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 4th, 2015

When War Is a Memory That Won’t Go Away

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Those who romanticize war tell us that it is eternal.  The long, grey line; the camp fires glowing on the plain; the roar of battle, the loneliness of command–these and other verities are found in every era and clime.  The weapons change, but war offers the same terrors, the same fraternity no others can understand, and the same hard truths about the human condition.  There always has been war, there always will be war, and only fools think otherwise.  Thus, the full honor due to those in battle today can be paid only by placing their memorial within the unbroken continuity and epic scale of myth.

TOPSHOTS-UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISIS-CRISIS-POLITICS-MILITARY

This photograph from the Ukraine might seem to be a step in that direction.  Taken only weeks ago, the cold, desolate steppe, abandoned, ruined weaponry, and grey scale tonality suggest that we are in World War II.  The distant line of trees could have been there then, the metal tower looks like it could have been on a Soviet era propaganda poster, and few of us know enough about tank designs to see much difference there.  This war, that war, any war. . . . The photo’s allusion to the past amplifies what is otherwise but a private catastrophe already lost to history.  By setting this war within that war, now a ghostly presence like the fog in the background, the specific wreckage becomes part of a much larger tragedy.

What the photograph does not do, however, is romanticize war.  It does not suggest that this war was inevitable or that character will be forged and tested or that valor will triumph.  Instead of being a lesson in the need for constant vigilance, the photo cuts through the fog of romanticism to suggest that the result in any case is the same: more waste, loss, and oblivion that will lead only to another cycle of violence.  War seems less like mythic ground, and more like a bad memory that just won’t go away.

TOPSHOTS-PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-CONFLICT-GAZA

Or for those still living in the war zone, a nightmare that persists after you wake up.  This very different scene is another repetition of the same.  Now the civic infrastructure supplies the wreckage, while the donkey carts take us back to another time long before tanks and airstrikes.  This neighborhood in Gaza City is in ruins, and feels more empty for that than the open field in the first photo.  This is another scene from Rubble World, which is the home front of our time.

Once again, the photograph places one war within prior wars: here we can see the line go through the bombed cities of WW II all that way back to the Roman occupation of Palestine.  This war, that war, any war.  The armies wreak their havoc, and those still alive struggle to live among the ruins, and perhaps history will be kind enough to rebuild again before another onslaught.  Whatever the outcome, it remains very clear that there is no glory here, and never was, and never will be unless enough people can discover the heroism of peacemaking.

Two photos, two wars, and something more.  Each image has respected the dignity of its subject, without allowing that respect to be hijacked–as it so often is–by the romance of war.

The problem with war is not that it is eternal, but that it is persistent.  Like a traumatic memory, it haunts us, often to pull entire societies backwards into a time of darkness and agony.  At least now perhaps we can begin to see that memory for what it is: the door though which war enters the future, where it will be waiting for our arrival.

Photographs by Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images and Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

February 25th, 2015

The Face of Battle in the Ukraine

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Ukranian POWs

One of the myths of modern journalism is that essence of war is found in the heat of battle.  On this premise photographers risk their lives to get as close as possible to the action, while pundits and propagandists alike remind us that no one but the soldier can ever understand the experience of actually being there–an experience that can never be communicated to those who are only spectators.

These conventional beliefs represent important truths about both war and representation, but they are seriously misleading as well.  War is far more than battle, from the extensive organization that is required to project power and hold territory, to the thousand ways that it disrupts, distorts, corrupts, and shatters entire worlds.  In seeing battle–if that really can be seen–you would see how war is fought, up close and terrible, but you would not be seeing all that war is and does.

Professionals and the public have reason to complain about censorship, embedding protocols, and other restrictions on media coverage, but these issues also reinforce the sacralization of combat while distracting attention from its consequences.  In fact, photojournalists are teaching the public how to visualize war, and not as a scene of singular intensity, but rather as a condition-one might say a catastrophe–that can slowly engulf all of society.  As they do so, they also reveal how war’s predations expose the deep vulnerabilities in the human condition.

So look carefully at the face of battle as we have it in the photograph above.  These Ukrainian prisoners of war are the lucky ones: they are still alive, still able to walk on their own, and on their way back to their own territory as part of a prisoner exchange.  That’s the good news.  For the rest, it seems evident that they have been beaten–and cold, sick, humiliated, and afraid, and probably poorly equipped and poorly trained, and otherwise sacrificed one way or another.  Of course, I’m reading in some of what I already know about their situation, but the picture does prompt that reading.  From the bad eye to the fact that an experienced fighter (note how the nose had been broken previously) has been disarmed to the fact that army includes an middle-aged man in civilian clothes: these are the signs of systematic impovrishments.  (You can see more of the same at this slide show.)

