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The 21st Century Carcass

In 1906 Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a muckraking novel that alerted the American public to the horrors of the meatpacking industry of the time. Millions of workers and all American consumers have lived longer and better lives as a result. Conditions have improved drastically since then, but safety remains a continuing problem in industrialized meat processing. The slaughterhouse is still a dangerous place to work, and meat periodically becomes contaminated. The latest threat is from a toxic strain of e coli. This despite surprisingly clean plants, acid baths, steam vacuums, and sophisticated testing. Needless to say, when it comes to survival, the bacteria have the edge. To give you a view of the steps being taken, the Times published this photo:


It’s not often that photographs from the business page merit comment, much less awards. This one is typical. The focus is split between the objects in the foreground and the person in the background. Neither is the point of the picture, which is to show an industrial process. The diffusion is emotional as well. The photo communicates above all a sense of routine, ordinary, another-day-another-dollar activity; nothing to write a novel about. The conveyor belt moves things along, the worker directs a spray of water here or there, all against an unexceptionable background of white wall and grey pipes. You might be interested in how your meat is handled, but not to worry.

This ideological framing of viewer response is what is most typical about this business page photograph. What most interests me is the photograph’s distinctiveness, which is the brute presence of the carcasses. These amputated trunks are no longer animals, yet they are not yet slabs, much less cuts of meat. They are huge, visceral, bulging with muscle, bones, organs, everything that was alive but now is raw weight.

There is something scandalous about this image. One sees a packing plant and the anonymity of death; an industrial process, and the humiliation of being reduced completely to a condition of utility. Above all, there is again the massive reality of the carcasses. They are once living things now reduced to things, and yet they still resist somehow. Against the inevitable processing by both factory and camera, they remain massively, unintelligibly real. This is a scandal in the 21st century: against all attempts to transform everything into a virtual world of effortless consumption and digitized representation, some things refuse to surrender their reality.

Of course, those carcasses no longer exist, but the e coli do. The photograph of the carcasses can be a simple reminder that production is hidden during consumption; that is true of every form of production, including writing. Or it can be a scandal–literally, something that snares, in this case, that snares our attention. The hulking things in the photograph should snare our attention, they should offend the sensibility being constructed by the photograph, they should give offense to the idea that everything in our industrialized food production is doing fine as long as it is running smoothly.

Photograph by Kent Sievers/New York Times.



If Can't See Guilt, Can We See Character?

Discussion of a recent post raised an important question about visual thinking. In commenting on a murder suspect’s strategic manipulation of press coverage, I concluded that he still looked guilty.

Of course, I wouldn’t convict on that, and an astute reader noted that “the appearance of ‘innocence’ can only be another act,” and so it seems that there is no point whatsoever to looking for either guilt or innocence in how a person appears in public. And that’s before considering the role of racial, ethnic, and other forms of social bias in perception.

The focus of the earlier post was on the use of appearances rather than their accuracy. But what about their accuracy? I think most people would agree that you shouldn’t judge guilt or innocence on the basis of how a person looks. When that happens–and it does happen–the results include both false convictions and a free pass for con artists. But if that is true, why do we think we can see character?

And we do think we can see character. Scientists report that infants already are paying close attention to facial cues. People are constantly and often accurately discerning that others are in this or that mood. As we get to know people, we sometimes can read much deeper elements of personality on the basis of a glance. Photographs are used the same way, not least to communicate emotions. John and I have been reading social experience, attitudes, and ideas off of photographs for five months now and we rarely are called on this point. As long as the photographs are dealing with known individuals such as Bush, representative figures such as the latest casualty in Iraq, stock social types such as students, or common experiences such as shopping, there is little to be worried about. Whether right or wrong about the individual in the frame, the image provides a basis for conversation about those things that define collective life. And the court of public opinion is not a court of law.

All of this is a long introduction to another photograph:


You are looking at Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf reviewing an honor guard with his hand-picked successor, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. There was this little problem of being a “President General”; fortunately, that term still embarrasses Musharraf’s patron, the US. So Musharraf has turned over direct control of the military, the better to maintain US support for his dictatorship. The transition involved a series of rituals, including a tearful speech. The tears may have been heartfelt; again, that is not the important question.

