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 5th, 2014

How Can an Army Be Anonymous?

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Of all the photographs to come out of the crisis in the Ukraine, this one may be the most troubling.

Russian soldier

It’s not dramatic; indeed, nothing is moving.  It’s not chaotic; instead, we see an orderly deployment of disciplined troops.  It’s threatening, but in a somewhat abstract, obviously calculated way; the guards are attentive, but the guns are pointed down.  You are witnessing an invasion, but it looks more like a training exercise or a bluff that is part of a larger diplomatic maneuver.  The troop carriers are chess pieces in another Great Game, perhaps, but not likely to unleash destruction on the city where they are parked so neatly.  That’s one of the purposes to which modern armies are put; because all sides can count on the professionalism and discipline of a modern army, while remaining well aware of its incredible lethality, the soldiers can be moved up to one line or the next without having to worry about things getting out of control–on the ground, anyway.

So what’s the problem?  The problem is that the soldiers are Russian troops.  This is not a post about the legitimacy of the invasion, so I’m not slamming them for being Russian.  The problem is that they are Russian, that is, very, very, very likely to be Russian military forces who nonetheless are wearing uniforms having no insignia.

You can be excused for not thinking that is much of a problem, because–and this is equally astonishing to me–everyone has been talking about them as if their anonymity were the most normal thing in the world, or just a small wrinkle in what is otherwise a completely legible situation.  Or, if the situation is not legible, it’s because of the bigger problems of deciphering the work of a madman (Putin, as labeled by The New Republic and the Huffington Post: “Vlad Goes Mad”), or the Russian susceptibility to “mysticism” and “messianic ideology” (David Brooks in the New York Times).  (Politics should be so simple.)  But as for the troops themselves, we all know they are Russian, so what’s the big deal about not wearing insignia?  Isn’t the military preoccupation with badges a bit silly anyway?  Or couldn’t it be a rather clever tactic, diplomatically speaking?

Call me old school, but I think it’s important for the professional military of a modern state to be identifiable as such.  This isn’t a question of merely literal recognition–was that the 184th or the 185th brigade?–but of the legitimacy of the state’s monopoly on force.  If soldiers are not wearing insignia, they are partially out of uniform; if they are partially out of uniform, they are that much closer to being private militias, gangs, or thugs.  The informality can be justified if they are noble partisans battling against conquest or tyranny, because resources are limited, invisibility is necessary, and they disband after victory.  But it is definitely an odd thing when the unmarked troops are state troops and the occupying army.  Something important has shifted: you still have all the lethality of state power, but the social contract that went along with that concentration of force has been weakened.  The army is still there, but less accountable.  Still under professional command, but not under legal authority.

So take another look.  Consider how the face cowling might be about more than keeping out the cold.  Notice, as you look across similar pictures, how systematic the erasure has been; again, you see all the marks of military organization, except one.  Imagine what it’s like when such dark forces roll into town; not knowing if they are terrorists, bandits, renegades, militias, gangs, vigilantes, or some other example of what happens when war unleashes lawless predation.  Consider, most of all, how the appearance of the anonymous troops in the Crimea suggests how the distinction between those groups and the Russian military is becoming tenuous.  Not in organization or discipline, but in something equally important: in the relationship between the army and society.

Nor is this just about the Russians, because the lack of reaction in “the West” suggests that the shift may be occurring much more widely.  Think of all those out of uniform “contractors”–i.e., mercenaries–hired by the US government for work in Iraq, including guard detail for State Department officials.  If the state’s monopoly on violence begins to adopt the appearance and techniques of stateless violence, then the state is eroding as a political form.  Of course, state sanctioned violence has been anything but a lesson in restraint, but it has been relatively beneficial in comparison with many of the warlord eras in history or any of the natural experiments in anarchy now underway in Africa and the Middle East.  The choice, however, apparently is no longer between modern and premodern violence.  It looks to me like a third kind of force may be emerging, something for which we don’t yet have a vocabulary.

Fortunately, we do have a photograph.  It’s not everything, but it’s  start.

Photograph by Baz Ratner/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

March 3rd, 2014

A Return to Normalcy (?)