The photograph could almost be an allegorical painting, with each of the figures an older version of the same man. There we see a younger man’s sense of personal misery, followed by the more reflective endurance of middle age, giving way to the renewed sense of shock and terror as the elder man confronts mortality itself.  Set against the black background, they become figures of humanity rather than of any specific event or circumstance.  The photo still exposes telling details of the dire condition of the Ukrainian army, but it exposes more fundamental weaknesses as well.  Not that we will all age and die (some won’t: they will die young), but that war is relentless in its ability to find ways to make people suffer.  The suffering of war goes far beyond the terror of battle, not least because it brings everyone closer to deprivation.  That may be its real advantage after all: no matter how far from the battlefield, everyone lives not far from their own frailty.

“The face of battle” alludes to the fine book by John Keegan having that title.  Keegan argued that those who conducted wars needed to understand how warfare was determined by the vernacular conditions and experiences of the battlefield, which could go unrecognized or undervalued in the strategic calculations of the commanders.  That would seem to be another argument for getting close to the action, but it has other uses as well.  In this case, the face of battle is to be found in both victory and defeat, and the particularities of failure may be the better basis for bringing distant audiences to understand or care about the specific situation.

There is another sense to seeing these faces of battle.  As Emmanuel Levinas has said, the face creates the most direct ethical encounter with the other: it presents the most basic sense of human alterity and vulnerability through the experience of another self, with the inescapable implication that “thou shalt not kill.”  They are as we are, caught between suffering and death, irrevocably apart and profoundly dependent, and capable of being called to life only through their association with others not like them.  As Judith Butler says, this encounter is at bottom a “wordless vocalization of suffering” that calls to us more deeply than can be communicated directly  (Precarious Life, p. 134).  So once again we are at the limits of representation, but with a difference.  Now the gap is not between acting and watching or experience and abstraction.  Instead, we recognize the profound difference between any two human beings, and how that gap both motivates murder and demands that we not kill.

Wise counselors will say war is a stern teacher, but how often do they reconsider what it has to teach?  Look again at the photograph and ask yourself what can be learned from that sad retreat.  Perhaps one reason people long for scenes of battle is that it is harder to face war as it really is.

Photograph by a stringer for Reuters, near Zholobok, Ukraine, February 21, 2015.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

February 16th, 2015

On The Road Again

Posted by Lucaites in a second look, visualizing war

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 9.57.35 PM

 

Your NCN guys are on the road again this week, but fortunately the World Press Photo Awards came out this past week.  We didn’t write about the winner, but we did post several times on Tyler Hicks’ second place award winning photograph for spot news (here) as well as a different version of the scene by a different photographer (here and here).  We encourage you to revisit what we had to say and how others responded … and perhaps also to consider what distinguishes the two photographs from one another.  We will be back with our regular schedule on February 23rd.

Credit: Tyler Hicks/NYT, Stringer/Reuters

February 9th, 2015

Masking the Solitude of Self

Posted by Lucaites in the visual public, visualizing war

Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 9.06.25 PM

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Lynn Johnson

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

February 4th, 2015

On Not Looking at the ISIS Executions

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Grey blank panel

There’s an exception for everything, I suppose.  Today’s post is on a non-image, the image I refuse to see.  This is not an easy choice.  Once decided, it is not easy to do.

Let’s talk about the doing first.  The images are already in my head, as I’ve seen enough already, thank you.  They will continue to appear elsewhere as well.  The Google Image search for something else, the news story or documentary film on the region, an artwork, an academic paper. . . . one way or another, the ban will fail.  As perhaps it should.

The choice is choice regardless of how well implemented.  But why is it a hard choice?  There are plenty of reasons not to look.  Indeed, on this point both high-powered cultural critique and conventional norms of decorum overlap, albeit for different reasons.  A great deal of photography theory has been devoted to saying why one should not look, why the image insults those being displayed and degrades those looking at them.  More recently, some scholars and artists have pushed back: see, for example, The Cruel Radiance, by Susie Linfield, and Beautiful Suffering, edited by Mark Reinhardt et al.  Who is really being protected, they ask, by not looking, and why should the image become a scapegoat for real violence?

Frank Moller has provided an excellent analysis the dilemma, that is, of how it is both impossible to look and impossible not to look (“The Looking/Not Looking Dilemma,” Review of International Studies 35 [2009]: 781-794).  Readers of this blog will know that I have argued against the critique of photography’s supposed complicity with violence, and for the way that photojournalism offers a reflective encounter with the human condition, but I also have claimed that, as in classical tragedy, the most compelling and revealing images of violence and terror are rarely those of visceral horror.  Even so, I have no doubt that somehow my own moral sense and understanding of my country were fixed unalterably by seeing lynching photographs.  I may not need to look now, but I probably did need to look before.

