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. . . .

March 30th, 2015

The Seeing Citizen

Posted by Lucaites in the visual public

Camera + Silhouette

The scene borders on the sublime. A silhouette of a woman cast in the glow of a distant fire that appears to be burning out of control. The gulf between the woman and the blaze is altogether calm, inviting a clear contrast with the raging flames and by extension underscoring the space—simultaneously near and far—between safety and danger. And, of course, it is the silhouette that ultimately frames the photograph and its affect. To get the point, imagine the photograph without the silhouette? The contrast of golden hues would still register as beautiful for most viewers no doubt, but all measure of the distance between here and there, of the sublime horror invoked by the image, would be effaced – or at least largely so.

All that aside, it was not color or even the silhouette that initially drew my attention to this photograph, but rather the fact that it is a photograph of someone taking a photograph. Photographs of people taking photographs has become something of a convention in recent times, and all the more so now that many (if not most) people in the western world carry cameras with them in their pockets and seem inclined to take photographs of … well, just about everything. And the question is, why? Not why do people take photographs of everything. I think we have done that for a long time now, contemporary technologies simply making it easier and easier to do. Rather, the question is, why has the photograph of people taking photographs become something of a visual trope … and a trope of what? In the photograph above the camera’s brightly lit screen stands in stark contrast with the golden color cast of just about everything else in the image—including the silhouetted photographer—and thus perhaps invokes a sense of the tension between nature and technology, a point gestured to by the caption which notes: “A woman takes a picture of fires raging through the Los Alerces National Park … A lighting strike is believed to be the cause.” And so the photograph here might indeed be driven by a profoundly artistic and/or ideological sentimentality. There is of course no way to know, but the omnipresence of the technology in modern times simply cannot be ignored.

The trope is perhaps  a bit harder to explain in other, more common occurrences such as this photograph:

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Here the caption reads: “People take photographs as the body of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister is transferred form the Instana Presidential Palace.” One might wonder why we don’t just have a photograph of the body itself being transferred. Or, for that matter, of the crowds gathered to view the transference. What is it about the fact that people are taking photographs of this scene that makes the convention so affecting?

I don’t have an answer to this question firmly worked out at the moment, but my suspicion is that it has something to do with the relationship between actors and spectators. There was a time, not so very long ago, when the prevailing assumption was that citizen spectators lacked agency. They viewed events, but they did it from an altogether passive space that muted their political voice if it did not erase it altogether. The seeing citizen did little more than see. The advance of camera technologies, and in particular the utter ubiquity of camera phones and portable screens, as well as the capacity for digital circulation, has given citizen spectators a whole new way of registering their voice—or is it their gaze? It helps us to see how one person uses their spectatorship to accent the space between culture and nature, as in the silhouette above, or how others mark the importance of the passing of a revered leader.  In short, the seeing citizen is now also, and at least in some measure, an acting citizen.

We photograph people taking photographs perhaps because it marks an important shift in what it means to be a citizen spectator and, as with photojournalistic images in general, it helps us to understand how we see and are seen as citizens.

Photo Credit: Emiliano LaSalvia/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images; Tom White/European Pressphoto Agency

February 11th, 2015

Facing The Terror of the Image in Millennium Park

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

Face Millennium Park

Terrifying, isn’t it?  A disembodied head, as if from some hideous experiment or alien communication: gargantuan, strange, yet familiar enough to be uncanny, both human and nonhuman.  Seemingly imprisoned in a mechanical frame, and yet haughty, as if in a position of command and sure to judge harshly.  The central monument in a civic plaza, yet looking more like an idol demanding sacrifice, the image radiates a dark vibe across the urban space. Looming buildings, ice-shrouded railings, bare trees, wind-driven snow, empty spaces, and stragglers in the storm–all these signs of winter’s desolation seem warm and reassuring by comparison with the aggressive presence of that digital face.

I had been trolling through the online slide shows: pictures of the day, pictures of the week, editor’s choice, carnival, fashion week, you name it.  Many were images with little news value, images obviously selected for their storefront appeal: human interest, eye candy, call it what you will.  Amidst these litanies of the same, images every one, there was nothing that stopped me to take a second look, nothing that pushed me to the edge of my comfort zone, nothing the created anything like an encounter with the medium itself.  (You can say I’ve seen too much of this stuff, and you’d be right, but it also was a slow day at the slide shows, which much of the time are archives of remarkable photojournalism.)  And then I saw the image that is the equivalent of a terrorist attack on public spectatorship.