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

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A sailor kissing a woman in public is not exactly news. But this photograph of a Russian sailor kissing a woman in St. Petersburg bears enough similarity to what is perhaps one of the most famous pictures in the American family photo album that it warrants just a little bit of consideration on our part.

Alfred Eisenstadt’s “Times Square Kiss”— often dubbed “Return to Normalcy”—marked VJ Day and the effective end of World War II.  Every ending is a beginning, of course, and so one might also imagine it as the beginning of the post war era which soon became known as the “Cold War” and extended until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The “War on Terror” has redefined our understanding of the East-West split in the intervening years and the Russian threat to the West has generally been muted by  its relatively weak economic condition and its willingness to cooperate on a number of small scale international initiatives. Muted, that is, until the Putin administration, which has demonstrated its willingness to resist entreaties from  the G8, NATO, and the United States on a range of issues beginning, not least, with the civil war in Syria.  And now with the Russian “occupation” of the Crimean peninsula and President Obama’s warning that this this will be seen as a serious threat to the US and the West, it is fair to say that we may be moving in a new and different direction in our mutual co-exsitence—and it is not entirely clear that we have an effective or useful vocabulary to describe the mentality that will govern this new relationship.  But back to the picture of the sailor and the woman kissing.

The photograph appeared in an on-line slide show on the Russian military that was posted two days before the Russian Parliament authorized a military takeover of the Crimea.  Most of the photographs in the slide show focus on members of the Russian military in training and, truth-to-tell, in many instances it would be difficult to distinguish what we see from training sequences in almost any modern military organization across the globe, including the US military. But there are also a number of photographs that mark the scene as distinctively Russian, and more, link Russia with the image of its authoritarian, anti-Western, Soviet past, including near iconic images of soldiers and tanks making their way through Moscow’s Red Square in a show of strength.  And then, near the middle of the slide show we find the picture of the kiss.  And one can only wonder what it is doing in a photo essay otherwise dedicated to posing the question: does the Russian military pose a threat to the West?  It could be an ironic gesture that serves to damper what else appears to be the projection of a hostile and belligerent nation state.  See, they are just like us, humans caught up in the worldly tensions between Eros and Thanatos, and we need to identify with them as such with all of their foibles intact.  Or, it could be a more cynical gesture to a “Return to Normalcy” where the war was “cold” and we could identify who our enemies were–after all, that’s not exactly Times Square in the background and the kissers are not exactly front and center.  Comedy or tragedy, its really a matter of what we choose to see.

Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted on the Sunday morning talk shows as indicating that the current situation “is not Rocky IV.”  We can only hope so, for it would be all too easy to “cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.”  We have had too much of that in recent years.  And so, to return to where we began, no, a sailor kissing in a woman in public is not exactly news.  But then again, perhaps that’s exactly the point.

Photo Credit: Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

February 26th, 2014

The Art of Violence in the 21st Century

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

One hundred years ago Italian Futurism was one of the leading edges of modern art.  (A retrospective exhibition is currently up at the Guggenheim and reviewed by the Times here.)   Futurism was distinctively bold, uncannily tuned into the machine age, and violently prophetic during a period of extraordinary turbulence in art and politics.  It also celebrated violence.  Fortunately, few artists today would do that or be admired for dong so.  But they don’t have to, as the art of violence has moved on.

Mexican crime victims, Vanegas

This photograph was one of the winners in the 2014 World Press Photo Contest.  It was not graced with the wealth of commentary regarding the winner, as one would expect of any contest.  It deserves more attention that it has received, however, and not because we need to fiddle with the rankings in a series of outstanding images.  The winner was a portrait of communication–indeed, an almost pure form of communication–and we ought to be talking about that, but the photo above is a study in both communication and violence, and we really need to be talking about that.

Ideally, communication is the opposite of violence: democratic civil societies are built on that premise.  The more that you can channel conflict resolution into talking instead of beating, maiming, and killing, the better off you are.  But not all regimes are democratic: for example, the organized crime organizations in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico.  There, conflict leads to murdered bodies hanging from a bridge and dumped on the ground below.  As for the state that is supposed to hold the monopoly on violence and use it to protect its citizens?  We see only the concrete backdrop of bridge and highway, and police showing up too late to do anything except stand around like hapless functionaries.  Between impersonal infrastructure and overpriced policing, there is a gaping hole where civil society is supposed to be.  If anyone is going to be there, it is the viewer of the photograph.

