Jun 15, 2009
Sep 26, 2012
Aug 11, 2010
Jul 27, 2007
Jan 08, 2008
Jan 25, 2015

On The Road Again

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


Masking the Solitude of Self

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.


On Not Looking at the ISIS Executions

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.


The Day After Remembrance Day

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).


Judging In Camera

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



Madness, Madness . . .

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.


Witness to a Demolition

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


Imag(in)ing the World Now and Then


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.)




Creative Destruction in Homs: The New Order of Ruins

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.


Sontag, Photography, and Moral Knowledge

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.