So it is that the public needs to keep looking, even if that risks voyeurism.  And so it is that we need to look at other things instead, even though that risks denial.

Yesterday we learned that ISIS had burned a man alive.  I couldn’t bear to look at the video, and the other relevant news images weren’t able to address the horror, and so it seemed that posting today on any other photograph would make the photo, and the post, into kitsch.  As defined by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, kitsch “excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”  Kitsch is a technique for denying abjection, filth, cruelty, and other horrors, rather than facing them to overcome them.  Thus, not facing the execution seemed impossible, and yet I still couldn’t look.  So it is that I had to find a better way of not looking.

Burning a human being alive should be unacceptable to other humans, but it is not.  Those defending the action can rightly point out that humans are burned alive all the time by bombs, rockets, artillery shells, and other weapons in the modern arsenal being used against ISIS and anyone else caught in the cross-hairs of the modern nation-state.  But we knew that, and we see it from time to time, and it may matter that it wasn’t done for the camera.

ISIS isn’t merely the latest thing in the slaughter pen of history.  They are recreating a premodern way of seeing other human beings.  All you need to do is enter into their visual world of headless bodies, dismembered heads, bodies aflame, and other scenes of spectacular dehumanization, and very quickly a sickening–and surely for some, exhilarating–transvaluation of values begins to undermine every assumption of modern, liberal-democratic civil society.  At that point, looking really is dangerous–and far, far more so than photography’s critics had imagined–but for that reason perhaps all the more necessary.  If you are to pull back from the abyss, you first have to stare into it, while you still can.

So look.  Then turn away.  If you don’t need to look, I’m with you.  If you need to look, you don’t have to apologize.  Whatever you do, realize that the stakes are higher than had been imagined.  For the same reason, know that it becomes all the more important to understand why ISIS exists at all, and how to break the cycle of violence and the downward spiral that serves them all too well.  For that, we need many other images, and much more as well.  Not least, we need to appreciate how civilization is a way of seeing.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

November 12th, 2014

The Day After Remembrance Day

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Iraq war dead payloader

It’s like the day before, and all the days before that: back to business as usual in the war zone.

This photograph of Iraqi war dead is from well before yesterday, but it still has a point to make.  I don’t want to make light of the Remembrance Day commemorations around the globe (including the more optimistic variant of Veterans Day in the US).  It is right and proper to remember the war dead, to honor all those who served, and to humbly acknowledge the debt owed by those who did not have to make the sacrifices demanded by war.

But that is not all that is needed if we are to confront the ugly face of war in our time.

The photograph above is a sure counterpoint to the solemn, stately, decorous rituals observed yesterday and relayed across the slide shows and other media.  In those moments of observance, respect is paid, and war itself is recast as an exemplar of supreme values.  The hard facts of loss are made explicit, and the actual carnage is abstracted into flowers, flags, dress uniforms, and the precise discipline of military ceremony.  The nation reaffirms itself as a community of memory, and the reality of war is forgotten.

The rest of the year, however, is a different story, and not least in the war zone.  I’ve chosen this photograph because of the direct contrast with formal observance.  Instead of being treated with dignity, these soldiers are being handled like trash.  Yes, they might get a decent burial eventually, but for anyone seeing this phase of the operation, the damage has been done.  Civilians, other soldiers, and now you have all been insulted; not to the extent of the dead and their families, but close enough.  That reaction is appropriate, because a truth about war has been revealed: it is not in the service of the highest values, because it degrades those values.  It destroys lives, communities, and our common humanity.  It converts the human world into waste.

Much ink has been spilled about whether photojournalism should expose the bodily horror of war.  This photo, like many others in the archive, demonstrate that less can be more: there is little need to see the gore, because more than physical destruction is at stake.  If you do want to get closer to the mutilation that troops in the field have to experience, you can search for “war dead” at Google Image.  Perhaps everyone should do that once, but it’s not what is needed on a daily basis.  What is needed is to be reminded not only of the need to honor the dead, but also of how profoundly they and we are being dishonored every day by war’s vulgar contempt for decency.

Photograph by Peter Nicholls/The Times (UK).

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.)

 

 

Next Page »
FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains images and excerpts the use of which have not been pre-authorized. This material is made available for the purpose of analysis and critique, as well as to advance the understanding of rhetoric, politics, and visual culture.

The ‘fair use’ of such material is provided for under U.S. Copyright Law. In accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Section 107, material on this site (along with credit links and attributions to original sources) is viewable for educational and intellectual purposes. If you are interested in using any copyrighted material from this site for any reason that goes beyond ‘fair use,’ you must first obtain permission from the copyright owner.