Jan 20, 2008
Mar 10, 2014
Nov 04, 2007
Mar 24, 2013
Oct 16, 2009
Jun 11, 2008

The Price of Milk

Post by guest correspondent Sarah Lingo

Presidential candidates are expected to know the price of milk. Do they? Do we?

image

This photograph comes from a series by photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur, taken during her visit to an organic farm in 2010. The photo-essay chronicles the aftermath of a calf’s birth at a facility for milk and veal production; of 30 photographs on McArthur’s blog recording this visit, this one in particular brings me up short.

Reading from left to right, we first see a cow nuzzling her iridescent newborn calf whose legs are still bent beneath it; this birth has just occurred. The mother’s attention is strictly on her calf. As our gaze moves right, we see an audience of three more cows who direct their own gazes toward the birth event. A gate and an expanse of hay and mud separate the cows; these divide the photograph diagonally. All three cows to the right stretch their necks through the gate, getting as close as possible to the birth event. Their desire to participate in the scene, as they stretch their necks to the limit, unites them in shared longing.

Although this photograph does not show us explicit suffering—no blood, no slaughter—suffering is nevertheless present. The photograph makes a particularly effective and damning argument against the dairy industry precisely because it only implies suffering; the photograph engages the spectator’s imagination, forcing them to participate in and complete a cycle of ongoing violence.

In this case, violence is the violence of separation, isolation, bewilderment, heartache, and loneliness. The photo’s caption tells us “Dairy cows who have had their babies removed from them so that we can drink their milk, watch the new mother bond with her calf.” The calf that will immediately be taken away so that the mother can be returned to milking and be impregnated again. The calf that will be taken to a crate, where she will spend the rest of her life until slaughtered for veal—unless she, too, becomes a dairy cow.

We might expect the intensity of the new mother’s gaze, fixed exclusively on her calf. As Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen explain, “the elements placed on the left are presented as Given … a familiar and agreed-upon point of departure for the message” (181)—here, motherhood and its presumed instincts. We tacitly accept a demonstration of mothering so commonly assumed to exist across all species.

But the focused gaze of the other cows reveals another intense engagement. Their interest might surprise us. What investment do these cows have in a birth that is not their own? For that, we can look to the right of the photograph as it “present[s] … something which is not yet known, or perhaps not yet agreed upon by the viewer, hence as something to which the viewer must pay special attention.” These cows are “‘problematic’ [and] ‘contestable’” even as “the Given is presented as commonsensical, self-evident.” What is “problematic” and “contestable” about this photograph is the future that awaits mother and her calf, a reality embodied by the cows to the right.

We see here the past, present, and future simultaneously. For the new mother and her calf, this is their present: a moment of intimacy before an inevitable separation. For the cows to the right, the new mother and her calf represent a past, as all three of these cows have almost certainly given birth themselves and have been subsequently separated from their calves. The gate creates a diptych, dividing the past and the future and telling the story of all the cows that give birth on dairy farms.

The still photograph perpetually delays the inevitable suffering experienced by these and other dairy cattle. It suggests but does not show those impending traumatic events—the separation of mother and calf, the calf’s death. I am reminded of Barbie Zelizer, who writes of about-to-die images that such photographs are “situated within the final moment in which it is still possible to hope, where the inevitability of death might yet be avoided” (58).

Instead of documenting a single event, this photograph presents the suffering that is always about to happen: the ongoing violence perpetuated within the dairy industry. Such violence is never over, never resolved. The spectator must fill in the blanks, extrapolate from the cows on the right—who also are spectators—to face what is to come. The photograph forces us to put the pieces together ourselves, to see what has been, what is, and what will be all at once. It reveals the emotional and moral costs hidden in the price of milk: a bill of suffering that we would rather not see.

