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. . . .

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

Screen shot 2014-03-02 at 9.49.07 PM

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

Emotion of Death in Kiev 2014-02-23 at 9.50.02 PM

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

Flag Shot2014-02-23 at 9.22.42 PM

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.


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.



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.

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