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. . . .

December 1st, 2014

… the more things stay the same.

Posted by Lucaites in visual memory

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Of all of the hundreds of photographs of the protests and violence and destruction to come out of Ferguson, MO in the past week it was this image that stung me the most. A lone black man squatting amidst a raging cauldron of hate and fear and frustration, he bears the simple message “Black Lives Matter.” The flames that surround him cast him in a shadow of backlight but illuminate both his sign and the graffiti behind him that implores whoever encounters it to “Kill Cops.” Each message is equally outrageous and absurd however meaningful it might be under the current circumstances. Of course black lives matter; that the claim even has to be made—and there is no question from this quarter that it does—is a national shame. To incite the killing of police—the avatars of preserving “the peace” and maintaining “order” —is a call to barbarism that beckons to a world governed by the Hobbesian “war of all against all.” In short, the photograph is an allegory for how tenuous the fabric of our contemporary society has become.

What made the photograph most striking for me, however, was not the way in which it cautions us against the current tragedy of Ferguson, MO, but how it stands as a notice that the problem of black-white relations is the true American tragedy, a problem that never seems to go away, but recurs in cyclical fashion for every generation. And so I could not help but remember another photograph, equally absurd—and equally meaningful in its context—from my youth.

Mourner at Martin Luther King's memorial

1968 seems so incredibly long ago—a lifetime for those in my generation—that it is hard to think of this photograph as anything but an aide memoire from the era of the civil rights movement. And yet for all the progress we presume to have made in the intervening decades, for all the talk of being in a “post-civil rights” era or a world of “hope,” there is no getting around the fact that the claim to manhood in the older photograph is a precursor to the precarity of black life marked in the contemporary photograph.

 The more things change …

Credit: Stephen Lam/Reuters; Bob Adelman/Corbis.

Crossposted at BagNewsNotes.

November 10th, 2014

And The Wall Came Tumbling Down

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visual memory


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Twenty five years ago it was all concrete and mortar and barbed wire dividing east from west. Guards with their dogs stood their posts and friend and families were separated from one another. And then, as if in a blink of an eye, the wall came down, leading some to maintain that history itself had come to an end. Of course, such pronouncements proved to be little more than precipitous as wars quickly transformed from being cold to hot once again. But, at least in Germany, perhaps the most stable and prosperous economy in the world right now, the Berlin Wall is but a distant memory.

Photographic slide shows at numerous news outlets (e.g., here, here, and here) have featured the anniversary of this momentous event, comingling black & white images of the wall as a blockade separating a nation along military and ideological lines with black & white and color images of the frenzied destruction of the wall in 1989 and colored images of the current Germany where the least vestiges of what was once remain, mostly random slabs of concrete that once were covered with graffiti and now convey all manner of artistic murals. The transition from black & white to color, from then to now, is telling. But more so is the need to recover what once was if only to remember what had to be overcome. And, of course, public art plays an important part in such recovery.

Public art takes many forms, of course, such a statuary and murals, as well as more transitory forms such as Lichtgrenze 2014, a temporary “light border” of 8,000 illuminated balloons that follows the path of the original Berlin Wall. But most of us, of course, will never be able to experience Lichtgrenze 2014, except of course through the photographic frame. The photograph above is not just a medium for conveying the art project however, but it is its own version of public art. After all, even those who can walk among the lights traversing the path of the wall cannot see it from the god’s eye view that the camera provides, reminding us of the capricious and haphazard trail that the wall followed. Note for example how difficult it is to identify the path of the light border among all the other lights. If you didn’t know what you were looking for you probably would assume that the bluish lights snaking through the city were little more than an ordinary thoroughfare with nothing distinguishing the lighted city on either side of the divide. And so the photograph invites a somewhat unique perspective on the ways in which walls often follow a somewhat arbitrary logic, and how, once they (inevitably) come down, it is easy to forget they were ever there in the first place.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was a world historical event, to be sure, so much so that slabs of the wall have been cast to the four winds. One can find them as scattered relics  throughout the world in London, Brussels, Haifa, Kingston, Sofia, Moscow, Guatemala City, Porte de Versailles, Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul, Canberra, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, and any number of locations in the United States, including a city block that includes ten segments of the Wall in Los Angeles. And the message, it would seem, is clear enough: However much energy we put into building it and maintaining it, however much we think it can keep things in or keep things out, however much we think it will last forever … in the end it will fall, shards of it preserved as a reminder of the folly that produced it in the first place.

