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Painting With Light

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I had an opportunity to see Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” as a teenager and I recall being impressed by the size of the painting, but more than that with the way in which it captured so many different perspectives at once, with folks looking in every which direction. Each gaze within the painting seemed to tell, or perhaps invite, a very different story. I was a somewhat new, amateur photographer at the time, and I remember thinking that the painter here had accomplished something that the photographer could not do – the photographer, I thought, captured a sluice of reality in all of its objectivity, and while the lens could cover a whole landscape it worked most effectively when it focused in closely on details; the painter, on the other hand, did not just capture a scene, but imagined it, and in such imagining there was a special capacity to represent the world in a way that actually “created” it, putting things together that we might not actually see in relationship to one another in the so-called “real,” objective, seeing world. I was young and naïve, of course, but I was also captivated by a fairly common way of thinking about the relationship between painting and photography marked by somewhat rigid distinctions between the real and the imaginary.

Much has changed since the mid-1960s, and we are not so taken anymore with the notion that the distinction between the real and the imaginary is quite so stark –although, oddly enough it does rear its head somewhat regularly. And of course photography is one of the places where we see the problem worked out most clearly. The photograph, of course, is animated by its indexicality, the notion that the thing was actually there. But as with the photograph above, it is also something that in fact can work to evoke the imagination. The scene here is a helicopter on its way to Katmandu, all but perhaps one of the individuals in the scene victims of the recent earthquake in Nepal. And while it is shot within the narrow and confined space of a helicopter, it nevertheless shows a rather wide scene; indeed, there is a sense in which the cramped space of the helicopter has been recast as a wide and capacious landscape. And like in Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” notice how just about everyone has cast their gaze in a different direction, each face evoking a somewhat distinct emotional register and inviting consideration of a different story. All Nepalese, and all suffering the same random act of nature, each is nevertheless still an individual with his or her own hurt and sorrow. Painting with light, the photographer here has helped not just to capture an objective reality, but to do so by imagining the relationship between individuals and the larger society of which they are part, and in so doing inviting a different kind of relationship between those of us who view the photograph and those suffering at some distance.

There was a time when photographs were understood as primarily objective representations of the external world. And there is an element of the objective at work here, to be sure, but to limit our understanding of the photograph in such a register is to ignore the incredible power of the camera and the agency of the photographer to help us imagine and rethink the world.

Credit: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters

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Remembrances of Things …

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We take lots of photographs these days. Photojournalists account for thousands every day and hundreds of thousands every year, but their output is dwarfed by the number of images taken by non-professional, most taken with a mobile device like a phone camera. The photograph above shows a printout of the photographs uploaded on Flickr in a single 24 hour period in 2011 and the number of images taken in a given day surely exceeds what we see in this one photograph.

There is nothing particularly new about taking lots and lots of photographs. We have been doing this for nearly a century since the camera became an affordable commodity and Kodak convinced us that it was a necessary accouterment to bourgeois life. The so-called “digitial revolution” has made taking photographs easier, not least because just about everyone carries a mobile camera of some sort, but also because photographs are now simpler to produce and to circulate—the darkroom is now an antiquity and the family photo album has been replaced by a website of one sort or another. It is thus a bit odd that some bemoan the new found abundance of photographs, such as we find in a recent NYT Style Magazine article titled “Remembrances of Things Lost.”

In the most general sense the complaint is not new. The reliance on photographs will undermine our capacity for remembrance. This, of course, was Plato’s protest against writing (see his Phaedrus) and which has resurfaced over and again across the millennia with the development of each new technology of mediation and representation. And, of course, it is at the core of the iconoclastic critique of photography that we can trace in almost a direct line from Baudelaire to Susan Sontag. And, equally of course, it is wrong—or at least grossly simplistic. Yes, changing technologies alter the ways in which we practice and experience memory. The shift from orality to literacy is a case in point, but what was lost was not memory per se, but a particular way or register in which memory was practiced and understood. And the same could be said for every subsequent development of a new technology or medium of representation. The bigger problem, however, is not that photography – digital or otherwise – has undermined our capacity for remembrance, but that the mindless repetition of this argument underwrites a critical discourse of photography that minimizes—if it doesn’t miss altogether—the power and capacity of the medium to help us think with and through such images as we encounter the problems and possibilities of modern life. And this is not least with respect to how the present—which in some measure is the only thing we can actually photography—functions to help us to (re)member the relationship between the past and the future in powerful and provocative ways.