The mob knew that it wasn’t enough to kill its enemies; the killings had to be displayed to the viewing public.  That is the logic of terrorism: using media coverage of targeted killings to intimidate whole populations.  But the photographer isn’t a lackey of the mob.  Instead, the photograph supplies enough distance and artistic framing to see not only the abject bodies but also the intention and techniques of display.  So it is that the photograph presents a choice.  Viewers can react with horror to what has been done, or they can react with horror and with an awareness of how they, too, have been targeted.  In the first reaction, the impulse then is to pull away from any further involvement; that would be just fine with the mob, as it makes the public square a barren, empty space to be fought over by the few armed gangs and the state (which, if the citizens are quiescent enough, becomes just another armed gang).  In the second reaction, however, you become committed in some small way to keeping civil society alive, committed to a solidarity with victims and all others who are being targeted.

This choice is reflected in two sources of overlapping artistry in the image.  Neither involves the iconography of Futurism, but a relationship between art and violence is very much in play.  First, there is the artistry of the killers.  Frankly, it’s damn good.  They clearly have a flair for a dramatic mise en scene, funereal allusion, and abstraction.  These are no longer merely bodies, but humanity, and those who killed are not thugs but masters of more than one underworld.  By artistically owning death, they acquire a dark power over life.  Number them among the artists of our time, and then be prepared to watch terror become a way of life.

Fortunately, there also is the artistry of the photographer.  The purple and yellow lighting throws the tableau into an aesthetic space, as if we are in an art gallery.  That changes the way we see.  The bodies now could be a work of art (they look very similar to a number of artworks that I have seen).  That need not minimize (“aestheticize”) their deaths, but rather goad us to think about how the violence itself was staged.  The positioning of the bound bodies, police, and spectators raises questions of who should be acting, who should be holding others accountable, and why inaction seems to be the order of the day.  (In respect to the challenge of stopping the violence, just how many might as well be dead?)  Together they ask us to think about how communication can be hijacked by those who would just as easily kill.

I’ve argued before that photojournalism is documenting the changing character of violence in our time.  Vanegas may have captured something important in that regard.  Once again, when violence becomes an art form, modernity is in trouble.  Trouble that may be of its own making.

Photograph by Christopher Vanegas/Vangardia; Third Prize, Singles, Contemporary Issues, World Press Photo Contest.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

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 29th, 2014

The Face of the Future in Kiev’s Battle for Middle Earth

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

If photography is capable of documenting the changing face of battle, we should take a good look at what is happening in Kiev.

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Doesn’t it look like a scene from Middle Earth?  Faceless legions with body armor and shields are massed in the winter half-light.  They stand in crude uniformity, waiting to be unleashed against another peasant revolt.  They will serve their masters obediently and show no mercy to the weak.  Such was Tolkien’s reconstruction of medieval warfare, and for all his love of the period, he had few illusions about its brutality.

I’ve argued before that conflict photography is accumulating evidence of a of disturbing change in the political and cultural dimensions of modern violence: that it is becoming less modern.

Some might think that would be good news.  Those with romantic (but incorrect) ideas about primitive societies might think that the kill rates would drop as warfare became more ritualized.  Actually, modern warfare is proportionately less murderous, although that can’t mean much to those in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Others might hope that war was becoming more localized, with less likelihood of a world war or global nuclear annihilation.  Violence is quite localized at present, but the localities are multiplying, vast economies and whole societies are being distorted or drained by militarization, and global conflagration still can’t be ruled out.  No one would think that weapons were becoming less lethal, and for good reason, but that is beside the point of how warfare may create or express cultural decline.

The similarities with medieval military gear may be merely superficial, but they do correspond with other changes in the same direction, including the destruction of the middle class, corruption of public institutions, comprehensive securitization while the state’s monopoly of violence gives way to private armies, and–not least–millions of people being treated as if they had no value beyond their economic utility to those who had consolidated enough power to make or skim the profits from the the labor of the land.  And in that world, if there isn’t enough to live on, you always can join the military.

