Apr 17, 2013
Aug 02, 2007
Jan 10, 2008
Apr 14, 2008
Mar 26, 2010
Dec 12, 2008

The Price of Milk

Post by guest correspondent Sarah Lingo

Presidential candidates are expected to know the price of milk. Do they? Do we?

image

This photograph comes from a series by photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur, taken during her visit to an organic farm in 2010. The photo-essay chronicles the aftermath of a calf’s birth at a facility for milk and veal production; of 30 photographs on McArthur’s blog recording this visit, this one in particular brings me up short.

Reading from left to right, we first see a cow nuzzling her iridescent newborn calf whose legs are still bent beneath it; this birth has just occurred. The mother’s attention is strictly on her calf. As our gaze moves right, we see an audience of three more cows who direct their own gazes toward the birth event. A gate and an expanse of hay and mud separate the cows; these divide the photograph diagonally. All three cows to the right stretch their necks through the gate, getting as close as possible to the birth event. Their desire to participate in the scene, as they stretch their necks to the limit, unites them in shared longing.

Although this photograph does not show us explicit suffering—no blood, no slaughter—suffering is nevertheless present. The photograph makes a particularly effective and damning argument against the dairy industry precisely because it only implies suffering; the photograph engages the spectator’s imagination, forcing them to participate in and complete a cycle of ongoing violence.

In this case, violence is the violence of separation, isolation, bewilderment, heartache, and loneliness. The photo’s caption tells us “Dairy cows who have had their babies removed from them so that we can drink their milk, watch the new mother bond with her calf.” The calf that will immediately be taken away so that the mother can be returned to milking and be impregnated again. The calf that will be taken to a crate, where she will spend the rest of her life until slaughtered for veal—unless she, too, becomes a dairy cow.

We might expect the intensity of the new mother’s gaze, fixed exclusively on her calf. As Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen explain, “the elements placed on the left are presented as Given … a familiar and agreed-upon point of departure for the message” (181)—here, motherhood and its presumed instincts. We tacitly accept a demonstration of mothering so commonly assumed to exist across all species.

But the focused gaze of the other cows reveals another intense engagement. Their interest might surprise us. What investment do these cows have in a birth that is not their own? For that, we can look to the right of the photograph as it “present[s] … something which is not yet known, or perhaps not yet agreed upon by the viewer, hence as something to which the viewer must pay special attention.” These cows are “‘problematic’ [and] ‘contestable’” even as “the Given is presented as commonsensical, self-evident.” What is “problematic” and “contestable” about this photograph is the future that awaits mother and her calf, a reality embodied by the cows to the right.

We see here the past, present, and future simultaneously. For the new mother and her calf, this is their present: a moment of intimacy before an inevitable separation. For the cows to the right, the new mother and her calf represent a past, as all three of these cows have almost certainly given birth themselves and have been subsequently separated from their calves. The gate creates a diptych, dividing the past and the future and telling the story of all the cows that give birth on dairy farms.

The still photograph perpetually delays the inevitable suffering experienced by these and other dairy cattle. It suggests but does not show those impending traumatic events—the separation of mother and calf, the calf’s death. I am reminded of Barbie Zelizer, who writes of about-to-die images that such photographs are “situated within the final moment in which it is still possible to hope, where the inevitability of death might yet be avoided” (58).

Instead of documenting a single event, this photograph presents the suffering that is always about to happen: the ongoing violence perpetuated within the dairy industry. Such violence is never over, never resolved. The spectator must fill in the blanks, extrapolate from the cows on the right—who also are spectators—to face what is to come. The photograph forces us to put the pieces together ourselves, to see what has been, what is, and what will be all at once. It reveals the emotional and moral costs hidden in the price of milk: a bill of suffering that we would rather not see.

Darkness presses in from above, and the spectator has to strain to make out the photograph’s finer details. This required effort is representative of the spectator’s larger task of making up for what is unstated and unintelligible about the photograph. We must work to make meaning, to carry the narrative presented here to its logical conclusion; the photograph requires an act of imagination to complete its narrative. Such engagement makes this photograph particularly persuasive because it calls the spectator to actively participate in the violence the image itself only implies.

