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Star Wars Optics and Socialist Dreams


Incredible, isn’t it?  So perfectly designed and yet so strange.  Ultramodern and yet medieval, like a space ship on a surveillance mission and a castle readied for battle, set off by itself in forbidding isolation and yet connected somehow to distant galaxies.  The tableau is so unique and so striking that it could be a scene from the forthcoming Star Wars blockbluster: we can imagine the rebel stragglers, downed on an unknown planet, approaching the daunting edifice that has emerged out of the snowstorm.  They can’t survive outside, but they don’t know what lies within.  Friend or enemy?  Life, death, or something worse than death?

They were socialists, actually: the structure is a monument to socialism built on Bulgaria’s Mount Buzludzha.  It is one of a series of remarkable images captured by photographer Danila Tkachenko.  The exhibition is available in the current issue of the National Geographic Magazine and at their website. Influenced by a nuclear waste explosion that had scarred his own family, Tkachenko set out “to look for other sites and structures that symbolized an abandoned march toward progress.”  He found them.

The movie optic doesn’t come from Tkachenko, and I don’t intend to make light of his work.  But science fiction movies and documentary photography have more and more important intersections than you might think.  (Search for “science fiction” at this blog and you’ll see a few more examples of what I have in mind.)  Tkachenko describes the now abandoned monument as a “very surrealistic object,” and he’s right.  Although having the exceptional formal simplicity and coherence of a fine art object, it nonetheless is out of place with itself and its surroundings: the scene presents a mixture of aesthetics, politics, and an abstracted natural environment where each part seems alien to the others even as they fit together seamlessly.  Surreal indeed.

Susan Sontag declared that “photography is the only art that is natively surreal.”  That was not meant to be a compliment.  It was instead a radical deconstruction of the medium that was thought to be inherently realistic.  Sontag was right, but not in the manner that she would have wished.  Photography is surreal, and good thing, too, for that is exactly why it is capable of capturing the “natively surreal” features of social reality.  Which, I might add, is a lot of social reality.

The monument itself may not be to your taste. I think it is magnificent, but you might see a glorified birdbath.  That disagreement is worth having, but it is beside the point today.  The photograph has captured something more comprehensive than the artwork itself: the pervasive alienation of the socialist ideal on planet Earth.  True, Bulgaria fell well short of the ideal society, and the money spent on the monument perhaps could have gone to help the common people rather than glorify an ideal or a regime ruling in its name.  But if present trends continue, one can imagine a planet trapped in a perpetual winter of neoliberal capitalism.  That planet could be dotted with massive, ultramodern castles surrounded by vast spaces of abandonment. It would seem like a movie to us today, but we already are living the trailer.

Perhaps an abandoned monument to a noble dream is surreal, but some day rebel stragglers may look up at the ruin and want to ask, compared to what?

Photograph by Danila Tkachenko.  The quote from Sontag is from On Photography, p. 51.

Cross-posted at ReadingThePictures.

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

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.

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A Day at the Riot

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


Religion on its Way Back to Ordinary Time

Like press coverage more generally, photojournalism doesn’t really know what to do with religion.  Most of what is meaningful to the pious is experienced internally, subjectively, and away from the public gaze, while most of what is observable by outsiders can appear arbitrary, archaic, or ridiculous (or all three).

Prague Magi

This procession through the streets of Prague to celebrate the festival of Epiphany would seem to qualify. The mashup of Babylonian and medieval costumes seems right out of an old oil painting.  The alternation of festive and dutiful attitudes among the performers also seems appropriate, as between them they ensure that the ritual is only that and not an occasion for getting closer to God.

Most visual coverage of religion probably goes no further than the categories of Ritual, Rapture, and Violence: we watch as the devoted go through their curious motions, or are overcome by powerful emotions of anguished penance or spiritual connection, or are killing other people for having made the mistake of being born into the wrong faith.  Come to think of it, that does cover quite a bit of ground. . . .

Even so, much still is being overlooked, and perhaps necessarily so.  Any medium has its limits, whether the medium is spiritual or technological.  Let me suggest that something might be there to be learned nonetheless, and not just about religion.

