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. . . .

November 12th, 2014

The Day After Remembrance Day

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Iraq war dead payloader

It’s like the day before, and all the days before that: back to business as usual in the war zone.

This photograph of Iraqi war dead is from well before yesterday, but it still has a point to make.  I don’t want to make light of the Remembrance Day commemorations around the globe (including the more optimistic variant of Veterans Day in the US).  It is right and proper to remember the war dead, to honor all those who served, and to humbly acknowledge the debt owed by those who did not have to make the sacrifices demanded by war.

But that is not all that is needed if we are to confront the ugly face of war in our time.

The photograph above is a sure counterpoint to the solemn, stately, decorous rituals observed yesterday and relayed across the slide shows and other media.  In those moments of observance, respect is paid, and war itself is recast as an exemplar of supreme values.  The hard facts of loss are made explicit, and the actual carnage is abstracted into flowers, flags, dress uniforms, and the precise discipline of military ceremony.  The nation reaffirms itself as a community of memory, and the reality of war is forgotten.

The rest of the year, however, is a different story, and not least in the war zone.  I’ve chosen this photograph because of the direct contrast with formal observance.  Instead of being treated with dignity, these soldiers are being handled like trash.  Yes, they might get a decent burial eventually, but for anyone seeing this phase of the operation, the damage has been done.  Civilians, other soldiers, and now you have all been insulted; not to the extent of the dead and their families, but close enough.  That reaction is appropriate, because a truth about war has been revealed: it is not in the service of the highest values, because it degrades those values.  It destroys lives, communities, and our common humanity.  It converts the human world into waste.

Much ink has been spilled about whether photojournalism should expose the bodily horror of war.  This photo, like many others in the archive, demonstrate that less can be more: there is little need to see the gore, because more than physical destruction is at stake.  If you do want to get closer to the mutilation that troops in the field have to experience, you can search for “war dead” at Google Image.  Perhaps everyone should do that once, but it’s not what is needed on a daily basis.  What is needed is to be reminded not only of the need to honor the dead, but also of how profoundly they and we are being dishonored every day by war’s vulgar contempt for decency.

Photograph by Peter Nicholls/The Times (UK).

November 10th, 2014

And The Wall Came Tumbling Down

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visual memory


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Twenty five years ago it was all concrete and mortar and barbed wire dividing east from west. Guards with their dogs stood their posts and friend and families were separated from one another. And then, as if in a blink of an eye, the wall came down, leading some to maintain that history itself had come to an end. Of course, such pronouncements proved to be little more than precipitous as wars quickly transformed from being cold to hot once again. But, at least in Germany, perhaps the most stable and prosperous economy in the world right now, the Berlin Wall is but a distant memory.

Photographic slide shows at numerous news outlets (e.g., here, here, and here) have featured the anniversary of this momentous event, comingling black & white images of the wall as a blockade separating a nation along military and ideological lines with black & white and color images of the frenzied destruction of the wall in 1989 and colored images of the current Germany where the least vestiges of what was once remain, mostly random slabs of concrete that once were covered with graffiti and now convey all manner of artistic murals. The transition from black & white to color, from then to now, is telling. But more so is the need to recover what once was if only to remember what had to be overcome. And, of course, public art plays an important part in such recovery.