As Zelizer writes, those “depicted may or may not die, [but] that is incidental to the fact that they stand in for those who do. Because death lingers as a potentiality only, it is up to the public to make the contingent death certain by inferring death from what is depicted” (72). The spectator, having participated in this violent narrative, is left only to wonder, what is required to disrupt this sequence of events, if not for these particular cows, for innumerable others?

 

Photograph by Jo-Anne McArthur/http://www.weanimals.org/gallery.php?id=90#ph1.

Sarah Lingo is a student in the doctoral program in Rhetoric and Public Culture at Northwestern University.  She can be contacted at sklingo@u.northwestern.edu.

 3 Comments

Now Available: The Public Image

public-image-cover

Our new book is out! We’ll hope that modesty does not forbid this moment of self-promotion. Thanks to an extraordinary commitment by the University of Chicago Press, the book includes 48 color photographs and yet is priced at $35, $26.77 at Amazon. It also is available as an e-book.

The Public Image argues for a fundamental shift in understanding photography and public culture. In place of suspicions about photography’s capacity for distraction, deception, and manipulation, we suggest how it can provide resources for democratic communication and thoughtful reflection about contemporary social problems.

As Suzie Linfield comments, “With intelligence and passion, Hariman and Lucaites challenge us to re-think what documentary photographs can and can’t do, what they hide and reveal, and how we do and don’t see them. Most of all, the authors make clear why these questions are of such great urgency to the violence-saturated world in which we live and to the future of modernity itself.”

You can read more about it at the Amazon page or the page at the Press, but, hey, why not see for yourself?

 0 Comments

The Family of Man Redux

on-display

 

“Redux” means bringing back, as if from war or exile.  The Family of Man was born into two wars: the Cold War, and a series of attacks by Roland Barthes, Alan Sekula, and others that derided its popularity, its humanism, and its vision of photography as a public art.  The result was exile.  As part of the paradigm shift currently underway in photographic theory and practice, there now are several revisionist engagements with the exhibition, which is itself getting a permanent home.  On Display is the most recent of these re-considerations.

The links for ordering the book won’t work in this reproduction of the flyer, but you can start here.

 0 Comments

Announcement:  Photography and Civic Spectatorship

Photography and Civic Spectatorship

Robert Hariman, Northwestern University and John Louis Lucaites, Indiana University
A National Communication Association Seminar
Philadelphia Marriott Downtown
November 9, 2016
9:00 AM – 5:00 PM

nyc-street

Since its inception photography has been understood as a fundamentally democratic technology, but throughout the past century it has been dogged by an iconoclastic attitude—a hermeneutics of suspicion—that has treated it as a problematic medium and mode of representation that undermines political awareness and public deliberation.  The tide seems to be slowly turning in recent years with increasing attention to the role that photography might play in animating civic imagination and engagement. This seminar explores some of the questions, assumptions, and arguments that can move scholarly and public discussions of photography beyond the older paradigm and toward more engaged civic spectatorship.  These issues include rethinking the relationship between analog and digital technologies, the role that de- and re-contextualization plays in interpreting and thinking with photographs, and the relationship between realism and imagination.  The seminar will be divided between exploring (a) a robust conception of photography as a public art in the 21st century, and (b) two topics that are central to photography’s history and critical potential: modernity and war.  Throughout the focus will be on the development of interpretive practices and ethical norms for civic spectatorship

Requirements: Applicants should submit a 250 word statement that indicates their interest in the study of visual media and spectatorship, as well as a brief description of one of their research projects that might benefit from and contribute to the themes of the seminar.  Applications should be sent as a pdf file to John Lucaites (Lucaites@indiana.edu) no later than September 16, 2016. Those selected to be in the seminar will be notified no later than October 1, 2016.  Subsequently a few common texts and images will be distributed for study prior to meeting at the convention.