I selected the photo above because it is actually among the more mundane examples of the season.  Between slow news cycle around Christmas and the end of year/new year transition, the slide shows are full of eye candy, and especially from the religious festivals.  The photo above falls within that pattern, but also within the dull routines, muted emotions, and general banality of the midwinter, work-a-day world that awaits everyone once the holidays are over.  That aesthetic and social downtime corresponds to what is known in the Christian liturgical calendar as Ordinary Time.  (I love that label.)  In the photo above, it’s almost as if the procession is passing through an aperture in time, moving methodically from the temporary, ritualized, make-believe disruptions provided by the holidays into the unif0rm, linear time of a modern, secular society.  I can almost imagine them going around the corner and vanishing, leaving only an empty street on another cloudy day.

Modernity itself knows no time other than ordinary time, an endless progression forward without any possibility for magical interludes, eternal returns, or other supernatural distortions.  So it is that religion, like violence, typically is thought of as a pre-modern holdover, another form of traditional folk culture that stubbornly persists but eventually will become negligible.

That may be, and that may be for the best, but I think the photograph above slyly suggests another possibility.  Instead of simply vanishing, perhaps, like the group in The Journey to the East, they might continue to exist after others stop believing in them; perhaps they could travel into another world, one of many alongside this one in a time out of time.  The procession would still be silly, somber, peculiar, and otherwise out of joint with the modern world, and the difference would be our loss.

Photograph by Michal Cizek/AFP-Getty Images.

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Ecce Homo: Photographic Existentialism and the 21st Century

It could almost be something by Banksy: A human figure drawn to challenge the politics of neglect that lies behind urban decay.

An inmate looks out from his cell in the Secure Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison in California

The man stands, entombed alive within the wall, and so we might ask what else remains locked up, and what voices reverberate in the air just beyond the range of normal hearing, and what demonic spirit would create such a place. Street art can make you realize that the street already is art, but not necessarily something made for those passing through.

But it’s only like a painting, and not on the street.  Modern prisons are designed to be far away from public awareness.  Places of internal surveillance, they nonetheless remain unseen and visually impenetrable.  Indeed, at least one of them is largely invisible in the midst of a downtown metropolis.  The only exception comes when a photographer is allowed inside, and the results are never reassuring.

Or perhaps they are.  Some certainly will say that bad guys should be locked up and that prisons shouldn’t be country clubs.  This photo is from the Secure Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison in Corcoran, California, and the inmates placed there have been determined to be highly dangerous to other people.  The criminal justice system is not infallible, but one would be unwise to disregard its judgment about the worst cases without considerable evidence to the contrary.  And if the old prison looks a wreck, liberals still probably would prefer to see California’s limited funds spent on schools.  So, what’s the problem?

The problem, if we want to call it that, is that this photograph is by far the most striking and profound I have seen this week.  Granted it’s been a slow week visually, and the slide shows have leaned on autumnal colors and the ongoing festival of everyday life.  Such images are a worthy celebration of small differences and simple pleasures in a common world, but they also are highly repetitive and therefore capable of reinforcing unreflective consensus and emotional complacency.  As one part of that effect, it becomes easy to ignore how much is at stake and which decisions really matter if people are to life together peacefully.

Prisons are monuments to bad decisions: those of the inmates and many more as well.  They also have a habit of reflecting the society that builds them.  The corroded metal and decayed surfaces above suggest a place that is more dungeon than modern institution, and with that, a society that is more feudal than it realizes.  And yet, in the midst of that, the man stands as if standing for the concept of individual human being, something that can only be realized if the individual is treated with dignity or, as in this case, insists on that right in spite of everything.

The philosophy of existentialism was rightly criticized for putting too much emphasis on the individual’s power of choice. One result, it seemed, was that victims could be blamed for their suffering; another was that an essentialist definition of human nature remained in place of more critical attention to specific social circumstances.  The photograph above could be faulted on both points: the man is responsible for his actions, which, given where he is, must have been horrible; his image nonetheless reveals an irreducible essence that belies a full account of how a society ends up with such a person in such a place.

