thought, captured a sluice of reality in all of its objectivity, and while the lens could cover a whole landscape it worked most effectively when it focused in closely on details; the painter, on the other hand, did not just capture a scene, but imagined it, and in such imagining there was a special capacity to represent the world in a way that actually “created” it, putting things together that we might not actually see in relationship to one another in the so-called “real,” objective, seeing world. I was young and naïve, of course, but I was also captivated by a fairly common way of thinking about the relationship between painting and photography marked by somewhat rigid distinctions between the real and the imaginary.

Much has changed since the mid-1960s, and we are not so taken anymore with the notion that the distinction between the real and the imaginary is quite so stark –although, oddly enough it does rear its head somewhat regularly. And of course photography is one of the places where we see the problem worked out most clearly. The photograph, of course, is animated by its indexicality, the notion that the thing was actually there. But as with the photograph above, it is also something that in fact can work to evoke the imagination. The scene here is a helicopter on its way to Katmandu, all but perhaps one of the individuals in the scene victims of the recent earthquake in Nepal. And while it is shot within the narrow and confined space of a helicopter, it nevertheless shows a rather wide scene; indeed, there is a sense in which the cramped space of the helicopter has been recast as a wide and capacious landscape. And like in Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” notice how just about everyone has cast their gaze in a different direction, each face evoking a somewhat distinct emotional register and inviting consideration of a different story. All Nepalese, and all suffering the same random act of nature, each is nevertheless still an individual with his or her own hurt and sorrow. Painting with light, the photographer here has helped not just to capture an objective reality, but to do so by imagining the relationship between individuals and the larger society of which they are part, and in so doing inviting a different kind of relationship between those of us who view the photograph and those suffering at some distance.

There was a time when photographs were understood as primarily objective representations of the external world. And there is an element of the objective at work here, to be sure, but to limit our understanding of the photograph in such a register is to ignore the incredible power of the camera and the agency of the photographer to help us imagine and rethink the world.

Credit: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters

April 27th, 2015

Nature Photography’s Liminal Moments

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Iguana

Fabulous, isn’t it?  As if from a fable, perhaps: “Once every 1000 years the Magical Iguana King would surface to inhale a silver bubble of air.  And if at that moment he saw a sea eagle, he would become Lord of the Sea and the Sky.  But if the bird was not in sight, then he would return to his sunken lair for another 1000 years.”

This iguana might be magical–after all, he is digital–and he already is a mediator between sea and sky.  The photograph provides a stunning tableau of how separate worlds meet at the surface of things: three worlds, actually, as we also see the rocks of a sea cave framing the heavenly vista that extends far above and along the water.  The iguana represents a fourth world, that of organic life, but it also seems to incorporate the first three in its rock-like skin, streamlined posture, and eye that can see along the rays of light permeating the air.

So it is that the photo captures a profound sense of liminality: the border between things.  We see water and earth and sky and animal, but each of these separate entities is also part of the borders between them, which are something else as well.  The slightly turbulent, partially illuminated surface of the water and the outline of the sky made by the rock create a sense of bounded yet dynamic space, which contrasts with the vast darkness below and the endlessness above.  That border is neither one side nor the other, but both, just as the animal is neither above nor below the water, but both.

Although the act of breaking the surface will have lasted only a moment, the photograph has a sense of timelessness.  The iguana looks like a prehistoric creature, the dark sea and distant sun have been there for billions of years, and there is no sign of anything having changed since then.  Some say that photography shouldn’t aspire to the timelessness of art, but that’s the wrong standard anyway (and not only for photography).  The beauty of this photograph has done something important, which is to show how the enormous scale of nature’s time and space also includes the magic of surfaces–of those places, often very small places, where forces meet and mingle.

And not just once.

wave

This is another example of what I have in mind.  You are looking at a wave that looks like a rock.  The incredible motility of the water has acquired the solidity of rock, which we can see because of the contrast with the sky.  The illusion (if you want to call it that) also is caused by the light flowing through the water, but that proves the point: what we think of as one thing is two or more; a wave is both air and sky, not to mention the motion of earth and moon.  This wave is a border between sea and sky, and one might well wonder what great leviathan could be rising to break the surface.

This photo, like the one above, also seems to depict nature’s timelessness in a liminal moment.  And why not?  Not only are the techniques the same, but the subject is the same.  That wave lasted only a few seconds, but the water and wind shaping it have been there for billions of years and will be there long after we are gone.  We can sense  the abstract forces coursing through the wave, and we can see texture of its surface, which is at once sea and sky.  Together they communicate nature’s glory.

