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Feb 11, 2009

Learning What to See

Homeless at Walmart

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon the movie At First Sight, a story about a man, blind from the age of three, who recovers his sight. Because he had spent most of his life sightless his brain never learned how to translate the chemical and electronic impulses transmitted to it from his eyes in a meaningful fashion.  Like a child initially learning how to read has to figure out how to translate squiggles on a page into meaningful words and then sentences, the movie’s protagonist literally has to learn how to see: colors, shapes, textures, shadows, reflections … all the of the visual aspects of the world that sighted people take for granted, he had to learn, one dimension and one image at a time.  The most pertinent moment in the film occurred for me during a scene in which the now sighted man is walking around the streets of New York City with his girl friend, reveling in the cornucopia of images  available to him.  They come across a homeless person sleeping on a door stoop and he doesn’t quite know what to make out of it; his bewilderment is compounded when his girl friend fails to even see the person laying there.  When he points the homeless person out to her she admonishes him as if he were a child, “you’re not supposed to look at that.”  The scene is a poignant allegory of the the myriad ways in which we must learn to see, including the complex  network of social norms and conventions concerning what can and cannot (or should and should not) be seen.

I was reminded of this moment from the movie when I came across the above photograph in a NYT slideshow on November 27th, the day after Thanksgiving  also known as “Black Friday.”  Cued by a number of symbolic markers, my first thought was that the camera was encouraging me to see seeming that was indecorous to look at: a homeless person—a barely recognizable individual sleeping in a public space, his face obscured and his body wrapped up in what appeared to be a grey and dirty blanket; surrounded by his few worldly goods, including the signature shopping cart, the only other person in the scene dutifully ignores him as if he isn’t there and shouldn’t be seen.  The awkwardness of the moment dissipated upon closer inspection, however, for there were things that didn’t make much sense, not least that we don’t typically see homeless people sleeping on the floor in grocery stores—after all, it’s not good for business.  And then I read the caption:  “Brian Garcia, 17, tried to nap on Friday at a Wal-Mart in Sugar Land, Tex., where he was first in line for a greatly discounted  plasma TV.”

It is possible that this photograph was intended as something of a visual irony, particularly when we consider that it was juxtaposed with other pictures in the same slideshow that implied something like an unrepentant, consumerist version of gluttony.  But there is a different and perhaps more important point to be made.  Stories and photographs about the frenzy of activity that took place in our stores and malls on Black Friday were ubiquitous across local and national media.  And for the most part what we were being invited to see was the world of commerce doing what it does.  Individual shoppers might be portrayed as going overboard in buying too much, or as being unduly cautious as they wait for “deep discounts” before they make their holiday purchases.  But in either case we were being encouraged to seeing consumers and businesses doing what they do.  What we didn’t see were those incapable of being consumer-citizens.  And most of all, we didn’t see the homeless.  To make the point take note of the fact that every year the week before Thanksgiving is National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week.  This year that would have been November 15-21. If you rely on the major news outlets for your information—print or broadcast—you probably wouldn’t know that since, as far as I can tell, not a single national newspaper or network carried a story about it.  Not a one!  Apparently its not something we are supposed to see … or look at.

Photo Credit:  Michael Stravato/New York Times

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Accidental Truths in Images of the Afghan War

Much of the time, photographs provide the ideal pretext for those who would deny the obvious.  The gambit goes like this: someone, often a photographer with intimate knowledge of the setting, takes a photograph that  is circulated by the press and then used as evidence in political argument.  At that point, the defender of the policy being questioned responds by focusing exclusively on the photograph’s evidentiary problems: the image shows only a single event; things might have looked very different a moment before or after; expressions can’t be trusted; much is not being shown; given these problems, the use of the photo is proof of bias.  Such objections rightly carry weight as each is true of photography in general and can provide a reasonable basis for skepticism.  The problem is that they also are used to deflect deliberation about serious problems, including environmental damage, economic and social decline, and tragic mistakes in foreign policy.   Worse yet, these seemingly reasonable caveats can bring one to overlook the facts when they are staring you in the face.

