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Trump: Don’t Blame the Photographs

Several people have asked me which photographs were the most important for Donald Trump’s electoral victory.  The question makes sense:  Trump is a creature of the media.   We know that visual media can be influential.   Any political event that appears surprising or irrational is assumed to be due to emotional contagion, excess, or impact of the sort associated with photography.  The question almost answers itself.

Not even he expected to win, and yet here we are, careening down the rapids into the Jurassic park of Trump World.   What was the image that so distracted or dazzled the Trump voters?  What image framed the Clinton campaign so badly so that the election really did become a rigged game?

The envelop, please. . . .

There wasn’t one.  Or two.  Or twenty, including all those remakes of Hillary that Alt Right trolls consider so hugely creative.

Although it is a deeply ingrained habit of media criticism to blame photography for society’s problems, you can’t lay this one on the images.  Look at the data: identify the photos and track their circulation, and then take the Tweets and all the other sound bites, the little lies and the big lies, the alternative facts and the bald-faced denials, the slurs and the toxic memes and all the rest–and track that.  And ask the Trump voters whether unemployment has gone up or down in the last eight years, and how many votes in the presidential election were due to voter fraud, and whether they prefer Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act.

It is essential that this catastrophe be seen for what it is: a profound failure of language.  There may be arguments for Trump that bear consideration–most notably, that the system needed a shock and that the working class had been abandoned by both parties–but they are not directly pertinent to the damage that already has occurred and is likely to get worse.  Let me say it again and then some: Trump’s election is due to a relentless attack on and failure of language.

It is for that reason also an assault on moral seriousness: on what it means to care about more than power and reputation.  What it means to do the work needed to see the difference between reality and delusion, hope and fantasy, thriving together or fighting over the last boats on a sinking ship.

In Trump World, photographs may still be able of exposing lies, and for that reason they can be more important than ever.  Even so, the heavy lifting has to be done elsewhere.  Recovering political speech, political argument, the ability to respond to stupidity for what it is–both a cry for help and a will to power that can destroy everything–these are some of the tasks ahead.  It’s not a pretty picture.

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Activestills: Documentary Photography as Political Activism

It is becoming clear that photography is undergoing a paradigm shift.  Many things will remain the same, and perhaps look the same at first glance, but assumptions, attitudes, and ideas are nonetheless changing.  So John Lucaites and I argue in The Public Image, and one of the most recent examples to come to hand is a book that was published at the same time as ours.  Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel presents some of the work of the Activestills photography collective along with short essays, interviews, and statements to provide personal, historical, and theoretical context for the project.

The collective is a group of Israeli, Palestinian, and international photographers who are dedicated to supporting progressive social and political change in Palestine/Israel.  Their work focuses on “various topics, including the Palestinian popular struggle against the Israeli occupation, rights of women, LGTBQ, migrants and asylum-seekers, public housing, and the struggle against economic oppression.”  They work as documentary photographers, but on behalf of justice rather than press neutrality.  They distribute their work through mainstream, alternative, and social media, and as free exhibitions in those places where the photos were taken.  They sign their work collectively, maintain long-term relationships with the communities where they bear witness, and strive to “shape public attitudes and raise awareness on issues that are generally absent from public discourse.”

The collective also is attempting to open up the visual field to create new public encounters.  In place of showing victims, they feature agency.  Instead of trying to capture the decisive moment, they track the slower, more insidious forms of violence.  Rather than rely on icons, they develop an archive, and foregoing much of the iconography of protest (except on the book’s cover), they follow the odd, often chaotic angles of intimacy amid conflict and its devastating aftermath.  And rather than rely on the supposed power of the image to compel moral response, they assume that it has to work within complicated processes of interpretation.

The result is not eye candy, but it’s not another set of atrocity photos, either.  Alternating between two-page single image displays and many, many smaller images–often seven to a page–the viewing experience can be frustrating.  Even the large images are immersive: tightly copped, or with any background indistinct due to tear gas or desert topography, you may not know where you are unless you read the fine print.  The small images seem to call for a connoisseur, except that the optic is fundamentally banal–ordinary people, places, things, lighting–and the fact that time and again these are scenes of violence, destruction, and loss.

Activestills does not make spectatorship easy, but it is made worthwhile.  By working through the volume, one’s sense of inside and outside begins to shift.  Not to create the illusion that “you are there,” but to realize that violence extends beyond spasms of direct conflict to become a system of domination pressed into the fabric of life.  Likewise, instead of looking for one image or signature event,  you begin to appreciate the weight of the archive, the judgment of history, the profound need to work day after day, person by person, until justice and solidarity prevail.

This commitment is echoed in the essays in the volume, which also make direct contributions to revising the discourse on photography.  The break with conventional wisdom and implications for the future of photography are sketched deftly in Miki Kratsman’s Foreward and in the Introduction by the editors, Vered Maimon and Shiraz Grinbaum.  Ariella Azoulay identifies how Activestills is developing a civil language of photography to counter the imperial discourse of differential distributions.  Haggai Matar and Ramzy Baroud outline the project’s relationship to the media environment and the political environment, while Simon Faulkner discusses the role of the exhibitions on the street.  Vered Maimon explicates the shift in modality from representation to performance, from the indexicality of the image to the collective production of belief and affective community.  Ruthie Ginsberg and Meir Wigoder identify key shifts in temporality, i.e., from “what was there, then,” to “being there now” and signifying potential futures.  Sharon Sliwinski identifies the damning potential of spectatorship to reinforce the condition of standing “before the law”–as in Kafka’s tale, forever locked out of the institution of justice–but she does so to reaffirm the role of the public image in imagining a just political community.

