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. . . .

July 21st, 2014

Judging In Camera

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

Screen shot 2014-07-20 at 10.00.47 PM

A Facebook “friend” living in Tel Aviv recently admonished analyses of Mideast politics from academics “who only know about the Mideast from their shithead blogs and cherry picked newspapers.” Scatological references aside, I was prepared to agree. The history of the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestine conflict in particular, is so fraught with local complexities that anyone who has never been part of that world—intellectually, socially, politically— would have to be either a fool or incredibly arrogant to enter the fray. And then I came across the photograph above at more than a few major news outlets, and I was literally stopped in my tracks.

Photographs of corpses are always gruesome and hard to look at, but the image of a dead child is especially hard to view; when it is the result of human volition—and in this case military ordinance—it is nearly impossible to avoid judgment. The photograph here is especially difficult to look at. The child cannot be more than six or seven years of age. Dressed for what looks to be a day at the beach, he carries all of the innocence of childhood; he should be flying kites or building sand castles, not lying face down, his body wracked and contorted by the force of the blast of the shell fired by an Israeli gunboat. Wars may be necessary, or at least inevitable, as hard as such ideas are to swallow. But one can only wonder what threat this child posed to those who chose to bombard this strip of Gaza beach.

If this were the only photograph of the only Palestinian child killed by Israeli air raids and bombings it would be enough to demand that we sit in judgment. But of course it is neither. Such images are abundant and it is not sufficient to say either that there are Israeli children who have suffered a similar fate or that Palestinians have been given “fair warning” when such bombings are about to take place. Were the photograph above of an Israeli child killed by a rocket launched indiscriminately by Hamas the demand for judgment would be no less. And to warn those locked within a narrow strip of land with no real opportunity for cover to take heed is, well, no warning at all.

But what judgment to make? There’s the rub. This photograph—as with any photograph— forces us to stand in witness, to question and to query, to see what is before our eyes and to take responsibility for what we see; in short, it calls out for our engagement if only by way of imaging the possibility of a future that is different from the past. It does not tell us what judgment to make—though it is hard to imagine the circumstance that warrants the indiscriminate killing of innocent children, regardless of the provocation—but it demands that we not sit idly by. Judge or be judged; that is the calling of such photographs.

Photo Credit: Stringer/Reuters

 

July 18th, 2014

Madness, Madness . . .

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

July 17, 2014.  The day started with this photograph front page above the fold at the national print edition of the New York Times.

Gaza, Tyler Hicks

The Times published a report on the image by the photographer, so they must have known that, amidst the hundreds of photographs of the Israeli assault on Gaza, this one touched something deeper that the rest.  It had moved a friend to send it to me after it appeared the night before in the digital edition, and I was torn about whether to write about it.  On the one hand, it is a work of art that confronts the viewer with more than the public wants to know, it exposes the moral obscenity on both sides of the tragedy in Gaza, it highlights the incongruity between the suffering there and the desire everywhere to live with some semblance of prosperity and hope, and it  does so by using photographic conventions that have long been ridiculed for their superficiality, sentimentality, and manipulative bad faith.  On the other hand, I didn’t want to say anything because I’m just sick with the madness of it all.

And that was before the news that came in during the afternoon.

Ukraine downed airliner

This is what is left of the Malaysia Airlines flight 17 after it was destroyed over the eastern Ukraine.  It looks like a garbage dump in hell, complete with minor functionaries overseeing the wreckage.  When coupled with the graphic tracking how all commercial flights subsequently are detouring around Ukrainian airspace, it also doubles as an image of what war does for economic development.  You can bet that the one pattern will become a model for many others.  But that is the least of it.  Look at the photograph again.  There used to be 298 people sitting in rows, minding their own business, and now they have been obliterated.

That may be why the few people wandering through the wreckage are an important part of the photograph.  They are looking, because that is all they can do.  That is all the viewers of the photo can do.  There is no possibility that the photo might impel some action that would make a difference to those now destroyed.  No one is able to reverse the flow of time, pull the incinerated flesh and shattered materials back together, bring everything back to life as it was being lived, as it should be lived.  We have arrived at a crime scene, and too late to do anything but ask why.

And not the only crime scene.  Girls are still enslaved by militias, villages terrorized by gangs, populations herded into camps. . . . Despite vast numbers of people living in relative prosperity and safety, that same world seems to be coming apart at the seams.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, if the 21st century is experimenting with forms of violence, they would be visible at the margins: in failed states and quasi-states, occupied territories and zones of anarchy. Photography is already there, documenting the texture of destruction that is unfurling around the globe.  Perhaps some day we will look back and say, “Oh, there clearly was a logic to it.”  But that will be more than hindsight, for it also will be a mistake.

