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. . . .

July 9th, 2014

Photography in the North Korean Worm Hole

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Governments are still in the business of producing posed photographs, and many of those look posed, but not many look as if they were posed 60 years ago.  For that, you have to go to North Korea.

Korean leader & troops

It’s no secret that North Korea is living in a relative dark age–literally, when you see satellite photos of it at night, and in many other ways as well, not least in having a gulag of prisons in which hundreds of thousands of people have been tortured, murdered, and worked to death.  But nobody’s perfect, right?

I can hardly believe that I’m posting on this photograph, which is a standard propaganda image that puts a smiling face on a brutal totalitarian regime.  Most of the time, this blog tries to feature photojournalism as it is an artistically and politically significant public art.  I select the images almost solely because of how they stop me, grab me, speak to some part of me.  I begin with that intuitive, emotional reaction, load the image into the WordPress software, and try to figure out what the photo has to say.  No art can avoid repetition, and journalism couldn’t exist without it, but for the most part you won’t see me spending my time ruminating over stock photos taken by a government news agency.  Of course, when the photo is of Kim Jong Un, the door is wide open for ridiculing the Dear Leader, and there are plenty of examples of that around, but cheap satire hasn’t been our thing at NCN either.

So there must be something to this photograph after all.  I’ve seen many others of the Dear Leader–he seems to be stock figure, or running joke, in the slide shows–but none caught my attention.  So what is it?  Let me suggest several answers that reflect various dimensions of the photographic encounter.  Perhaps the first hook is the contrast between the smiling figure in the center of the group and everyone around him.  He’s having a ball; the others, not so much.  That simple distinction comes out of photography’s most basic elements: its combination of focus and frame to depict the behavior and relationships of vernacular life.  Those relationships often are layered, as here we see the conventional groupings of the posed photograph, the work team, a celebrity mingling with the little people, and the political leader visiting the provinces.  Each of these in turn suggests that additional information or insight may be available: we can see modern image culture, the less than impressive soldiers in what looks like a make-work group, the fact that Un actually has picked up a thing or two from the Western media, and an allegory for the distribution of happiness in North Korea.

The next dimension of the photo becomes evident if we step back to consider a sense of historical context, as then the retro look is particularly obvious.  The photo’s composition goes right down the checklist for Taking Good Pictures: vertical interest on the right, horizontal interest on the left, etc.  The green gun mount and boxy/baggy uniforms have 1950s written all over them.  As does the setting: coastal defense, who does coastal defense today?  Artillery, that’s your high tech?  And look at that blue water: shouldn’t they be putting up a seaside resort?  North Korea is not exactly a leader in resort development, so we are left with something else: a photograph of the way the world used to be.  As with much else in that sad place, photography in North Korea can be a trip down a worm hole into the past.

This is not photography as an aide-memoire, but rather an image of what still persists even though we would be better off without it.  The world today is a mess, but at least the relative “innocence” on display in this photograph from North Korea is rarely an option.  It’s just a photograph, but consider how much repression has to be in place for it to exist as it does.  From this perspective, the photo becomes a form of documentary evidence, a valuable addition to the archive.  This is how a nation looks, when it shouldn’t look that way at all.

Photograph by the North Korean Central News Agency.

 

July 7th, 2014

Witness to a Demolition

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe, visualizing war

Screen shot 2014-07-06 at 2.15.39 PM

When it comes to trauma and atrocity the photograph is frequently cast in a confounding conundrum: Because it is driven by an indexical realism it is presumed to bear witness to the worst of human behavior; and yet, because it is only capable of showing a fragment of reality in a sliver of time it is doomed by its incapacity to tell “the whole story.” Of course, no medium is capable of “telling the whole story”—and certainly not in objective fashion—but for some reason we seem to place the full “burden of representation” (to borrow John Tagg’s phrase) on photography itself without paying attention to what it might be accomplishing despite its limitations. And more, when it fails to persuade we assume that somehow the onus of blame resides solely with the photograph (or the photographer) rather than, say, with the viewer or the spectator.