US soldier training Afghan police

This recent photograph from Afghanistan is a good example of how images can simultaneously both reveal the truth and provide fodder for its denial.  The caption at The Big Picture said, “Afghan National policemen look on as U.S. soldier Cpl. Joseph Dement, right, from the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division helps train the police on how to apprehend a gunman at an outpost in the Pech Valley of Afghanistan’s Kunar province Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009.”  The text is chock full of facts, and so we are cued to see the scene as evidence, but of what?

One obvious answer is that Americans are training Afghan security forces, and that the training reflects the same precision and intensity found in our own superbly prepared troops.  But note the verb: the policemen “look on.”  And so they do; they look on rather than study intently as if they were committed to the same mission as the US forces, or as if they really expected to be in a situation where they would enage in close combat rather than melt away.

In fact, the photograph is a troubling picture of contradictory extremes that can’t work together and aren’t likely to prevail on their own.  On the one hand, there is the American who is entirely focused on the technical precision of the military operation, and oblivious to the complex social scene in which he is embedded.  On the other hand, the Afghan policemen represent a social field of diverse personalities and attitudes, not one of which is likely to lead to a well-organized counter-insurgency.  It’s as if the photo was from a casting call for two very different B movies: one with American action figures and the other an Afghan sitcom on the order of Hogan’s Heros.

Thus, some can see the photo as revealing a fundamental problem in the American war in Afghanistan–indeed, a problem those of us of a certain age have seen in another war in a place called Vietnam, when we were subject to many years of denial of the obvious at all levels.  But you don’t have to take that analogy to see the problem now.  For example, Comment #79 at the Big Picture slide show says that this photo “shows pretty well the situation in Afghanistan. The Americans will fail because they can’t stay forever and the moment they leave everything will collapse.”

On the other side, of course, photographs depicting momentary facial expressions are tailor made for those who will seize on the single image to deny the broader picture.  Well, there are very few situations where anyone should be persuaded by a single image, and this isn’t one of them.  But it also is not a situation where political dissent should be disregarded because it turns to images to provide evidence (a term that comes from the Latin word for seeing).  When the “hearts and minds” of the people are a crucial factor in the mission, then photographs of ordinary people caught in accidental moments of time can reveal important truths.

Afghan boy thumbs down

“A young Afghan boy gives the thumbs down to a passing NATO French Foreign Legion convoy near Surobi some 50 kms east of Kabul, Afghanistan,Monday, Nov. 9, 2009” (The Big Picture).

Photographs by David Guttenfelder and Jerome Delay for the Associated Press.

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Giving Thanks or Giving Up?

As the Thanksgiving holiday in the US approaches, preachers, public officials, teachers, counselors, and even advertisers will be encouraging everyone to give thanks for what we might otherwise take for granted.  Because this was not likely to have been a bountiful year for most people, the ordinary, unsung features of daily life are being elevated to the status of blessings (which they are).  One might consider what would happen if similar advice were given regarding the way we look at things.  The sentiment need not even be one of gratitude so much as simple curiosity, if we would but look at what we otherwise take for granted.

wild turkey Buffalo-New-York

This photograph provides one example of what I have in mind.  It is basically a novelty shot: a wild turkey on the street in Buffalo, New York.  Even at Thanksgiving, one doesn’t see many wild turkeys, and they are not expected to appear in an urban, industrial setting, and what could it be doing there but–I can’t resist–crossing the road to get to the other side.  No more serious response seems called for: the turkey is a small, awkward figure, yet it can dominate a scene that is both dismal and distant.  This is not the time of year for a turkey to be walking into the city, but it seems safe enough, somewhat like an ordinary commuter trudging through urban isolation.  The image might as well be comic, if it is to be noticed at all.