These ideas acquire personal texture in the interviews and statements by photographers and other activists, whose understanding of their work, individually and collectively, reminds us of what may be the most important lesson of all: whatever the technology,  artistry, or means of distribution, photography at its heart is an encounter with the world.  And even, perhaps, one means for achieving a better world.

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Why Photographs Don’t Stop the War

Because it’s the photographs’ fault, apparently.

Today the New York Times featured Michael Kimmelman’s impassioned critique of the lack of public response to the carnage in Syria.  “They keep coming, both the bombs and the images from Aleppo, so many of them.”  The theme, and pathos, of the article is that while the bombs are effective, the images are not.  Worse, they are not as effective as other images from previous catastrophes.  Referring to photographs such as the Accidental Napalm icon from the Vietnam War, we are told that those images “drove news cycles for weeks, months, years, helping tip the scales of policy.”

The question naturally becomes, what’s wrong with us?  The usual suspects are trotted out: bigotry, social media, and compassion fatigue not least among them.  Well, sure, all of those factors could be in play, but once again photography is being framed.

Let’s start with the facts: First of all, coverage of the war in Syria–and the refugee crisis it has created–has motivated many governments and many individuals to help.  Hundreds of millions of dollars in government and charitable aid have been supplied, and thousands have opened their doors around the world.  The photographs probably had something to do with that.  The fact that some of them are as recognizable as earlier icons attests to their likely contribution, as do many testimonials.

But they didn’t do it all, which gets to the next problem.  Those great images from the past did not drive news cycles for years.  Those of us who have studied iconic photographs have learned that their value does not depend on a direct causal effect.  The news cycle moves on regardless, while the iconic images develop over time.  (If they don’t persist, they aren’t iconic.)  They come to have many uses and may have long wave influence, but they don’t end the war or the famine or otherwise stop history in its tracks.

And neither does anything else, which gets to the next problem with the conventional critique of photography’s ineffectiveness.  How many words have been written about Aleppo?  How many articles and editorials and blog posts?  How many special reports and pastoral letters and letters to the editor?  Why don’t these texts have to bear the burden of ineffectiveness?  They, too, are ephemeral, they don’t drive the news cycle for long periods of time, and although they bear witness they don’t provoke mass protests.

Nor does this mean that the public is hopelessly indifferent.  As we’ve argued before (here and here), for anything to be persuasive, a lot has to be in place.  A political process, just to take one example.  The public has not been indifferent, it still has stores of compassion, we are perfectly capable of using social media and caring at the same time, and support from the bigots isn’t needed.  But there have been massive failures of governance and diplomacy, and political leaders should be held accountable.

The catastrophe in Aleppo was not inevitable, and there still is great need to resolve the conflicts there and elsewhere in the region.  Kimmelman is right about the most important things:  We should feel horror and shame when watching the destruction of Aleppo.  The public should demand help for those are displaced and destroyed by war, and for an end to the war.  He also is wise in suggesting that an effective protest movement is likely to require “slow, brick by brick construction.”  It always has–and those doing the killing can count on that.  The problem is complex, and so many alternatives  large and small need to be tried.

If social media can help as well, so much the better.  If photographs can make a difference, we should be grateful we have them.  But let’s not kid ourselves.  The fault is not  primarily in ourselves or in our media.  Aleppo has been allowed to die, and while it has happened on our watch, those who are responsible have yet to be confronted.

 

UPDATE: Readers might want to see similar arguments set forth (in French) here and summarized here.

Cross-posted: a slightly adapted version is at Reading the Pictures.

 

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Aleppo/Hiroshima

We might want to think of Aleppo as the Hiroshima of the 21st century.

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This photograph brought the analogy to mind, and yet it would seem to argue against the comparison.  The Hiroshima mushroom cloud was not as large, symmetrical, and awe-inspiring as the Nagasaki explosion or many of the atomic test explosions to come, but it was bigger than this blast plume over Aleppo.  This smaller image is closer to those from the tactical nuclear weapon tests, and even so, the nukes would still be worse, so what’s the point?

The point is that a hazy, moody photograph of the aftermath of an explosion might make someone stop and think.  To consider, for example, just how many people have died in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.  (Here’s a clue: more than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)  To consider how much conventional warfare is excused because it is assumed to be less destructive than nuclear weapons.  To realize that for those burnt, maimed, shocked, sickened, starved, orphaned, and killed by the unrelenting violence, the mechanism doesn’t really matter.  To ponder just how much is lost when a city is allowed to die.

One consolation of the analogy is that Aleppo, like Hiroshima, could be rebuilt to become a vibrant modern city again.  But don’t get your hopes up.  The analogy is imperfect from the start, and that may be part of the message.  The destruction now is not the product of a single bomb but instead of thousands upon thousands of bombs over days, weeks, months, and years of warfare.  Likewise, the damage may be evident for generations, a continuing witness to the politics of revenge and abandonment.  The first salvos of atomic warfare were effectively the last, whereas the violence unleashed on Aleppo is part of something that may be spreading across the globe: a dark age where localized violence occurs persistently enough to terrorize millions while tearing down civilization itself.

The photograph is not news, but something else.  An elegy, perhaps.  The damage has been done, and for many it is too late even to mourn.  By turning the fog of war into an atmosphere of remembrance, the photograph suggests that history changes only the names and the weapons, but not the slaughter.  It also asks: If the world wants to prevent another Hiroshima, why not stop the bombing of Aleppo?

Photograph by Omar Sanadiki/Reuters.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

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The Price of Milk

Post by guest correspondent Sarah Lingo

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

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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.

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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?

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The Family of Man Redux

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“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.

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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

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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.

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Killing, Seeing, and Being Seen

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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.

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