And so, finally there is this photograph of a segment of the wall that sits in Simi Valley, California. Simi Valley is northwest of Los Angeles and the home of the Ronald Reagan Pres-

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idential Library where everyone is reminded that it was President Reagan who implored Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall.”  Simi Valley is also not all that far from where the wall designed to “secure” the border between the United States and Mexico begins its journey from the Pacific Ocean eastward. And so the photograph takes on something of an allegorical quality: mysteriously (ominously?) out of place in what appears to be a scene from the American western frontier, it is hard to know if the sun is setting on a past in which the wall came down, or if it rising on a new epoch of the inevitably failed project of building walls for political purposes.

Photo Credit: Rainer Jensen/EPA; Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

 

March 31st, 2014

As Time Goes By

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visual memory

Kiss in war

Two lovers caught in a passionate embrace.  He on the left, she on the right.  Their faces barely recognizable as their bodies meld into one another.  Oblivious to all that surrounds them, it is a tender, private, intimate moment in a public space.

At first blush it could be two individuals (once again) performing the now famous Times Square Kiss in a modern setting.  But look again.  The differences are both subtle and profound.  Neither is wearing a recognizable uniform.  She is actively engaged in the kiss, her arms pulling him towards her as much as (if indeed not more than) he is pulling her towards him. Notice for example how his right arm seems barely to be holding her while her arms reach fully around him, holding him in place. More interesting still is the fact that she is holding a slab of concrete in one hand, her finger nails giving the impression of being freshly manicured.  If the sign of the kiss in the original photograph was animated by an aggressive, masculine representation of state military power, here the kiss is no less a sign of aggression—it is hard to imagine that the concrete slab would be used as anything other than a weapon, particularly given that the caption tells us that this is taken at the site of a protest—but it is now no longer institutionalized by the state and it is gendered feminine.  Last, and perhaps most important, while the kissers are plainly and visibly in a public space, there are no onlookers who can channel a public attitude about what is going on.  Indeed, there is a clear sense of voyeurism here as we, the viewers, seem to be intruding on an altogether private moment.

 So what are we to make of this photograph?  The caption identifies the kissers as protestors in Caracas, Venezuela, the site of prolonged and massive public protests against rampant crime, protracted food shortages, and an altogether ineffective and authoritarian government.  The government crackdown against such protests has resulted in nearly forty deaths and hundreds of injuries, leading to demands for investigation by the Organization of American States (OAS).  That too has produced its own manner of controversy as the OAS leadership challenged the legitimacy of opposition leader Maria Corina Machado to address the body.  When she was finally allowed to speak, the sessions were held behind closed doors; one member of the OAS noted that the meetings would be conducted “With total transparency: In privacy.” The photograph above seems to mock this “war is peace, slavery is freedom” logic as it failingly purports to perform intimacy in a public space under the broken veil of privacy.  There may be no viewing public observable to legitimize the union, but then of course there is the camera and our own spectatorial gaze which gives the lie to the whole process.  Transparency in private is at best a comfortable fiction and at worst an intentional deception.

There is an additional dimension to the photograph that bears attention, and it has relatively little to do per se with the economic and political turmoil in Venezuela.  Instead, it concerns how we understand  Alfred Eisenstadt’s Times Square Kiss and all it stands for in our cultural memory.  The original kiss photograph took place on the occasion of VJ Day and the end of World War II.  It is often remarked as illustrating the return to normalcy.  But its contrast with the image above helps to reveal how constructed the conventions of such normalcy can be: men kissing women, women being kissed; the legitimation of violence as a manifestation of masculine, state governed military institutions; the forced separation of Eros and Thanatos; the performance of intimacy in public, and so on.  All such constructions—or should we call them “comfortable fictions”— indicate a particular worldview, to be sure, and perhaps even one that we might want to endorse, but the point is that it is particular, not universal.  Each photograph shows “a” truth, or many such truths, but certainly not “the” truth, however objective the photographic representation of the event on hand might be.

As the song says, a kiss is just a kiss … or is it?

Photo Credit: Christian Veron/Reuters

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

 

January 20th, 2014

MLK Day — Lest We Forget

Posted by Lucaites in visual memory

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 Photo Credit:  Sam Ostrow/MJW

Marting Luther King Day is a national “day on, not a day off,” a day of service, a day to give back to our communities.  And we should all honor that sentiment.  But we must never forget what it was that Dr. King faced and was fighting so selflessly and vociferously against, or what his struggles forced us to see, and in seeing to revile and resist.

