Feb 12, 2014
Apr 20, 2012
Dec 13, 2007
May 06, 2015
Mar 12, 2008
Nov 11, 2013

Down and Out in Romneyville: But How Should We Feel About That?

Here’s the question: Is a compassionate response to this photograph justified, or would it be yet another extension of perhaps unmerited privilege?

The photo was taken at the Romney election night rally in Boston, but there are many like it to be seen in the papers this week, whether from Boston, Las Vegas, or other sites around the country.  The style in which wealth is worn may vary a bit, but the basic profile is the same: affluent supporters of a certain age appear downcast, even mournful.  Women tend to be featured, but that is typical when emotions are being featured regarding public events.  The important constant is the affluence.  Indeed, as Dana Milbank’s fine report on election night at the Romney gathering in Boston makes clear, the final celebration was to be for the few and the very few.

Which is why I can’t help but wonder: why are they so sad?  These people clearly are society’s winners.  Frankly, they don’t just look well off–they look damn good.  I see attractive men and women who have had the benefit of good genes, money, education, connections, and everything else, and also had the discipline and other qualities to make good use of all those gifts.  They are going to do well no matter what.  Despite what Fox News might say, people of this class are not going to be beggared by Obama’s re-election, and they are likely to see their fortunes rise in the coming years due to the continuing economic recovery that was helped  and will continued to be helped by his policies.  Sure, they might have made more money and had more political influence had Romney won, but they will hardly have to do without.  They will continue to prosper and to be taken seriously in their own sphere, so what is the problem?

Of course, elections do make a difference, as Rachel Maddow has pointed out brilliantly.  But the progressive gains are not moves in a zero-sum game, and not not hurting people doesn’t mean that those who wouldn’t have been hurt now will be harmed.  And note also that the emotional tableau in the image does not include anger.  I can see how any player in American politics would be pissed about losing, but that’s not what we’re seeing here.  Furthermore, since the Democratic victory ensures a commitment to caring for those in need, it can’t be that a Romney loss would provoke anguish for the plight of those not doing well.  So, why would the rich grieve?

I can’t answer that question for want of experience or access to those who might know, although it does seem that one of the characteristics of American politics is that, for those involved, deep levels of personal identification are at stake.  If self-interest is buffered by wealth–that is, if you are going to be well off, win or lose–and you still grieve the defeat of your candidate, that would seem to prove the point.  Or one might claim that narcissism is the real cause, but while that might very well apply to Bill Reilly,  Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and the like, I don’t think it holds here.  (Note how one person in each of the two couples is tending to the other; these people seem capable of seeing beyond themselves.)

And so it turns out that my ruminations thus far have been a bit of a set up.  I don’t know why they grieve, but it touches me that they do, and the pertinent question–for both the study of photography and the conduct of public life–is whether compassionate feeling for their pain is justified.  After all, these are people who would have been celebrating if Romney had won, and Romney’s program was sure to spread misery downward while transferring even more wealth upward.  And if the benefits of affluence help one feel for those in the picture–as one would be less likely to do if they were less attractive, for example–then isn’t that another systemic unfairness, another way in which those at the top get more than their share of whatever good thing is being distributed socially?  And given all the contempt and condescension and vicious moralizing that has been directed against those in the bottom half, isn’t it fair to turn the tables during victory week?  Well, yes and no.

The yes is because I’m among those who savors Gore Vidal’s great comment that “It is not enough to merely win.  Others must lose.”  Which is why, for example, I have loved seeing Karl Rove fall from political mastermind to $300,000,000 loser. Some people just have it coming, and the more they can make fools of themselves in public, the better.

But mostly no.  The beauty of photography is that it can evoke a compassionate response regardless of other biases.  Of course, sometimes those other considerations should prevail, but the problem is rarely that we are too quick to set them aside.  And even if unable to understand the opposing political party, it might help us all if one could at least recognize that they, too, care about their beliefs.  For where there is care, connection becomes possible.

Photograph by Jim Young/Reuters.


America the Beautiful

The photo is from the Obama campaign election night party at McCormick Place, Chicago.  The 21st century is here, and the time has come to recognize how the country, for all its problems, is changing for the better.  Out of many, one.  Together, so that all can thrive.

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

 1 Comment

Not With a Bang, But a Whimper

Natural disasters seem to come and go.  Tsunami’s, earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes wreak unimaginable damage, literally erasing neighborhoods—and even cities—within the blink of an eye.  One minute there is a thriving or peaceful community.  The next, nothing but rubble.  It is hard to fathom, particularly if it is not literally in our own backyard, even as the power of photography manages to reduce the distance between “here” and “there,” and in the process activates the human empathy needed to lend a helping hand across all manner of social, political, economic, and geographical borders.  And yet there is something troubling about such images for even as they give presence to the immediacy of such tragedies there is a sense in which they fragment each event, inviting us to treat them as an isolated and individual events effecting these people—always them, never us—here and now.