The wave, like view from the sea cave above, also is the product of digital processing.  I wouldn’t worry about that.  Like the effect of the light through the water in each scene, the tonalities of the image are neither fixed nor misleading.  It is only by seeing these scenes somewhat imaginatively that one can begin to appreciate how the world is made, and that is true whether you see it through the lens of art or science.  To the extent the processing helped bring out the richness of the world, so be it.

These photographs are not only an education in natural beauty; they also exemplify how photography itself is a liminal art.  The photograph is a thin surface between two worlds: neither here nor there, and neither past nor present, but both.  Every photograph puts us into a liminal space–a space where perhaps we can breathe a silver bubble of air and see anew.

Photographs by Lorenzo Mittig and Ray Collins at Smithsonian.com.  The first was the winner and the second a finalist in the Natural World category at the Smithsonian Magazine 2014 photo contest.

April 22nd, 2015

Figure and Form in the Photographic Imagination

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Some of the time photography relays other arts, and much of the time it creates the artwork.  Much of the time photography provides figural representation (that is, of persons and objects), and some of the time photography provides formal representation (that is, of abstract shapes and relationships).  Figure and form are themselves relative terms, as is suggested by their Latin roots which refer to the not very different concepts of shape and mold.  Figures include forms, and forms imply figures.  In like manner, you could switch the terms “some” and “many” in the previous sentences and they still would be true.  So it is that the transition between figure and form can be a source of invention in this public art.

wall man China

This photo was taken in Shanghai, where local artists were painting a man to blend into a wall.  The project is intended to raise awareness of the need to protect traditional structures.  Good luck with that in capitalism’s newest laboratory, but along the way the photographer has captured a moment in which the figure is both there and not there, familiar and uncanny, still salient but fading into the background.  We also can see that as the figure disappears, the human form does as well, to be replaced by the more impersonal formal relationships of bricks in a wall.

But not really.  There are three figures in the photograph.  The partial disappearance of the one is highlighted by, and highlights in return, the detailed, striking, robust presence of the other two.  The photograph gives us a temporal (and ontological) succession from the wall to the somewhat abstract figure emerging out of it to the fully textured persons in front.  Of course, it also is a recession, as the movement can go from person to (via the brushes) to figure to wall.  It’s all the same to the camera.

So what is the point of the photograph?  It is showing artists at work, so that seems to be the obvious answer, and one that is reinforced by including that architectural ornament in the upper right.  Art and artistry are on display, both as a contemporary act and on behalf of a sense of tradition signified by the decorative fixture.  The skill evident in the painting supposedly is more than is required to operate a camera, but this photograph demonstrates that each art is capable of achieving an aesthetic effect.  The mimetic work of the painters is admirable, but the depiction of the painters is superb.  With their intense concentration and arrested movement, they become aesthetic objects themselves, so much so that they could stand beside others like them in many a painting of the artistic life.  Figural representation has triumphed after all, because of the continuities of form within the image and across the archive.

Clouds Germany

But not for long.  I have included this second image not only because it is a beautiful study in natural forms, but because it happened to follow the first in the recent Photos of the Week slideshow at In Focus.  There doesn’t seem to be any logic or narrative continuity to this new media genre, but the editors are making decisions of selection and placement, so something must lie below the surface.  Once again we have a study in figure and form, although now with the ratios reversed.  The tree is recognizable as a tree, and you can know that the shapes in the air are clouds (which they are), but now the term “clouds” seems a retroactive and all too limited description of what we see.  The photograph presents beautiful, marvelous, enthralling shapes made up of sinuous contours and simple colors.  The forms seem both dynamic and timeless, both solid and ethereal.

So what is the point of this photograph?  Let me suggest that one answer comes from seeing it, as with the one above, as a transitional moment between figure and form.  We see clouds and a tree, but also the vast, incomprehensible beauty of the natural world; and we see the vast, incomprehensible beauty of the natural world, and also clouds and a tree.  Seeing either alone could be too much or too little to contemplate.  The point would be that the beauty of the world is there to be seen, but to see it we have to pull it out of the background just enough so that it is visible yet not too familiar.

As photography is a public art, it depends on and expands an imaginative space, one that stays connected to but extends beyond ordinary vision to show what we have in common.  That includes showing things like nature and tradition and beauty and art, for example.  To see any of these things, figure is necessary, and form is essential.

Photographs by Reuters and Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/AFP/Getty Images.