October 28th, 2013

The Work of Art in the Age of Photographic Memory

Posted by Lucaites in visual memory

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We live in an age of Photoshop, where the even the slightest adjustment to a photograph can call forth charges of dishonesty and all sorts of teeth gnashing and acrimony.  And at the same time, as this photograph suggests, there is a part of us that appreciates the power of the art of photography to remake the world the way we want it to be, even if it is something of a fantasy and we know it.  You wait your whole life to visit Hong Kong and you want a picture for the family photo album to prove that you were there that is worthy of the effort, one with blue skies and puffy cumulous clouds, not a haze filled skyline that casts a scrim like veil over the city that casts everything in grey scales.  And what is wrong with that anyway?

The photograph above does not answer this question, but it does help to identify the problem that it poses.  As we frequently note at NCN, one of the chief things that photographs do is to put the habits of social and civic life on display for reflection; and because these are habits of everyday life we tend to see them literally as normal, more or less natural and, as a result, altogether unremarkable features of an image.  So it is that one might focus on the man taking the photograph and see nothing that is particularly noteworthy, as do most of the other people in the image who pass by without so much as a notice.  And the reason for this would be patent, for what we are seeing is precisely the habit of casting and controlling our memories for posterity, and in particular how natural it seems to be—indeed, I suspect that many of us can imagine ourselves doing something similar given comparable circumstances—even as it stands in stark contrast to what we know the truth of the matter to be.

And there, I believe, is the rub, for what the photograph above also features is the contrast between the memory we produce that exists within the frame of the image that is preserved for posterity—here the photograph we see being taken that we can only imagine in all of its bright colors—and what occurs outside of that frame in the haze-tinted smog of the real Hong Kong.  It would be easy, of course, for us to assume that such a problem applies only to snapshot photography and the conventions of crafting and preserving family photo albums where the primary goal is the production of a nostalgic and happy memory for subsequent generations.  But that would be an error, for every photograph, amateur or professional, analog or digital, black and white or in living color are subject to the same constraints.  That does not mean that we should reject the “truth” of the image, but it does mean that we should recognize that the truths that we see are always partial and that the meaning of any image is subject to change as we extend the dimensions of the frame we are enabled to see.

This is something we all know.  In its own way it points to an attitude that is something of a habit of modern life.  And in that context the virtue of this photograph is how it puts this habit on display as both a reminder and a site of reflection concerning its importance.

Photo Credit:  Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

August 28th, 2013

Seeing the Past Through the Present (and Visa Versa)

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I was about to turn eleven when the black and white photograph above was taken.  My family lived in East Orange, NJ, a half-step up the socio-economic ladder from Newark, where I was born and my father worked.  My best friend was Maurice and my parents referred to him as “your little colored friend.”  My grandparents had another name for him.  I wasn’t very interested in political matters at the time, my passions extending to baseball and the space program, but I sensed that something important was happening when Maurice’s grandparents loaded him and his sister on a church bus to take them to what they called “the march for freedom” in Washington, D.C..  When Maurice returned home it was all he could talk about for a week, but then our attention turned to other matters, like the hapless New York Mets.  Just before school started we agreed to become “blood brothers,” using a penknife to knick our thumbs and then let our blood mix.  Both our parents were livid.  The following year my parents moved our family to a distant suburb.  I remember hearing my father tell my grandparents that he wanted to get us “away from the wrong element.”

I had forgotten about all of this until it came back in a rush of memories after stumbling across the above photograph, part of Joseph Powell’s “Looking into the Past” project.    It is a testament, of course, to the function of photographs as aide memoire, but there is something else going on with this image as well.  Powell’s photograph relies on a visual trope we might call “then and now” as it calls attention to temporal differences and in my case the photograph not only invoked a racist tinged, nostalgic trip down memory’s lane, but it also made me think about how different (and similar) I am now from who I was in 1963.

More important than my personal memories, of course, is how we as a “people” remember and experience the relationship between now and then; after all, the photograph features the Mall in Washington, D.C., and if there is a visual marker for a national meeting place this surely has a pretty strong claim on it.  The most obvious tension in the photograph comes from the difference between black and white (then) and, so called, “living color (now).   But perhaps a more subtle and important tension is animated by the relationship of the container (the present) and the thing contained (the past). Differences in color tell us that one is past and the other more recent, but it doesn’t tell us how to read that relationship; locating the former picture within the frame of the later, however, suggests movement.  And more, it implies that the past should be read through the lens of the present.  To get the point, imagine the photograph as if the images were reversed, and the present was located within the larger landscape of the past.