 

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The caption said, “A riot policeman stands at his position near the site of clashes with anti-government protesters in Kiev.”  True enough, and it misses just about everything in the photograph.  He’s not a cop, he’s a kid.  And he’s miserable: whether from cold or fear or boredom or regret, we don’t know and it doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that he is no Orc, but rather a human being who, despite being wrapped in the trappings of state power, bears already too many signs of deprivation, suffering, and a blighted future.

We don’t know the individual, of course; we are being shown a type.  He could in fact be a young fascist in the making, even a sociopath who will go far in his chosen profession.  Or he could be an ordinary guy enduring his compulsory service before he goes to school and becomes a valued employee and model citizen.  Time will tell, but this photograph is not about the individual; he is instead being enlisted into a work of art that is trying to tell us something about collective life.  What he provides for that work is his face.  More to the point, the contrast between a real, human face and that ugly uniform.  A uniform that is both animal and mechanical and wholly representative of how impersonal forces can encase and destroy a human being.  He may be protected from the protestors–who are not gentle, either—but he is at the mercy of a dark dominion.  A darkness that is spreading over the earth.

Photographs by Anatolii Boiko/AFP-Getty Images and David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters.

January 27th, 2014

A Day at the Riot

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

Riot police officers pose for a picture near burnt vehicles as smoke rises in the background during clashes with pro-European protesters in Kiev

The web is awash in images of the battle in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, i.e., The Square of Independence (see, e.g., recent collections of such images in photographic slideshows herehere, and here).  On the one side are  protestors calling for both the incorporation of the Ukraine into the EU and the resignation of Ukrainian President Yanukovych. On the other side are the Berkut, Ukraine’s special unit of riot police known for its brutal and intimidating practices of “crowd control.” Taken in their totality the images tell a story of protestors (or are they revolutionaries?) fighting with homemade weapons—most prominently slingshots, wooden sticks, hastily produced Molotov Cocktails, and burning tires … lots of burning tires—against a modern police force that looks like a cross between Medieval knights adorned with protective armour and shields  and futuristic Robocops.

In many ways these images don’t look very different from protests and riots we are seeing (or have seen) in places like Bahrain or Cairo or Myanmar, though that is no reason to ignore them.  Indeed it may well warrant our careful attention as protests around the world seem to be no different than one another, and particularly so as the full force of state power is being brought against those demanding democratic rights.   What caught my attention here, however, were not the images of bleeding protestors or burning tires or images of the night sky lit up in hues of greens and blues and oranges by fireworks released by protestors and aimed at the riot police, but the image above of a Berkut unit posing for a group photograph against the backdrop of burnt vehicles and a smoke filled sky.

On the face of it the photograph is altogether banal  and uninteresting.  It is obviously choreoraphed and posed for the camera.  One might think of the ritualistic class or team picture, or perhaps a formal portrait of one’s extended family.  The only thing missing is the prankster who holds rabbit ears behind someone’s head to spoil the image for everyone else.

Such photographs have their place in yearbooks and family photo albums as they mark an “I was there” sentiment or perhaps call our attention in some small way to the existence of certain social or group formations.  But of course here there is a difference, for the photograph is not being taken in an empty gymnasium or classroom, or in a studio, but in what might reasonably be characterized as a “war zone,” with the war continuing to rage.  In short, it is the photograph’s generic banality that makes it stand out from all of the other images of violence and disorder—of rage and carnage—that characterize the Kiev riots because it is so terribly out of place.  And so the question has to be, why was it taken—and now? And why has it shown up in more than a few of the online slideshows?  And perhaps most important, how will it be used to craft collective memories of this “event,” to animate or solidify models of civic life, and to serve as a figural resource for subsequent communicative action?

There are no obvious or immediate answers to these questions and it may be enough—at least initially—that we simply acknowledge the apparent incongruity between the pose of the Berkut and the scene in which they are posed and to raise the subject for more careful consideration.  But that said, it is really quite hard not to notice the arrogance, if not the very impropriety, of the civic performance that the photograph records. Perhaps that was why the photograph was taken after all.