I’ll cut to the chase: I think we can see character here, and these guys are thugs. If that is too harsh, how about “hardened autocrats.” Of course, they will look otherwise in family photos, just as they will have behaved otherwise when playing with their kids. They may not be thugs all the time: just when in power or maneuvering to stay in power. So what? Any dictator can have a good side. The question is what side will be in charge when power is at stake. I think we can see the answer in this photograph. Musharraf may be a dedicated warrior against Islamic fanaticism, but he is no more a democrat than is Gen. Kayani.

And now for the quiz. What do you see in this photo: the appearance of innocence, or the character of an autocrat?


Perhaps the question should be, if we can see character, why can’t we see guilt? One answer is that guilt is an assessment of past conduct involving a violation of a law, and these things are not to be seen in the present. There also is the complication of distinguishing between legal and psychological guilt, not least because some people need not hide guilt because they don’t feel it, while others can feel guilty for crimes they never committed. But perhaps there is another answer: the guilt is there to be seen, were we but able to see it. I would never convict on such evidence, but I can’t help but think that there is more to be seen than we realize, and that seeing it might get us closer to justice.

Photographs by Anjum Naveed/Associated Press; Digg screen grab of the You Tube video of Musharaff’s interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.



Sight Gags: Pink is for Tolerance


Photo Credit: Unsought Input

Our primary goal with this blog is to talk about the ways in which photojournalism contributes to a vital democratic public culture. Much of the time that means we are focusing on what purport to be more or less serious matters. But as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert often remind us, democracy needs irony, parody, and pure silliness as much as it needs serious contemplation. For our part, we will dedicate our Sunday posts to putting some of that silliness on display in what we call “sight gags,” democracy’s nod to the carnivalesque. Sometimes we will post pictures we’ve taken, or that have been contributed by others, or that we just happen to stumble across as we navigate our very visual public culture. And we won’t just be limited to photography, as a robust democratic visual culture consists of much more. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.

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Conference: Reading Photographs in Crisis: A Symposium

Reading Photographs in Crisis: A Symposium

This symposium will be held at the Leeds Humanities Research Institute (LHRI), University of Leeds, on Friday 14 December 2007.

The symposium marks the continuation of Photography and Atrocity, a collaborative research venture between the University of Leeds and colleagues at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, together with other agencies, to analyze the politics, ethics and poetics of images of atrocity and crisis. For further information on the project to date, go to

We are shown photographs of atrocity from around the world in our newspapers every day. But what is – or what should be – our response to these images? Are we consuming suffering? Or can we read photographs in a way to transform it? And how have such images been treated – and such questions been asked –in the past?The LHRI symposium will offer presentations by leading academics, curators and photographers from the United States, continental Europe and the UK. Confirmed participants include Elizabeth Abel (U of California Berkeley); David Campbell (Durham U); Mark Durden (U of Wales Newport); Marianne Hirsch (Columbia U); Rob Kroes (U of Amsterdam); Paul Lowe (London College of Communication & photographer); John Lucaites (Indiana U); Susan Meiselas (Magnum photographer); Nancy K. Miller (City U of New York); Simon Norfolk (photographer); Griselda Pollock (U of Leeds); Hilary Roberts (Imperial War Museum); Russell Roberts (Ffotogallery, Cardiff); Valerie Smith (Princeton U), Leo Spitzer (Dartmouth College). Each speaker will concentrate on one particular photograph made between World War 2 and the present, reading it in depth, contextualizing it and considering its ethical, political and aesthetic implications.

A full programme may be seen here. Registration fee (set at cost, to coffee and tea): students and unwaged = £3; waged = £5. There is limited seating; places will be allocated in order of registration. You should register in advance. A registration form may be downloaded here. Alternatively, if you are unable to download the word document, a pdf version is available here. (If you have problems downloading these documents, please first refresh your page, and if that does not work – please email Naomi French for an email copy of the form.)

