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Sight Gag: Bottoms Up!

Photo Credit: Polyp

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.


Exhibition: The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League

The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951

An exhibition by The Jewish Museum, New York and The Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

In 1936 a group of young, idealistic photographers, most of them Jewish, first-generation Americans, formed an organization in Manhattan called the Photo League. Their solidarity centered on a belief in the expressive power of the documentary photograph and on a progressive alliance in the 1930s of socialist ideas and art. The Radical Camera presents the contested path of the documentary photograph during a tumultuous period that spanned the New Deal reforms of the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War.

The exhibition features more than 140 works by some of the most noted 20th-century photographers, including Berenice Abbott, Sid Grossman, Lisette Model, Aaron Siskind, Paul Strand, and Weegee.

The exhibition will be housed at the The Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Ave at 92nd St, New York, NY from November 04, 2011 – March 25, 2012; at the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Oh, from April 19 – September 9, 2012; at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, CA, from October 11, 2012 – January 21, 2013; and at the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Fl from February 9 – April 21, 2013.

More information is here.

Photograph by Sid Grossman, Coney Island, c. 1947.

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This is Not A Declaration of Peace

There is something altogether uncanny about President Obama’s declaration that “America’s war in Iraq will be over” by the end of the year.  And it goes well beyond the irony that President Bush had already declared “Mission Accomplished” eight years ago in 2003.

If you survey the almost constant litany of U.S. wars that have ended since the beginning of the 20th Century, their cessation is always marked by newspaper headlines with a flourish—and in the present tense: “Armistice Declared!” “Japan Surrenders, War Over!”  “The War in Europe is Ended!  Surrender is Unconditional.”  “Korean Armistice Signed: Hostilities Cease Today.”  “Peace with Honor.”  In short, the declaration of the end of a war meant something more or less definitive.  Or at least factual.  And, of course, the accompanying photographs would typically exalt the event with all manner of celebrations, most notably the iconic image of a sailor and a nurse kissing in Times Square.

But here and for the first time we have a war that is being declared over in the future tense. We claim to know it will be over, and we can say exactly when, but it isn’t quite over yet.  No one wants the ignominious fate of being the last casualty in a war before victory or peace is declared, but the concept clearly takes on a whole new meaning when we can pinpoint the future date that the war will end. One can only hope that when the war ends they will have survived–what we might call a future perfect ending to the war.  I’m not sure how much such thinking will inspire confidence among the troops.  The bigger difficulty, of course, is that absent a crystal ball the future is always a cognitive fiction, an imagined event, a wish dream.  And this is one place where photographs enter the equation.  Photographs are technically always about the past, but when we attend to them it is because we are treating the past as usable for understanding and managing the present in anticipation of an unknown future.  But how exactly do we photograph a future event?

Many of the news outlets who reported on President Obama’s speech repressed this problem by simply photographing the President speaking, marking the event of his speech while ignoring its implications.  But other news outlets published the above file photograph of an Army infantry division sitting in the belly of a C-17 aircraft.  The captions always indicate that the photograph was taken in 2010 and that the soldiers were preparing to return home, but of course there is nothing in the photograph itself that would indicate as much.  For all we know this could be a photograph of that very same infantry division as it was deploying to Iraq.  The point here is not to challenge the veracity of the caption but to question what exactly we are being shown.  And here what we are being shown is somewhat ambiguous, a past event being cast (or is it miscast?) as a hopeful image of the future.  But really, how hopeful can it be? After all, when these troops went home in 2010 they were part of a rotation that saw other troops take their place.  And how can we know that such will not be the same in the future?

We know because the President has exercised the future imperative in declaring that the war “will be over.”  But according to the NYT, even as such a declaration was being made, Defense Secretary Panetta was “[holding]out the possibility of keeping a small force of American military trainers in Iraq in the future,” and there are no plans as yet to remove “4,000 to 5,000 private State department security contractors.”  And more, “possibilities [are] being discussed for some troops to return in 2012.”