Metaphors are important, and the key question here is not just what do we see when we look to the past through the lens of the present, but what does the lens invite or enable us to see in the present—or as with any optic, what does it restrict from vision?  In this photograph the black and white past (which references a society divided into black and white) is miniaturized by the expansive magnification of the landscape of a multicolored present (which references a multicolored society).  The implication is a somewhat liberal narrative of racial and national progress, perhaps even gesturing to that world where, in Dr. King’s terms, one is measured by the “content of their character” and not “the color of their skin.”  But there is more, for then race relations were the occasion of a national “moral crisis” and those populating the Mall were citizens demanding justice; but notice that in the contemporary, multicolored landscape there is not even the hint of political activity as the active citizens in the earlier photograph morph into passive and leisurely tourists.  Perhaps that is the world that Dr. King had in mind when he imagined his version of the American dream, but somehow I doubt it.

What is to be made of all of this?  That, of course, is where things get tricky, for the past is not necessarily a prelude to the present (or for that matter the future), nor is the present the only lens through which to imagine the past.  As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington there is an impulse to read the relationship between then and now as one of racial progress that remembers the past all too simply in terms of the present.  And that is a compelling narrative that has some merit, even as we acknowledge that we have miles to go before we might achieve anything like a truly post-racial, egalitarian future. But reversing the lens reminds us that any progress that was made was hard fought, achieved by the blood and sweat of the active citizens willing to take on significant individual and collective risk to serve a public good.  It asks us to consider the difference between then and now in terms of a much wider array of factors and outcomes.  And when we see the photograph this way it has to give us pause to wonder if the public that represented such important civic activity then has now gone into eclipse.  It is only a question, but it is one we ignore at some peril.

Photo Credit:  Joseph Powell

July 8th, 2013

All’s Well That Ends Well?

Posted by Lucaites in visual memory

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If we take the photojournalistic slideshows at the major newspapers as evidence, the news for the past two weeks has been dominated by protests, both large and small around the world—though oddly enough hardly any that apparently warranted documenting in the United States—and a wide array of American patriotic displays, ranging from ersatz celebrations of red, white and blue to reenactors playing out the battle of Gettysburg on its 150th anniversary.  The photograph buried amidst all these images that caught my eye, however, had nothing to do with any of that and instead showed four children “playing” on a burned out armored vehicle in Kabul.

The vehicle is unmarked, and so it is hard to know who originally brought it to this spot. It could be American or British or even, however unlikely, a left over from the occupation of the former Soviet Union.  But none of that seems to matter as the particular history of this weapon of war has been erased.  What does seem to matter is that it has become a part of the “natural” landscape and that these children, young, innocent, and altogether happy, seem as comfortable climbing on it as we might imagine an American child climbing in an oak tree in his own back yard on a bright summer day.  There may have once been a war in Afghanistan that put these children at risk, but as this photograph suggests, there is now something like a return to normalcy.  Once there was a war, but now all is well.

Of course, notwithstanding the claim the U.S. has accomplished its combat goals in Afghanistan and turned military control back over to Afghani security forces, we know that the hostilities are not over, nor is it likely that we will see the significant downturn of U.S. or NATO military forces—whether we choose to call them combat troops, security forces, or military advisers—in Afghanistan for sometime to come.  In short, all is not well.  That said, what makes the photograph disturbing has less to do with the implication of a return to happier times, and more to do with the way in which it functions to make the past invisible by removing specific markers of the occupying forces and by naturalizing what has been left behind. And this all the more so as it appears in the midst of images of continuing conflict and social protest and American celebrations of its own exceptionalist past.

Photo Credit: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

 

June 10th, 2013

Those Who Forget the Past …

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visual memory

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The above photograph pictures a sluice of life in Mobile, Alabama in 1954. I don’t know who saw the photograph in 1954 or how they might have interpreted it, but it is hard to imagine that one would not have been affected by the ironic tension between the image of an elegantly dressed African-American woman and her niece, shot in “living color”—a  rarity in 1954—and the neon sign to a movie house marking the “colored entrance” and designating a stark difference between black and white.  However one might have received and engaged the photograph when it was first produced there can be no questioning the fact that the scene that it depicts serves as an aide-mémoire to a critical moment in the American experience to which we are all heirs, a collective past that we ignore or repress only at our national peril.

Of course, Jim Crow segregation was not only a southern phenomenon—I remember seeing “colored only” beaches at Asbury Park, New Jersey when I was growing up in the 1950s—but it certainly had a home in Dixie where it was aggressively defended in the name of “states rights.”  And from this perspective the photograph is a vivid and eloquent reminder that there are times when “home rule” and a parochial localism need to be governed by a more capacious moral compass, not least when human and civil rights are at stake.