Consider, for example, this photograph published on the front page of the NYT—both print and on-line—on the same day as the above article lamenting the loss of remembrance animated by contemporary photographic practices.

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Captioned a “shrine to defiance,” the photograph shows a small bungalow in Seattle that seems to have stood in the way of progress. Hemmed in by high rise buildings that all but touch its outer walls, and otherwise bordered by a busy public thoroughfare, the house is altogether out of place—and out of time. It gestures to a past – one can imagine a row of such houses that once stood here – even as it points to the inevitable future that will soon be upon us as modernity move relentlessly forward. But it does so with an interesting edge. Notice that it is the bungalow that offers up the slightest hint of color—of individualism—in an otherwise and uniformly muted, almost black-and-white world. It will not survive for long, at least not in that space, but what the photograph testifies to is the fate of the unique individual in an increasingly modern society where progress refuses to stand still. But more, it also invites consideration of the tension between a more colorful past and a more uniform, colorless present, and to the tint and tone of the future that it portends.

In short, this second photograph complicates our sense of what it means to remember and how we do it, and it does so in a powerful way. Not every photograph will do this, of course, but the potential is there and enough will achieve that potential that it is a profound error to repeat a tired argument about how the medium is a problem for remembrance without also emphasizing its powerful affordances otherwise. Our photographic practices have changed over the years—and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to do so in the years ahead; the more important point is that it is long past the time at which we should change the ways in which we talk photography as a cultural practice and phenomenon so as to understand it as the important mode of public art that it is in all of its forms.

Credit: Erik Kessels/Foam at Amsterdam; Ian C. Bates/NYT

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Can We Photograph the Future?

Photograph the Future

It is commonly believed that the photograph is a limited medium that can only record the present. Without the capacity of time travel we cannot return to the past to record it as it actually was, nor can we stretch into the future to see what will be in a subsequent moment of time. Words—and even methods of non-photographic visual representations such as painting—don’t seem to face the same restrictions as they appear to allow greater reach to the imagination to recreate a bygone era or to envision what the world might become. But the photograph is tied to the here and now with little more than the recognition that at some future moment in time the present that it indexes will mark a past.   It can only record what “is” not what “was” or “will be.” We may take pictures to satisfy a future memory as to what was, but the camera, we believe, cannot exceed the moment at which the shutter opens and closes.

There is of course an element of truth to this set of assumptions, but they rely upon such a narrow conception of the relationship between reality and imagination that it may be worth our effort to reconsider the possibilities. The photograph above graced three quarters of the front page of the NYT above the fold this past Sunday (4/5/15) as part of a story reporting on the implications of the California Governor’s executive order that citizens cut water consumption by 25% in response to the drought that is now in its fourth year with no indication of ending. At first glance it appeared to be a diptych—two distinct images or plates that reflect upon one another even as they constitute a distinct whole—but reading the caption makes it clear that this is not a diptych but rather a single, aerial photography of a “lush” housing development that “abuts” a “bone dry desert.” And the question is, what do we see?

California has long been understood as the land of opportunity, the high mark of modern progress with a population that continues to grow and the seventh largest economy in the world. And the quality of life is, if not fully luxurious, at least generally among the highest in the nation. Not everyone lives in a housing development like Cathedral City, but many do and it surely underwrites the ethos of the California Dream. Look carefully at the image and you will note that each house not only sports a rich and verdant lawn, but that many of the homes feature swimming pools that consume hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a year. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water in a state where the lakes are drying up and fields are increasingly laying fallow. And yet for all of that, the reaction by some ranges from incredulity to outright resistance. So, the NYT reports on one resident who insists, “I’m not going to stop watering.… The state does not know how to arrange the resources they have, and so we have to pay for it.” The allure of unfettered progress remains strong, and yet the right half of the photograph is a telling landscape of one possible future if we follow the lead of this one resident.

Can photographs show the future? If we assume that all a photograph shows is the literal world that it indexes and no more, then, of course, the answer is no. But as with the photograph above the reality on display is much more complex than a fundamentalist literalism would allow. And what we see is not just a world that has managed to sculpt nature to accommodate its own pleasures, with lush lawns and luxurious swimming pools in a desert climate ill-fitted for either, but what that world may well be destined to if wiser heads do not prevail. And in this context a photograph can well put the future on display.