Whatever is happening, it is madness.

Photographs by Tyler Hicks/New York Times and Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press.

July 7th, 2014

Witness to a Demolition

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe, visualizing war

Screen shot 2014-07-06 at 2.15.39 PM

When it comes to trauma and atrocity the photograph is frequently cast in a confounding conundrum: Because it is driven by an indexical realism it is presumed to bear witness to the worst of human behavior; and yet, because it is only capable of showing a fragment of reality in a sliver of time it is doomed by its incapacity to tell “the whole story.” Of course, no medium is capable of “telling the whole story”—and certainly not in objective fashion—but for some reason we seem to place the full “burden of representation” (to borrow John Tagg’s phrase) on photography itself without paying attention to what it might be accomplishing despite its limitations. And more, when it fails to persuade we assume that somehow the onus of blame resides solely with the photograph (or the photographer) rather than, say, with the viewer or the spectator.

Perhaps the photograph above is a case in point. According to the caption you are witnessing the “demolition” of a private residence in the village of Idnha, just outside of Hebron. The home belonged to Ziad Awad, a Palestinian and a member of Hamas, “charged” with killing an off-duty Israeli police officer. His home is being demolished by Israeli security forces “as a deterrent” to future terrorist activity. If Awad was found to be guilty of murdering an Israeli police officer—and there does seem to be sufficient evidence to support the facts of the case—then surely he should be detained and justly punished. But the demolition of a private residence in the middle of a village or neighborhood to punish or deter an individual crime is excessive. Indeed, far more than an “eye for and eye” mode of justice, it seems to fit in the category that Ariella Azoulay dubs a “regime made disaster.”  Regime made disasters are catastrophic circumstances initiated by democratic institutions in full public view; they are rarely identified as disasters per se, and they divert attention from the larger population being effected (focusing instead on the most immediate victims) by deflecting attention from deeper, underlying causes.

As one reads about Awad, for example, journalistic focus is directed largely at the fact that he was a known terrorist—indeed, he had been imprisoned for a number of years and only recently released, that an Israeli citizen had been  murdered, and that the State of Israel was exacting justice. What receives only marginal attention is the fact that the home being demolisthed did not belong to Awad, but his brother, and that now the brother, his wife and five children, and Awad’s wife and six children have been rendered homeless. It could be a scene out of the Old Testament—think The Book of Judges. But the larger point is that what receives no attention is how such actions impact the ecology—social, political, economic, and otherwise—of the neighborhood, already something of a refugee state, in which a home is precipitously razed. Equally ignored—and perhaps more to the point—is any attention to the the deeply seeded, underlying causes that animate the tensions between the State of Israel and Hamas in the first place.

And yet, for all that, the regime made disaster is there for all to see if only we are willing to accept the invitation. But “invitation” is not really the right word, for an invitation implies the right and opportunity to turn away, to reject or resist the entreaty with some measure of impunity. The photograph, by contrast, issues something that is more like an ethical demand to take responsibility for what we are seeing and for how we respond in reaction to it. No, the photograph does not put the act of demolishing this single home on display, though it does show us the immediate traces of smoke and dust as they expand outward beyond the original location and work to encompass and choke the entire neighborhood. Nor does the photograph tell the entire story, focusing on this singular event. But what it does is to put the impending and unfolding disaster before the public eye, insisting that we look, and that we see, and in seeing, that we engage, that is to say, that we stand as witnesses who not only testify to what they see, but who will ask the questions necessary to make sense out of what is before their very eyes and to act accordingly. It requires, in short, an ethics of spectatorship.

In Dispatches, one of the most affecting novels to come out of the Vietnam War, Michael Herr notes that the war taught him that, “you [are] as responsible for everything you [see] as you [are] for what you [do].” That obligation does not diminish just because what we see is mediated from half-way-around the globe.

Credit: Mussa Issa Qawasma/Reuters

June 9th, 2014

Imag(in)ing the World Now and Then

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visualizing war

 

D-Day Now

The scene could be a community beach front almost anywhere in the world. Cabanas set up for those who can afford them. Tents and umbrellas for others. White sand, small dunes, and blue sea for everyone—swimmers, sailors, and those who just want to sit and catch the breeze coming in off of water. Sun bathers intermixed with children, families coming and going. Soon, one can imagine, the sun will be down, the tide will be up, and only a very few will remain on the beach. A quiet, restful place, with only the rhythmic sound of the waves beating on the surf, lights perhaps shining from the windows in the buildings lining the beach as a reminder of a living community.