I thought about this some this past week as I perused the many photographs of the fury unleashed by Hurricane Sandy on places like the Jersey Shore, New York City’s east side Battery, and  Breezy Point on Long Island.  And in the process I found myself thinking about the natural tragedies that don’t seem to cull such easy images of nature’s fury and destruction.

The photograph above is from Hay Springs, Nevada.  It was taken just three months ago and what it shows is one of the many dried up river beds that are becoming more and more prevalent in the plain states and in the upper Midwest as a result of recent and increasingly intense droughts.  The image is hardly as dramatic as the scenes we see in the wake of hurricanes and tornadoes, in large measure because here nature’s violence is slower and more exacting, creeping and gradual, rather than bold and arrogant.  And the damage itself is harder to see, its human effects harder to imagine.  The water has disappeared, and the river bed is cracked, but the grass on the other side, however far away, remains green (for now) and the cattle continue to have space to roam (for the time being).  But if you look closely enough to the horizon—and the point is that you have to look closely to see it—you will notice that the plains are more brown than green and it is not hard to imagine that before long they too will suffer the same fate as the river bed.  And where then will the cattle go?

The point, of course, is not to ignore the dramatic effects of the natural disasters that grab our attention and compassion for a moment in time, only to be forgotten as an isolated event, but to recognize that such events are connected and symptomatic  of a larger problem, one that is gradual and more enduring, and which we can see—but only if we look closely—as unfolding slowly and  in real time.

Photo Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Public Sphere: America A Changing Place


Sight Gag: Follow the Dotted Line

Credit:  John Cole

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.


Call For Papers: Domestic Images in the Digital Era

Visual Communication Quarterly

Call for Papers

Visual Portfolio: Domestic Images in the Digital, Online, and Viral Era

Guest Editors: David D. Perlmutter and Lisa Silvestri, The University of Iowa

Today anyone with a cellphone and an Internet connection can create and distribute images without professional training or a governmental or industrial institutional affiliation. Whether funny cat YouTube uploads, vacation videos (from a tsunami site) or pictures of the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, images that once fell under the genre of “domestic” are now regularly erupting onto world attention, controversy, and influence. Likewise, ordinary citizens are delivering the first visual “draft of history” because they are first on the scene of breaking news-from terror-filled moments in a London subway after a bombing to an airliner landing on the Hudson River.

This special issue of VCQ seeks scholars and practitioners who study or document the blurring between “home” photography and “public,” professional, or commercial photography as it becomes increasingly indistinct in our viral digital/online/social media age.

Among possible questions to ask: What does it mean when the “home mode” goes viral? How does the role of the professional photographer and industry change when “citizen journalists” are creating so much public content? What new genres of photography are emerging in the home-public fusion? How does the domestic origin of an image affect its reception? What are the historical antecedents to this phenomenon (e.g., images of the Holocaust that were originally souvenir snapshots by its perpetrators or domestic scenes of celebrities made famous after their deaths?)

VCQ: Visual Communication Quarterly solicits contributions for an upcoming special issue on the domestic image. VCQ welcomes essays that consider the relationship between “home” and “public” modes of photography, visuality in a viral era, digitization, Photoshopping, cropping, and dissemination. In addition to theoretically grounded, critical essays, we will consider the submission of visual essays and photo pieces. Max. word length for essays: 7500.

Deadline for submissions: February 20, 2013

VCQ: Visual Communication Quarterly publishes scholarship and professional imagery that promotes an inclusive, broad discussion of all things visual, while also encouraging synthesis and theory building across our fascinating field of study. See: http://vcquarterly.org/ for submission style and guidelines. Please email an electronic version of your essay (as an MS Word document), along with a 100 word abstract, to david-perlmutter@uiowa.edu. For portfolios, send inquiry first.

Berkley Hudson, Missouri School of Journalism


Hurricane Sandy and Nature’s Inexorable Path

There really isn’t much to say, is there?  In the real world–the one where climate change isn’t a myth–nature has a way of calling in the chits. If you’ve got a levee, you might be OK, and if not, not.  If you have a new electrical grid designed to withstand more than a Christmas card snowfall, then you might be OK; if you have the aging, jerry-rigged network that passes for standard in the US, not so much.

If you understand that it is the job of government to plan, invest, and build as necessary to provide the transportation network, electrical power, clean water, waste management, and other common necessities for the general welfare and individual prosperity, then you know that a natural disaster is not entirely natural, but rather an empirical test of how well a society has been distributing its resources and otherwise making the tough decisions required for sustainability.  If, however, you think that government is the problem and that the patriotic thing to do is to drown the beast, well, then I guess you might as well let nature take its course.

Which it will do, which is why I like this photograph.

No one is likely to nominate this image for an award, not least because it was taken by a security camera. You are looking at water surging into the PATH subway station in Hoboken, New Jersey.  The station is deserted–good job by the government on that one–and thus its bland, gritty functionality is all the more evident.  Electrical cable tubes are exposed along pillar, ceiling, and walls; cheap surfaces, ugly paint, and impersonal signage look no better in the harsh lighting; the scene looks like it was designed more for the machines in the front and rear of the frame than for human beings.