For the record, you are looking at the Crown Fountain video sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park.  The artwork is one of two that bookend a wading pool, with the faces changing every half minute or so.  In the summer, the plaza is thronged with kids and sightseers, and you see the faces of happy strangers everywhere–including on the large video screens.  Even then, however, the sculpture is not simply a precipitant for civic amusement, for it still doubles as a work of art: always a bit uncanny, always a copy of someone and no one and everyone, always a familiar yet anonymous face that is expressive but following some impersonal logic of mechanical display.

By catching that face amidst the winter storm, the photographer was able to pull out this second sense of the artwork.  By doing it with a photograph, he made the artwork doubly reflexive: the disembodied face is now saying something about photography.  Or “saying” might not be the right verb.  It is showing us one thing, the image as image, to evoke another: the terror of the image.  As W.J.T. Mitchell has noted, every theory of imagery is likely to have a fear of imagery lurking within (What Do Pictures Want?, page 342), and the same is true of all of us with our more intuitive relationship to the image world.  Human beings, no matter how modern, project animate powers into images, and fear is an unavoidable consequence.  Indeed, a statement of Mitchell’s can double as a description of the photograph above: “Pictures are things that have been marked with all the stigmata of personhood and animation: they exhibit both physical and virtual bodies; the speak to us, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively; or they look back at us silently across a “gulf unbridged by language'” (page 30, quoting John Berger).

And so the idolatrous face stares at us across a gulf unbridged by language.  The result is a form of terror: the deep anxiety that lies within our relationship to our media technologies and images of every kind, the fear that we may be duplicated or displaced, and that we already have been so, already become images to each other and even to ourselves, strangers in a strange land.

But fear not.  You can’t see it easily in this photograph, but the challenge is there.  The face you see, even in the mirror, is the face of the other; to see the other, you have to see a face.  Here I am channeling (very roughly) Emmanuel Levinas, and especially as articulated by Judith Butler in Precarious Life (pp. 131 ff.): to see the face of the other, wherever one might find it, is to enter into the extreme vulnerability of human life, the precariousness of living with one another.  It is the beginning of an ethical relationship, and the essential condition for peace.

If Butler and Levinas were wrong, it would not be troubling to see that a face is an image.  The image seems inhuman, because a face is the face of humanity.  The image above presses the point, as it seems that that image wants to kill you.  (What do images want?  Your head.)  And no doubt there are things to fear: objectification, mechanization, and other elements of human viciousness and modern society are very real dangers, always.  (Setting them in a place known as Millennium Park is hardly reassuring: welcome to the new millennium, slave.) But let me suggest that the idol in the park doesn’t want a sacrifice.  So what might the sculpture, and the photograph, really want?

Perhaps they want what every image might want: to be seen for what it is, a face.  Perhaps our images provide opportunities to turn terror into something else, something better suited to living with others.  If we could go to school there, perhaps we wouldn’t have to go to war later.  After all, what is terror but a fear of our other self.

Photograph by Jim Young/Reuters.  Recommended reading, though having no responsibility for any errors of my own in this post: Hagi Kenaan, The Ethics of Visuality: Levinas and the Contemporary Gaze.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

February 9th, 2015

Masking the Solitude of Self

Posted by Lucaites in the visual public, visualizing war

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The “signature injury” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). According to the DOD, and by the very most conservative of estimates, nearly a quarter million U.S. military personnel have been diagnosed with TBI since 2001. Typically caused by close proximity to a “blast event” generated by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), there are “no known” ways to “prevent it”—there is no body armor that can protect the brain from the successive waves of the blast—and there are no known cures for its array of effects, including “headaches, seizures, motor disorders, sleep disorders, dizziness, visual disturbances, ringing in the ears, mood changes, and cognitive memory and speech difficulties.” And, of course, it is no stretch to imagine that it is connected in some measure with the near epidemic of suicides among soldiers and veterans in recent times.