But for all of that, it is not just anywhere. It is Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, France. Seventy years ago this past week it was known as Juno Beach, one of the primary landing zones in the D-Day invasion. Taking this beach head was necessary to provide flanking support to the operations at Gold and Omaha beaches and to give the Allied forces a direct route to a German airfield near Caen. The beach was heavily fortified by two German battalions armed with over 500 machine guns plus numerous mortars, a defensive position enhanced by weather patterns that made it necessary for landing crafts to come as close to the fortifications as possible before releasing troops and equipment. The responsibility to take the beach head fell to the 3rd Canadian Infantry division, which suffered over 1,000 casualties by day’s end—the highest ratio of Allied casualties for anyone other than those landing at the more famous and costly Omaha and Utah beaches.

Photographs, of course, only mark a sliver of time—typically only a fraction of a second that frames the here and the now in stark and radical terms. One cannot know what happened moments (or months or years) before this photograph was snapped, let alone what might happen even seconds after the shutter has opened and closed. Temporal continuities with the past, let alone alternate future possibilities can only be surmised. Such limitations don’t mitigate the value of images, but instead only emphasize the need for us to be imaginative in how we understand the reality that they put on display. And too, it requires us to recognize the ways in which the historicity of an image operates in tension with what it was then (or it what it might be later). It is, in short, part of an archive that has to be curated and engaged.

And so here we have Juno Beach shortly after the D-Day invasion. A crashed fighter plane where families today luxuriate. The detritus of battle washed up against fortifications that protected Axis forces from the landing Allies. The appearance of a solitary ghost town cast in somber grey tones where today colorful commerce flourishes, marked by the flags of multiple nations.

-Day Then

This too, of course, was only a stark sliver in time. A scene of courage and fortitude, of death and destruction that can only remind us that what was before the lens when it clicked was there and then, even as it only framed a reality that could survive only in imagined memories.

Credit: Chris Helgren/Reuters; National Archieves of Canada (for other “before” and “after” pictures of the D-Day invasion click here.)

 

 

May 21st, 2014

Creative Destruction in Homs: The New Order of Ruins

Posted by Hariman in catastrophe, visualizing war

Walter Benjamin once remarked that “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.”  The reverse also holds: ruins are, in the realm of things, what allegories are in the realm of thoughts.  Either way, the expectation is that a message can be found where there remains only a trace of the original medium, structure, or civilization.  Even though both ruins and allegories signify the loss, fallibility, and futility of communication, there is at the same time a suggestion that meaning remains just beyond the other side of representation, and the hope that some connection might be made across the divide between past and present, image and idea, cosmology and history. . . .   But then we come to this.

Destroyed buildings are pictured, after the cessation of fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Syria's President Assad, in Homs city

I am staggered by this photograph from Homs.  Nor is it the first witness to the terrible destruction of lives and infrastructure in the Syrian civil war.  All wars are terrible, but this one seems to have made the cities themselves the primary targets.  Many cities have been bombed over the past 100 years, but usually for what they housed.  In Homs and Aleppo, the city itself–as an organic, living thing with autonomy and purpose–is being tortured to death.

I’ve written before about Rubble World, that swath of destruction that war is spreading the globe, and Syria already had become one of the most disturbing examples of this slow-moving catastrophe.  Since then the death toll and range of destructiveness has continued to increase in Syria and elsewhere.  Of course, buildings can be rebuilt, streets repaved, and no one can say how Syria will be doing in fifty years.  But even if the equivalent of a Marshall Plan were in the works–and it is not–something about the present has already been revealed.

What we may have before us in this remarkable photograph is a new order of ruins.  These are ruins without nobility, as they have not been made by the passing of time, nor will they be able to withstand it.  They are without any secondary value: too dangerous to provide sanctuary from a summer shower, too hideous to be the backdrop for romance or any other idle pleasure.  Where the buildings might have provided an empathic connection with those living there before, instead there is only a twisted warren of barren concrete and industrial filth.  This wreckage demeans memory itself.

These ruins may be different in another sense as well.  Instead of marking the presence of an extinct civilization, they may foretell the demise of our own.  A new order of ruins suggests a new order of war and peace, investment and abandonment, indifference and self-interest, prosperity and brutality.  If this image is representative, we also can assume that the new order is not one in which mercy is a consideration.  Where total war used to be thought of as the ultimate expression of great power conflict, now it appears more like a niche predator, and God help you if you live in that niche.