What strikes me about the image, however, is everything other than the turkey.  Almost every part of the photo is focused on some part of what we ordinarily overlook: the electrical poles, lines, guy wires, and signage; the cracks in the pavement, crumbling curbs, and weeds breaking them down; the rusted rail line, the road bed, and rail cars; the industrial back lot of utility buildings, ventilation ducts, smoke stacks, and air conditioners and other rooftop machines; and, increasingly, the emptiness haunting industrial sites that have been abandoned or neglected or put to too little use for too long.

Seeing the world is something that everyone in the US now does through a camera, whether they know it or not, but not the camera that shows all.  Instead, most of the time we see the beautiful vistas and happy people of what might be called the retail side of life.  We habitually edit out the power lines in the tourist photo of a busy street or the weeds lurking in the news coverage, and few stop to consider how they rarely are shown the gritty reality of de-industrialization or the sad dispersions of people, possessions, and opportunities that accompany a declining standard of living.

Were people to really look at what is around them, they would still see much to be thankful for.  But they might see reasons to become alarmed as well.  To be truly thankful involves not only a feeling of gratitude, but also a resolution to preserve the good thing and pass it along to others.  If one looks closely, it may appear that Americans are overlooking a great deal, and that their inattention and lack of care for their cities, factories, and other infrastructure is a sign not of gratitude but rather of giving up.

Photograph by Brian Snyder/Reuters.

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Sight Gag: Standing Up For Human Rights

tiananmen Health Care

Credit:  Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune (Note:  The cartoon is this week’s Cartoon for the Classroom “Caption Contest”  run by NIE and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists).

“Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture.  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.


Photographer's Showcase: The Fall of the Berlin Wall

This week we feature a CBS report that celebrates the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Berlin Wall by drawing upon the work and reminiscences of photojournalist (and longtime friend of NCN) Peter Turnley.  Click on the image to view the video, or click here to read his column on the fall of the Wall at the Digital Journalist and here to see a stunning gallery of his photographs that includes both the fall of the Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.

Turley, Fall of the Berlin Wall

Photo Credit: Peter Turnley/Corbis

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When Poverty Doesn't Catch the Eye

This photograph may be one of the more ordinary images in recent photojournalism, and all the more eloquent for that.

homeless labourer

The caption stated that “A labourer rests near his makeshift tent home in a park” in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Attentive readers will have noticed the British spelling (and usage), and the image did come from an online slide show at The Guardian.  My guess is that American papers weren’t so quick to run the photo, but can you blame them?  There is nothing dramatic or otherwise notable anywhere in the frame.  The focus is diffused from the man in the foreground across the darkened, nondescript scene and then up into the spare stand of trees and the vague sky.  The area on the ground is littered with generic consumer items, while the background vista is a mess of random tree trunks, scrawny branches poking every which way, and brown leaves not yet scattered. The scene is utterly without visual interest, while nothing is happening–or likely to happen.

Attentive viewers may have noticed another dimension to the scene, however.  There are several tensions, subtle yet troubling, that can guide reflection.  First, there is more to the man, if you will look for it.  He is brooding it seems, an attitude that resonates with the long shadows from the late afternoon sun.  And that sunlight gilds his face and his hand: the face is taut with interior life, and the gesture and veins of his hand suggest strength and skill.  Together they may signify the dignity of labor, and so this photograph can channel the realism and progressive sentiments of genre painting.  He is not at work, however, or have enough of a job to afford shelter, and so the worker’s capable hands (and strong back) are immobilized.

Note also the contrast between his personal possessions and the unkept woodland.  His clothes are clean while laundry is draped on a clothesline, there is a symmetrical order to the campsite, and it looks as if a calendar and similar items are tacked to the tree trunk on the right.  What should be natural setting has taken on the look of domesticity, and what should be a temporary site–a campground, as if for a weekend getaway–is becoming the place where he may spend the winter.