John Stewart of The Daily Show reported on the President’s speech by noting, “It’s finally over!  Find me a nurse in Times Square.”  But its not over. And there are as yet no such photographs to be taken.  Let’s hope all that changes by year’s end.

Photo Credit: Maya Alleruzzo/AP


Can We See Through Symbols?


Sometimes there are no words, nor need there be.  When I came across this image, I was instantly no longer reading a newspaper.  A moment before, I had been habitually scanning for information, considering arguments, making judgments, and otherwise getting orientated for the day.  And then I was in another place entirely: a place of suffering and consolation, and of both mortality and the possibility of something eternal.

I had entered a featureless room of earth tones and shadows, as if the anteroom to the underworld, only to see two sides of the human condition: one terribly exposed, and the other disturbingly dark.  It seems an intensely personal moment and yet profoundly universal.  One looks in vain for some way to reduce the terror lurking in the image, to learn enough so that it can be placed back into a sense of order, movement, resolution.  But no face can be seen, and the light illuminating his body is absorbed completely by her black cowl.

The news was still there to be had by way of the caption: “A woman took care of a wounded relative on Saturday inside a mosque being used as a hospital by demonstrators against the government in the Yemeni capital.”  The accompanying report added more.  But I hadn’t seen merely a woman or a wounded relative.  I had seen man’s naked, vulnerable flesh and his throat exposed as if for the slaughter.  And I had seen a figure veiled in black holding the victim firmly, almost possessively, as if there were nothing else that could be done.  And, of course, I had seen a pieta, the classic image in Christian iconography of Mary, the mother of Jesus, holding his broken body after it has been taken down from the cross.

The pieta is more Roman Catholic than Protestant, but though not Catholic I had no trouble seeing that artistic form as it is part of my cultural heritage.  Whatever the unknown photographer may have intended, the comparison is there to be made and to motivate a powerful emotional and ethical response to the image.  But should it matter that the two people in the photograph are almost certainly Muslim?  Although Islam defines itself as the heir of Judaism and Christianity, the artistic traditions could not be farther apart at this point, for the suggestion that we might be looking at the image of god would be blasphemous.  Worse yet, another reason the image is so powerful is that the black, hooded figure can also be seen as an angel of death claiming another soul.  This demonic vision not only must be far from the truth of the scene, but also sits well with deep-set prejudice.

Thus, the dilemma: On the one hand, seeing the two figures through the cultural lens of the pieta may frame response in a manner that is profoundly appropriate.  Doing so provides intense identification across cultural barriers to reach universal truths of human experience.  On the other hand, transposing their experience into another culture’s symbolism can seriously distort the actual relationship of those in the photograph, while also suggesting a false universality on Christian terms precisely when one ought to be laying down such presumptions about how well people can understand one another on sight.

Thus, we need to see through symbols, but in both senses of the verb: to use them to see more than we might see otherwise, and to recognize and look past their limitations to see what they would distort or occlude.  Nor is this double vision limited to matters theological.

“Libyan fighters regrouped Tuesday during the siege of Surt.”  (The story is here.)  Uh huh, and irregular troops taking a cigarette break is news?  Once again, we are being taken somewhere else, to a place where a death’s head and the peace symbol are part of the same identity.  Once again, darkness and light work together to feature two dimensions of human experience; if less complementary in principle, they are eased together by the global consumer economy.  Culture in the digital age is all about mash ups, but this also could be a study in either irony or illegibility.  You tell me.

Photographs by Samuel Aranda and Mauricio Lima for The New York Times.


Sight Gag: Ponzi Scheme (No, Not Social Security)

Photo Credit: Bennett

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.


