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After Newtown: Tokenism or Culture Change?

This is one photo that probably wasn’t included in the slide shows at the major papers this week.


And why not, some might say, isn’t one memorial to the victims in Newtown as good as another?  Well, no, not really, but the show must go on in pro sports, and so perhaps this is the best that Kevin Durant could do, all things considered.  If you look closely, you can see that he has written “Newtown CT” on the shoe that he wore for the Friday night game.  Nor was he alone: players and teams around the NBA and NFL put names on shoes and gloves, pasted decals on helmets, observed moments of silence, and otherwise had token observances across their scoreboards, end zones, and assorted other media.

And the New England Patriots even went to far as to donate $25,000 for the families of the victims.  Really.  And if you don’t believe it, just tune in to ESPN, which is making darn sure that everyone knows just how much the sports world cares, really cares, about the tragedy.

It’s hard, very hard, not to be cynical about these token gestures.  Indeed, I think the photo above neatly captures just how small and temporary they are: compared to the gleaming arena floor, polished like the finest glass, and the Nike swoosh, which represents a lucrative shoe contract for a global market, the small, black lettering is sure to be discarded soon, which will hardly matter as no one without a telephoto lens could see it anyway.  Ditto the tiny helmet decals, the player Tweets, and any other efforts to laminate compassion onto celebrity.

But that’s too easy.  Just about every candle, teddy bear, classroom letter, and prayer chain is also but a gesture.  And if the better memorial would have been to cancel the game, well, how many of you refused to go to work on Friday or Monday because you thought doing so would dishonor the dead?  The truth is, there is very little that anyone can do in response to such senseless slaughter, and that applies not only for distant strangers but also for close friends and family of the bereaved.  And however mixed the motives might be in the business of sports, one shouldn’t be too quick to assume that nothing is sincere.  (I’m told that Kevin Durant is a fine human being.)  So, token gestures become part of the story of how a nation deals with social rupture.

Of course, nothing said above should excuse pro sports for some of its excesses.  Individual players perhaps should get a pass, but the organizations may indeed need to consider that the better response really is to do nothing–or, if they really want to help the people in their own backyard, to do it right.  (Certain prominent figures on the religious right might want to take a hard look into that same mirror.)  But, again, the matter at hand is about more than pro sports or any other single institution.  The hope that many of us have this week–the one we hold on to against the shock and grief and dismay–is that this time the carnage might really bring the country to its senses about its culture of violence.  And although the resistance will be extensive, there are signs that change could be happening already.

One of the interesting things about American democracy is that it can be stalemated for so long and then seemingly transform itself in a few years.  Think of what happened after Pearl Harbor, or what has happened in the past few years regarding the acceptance of homosexuality (even the word now sounds antique).  The strength of the political culture is that it’s not just a political culture–that is, a subculture defined solely by a political class, although there is some of that–but instead richly intertwined with all the rest of society.  Think of the importance of integrating pro sports for civil rights, not just then but continuously, and look at how so many different people and organizations respond in kind to disasters such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes–and shootings.  In those situations, what otherwise would be tokenism can become something else: a small but visible commitment to real change.

Guns are not unknown among pro athletes, so hypocrisy may yet prove to be the norm there and elsewhere as well.  But I hope that something else could be in the works, there and especially elsewhere.  In any case, the change requires silent, personal, private resolve to think differently–and not least to move beyond the political habits that were part of the prior stalemate.  Thinking differently is easier to do, however, if it can be done in small ways that can be shared with others who might want to do the same.  And to be shared with other citizens, there is nothing like doing something that can be seen.  So this week I’m giving token gestures of solidarity a pass, and in the hope that this time the nation can raise its game to a higher level of play.

Photograph by Jerome Maron/USA Today Sports.

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The Missing Photograph From Newtown, CT.

Newtown 1

The tragedy that betook Newton, Ct. this past Friday leaves one searching for words, but there has been no shortage of photographs.  My initial impulse is to see that as one more piece of evidence to support the general claim that we make here at NCN that photography is a technology that provides access to a world of affect and understanding that is not easily or efficiently represented by words—or by words alone.  But careful review of the archive of images being published gives some pause for concern, as many (if not most) of the photographs we are seeing have an increasingly generic quality to them that makes them seem rather like visual commonplaces.  As Michael Shaw and Alan Chin noted at the Bag, clichés emerge when something is repeated over and again to the point that the thing represented is something of a taken-for-granted assumption that loses the power of presence it once animated.  Look at the full archive of images from Newton, CT. without captions or historical context and it would be easy enough to imagine that we are looking at a scene in Columbine or Blacksburg or Aurora or Oak Creek, and the list goes on.  In some measure the visual record has fallen prey to the success of its production and circulation, a mode of artistry that has succumbed to its own conventionality.  In a sense, just as we find ourselves searching for the right words we are left searching for photographs that invite us to understand and empathize without reducing everything to a cardboard cliché.