Darkness presses in from above, and the spectator has to strain to make out the photograph’s finer details. This required effort is representative of the spectator’s larger task of making up for what is unstated and unintelligible about the photograph. We must work to make meaning, to carry the narrative presented here to its logical conclusion; the photograph requires an act of imagination to complete its narrative. Such engagement makes this photograph particularly persuasive because it calls the spectator to actively participate in the violence the image itself only implies.

As Zelizer writes, those “depicted may or may not die, [but] that is incidental to the fact that they stand in for those who do. Because death lingers as a potentiality only, it is up to the public to make the contingent death certain by inferring death from what is depicted” (72). The spectator, having participated in this violent narrative, is left only to wonder, what is required to disrupt this sequence of events, if not for these particular cows, for innumerable others?

 

Photograph by Jo-Anne McArthur/http://www.weanimals.org/gallery.php?id=90#ph1.

Sarah Lingo is a student in the doctoral program in Rhetoric and Public Culture at Northwestern University.  She can be contacted at sklingo@u.northwestern.edu.

 3 Comments

Now Available: The Public Image

public-image-cover

Our new book is out! We’ll hope that modesty does not forbid this moment of self-promotion. Thanks to an extraordinary commitment by the University of Chicago Press, the book includes 48 color photographs and yet is priced at $35, $26.77 at Amazon. It also is available as an e-book.

The Public Image argues for a fundamental shift in understanding photography and public culture. In place of suspicions about photography’s capacity for distraction, deception, and manipulation, we suggest how it can provide resources for democratic communication and thoughtful reflection about contemporary social problems.

As Suzie Linfield comments, “With intelligence and passion, Hariman and Lucaites challenge us to re-think what documentary photographs can and can’t do, what they hide and reveal, and how we do and don’t see them. Most of all, the authors make clear why these questions are of such great urgency to the violence-saturated world in which we live and to the future of modernity itself.”

You can read more about it at the Amazon page or the page at the Press, but, hey, why not see for yourself?

 0 Comments

Killing, Seeing, and Being Seen

WALKER_160720_COD_19604x

Let’s get a few things straight: the fish is being tagged, not killed.  The fish is a fish, and I’m not, so I don’t know what it is seeing.  Because the fish is a cod, it will eat lots of other fish, including other cod, many of them while their hearts are still beating.  If you want sympathy, don’t expect to get it from the fish.

But does the fish nonetheless deserve sympathy–or compassion, or whatever you want to call an act of moral resonance?  And should the fact that we can see it seeing be the basis for that sympathy?  Reason would suggest otherwise, but I’m not sure I want to be so reasonable.  Not at the moment, anyway.  There is plenty of time to revert to the more utilitarian arguments for not destroying the wild fish populations, for keeping the ecosystem in balance, for sustaining resources for future generations. . . . But this photograph requires a different answer, because it is asking a different question.

That question is, why kill?  Why should we kill, or at least, why should we kill those species we can live without?  Of course we slaughter micro-organisms by the trillions, but that consideration is largely a distraction from where morality really lies: that is, where individual and collective decisions are possible.

This photograph is as good an argument for vegetarianism as I’ve seen in awhile.  First, it got to me, and that has to happen if deep cultural habits are to be changed.  Second, it got to me for reasons that are easily dismissed and yet somehow persistent.  The large eye evokes cross-species identification, as if the eye is window to the soul.  That’s a cliche, but hard to shake.  The large head, open mouth, and sagacious visage suggests a capacity for self-consciousness, even reflection; no matter that the suggestion comes from those 19th century drawings and Kitchy paintings of animals in suits or sitting around the poker table.  The gentle, supporting embrace of the technician evokes an ethic that channels every sentiment of parenting or of loving care for one’s pets–even though he holds neither child nor pet and his work is geared toward increasing the fishing quotas.