Photograph by Suzanne DeChilo/New York Times.

 0 Comments

Killing, Seeing, and Being Seen

WALKER_160720_COD_19604x

Let’s get a few things straight: the fish is being tagged, not killed.  The fish is a fish, and I’m not, so I don’t know what it is seeing.  Because the fish is a cod, it will eat lots of other fish, including other cod, many of them while their hearts are still beating.  If you want sympathy, don’t expect to get it from the fish.

But does the fish nonetheless deserve sympathy–or compassion, or whatever you want to call an act of moral resonance?  And should the fact that we can see it seeing be the basis for that sympathy?  Reason would suggest otherwise, but I’m not sure I want to be so reasonable.  Not at the moment, anyway.  There is plenty of time to revert to the more utilitarian arguments for not destroying the wild fish populations, for keeping the ecosystem in balance, for sustaining resources for future generations. . . . But this photograph requires a different answer, because it is asking a different question.

That question is, why kill?  Why should we kill, or at least, why should we kill those species we can live without?  Of course we slaughter micro-organisms by the trillions, but that consideration is largely a distraction from where morality really lies: that is, where individual and collective decisions are possible.

This photograph is as good an argument for vegetarianism as I’ve seen in awhile.  First, it got to me, and that has to happen if deep cultural habits are to be changed.  Second, it got to me for reasons that are easily dismissed and yet somehow persistent.  The large eye evokes cross-species identification, as if the eye is window to the soul.  That’s a cliche, but hard to shake.  The large head, open mouth, and sagacious visage suggests a capacity for self-consciousness, even reflection; no matter that the suggestion comes from those 19th century drawings and Kitchy paintings of animals in suits or sitting around the poker table.  The gentle, supporting embrace of the technician evokes an ethic that channels every sentiment of parenting or of loving care for one’s pets–even though he holds neither child nor pet and his work is geared toward increasing the fishing quotas.

Why, we might ask, should such compromised emotional attachments prevail?  Why should this photo push me further away from eating meat?  Let me suggest that the deep structure of the image is doing important work on behalf of overcoming our moral blindness regarding other species.  The clue to what might be happening is provided by Kaja Silverman’s remarkable book, The Miracle of Analogy: The History of Photography, Part I.  Silverman suggests that photography’s genius lies not in providing direct reproductions of what is seen, but rather in disclosing the many similarities that constitute the world in its deepest sense.   Instead of thinking of reality as something prior to the image, we should consider how reality is “a vast constellation of analogies” (11) that can be brought to light through the image.

Analogies between fish and human beings, for example.  Similarities that are not so much thought as felt.  Patterns of continuity that become expressed by many and often odd means: cliches, cartoons, and comparisons with pets among them.

And if you think about that, it might become harder to kill.

Photograph by Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe.

 0 Comments

Citizens of Photography Research Positions

headshot

The Department of Anthropology at University College, London is seeking two MPhil/PhD candidates and two postdoctoral researchers to participate in an exciting project “Citizens of Photography: The Camera and the Political Imagination” co-ordinated by Professor Christopher Pinney. Participants will be required to conduct fieldwork in one of the following locations: Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Nicaragua. “Citizens of Photography” is an empirical anthropological investigation of the relationship between photographic self-representation and different societies’ understanding of what is politically possible. Prolonged ethnographic fieldwork will study how local communities use photography to represent individuals, families, and other identities and explore whether this plays a role in the manner in which people articulate their political hopes and demands.

Additional information is available here (for MPhil/PhD) and here (for postdoc).  Interested applicants are encouraged to contact Christopher Pinney at c.pinney@ucl.ac.uk for further details.

 0 Comments

Why Spectators Matter: The Resolution of the Suspect

Kratsman:Azoulay

Radius Books, in conjunction with Harvard’s Peabody Museum Press, has released The Resolution of the Suspect, a collection of photographs by Miki Kratsman with accompanying text by Ariella Azoulay.  The work draws on decades of documentary engagement in Palestine to expose the operations and effects of the Israeli occupation.