So it is that the banality of the photograph is the vehicle for its documentary truth.  What we are seeing is a man settling into a “new normal.”  He is homeless, even if he is working he won’t have any job security, and his ability to cope, adapt, keep his shirt clean, and otherwise be ready to move up may do no more than keep him from slipping lower yet.

Photograph by Carlos Barria/Reuters.


The March of the Flag

war hearse

November 11th was originally proclaimed Armistice Day by President Wilson in 1919 as a day for remembering those who sacrificed their lives in the first “war to end all wars.”  In 1926 the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution in which November 11th was designated as a day for commemorating “with thanksgiving and prayer exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”  In 1954 Armistice Day was renamed “Veteran’s Day” by President Eisenhower in order to acknowledge and honor all veterans in the wake of World War II and the Korean conflict. The movement from commemorating a “war to end all wars” in the name of peace, good will and mutual understanding to a day for honoring Veterans of all wars without prejudice is not subtle, although we rarely if ever seem to acknowledge the difference.  The point to be made here, however, is that this very shift in meaning correlates in no small way with the difficulty we have had in recent times in judging any national military aggression lest we risk doing harm to those who actually do the fighting.

The many slide shows at mainstream journalistic websites marking Veteran’s Day this past week make the point, as photograph after photograph presents visually eloquent and decorous displays of the sacrifices of those who nobly served and often died in the service of their country without any specific reflection on the particular wars being fought. This battle, that invasion, it doesn’t really seem to matter, as the reasons for fighting are visually trumped by an abstract, visual display of national sacrifice that, in the end, reduces the individual to the nation-state.  The photograph above from the Wall Street Journal is a case in point. The hearse carries the flag draped remains of a soldier recently killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.  There is nothing in the image that marks that fact, although the caption does give the deceased’s name and rank, but notice how the photograph itself works to deflect attention from the particular sacrifice inside the hearse to the wall of flags that extends to infinity reflected on the vehicle’s highly polished, exterior surface.  The hearse is thus cast as a mirror, and as the photograph invites us to view it as such, what we see—as with any mirror—is a reflection of ourselves.  And what that reflection reveals is not the individual per se, but the nation signified by an inexorable march of the flag.  Whatever specific cause took the life of this soldier seems to pale in comparison, and certainly is not subject to question.

A second photograph from the same paper on the same day underscores and extends the nationalist implications of the first image above.

Junior Officer

Here we have a boy who is described without a name as a “Junior Reserve Offices Training Corps honor guard” participating in a Veteran’s Day ceremony.  Lacking a name, he takes on the quality of a individuated aggregate—an individual cast in the role of a collective.  He stands for something more than himself.  But what?  The eyes, we are told, are the windows to the soul.  But here, notice that his  eyes are hidden from view; if he has an individual soul it is not accessible to us.  What we have instead is his serious countenance defined by the set of his jaw balanced against the bright, mirror-like surface of his highly polished helmet, an instrument of war turned to ceremonial purposes.  The helmet reflects both the deeply saturated colors of the national flag that he appears to be holding, and which shrouds his head and shoulders, as well as another flag, more difficult to make out, that appears to be in his line of vision.  There is no hint of the boy here, let alone the individual veteran, but a connection between past (behind him) and future (in front of him) defined only by the national colors.  His (and our) present is defined  by  a direct line from past to future and the trajectory is … well, fated.  And once again, the flag marches on.

We can and should remember those who sacrifice their lives for the common good.  But in doing so we are well advised to recognize and reflect on what is being sacrificed to what, and to avoid the temptation—however comforting it might be—to make a fetish of the flag and what it represents in the process.

Credit:  Darron Cummings/AP; Nati Harnick/AP


Sight Gag: Going Rogue

Palin the Rogue

Credit:  All Hat No Cattle

“Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture.  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.


On the Road to …

Like Hope and Crosby, your NCN guys are on the road this week. Unfortunately its nothing as exotic as Bali, or Rio, or Zanzibar … but who knows what mayhem we will create.  We’ll be back next Sunday with a new sight gag as we get ready to wind down another year.


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