Photoworks on Protest Photography


Given the interest in the Occupy Wall Street protests and those that preceded them in the Middle East and Europe this past spring and summer, readers may want to see the recent issue of Photoworks, a photography magazine published in the UK.   “Issue 16 considers the ways in which photography has been used to document civil unrest, the roles available to photography as a vehicle for protest, and the political operations of photography in contemporary culture.  Through a series of folios, essays, interviews, book reviews and a round table discussion, it brings together a wide range of photographs, drawn from different moments and disparate contexts.  Contributors include Ariella Azoulay, Nina Berman, Iain Boal, Shami Chakrabati, Monica Haller, Geert van Kesteren and Martha Rosler.”

You can see the table of contents for Issue #16 here.  Texts for this issue will be available to download from 1 November 2011.  The Photoworks organization main page is here.


Exchanging Prisoners Is Not Peace

I celebrate the release of Gilad Shalit from his five year imprisonment in Palestine.  Five years is a long time.  I don’t know him personally, but I can imagine that he has had enough of politics for awhile, and that he is looking forward to seeing his family and friends.

There should be no surprise that politics has not had enough of Gilad.  This photo nicely captures the subordination of private life to political grandstanding.  Gilad had his father embrace while being shouldered aside by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak.  The pols know a thing or two about grabbing the camera.  Gilad and his dad are turned toward each other, into their private bond, while together they seem to be trying to duck out of the public eye.  Bibi and Barak, not so much.

Perhaps the ministers shouldn’t be judged too harshly: the leaders on both sides are making the most of the photo-ops.  Indeed, the bargain has all the marks of the conflict as a whole: Israeli leaders can talk of how each life is precious while demonstrating their unremitting resolve to protecting their citizens.  Palestinians can talk of how thousands have been held in Israeli prisons while demonstrating their unremitting resolve to freeing their people.  And both sides have to like the bargain: some Palestinians have crowed about how 1 for 1000 prisoners is a great deal; some Israelis will silently presume that is about the right assessment of relative worth.

And by focusing on the dramatic event, the media continue to miss the story.

Gilad is home, but every day–every single day, year in and year out–thousands of Palestinians are delayed, harassed, detained, or turned away at checkpoints that impede and sometimes prohibit travel to and from their homes.  Travel to work, to hospitals, to schools, to their relatives, travel for any reason whatsoever.  Political prisoners have been released from jail, and that always is a good thing, but the occupied territories remain a large, open-air prison.  And 60 years is a long time.

If you look at the pictures, you can see that peace may be as far away as ever.

Photographs by the Israeli Defense Force and Musa Al-Shaer/AFP-Getty Images.  For documentation from the prison guards’ perspective: see Mikhael Manekin et al., eds, Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies 2000-2010 (Jeruselum, 2010), and Breaking the Silence:Israeli Soldiers Talk about the Occupied Territories.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


How The Other Half Lives – 2011

In 1890 the immigrant social reformer Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives, a searing photo-textual expose of the appalling and inhumane living conditions of the 300,000+ residents packed into a square mile of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  The Lower East Side (LES) consists of a number of neighborhoods, including Chinatown, Little Italy, the East Village, and most notoriously, New York’s version of skid row, the Bowery.  And as is the case with many impoverished inner cities neighborhoods, the LES has undergone significant gentrification in recent years.  So it is that the NYT recently reported on the renovation of The Prince Hotel, a nearly century-old flophouse located in the Bowery that continues to offer rooms—actually “cramped cubicles topped with chicken wire” —for $10 a night to a few men who continue to need a place to live and can actually afford the rent, but which also has converted several “upper” floors into a “stylish,” and “refined version of the gritty experience” for $62-$129 a night that includes “custom-made mattresses and high-end sheets.  Their bathrooms have marble sinks and heated floors.  Their towels are Ralph Lauren.”

