NO CAPTION NEEDED
ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

February 27th, 2015

Paper Call: Sixth International Conference on the Image

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

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Media Materiality: Towards Critical Economies of “New” Media

Clark Kerr Conference Center
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, California USA
29-30 October 2015

We put this up before, but the deadline was extended and now is very close again: March 5, 2015.

Conference information is here.  Instructions on submission begin here.

February 25th, 2015

The Face of Battle in the Ukraine

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Ukranian POWs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

February 23rd, 2015

The Deep Freeze and its Coincidental Other

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe

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In case you missed it, the weather has been in the news a good bit this past week. The extreme cold seems to have gotten everyone’s attention and photojournalists everywhere have made a point of putting it on display (e.g., here, here, and here), illustrating both its aesthetic beauty and somewhat apocalyptic overtones: record breaking snowfall in the New England area, subzero temperatures in the southern regions, and as in the photograph above, a burning building encased in ice from the water used to tame the blaze. And yet, for all of these irregularities, my otherwise well educated next door neighbor could say (without a hint of irony): “I guess this gives the lie to global warming.”

My neighbor—as well as so many others—misses the point of global warming, which is not just about lowering the earth’s temperature and the melting of the polar ice caps (though it is very much about that), but also about effecting historically normal weather patterns so as to create radical shifts in the climate such as the irregularly severe cold and excessive moisture we are currently experiencing in large portions of the country. The irony of the above photograph is telling—perhaps even prophetic—in this regard, as it puts one possible future on display: a world where the simultaneous extremes of unregulated heat and cold will make it almost impossible for us to preserve the social and economic structures we rely upon.

But, of course, in other parts of the country the problem is not extreme cold and excessive moisture, but the very earth-cracking, dust bowl style, lack of moisture. The drought in California is ongoing and severe—“exceptional” and “extreme” are the official terms; that is somewhat old news, however,  and the news cycle is nothing if it is not driven by what is both “new” and most dramatically immediate. And so we aren’t seeing too many stories about the draught these days.  And yet, if we look carefully we will see that photographs like the one above are actually inflected by photographs such as this, which appeared in the Sacramento Bee:

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Those boots stand on 125 acres of land in the San Joaquin Valley that have gone fallow due to lack of water. And while some will argue that the drought in California is not directly caused by human induced global warming, there is also little doubt that such global warming exacerbates the effects of an otherwise extraordinary dry spell.

The point is that the deep freezer and the big drought are happening at the same time. One only has to remember to look past the most immediate representations to see it—and to consider the implications of the coincidence.

Credit: Jacqueline Larma/AP; Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee

February 16th, 2015

On The Road Again

Posted by Lucaites in a second look, visualizing war

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

Credit: Tyler Hicks/NYT, Stringer/Reuters

February 15th, 2015

Sight Gag: The New Math

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Bruce Plante Cartoon: The answer to Oklahoma's $600 million doll

Credit: Plante, Tulsa World

Sight Gag is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.

February 11th, 2015

Facing The Terror of the Image in Millennium Park

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

Face Millennium Park

Terrifying, isn’t it?  A disembodied head, as if from some hideous experiment or alien communication: gargantuan, strange, yet familiar enough to be uncanny, both human and nonhuman.  Seemingly imprisoned in a mechanical frame, and yet haughty, as if in a position of command and sure to judge harshly.  The central monument in a civic plaza, yet looking more like an idol demanding sacrifice, the image radiates a dark vibe across the urban space. Looming buildings, ice-shrouded railings, bare trees, wind-driven snow, empty spaces, and stragglers in the storm–all these signs of winter’s desolation seem warm and reassuring by comparison with the aggressive presence of that digital face.

I had been trolling through the online slide shows: pictures of the day, pictures of the week, editor’s choice, carnival, fashion week, you name it.  Many were images with little news value, images obviously selected for their storefront appeal: human interest, eye candy, call it what you will.  Amidst these litanies of the same, images every one, there was nothing that stopped me to take a second look, nothing that pushed me to the edge of my comfort zone, nothing the created anything like an encounter with the medium itself.  (You can say I’ve seen too much of this stuff, and you’d be right, but it also was a slow day at the slide shows, which much of the time are archives of remarkable photojournalism.)  And then I saw the image that is the equivalent of a terrorist attack on public spectatorship.

For the record, you are looking at the Crown Fountain video sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park.  The artwork is one of two that bookend a wading pool, with the faces changing every half minute or so.  In the summer, the plaza is thronged with kids and sightseers, and you see the faces of happy strangers everywhere–including on the large video screens.  Even then, however, the sculpture is not simply a precipitant for civic amusement, for it still doubles as a work of art: always a bit uncanny, always a copy of someone and no one and everyone, always a familiar yet anonymous face that is expressive but following some impersonal logic of mechanical display.