What makes the injury especially tragic is that unlike war injuries that visually maim the body, TBI is an altogether invisible wound. A victim of TBI can look as ordinary and able as the average person you are likely to meet on any given day, the pain and disorientation that they experience a wholly internal private affair. And as with the horror of combat more generally, the injury exacerbates the effects of a kind of psychic aphasia that makes it impossible to express their feelings. At the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, victims of TBI are encouraged to create masks that put a face on their injuries and thus to give some voice to what they are experiencing.

The photograph above is of Marine Cpl. Chris McNair (Ret.), injured in Afghanistan in 2012. His mask is modeled after the “muzzle” that he came across in a photograph of Hannibal Lecter that he found on the internet. “That’s who I was,” he notes. “I had this muzzle on with all these wounds and I couldn’t tell anybody about them. I couldn’t express myself.” The analogy to Lecter is telling in two different senses. On the one hand, Lecter is a fictional character who displays refined culture and civility, and yet is capable of somewhat unpredictable outbursts of extreme violence making him incredibly dangerous … much like many of the victims of TBI. On the other hand, Lecter has been muzzled so as to protect us from his anti-social transgressions … much as we have created a public discourse that “muzzles” the wounded warrior as a pitiable survivor—”there but for the grace of God go I”—whose pain and injury we view from a distance but which we really don’t want to get too close to.

The photograph above is especially revealing in this last regard, for it underscores how isolated the wounded warrior is as a singular individual, marking his pain and his struggle as altogether alienated and private. Clothed impeccably in his dress blue uniform, his campaign medals on display, his brass buckle sparkling, he is the heroic warrior, but he sits alone on a swing on his front porch. He remains the soldier who sacrificed for his nation, but he must confront his pain and suffering by himself and in the most domestic of settings, wholly segregated from the public who sent him to war in the first place. While the mask purports to give voice to his inner pain, it also makes it possible for us to observe him (from a distance) without actually seeing him.

And therein lies the problem, for however well intentioned art therapy projects of this sort are—and I have no doubt that they are well intentioned—they also underscore the public stigma that we attach to the victims of such injuries, as well as the implicit assumption that the “cure” to their injuries is private and individual — more their personal burden to bear than a shared public trauma. Until we can find ways to overcome both the stigma and that assumption it will be nearly impossible for such victims—or for us as a nation—to every truly be healed.  And that may well be the biggest tragedy of the trauma of war.

Photo Credit: Lynn Johnson

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

January 28th, 2015

The Public In Winter: Ghosting Through Boston

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

Boston Blizzard

The caption says, “A man rides his bike up Beacon Street during a blizzard in Boston, Massachusetts January 27, 2015.”

One might wonder why this photograph would be featured among the images of the day.  It is largely a study in blurred perception, an example of not seeing clearly, and of things that can be easily missed without loss.  I am no worse off for not seeing the details of the solitary commute of an anonymous individual in a nearly deserted street on a winter’s day somewhere in Boston.  The lack of clarity here is not a lesson about political ideology, media manipulation, costly ignorance, or a failure of concern.  A January blizzard made both travel and vision difficult; no news there, and nothing to merit a second look.

The selection becomes more complicated in you consider that the image is even less likely to be featured in a slide show of winter’s beauty.  Think “National Geographic” and many wonderful images will come to mind: the lone evergreen standing between snow-covered hills, red holly berries on black twigs glazed in ice, the low sun glinting through the distant treeline across a frozen lake. . . . or a bustling city transfigured into enchanted silence by incandescent snowflakes falling softly to grace every surface of metal and stone.

Whatever your images, they probably don’t include a blurred figure who seems to be both moving and stationary, and both solid and ethereal, against a background that is both familiar in its outline–street, streetlight, trees, pedestrian–and yet so hazy as to be remote or unrecognizable.  Once we have been told that he is riding a bicycle, the scene may become a bit uncanny: what it is supposed to be, but oddly not quite right.  Somewhat like a doppleganger, in fact, or any image, for that matter.

Let me suggest that this photograph is a study in public perception, in several senses.  First, it suggests that much of what we can’t see here we never really see, as it is part of the taken for granted background that we slide over in ordinary perception.  (If the bike had been clearly visible, how much of it would you have been able identify if tested a minute later?) It’s not that we can’t see those things, or even that we should, but that we don’t need to for the ways of seeing that are dominant (and useful) in public spaces as opposed to more expert or intimate settings.  Thus, the photograph marks, by blurring, some of what would be in the optical unconscious of photography: what the ordinary observer would not notice but would still be captured by the camera.