Credit: Damon Winter/NYT

 

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The Seeing Citizen

Camera + Silhouette

The scene borders on the sublime. A silhouette of a woman cast in the glow of a distant fire that appears to be burning out of control. The gulf between the woman and the blaze is altogether calm, inviting a clear contrast with the raging flames and by extension underscoring the space—simultaneously near and far—between safety and danger. And, of course, it is the silhouette that ultimately frames the photograph and its affect. To get the point, imagine the photograph without the silhouette? The contrast of golden hues would still register as beautiful for most viewers no doubt, but all measure of the distance between here and there, of the sublime horror invoked by the image, would be effaced – or at least largely so.

All that aside, it was not color or even the silhouette that initially drew my attention to this photograph, but rather the fact that it is a photograph of someone taking a photograph. Photographs of people taking photographs has become something of a convention in recent times, and all the more so now that many (if not most) people in the western world carry cameras with them in their pockets and seem inclined to take photographs of … well, just about everything. And the question is, why? Not why do people take photographs of everything. I think we have done that for a long time now, contemporary technologies simply making it easier and easier to do. Rather, the question is, why has the photograph of people taking photographs become something of a visual trope … and a trope of what? In the photograph above the camera’s brightly lit screen stands in stark contrast with the golden color cast of just about everything else in the image—including the silhouetted photographer—and thus perhaps invokes a sense of the tension between nature and technology, a point gestured to by the caption which notes: “A woman takes a picture of fires raging through the Los Alerces National Park … A lighting strike is believed to be the cause.” And so the photograph here might indeed be driven by a profoundly artistic and/or ideological sentimentality. There is of course no way to know, but the omnipresence of the technology in modern times simply cannot be ignored.

The trope is perhaps  a bit harder to explain in other, more common occurrences such as this photograph:

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Here the caption reads: “People take photographs as the body of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister is transferred form the Instana Presidential Palace.” One might wonder why we don’t just have a photograph of the body itself being transferred. Or, for that matter, of the crowds gathered to view the transference. What is it about the fact that people are taking photographs of this scene that makes the convention so affecting?

I don’t have an answer to this question firmly worked out at the moment, but my suspicion is that it has something to do with the relationship between actors and spectators. There was a time, not so very long ago, when the prevailing assumption was that citizen spectators lacked agency. They viewed events, but they did it from an altogether passive space that muted their political voice if it did not erase it altogether. The seeing citizen did little more than see. The advance of camera technologies, and in particular the utter ubiquity of camera phones and portable screens, as well as the capacity for digital circulation, has given citizen spectators a whole new way of registering their voice—or is it their gaze? It helps us to see how one person uses their spectatorship to accent the space between culture and nature, as in the silhouette above, or how others mark the importance of the passing of a revered leader.  In short, the seeing citizen is now also, and at least in some measure, an acting citizen.

We photograph people taking photographs perhaps because it marks an important shift in what it means to be a citizen spectator and, as with photojournalistic images in general, it helps us to understand how we see and are seen as citizens.

Photo Credit: Emiliano LaSalvia/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images; Tom White/European Pressphoto Agency.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

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Nature’s Camera

Blue Green

What struck me most about this photograph upon first seeing it was both its sheer beauty and the invitation to introspection and contemplation.  The contrast of the distant city lights sparkling against the night sky, illuminating the mountains in the background and the bluish cast of (what appears to be) the moon reflected by the water along the foregrounded shore line would seem to be a mediation on the cosmological relationship between nature and technology.  Or perhaps  it is a meditation on the relationship between the far (which is physically nearest to us, i.e., the city) and the near (which is physically the farthest from us, i.e., the moon).  It is both of these things in the abstract, but not for the reasons that might seem to be the most obvious.

What we are actually looking at is a timed exposure of the bioluminescent glow of a green marine dinoflagellate known as Noctiluca scintillans shot with Hong Kong in the background.  Sometimes called “Sea Sparkle,” the foregrounded luminescence is activated by farm pollution that—no surprise here—poses a serious threat to marine life.  The bloom itself does not produce dangerous toxins, but it is something of an index of toxic runoff that endangers the food chain.  In its own way, the bloom is something of a photorealistic representation of the relationship between culture and nature—nature’s camera, as it were—showing all that there is to see.  As with the photograph more generally, the trick is being visually “literate” enough to avoid being enchanted by what we want (or expect) to see and to reflect on the larger significance of what we are actually seeing

Photo Credit: Kin Cheung/AP

 

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Imag(in)ing the World Now and Then

 

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.)