If you need further information about the event, please write to Mick Gidley, Emeritus Professor of American Literature & Culture, at the School of English, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9 JT England, UK or via e-mail at


Dueling Cameras in the Peterson Case

The wife of a police sergeant disappears, and stays disappeared. Turns out that she is–or was–his fourth wife, and the third wife had expired in suspicious circumstances, and the cop may have been using police department computers to get information on his (fourth) wife’s friends, and the story gets curiouser and before you know it, he resigns from the force while becoming both a police suspect and the hot story in the Chicago media.

And they say the suburbs are dull.

Even if this guy beats the rap, it’s clear there is much not to like, but that’s his business. My interest in how he has provided a lesson about the visual public sphere. Peterson clearly has adapted quickly and dramatically to the media mob camped outside his house. Here’s where he started:


The caption read: “Bolingbrook Police Sgt. Drew Peterson — whose wife, Stacy, has been missing since Sunday — steps outside his home for a few seconds as police investigators search his home Thursday. Asked about whether he was nervous, Peterson told the Tribune, ‘Why should I be nervous? I did nothing wrong.'”

Now it can get chilly in Chicago in November, but you don’t have to cover your face. I thought of doing a separate post on this photo and calling it “American Burqa.” By bundling up against the media gaze, Peterson is challenging our norms of public visibility. Some of us resist the demand to be seen, as when we wear sun glasses inside or ball caps pulled low, but that is always within the range of legitimate withdrawal into a zone of privacy. As Peterson shows, all you have to do is cover the face itself and your display of autonomy is no longer acceptable. No wonder the guy looks guilty as hell. The picture says, “withholding information, hiding something, and a law onto himself.”

It is easy to conclude that this strategy of hiding in the light is not so smart. But don’t conclude that Peterson is not cagey. The jacket and jeans combo, NYPD ball cap, and flag bandanna scream “selected for symbolic value.” He may not be nervous, but he is trying to put some visual spin on a bad situation.

Turns out that he’s also coachable. I’m speculating here, but I’ll bet he got a lawyer and some help on the presentation of self in public. Because this is what we saw more recently:


Whoa! Is that the suspect or his lawyer? Comfortably striding along in middle class attire, he turns his video camera on the press. Instead of denying the norm of public visibility, he ramps it up, creating a hypervisual scene of cameras recording cameras recording cameras. Instead of passively hiding in full view of an unseen camera, he aggressively records the press, thereby bringing them into the picture. Instead of looking isolated and guilty, he declares that he has nothing to hide while the press is unfairly ganging up on him.

He’s catching on, isn’t he? This is what conservative politicians and media flacks have been doing for years: shifting the focus from their actions to the media coverage, which then is denounced as excessive and unfair. You can’t paint Peterson completely with that brush, however, as his brash act has another, more distinguished lineage. This includes Garry Winogrand, a photographer who focused his camera on the technologies of media coverage (see his 1977 book, Public Relations), and, behind him, Walter Benjamin’s argument that photographic artifice depends on hiding the equipment. By exposing the cameras trained on him, Peterson has not only adopted a sophisticated strategy for deflecting the gaze, but also activated a more reflexive awareness of the role of photojournalism in shaping the story.

Even so, I think he still looks guilty as hell. It’s probably the smile. . . .

Chicago Tribune photographs by Antonio Perez (November 1, 2007) and Terrence Antonio James (November28, 2007). Thanks to Elisabeth Ross for reminding me of Winogrand’s work, which was included in her presentation on “Private Eyes and Public Lives” at the recent Northwestern University conference on Visual Democracy.



Mug Shots, Portraiture, and the Verdict of History

You might as well know that recently it’s been getting harder by the day to post at this blog. As far as I can tell, the press is rolling over to accommodate the neocon line that the surge has worked. According to that argument, any bad news now demonstrates that the liberal media refuse to change their script. Since violence is down, there must be a turn for the better, and so the president was right, and the press had better put up or shut up. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but now we are getting little beyond but photo-op images of officials at press conferences, leaders walking together, soccer games in Iraq, and the like. And this is before we get to the soft news fare for the holidays. . . .That’s why it is heartening to see this image from the Art & Design section:


This is one of a series of prints by Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese entitled “Line Up.” Each diptych presents a Bush administration official as if being booked for lying about Iraq; you can hear the vocal recording of the lie while you look at the print. They are on display as part of an exhibition of contemporary prints at the New York Public Library. According the the New York Times, “Line Up” has “prompted protests from some library patrons, attracted coverage by The Daily News, Fox News and USA Today, and has stirred the blogosphere.” It’s not often and probably a bad sign that the action is on the third floor of a library, but I’ll take it.