Perhaps the photograph above is a case in point. According to the caption you are witnessing the “demolition” of a private residence in the village of Idnha, just outside of Hebron. The home belonged to Ziad Awad, a Palestinian and a member of Hamas, “charged” with killing an off-duty Israeli police officer. His home is being demolished by Israeli security forces “as a deterrent” to future terrorist activity. If Awad was found to be guilty of murdering an Israeli police officer—and there does seem to be sufficient evidence to support the facts of the case—then surely he should be detained and justly punished. But the demolition of a private residence in the middle of a village or neighborhood to punish or deter an individual crime is excessive. Indeed, far more than an “eye for and eye” mode of justice, it seems to fit in the category that Ariella Azoulay dubs a “regime made disaster.”  Regime made disasters are catastrophic circumstances initiated by democratic institutions in full public view; they are rarely identified as disasters per se, and they divert attention from the larger population being effected (focusing instead on the most immediate victims) by deflecting attention from deeper, underlying causes.

As one reads about Awad, for example, journalistic focus is directed largely at the fact that he was a known terrorist—indeed, he had been imprisoned for a number of years and only recently released, that an Israeli citizen had been  murdered, and that the State of Israel was exacting justice. What receives only marginal attention is the fact that the home being demolisthed did not belong to Awad, but his brother, and that now the brother, his wife and five children, and Awad’s wife and six children have been rendered homeless. It could be a scene out of the Old Testament—think The Book of Judges. But the larger point is that what receives no attention is how such actions impact the ecology—social, political, economic, and otherwise—of the neighborhood, already something of a refugee state, in which a home is precipitously razed. Equally ignored—and perhaps more to the point—is any attention to the the deeply seeded, underlying causes that animate the tensions between the State of Israel and Hamas in the first place.

And yet, for all that, the regime made disaster is there for all to see if only we are willing to accept the invitation. But “invitation” is not really the right word, for an invitation implies the right and opportunity to turn away, to reject or resist the entreaty with some measure of impunity. The photograph, by contrast, issues something that is more like an ethical demand to take responsibility for what we are seeing and for how we respond in reaction to it. No, the photograph does not put the act of demolishing this single home on display, though it does show us the immediate traces of smoke and dust as they expand outward beyond the original location and work to encompass and choke the entire neighborhood. Nor does the photograph tell the entire story, focusing on this singular event. But what it does is to put the impending and unfolding disaster before the public eye, insisting that we look, and that we see, and in seeing, that we engage, that is to say, that we stand as witnesses who not only testify to what they see, but who will ask the questions necessary to make sense out of what is before their very eyes and to act accordingly. It requires, in short, an ethics of spectatorship.

In Dispatches, one of the most affecting novels to come out of the Vietnam War, Michael Herr notes that the war taught him that, “you [are] as responsible for everything you [see] as you [are] for what you [do].” That obligation does not diminish just because what we see is mediated from half-way-around the globe.

Credit: Mussa Issa Qawasma/Reuters

June 20th, 2014

NCN Turns Seven

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

best-dog-birthday-party-ideas0

Once again it is a time to say “Thanks” to all our readers, and not least to those who mention, retweet, or favorite us on Twitter.

We won’t be posting for a few weeks.  We plan to return on Monday, July 7 to begin another year at NCN.

Photograph by J. Sander/plainpicture/Corbis.

June 18th, 2014

Frame and Form

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

A frame is always a specification: look here, not there; inside, not outside this space.  Photography’s framing of the world seems to be essential to both its success and its liabilities.  It allows specific persons, places, things, and events to be seen, and always without most of what surrounds, constrains, qualifies, or otherwise defines them.  So it is that captions are thought to be essential: only they can say what lies outside the frame.

The 140th Running Of The Kentucky Derby

But that doesn’t mean they would tell you much, or that the additional context contributes to perception.  Let me suggest that this photo will be diminished, not enhanced once you learn that it is showing steam rising from a thoroughbred horse in Kentucky.  That caption has widened the frame, but only to make the image less distinctive, less focused, less intense, and less suggestive.  It has displaced what are acutely aesthetic properties, substituting instead a common sense understanding of a routine world.  In that world, horses and steam are very familiar things, and things rarely seen without some larger interest controlling perception.  What is the temperature?  Will he run well today?  You might as well ask What’s for lunch?  Whatever the answer, it comes with a very wide and very conventional sense of context.