Public art takes many forms, of course, such a statuary and murals, as well as more transitory forms such as Lichtgrenze 2014, a temporary “light border” of 8,000 illuminated balloons that follows the path of the original Berlin Wall. But most of us, of course, will never be able to experience Lichtgrenze 2014, except of course through the photographic frame. The photograph above is not just a medium for conveying the art project however, but it is its own version of public art. After all, even those who can walk among the lights traversing the path of the wall cannot see it from the god’s eye view that the camera provides, reminding us of the capricious and haphazard trail that the wall followed. Note for example how difficult it is to identify the path of the light border among all the other lights. If you didn’t know what you were looking for you probably would assume that the bluish lights snaking through the city were little more than an ordinary thoroughfare with nothing distinguishing the lighted city on either side of the divide. And so the photograph invites a somewhat unique perspective on the ways in which walls often follow a somewhat arbitrary logic, and how, once they (inevitably) come down, it is easy to forget they were ever there in the first place.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was a world historical event, to be sure, so much so that slabs of the wall have been cast to the four winds. One can find them as scattered relics  throughout the world in London, Brussels, Haifa, Kingston, Sofia, Moscow, Guatemala City, Porte de Versailles, Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul, Canberra, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, and any number of locations in the United States, including a city block that includes ten segments of the Wall in Los Angeles. And the message, it would seem, is clear enough: However much energy we put into building it and maintaining it, however much we think it can keep things in or keep things out, however much we think it will last forever … in the end it will fall, shards of it preserved as a reminder of the folly that produced it in the first place.

And so, finally there is this photograph of a segment of the wall that sits in Simi Valley, California. Simi Valley is northwest of Los Angeles and the home of the Ronald Reagan Pres-

Screenshot 2014-11-09 21.51.25

idential Library where everyone is reminded that it was President Reagan who implored Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall.”  Simi Valley is also not all that far from where the wall designed to “secure” the border between the United States and Mexico begins its journey from the Pacific Ocean eastward. And so the photograph takes on something of an allegorical quality: mysteriously (ominously?) out of place in what appears to be a scene from the American western frontier, it is hard to know if the sun is setting on a past in which the wall came down, or if it rising on a new epoch of the inevitably failed project of building walls for political purposes.

Photo Credit: Rainer Jensen/EPA; Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

 

November 9th, 2014

Sight Gag: Prepare for the Return of Voodoo

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Screenshot 2014-10-11 12.03.45

Credit: Left

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.

 

November 7th, 2014

All Out in the Streets at the University of Chicago

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

All Out in the Streets Final-01

November 5th, 2014

Keeping the Faith on Election Day

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

poll workers oath

The caption reads, “Head precinct judge Deloris Reid-Smith reads the voter’s oath to poll workers before opening the polls at the Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina November 4, 2014.”

A few people complain occasionally about the fact that voting is conducted in churches.  Separation of church and state is more virtual than material some of the time, and so custom rules on this one.  Besides, churches often look more like schools, right down to the basketball backboard above the multipurpose flooring.  But I digress.

What really counts is how the election is conducted.  If done right, the voting procedures will be impartial, without any hint of coercion or corruption, and accessible to all without great inconvenience or other disruptions.  It should be so routine that it appears completely ordinary and even banal.  At the same time, however, voting must have the safeguards that are applied to any activity that is essential for the survival of the community.  Voting is crucial for many questions of collective material and ethical well-being, and it is an absolute necessity for democracy itself.  You might even say that maintaining the integrity of the election a sacred obligation.

Which is why this photograph gets it exactly right.  We see both the incredibly ordinary, routine, banal decor of everyday life, and the taking of an oath.  A place that can be filled with a dozen different activities in the course of a week, now is being dedicated to a single civic duty.  Ordinary people who will go their separate ways at the end of the day, are placing their hands together on a Bible in a common testament of their commitment to a fair election.  They pledge only that, but it is enough.

Elections today–especially today–are fodder for cynics, and some may see the photograph as an other example of how voting in the US has become an empty ritual.  To go further down that path, one might ask where the Koch brothers served as poll workers. The billions spent in the last year did nothing to enhance the integrity of election day, and it would be easy to conclude that the poll workers’ oath is the last, pathetic example of idealism, or niaveté, in the entire system.

That may be true, but at least they, and the photographer, have shown us what election day is supposed to mean.

Photograph by Chris Keane/Reuters.