Second, the photo suggests that much of what we see clearly is actually ghostly–a virtual reality of images that we take for granted as a real world.  The public realm is not only the actual spaces that we inhabit with strangers, but also those virtual spaces that we inhabit as if in public, often through media representations of strangers in distant and effectively anonymous settings.  (Ask yourself why “Beacon Street” was given as the sufficient descriptor for the intersection being shown: the street runs for miles, while similar photographs could be taken in many other cities and towns around the globe.  This is a photograph of a symbolic place.)  The traffic light signals “public domain,” and the figure on the bike is not much more distinctive.  Blurred signals and a spectral messenger; sometimes that’s all you need.

A ghost is defined as a spirit in bodily form, and as a semblance or trace of something, and as a secondary and usually faint or blurry image.  All of these concepts can double as characterizations of photography.  Some would say they are failings of the medium, but I see it otherwise.  Photography’s connections with the spirit world are exactly why it proves to be such a useful medium for modern, liberal-democratic public cultures.  As we see ghosts, we see ourselves.

Photograph by Dominick Reuter/Reuters.

May 19th, 2014

Reflections … Of You and Me

Posted by Lucaites in the visual public

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The National September 11 Memorial and Museum opens to the public this week. Sadly, we have gotten all too practiced at memorializing human tragedy – the 6th Floor Museum at Dealy Plaza in Dallas, TX; the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN; the Oklahoma City National Memorial at the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building; and the list goes on. In each instance senseless violence and awful, terrible, heart rendering loss is remembered in solemn displays that mix our collective grief with, strangely, tourist-like attractions that often require admissions fees and include “gift shops” where one can purchase everything from books and t-shirts to what can only be referred to as memorial kitsch. I don’t want to be cynical here. I have visited most of these places and I have happily paid the entrance fees—though I have avoided making purchases at the gift shops—and I would do so again, but there is something oddly unsettling about the process and I don’t quite have the words to express what it is.

Sometimes photographs can gesture to what words are hard pressed to express—or at least to express in any way that we might consider to be focused and efficient in a clearly narrative or propositional form. The image above shows several members of the public looking through the windows into the 9/11 Memorial Museum prior to its official opening this coming week, though others appear to be simply passing by. None of the recognizable artifacts of the tragedy of 9/11 are present. One cannot see the salvaged tridents recovered from the World Trade Center, or the accouterments from fire fighters and other first responders, or the cards, patches, and other mementos left as part of various vernacular memorials that surrounded the site of Ground Zero. And truth to tell, but for the caption that marks this as a glass façade that looks into the museum it would be hard to know exactly what we are looking at. But what we can see are the mirrored reflections, both of those who have stopped to look intently through the glass façade and of the life of the city that seems to be going on around the memorial and museum; and here, not just people who appear to be walking by, but also a city that is undergoing construction as marked by the crane in the center of the image, but also those reflected in the mirror (in the upper right corner) that would otherwise be outside of the frame of the image.

The key to the photograph is not that we simply see people stopping to look or passing by or that we see a city under construction, but that all of these things are accented by their mirrored doubling in the reflections cast off from the glass façade of the museum itself. It is the way in which the photograph captures (and performs?) the reflection that invites something of a critical sensitivity to what is that stands before us. Whether passers-by choose to stop and look or not, it would seem, is of little matter; what matters is that the memorial is a visual echo of the world that surrounds it. We cannot escape it even if we wanted to—whether we choose to pay the “entrance fee” or not.  That is something worth thinking about.

Credit:  Anthony Behar/AP

April 7th, 2014

Seeing and Being Seen Through the Eyes of Anja Niedringhaus: In Memorium

Posted by Lucaites in the visual public

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I was saddened—and more, really, thoroughly distressed—to learn of the tragic death of photojournalist Anja Niedringhuas in Afghanistan’s Khost Province, murdered by a rogue Afghan police officer as she was preparing to photograph the upcoming elections in that country.  Her photography was a testament to what photojournalism at its best enables, which is not simply an objective view of the world, but a complex realism that acknowledges its reliance on a  capacious sense of imagination.  “Imagination” is not mere fancy—the mind at play with things it already knows—but rather a way of extraordinary seeing that allows us to project our sight beyond the horizon of ordinary observation or conventional belief.  Put differently, the photograph is always an indexical imitation of some part of  reality, but also a way of seeing that reality more extensively, whether as through the lens of a microscope or a telescope.