Of course, the Times doesn’t say that Bush administration lied, only that one can hear each “statement of questionable veracity.” And maybe it really doesn’t matter: the disaster is so comprehensive, the carnage so devastating, the loss of American lives and wealth ($3.5 trillion, according to the latest estimate) so permanent, it’s not worth arguing over this or that fragment of administrative speech. Better perhaps to look at the artwork and see what it has to tell us.

The joke comes from putting a high official in a mug shot. The humor actually runs rather deep: it can suggest that the offense could go beyond false statements; or that these officials are no better the the leader they deposed, Saddam Hussein, who also suffered the indignity of a mug shot; or that in a better world the Arlington police would arrest war criminals the same way they arrest common criminals.

But I think the joke is only the vehicle for a more interesting point, which is made by the fact that the photographs are of portrait quality. Sans the ID sign, the work could double as a heavily framed painting to be hung on the walls of the halls of power. When framed that way it becomes a character study. Forget the lie, but look at the habitual squint of a calculating man, and the assertive posture of a verbal warrior. The man on the left readily adopts a defensive position as he assesses, tests, counters, and feints while planning his rhetorical offensive. The man on the right is on the assault, a model of both composure and intensity as he rains words down relentlessly on those before him. Think of how easily these same portraits–these same characteristics–could be celebrated had the disaster been anything less than one of historical proportions.

Just as the neocon pundits are cowing the press, they will try to do the same with the history of the war. Willful blindness will become decisiveness, rigidity will be the courage of one’s convictions, immorality will be accepting the burden of leadership. (To understand the cause and consequences of this attitude, see Thucydides’ History 3.82-84.) They will spin the pictures the same way they spin the words. But thanks to two printmakers and the New York Public Library, it now will be a bit easier to see what was wrong.

Photograph by Jim Kempner/Fine Art.

Update: Michael Shaw of BAGnewsNotes posted today on another work from the “Line Up” series, one featuring a somewhat clownish Cheney. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was odd about that piece, but Michael nails it.

To buy postcards of some of the images, go here. From the ad at Pure Products USA, it seems evident that Michael and I each saw one of the two faces of the exhibit. It involves parodic portraiture, and some images (e.g., of Cheney) emphasize the parody and others (e.g., Rumsfeld) the portrait. You can see the very powerful video installation here. A t-shirt is available here.



The Final Betrayal


The photograph above is of 1st Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside. A graduate of the University of Virginia, she has served in the Army Reserve since 2001. Judged to be a “superior Officer” she consistently distinguished herself, first as an executive officer of a support company of 150 soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital, and then as a the platoon leader of the 329th Medical Company at Camp Cropper, a detainee prison near Baghdad which housed 4,000 prisoners, including Saddam Hussein. When Hussein was removed from his cell to be executed, riots ensued and Whiteside stepped up, helping to restore order and ensuring the safety of the doctors in the prison. The next day, she suffered a psychic episode in which she locked herself in a room with a mental health nurse who was also her superior; agitated and noticeably paranoid, Whiteside fired her gun twice into the ceiling. Moments later, with armed soldiers advancing on the door to the room, she pointed her M9 pistol at her own stomach and pulled the trigger. She was returned to Walter Reed Hospital as a patient where she now faces a possible court-martial that could result in life in prison.

Read that last sentence again and let it sink in. It could be the beginning of a tale by Kafka. Tragically, it is an all too real story reported in the Washington Post (12/2/07).