 

April 20th, 2015

The Costs of Gun Violence

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visualizing war

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Since 9/11 there have been over 400,000 gun deaths in the USA from privately owned guns. That’s approximately 33,000 deaths per year – murders and suicides combined – and it doesn’t take account of the approximately 80,000 injuries each year. To put it all in context, the Congressional Research Service estimates that from the Battle of Lexington and Concord to the war on Afghanistan, 1,171,177 US citizens lost their lives in American wars; according to the FBI, since 1968 1,387,171 American have lost their lives to firearms. Most recently it was reported that the direct and indirect costs of gun violence amount to $229 billion dollars per year – that’s more than the estimated cost of obesity ($224 Billion) and nearly as much as the cost of Medicaid ($228 Billion). Or to make it personal, the per capita cost ranges from $234 per person (in Hawaii) to $1,397 per person (in Wyoming). The average national per capita cost is $750.

Now I know that attitudes about the 2nd Amendment are polarized across the nation, but whatever your ideological position is it is pretty hard to deny that we have a serious problem here. And the photograph above points to at least a small part of the trouble. That’s a Barrett .50 caliber rifle—often referred to as a “sniper rifle”—on display at the annual NRA meeting in Nashville, TN. It shoots ten rounds per second is a semi-automatic weapon that holds a ten round magazine, projects an effective range of 2,500 meters, and has been known to cleanly sluice through the engine block of a truck. The man wielding the gun is intense and focused. He seems to be having a good time. And therein likes the rub.

I realize that some will take exception to this claim, but I truly cannot imagine how a private citizen could possibly need quite that much firepower, whether for hunting or self-defense or … for what? The International Association of Chiefs first recommended banning the private ownership of such weapons in 2004 as a protection for law officers, a recommendation endorsed by strict regulations passed in the State of California and the District of Columbia. And yet, as the photograph above suggests, the rifles are still not only being manufactured, but promoted at national events … a phenomenon no doubt encouraged by the popularity of this past year’s biographical movie American Sniper. One cannot only see such weapons, but one can play as if they were actually shooting one. And to what end? To imagine assassinating a foreign leader? Or stopping an invading tank?

The question is, can we have a sensible endorsement of the 2nd Amendment without going to the extent of encouraging the purchase of or identification with weapons that clearly have no other purpose than to kill and maim at great distances. After all, weapons such as this are not used for target practice or sport and the thought that a rifle of this size and caliber might serve as self-defense is laughable. Perhaps its only virtue is that it is so large that it can never serve as a concealed weapon. The point, I guess, is that the debate over gun control has extended to such absurd limits that we have failed to produce any kind of sensible regulations on gun control at all. The Constitution grants the right to bear arms, just as it grants the right to “free speech.” But as we know in the later case, such rights are neither absolute nor without obligations. They have to balanced against the costs. And when the costs get too high the rights must, reluctantly, be restricted and restrained.

Rather than to endorse playing with guns, the bigger the bang the better, the NRA would serve itself and the nation more productively if it worked to think about how the 2nd Amendment might be sensibly adapted to a growing (and tragic) cost that seems to exceed its benefits.

Credit: Harrison McClary/Reuters

April 13th, 2015

Remembrances of Things …

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visual memory

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We take lots of photographs these days. Photojournalists account for thousands every day and hundreds of thousands every year, but their output is dwarfed by the number of images taken by non-professional, most taken with a mobile device like a phone camera. The photograph above shows a printout of the photographs uploaded on Flickr in a single 24 hour period in 2011 and the number of images taken in a given day surely exceeds what we see in this one photograph.

There is nothing particularly new about taking lots and lots of photographs. We have been doing this for nearly a century since the camera became an affordable commodity and Kodak convinced us that it was a necessary accouterment to bourgeois life. The so-called “digitial revolution” has made taking photographs easier, not least because just about everyone carries a mobile camera of some sort, but also because photographs are now simpler to produce and to circulate—the darkroom is now an antiquity and the family photo album has been replaced by a website of one sort or another. It is thus a bit odd that some bemoan the new found abundance of photographs, such as we find in a recent NYT Style Magazine article titled “Remembrances of Things Lost.”

In the most general sense the complaint is not new. The reliance on photographs will undermine our capacity for remembrance. This, of course, was Plato’s protest against writing (see his Phaedrus) and which has resurfaced over and again across the millennia with the development of each new technology of mediation and representation. And, of course, it is at the core of the iconoclastic critique of photography that we can trace in almost a direct line from Baudelaire to Susan Sontag. And, equally of course, it is wrong—or at least grossly simplistic. Yes, changing technologies alter the ways in which we practice and experience memory. The shift from orality to literacy is a case in point, but what was lost was not memory per se, but a particular way or register in which memory was practiced and understood. And the same could be said for every subsequent development of a new technology or medium of representation. The bigger problem, however, is not that photography – digital or otherwise – has undermined our capacity for remembrance, but that the mindless repetition of this argument underwrites a critical discourse of photography that minimizes—if it doesn’t miss altogether—the power and capacity of the medium to help us think with and through such images as we encounter the problems and possibilities of modern life. And this is not least with respect to how the present—which in some measure is the only thing we can actually photography—functions to help us to (re)member the relationship between the past and the future in powerful and provocative ways.