The photograph above is in many ways emblematic of Anja Niedringhaus’s considerable archive of photographs (e.g., see here, here, and here) from Afghanistan.  What makes it interesting for me is precisely how it puts seeing and being seen in tension with one another.  On the one hand we have a child playing as if she were an adult (no different in this regard than a young girl in the US trying to walk in her mother’s high heeled shoes), and thus being seen, and at the same time underscoring what it might mean to see from that perspective, one’s sight obscured by the screen that alters what can be seen. And indeed, the photograph shows the young girl adapting to the change in perspective as her hands frame what the screen in the burqa already limits and obscures.   The photograph below, shot at a separate moment in time, provides the reverse shot, focusing more on seeing than being seen.

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One could make much from these two photographs about how women are seen and what they are able or allowed to see in Islamic cultures, but there is a different point I want to emphasize here as these two photographs double for how the photograph as an optical medium itself works, always and already positioning us as those who see and those who are seen. And as the two photographs above demonstrate, seeing and being seen are not altogether innocent activities (think again of the young girl walking around in her mothers shoes), but are traversed by vectors of power and colonized by societies and their institutions.  And it is when the photograph accesses its capacity to energize the imagination in this capacity that it removes us from the world of simple questions of who, what, where, when, and why—all important questions, to be sure—and helps us to see questions of relevance, resonance, and engagement.  In short, they can help to pull us out of our ordinary indifference, and perhaps to challenge—or at least acknowledge—conventional wisdom or denial.  It shows us as “seeing” and “seen” subjects.

Anja Niedringhaus was a master at employing her art—and let there be no mistake, photojournalism is a public art— to display a more nuanced realism that prodded us to see the world in extraordinary ways and thus to imagine what it might mean to associate with others—to see and to be seen—in a more humane fashion.

RIP

Photo Credit: Anya Niedringhaus/AP Photo

February 24th, 2014

The Shrouds of Kiev

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The Battle for Kiev is over, at least for now.  The President has been duly ousted by the Parliament, Independence Square is slowly being cleared of the barricades, and shrines to the dead are beginning to appear.  How many dead is hard to know, but numbers range from 70 to more than 100, with at least 500+ serious injuries on top of that number—and that is just among the protestors of the Yanukovich administration, there were deaths and injuries amongst government police as well.

Photographs of blood stained streets and shrouded dead bodies are prominent, made all the more distressing by virtue of the fact that much of the violence was perpetrated by the police against the citizens of a democratic society who, presumably, it was their job to protect.  Before we get too sanctimonious, however, we should recall that this is not the first time that democratic governments have turned their power and force tyrannically against their own citizenry, and with disastrous results.  One need only recall the use of guard dogs and water cannon in attacks against nonviolent civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama or the deaths of four students at the Kent State Massacre when student anti-war protestors were fired upon by the Ohio National Guard.

In many ways, the photograph above recalls the famous photograph of a young woman wailing in anger, pain, and grief in the in the midst of the Kent State killings.  But, of course, there are important differences.  In the Kent State photograph the woman is not only younger, but she is prominently situated at the middle of a public scene that recalls much of the action going on around her, and her expression is cast outward to others, as much a plea for help—or an expression of public outrage—as anything.  Here the photograph is closely cropped so that the woman fills the frame and her grief seems more inward, more personal than public.  Indeed, pain and grief seem to be the conspicuous emotions being invoked, not anger or outrage.  And more, she doesn’t seem to be calling out to anyone so much as absorbing and containing the pain within herself.  Notice how she covers her face in this regard, blocking out the scene that she cannot bring herself to witness.  And there is another difference as well.  The dead bodies that lie on the ground behind her are covered, barely recognizable as such; indeed, without being alerted by the caption one might fail to see  them altogether.   Contrast the veiling of bodies and emotions with the photograph of the Kent State Massacre where the young woman kneels next to the prostate body that lies prominent in front of her—and in front of us, always and forever an image of the costs and effects of a democracy turned tyrannous.