 

 

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Seeing With Our Feet

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Hopkinton is a lazy New England town in Massachusetts’s Middlesex County, population approximately 2,500 residents.  It features an annual Polyarts Festival, as well as a Fourth of July celebration that includes most of the locals, and a summer concert series in the town commons.  It also happens to be approximately 26.2 miles from Boylston St., Boston and so this morning—as on the third Monday of every April, a day also designated in Massachusetts, Maine, and Wisconsin as “Patriot’s Day” in commemoration of the Battles of Lexington and Concord—it will host approximately 36,000 runners from around the world prepared to compete in the 118th running of the Boston Marathon. Of course this is no ordinary running of the race, as it comes on the one year anniversary of last year’s tragic bombing at the finish line that killed 3 and injured 264 more, some quite seriously as indicated by the photograph above which shows one of the survivors participating in a Relay that traversed the course of the Boston Marathon this past week in an effort to raise money for children in need of prosthetic limbs

Photographs index an objective reality, and there is no getting around the painful and horrible experience of losing one’s leg in a terrorist attack.  Photographs do more than mark objective realities or the most literal of truths, however, and can also activate the imagination, inviting the viewer to see the world differently or anew.  Sometimes that is done by invoking a perspective by incongruity as when, for example, a photograph takes the view of a non-human animal appearing to pass judgment on its human counterparts.  Or at other times it can occur when a photograph emphasizes incidental features of everyday life that turn out to be quite significant. And there are many other possibilities as well.  One increasingly common visual convention relies on the trope of synecdoche, substituting the part for the whole (or visa versa), and thus inviting the viewer to imagine a scene as a matter of scale.  Think, in particular, for how the face becomes the representation of a whole body, or the individual can stand in for the collective.

The photograph above is a case in point, as it reduces a collective of individuals to their feet—and more, to the shoes that they are wearing.  The ersatz patriotism displayed on the shoes in the foreground and worn by the most obvious of victims is pronounced, and so we cannot not ignore it, but it should also be noted that no one else seems to have coded their footwear with their politics, or at least not so explicitly and boldly.  And indeed, the longer you gaze at the photograph the more it becomes clear that the shoes in the foreground call attention to themselves precisely because they are so pronouncedly performative.  Appearing to stand at attention, they indicate the (undoubtedly justified) pride and motivation of the person wearing them, but it is the distinct, multi-colored shoes—all running shoes to be sure—of everyone else that define the collectively that has congregated.  And note how they all appear to be moving in different directions and yet don’t seem to get in the way of one another. They are something of a community, perhaps all committed to the mantra of “Boston Strong,” but they are also not driven by an overwhelming stylistic uniformity that demands anything like a stultifying unity.

What are we to make of that?  If all we see here are a set of feet, there might be little to say.  But if we stand back for a moment and see with the feet then we can acknowledge how the photograph activates a traditional way of thinking about politics—the body politic—as it has been adapted to the conditions of public representation: the body politic appears to be fragmented rather than totalizing, realistic rather than idealized, and provisional rather than essentialist.  Put differently, in its fragmented, dismembered form we are seeing a body politic that is no longer whole yet still quite active. Perhaps this part-for-whole image of the bodily fragment signifies the distributed body of modern social organization, and in particular the pluralistic body of modern civil society.  “Boston Strong” may be an effective rallying cry, but it is the rhetoric of bodily experience that here eschews facial recognition and ultimately finesses one of the primary problems of contemporary society, i.e., the problem of the inclusion of difference.  Note in particular how even the affective presence of the prosthesis and its “stand at attention” pose that mimics so many photographs of wounded soldiers, is ultimately mitigated by the overall scene of the image as such difference itself is elided and ultimately accepted as one part of the community.  Perhaps this is what “Boston Strong” is all about.

The standard convention in photography is to focus on people’s faces, or of people looking at one another and communicating with one another. And yet even these common and standard conventions of photographic representation rely on photography’s inherent fragmentation of perception, always only showing a sluice of what there is to see.  Photographs of fragmented and disembodied feet, such as the image above, are not as rare as you might think, although I doubt you will find very many of them in your family photo album; when they do appear, however, they often function imaginatively to disrupt our most common and taken for granted ways of looking at the world.  And if we are willing to see with such images they just might serve to help us to reflect on how the ways in which we see and are seen as citizens are fundamentally and characteristically plagued by problems of fragmentation, separation, and the pathos of communication.  And maybe, sometimes, they might even help us to imagine new and different futures, as say a world in which community is not reduced to unity.