Consider, for example, this photograph published on the front page of the NYT—both print and on-line—on the same day as the above article lamenting the loss of remembrance animated by contemporary photographic practices.

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Captioned a “shrine to defiance,” the photograph shows a small bungalow in Seattle that seems to have stood in the way of progress. Hemmed in by high rise buildings that all but touch its outer walls, and otherwise bordered by a busy public thoroughfare, the house is altogether out of place—and out of time. It gestures to a past – one can imagine a row of such houses that once stood here – even as it points to the inevitable future that will soon be upon us as modernity move relentlessly forward. But it does so with an interesting edge. Notice that it is the bungalow that offers up the slightest hint of color—of individualism—in an otherwise and uniformly muted, almost black-and-white world. It will not survive for long, at least not in that space, but what the photograph testifies to is the fate of the unique individual in an increasingly modern society where progress refuses to stand still. But more, it also invites consideration of the tension between a more colorful past and a more uniform, colorless present, and to the tint and tone of the future that it portends.

In short, this second photograph complicates our sense of what it means to remember and how we do it, and it does so in a powerful way. Not every photograph will do this, of course, but the potential is there and enough will achieve that potential that it is a profound error to repeat a tired argument about how the medium is a problem for remembrance without also emphasizing its powerful affordances otherwise. Our photographic practices have changed over the years—and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to do so in the years ahead; the more important point is that it is long past the time at which we should change the ways in which we talk photography as a cultural practice and phenomenon so as to understand it as the important mode of public art that it is in all of its forms.

Credit: Erik Kessels/Foam at Amsterdam; Ian C. Bates/NYT

April 6th, 2015

Can We Photograph the Future?

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Photograph the Future

It is commonly believed that the photograph is a limited medium that can only record the present. Without the capacity of time travel we cannot return to the past to record it as it actually was, nor can we stretch into the future to see what will be in a subsequent moment of time. Words—and even methods of non-photographic visual representations such as painting—don’t seem to face the same restrictions as they appear to allow greater reach to the imagination to recreate a bygone era or to envision what the world might become. But the photograph is tied to the here and now with little more than the recognition that at some future moment in time the present that it indexes will mark a past.   It can only record what “is” not what “was” or “will be.” We may take pictures to satisfy a future memory as to what was, but the camera, we believe, cannot exceed the moment at which the shutter opens and closes.

There is of course an element of truth to this set of assumptions, but they rely upon such a narrow conception of the relationship between reality and imagination that it may be worth our effort to reconsider the possibilities. The photograph above graced three quarters of the front page of the NYT above the fold this past Sunday (4/5/15) as part of a story reporting on the implications of the California Governor’s executive order that citizens cut water consumption by 25% in response to the drought that is now in its fourth year with no indication of ending. At first glance it appeared to be a diptych—two distinct images or plates that reflect upon one another even as they constitute a distinct whole—but reading the caption makes it clear that this is not a diptych but rather a single, aerial photography of a “lush” housing development that “abuts” a “bone dry desert.” And the question is, what do we see?

California has long been understood as the land of opportunity, the high mark of modern progress with a population that continues to grow and the seventh largest economy in the world. And the quality of life is, if not fully luxurious, at least generally among the highest in the nation. Not everyone lives in a housing development like Cathedral City, but many do and it surely underwrites the ethos of the California Dream. Look carefully at the image and you will note that each house not only sports a rich and verdant lawn, but that many of the homes feature swimming pools that consume hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a year. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water in a state where the lakes are drying up and fields are increasingly laying fallow. And yet for all of that, the reaction by some ranges from incredulity to outright resistance. So, the NYT reports on one resident who insists, “I’m not going to stop watering.… The state does not know how to arrange the resources they have, and so we have to pay for it.” The allure of unfettered progress remains strong, and yet the right half of the photograph is a telling landscape of one possible future if we follow the lead of this one resident.

Can photographs show the future? If we assume that all a photograph shows is the literal world that it indexes and no more, then, of course, the answer is no. But as with the photograph above the reality on display is much more complex than a fundamentalist literalism would allow. And what we see is not just a world that has managed to sculpt nature to accommodate its own pleasures, with lush lawns and luxurious swimming pools in a desert climate ill-fitted for either, but what that world may well be destined to if wiser heads do not prevail. And in this context a photograph can well put the future on display.

Credit: Damon Winter/NYT

 

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