Photo Credit: Stringer/Reuters

December 11th, 2013

Seeing Terror

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

She has seen terror, she is seeing terror, you are seeing terror, we will continue to see terror.  The grammar is at once familiar and out of place; we might call it a declension of violence.

A victim lies on a hospital bed after an attack on a passenger microbus by an unidentified group in Kathmandu

The caption said, “A victim, with her eyes wide open, lies on a hospital bed after an attack on a passenger microbus by an unidentified group in Kathmandu.”  Too many elements of this scenario are all too familiar: civilians being targeted by unknown attackers, institutional support coming after–not before–the carnage, while eyes are wide open yet seemingly unconnected to any means to stop the violence.

And not just her eyes: ours are open (and perhaps opened) as well.  We see her and we see her seeing, which raises the stakes for photography’s promise as a communicative art.  It seems that the photograph might channel her seeing directly into ours, or, if that connection fails, at least consider what she might be seeing and what we ought to see.

In this case, whatever still holds her eyes in fixed, horrified attention remains invisible to us.  All we can see is the terror itself: How it stuns body and soul; how it drives consciousness to a fixed point of horror amidst a welter of disorder, confusion, and pain.  How she is too transfixed by the damage to even be able to plead for help, much less for an end to the arbitrary slaughter of human beings.

The photograph’s intelligence doesn’t end there, however, for it starkly highlights how much we don’t know simply by seeing.  Our vision is limited to a portion of her face, and we see that through a slit in the curtain along her bed.  The narrow aperture is as salient as the face behind it, while the blinds on each side make a thick frame designed to obscure.  The message is clear: what you see through the aperture of the camera is not the whole picture.

Too often the full import of that point is misunderstood, not least by those who suggest that adequate compensation is available otherwise.  Better captions, extensive written reportage, historical study, ethnographic immersion–whatever the alternative, the idea is that an adequate corrective is available.  Those and other investments are certainly needed, and not just in the war zones, but I think this photograph goes one better.

It says that the whole picture is never available.  Pull aside the curtains, and what do you see but the rest of the battered body?  Interview the doctors and emergency workers and bystanders and diplomats, and what do you know?  One can learn quite a bit, but nothing that will erase her terror.  That may be why the oxygen mask is so, well, terrifying: she seems to have been transformed into something half-bestial, a declension from human to merely animal, from person to prey, and at the mercy of those in the room now instead of those who threw the bomb.  Somehow even the medical technologies, like the technology of the camera, have been co-opted into an apparatus of terror, as if they and not the bomb were harming her.  That’s not true, but it is one measure of how terror works by making the familiar world into an environment of pain and fear.

Of course, everything that can be done to help the victim and to understand the situation should be done, but one does need to beware the illusion that all distance between the victim and the unharmed can be eliminated.  This photo, by contrast, shows us how that distance is part of our experience of her experience.  We are able to see that something awful lies beyond mediation, and thus beyond knowledge, and that our experience is mediated.  Yet, for all that, we are still put in a relationship with a single bombing victim far away from most of those who will see this photograph.  That’s why the photo has more than academic interest.  You might say that one of the contributions of photography is that it shows how solidarity with others doesn’t have to wait on fully sharing or understanding their experience.

The photo shows us terror that is stalking the world today, and it reminds us that many viewers are fortunate enough to see it at a distance.  The close framing of her act of wide-eyed concentration reminds us that she may not be seeing what is in fact in front of her–she could be blind to the room because still back in the blast–and that we may not be seeing what is in fact in front of us.

Perhaps it suggests that context is needed, but I think that is settling for too little.  She isn’t looking at us, but the photograph does ask at least one question on her behalf: Now that you see how she has been changed by the attack, how have you been changed?  Who is willing to look terror in the face, and to stand with those who continue to suffer?

Photograph by Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNews.

November 11th, 2013

And Life Goes On

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe, visualizing war

Life Goes on 1

The Civil War in Syria rages on.  More than 100,000 have died by so-called “conventional means,” plus however many thousands more by chemical means.  Horrific images abound of bombs exploding, burned out buildings and vehicles aflame, child warriors, tortured and dead bodies, random limbs strewn about and more.  In some ways, however, the most disturbing images are not those that put the conflict on display in all of its goriest details, but rather those photographs that slip through to show a society that seems to have accommodated itself to the war as if it were a normal and ordinary event.