Credit:  Bryan Snyder/Reuters (Note:  For a fuller consideration of our take on the convention of photographing hands and feet see “Hands and Feet: Photojournalism, the Fragmented Body Politic and Collective Memory” in Journalism and Memory, ed. by Barbie Zelizer and Keren Tenenboim-Weinblatt.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.  131-47.)

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Seeing and Being Seen Through the Eyes of Anja Niedringhaus: In Memorium

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I was saddened—and more, really, thoroughly distressed—to learn of the tragic death of photojournalist Anja Niedringhuas in Afghanistan’s Khost Province, murdered by a rogue Afghan police officer as she was preparing to photograph the upcoming elections in that country.  Her photography was a testament to what photojournalism at its best enables, which is not simply an objective view of the world, but a complex realism that acknowledges its reliance on a  capacious sense of imagination.  “Imagination” is not mere fancy—the mind at play with things it already knows—but rather a way of extraordinary seeing that allows us to project our sight beyond the horizon of ordinary observation or conventional belief.  Put differently, the photograph is always an indexical imitation of some part of  reality, but also a way of seeing that reality more extensively, whether as through the lens of a microscope or a telescope.

The photograph above is in many ways emblematic of Anja Niedringhaus’s considerable archive of photographs (e.g., see here, here, and here) from Afghanistan.  What makes it interesting for me is precisely how it puts seeing and being seen in tension with one another.  On the one hand we have a child playing as if she were an adult (no different in this regard than a young girl in the US trying to walk in her mother’s high heeled shoes), and thus being seen, and at the same time underscoring what it might mean to see from that perspective, one’s sight obscured by the screen that alters what can be seen. And indeed, the photograph shows the young girl adapting to the change in perspective as her hands frame what the screen in the burqa already limits and obscures.   The photograph below, shot at a separate moment in time, provides the reverse shot, focusing more on seeing than being seen.

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One could make much from these two photographs about how women are seen and what they are able or allowed to see in Islamic cultures, but there is a different point I want to emphasize here as these two photographs double for how the photograph as an optical medium itself works, always and already positioning us as those who see and those who are seen. And as the two photographs above demonstrate, seeing and being seen are not altogether innocent activities (think again of the young girl walking around in her mothers shoes), but are traversed by vectors of power and colonized by societies and their institutions.  And it is when the photograph accesses its capacity to energize the imagination in this capacity that it removes us from the world of simple questions of who, what, where, when, and why—all important questions, to be sure—and helps us to see questions of relevance, resonance, and engagement.  In short, they can help to pull us out of our ordinary indifference, and perhaps to challenge—or at least acknowledge—conventional wisdom or denial.  It shows us as “seeing” and “seen” subjects.

Anja Niedringhaus was a master at employing her art—and let there be no mistake, photojournalism is a public art— to display a more nuanced realism that prodded us to see the world in extraordinary ways and thus to imagine what it might mean to associate with others—to see and to be seen—in a more humane fashion.

RIP

Photo Credit: Anya Niedringhaus/AP Photo

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Playing Jeopardy

Sticks and Stones

Photographs of Palestinians hurling stones or aiming slingshots  at Israeli troops are a dime a dozen.  They are so common that we don’t even need to see the Israelis, or for that matter a caption, to know what it is that we are being shown.   Indeed, a week barely goes by without one or two such photographs appearing in this or that mainstream internet news slideshows, lodged, as the image above, in between images of pole dancers in Sydney, grief-stricken relatives of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, a farmer racing his Oxen through a rice paddy at the annual Kakkoor Kalavayal festival (it is in India, look it up, I had to!), and sunbathers in Nice.

So what exactly is going on here? By one account the stone throwers are performing for the camera, and there may be some of that going on, but such an account begs the question as to why the photographers are so invested in the activity to begin with or why photo editors are so willing to pay heed to the images and to give them pride of place in their publications with such regularity.  One could argue that there is an anti-Israeli influence operating in the western media, as such images feature a stateless people fighting against a modern military state with the most primitive of weapons; but then again, one could just as easily also argue that there is a pro-Israeli influence in as much as what we are being shown are criminal malcontents disrupting the prevailing order of a legitimate, modern state.  And there is the rub, for in an important sense such photographs leave the question entirely open to discussion.