Photographs are so useful in so many settings because of how they provide neatly framed perceptions.  “Here, look at this?” can be a very pragmatic and efficient act.  The uniformity of the physical framing is an important part of that pragmatism, even as it sets up the medium for easy criticism.  (Hint: reality is not prepackaged.  Why that isn’t said about painting is beyond me.)  What may be under-appreciated is how the framing works in concert with a deep tendency toward formalism.  Framing still is tilted toward specificity, but it also can, in some cases, transform perception from being focused on objective subject matter to being attuned to formal patterns.

Patterns, of course, are never merely specific.  They generalize.  They come from somewhere and extend, if only in the imagination, through continued replication.  But to do that, they have to be interrupted.  A continuous pattern soon becomes a blank wall, an empty horizon, a long stretch of ground.  Hence, the importance of the frame: by cutting off perception, it brings form into view.  What remains to be fully explored is how these two elements of all artistic expression combine in photography to create a distinctive capacity for abstraction, or perhaps for something that is no longer merely specific but not quite abstract.  Something that may go without saying in language, but that could perhaps have additional power in a visual medium.

If nothing else, photography at least provides a distinctive availability.   In the right hands, all you need is an iPhone:

 

lake fence

 

Photographs by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images and David Sutton/Sutton Studios.  For an excellent study of abstraction in fine art photography, see Lyle Rexer, The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography (New York: Aperture, 2009).

June 15th, 2014

“… ‘Till Death Do Us Part”

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe

 

Screen shot 2014-06-15 at 9.12.51 PM

The post today can be somewhat brief, not because there isn’t much to say, but rather because, well, we’ve said it several times already (e.g., here and here), most recently two weeks ago (here).  Today’s photograph simply makes the point in dramatic fashion.

Wildfires are overrunning different parts of the world and in ways that are completely out of synch with normal weather patterns … and in ways that really ought to be of some serious concern. They are catastrophic in their effects, both economically and environmentally. But the bigger catastrophe—or perhaps the proper term is “tragedy”—is that we seem to have begun to take them wholly for granted, treating them as the new normal. Or, as in the photograph above, treating it as an interesting backdrop to an otherwise romantic scene of personal avowal and commitment. What better way, after all, to secure one’s wedding vows—“for better or for worse, through sickness and in health”—than to locate the beginning of one’s life long future with another person against the conflagration that apparently promises to be there forever and anon.

It really is hard to know what to make of this photograph. For one thing it has appeared at a number of different “pictures of the week” slide shows for different national news groups, none of which otherwise pointed to or commented on the wildfires burning in the background. And even if there was something “new” to report on this account, its not like one more photograph of the fire is adding probative evidence to make a claim about basic facticity. I mean, does anyone really question whether these wildfires exist (even as I write that I know that there have to be “fire deniers” somewhere in the world, but for the remaining 99.99% of the population, do we really need one more picture of a wildfire to make the case that such fires are and have been raging out of control?). That said, it should also be noted that the photograph is being taken by a photojournalist, not a wedding photographer, and yet it is also something of a mashup of two photographic genres.  So if the photograph is not contributing to the “news” what is it doing?

One answer to this question might be that it is offering evidence of a pervasive attitude—and attitudes, of course, are incipient actions.The caption identifies a couple near Bend, Oregon posing for a wedding portrait.  It is hard to register the photograph as anything other than a publicity stunt, perhaps an advertisement for the next apocalyptic movie to come down the pike.  But, there you have it, its a “real” photograph of a real couple.  Why settle for a lake or a pond or a nestled grove of trees to mark your nuptials for posterity when you can have a raging wildfire in the background! The fire was apparently close enough that the minister performed a “shortened ceremony” so that the wedding party could be safely transported elsewhere for the reception, but then again it was not so close that the couple seems distracted by it from the passionate fires that burn within their own breasts (or so we might assume). The irony is astonishing. Then again, perhaps the irony here cuts in a different direction if we can assume that this woman and this man are actually dedicated environmentalists and that they are using the occasion of their union to call attention cynically to the inanity of such rituals and ceremonies when in fact the world is ablaze—and the fire is getting ever closer. Perhaps in the next moment (or at least after their reception) they peel off their wedding vestments and don the attire of activists concerned to alert the world to the need to address the problem. Maybe. It’s hard to know.  It would certainly make for an interesting movie.