The photograph above is from the north of Syria near the Turkish border in the city of  Ras al-Ain.  According to the caption his living room has been “damaged” by an attack perpetrated by Kurdish militia and we see him rehanging a painting of Jesus Christ on his wall.  It would be easy to make a good deal out of the iconography of Jesus as we view this conflict from the Christian West, but there is a different and more subtle point to be made.  Buildings are “damaged” by storms and floods and earthquakes and fires; although there are exceptions, these are typically natural phenomenon over which humans have little if any control. Often they cannot be anticipated or predicted with any precision, and their main effects are primarily material and economic.  War, of course, is different.  No less physically disastrous than natural phenomena, its effects are as much psychic—if indeed not more so—as they are corporeal. Such psychic trauma is often difficult to see, marked usually in images of demonstrable grief or the now famous “thousand yard stare.” Or as in the image above, it can be altogether invisible, made to appear as part of the natural, ordinary business of cleaning up as if after a storm or an earthquake.  Yeah, sure, there was a mortar attack.  But now we just fix the windows, pick up the furniture, put the painting back on the wall and go about our day.

The point is driven home by the photograph below of a father and daughter making their way through the city of Aleppo on a cart. The caption says that they are in the process of

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migrating from the war torn city. The physical effects of the war are present everywhere, from the rubble that covers the alleyway to the burned out bus stacked on top of another vehicle in the background.  But what makes the photograph so potentially disturbing—horrifying even—is that no one seems to notice.  The father and daughter make their way through the city without any sense of distress or particular attention to the ruins that surround them.  Others go about their business as well, apparently unimpeded by the physical destruction.  It is just another day in Aleppo.  Indeed, the young girl seems more interested in the person taking the photograph than anything else in her environment, a sign no doubt that she has fully incorporated the apocalyptic state of war into her consciousness as an ordinary and everyday event barely worth paying attention to.  The caption underscores the point, noting that she is “blow[ing] a bubble” as if to signal that she really doesn’t have a care in the world.

The real horror of war may well be the way in which those in its midst are forced to assimilate to its damage and destruction as a function of the sheer everydayness of ordinary life.  The real horror of war, in other words, may well lie in the ways in which its effects are invisible to the naked eye.  And that is what photographs can often put on display.

Photo Credits: Ras al-Ain/Reuters; Karam al-Masric/AFP/Getty Images

October 21st, 2013

Museum Photography: Syria’s Lost Civilization

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

There is an art to taking photographs of artifacts or artworks in a museum.  Think of all the images you’ve seen in photography books or magazines or newspapers–and how you didn’t even think of the fact that they were photographs–or of how those snaps you took with your camera didn’t turn out so well.  It takes skill to put art into circulation.  Even so, there is little reason not to take it for granted, and in any case photography’s most important museum is found outside the gallery walls.

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position inside a house in Deir al-Zor

But not necessarily outside.  This dark interior contains no light of its own, as if it were a cave.  The weak shaft of light seems to have to bend to get there, as if refracted along canyon walls before entering this animal’s den.  The animal seems to be human, although his shadow looks like a rat, and that feral insinuation might be closer to the truth of his circumstances.

The caption says, “A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position inside a house in Deir al-Zor.”  One could almost say, “what had been a house.”  The place seems to be returning to darkness, to an inchoate void that soon will absorb everything there.  Imagine how much has been lost already.  Walls that will have been decorated and echoed with conversation and laughter now are pockmarked from destructiveness.  What had been a table or chair now is the soldier’s stepladder.  What appears to be clothing and other domestic goods are piled on the floor, thrown perhaps because they couldn’t be taken to a refugee camp, or so they wouldn’t be in the way of the fighting.  Whatever the story, it’s one of lives being undone.