But even as I write that last sentence I must give pause once again, for there is at least one image from Newtown that invites reflection and consideration.  It is a photograph of a young boy and girl standing together in a wooded area presumably looking towards the Sandy Hook Elementary School.  The boy’s hands cover his mouth and nose, but not his eyes, which seem transfixed on the chaos and carnage that is before him.  He is clearly horrified, but he cannot look away.  The young girl has her arms around the boy, making human contact that no doubt comforts both of them, but she intentionally looks away from the scene before her, fixing her eyes on the ground at her feet.  And therein lies the conundrum of the regular and oft repeated mass killings we have been experiencing in recent times—we either gaze in horror or we look away.  But in either case we fail to act.  Like these children we huddle together in search of collective comfort, passively quiescent in the presence of a spectacle that leaves us more or less speechless and incapable of seeing what is clearly before our eyes.

And so that brings me to the question posed by the title for this post: The missing photograph.  As I read the newspapers this morning and listened to the talk shows I was dismayed to hear everyone focusing their primary attention on what motivated the actions of the gunmen.  Did he have Asperger’s Syndrome or had he been mistreated as a child?  Can we do more as a society to diagnose and treat mental health issues?  And so on.  These are important questions, to be sure, and there is no doubt that we need to be much better at promoting mental health.  But they are also secondary questions that completely miss the point of what happened in Newtown, CT.  Whatever motivated the gunmen, it is impossible to imagine that he could have been nearly as destructive as he was if he did not have access to automatic weapons.  It is really as simple as that.  The photograph that is missing from the archive of images of this tragedy is the photograph of the automatic weapons that were used to extinguish twenty six innocent lives.  Until we see that photograph, and I mean really see it as the material cause for what is happening, we will be caught perpetually in the embrace of looking in horror without speaking or looking away.  And soon enough the same clichéd images will reappear, and once again we will wonder why.

Photo Credit: Michelle Mcloughlin/Reuters


Sight Gag: Against the Grain

Against the Grain.2012-12-13 at 9.24.24 PM

Credit: Christof Stache/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Sight Gag 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.


You Say Icon, I say Instagram

Ryan Gerhardt reports that the Lowe Cape Town advertising agency has been running a campaign for The Cape Times that features iconic photos as if they had been self-portraits taken on the fly, as with a camera phone.

Screen shot 2012-12-13 at 9.55.44 PM

In place of the dead hand of history, a renewed sense of presence and immediacy, right?  You Are There, or They Are Here.  OK, something may have have been lost in the style category–this is definitely NOT a photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt–but you can imagine the iconic moment in real time as opposed to the faded newsprint of its original publication.

But, of course, it is the Eisenstaedt photo, in part, and the manipulations can only make the photo more contemporary because it already is here and has that effect.  Indeed, the transfer of meaning also works in reverse: the iconic image is imparting significance to the new visual media and their vernacular practices.  And in any case, past and present are being sutured together no matter which way the joke runs.

Not all public cultures have iconic photographs (as a genre, anyway), but South Africa apparently does.  And with that comes parody and other forms of playfulness, and for a variety of uses including advertising.  It may be the newpaper’s last gasp–and all too revealing of how the iconic photo and print journalism were tied together in a particular era–but it also may be an example of how iconic images and journalism more broadly are making the transition into the new media environment.

Time will tell.  If I had to bet, however, I’d say that self-portraits are not going to become great public art.  Or perhaps that is more of a wish.


Sebastião Salgado on the Winter Planet

The Best of 2012 photography collections are ablaze with color, and the above average temperatures and continuing drought keep talk of global warming in the air, so what should a documentary photographer do?  Take us to Siberia, of course.

One species follows another across the frozen landscape.  The reindeer know the way, as the Nenets people have been moving them between summer and winter pastures for centuries.  Sebastiao Salgado’s photograph might as well be from some ice planet in an outer galaxy, the barren field of snow and sky is so uniformly stark, harsh, and endless.  And yet you can almost feel the body heat of the herd, its precious calories being expended in the empty abstraction of the arctic air, and then of the few people and dogs trailing behind them.  The photo at once stretches life almost to the breaking point, as if the herd were a single strand of genetic material in some petri dish, but at the same time makes you yearn to be closer.  And while the two species are clearly separate, and the human train obviously smaller and more precarious, they are intimately joined in their symbiotic journey.  As David Levi Strauss has observed, “Salgado’s subjects are seen only and always in relation” (Between the Eyes, p. 44).