Why, we might ask, should such compromised emotional attachments prevail?  Why should this photo push me further away from eating meat?  Let me suggest that the deep structure of the image is doing important work on behalf of overcoming our moral blindness regarding other species.  The clue to what might be happening is provided by Kaja Silverman’s remarkable book, The Miracle of Analogy: The History of Photography, Part I.  Silverman suggests that photography’s genius lies not in providing direct reproductions of what is seen, but rather in disclosing the many similarities that constitute the world in its deepest sense.   Instead of thinking of reality as something prior to the image, we should consider how reality is “a vast constellation of analogies” (11) that can be brought to light through the image.

Analogies between fish and human beings, for example.  Similarities that are not so much thought as felt.  Patterns of continuity that become expressed by many and often odd means: cliches, cartoons, and comparisons with pets among them.

And if you think about that, it might become harder to kill.

Photograph by Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe.

 0 Comments

Citizens of Photography Research Positions

headshot

The Department of Anthropology at University College, London is seeking two MPhil/PhD candidates and two postdoctoral researchers to participate in an exciting project “Citizens of Photography: The Camera and the Political Imagination” co-ordinated by Professor Christopher Pinney. Participants will be required to conduct fieldwork in one of the following locations: Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Nicaragua. “Citizens of Photography” is an empirical anthropological investigation of the relationship between photographic self-representation and different societies’ understanding of what is politically possible. Prolonged ethnographic fieldwork will study how local communities use photography to represent individuals, families, and other identities and explore whether this plays a role in the manner in which people articulate their political hopes and demands.

Additional information is available here (for MPhil/PhD) and here (for postdoc).  Interested applicants are encouraged to contact Christopher Pinney at c.pinney@ucl.ac.uk for further details.

 0 Comments

Into the Twilight Zone in Nice

Again, yet again.  Another massacre in France.  This time with a truck.

Nice truck masscre

Next time perhaps with a boat or a bookstall or a suitcase. . . . As Elaine Scarry observed about torture, the use of everyday objects is designed to make all of reality terrifying, with nothing that can be trusted.  And something like that may be happening in the collective consciousness.  The politics of too many nations already is marked by too many symptoms of ethical dysfunction, and so one form of violence can resonate with all the others.  Even as the routines of containment also become more visible, more professionalized, and so obviously part of the system that is the real target of the attack.

Which may be why the photographers are on to something when they capture the strange, unreal, or uncanny aspect of the disaster.  These are not photos of emotional drama.  They could be from Invasion of the Body Snatchers or an updated Twilight Zone or any other sci fi movie.  Instead of the lifeworld being torn apart, its technocratic control system is revealed.  Instead of bodies torn apart, technicians in protective clothing and corpses under wraps, waiting to be tagged.

Nice massacre bodies

And yet, there is nothing wrong with these photos, or with the conduct of the police and other first responders.  We live in both lifeworld and system, and we need both human connection and technologies for living together as citizens in modern cities rather than as clans in small scale tyrannies.  Nonetheless the images are showing something important.

The world seems to be pitching into another reality, one that is more unreal than real, both present and still to come, and defined primarily by separation and violence, and by madness and helplessness.

A world in which everything appears as if it could be in a movie–and the wrong movie.  Out of order, disjointed, and not for creative expression or bold endeavors, but for what?  Killing, and cleaning up after the slaughter.

As violence becomes familiar, the world becomes strange, even to itself.  Action is legible, behavior is disciplined, everything is handled with skill and often with care–and yet, it’s not right.  The mood is wrong, the atmosphere stained, and something is odd about the light.  These things are not easy to say, and harder to explain, but you can feel them.  And now they can be seen.

Photographs by Eric Gaillard/Reuters.

 0 Comments

When Gag Photos Are No Joke

As a matter of course, we just don’t do gag photos at this blog.  After all, we’re providing serious public commentary, right?  And we feature many outstanding photographs.  As the gag photo often is assumed to be the sure sign of amateurism, you wouldn’t expect to find it among the images of the week.