That said, visual existentialism might not work in quite the same way as its more discursive counterpart. One difference will be the artistic allusions at work: e.g., the similarity to paintings by Francis Bacon; the pairing of the two door frames as they contrast figural representation and found object abstraction; the four frames that could come from a medieval alter piece depicting various stages of agony and illumination.  Prompts such as these can lead to questions about social organization and its signs and symptoms.

Another critical edge comes from the change in historical context.  There are more prisons today than in the 1950s, and more photographs.  In a time when the same technologies and ideologies are applied to both prisons and societies, the prisoner acquires representational power simply by become visible.  And when smiling people are brightly, repetitively present on every surface, placing a man behind a screen makes him appear more authentically human.

The fact that he might also be evil is not something that should disqualify him.  Have a nice day.

Photograph by Robert Galbraith/Reuters.  Regarding prisons, be sure to see the Prison Photography blog.

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It Can’t Happen Here

Civil War Austerity.2013-06-02 at 9.05.22 PM

There is no shortage of photographs of riot police containing protests against austerity measures instituted by various countries in the European Union, from Germany to Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and beyond, including most recently Turkey, which has made application to join the EU.  And there is nothing particularly distinctive about the vast majority of these images as they pit generally youthful and bedraggled unemployed protestors against state security forces dressed in black riot gear that might well be the late modern version of medieval armor, prominently wielding riot shields, batons and tear gas grenades.  The conflict marked by these photographs is altogether generic and but for the occasional signage in Greek or French or Slovenian they are all interchangeable with one another.  They could be anywhere in Europe, a feature that contributes to naturalizing the image as it signifies an “other” world wholly distinct from the US.  And at least one implication is, “it can’t happen here.”

The photograph above caught my eye because despite the fact that it is similar in many regards to the numerous other such images of European austerity protests it is distinctive in one important respect that warrants our attention.  Shot outside the Parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona it shows Spanish police forces advancing on Spanish firefighters with their riot batons raised.  What makes this image distinct is not so much the aggressive stance taken by the police—as disturbing as the poised baton, ready to strike, is—but the fact that they appear to be attacking other civil servants who are also sworn agents of the State.  In short, we are not just witnesses to an instance of civic unrest;  rather, we are spectators of  a more profound, extreme civic disorder that borders on something like mutiny or perhaps even civil war.  Put simply, we are viewing the State fighting against itself in a manner that challenges the very legitimacy of whatever it is that the police officers are “defending.”  One can only wonder how long a State can persist under such conditions?

Austerity hounds in the US have faced a number of strong challenges in recent weeks stemming from the fact that the economic scholarship which presumed to ground their case has been proven to be seriously flawed.  This has not stopped them from repeating their mantra, that “we don’t want to end up like Greece or Spain.”  There are good reasons why the fiscal crisis in the US is different than that in the EU and thus the analogy doesn’t apply all that directly. That said, the photograph above suggests one of the potential risks of too austere a response to the recession that we certainly don’t want to see in the US.  We probably don’t face a strong likelihood of this happening at the present moment as unemployment and other signs of large scale economic improvement like housing prices seem to be rebounding—albeit at a snail’s pace; but if those pushing for something on the order of the Ryan Budget in the House were to get their way it is not impossible to imagine how a growing number of “have not’s” could be pushed to the outer limits of their ability to sustain themselves.  And if that were to happen images very much like the one above might become more than just a bad nightmare, giving a different meaning to the plaint that “we don’t want to end up like Greece or Spain.”

Photo Credit: Paco Serenelli/AP


The Man Behind the Curtain


The run up to the coronation of Pope Francis this past week was a sight to see.  And I mean that in the most literal of terms.  For once we get past the litany of “firsts” – first non-European Pope, first Latin American (much, no doubt, to the chagrin of Fox News, who was surely betting on an American Pope, not a Pope from the “Americas”), first Jesuit, and so on – what becomes pretty clear is that what we are witnessing is the ritualized, modernist spectacle of the medieval appointment of a divine rights monarch.