Strauss’s essay on Salgado captures another feature of this photograph as well, which is its “extraordinary balance of alterity and likeness, of metaphoric and documentary functions” (42). The photo is unquestionably of an experience very few humans have, and yet it is immediately recognizable as an example of organic life forms co-existing, and, if you look closely, of the more organized form of human association, at once more powerful and fragile for that.  Likewise, the photo need be only a photo of reindeer and nomadic herders in Sibera–there aren’t too many other places or species that could qualify–and yet it quickly doubles as a symbol of something else, something more general and fundamental to living with others in a condition of necessity.

But for how long?  What might seem to be a timeless image of natural cycles and sustainable culture is also a witness to change.  Reindeer and Nenets alike are threatened by climate change and the encroachment of civilization–if you want to call it that–as the extraction industries move into the region.  Although the arctic environment seems to be the present threat, in fact it has been home to both species for centuries, and now energy production to heat and power the rest of the world is the real danger.  This is not to say that living on the edge of survival should be romanticized, or that the Nenets don’t need or want to avail themselves of modern goods.  But the photo can challenge complacency and rationalization by revealing another dimension of common life: that all humanity lives close to extinction, and that survival requires learning how to live with sustainable resources rather than simply plunder the earth for profit.

But let’s not forget the need to balance symbolic and documentary functions.  Ironically, another ice age is coming, albeit one that will be delayed a bit while this civilization burns up the oil, gas, and forests.  Some say it will begin in 1500 years, which is not that long: roughly from the fall of Rome until today.  It’s not too hard to imagine that a scene like the one above could become the norm rather than the rare exception.  Survival won’t be a metaphor, but a lived reality.  Something that can be seen today, if one is willing to accept the photographer’s challenge to see humanity in relation to itself, other species, and its future–if it is to have one.

Photograph by Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures.  Additional slides can be viewed here.  (Note that the photo was taken in March, when the herd was being moved north to the summer pastures.)


Strange Fruit in California

So what do you see in this photograph?  Look closely and carefully.  The tree is knotted and gnarled, its branches reaching out like so many arms, going this way and that, almost as if it were a human being thrashing about in a hostile world.  At first blush it reminded me of the tree in The Wizard of Oz that throws its apples at Dorothy and her troupe.  Then again, it looked like might be from a more recent movie, perhaps one of the episodes of The Lord of the Rings or maybe even the fantasy world of Harry Potter.  But whatever you think you might see, look closely and ask yourself: What is missing?

The photograph was once the scene of a brutal lynching. Lynchings are a part of American history, and as James Allen helped us to understand a few year back with his Without Sanctuary project, they were not simply events that took place in the dead of night and away from the public eye.  Indeed, lynchings  were often carefully planned activities—spectacles really—with the trains adjusting their schedules so that church goers could attend the “festivities” and numerous photographs taken to mark the occasion, many of the later converted into postcards to be sent to friends and family.

Lynchings of this sort no longer take place in the U.S. and so it is all too easy to locate such events in a distant past, a time we might imagine as long, long ago. And perhaps that is so inasmuch as such lynchings have been exceedingly rare since the early 1950s. But the problem with such consignment to a once malignant but now benign past is that it invites us to ignore the depths and ignominy of such behaviors.  Most, no doubt, think of lynching as an activity used by southern whites to discipline blacks in the reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.  That it was, but we should not forget that such lynchings also occurred in many places north of the Mason-Dixon line (one of the most famous took place close to where I write from in Marion, Indiana) and as Ken Gonzales-Day, has recently demonstrated, several hundreds of Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians suffered a similar fate in California between 1850 and 1932.

And so, back to the photograph above.  It is one in a series of photographs taken by Gonzales-Day called Searching for California’s Hang Trees and is part of his attempt to witness an aspect of our national past that it has been all too easy to erase from our public and collective memory (see also his Erased Lynching series)—both geographically and otherwise.  The “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday sung about is nowhere to be found in these photographs, but that would seem to be the point. The tree could really be anywhere: north, south, east or west. And those tortured while hanging from its branches could have been men, women and children of many different ethnicities and colors. It is not a part of our past of which we can be proud, but it is a part of our past and it needs to be remembered.  And visualized.  So, once again, what do you see when you look at the photograph?

Photo Credit: Ken Gonzales-Day


Sight Gag: Ho! Ho! Ho!

Credit: Weyant

Sight Gag 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.


International Migrants Day: To the Unknown Migrant

“To the Unknown Migrant”
International Migrants Day, December 18
Deadline: Friday, December 7, 2012

The Immigrant Movement International is inviting migrants, artists, academics, activists, and concerned individuals across the globe to commemorate International Migrants Day at 2:00 pm (your local time) by developing monuments (ephemeral, permanent, sculpture, action, sound, visual, performance, dance and other) at sites where the role of migrants in history and society have been ignored, erased, distorted, abused and forgotten. “To the Unknown Migrant” will be a worldwide collective reinterpretation of the politics and history of migration, testifying that the unfair treatment of migrants today will be our dishonor tomorrow.