Psychic trauma is certainly one of war’s dirty secrets, a condition all the more troubling when we recognize that even the most conservative estimates maintain that 20% of the more than 1.4 million troops who have or who are serving in Iraq will experience some form of war-induced post-traumatic stress. Indeed, it is hard to process the magnitude of this condition – after all how can one imagine, let alone “show,” 300,000 sufferers of what is characterized as a silent and invisible disease. And yet the tragedy being reported here is not that those who go to war suffer psychic trauma. This is something perhaps even worse: the Pentagon’s abandonment and betrayal of honorable men and women who have voluntarily put their lives on the line to serve their country and who have been seriously damaged by the experience in the process.

In Whiteside’s case the military gave her the option of resigning with a “general under honorable conditions” discharge that would have deprived her of most of her benefits, including medical care. She chose to fight the charges against her instead, and as a result Maj. Stefan Wolfe, the prosecutor for the government, argued last week that she should be court-martialed despite the opinion of the Army’s own surgeon general that Whiteside had experienced a “psychotic, self-destructive episode.” It is hard to imagine what the military can be thinking here, but their position seems utterly stupefying and totally devoid of anything like compassion. If the tragedy of the Vietnam war veteran was that he was abandoned and betrayed by the society-at-large, it seems as if the tragedy of the Iraqi war veteran is that they are being abandoned and betrayed by their own.

The photograph of Whiteside above is a telling and poignant portrait of the problem. Judged to be a model soldier in every regard up to the very moment of her psychic breakdown, and thus the best that the military has to offer, she is shown here in the hallway of her Walter Reed Guest House as she awaits a decision as to whether or not she will face a court-martial. Standing at attention, but without uniform, she bears the countenance of the “thousand yard stare,“ though it is hard to know if this is the result of her time in Iraq or her more recent “war” with the military. Billeted in the “Walter Reed Guest House,” she is caught in a chasm between being a private citizen and a soldier, neither clearly one nor the other. Illuminated by a yellowing light, her face is nevertheless shrouded by a dark and foreboding shadow; cast in sepia tones, she is locked in a past that she can neither understand nor escape. Thus, her trauma continues. Most of all, she is alone. Completely and utterly deserted by those who should be protecting her. If the aftermath of the Vietnam War taught us anything, it was that such isolation and abandonment is anything but a recipe for psychic healing – not for individuals and not for the culture writ large. And yet the military refuses to see what would appear to be right before its very eyes, insisting that her defense is mere “psychobabble,“ as if shooting oneself in the stomach could be imagined as an act of sanity.

The depth of utter betrayal by the military of its own is magnified by another photograph that is part of the same story. While living with a group of mental outpatients on the grounds of Walter Reed Hospital, Whiteside befriended Sammantha Owen-Ewing, a twenty year old Pfc. who had been “abruptly dismissed from the Army” against the wishes of her doctors and who had lost access to all military benefits, including her medical benefits. Owen-Ewing recently committed suicide and Whiteside traveled to her burial service in Utah. The last picture in the WP photo-essay that chronicles Whiteside’s story is of Owen-Ewing’s casket:


Its contrast with every one of the hundreds of funerals we have seen of military veterans in recent years is marked by the absence of a military honor guard, and, more noticeably still, the American flag. The argument of the photo-essay could not be more eloquent, as the substitution of flowers for the flag underscores both the simple dignity and decorum of a private funeral, as well as well as the military’s indecorous denial of its responsibility to care for its own.

Photo Credit: Michelle du Cille/Washington Post



City Sights and Civil Society

This photograph took up almost a full half-page above the fold for a recent report in the Weekend Arts section of the New York Times:


The caption says, “The New Museum of Contemporary Art Onlookers inspect the lobby and the facade of this seven-story structure on the Lower East Side, which opens tomorrow.”

And so they do. But why are we being shown the onlookers and not the building that they find so interesting? The photograph itself would not seem to be the reason as it is hardly a study in dramatic intensity. The viewer’s gaze is directed every which way, whether cued by the many different sight lines of the onlookers or by the way the view expands unevenly but consistently outward across the rear of the frame. The division of the horizontal axis by the posts into uneven thirds further breaks up the scene. The image becomes a triptych, but one that doesn’t tell a story and has only accidental coherence.