Neither rituals nor spectacles are inherently problematic as a general matter.  But what is perhaps important to note in the hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs leading up to the puff of white smoke and then the new Pope’s first public appearance beneath the carefully prepared red curtain that shrouds the Loggia of the Blessings of St. Peter’s Basillica are the ways in which the ritual is colonized by modern mass media technologies to move backwards in time towards the re-feudalization of religious and political power and an era when the public had no visual presence at all. It is a spectacle of absolute sovereignty.

The photograph below is telling in this regard, as it is shot from the Pope’s eye view looking out upon the masses from his balcony.  Well above the people below and at some distance the Pope emerges deus ex machina, as through a proscenium arch; God’s lieutenant on earth, he simply appears as if from behind a curtain to be seen and little more.  Indeed, there is even the sense in which he need not be seen at all, as the ritual itself guarantees his divine appearance, material or not.

Medieval Spectacle Part 1

For all of its appeals to social justice, the modern Church remains a secretive, hierarchical, medieval institution, its political machinations hidden from public view, and so there is probably nothing all that strange about this.  It is not as if the Catholic Church has ever endorsed or contributed to the emergence of what Jüergen Habermas referred to as the “bourgeois public sphere” or the ensuing late modern politics that recognize the popular sovereignty of multiple publics.  What is odd, however, is how the contemporary western mass media have played along, emphasizing—and in its way, valorizing and endorsing— the ritualized spectacle of what has to be among the least democratic, western institutions to wield legitimate social and political power.

But for all that, the occasional photograph slips through to resist the dominant narrative and remind us that an active visual public persists and that such spectacles are often fictions contrived for our edification.  As an example, consider this photograph of a Roman Centurion, surely amongst the fiercest warriors of the ancient world, now consigned to hawking bottled water and roasted pork sandwiches made to your specifications in Rome’s Piazza di Pietra.

Roman Centurion

Rome and the Vatican are not identical, of course, but that this image has made its way into international circulation at the same time that the carefully calculated ritual and spectacle of Pope Francis’s impending enthronement are taking place and it should surely give us pause to consider what we have been seeing—at least on the public side of the curtain—and how we are implicated in it as spectators.

Photo Credit:  Eric Gaillard/Reuters; Alessia Paradis/ABACAUSA; Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

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The Visibility of the Everydayness of War

Allepo Catapult 2

With sequestration staring us in the face and all of the teeth gnashing concerning the possibility that the Department of Defense will be confronted with $500 billion dollars in budget cuts over the next ten years—no small chunk of change, but nevertheless a relatively small part of the overall DOD budget—I was intrigued by the photographs, such as the one above, coming out of Syria that show the primitive and makeshift weaponry employed by the Free Syrian Army.

The slingshot or catapult can be traced to ancient and medieval times, but in the contemporary era it is usually associated with rebel or guerilla warriors (think of all of the images we regularly see of Palestinian youth using slingshots to hurl rocks at Israelis), in large measure because it requires so little in resources to make it work. State sponsored armies have budgets that can be cut, rebels and guerillas … not so much.  And so the later cobble together whatever is available, converting the objects of ordinary life into weapons of war.

It is this last fact that bears some attention.  Elsewhere we have talked about how war has been normalized by being made more or less invisible in the United States, such that the accouterments of warfare have been converted into everyday objects that appear to have no connection to war (think of Jeeps and Humvees, or the way in which camouflage  has become something of a fashion statement, not to mention the AKC-47 assault rifle cast as a hunting rifle), but here we see everyday objects employed to the ends of death and destruction.  This too is an act of normalization, but one that runs in the opposite direction, putting war on display as quotidian, making it visible as a normal part of the everyday experience.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this inversion, but I am reminded of Elaine Scarry’s characterization of torture as “world unmaking,” converting the objects of everyday life into instruments of pain.  Doctors become administrators of pain, refrigerators and filing cabinets become bludgeons, bathtubs becomes miniature torture chambers, etc.  Watching someone creating weapons out of everyday objects for their own use is not exactly the same thing, since there is no clear identification of torturer and tortured; then again it is arguably all the more torturous inasmuch as those producing and using such weapons seem to have little real choice in the matter as they become the active agents in unmaking the world around them.  It is, in its way, the most perfect and efficient form of torture; a perversion of a perversion in which the torturer and the tortured are one in the same person.