We invite you to participate and encourage you to spread the word. This open call will accept all submitted projects. The deadline to be included in our website is Friday, December 7, 2012. Please send an email to with “To the Unknown Migrant” as the subject line and attach the following:

1 Word document that includes:
Name of participant(s) / Name of the group
Contact Information
Location of project (Specific Site, City, Country)
Project description (250 word max)
Links/URLs for participant websites
1 image that represents your project, if applicable:
File must be in JPG format
1000 pixels on the longest side

Following December 18,  please send us the documentation of your “To the Unknown Migrant” monument so that it can be added to the IM International website archive.

Looking forward to your creativity.

Un abrazo,
The Immigrant Movement International Team

(And sorry for the last minute notice at NCN, but we’ll hope late is better than never.)


China’s Teenage Capitalists

Remember street gangs?  Jets and Sharks on Broadway, “juvenile delinquents” in the newspapers, and earnest discussions in the magazines, schools, and churches about “teenagers”: these were parts of a mid-century public discourse about the social and moral effects of modern development.  Now that gangs are murderous million dollar cartels, the allegory is less appealing close to home, which may be why it can be found in this photo from Shanghai.

Six adolescents stand before a dazzling backdrop of the city aglow in the night.  Of course, they also are in the city, which is showcased by its most highly developed, cosmopolitan urban core of corporate skyscrapers.  But a river separates them from the concentration of wealth, which is set above them a bit like heaven.  Because the image is divided high and low by the distant shoreline, the visual grammar makes the high-end architecture an ideal that is set over the reality below.  Because their heads just break the line, they may be tending toward the bright lights, as is suggested also by the middle-class consumer consumption evident in their clothing and accessories.  Indeed, one implication is that they are destined to become the next generation of adults living within Chinese capitalism.

One might ask, then, “how are they doing?”  They photo suggests several answers.  One is that they are doing fine, because they obviously are sharing in the prosperity that they will one day claim as their own.  The city has already been built while they are being prepared to thrive there, so life is good.  Indeed, one might think that China can skip the anxieties about modernization damaging kids who then damage society; no one is going to cross the street to avoid this group.  A related implication is China has now developed well enough that its children can experience the distinctively modern definition of adolescence, which is considerably elongated for extended education and uniquely susceptible to developing a youth culture dominated by popular entertainment and merchandising.  That may be good news and bad news, but it implies a universality for modern societies that can hide other differences–say, the fact that everyone in the picture very probably is a single child who knows a lot more about loneliness than most children in the West.

Another implication might be that China is now in the adolescent phase of modern capitalist development: growing by leaps and bounds, and my goodness, look at how much carbon that kid eats!  Thus, virtually anything can be excused as “growing pains,” as long as the kid doesn’t pick up a gun or kill someone with the car or get pregnant; so, no military expansion and please be careful about emissions, but otherwise we’ll wait it out.  Such a view is very condescending, of course, but it is sure to have plenty of adherents, perhaps because of that.

I think the photo does better than that, however.  There is another dimension to the image, one suggested by its dark tonality and the kids’ separation from the cityscape.  For example, these qualities push universality further to suggest that China’s children are destined for other uniquely modern experiences as well, and not least the social fragmentation and anomie that are side effects of modern development.  Furthermore, we have to pay attention to the photo’s almost painful depiction of typified social behavior.  As the eyes move from left to right, we see three girls hugging, a girl and a boy close together, and a lone boy.  Thus, in the center, the teen dream of romantic coupling, and on each side (girls on the left, boys on the right), the gender segregation in which young people spend most of their time.  It’s not just a matter of time, however, as the boy on the right seems quite alone and at least pensive or even sad.  If you look closely, you’ll see that the girl on the right side of the threesome also is a bit outside of that grouping gesturally and emotionally.  The intensive social  awareness of adolescence inevitably is accompanied by separation, self-consciousness, and sadness.  Despite their evident prosperity and bright future, life still could be tough.

So it is that I think the photo provides an allegory after all, and one that is not just about China.  One of the major questions of the 21st century is how to live well in a world dominated by modern capitalism.  As China demonstrates, the shopping mall is one answer to that question, and it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.  But it is not enough, nor are GDP,  the level of foreign investment, and other macroeconomic variables the full measure of success.   The trick is to bring everyone to a just and sustainable standard of living, and give everyone a chance to thrive and contribute beyond that, and to do so in a manner that balances “creative destruction” with the need to preserve proven social goods and individual dignity.  Stated in terms of the photo above, the immensely powerful superstructure of modern civilization has to be a place where the experience of those not in power still comes first.

Photograph by Bruno Barby/Magnum Photo.  The rest of Barby’s photo essay on Shanghai is here.

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