TOPSHOT - The Finance Minister in Brazil's interim government, Henrique Meirelles, offers a press conference in Brasilia on May 20, 2016. The new economic team of the acting President Michel Temer updated the 2016 budget deficit expectation. / AFP / EVARISTO SA (Photo credit should read EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)

And you’d be wrong.  You’d be wrong in the specific case, as with this photograph of Henrique Meirelles, the Finance Minister in Brazil’s interim government, at a press conference in Brasilia.  And wrong more generally, as one of the very best professional photographers, Elliott Erwitt, produced dozens of visual jokes very much like the one above.  In fact, this image looks like a signature Erwitt photo, but I doubt it’s even an homage.

I was tempted to write that Erwitt “had a weakness for” visual jokes; that’s how conventional discourse does our thinking for us.  It wasn’t a weakness, however, but another angle on the human condition.  Likewise, is the photograph above really of Henrique Meirelles, who I’ll bet does not have two antennae protruding from orange eyes?  If it’s not an image of the person named in the caption, what is it?

One answer might be that it is a portrait of an official.  Not a specific official, but an idea or at least a caricature of officialdom.  In that respect, it may be closer to the reality of modern finance than the idea it displaces: why continue to believe that decisions are being made primarily by prudent individuals, rather than being pushed one way or another by data flows and the abstractions that accompany them?  Does he see the material hardships of ordinary experience, or does he see instead through the optics of financial instruments?  Is he one of us, or does he represent the many levels of alienation that stand between ordinary experience and the decisions made at the top of elite institutions?

As that gap grows, it leads to more anger from below.  Growing inequity leads to reactions on both the left and the right, and to more demonstrations and other protests, and to violence.

And to more gag photos.

Orange County Sheriff's deputies take a protester into custody near the Anaheim Convention Center Wednesday, May 25, 2016, in Anaheim, Calif., after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump held a rally at the convention center. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Here the term “gag” may acquire additional meaning, although the Orange County Sheriff’s deputies may be well trained (may be; it’s possible), and the Masked Marauder seems to know the drill.

But is it a gag photo?  In one sense, no: the surreal juxtaposition of Halloween mask and riot gear is in the scene, not an optical illusion created by the camera.  But in another sense, yes: compared to the other demonstrators at the Trump rally, he probably is featured because he’s got the most unexpected costume, producing an image that most of the time would have to be created by special effects.  But in yet another sense, no: it’s not funny.  But in another sense, yes: he’s probably wearing the mask to provoke a laugh or at least something edgy enough that it’s on the edge of nervous laughter.  So, once again, we might ask, what is it?

One answer is that, similar to the image above, we are not being shown a specific demonstrator but rather an idea or at least a caricature of political unrest today.  In any case, one that is closer to the truth than what a more “unmasked” portrait of the individual would provide.  The grotesque mask (and hair) seamlessly fitted to the cameo clad bruiser suggests that we are seeing Trump’s alter ego: the surreal forces of unreason and violence that lurk below the surface of his campaign.  The many similarities with the police restraining him suggest the alignment or affinity between forces of disruption and those promoting “security” and “order” at the expense of civil society.  The fact that he probably is protesting against Trump suggests that the Left can get sucked into the same downward spiral.

Not funny, not funny at all.  Makes me want to see something light, even silly.  Maybe a dog’s head in place of its owner’s.  Just a gag, you know. . . .

Photographs by EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images and Jae C. Hong/Associated Press.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

 

 1 Comment

The Lesson of the Snowstorm

A resident shovels snow away from the entrance to his home in Union City, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Midtown Manhattan, after the second-biggest winter storm in New York history, January 24, 2016. REUTERS/Rickey Rogers TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX23SDE

This is the photo that keeps coming up in the papers and the slide shows.  “A resident shovels snow from the entrance to his home in Union City, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Midtown Manhattan, after the second-biggest winter storm in New York history, on January 24, 2016.”  That’s the caption, just in case you were wondering about the who, what, where, and when.  But that isn’t saying much.