Prepare to be disappointed: if, that is, you want to see searing moments of human drama, striking images evoking strong emotions, and compelling indictments of political leaders.  Such photographs have their place, but to show how oppression eats into the bones of all who are involved–victims and perpetrators and spectators–one has to give up drama for banality.

Aware of both the moral capacities and the limitations of texts and images, Kratsman and Azoulay refocus conventional documentary practices to explore how power shapes the act of seeing.  They expose the dominant gaze of military occupation, but more as well.  Across the terrain of power, they trace the countless gestures, silences, concessions, commitments, and sheer persistence that make up a politics of presence for those who are denied the status of citizens.  The result is a slow, disruptive look into a place where everyday life is lived–and degraded–under the twined optics of nonrecognition and surveillance.

What is most distinctive, and  perhaps astonishing, is how Kratsman and Azoulay call for the active participation of the spectator.  “Active participation here means to resist the assumption that the insecurity of the lives of those photographed is unrelated to your own status and mode of being as a citizen of a given political regime”; it  is to understand instead how “the constitution of your own citizenship is what keeps them vulnerable and exposed to disaster” (28).  Nor is this a simple scolding; instead, “We are encouraged to harness our imagination” in order to recognize how we already are being harmed by the illusions of non-participation, and how we have forgotten our right not to be complicit with the perpetrators, and how we, too, can become subject to forces of degradation and destruction.

In place of drama and strong emotional identification with the victims, we are offered a long view and photography’s “civil contract” whereby all who are governed can experience an egalitarian solidarity across the arbitrary restrictions of sovereignty.  That contract is available every time you look at a photograph.  It becomes a political resource as you allow the photo to prompt and guide your civil imagination.  Only then can you enter into what really is happening on the ground while considering what could and should be otherwise.

What you can’t do is see it all.  That incapacity is fundamental to Resolution, which offers a collection of fragments that suggest instead how low-level violence can tear, gouge, and distort reality; how it breaks continuities of trust and vision; how sharper resolution is but the ironic echo of an inchoate abyss.

That said, the book is strangely hopeful.  I’m not sure why, but perhaps the authors know that cynicism only perpetuates the status quo.  I also suspect that they believe in the spectator.  However hard it may be to believe, they believe in you.

 0 Comments

Into the Twilight Zone in Nice

Again, yet again.  Another massacre in France.  This time with a truck.

Nice truck masscre

Next time perhaps with a boat or a bookstall or a suitcase. . . . As Elaine Scarry observed about torture, the use of everyday objects is designed to make all of reality terrifying, with nothing that can be trusted.  And something like that may be happening in the collective consciousness.  The politics of too many nations already is marked by too many symptoms of ethical dysfunction, and so one form of violence can resonate with all the others.  Even as the routines of containment also become more visible, more professionalized, and so obviously part of the system that is the real target of the attack.

Which may be why the photographers are on to something when they capture the strange, unreal, or uncanny aspect of the disaster.  These are not photos of emotional drama.  They could be from Invasion of the Body Snatchers or an updated Twilight Zone or any other sci fi movie.  Instead of the lifeworld being torn apart, its technocratic control system is revealed.  Instead of bodies torn apart, technicians in protective clothing and corpses under wraps, waiting to be tagged.

Nice massacre bodies

And yet, there is nothing wrong with these photos, or with the conduct of the police and other first responders.  We live in both lifeworld and system, and we need both human connection and technologies for living together as citizens in modern cities rather than as clans in small scale tyrannies.  Nonetheless the images are showing something important.

The world seems to be pitching into another reality, one that is more unreal than real, both present and still to come, and defined primarily by separation and violence, and by madness and helplessness.

A world in which everything appears as if it could be in a movie–and the wrong movie.  Out of order, disjointed, and not for creative expression or bold endeavors, but for what?  Killing, and cleaning up after the slaughter.