By catching that face amidst the winter storm, the photographer was able to pull out this second sense of the artwork.  By doing it with a photograph, he made the artwork doubly reflexive: the disembodied face is now saying something about photography.  Or “saying” might not be the right verb.  It is showing us one thing, the image as image, to evoke another: the terror of the image.  As W.J.T. Mitchell has noted, every theory of imagery is likely to have a fear of imagery lurking within (What Do Pictures Want?, page 342), and the same is true of all of us with our more intuitive relationship to the image world.  Human beings, no matter how modern, project animate powers into images, and fear is an unavoidable consequence.  Indeed, a statement of Mitchell’s can double as a description of the photograph above: “Pictures are things that have been marked with all the stigmata of personhood and animation: they exhibit both physical and virtual bodies; the speak to us, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively; or they look back at us silently across a “gulf unbridged by language'” (page 30, quoting John Berger).

And so the idolatrous face stares at us across a gulf unbridged by language.  The result is a form of terror: the deep anxiety that lies within our relationship to our media technologies and images of every kind, the fear that we may be duplicated or displaced, and that we already have been so, already become images to each other and even to ourselves, strangers in a strange land.

But fear not.  You can’t see it easily in this photograph, but the challenge is there.  The face you see, even in the mirror, is the face of the other; to see the other, you have to see a face.  Here I am channeling (very roughly) Emmanuel Levinas, and especially as articulated by Judith Butler in Precarious Life (pp. 131 ff.): to see the face of the other, wherever one might find it, is to enter into the extreme vulnerability of human life, the precariousness of living with one another.  It is the beginning of an ethical relationship, and the essential condition for peace.

If Butler and Levinas were wrong, it would not be troubling to see that a face is an image.  The image seems inhuman, because a face is the face of humanity.  The image above presses the point, as it seems that that image wants to kill you.  (What do images want?  Your head.)  And no doubt there are things to fear: objectification, mechanization, and other elements of human viciousness and modern society are very real dangers, always.  (Setting them in a place known as Millennium Park is hardly reassuring: welcome to the new millennium, slave.) But let me suggest that the idol in the park doesn’t want a sacrifice.  So what might the sculpture, and the photograph, really want?

Perhaps they want what every image might want: to be seen for what it is, a face.  Perhaps our images provide opportunities to turn terror into something else, something better suited to living with others.  If we could go to school there, perhaps we wouldn’t have to go to war later.  After all, what is terror but a fear of our other self.

Photograph by Jim Young/Reuters.  Recommended reading, though having no responsibility for any errors of my own in this post: Hagi Kenaan, The Ethics of Visuality: Levinas and the Contemporary Gaze.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

February 9th, 2015

Masking the Solitude of Self

Posted by Lucaites in the visual public, visualizing war

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Lynn Johnson

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

February 8th, 2015

Sight Gag: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 9.55.18 AM

Credit: Lam

Sight Gag is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.

 

February 4th, 2015

On Not Looking at the ISIS Executions

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Grey blank panel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

February 2nd, 2015

“The Moral Arc of the Universe is Long”

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

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“… and it bends towards justice.”  Or as we say on the playground, “Cheaters never prosper!” Alas, tonight the moral arc did not bend quite far enough as the Patriots managed to eke out a victory against the Seahawks.  But it did take perhaps the worst call ever by the Seahawks on a second and goal from the one yard line with approximately twenty seconds on the clock to turn the moral universe on its head.  Or maybe it just extended the arc so that the Commissioner can complete his “deflategate” investigation.

What does any of this have to do with the above photograph? I could wax eloquent about how the finale of the Katy Perry halftime show was an allegory for how short the moral arc of justice is, just one more media spectacle designed to mollify and confuse the masses, but …. no.   Truth to tell, the photograph really has nothing to do with anything.  At 6:30 p.m. I had to decide between watching the Super Bowl or spending the evening working on a post for NCN. There is a time, not so very long ago, when I would have opted for the blog.  But its been a very long week and so tonight I simply wanted to be entertained.  And I was.  The outcome aside, it was an exciting diversion from the stresses and strains of ordinary living. And that’s what football is, right, a show, an entertainment, a spectacle, bread and circuses driven by powerful economic interests that, in the end, really do seem to trump all else and certainly anything as quixotic as moral justice. And yet, once again, truth to tell, I really did expect to see moral justice enacted on the gridiron. What could I have been thinking?  One only has to read the newspapers over the past year to know that the last place we might find anything like justice would be the NFL.  But as I said, it was a really good show.  And so it goes.

In any case, we will be back with out regular insights on the world of photography on Wednesday.

Photo Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

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