The new ruin is a photographic artifact, and good thing too, as we would not see it otherwise.  Like photography generally, this ruin can suggest how alternate futures already exist in the present, albeit as merely possible paths for social advancement, sustainability, or decline.  Consider what else is evident in that regard: for example, I see a world with more weapons than water, more displacement than stability, more terror than peace.  For most of us, these possibilities still are on the other side of the divide between present and future.  But to follow the allegory, the traces of the future are already here, waiting for us to see them.  To see, that is, how modernity is already in ruins.

Photograph by Ghassan Najjar/Reuters.

May 2nd, 2014

Sontag, Photography, and Moral Knowledge

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Central African Republic boy bleeding

In her widely influential book On Photography, Susan Sontag famously argued that photographs of atrocities dull moral response.  Twenty-seven years later in Regarding the Pain of Others she issued a partial retraction:  People can become habituated to images of violence, but some photographs for some people can continue to shock and thereby prompt moral reflection.  The images cannot provide anything more for critical self-assessment, however: that was “a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”

Surprisingly, this often is taken as a sufficient recalibration of the role photography can play in the public sphere.  By contrast, John and I believe that Sontag continues to stand in the way of understanding how photography is an important public art.  We also believe that a paradigm shift is already underway, albeit fitfully, in the discourse of photography as it is used in public, professional, and scholarly forums.  (We are developing a book to set out this argument in more detail, and a few readers of this might have noticed that we’re running out parts of it in some of our posts.)  The dominant but ailing paradigm was authored by Sontag and other writers a generation ago, and she remains its boldest, clearest, and most widely imitated exemplar.  The fact that Sontag came to challenge a central idea in the conventional wisdom that she helped propagate is reason enough to assume that a paradigm shift is needed and well underway.  Unfortunately, Regarding the Pain of Others also reaffirms too many of the conventional assumptions about photography that were set out in On Photography. To summarize very briefly:

1. Photographs continue to be ”a species of rhetoric” that “simplify,” “agitate,” and create the “illusion of consensus”; they are ”totems” and “tokens” rather than adequate representations, and also “like sound bites” and “postage stamps”; they “objectify” and yet also are a form of “alchemy” that either beautifies and thereby can “bleach out a moral response,” or uglifies and thereby can at least evoke an active response; they require no artistic training and so have led to “permissive” standards for visual eloquence; they depend on a “slight of hand” and a “surrealist” aesthetic that with the ascendency of capitalist values is thought to be realism; they compare unfavorably with or have an unfair advantage over other arts, especially writing; they depend absolutely on written captions for their meaning, and while they can shock, “they are not much help if the task is to understand,” something that can only come from narrative exposition.

2. The Public that consumes these images has matching characteristics. They take for granted their privilege, safety, and distance from the events being reported, they are alternately “voyeurs” or “literalists”, and “spectators or cowards,’ while the “indecency” of spectatorship is of a piece with those who enjoyed viewing photographs of lynching or “colonized human beings” from Africa and Asia; they are being corrupted by television and are prone to remember only images, not the stories that could provide complexity and understanding. These public images are supplied by photojournalists, who are “professional, specialized tourists,” some of whom become celebrities whose pronouncements can be so much “humbug.”

3. Moral response to a photograph is acknowledged to be possible, even after repeated exposure to images of violence, but also severely limited.  Photographs serve the public by shocking the viewer, but they leave “opinions, prejudices, fantasies, misinformation untouched”; and they also can go too far, making suffering “abstract” and thus fostering cynicism and fatalism; and the emotions of compassion or sympathy that are elicited are “unstable,” tend toward “mystification of our real relations of power” and so are “impertinent”; in any case, they “cannot indicate a course of action.”

In short, moral response to a photograph can at best be only a surge of raw emotional energy that is devoid of the rational capabilities necessary for ethical relationships.  The public is locked into spectatorship rather than authentic participation and thereby given only poor or worse options for ethical living. Photography may be put to better or worse uses but remains a profoundly suspect medium of representation, indeed one that is inherently fraudulent because the image can never provide the adequate knowledge of reality that is promised. Thus, Sontag’s reconsideration of photography remains locked into the same modernist binaries that it needs to challenge.

This summary does not pretend to do justice to the nuance and depth of Sontag’s thinking, but we do want to suggest that her second thoughts remain all too consistent with her early and still highly influential discourse. While Sontag’s contribution has been enormous, it is not without hidden costs—costs that even she continued to pay. So it is that Regarding the Pain of Others provides one example of what it means to work within and against a paradigm that is becoming increasingly out of synch with its subject. Sontag sensed that her original discourse lead to some seriously mistaken conclusions, yet she could not scrap it entirely (who could, in her position, or in ours, for that matter?). Thus, the book has a high degree of internal inconsistency—like the habitus of photography itself today. Both text and context are still beholden to a vocabulary and set of assumptions that need to be re-examined. They never were entirely accurate, but at one time they were sharp enough to mount a progressive critique of an important public art. They are not now wholly inaccurate—far from it, as they identify deep risks of media dependency—but they do not provide the conceptual resources that are needed to understand the many roles that photography can play as it is a public art and mirror of modern life.