It is a remarkable picture, nonetheless, one that could hang on the wall of the museum. The photographer has captured what usually is only a blur in the background of our consciousness but now can be seen in pristine clarity. And what is seen? Society. Modern, urban, liberal-democratic society. Not all of it, of course: what we see is young, hip, affluent, cultured. But that’s easy to see. The street scene is defined not by those attributes so much as by habits of civic interaction that are much more broadly distributed in the developed world today. Look, for example, at the spacings between the individuals and the several groupings of people. The proxemic ratios there will be maintained whenever possible in public in the US.

Let me focus today on how this photograph exposes one dimension of the complex social experience on display. I’ve written before about how public life depends on visual norms, habits, and practices, and how critical theory can misrecognize these forms as long as it depends on assumptions that visual media are largely instruments of power by which elites create spectacles to manipulate the masses. By contrast, one can point out that even social critique calls for “transparency,” a visual metaphor that if nothing else assumes that someone is looking; more important, social phenomena are constantly changing, and social theory needs to do the same if it is to account for public culture as that is something different from manufactured consent. Today’s photograph provides one example of what one might look for if taking seriously the idea that modern civil society requires or at least makes use of forms of seeing.

Let’s simply catalog the many ways the sight is marked in this photograph. The caption features an art museum–an institution devoted solely to public viewing of visual artworks. The people in the photograph are identified as “onlookers”–defined by the act of looking. They may also be citizens, or New Yorkers, or connoisseurs of the arts, but all that is folded into “onlookers.” And looking on is a specific type of seeing: one is not within the scene being observed, not part of the action, but rather seeing “from the sidewalk” as it were. They are spectators, but not degraded by that. In fact, they are “inspecting” the building; although not inspectors, they are engaged in an inherently visual act that includes an assessment, in this case, an aesthetic judgment. That is what the architect assumes, and so we are seeing the other side of architecture: not the building, but the culture within which it makes more or less sense. The building will be judged according to how well it meets the visual challenge carried by the story caption, “New Look for the New Museum.”

And those are merely the captions. In the image itself we see people defined by looking, which clearly goes in many different directions probably reflecting different points of view. Even the dog is looking. More specific looking also is evident, from someone pointing to direct others’ view, to the woman pointing her camera, to the couple in the background who have to watch for traffic. The city is a place to look, from streets to signage to buildings. It also is a place to look at people: those in the picture are posed by the still image as if for inspection. The red coat in the right middle fixes that element of the scene, which is carried across the image by the common fashion of blue jeans, casual coats, shoes, headgear, bags, and postures. Like the woman in red, albeit to varying degrees, everyone has agreed to not only see but be seen. No burqas here.

This shared visual experience is given a reflective touch by the large windows (a transparent barrier) and the reflections off the polished floor. We see, but always through things (even the air can distort) or off of things (such a this web page). One reason people go to art museums is to become more intelligent about how they use their eyes, and the photograph is doing some of this work for those, like the onlookers in the photo, not yet inside.

The final touch is provided by the sign in the center rear of the composition: “City Sights NY.” This cheap sign for what I assume is a low-grade tourist operation is perfect here. On the one hand, it is the art museum’s opposite: a commercial, artistically worthless painting for pre-packaged “sight-seeing” for bumpkins. No wonder it is getting exactly zero attention from both those interested in the museum. On the other hand, it is just the other side of the same street: the city is a place for seeing, and people go there for that reason. The vulgar, vernacular signage tells us why the museum is there, for both are all about “City Sights NY.” And that is a story about not only New York but also anywhere people are to mingle together in modern civil society.

To see what I mean, just look at the picture.

Photograph by Suzanne DeChilo/New York Times.



Sight Gag: Which End Up?


Photo Credit: Charles Dharapak/AP

Our primary goal with this blog is to talk about the ways in which photojournalism contributes to a vital democratic public culture. Much of the time that means we are focusing on what purport to be more or less serious matters. But as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert often remind us, democracy needs irony, parody, and pure silliness as much as it needs serious contemplation. For our part, we will dedicate our Sunday posts to putting some of that silliness on display in what we call “sight gags,” democracy’s nod to the carnivalesque. Sometimes we will post pictures we’ve taken, or that have been contributed by others, or that we just happen to stumble across as we navigate our very visual public culture. And we won’t just be limited to photography, as a robust democratic visual culture consists of much more. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.