And so we get to the washing machine and the window.  Each is remarkably salient, each has a presence as if it were something uncanny, each is both where it is supposed to be and yet dramatically out of place.  In other words, each now has the properties of a work of art.  The machine stands there like a surrealist found object, a machine of domesticity framed as a thing in itself, or perhaps as a historical curio–say, a Soviet capsule intended to send a monkey into space.  Such options are far-fetched, but compare them with the impossibility of the washer simply being what it was: a banal part of ordinary life.

And that window!  Was it ever banal?  Perhaps there are many like it, and on close inspection it looks like a machined knockoff of merely decorative designs.  But still, it is at once beautiful and so vulnerable.  You can’t believe that any soldier on any side in this street fight is going to hesitate to shoot through it the second they see a target.  And such a shame, as the stained glass and abstract pattern resonate across art history, sacred and secular, from Gothic cathedrals to Islamic calligraphy to modern art.  Of course, it was just a nice window in someone’s house, admired occasionally and ignored much of the time, but that’s how a good society works.  When ordinary life is well above the level of living in a cave, it’s because ordinary things are continuous with so many fundamental achievements in art, science, government, and the other arts of civilization.

If a tank fires, the entire room will be obliterated.  At that point, all that will remain of these remarkable works of art will be the photograph.  I’ve said recently that photography can provide an archaeology of the present: the images that would remind us of how close we can be to becoming ruins.  We could also say that photography is creating a virtual museum: a vast, continuously unfolding gallery of those things that are already becoming part of the past.  Ordinary things that are becoming precious, useful things that are becoming junk, sentimental things that now can only be the set up for irony.

This is the best kind of museum photography, precisely because it is there to document lost civilizations that still have a chance of survival.  In Syria’s case, much already has been lost to the darkness.  There is still time, perhaps, to find a way peace and the restoration of something like a normal life for the millions currently suffering from the civil war.  What seems to be lacking is a sense of urgency.  Perhaps it might help to take a walk through photography’s museum.  Take another look, and ask yourself if any part of the present is as secure as it might seem.

Photograph by Khalil Ashawi/Reuters.

September 23rd, 2013

Conventional Warfare

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

Conventional Warfare 1

Much happened while NCN was on hiatus for the past three weeks, but no story seemed to dominate the news more than the debate over what President Obama meant when he drew a “red line in the sand” concerning the use of chemical weapons in Syria, whether Congress would endorse a limited military strike against Syria in the wake of its alleged usage of chemical warfare against its own people in Damascus, and what role if any would Russia play in taking control of chemical weapons in Syria.  There can be no question that chemical weapons are a dastardly technology of mass destruction; that chemical warfare violates not only international law, but every standard of humane behavior; and that the very existence of chemical arsenals dedicated to warfare, let alone their usage, demands vigilant attention and appropriate response from all nations.  This much is true, I believe, but for all of that the recent and almost exclusive emphasis on illegal, non-conventional chemical warfare in Syria has diverted our attention from a different and equally profound problem.

The photograph above was taken on September 8, 2013, right in the midst of debates about what if any response the U.S. should have the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  It is of the Salah al-Din neighborhood in Aleppo.  The caption describes the buildings as “heavily damaged,” but that seems to be almost euphemistic, as they are virtually destroyed, the road between the buildings all but impassable, the sheets and bus in the center of the image described as providing “limited cover from sniper fire for those wishing to cross the street.”  And the key point, of course, is that none of this was caused by chemical weapons.  These buildings—this city, really, since this is only one of numerous such photographs—have been torn apart by one or another version of explosive ordnance or what we might call the weapons of conventional warfare. And not just these buildings or the physical infrastructure of this city, for as the caption underscores and the photograph illustrates, the very social fabric of the city as a site of commerce and social or civic interaction—simply walking across the street—has been equally torn asunder.

We should not—we must not—ignore the usage of chemical weapons.  But we also need to be careful that our sanctimony here does not inadvertently lead us to forget that the state of exception that somehow legitimizes conventional warfare is ultimately no less damaging, destructive, or demoralizing.  And whether that occurs as a result of civil strife, as in Syria, or as a result of occupation or invasion as elsewhere in the world, the effect is no less devastating; indeed, perhaps in the end it is truly no less humane.

Photo Credit:  Abo/Mhio/AFP/Getty Images

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