November 3rd, 2014

The Hills are Alive …

Posted by Lucaites in catastrophe

Lava Flow

No, it’s not the sounds of music. But nevertheless the photographs of the creeping lava flow from Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano are stunning as they illustrate both the inexorable life force of the planet as it pulses and oozes according to its own rhythms and the incredible power that nature exerts over culture and civilization as it creeps ever closer to the small town of Pahoa. It will subsume Pahoa or it won’t, but there is really little that can be done to control the slowly slithering mass of burning, liquid rock which will follow its own path regardless of any manmade roadblocks we put in its way.

The red glow bubbling beneath the grey crust is a reminder that the earth is indeed a life force. Not merely inert material to be used at our will or pleasure, it is driven by an energy  we little understand and there is a dynamism there that seems to communicate something we ignore at our peril. Much is said these days about the catastrophe of global warming that is soon upon us (truth to tell, if science has anything to tell us, the catastrophe is already upon us though we have yet to experience its most tragic after effects) and how it will lead to the death of the planet. And yet photographs like this suggest a different scenario: not the death of the planet, which has the capacity to draw upon a natural energy that follows a pattern of eruption and recovery—leading, as it has for millennia, to survival, albeit in a different form—but perhaps the death of civilization, or worse the extinction of the humanity that relies on the current configuration of the earth.

Hawaii’s Big Island is a very small part of the planet, to be sure, but perhaps the current erruption in its ecology is a reminder that we should not take our relationship with it for granted—particularly in arenas where we might actually have some choice.

Credit: Bruce Omori/EPA

 

November 2nd, 2014

Sight Gag: VOTE!

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 4.37.30 PM

Credit: Bob Englehardt/Hartford Courier

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.

 

October 31st, 2014

Symposium on Securing the Image

Posted by Hariman in conferences & shows

Symposium on Visual Rhetoric

Securing the Image: Surveillance, Verification, and Global Violence

TSA panels

Northwestern University

Annie May Swift Hall

November 1, 2014

Somewhere between the worldwide adoption of digital imaging technologies and the Global War on Terror, photographic documentation became both highly suspect and increasingly important. Questions regarding surveillance, manipulation, and other factors in image production have become occasions for inquiry into some of the most basic assumptions about visual media and public culture. These questions acquire additional significance when visual practices are intertwined with violence done in the name of national security. At the same time, they offer new vantages for rethinking the nature of the image and its aesthetic and political possibilities. The symposium on Securing the Image includes two public lectures devoted to reconsidering key issues in visual surveillance and verification:

9:00 a.m.  David Campbell, “Manipulation, Scraping, and Verification: Securing the Integrity of Visual Representations of Political Violence”

10:30 a.m.  Rachel Hall, “Asymmetrical Transparency: The Global Politics of Risk Management”

David Campbell is the A. Lindsay O’Connor Professor in the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at Colgate University. He is the author of six books and more than 60 articles, and has produced visual projects on the Bosnian War, imaging famine, and the visual economy of HIV-AIDS. As a research consultant to World Press Photo he directed their 2012-13 Multimedia Research Project and a 2014 project on “The Integrity of the Image.” He is also Secretary to the World Press Photo Contest. David produces multimedia and video projects, and all his work can be seen at www.david-campbell.org.

Rachel Hall is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Louisiana State University. Her publications included Wanted: The Outlaw in American Visual Culture (University of Virginia Press, 2009), The Transparent Traveler: The Performance and Culture of Airport Security (Duke University Press, 2015), and articles in Performance Research, Women’s Studies Quarterly, The Communication Review, Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture and Media Studies, and Hypatia: Journal of Feminist Philosophy.

Sponsored by the Center for Global Culture and Communication and the Department of Communication Studies/Program in Rhetoric and Public Culture.  For additional information contact symposium organizer Robert Hariman (r-hariman2@northwestern.edu) or administrative assistant Dakota Brown (jdakotabrown@u.northwestern.edu).

 

October 29th, 2014

What Is Near and Far in the Geography of an Image?

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Hay bales, Belyo Lake, Siberia

It’s not quite a Monet, but I think it deserves to framed.  Cezanne might be the better comparison, but this photo is more about distance than mass and volume.  And curiously, just where it gets close to abstraction, it also gets closest to the stiff demarcations and solid identities of American folk art, which may seem stranger still for an image from Siberia.