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Public Health and the Cancer Ward

She doesn’t really have cancer. Nor does she die. The emphysema patient in this photograph is now walking without oxygen, enjoying her renewed appetite, and “‘very, very happy.” Thus, the title of this post, like the photograph itself, tells a lie.


Or does it? Let’s first identify what’s misleading about the photograph. We see an OR/intensive care patient looking as if she has been left to die. Head and hand reveal her pale skin that is otherwise shrouded in layers of white, as if already prepared for burial or fading into some gauzy realm of the spirit. The turn of the head and lifeless droop of the hand suggest that she has no energy left. All but one of the staff in the room has turned their backs to her, and he is intently focused on something else. It’s as if she isn’t there or is already inanimate. Hooked to machines at each end of her body, their currents seem to flow through her uninterrupted on to the monitor hanging overhead that shows only a test pattern. The metal table could be used in a morgue. She is placed in the vanishing point of the picture.

Louis P. Masur deftly summarized a standard criticism of photography in a recent review: “‘The devious lie of a snapshot’ is a marvelous phrase. It is not the photographer who is devious, but the snapshot itself, which isolates and freezes action, disconnecting it from context and sequence.” (Masur is quoting photographer Thomas Hoepker.) This cautionary note would seem to apply directly to the photograph above: what looks like a death scene is in fact a woman beginning her recovery from disease to life.

I think there is more to be said, however. The image accompanies two stories, one about an operation used to treat emphysema sufferers by removing sections of their damaged lungs, and another, much longer front page story about how a past smoking boom among woman is now a major killer. As deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are rising like smoke in an updraft, and medical costs scaling upward along with them, considerable attention is being focused on the various techniques being mobilized to manage the disease. One strong theme of the story is that we must avoid blaming the victims. OK, but why was nothing said about blaming the tobacco companies, who are not mentioned in the article? We are to not blame individual patients, but we also are supposed to focus entirely on individuals. The disease is an “epidemic” but apparently not a public health problem having a common cause.

So there is something right about the photograph, in that it reproduces the newspaper’s framework for the story, which in turn is not merely a compositional strategy but one that reflects key features of how American health care is organized. When disease appears, the medical patient is the center of our attention, and she will live or die according to how well the society mobilizes high-tech, capital-intensive medical treatments for each individual.

The photograph can lie, but it also reveals.  This photo depicts three forms of inattention built in to our health care system: First, the photo depicts how medical staffers in the room are completely indifferent to her because she already has received their expert care; they know that there is little to worry about as they debrief, clean up, and make the transition to the next case. Second, because they are on the job, we don’t have to pay attention unless we’re likely to end up on the OR table. Epidemic? Not to worry. Third, by focusing on the effects and not the causes of the epidemic, the image models an artificial blindness regarding the causes of a serious public health problem: we are to not see the tobacco companies that work relentlessly to addict people to their carcinogenic drug.

I think the truth of the photo goes beyond its inadvertent performance of a form of blindness. Some of the bad news is seeping out of the frame. Look again at the scene, particularly at the swirl of wires and the rat’s nest of electronic gear. We are looking at a real place of work, but also a society that is held together by a snarl of gerry-rigged connections always on the verge of being jostled, bumped, or broken. It works because there is a lot of expensive equipment combined with serious, no-frills professionalism, but it also is a messy assemblage without any means for doing anything other than responding to disasters seemly not of its own making.

The room is functional but closed off from thinking about public health. The work done there is miraculous but very costly. The operations interrupt suffering but do nothing to prevent it. When her care is structured by the American health care system, the patient is in good hands, but she may be in a cancer ward after all. The question is not whether there is hope for her, but whether there is hope that the system can be changed. In the photograph, the patient is completely without the ability to do anything, and so is the public audience. She will live, but we may be dying.

Photograph by Damon Winter/New York Times. Masur’s review: “How the Truth Gets Framed by the Camera,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 23, 2007, B6-B8. (Full disclosure: No Caption Needed is discussed elsewhere in the review.)