As one works their way through the many photographs of the dead in Kiev it is hard not to notice that almost all of the photographs of the dead are shrouded, with only small parts of their bodies exposed to view, a stomach here, a knee there.  In many ways this is as it should

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be as it indicates respect for the deceased and saves their families and friends from having to live forever with horrific images of their loved ones.   And yet, there is a cost here too, as it reifies the dead body, transforming it into an anonymous, collective entity that inadvertently denies all sense of personal identity and individual loss.  The image above is especially telling in this regard as the flag that drapes the bodies combines with the  helmet and flower to ritualize the deaths that are both signified and memorialized, revealing them as part of a national cause fought in the name of democracy—as they were—but at the same time veiling or erasing (or at the very least mitigating) the outrage that led to their individual sacrifice by covering the bodies.

There is perhaps no truly good way to represent such a situation, but that does not mean that we should ignore the implications of the choices of representation that we take, however conventional they might be.  The protestors who died in Independence Square were heroes, to be sure, but they were also individual citizens shot down and butchered by the very forces that should have been protecting them.  And that is not something that should ever get lost in the telling of—or seeing—the Battle of Kiev.

Credit:  Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters; Darko Bandic/AP

 

February 21st, 2014

Why Can’t Photographs Persuade?

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

 

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In the past couple of weeks the public has been confronted with evidence of systematic and extensive torture in both Syria and North Korea.  The Syrian crimes were publicized first, due to the release of 55,000 photographs that had been smuggled out of the country; the photos had been taken by the government and left little doubt that the atrocities were government policy.  That disclosure was followed this week with the release of a UN report that documented a gulag of prisons where hundreds of thousands of North Korean citizens were tortured, worked to death, and murdered.  In each case, the stories were widely publicized across major media outlets, and the UN and individual states discussed sanctions and other reactions to protest and possibly stop these crimes against humanity.

Now here’s where it gets interesting.  In the case of the Syrian photographs, the release prompted discussion–again, in major forums such as the Op-Ed page of the New York Times–lamenting the inability of the photographs themselves to adequately motivate public action.  Nor were these ill-considered or unsophisticated discussions: for example, the contributions by Susie Linfield at the Times and Fred Ritchin at Time Magazine’s Lightbox are thoughtful analyses by two of the best in the business.  Each is trying to articulate a core ethical principle for photography as it is a public art, and to identify changes in the “social contract” of public spectatorship (to use Ritchin’s phrase) that may be occurring due to the technological innovations that are transforming all media today, and to invite the reader to think carefully about how moral decency and solidarity can be supported in that media environment.  Every controversy should have it so good.

Now consider the case of the UN report on North Korea.  The report is 372 pages in length–the executive summary is 38 pages–and details crimes that are far more extensive than the 11,000 deaths documented by the photographs from Syria.  Other news sources provided additional summaries, including the “10 starkest paragraphs” from the report, and there was extensive discussion of whether North Korea would change its behavior.  Those analyses featured a raft of geopolitical considerations: the role of China, US and North Korean relationships with South Korea, problems at the UN, etc.   Of course, and as illustrated by CNN, no one really thought that anything would change.  What they did not feature, however, was serious discussion of the rhetorical incapacity of the written word.  The analyses stayed close to the political situation and acted as if the print medium had no responsibility by itself to motivate action.  Information only, please, and leave the rest to us, or them actually, or to the photographs that are supposed to do the heavy lifting of persuasion.

Not to put too fine a point upon it, but this disparity is nuts.  In one case the bar certainly is too high, and in the other it probably is too low.  Was the language of the UN report part of the problem?  I guess we’ll never know.  Were the Syrian photographs evidence of a moral failure, even though many of the reports on their release provided only glimpses of the images, or none at all?  Of course, they had to be.