However you read the photograph—whatever attitude you note or potential action you see— there can be little doubt that it pictures a profound problem that surely predicts a troubling future.  Right now it seems to point to a tragic outcome, particularly if we persist in accepting the background in the photograph as just another backdrop for a dramatic wedding portrait. The fire, after all, will only continue to burn brighter and to get closer.  If we continue to ignore that problem, however, or worse, if recast it as something which is altogether normal,  it is  possible that the story which points to a tragedy will end as a farce.

For better or for worse … indeed.

Credit: Josh Newton/AP

 

June 15th, 2014

Sight Gag: Ah, The Rule of Law!

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

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Credit: Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal and Constitution

 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.

June 13th, 2014

FYI: Reuters Digital News Report

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

This blog is devoted to photographs, not data, but hey, “all media are mixed media,” so let’s not forget about our friends in survey research.

News interest by country

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has released its Digital News Report 2014.  You can see summaries in various media at the website, or download the entire report.  For video of a discussion of the report in the UK, go here.  That video had received 20 views when I was there, so it’s not yet a hot item.  Perhaps a good photo would help. . . .

 

 

June 11th, 2014

Photographic Idealization: Delusion or Aspiration?

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

One of the standard criticisms of photography is that it produces an idealized conception of reality.  Framing, depth of field, and many other techniques are used to feature what is attractive and ignore everything else.  Much of the time we see single events, not the surrounding confusion or complexity; clean surfaces, not inner turbulence; smiles, not heartache.  Of course photojournalism and art photography alike strive to escape these conventions, whether to document what is going wrong in the world or to explore extraordinary modes of perception.  But for every one of those images, there are thousands from commercial photography, advertising, public relations, travel and snapshot photography, pornography, soft news–in fact, just about everything else, including those great pictures of distant galaxies from NASA.  And did I mention sunsets?

bp5

If I had a dollar for every photograph like this one. . . . . Yet they continue to appear, and not only on Flickr and Facebook.  The more conventional they become, the easier it is to disdain them.  So, we can point out that this “real” sunset is also a highly idealized portrait of nature.  And of a nature that, like the dog waiting for the stick to be thrown, has been thoroughly domesticated.  Except that you can’t domesticate the sea and the sky, not least on a planet becoming less hospitable to humanity due to modern resource consumption, so we have only a delusion of control and reciprocal beneficence.

The photo also assumes that the woman (and dog) can easily escape any bad turn in the weather, and that she can take the leisurely stroll because she doesn’t have to depend on actually finding enough to eat along the shore.  Her leisure and ours in enjoying the image depend on a prior, taken-for-granted surplus; without it, the photo could only be a weather report or a guide for foraging.  Any thought that somewhere, somehow, sustainable food, shelter, and other protections might be at risk is put to rest by the vision of natural harmony.  Human, animal, and inanimate nature share a common beauty, what more do you need to know?

I think that is one reading, but not the only legitimate reading of the image.  In other posts, I’ve suggested how landscapes and other seemingly superficial images and conventional emotions can provide important resources for living together: for example, by inviting us to a more abundant life than we might think possible.  I will say, however, that until recently I was much less likely to see just how idealized many images were.  And then I saw this photo:

GERMANY-ANIMALS-BIRDS

The caption said, “A crow eats it’s prey sitting on the roof of the Chancellery in Berlin on May 6, 2014.”  That’s a model caption–who, what, where, when–which doesn’t begin to capture what is being shown.  On reflection, of course, we are seeing nothing unusual.  How do you think all those birds you see stay alive?  (They don’t all eat sunflower seeds.)  This is nature up close and personal.  There may still be a small measure of buffering, as at least in this instance the prey is not being eaten while still alive, but I’d say we are close enough, thank you.

The image is remarkable in its close depiction of predation, but even more remarkable for its rarity.  This is a very unusual photograph, yet one that could be taken every day.  It presents a very different vision of nature from the sunset.  Here survival is front and center, nature consists of killing and being killed, and while there may be pleasure there is no room for remorse.