The photograph was one of many in a slide show at In Focus on autumnal beauty.  Fall is my favorite season, and In Focus one of the best photography sites on the Web, but even so I was prepared to be underwhelmed.  I expected to see the same images we always see at this time of year, the same colors, the same sameness.  Perhaps this photo seems no different to you; harvest scenes are part of the repertoire and the transition into dormancy and quietude is part of the seasonal mood, so the conventions still are in place.

Consider, however, how the image sits a bit off center, like the hay bales in the photo.  The mood is not so much autumnal as more profoundly liminal.  Not so much fall in all its glory, but as if we are on the edge of winter, just as the field is on the edge of the lake.  And is that deep, solid blue a fall color?  It seems to be something out of time, almost as that lake seems out of place in the midst of a harvest scene.  For these reasons and more, the photograph strikes me as more distinctive than many of the stock images of the season.  And both more beautiful and somewhat unsettling for that.

So what is unsettling, beyond simply deviating a bit from convention?  Let me suggest that this image is a masterful study of photography’s subtle deconstruction of spatial perception.  Notice how the composition is a series of  borders: the strip of snow in the foreground, the strip of field immediately beyond that, the rest of the field, the beach, the lake, the far beach, the strip of trees, the sweeping uplands, the mountains (or are they clouds?), the sky. . . . The visual expanse is a continuous succession of separate, parallel spaces, each of which becomes a border between two others.  As they eye transverses from front to back along the empty center axis to the vanishing point, one might conclude that there is no there there.  More to the point, the swaths of color and dabs of light seem to have been laid down on the flat surface of a canvas: the distance is but an illusion, a trick of the eye.

And yet we also see the sheer particularity of the pieces of hay sticking out of the two bales in the foreground.  They are unquestionably near, while the other bales are far away.  So it is that reality and illusion continue to interrupt one another.  The same holds across the visual field of the photograph.  Every place within the scene has a sense of extension yet also is interrupted by another; each one is unique and yet unable to either connect with or subordinate the others to create a sense of unity.  Hence the comparison with Cezanne, as the material autonomy of each part of the work reveals an underlying sense of form, but one that refuses to channel a transcendental unity, leaving instead the specific weight of each part of the painting itself and with that its autonomy, a substitute for transcendence, as a work of art.

But it’s not a painting.  And those bales and Lake Belyo are actually in Siberia, which is a very long way from where I am writing this post.  Photographs are valued because of how they can bring distant views close at hand, and they are faulted for introducing unnecessary distance between the viewer and reality itself.  Both reactions capture important elements of photography’s geographic capacity.  This photograph fits either one perfectly: it has brought a distant scene into view, and it encourages aesthetic habits that could buffer my experience of the seasonal changes happening right outside my door.  I may become accustomed to scenes that are empty in more ways than one, and yet I have been given a view of a beautiful world that extends far beyond the borders of my daily life.

Let me suggest that the photo takes us beyond this standoff.  It suggest not only that any photograph is both far and near (and we knew that), but also that what matters are not the distances but the relationships.  The image reflects the compositional processes that create photography’s internal space, with each photograph a virtual world in which space–and time–can expand and contract almost at will, but not to obliterate the distinctions that had been laid down in reality.  Likewise, each photograph can be thought of as a liminal space: a threshold between two worlds, each of which in turn can lie between two others in a continuous succession of experiences, none dominating the other.  Some appear to be near, others far away, but that may be the most complete illusion.

Photograph by Ilya Naymushin/Reuters.