As violence becomes familiar, the world becomes strange, even to itself.  Action is legible, behavior is disciplined, everything is handled with skill and often with care–and yet, it’s not right.  The mood is wrong, the atmosphere stained, and something is odd about the light.  These things are not easy to say, and harder to explain, but you can feel them.  And now they can be seen.

Photographs by Eric Gaillard/Reuters.

 0 Comments

Fires, Floods, and Photos

Want to see what a wildfire leaves behind?

A freshly scorched landscape is seen in the early morning hours of June 18, 2016 at the Sherpa Fire near Santa Barbara, California. A fire in the Los Padres National Forest had expanded to two square miles (five square kilometers) by Thursday, making it the "largest since 2009" in the area, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Information Center told AFP. / AFP / DAVID MCNEW (Photo credit should read DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)

Not much.  This image of the immediate aftermath of a fire near Santa Barbara, California is disturbingly empty, almost abstract.  It could be anywhere, as whatever was there has been obliterated.  Or it could be at almost any scale: the scorched hide of an animal, or embers in a fireplace, or the surface of a dying planet.

Given global warming, “dying planet” may not be too far off the mark.  The wildfires have many causes, of course, but human behavior figures in most of them.  What would be occasional events in a “state of nature” have become more than that: signs of systemic disruption by a species too powerful for its own good.

I’ll admit that I love to stare into the embers of a controlled fire, and the photos from the wildfires can’t help but have a similar appeal.  Many of them capture the eye: the fires themselves, the planes dropping brightly colored retardants, the huge clouds of smoke, the stoical firefighters illumined by showers of sparks. . . . Images such as these appeal to experiences deep in species memory, and to myths of conquest and control.  They also can turn melancholic as one looks into the embers and sees dying dreams, empires, galaxies.  Fire is more than a great leveler: when literally scorching the earth, the future seems to have gone up in smoke.

It’s not that simple, of course, as underneath the ashes the forest is already growing anew.  But let’s not jump too quickly to visions of renewal and hope.  The fire has something else to teach us: as in the photograph above, when faced with a large fire one is pushed to scale up one’s thinking.  Fires are no respecter of persons, and their images may appeal to us because they are resolutely about collective conditions: a shared danger or common fate and the necessity of responding as a  group.  If the image of a firescape is abstract or impersonal, there is something to learn from that.

Fires move fast and unpredictably, and they can consume everything one might need to recover afterwards.  Everything except the rivers, that is.

flood aftermath photos

Floods, or the increased incidence and severity of floods, also can be due to global warming.  Even if not, they too become disasters that inundate landscapes, disrupting or destroying the lives that were there.  But there are differences as well.  Floods often develop slowly, and recede at the same pace.  They affect some but not others in the same locale: the difference of a foot can be the difference between desolation and business as usual.

There may be another difference as well.  In surveying wildfire photos, it is easy to find dozens that don’t contain people.  In surveying photos from floods–for example, from the West Virginia flooding last week–many of the images contain people and many feature them.  Again, water doesn’t kill as fire does: you can be OK while up to your waist in the middle of a flood but you wouldn’t want to be half aflame in the middle of a wildfire.  The harm done often is different as well: many possessions are damaged, not destroyed.  Many things are still in place, although rotted and covered with muck.  While fires rage, floods distend time, slowing everything down as you have to sift through the waterlogged mess, making decisions one item at a time.

Which is why the photograph above is so evocative.  She sits, as there is time to sit.  The waters have left, the sun is out, and she is laying pictures out to dry.  There is plenty of other work to do as well–note that she is sitting on what was once a fence–but this small task of conservation also is important.  Memory work, you might say, so that more than possessions will be saved from the waters’ oblivion.

Floods are collective disasters that require collective responses, but there also is something personal about them.  Even the dead bodies still are recognizable.  The task of restoration has to work through what was there before, not simply replace it.  The community has to respond as a community, but so many of the measures have to concern individual people and places, particular habits and specific concerns, and labor that will take time and then more time before enough has been done.

There is something to learn from photographs of the wildfires, and from photographs of the floods.  Not the same lessons, but they are linked in ways that might escape notice at first.  Like fire and water, you might say, or two photos that seem to have little in common, but together show us a world that is in grave danger and yet worth saving.