I’ve posted on some of these issues before and won’t rehearse that here.  Let me be clear, however, that I am not saying that there are no relevant differences between the media–for example, that photographs cannot be more emotionally evocative–although I think those differences often are characterized in terms of gross simplifications that occlude more important continuities across media.  The point I want to make today is that both public and academic discussion has saddled photography with a highly unrealistic model of persuasion.  The assumption is that photographs are supposed to persuade, and any failure to do so then motivates increased ethical scrutiny of the medium.  This failure and subsequent scrutiny are most likely to occur when the stakes are highest, that is, with atrocity photographs.

This approach to photography relies on a particular model of persuasion, which can be summarized in three steps: The horrific image should create a direct encounter, that produces a moral shock, that produces a decisive effect.  The model seems intuitive because each of the three experiences does occur, and not only with photographs but also with language and other media as well.  We all have felt the intense connection that can arise in face to face argument or when engaged with a work of art; we all have been stopped in our tracks by a personal revelation or documentary photograph; we all have seen a statement of fact or a graph change the entire tone of a meeting, or watched a speaker turn an audience on a dime.  Persuasion such as this does happen, and it does happen with photographs.  But it happens very, very, very rarely.

To see that, just reflect on the rest of your experience talking with people, arguing at home or at work or anywhere else.  And consider how strange the world would be if the decisive effect happened all the time, and consider by contrast the enormous amount of energy and redundancy that are needed to get any kind of agreement on political issues.  “It takes time to turn a battleship,” “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and similar adages are much closer to the actual conditions of consensus.

Nor is this because human beings are stupid or morally lax (although we are).  We also are separate individuals living in pluralistic societies and democratic institutions, and highly constrained otherwise.  The result is that for each of the three ideal results to occur, a great deal also has to be in place.  When we do observe those dramatic transformations, a great deal already is in place–so much so, in fact, that we can take it for granted to the extent that allows to us think that the image or text or speaker alone is doing the work.  With atrocity photos the case is even more complicated, as the paradigmatic images continue to be the images from the Holocaust, which came out only after the need for action had passed.  So it was, and is, that we could experience the moral shock in almost pure form, without having to face questions of commitment and constraint.  (I am among those who was changed forever when first seeing those images in the 1960s, but I did not go to war against Nazi Germany.)  Images do persuade, but the range of effects is much wider and less immediately obvious than is typically assumed.

To return to the reports about Syria and North Korea, consider how neither photography nor written prose are the primary problem.  First, the news was not news.  We were told that brutal authoritarian regimes were in fact authoritarian and brutal.  (The use of stock images such as the one above for the North Korean story illustrate that point.)  In addition, the news reports were highly conventional.   Thus, instead of a direct encounter, redundancy.  Second, the atrocities were not news.  Crimes against humanity have been being committed relentlessly around the globe for too many years, making a mockery of “never again.”  Terrorism and state terrorism, genocide and “untethered” violence (to use Susie Linfield’s term), mass rape and permanent open air prisons: a muted response can have more to do with not being a fool rather than with moral exhaustion.  So, no moral shock.  Finally, what could be done?  The Syrian government already is being attacked by forces receiving support from many nations, only to replace it with a regime that could be as bad or worse.  North Korea sits on China’s doorstep and has nuclear weapons that can reach South Korea and Japan; not much to be done there.  So, no decisive action.

None of this assessment argues against moral and political engagement or for a status quo of doing nothing.  It does suggest that the political imagination is being held hostage to a myth of how public action should occur.  The model of direct encounter, moral shock, and decisive effect is that myth: it is relevant some of the time but taken to be relevant all of the time, which allows other elements of the social structure to escape accountability.  Instead of worrying about either the image or the spectator, perhaps we might ask instead just what and who else should have to answer for modernity’s continued entanglement with horror.

Photograph from Reuters.

January 31st, 2014

Southern US Hit With Storm of Kindness and Humor

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

It was a disaster, all right: thousands of vehicles stranded; major highways closed; entire cities shut down in eerie silence.  Reminds you of the Congress, doesn’t it?  The conjunction of a major ice storm in the South and the President’s State of the Union speech is nothing but mere coincidence, but still, you might want to think about it.  In the one case, the paralysis is due to an unexpected swerve in the weather, and it will be temporary.  In the other, well, you know the story.  Oh, yeah, and the response to the natural disaster involved many examples of people helping one another.