I was struck by the broad implications of this thought when looking at the picture below:

Phone Bombs

Once again the photograph is of members of the Free Syrian Army.  And once again the soldiers we see are involved in producing a homemade weapon of war.  Here, however, there is no pretense of primitive weaponry; characterized in the caption as an “anti-aircraft weapon,” it is thoroughly modern, even if it does not display the most sophisticated and up-to-the-minute technology.  Indeed the bright colors of this image suggest a degree of contemporaneity that is muted by the drab shadows and colors of the photograph of the catapult.  But what is most striking is the use of a smart phone to arm and guide the missile.  Here we have an everyday object—and an item that virtually everyone reading this post has in their pocket—that has made it possible to create community across time and space, allowing us, as Ma Bell used to say, “to reach out and touch someone.”  It does that here as well, of course, but only after perverting the normal and ordinary usage of an otherwise salutary and everyday instrument of communication.

The United States is a far distance from Syria in just about everyway that one can imagine, economically, politically, culturally, and so on.  And yet, looking at these images—almost as if through Alice’s looking glass— has to give us pause as we recognize our own pretenses and patterns of  acclimating ourselves to the visual everdayness of a culture of war.

Credits:  Asmaa Wagulh/ Reuters; Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters.  Elaine Scarry’s provocative  discussion of the relationship between torture and war appears in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.  New York: Oxford UP, 1985.


Man Down in the Global War on . . . . What?

Whatever your politics, you’ve got to be affected by this photograph of the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Maimanah, Afghanistan.

Even if viewed by an Afghan citizen opposed to the US occupation, I think the image would be mesmerizing.  It has a magnetic pull something like what happens when traffic slows to a crawl as it passes by a really bad roadside accident.

The two soldiers are survivors, it seems, but even they are stunned and slowly dropping into an immobility and isolation approaching death.  Behind them, someone worse off is being dragged unceremoniously away, whether to a hospital or the morgue remains unclear.  The empty space in the middle of the frame seems to radiate out from the pole, as if reverberating from the blast that already has occurred.  Weapons and body armor are scattered on the ground, or slung over the back of one of the police officers, so this is not a story of projecting power, building stability, or any other imperial objective.  This miniature battle was over as soon as it began, and all that remains is the frenetic running around of some Keystone Cops doing damage control.

The fact that three people in the scene are taking pictures only adds to the sense of chaotic futility.  Shoot all you want–and a lot of good that will do the guys on the ground.  Pan further into the background and you’ll see that for other spectators it’s a lot like driving by a really bad accident.

The photograph was taken in April.  Not this month, and so it’s now being taken somewhat out of context.  Or is it?  April, May, last year, this year, does it really matter to most people?  Ten years and counting, “context” starts to sound hollow–what kind of context is appropriate when images become interchangeable and few are paying attention anyway?  And even if I supplied the rest of the captioning information–April 4, 2012, at least ten dead, etc.–would that create anything like the terrible body blow that knocked those soldiers to the ground?

Contextualization is one of the most important ways of articulating and anchoring meaning, but there also are important ways of thinking that become available through decontextualization.  By letting the image resonate while withdrawing those props that can be used to place, categorize, rationalize, and file away the event, one may, however briefly, be awakened to empathy and thus to serious thought.

Thinking includes comparisons, and another benefit of taking things out of context–which we do all the time when using language, by the way–is that one can make unexpected comparisons.  Like this one, for example.

One picture or two?  Well, two.  In the second image the man down is a civilian and his assailants are right there rather that vaporized.  He isn’t so much knocked into semi-consciousness as struggling painfully to avoid being choked and smashed into the pavement.  And the cops are attacking, not scurrying about, and hurting rather than helping.  In fact, they are all citizens of the same country, though not on the same side.  The photo is of violence occurring at a Labor Day march in Santiago, Chile, which is a long way from Afghanistan.