It is this last point that bears special attention today as the photograph was recently printed in the NYT along with the reprise of a series of similar images shot by Gordon Parks for an issue of Life magazine originally published in 1956.  What makes it especially pertinent is that the Supreme Court is about to rule on a number of cases concerning the constitutionality of gay and lesbian marriages and legal unions. Many are arguing that such decisions should driven by local interests under the rationale of states rights.  Of course, it was not so long ago that the cultural logic that warranted the “colored entrance” sign in the photograph above also proscribed interracial marriage as an unnatural act of miscegenation in many states.  That changed in 1967 with the Courts decision in the case of Loving v. Virginia.  One needs only to ponder the photograph above and the legacy that it gestures to, both past and present, in order to understand why the Court needs to guarantee the civil right of gay and lesbian couples to marry and join in legal union.

Photo Credit:  Gordon Parks/Gordon Parks Foundation

May 13th, 2013

About to Die (But not in the USA)

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The man we see here is in the clutches of death. Still alive, but only for a few seconds before his body meets with the pavement five floors below, his death is imminent and all but certain.  As Barbie Zelizer points out, such “about to die” images sanitize the visual representation of death, emphasizing the contingency of the moment while nevertheless gesturing to the only logical conclusion.  Such images not only neutralize the emotional affect and spectacle of a broken and mutilated body, but they serve as well to draw the viewer into the scene, inviting contemplation of the subjunctive moment and to consider the possibilities inherent in the image (if not in history itself).  Photographs of death have a finality to them that the visual trope of an “about to die” photograph challenges.  And because the still image stops the action for all time it leaves open—for all time—the tentative possibility of alternate outcomes.

The photograph above is of a man who has “fallen” from a burning building in Lahore, Pakistan.  Or at least that is how the caption for the image typically reads.  It is more likely that he jumped to his death—as did at least four others—to avoid the immolation that killed at least seventeen people.  But whether he jumped or fell, it is clearly an “about to die” image.  It was reproduced in many of the “pictures of the day/week” slideshows that are now featured at most journalistic websites.  What drew my attention to it, however, had less to do with the simple fact of its quality of an “about to die” image and more with how it reprises similar images of people plunging to their deaths from Manhattan’s Twin Towers on 9/11.

There is no official count of how many people jumped from the towering infernos on that fateful day, but the lower end estimations put the number at nearly 200.  Many of the jumpers were captured by videographers and a number of still photographs appeared in newspapers, though almost never on the front page.  More importantly, these photographs disappeared from public view almost as quickly as they had originally appeared, virtually erased from the public record through at least the tenth anniversary of the event itself.  One can now access some of these photographs by searching on the internet, but the larger question has to be why it was deemed inappropriate to broadcast and publish such images then, and yet now it seems acceptable to document the tragic fire in Lahore with virtually identical images and, indeed, to feature the photograph in institutionally sanctioned journalistic websites?

One answer to this question is the assumption that foreign lives count for less than American lives; it is hard to abide such cynicism, but events in recent years make it an answer that we should not discount altogether.  Nevertheless, I think there is something more going on here than an hyperbolic and over-extended American exceptionalism.  One of the features of the “about to die” photograph is that it activates an audience engagement with the image that bridges the distance between here and there, implicating the viewer in the scene being depicted by requiring them to complete the event frozen in time, both cognitively and affectively.  This can produce an especially powerful identification when the actors portrayed are strangers, distant others, as we would imagine most Pakistani citizens to be for most American viewers.  When the actors are easily identified with—by type if not as particular individuals—the problem is reversed, as there is an emotional need to provide some measure of distance.  In the immediacy and aftermath of 9/11 the problem of distance from those who died in  the terrorist attack had to be managed differently as the photographs operated in an interpretive register that distinguished social identity (which arguably needed to be pushed to the background so as to mute social pain) from political identity (which needed to be placed in the foreground to animate the anger needed to spur collective action).

The point is a simple one, but worth emphasizing:  as with linguistic conventions, so with the conventions of visual representation, literacy dictates attention to context at multiple levels: historical, social, cultural, political, and so on.  And perhaps most important in recent times, international and global.  And more, it is in learning how to interpret and engage with such images that we begin to get a sense for what it means to see and be seen as citizens in all of these different registers.

Photo Credit:  Damir Sagolj/Reuters

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