Photographs by David McNew/AFP/Getty Images and Sam Owens/Charleston Gazette-Mail via the Associated Press.

 0 Comments

When Gag Photos Are No Joke

As a matter of course, we just don’t do gag photos at this blog.  After all, we’re providing serious public commentary, right?  And we feature many outstanding photographs.  As the gag photo often is assumed to be the sure sign of amateurism, you wouldn’t expect to find it among the images of the week.

TOPSHOT - The Finance Minister in Brazil's interim government, Henrique Meirelles, offers a press conference in Brasilia on May 20, 2016. The new economic team of the acting President Michel Temer updated the 2016 budget deficit expectation. / AFP / EVARISTO SA (Photo credit should read EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)

And you’d be wrong.  You’d be wrong in the specific case, as with this photograph of Henrique Meirelles, the Finance Minister in Brazil’s interim government, at a press conference in Brasilia.  And wrong more generally, as one of the very best professional photographers, Elliott Erwitt, produced dozens of visual jokes very much like the one above.  In fact, this image looks like a signature Erwitt photo, but I doubt it’s even an homage.

I was tempted to write that Erwitt “had a weakness for” visual jokes; that’s how conventional discourse does our thinking for us.  It wasn’t a weakness, however, but another angle on the human condition.  Likewise, is the photograph above really of Henrique Meirelles, who I’ll bet does not have two antennae protruding from orange eyes?  If it’s not an image of the person named in the caption, what is it?

One answer might be that it is a portrait of an official.  Not a specific official, but an idea or at least a caricature of officialdom.  In that respect, it may be closer to the reality of modern finance than the idea it displaces: why continue to believe that decisions are being made primarily by prudent individuals, rather than being pushed one way or another by data flows and the abstractions that accompany them?  Does he see the material hardships of ordinary experience, or does he see instead through the optics of financial instruments?  Is he one of us, or does he represent the many levels of alienation that stand between ordinary experience and the decisions made at the top of elite institutions?

As that gap grows, it leads to more anger from below.  Growing inequity leads to reactions on both the left and the right, and to more demonstrations and other protests, and to violence.

And to more gag photos.

Orange County Sheriff's deputies take a protester into custody near the Anaheim Convention Center Wednesday, May 25, 2016, in Anaheim, Calif., after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump held a rally at the convention center. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Here the term “gag” may acquire additional meaning, although the Orange County Sheriff’s deputies may be well trained (may be; it’s possible), and the Masked Marauder seems to know the drill.

But is it a gag photo?  In one sense, no: the surreal juxtaposition of Halloween mask and riot gear is in the scene, not an optical illusion created by the camera.  But in another sense, yes: compared to the other demonstrators at the Trump rally, he probably is featured because he’s got the most unexpected costume, producing an image that most of the time would have to be created by special effects.  But in yet another sense, no: it’s not funny.  But in another sense, yes: he’s probably wearing the mask to provoke a laugh or at least something edgy enough that it’s on the edge of nervous laughter.  So, once again, we might ask, what is it?

One answer is that, similar to the image above, we are not being shown a specific demonstrator but rather an idea or at least a caricature of political unrest today.  In any case, one that is closer to the truth than what a more “unmasked” portrait of the individual would provide.  The grotesque mask (and hair) seamlessly fitted to the cameo clad bruiser suggests that we are seeing Trump’s alter ego: the surreal forces of unreason and violence that lurk below the surface of his campaign.  The many similarities with the police restraining him suggest the alignment or affinity between forces of disruption and those promoting “security” and “order” at the expense of civil society.  The fact that he probably is protesting against Trump suggests that the Left can get sucked into the same downward spiral.

Not funny, not funny at all.  Makes me want to see something light, even silly.  Maybe a dog’s head in place of its owner’s.  Just a gag, you know. . . .

Photographs by EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images and Jae C. Hong/Associated Press.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

 

 1 Comment