Snowstorm photographs can’t avoid being stock images: whatever they are, you’ve seen them before.  This one is no exception, so novelty is not part of the appeal.  Nor is it a particularly striking photograph.  Whatever its features, I can think in every case of photos that displayed each one more directly: the undulations of white softness draping the furniture of the world, the gentle play of light and shadow on snow, the trees heavy with their winter foliage, the monster drifts, the daunting task of digging out. . . .  This photo has them all, but each quality is stacked up with the others, and they seem to subtract from one another rather than produce a cumulative effect.  So it really is an aftermath photo: emphasizing not the massive, magical inundation but instead the individuated labor of clearing a way back to the familiar routines of ordinary life.  And yet it is in its own way captivating.  Why?

The answer, I think, is that it provides a gentle reminder of just how good life can be.  Can be: not in every case.  That snowstorm will have caused car wrecks, heart attacks, and other bad news, and eventually we’ll be told how the costs for snow removal and lost business will run to the millions or billions.  But there is another story that won’t be told, except perhaps through this photograph.

If a snowstorm is your big problem this week, you’re doing fine.  If you have to shovel snow but can walk back into a warm brick brownstone where the heat is always on, where water always flows sure and clean at the turn of your hand, where you can look up and down the street and see everyone else having the same amenities. . . . . That is the good life.

The photo shows one kind of abundance–the unusually large covering of snow–to say something about another kind of abundance.  What covers reveals.  The snow temporarily removes all the cars, mailboxes, and much else from view, but we know that they are there.  It features a man working with a blade on a stick, but we know that is the closest he gets to experiencing primitive scarcity and vulnerability.  By showing how much can be temporarily stopped, it reminds us how much activity and prosperity are taken for granted.

And there is more.  As the snow also slows us down, it reminds us how we allow some of our riches to diminish others.  We have so much that we may forget to stop and marvel at the beauty of the world.  A snowstorm is beautiful, but so is a cloudy day.  It’s wonderful to curl up with a cup of coffee on an unexpected day off and look across a glistening landscape, and it’s wonderful to take a moment amid the morning rush any other day.

Come to think of it, that’s something you can do any time you look at a photograph like this one.  And others as well.

Photograph by Rickey Rogers/Reuters.

 0 Comments

Emoting with Panache at the Democratic Debate

Hillary and Bernie

There will be lots of photos from Sunday’s debate between the Democratic Party presidential candidates.  I get a kick out of this one of Hilary and Bernie both letting it rip at the same time.  We’ve posted regularly at this blog on how politics is a performance art–and how that can be a good thing for democratic politics.  Of course, it also can be a bad thing, but this year it’s no secret that the demagoguery is all on the other side of the street.

So there are at least two reasons to like this photo: because it provides a comic reminder that political performances can be simply amusing rather than hideous examples of bad speech, and because it suggests that oratorical demonstrativeness really may add something to democratic deliberation.

To accept either argument, you have to grant me one thing: that these are two policy wonks who already have demonstrated exactly how debaters should speak: by answering most of the questions directly, demonstrating broad and deep knowledge of governance, addressing important problems and real needs facing the electorate, building coalitions while answering, and doing all this articulately, with concision, wit, and moments of eloquence.  None of this denies that they also have dodged questions, answered with obvious strategic intention, and been adept at spin and spin control.  But if you know anything about how reasonable speech is supposed to work, whether on in a meeting or a public forum, they you can’t do much better than go to school on these two.

Which is why it’s a hoot that they also look like a comedy team on Saturday Night Live.  “Come on people–I WANT YOU TO CARE, DAMN IT!”  And “Wheee!  Look at me!  Aren’t we having fun?”  Completely different and completely the same; opposites and complements; raging seriousness and silly enjoyment side by side.  Together they capture what is in fact a deep tension within our political culture: too much entertainment or too much principled rigidity can each be a bad thing.  A well-functioning democracy needs some of each: at the least, it needs to appeal to ordinary people and get competing interests to work together, and in response to serious issues on behalf of our best values.  And it needs political leaders who can do that, and audiences who can appreciate what is required.