But not as far as you might think.  This photo, too, could have been taken in many another month or year.  Indeed, the neo-medieval body armor of the riot police suggests that the scene may be more timeless than we know.  And one of the more punishing side-effects of globalization is that the world is coming to have one continuous street.  And that street is the scene for insistent outbreaks of dissent, protest, and other forms of resistance, and for recurrent crackdowns by security forces having varied uniforms and insignia but an increasingly unified apparatus of equipment, techniques, training, and deployment.  And one way or another, it seems that the guys getting knocked down are being betrayed by leaders too complicit with the redistribution of resources up the economic hierarchy.  It’s all one street and sometimes it seems to be all one war.

So perhaps they are similar images after all.  In a world becoming re-habituated to violence, the usual distinctions come to mean less and less. In order to comprehend a world out of joint, sometimes the photos have to be seen out of context.

Photographs by Gul Buddin Elham/Associated Press and Luis Vargas/ZUMAPRESS.com.


Regressing into the Future in Tahrir Square

Instead of last spring’s inspiring images of democratic solidarity, the images now coming out of Cairo are becoming increasingly surreal.

This one is getting a lot of play–the guy is so distinctive that you can even see another photographer in the picture trying to get his shot.  And what’s not to like?  The bizarre gas mask is hardly standard issue (where did he find that?), and its white rubber both contrasts with his dark clothing and matches the white smoke pouring out of the tear gas canister.  The smoke streams back along his path as he is running forward, for this is definitely an action shot.  (Think of how many demonstration photos feature relatively passive postures: sitting, standing, or milling about, with raised hands, signs, and banners displayed for the media having to stand in for more extended or dramatic action.  Look, for example, at the rest of the people in this photo.)  Revolutionary action wearing an alien, almost unintelligible mask, the photo captures key features of a popular revolt defined, like so many demonstrations today, much more by its opposition to a corrupt establishment than by a clear idea of what an alternative future might bring.

And that’s where I get a bit worried, as the photo may be fitting too well with the anti-democratic meme of late that progressive movements are incoherent.  (Back in the day, the left was tarred with being a rigid, centralized, international organization adhering strictly to the explicit ideological doctrines of Soviet communism; now that the Cold War is over, I guess it makes sense that the left, sans directives from Moscow, would have to be disorganized and inarticulate.  As long as you’re outside of the reality-based community, that is.)  Unlike many other images of painted faces and massed bodies, the masked man doesn’t seem to link with any political aspiration or populist movement.  Because his pending action of throwing the canister mirrors the original assault, he seems equally prone to violence while this false equivalence cancels out any sense of political difference.

Worse, he looks grotesquely simian, as if political demonstrations were a form of devolution.  Worse yet, this falling backward is also a cyborg projection where organic and mechanical natures have been horribly fused.  The close fitting headpiece reveals a human skull in all its distinctiveness and fragility, yet the mechanical mask destroys any hope of wholly human sympathies.  The bare hands make the dark clothing seem like a pelt, while the loping limbs suggest a life alternating between predation and flight.  The bag hanging below his waist looks like another limb and thus another example of organic life distorted, whether by bad science or the pressures of a harsh environment. Five-limbed with a machined face, there is little basis for identification.  It seems that only violence is legible, and can calls for restoring order be far behind?

And yet, the more strange he appears, the more likely another interpretation also applies.  I’ve posted a number of times about how photojournalism is revealing the often surreal nature of violence in our time.  In addition, I’ve suggested in several posts that a corresponding political aesthetic is emerging as well, one in which the modern apparatus of power can look increasingly medieval.  Admittedly, sometimes costumes are just that, and the surface rarely expresses what lies below unerringly, but I believe that these changes in style can reflect far more troubling changes in political relationships.

To take a page from science fiction–indeed, one of its most insistent and important lessons–technological progress can proceed with and contribute to regression along every other dimension of human experience: social organization, economics, politics, culture, you name it.  Thus, rather than merely supporting or undercutting the demonstrations, photos such as the one above might be working more prophetically to identify how a harmful future is emerging in the present.  More to the point, they are showing not who is causing what, but how ordinary people are already coping with deprivations and more explicit forms of systemic violence, not least by adapting to those harsh conditions at the very moment that they are fighting against them.

Welcome to the future.

Photographs by Tara Todras-Whitehill/Associated Press and Mahmud Hams/AFP-Getty Images.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.