There is something tawdry about the whole endeavor, to be sure.  The real estate developers who came up with the idea of promoting a “flophouse aesthetic” believe that it embodies a “living history vibe” that is as much a museum experience as it is a hotel for “stylish young men and women.”  Indeed, the NYT reports that the down-on-their luck individuals who live in the dilapidated cubicles on the lower floors are “an asset to the property,” apparently because they give some authenticity to the experience of “slumming”—a word, alas, which has returned to something like its original usage.  We could go on at some length to criticize the industry of slum tourism which, at least until now, has been more prominent in developing nations like India, Brazil, and Indonesia than the U.S., but there is really a different and more important point worth making.

The two photographs above, which show one of the “nicer,” lower-level squalid rooms on the left and one of the upper-level, renovated versions of the “gritty experience” on the right invite us to see the direction of America’s economic future.  Those who live in the room on the left have barely enough to get by (click here for a larger view). The room is dimly lit, and while neat and orderly, it is stuffed full with all of this person’s worldly goods. This is not the room of a destitute street person, after all, for they do have a television and other electronic equipment, including a jury-rigged ceiling fan, and they have enough money to pay the rent which implies some very minimal resources; but it is equally clear that their piece of the American Dream has eluded them.  And a look at their bathroom facilities makes the point all the more.  Those who live in the room on the right (here) seem to have arrived.  They not only survive, but enjoy the luxuries of an aristocratic class, with designer towels and sheets, and black bathrobes (that apparently bear The Bowery House monogram: TBH).  Their bathroom stands in marked contrast to those living on the floors below.  The developer describes the clientele for rooms like this as “people who might choose a cheap cubicle  for their city accommodations, yet go out for a $300-a-bottle table service.”

What we are given to see in these two images when put side by side (and by the hotel-museum aesthetic more generally) is a glimpse at a possible—and all too likely—economic future, a world divided between the haves and the have nots with little room in between.  In short, we see a world in which the middle class itself has been erased.  There are many reasons why this spells tragedy for our future—and somewhat ironically, not least the inability for a capitalist economy to sustain itself— but surely at the top of the list is the simple fact that  a society defined by such stark and radical economic inequality will never be able to sustain a vibrant democratic political culture.

Photo Credit: James Estrin/New York Times.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Sight Gag: Bull Market Man

Photo Credit: Christp Komar

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.


Dueling Tumblrs: When the Personal is Visual

The Occupy Wall Street protests have entered the phase where they have the attention of the mainstream media but now have to struggle to get their message out.  The problem is twofold: the movement has more messages than organization, and the press can be astonishingly thick-headed about what happens outside of their usual ambit.  Even though they had a full-time propaganda machine in Fox News, the Tea Party had the same problem.  Now as then, the press is asking, “Just who are these people?  To answer that question, someone started a Tumblr site, “We are the 99 percent.”


Each entry consists of someone writing a personal statement and holding it up to the camera.  The paper comes from notepads, the photos are not in any way professional, and everything about the presentation underscores that these stories come directly from everyday life in an anxious time.  Economics gets personal, and the personal is political once again.  These citizens are making public statements to whoever will listen, in the hope that the government can begin to undo the damage it has caused by deregulation, regressive tax cuts, and unnecessary wars.

Public statement invite public debate, and it didn’t take long for a counter-site to emerge.

We are the 53%” refers to the 53 percent of Americans who pay income taxes.  Ironically, as the deep tax cuts and public sector job losses created by Republican policies have taken wage earners off the tax rolls, the right wing feels even more aggrieved.  (Joe Klein sets out this point in more detail.)  Nor does the 53% include social security, property, or sales taxes, etc., but who’s counting?  In any case, the use of visual statements is interesting, and the debate is doing what democracies should do: get people to compare their experiences in order to work out some basis for agreement among conflicting viewpoints.

But when you get personal, you also had better be ready to take your lumps.  Here’s the guy who apparently started the 53% site:

As Brad Delong notes, the job count might involve some fuzzy math. And then there are the two houses.  Even when you don’t say a word, politics ain’t bean bag.

Photos are from the Tumblr sites.  Thanks to Pandagon for the fair and balanced leads.  A slide show of protest signs on the street is here.