There are two thoughts worth considering here.  The first concerns the regularity of such photographs and their often random placement in slideshows that make them seem to be rather routine and ordinary events, if not also something like exotic curiosities on the order of annual pole dancing competitions, oxen races, or sunbathers.  From this perspective, of course, the viewer is cast as a passive spectator witnessing an event from afar with little real investment in what is going on.  There is something of a performative contradiction in this practice as the very regularity of the event, which should incline us to focus on its tragic significance—and I mean “tragic” regardless one’s particular political sympathies—seems to work against that understandng.  This is not a matter of so-called “compassion fatigue,” but rather an instance of turning attention against itself such that the regularity of the event normalizes it and thus mitigates its importance.  Ah yes, it’s springtime and so the sunbathers are out once again.  And the beat goes on.  And so the question might be, what is the point of the weekly slideshow and how are photos chosen for inclusion?

But there is a second and perhaps more pertinent concern:  If we take the time to look at the photograph as a singular event, what is it that our attention is being directed to?  Susan Sontag makes the point that photographs lack “a” narrative.  The article is important, for it is true enough that there is no single narrative animated by or contained by any photograph.   That is not the same, however, as saying that there are no narratives.  And indeed, as I’ve suggested above, there are at least two operative within this image, one which casts the Israeli state as the protagonist and one which casts it as the antagonist.   Perhaps both are correct.  And there are likely other narratives as well.  The point is that the photograph directs our attention to “an” event without necessary definition and encourages us—or more properly helps us —to imagine the range and register of useful questions to pose.

In a sense, engaging photographs is rather like playing the game of Jeopardy.  And the point, of course, is always to put your answer in the form of a question.

Photo Credit: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

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Seeing Through the Colors of Carnaval

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Lent is upon us, and that means the Carnaval season, with its abundance of hyperbolic, bodily exaggerations and all around revelry that mark a world turned upside down.  And, of course, there is a profusion of lavish colors; a coordination of fluorescent reds and yellows and blues and greens, all of which underscore the festive nature of the event, but more importantly accent the relief from the regular conventions and constraints of everyday life.  Indeed, the combination of bodily excesses and explosions of color has made Carnaval a prime destination for photographers and every year the slide shows at all of the major news outlets comply by featuring a profusion of such images of the event in Brazil and around the world (see, e.g., here, here, and here).  If one didn’t know better the regularity and regular similarities of such slide shows might appear to be motivated by a commercial interest in advertising La Paz or Rio de Janeiro and other similar locations as sites for tourists in search of an exotic holiday.  What is missing, of course, is any sense for the history of the celebration or its close connection to nationalist sensibilities as it appears both naturalized and commodified.

But, of course, Carnaval is more than just a commercialized, global event designed to attract tourists with its outrageous revelry.  And so we have this image from the celebration in a rural community in Trinidad.

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Here too we have the appeal to bodily excess and exaggeration, and with it a marking (and mocking) of the conventions of everyday life, though the appeal is to a more localized history of colonial control. I am especially drawn to the tension between the exaggerated, historical costumes and the somewhat dainty parasols on the one hand, and the contemporary footwear on the other.  I don’t know if those are Nikes or Adidas or some other internationally marketed running shoe, but they are as uniform as the rest of the costumes being paraded about, and both no doubt speak to the colonial influences that have been imposed upon Trinidad from abroad, both then and now.  Few are likely to flock to rural Trinidad for an exotic vacation, but that doesn’t mean that the celebration of Carnaval that takes places there is any the less interesting or worthy of consideration.

But there is another point to be made, and it concerns the contrast between color and black and white photography.  There was a time not so very long ago that one would rarely if ever see a color photograph in a newspaper or in most magazines (National Geographic would have been the most notable exception).  That changed within the past twenty years or so, and now color photography has become something of the photojournalistic norm with black and white photographs relegated largely to the world of art photography. When black and white photographs were the norm, color photography underscored the ways in which the grey tones of black and white images were an artistic representation that was and was not the reality being displayed.  And now that color photography has become more-or-less the norm, black and white photography operates in something of the same register, albeit in reverse, reminding us that the tonality of an image—and no less the tonality of the society that we are seeing—implicates and is implicated by the manner in which it is constructed and represented.

Photo Credits: Juan Karita/AP; Pablo Delano/Trinity College

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