October 27th, 2014

Seeing Protest Up Close and At A Distance

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed


Protest 2

Photographs of protests from around the globe abound.   But whether taken in Hong Kong, the Ukraine, Greece, or almost anywhere else—including the United States—it is often difficult to discern little more than an opposition between police clad in riot gear, wielding shields, batons, and tear gas or pepper spray squaring off against scantily clad dissenters seeking to maintain their presence in a public space. Some protestors prove to be violent, to be sure, though the cause of provocation is never all that clear. But the point is that at least in recent times there appears to be little that distinguishes the unrest that is unraveling state authority almost everywhere. Or to put it differently, it seems like the legitimacy of state power is increasingly pushed to the furthest limits of authority and required to use force to sustain its primacy. Isaac Asimov has one of the main characters in his Foundation trilogy note that “violence is the last resort of the incompetent,” and the point is doubly significant when it is directed at those entrusted with the maintenance of governmental authority.

The photograph above is of a “lego” display that appeared outside of the government headquarters in Hong Kong this past week and the yellow umbrellas clearly mark it as signaling the pro-democracy protests that have dominated news coming out of China for the past month. But apart from the umbrellas that signal the protests in Hong Kong, this could be a conflict anywhere in the world, positioning a faceless state authority against a diverse population of individuals (comparatively diverse, that is, but then there are limits to what one can accomplish with lego figurines). And notice the attitude of the opposition, with the military forces cast in the darkest of tones, carefully arranged in preparation for a military style assault and “the people” dressed in brightly arrayed, ordinary clothing with no particular order to their arrangement, rather as one might expect to find a democratic populace, each moving in its own direction without actually getting in the way of the other.  What is most pronounced, however, is the barely visible fence that divides one side from the other and leaves no room for negotiation or compromise.   The opposition between state and citizens is stark, and Order must be regimented and maintained at any cost, even at the risk of destroying the society that the state presumably represents and is consigned to protect.

That the meme represented by this lego display (and a scene reproduced in photograph after photograph from conflicts all over the world) is so easily recognizable—even for someone who has paid no attention to the protests in Hong Kong—should alert us to the possibility that there is something larger going on here than a local battle. Of course every particular conflict is rooted in local concerns and animated by very specific objections and complaints that need to be considered, but the larger point is that increasingly the opposition between state authority and the voice of a democratic polity seems to reveal few opportunities for accommodation. And it might leave some wondering if there is room for democratic dissent anymore.  It is hard not to be pessimistic.

Occasionally, however, one encounters photographs that offer a more optimistic possibility, and this overhead view of demonstrators gathered in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district might be a case in point. Like with the lego display the vantage point is

Protest 1

from above, though the protest site is now at a greater distance from the viewer. And what we see is both more and less. The immediate sense of opposition is neutralized (or veiled?) by the fact that we see the protest framed by the larger cityscape. The markers of difference between state and citizenry are impossible to discern or distinguish, as one would hope to be the case in a properly democratic order. All are equally cast in a natural darkness, though all are equally illuminated by streetlights and buildings (and perhaps a bit of moonlight), and so the opposition of lightness and darkness loses much of its normative force, and more it is clear that the darkness will soon return all to the light of day, if only for a bit. More important, perhaps, is that the scene marks a high modern society that blends both skyscrapers (and notice the cranes, which indicate continued construction and development) and multitudes of people who appear to be in some measure of harmony with both the city and one another. Indeed, the protest notwithstanding, there is a degree of everyday orderliness to the display, with tents and shelters dispersed through the scene and people milling about as if at a street fair. Order here does not have to concede to rigid regimentation and oppositional dissent does not necessarily have to reduce to drawing a line in the sand.

Of course, the multitudes could become outraged by continued efforts to deny their voice or the state could choose to wield force to have its way, and tragic, bloody violence could easily end up being the order of the day. The point here is not a call for a Pollyanna sensibility about the possibilities for peaceful protest and democratic governance. Rather, it is to suggest that the photographic conventions that too easily pit the state against the people in simplistic terms (as demonstrated by the meme represented by the lego display) are not the only possibility (however “real” they might be in some register), and that taking a longer view (and at some distance) sometimes allows us to imagine other ways of imagining the possibilities available to us.

Credit: Tyrone Siu/Reuters; Philippe Lopez/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

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