By focusing without flinching on a single meal by a single bird, the photographer has exposed the pervasive idealization that saturates so much of our mediated experience of the natural world.  It would be a small step from there to conclude that the second image is superior to the first: showing us reality as it is, not as we wish it would be; reminding us that we, too, are animals who kill to eat, not pretending that we treat all animals like pets; showing that nature is wholly indifferent to whether any animal lives or dies, not assuming that we fit seamlessly into a natural order of transcendental beauty.

It would be easy to stop there.  Let me suggest, however, that doing so would be mistaken.  A vigorous realism has to go beyond the claim that life is harsh, and idealization might be one way that we rise above that condition, however precariously.  Consider for example, what it would be like if the second photo were the norm: that we saw thousands of images like it every day.  (One could say we do but don’t know it, because they involve humans preying on other humans.  Let’s leave that for another day.)  Imagine that photography’s consistent message was that nature was cruel, that life was only a struggle to survive at others’ expense, that fairness and every other social value had nothing to do with it, and that there was nothing to be seen that suggested any other way of being in the world.  Of course, that message is being promulgated from one end of the political spectrum, but fortunately they don’t have photography on their side.  (TV and film are another story.)  The consequences probably would be gruesome.

So it is that idealization may not be so bad after all.  Not all of it, and not without criticism and other reminders of how it can be misleading, but compared to a severe insistence on the struggle for survival, visions of a beautiful, peaceful world might be worth having.  Better yet, perhaps they could be inspirations to create such a world in reality.

Photographs by Larry Steagall/Kitsap Sun via the Associated Press and Odd Andersen/AFP-Getty Images.

June 9th, 2014

Imag(in)ing the World Now and Then

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visualizing war

 

D-Day Now

The scene could be a community beach front almost anywhere in the world. Cabanas set up for those who can afford them. Tents and umbrellas for others. White sand, small dunes, and blue sea for everyone—swimmers, sailors, and those who just want to sit and catch the breeze coming in off of water. Sun bathers intermixed with children, families coming and going. Soon, one can imagine, the sun will be down, the tide will be up, and only a very few will remain on the beach. A quiet, restful place, with only the rhythmic sound of the waves beating on the surf, lights perhaps shining from the windows in the buildings lining the beach as a reminder of a living community.

But for all of that, it is not just anywhere. It is Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, France. Seventy years ago this past week it was known as Juno Beach, one of the primary landing zones in the D-Day invasion. Taking this beach head was necessary to provide flanking support to the operations at Gold and Omaha beaches and to give the Allied forces a direct route to a German airfield near Caen. The beach was heavily fortified by two German battalions armed with over 500 machine guns plus numerous mortars, a defensive position enhanced by weather patterns that made it necessary for landing crafts to come as close to the fortifications as possible before releasing troops and equipment. The responsibility to take the beach head fell to the 3rd Canadian Infantry division, which suffered over 1,000 casualties by day’s end—the highest ratio of Allied casualties for anyone other than those landing at the more famous and costly Omaha and Utah beaches.

Photographs, of course, only mark a sliver of time—typically only a fraction of a second that frames the here and the now in stark and radical terms. One cannot know what happened moments (or months or years) before this photograph was snapped, let alone what might happen even seconds after the shutter has opened and closed. Temporal continuities with the past, let alone alternate future possibilities can only be surmised. Such limitations don’t mitigate the value of images, but instead only emphasize the need for us to be imaginative in how we understand the reality that they put on display. And too, it requires us to recognize the ways in which the historicity of an image operates in tension with what it was then (or it what it might be later). It is, in short, part of an archive that has to be curated and engaged.

And so here we have Juno Beach shortly after the D-Day invasion. A crashed fighter plane where families today luxuriate. The detritus of battle washed up against fortifications that protected Axis forces from the landing Allies. The appearance of a solitary ghost town cast in somber grey tones where today colorful commerce flourishes, marked by the flags of multiple nations.

-Day Then

This too, of course, was only a stark sliver in time. A scene of courage and fortitude, of death and destruction that can only remind us that what was before the lens when it clicked was there and then, even as it only framed a reality that could survive only in imagined memories.

Credit: Chris Helgren/Reuters; National Archieves of Canada (for other “before” and “after” pictures of the D-Day invasion click here.)

 

 

June 8th, 2014

Sight Gag: Before Drones … and Google Maps

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Screen shot 2014-05-18 at 11.17.47 PM

Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv

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.

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