Needless to say, there is some irony in the photo as well.  Bernie Sanders is the one who is labeled an ideologue, while Hillary Clinton has a reputation for pandering.  Surely there could be other photographs of them switching roles: something they should be able to do, frankly.  And we can be confident that will, because of the emotional panache that is evident in this photo.

“Emoting” is a common answer in crossword puzzles.  The clues include “orating,” “acting,” and variations thereof such as “making a speech.”  That simple equation of public speaking and a theatrical performance actually captures an important truth.  We need our leaders to emote on stage–sometimes to communicate what really matters, and sometimes simply to provide a good show.  What they say and everything else matters, too, but let’s take a moment to see what is there to be seen.  One public art has captured another.

Democracy needs them both: both seriousness and humor, and both photojournalism and oratory.

And who knows?  Maybe even both Hilary and Bernie.

Photograph by Randall Hill/Reuters.

 0 Comments

Star Wars Optics and Socialist Dreams

Tkachenko-18

Incredible, isn’t it?  So perfectly designed and yet so strange.  Ultramodern and yet medieval, like a space ship on a surveillance mission and a castle readied for battle, set off by itself in forbidding isolation and yet connected somehow to distant galaxies.  The tableau is so unique and so striking that it could be a scene from the forthcoming Star Wars blockbluster: we can imagine the rebel stragglers, downed on an unknown planet, approaching the daunting edifice that has emerged out of the snowstorm.  They can’t survive outside, but they don’t know what lies within.  Friend or enemy?  Life, death, or something worse than death?

They were socialists, actually: the structure is a monument to socialism built on Bulgaria’s Mount Buzludzha.  It is one of a series of remarkable images captured by photographer Danila Tkachenko.  The exhibition is available in the current issue of the National Geographic Magazine and at their website. Influenced by a nuclear waste explosion that had scarred his own family, Tkachenko set out “to look for other sites and structures that symbolized an abandoned march toward progress.”  He found them.

The movie optic doesn’t come from Tkachenko, and I don’t intend to make light of his work.  But science fiction movies and documentary photography have more and more important intersections than you might think.  (Search for “science fiction” at this blog and you’ll see a few more examples of what I have in mind.)  Tkachenko describes the now abandoned monument as a “very surrealistic object,” and he’s right.  Although having the exceptional formal simplicity and coherence of a fine art object, it nonetheless is out of place with itself and its surroundings: the scene presents a mixture of aesthetics, politics, and an abstracted natural environment where each part seems alien to the others even as they fit together seamlessly.  Surreal indeed.

Susan Sontag declared that “photography is the only art that is natively surreal.”  That was not meant to be a compliment.  It was instead a radical deconstruction of the medium that was thought to be inherently realistic.  Sontag was right, but not in the manner that she would have wished.  Photography is surreal, and good thing, too, for that is exactly why it is capable of capturing the “natively surreal” features of social reality.  Which, I might add, is a lot of social reality.

The monument itself may not be to your taste. I think it is magnificent, but you might see a glorified birdbath.  That disagreement is worth having, but it is beside the point today.  The photograph has captured something more comprehensive than the artwork itself: the pervasive alienation of the socialist ideal on planet Earth.  True, Bulgaria fell well short of the ideal society, and the money spent on the monument perhaps could have gone to help the common people rather than glorify an ideal or a regime ruling in its name.  But if present trends continue, one can imagine a planet trapped in a perpetual winter of neoliberal capitalism.  That planet could be dotted with massive, ultramodern castles surrounded by vast spaces of abandonment. It would seem like a movie to us today, but we already are living the trailer.

Perhaps an abandoned monument to a noble dream is surreal, but some day rebel stragglers may look up at the ruin and want to ask, compared to what?

Photograph by Danila Tkachenko.  The quote from Sontag is from On Photography, p. 51.

Cross-posted at ReadingThePictures.

 1 Comment