Georgia highway kindness

I freaking love his photo.  The dude is walking down Interstate 285 in Dunwoody, Georgia to hand out snacks and water to stranded motorists.  Probably is a hedge fund manager, don’t ya think?

Just imagine, he’s gone out and gotten the stuff, loaded up his bags, and is trucking along the icy road to help complete strangers who he probably will never see again.  Nor is he a special case, as Rebecca Solnit documented in her study of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.  But he doesn’t have to be unique to be admirable.  His small act of kindness is what makes the difference between a harsh society and a decent one.

But kindness is not the only thing that is needed.  We also need art, and play, and those little moments of playful doodling that are the difference between taking yourself too seriously and enjoying life.

Alabama snowmen

Amidst all the anxiety, frustration, and fault-finding that naturally accompanies any disruption in our lives, someone in Mobile, Alabama had a better idea.  Again, the small scale is important.  No one here is changing the world.

They only are making it a better place.

Photographs by Branden Camp/AP and Lyle Ratliff/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

October 23rd, 2013

Waiting for the Cosmic Bus at the Australia Stop

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe, the visual public

Of course the fire makes the picture, but it’s the silhouettes that have the most to say.  Which is interesting, as they are enigmatic.

Firefighters take part in a backburning operation near Bilpin, in the Blue Mountains in New South Wa

Silhouettes often are, which may be why they can stand for a dimension of photographic representation that we often overlook.  Behind the realism, there is a formalism that is especially important for visual meaning; and behind the detailed textures of specific people and places, there is embodiment of the impersonal poses and attitudes that structure social behavior.

This is not to choose one dimension of the image over another, but to respond as prompted by the photographer’s art.  And by working into the image along that path, interpretation can lead to much more than documenting circumstances.  Those circumstances may support reflection or become irrelevant for the time being (and only that), but they no longer are the primary content of the image.

So it is noteworthy that this is a photograph of firefighters in a backburning operation in New South Wales, but they could be in LA or Arizona or Greece or many other places.  And if the poses still have the traces of British clothing and deportment, that may be fact or conjecture, but there is no need to make too much of it, even for a joke.  Jokes to come to mind, however, and so the trace might be a good clue that something interesting is lodged there.  Stiff upper lip and all that, you know.  Say, do ya think the coach is due, mate?  Aussies will howl, but like I said, the details don’t really matter.

So what does matter?  That’s a double question here.  First, what matters in the composition?  The answer seems to be the stark contrast between the holocaust in the background and the calm, silent, reflective poses of the people in the foreground.  Keeping their distance from one another, staring in different directions, hands in pockets, each seems to be lost in thought, while all of them seem to be standing as if waiting for a bus or train, strangers on street or platform, nothing out of the ordinary, just another day in the life.  They stand as many stand while enduring the obligatory routines of traveling through impersonal public spaces, safe but not familiar with the strangers around them, biding time until they can get to where they are going, each on a private journey made possible by but still separate from what they have in common.

Even when what they have in common is territory on fire on a planet that is getting hotter every year.  Which gets us to the second sense of what matters, that is, what the photo is about.  The answer to this question takes us both closer to those in the picture and farthest from the actual circumstances of the moment.  More detailed knowledge of the scene probably would verify that they are a close-knit, well-trained work crew, that the fire (which they set) is under control, and that no one is at risk because of their skill, knowledge of the terrain, available escape routes, and similar precautions.  My take on the image moves away from all of that, to get closer to what is being shown.

What matters is that people can get used to anything, that Western culture will follow its commitment to controlling nature to the gates of hell, and that denial of global warming comes as easily as waiting at the bus stop because it comports so well with maintaining the routines which are among the few anchors we have in an era of rapid change.  So, we can wait for the cosmic bus to come and take us away to some better place, or we can turn and look around, and look at each other.

What matters in the world today is that people stop pretending that there isn’t a fire raging in the background.  The photo shows us just how close we can get while still in denial.  “Just a back burn; we’ve got this one under control; move along now, these aren’t the causes you want.”

Even the beauty of the conflagration is there to help: if we could at least recognize that, it would be step forward.  Fire is beautiful, but cinders–not so much.  Take a look, while you still can.

Photograph by Brad Hunter/Newspix/Rex Features.  FYI, for other posts on silhouettes, go here; on wildfires, go here.

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