One of the ironies of Sontag’s critique is that she consistently compares photography unfavorably to writing while also citing Plato as one of her authorities on the dangers of mediation.  Most notably, Sontag faults photography for how it makes humans insensitive to their distance from others while corrupting collective memory.  In each case, she turns to narrative exposition for the necessary corrective.  The problem is that when Plato identified those dangers (see his dialogue Phaedrus), he was referring to writing.  And he was right–not only about writing but also about communication media in general.  One theoretical task, then, is to find the right way to think about photography as a specific medium that is neither immune from, nor unduly responsible for, widely distributed problems of human communication and political community.

And so we finally can turn to the photograph above, which admittedly I am using as a token.  Sontag would be correct on other points as well: for example, you don’t know much about the event until the caption informs you that the man’s throat had been slashed during the religious war in the Central African Republic, and that he was being rescued by French soldiers.  Look closely, and you very likely will be shocked as well; and that alone is very likely not to lead to much in the way of action.

But is that it?  And are you really looking at only that photograph, rather than seeing it as one part of a much larger archive of images, along with an extensive history of immersion in print journalism, history, literature, and other arts?  (In W.J.T. Mitchell’s important declaration: All media are mixed media.)  If neither “voyeurism” nor “sympathy” is the right term to describe your response, what is in the middle ground of more ambiguous reactions?  If moral knowledge has to be both abstract and concrete, might this image or one like it provide a partial outline of what one needs to know?  And of how the public spectator might be implicated in the violence?

The image isn’t merely a token, and it is not a philosopher’s stone either, but that leaves a lot in between.  If photography is capable of imparting, modeling, or constituting moral knowledge, we have a lot to learn.

Photograph by Michaël Zumstein/Agence Vu.  For examples of the argument that photography can do more than shock, see, e.g., Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, Sharon Sliwinski, Human Rights in Camera, and our own No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy.

April 28th, 2014

Seeing War From Above

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

Aerial War From Above

Beginning with the American Civil War and moving forward to the present it is possible to find someone who announces that __________ war is “the most visual/photographed war” of all time. And for the most part they would be correct, at least for the time at which they were writing, as from the middle of the nineteenth century forward advanced visual and photographic technologies and the increasing mechanization of war kept pace with one another as two of the primary markers of modernity. The more important point, however, is that historically, advances in methods of visual surveillance and photographic technologies have frequently grown out of—or developed in intimate connection with—the modernization of the war machine itself.

We have seen this relationship in contemporary times with spy satellites, various stealth and smart bomb technologies and, most recently, the use of drone warfare. But the point here is to recognize that the association between visual technologies and warfare is nothing new. The photograph above is a case in point. What you are looking at is an aerial photograph of the Hill of Combres, St. Mihiel Sector, in the North of France. The battles have ended by the time this photograph was taken, but what it shows is an aerial landscape of thousands of craters created by four years of artillery and mortar fire set against the criss-cross pattern of intersecting trenches in which hundreds of thousands from both sides in the “war to end all wars” died or were wounded.

Aerial photography was not invented during World War I,  but it was developed and refined there as a way of enhancing map making and facilitating reconnaissance missions designed to record enemy movements and defense positions. Initially incorporated into its strategic and tactical planning by the French, by 1918 both the French and the Germans were taking photographs of the entire war front on a daily basis, producing nearly 500,000 aerial photographs by the war’s end, many of them employing advanced stereoscopic techniques that made it possible to measure the height of objects on the landscape. And in its own way, image making had become fully a part and parcel of the modern war machine.

There is no comfort in any of this, particularly as we recognize the fraught, parallel relationship between the development of visual technologies and advanced weapons systems that continues into present times. But then there is the photograph above which should stand as a reminder as to what such “advances” can produce. In its own way it is a memorial to the insanity of the “war to end all wars,” which converted habitable land into what has often been referred to as a desolate and “hellish moonscape.”  The point, of course, is not that the past is a predictor of the future, but rather that the photograph itself is not simply an image of what once was, but can also serve as something of a prophecy as to how the seeds of a tragic future are already planted within the present if only we are careful enough to pay attention and to see it.

Credit: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

 

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.

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