Any subway system is likely to be vulnerable to flooding, and even in the good times it will endure a lot of wear and tear, so functionality is hardly a basis for indictment.  Even so, I can’t help but think that this system has been overused and underfunded for too long, and that it is far short of having been retrofitted for better environmental security.  And didn’t Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, kill an interstate plan to built a new transportation tunnel between NJ and NYC?  Well, yes, he did.

Which gets us back to the photo.  It would be enough to illustrate that the PATH system was already degraded, already undergoing a slow-moving catastrophe called the Decline of America.  But this photo does more as well, for it shows how nature cannot be stopped, cannot be held at bay forever by merely looking the other way and pretending the “once in a century” storms will never happen in this century.  (Where I come from “once in a century” floods now come along about every decade. . . .)  Floodwaters are no respecter of human habits: you might think an elevator shouldn’t be used to sluice water to where it can do the most damage, but the water has other ideas.

Or, worse yet, no ideas at all: the water doesn’t have to think, and it can’t be lied to.  You can’t tell it that climate change isn’t happening or that prudent investment in infrastructure is socialism or that this wouldn’t happen if we had more confidence in the market.  In place of that magical thinking (to draw on Paul Krugman’s astute analyses of right-wing ideology), the photo responds with its own fantasy of terror: the waters bursting through the mechanical doors evoke an image from a movie trailer for The Shining, when blood flowed from an elevator like water.  Here the water almost flows like blood, that is, as if the arteries in subway system were rupturing.

No matter how you try to describe it, the important point is that nature will not be denied.  It can be controlled, but that takes foresight and solidarity and many other political virtues that once were not in such short supply.  Maybe, just maybe, there still is time to learn that natural disasters are also products of human obtuseness.  If that lesson is not learned, nature some day will reclaim the city. And as in the photo, perhaps by then only the machines will be left to watch as they too are destroyed.

Photograph by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.


War Games

At first glance, the photograph is an excruciating example of what Barbie Zelizer refers to as an “about to die” photograph, but a quick read of the caption notes that it is an actor dressed in a Japanese military uniform as he “pretends to kill a man dressed as a plainclothes 8th Route Army soldier.”  The performance is taking place at an Army Culture Park in Wuxiang county, part of China’s Shanxi Province.  I might have treated the image as little more than a curiosity but for the fact that I encountered it on several different slide shows, often accompanied with other photographs, such as the one below, showing adolescents and teenagers role playing Chinese soldiers  in war game simulations at what is described as a “guerilla warfare experiential park.”

One might wonder why the Chinese are promoting a theme park that offers a “guerilla war experience,” but the  question here is, why are we seeing such images and in such profusion?  And why now? And without any extended commentary? China is of course one of America’s premiere competitors for world power, and so there is all manner of curiosity about who they are and what they are doing.  Many of the images that we see of China these days call attention to the ways in which their economic and technological progress stands as a threat to global capitalism or they underscore the Chinese government’s efforts at political oppression and their potential military strength. The photographs of professional actors and children role playing as soldiers—both past and present—at the Army Culture Park operate at the nexus of these concerns as we see a military culture being advanced for what appears to be China’s middle classes through a theme park experience that converts war into play.  While the actors have a serious countenance—as commensurate with their roles—everyone else seems to be having a good time.  And the presumed and potential threat to the western world—both economic and military—could not be more palpable as we watch children who might grow up to be our enemies enjoying the experience (both economically and militarily).

Before we feel too superior in judging the Chinese, however, we need to look more carefully within, for a simple search on “children” and “war games” in the United States brought up a reference to the Virginia War Museum in Newport News, VA, an “incredible, safe, and fun experience for children, 8-12” with  both summer and winter World War II Youth camps (here and here).

And perhaps the question should be, what’s the difference?  Or, of what should we really be afraid?

Photo Credits: Jason Lee/Reuters; Ross Taylor/Virginia Pilot


Sight Gag: Trick or Treat … 2012

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.


Artsia.com’s Online Art Market: The Photos

Post by guest correspondent Lindsey Davis

Photographers all over the world have been selling their prints online through a new curated art market. Artsia.com, representing the Society of International Artists, was launched last month as an attempt to better connect professional artists to those who love and want to buy their work.

Herve Constant is a photographer on Artsia, a London-based French artist whose pieces work to convey narratives or statements about society and the way we communicate with one another.  “Although I may have different interests along the way, insofar as one travels, one more or less arrives at the same point of departure.”  His piece “The Same Story” was published in conjunction with a poem by Mary Kay Rummel in the Original Limited Edition called ARTLIFE, and is now in the archive collection of the Los Angeles Museum Contemporary Art. 

Giovanni Capriotti is an Italian artist working in Toronto, Canada. His passion lies in documentary photography, and he’s traveled and lived globally, keeping track of his path in photographs.  His piece “All I Need” from the project “Moon Safari” shows a scene outside a fast food restaurant called Tim Hortons, a couple entering and a man leaving the eerily lit parking lot. He adds that “In my early work I was focused on the effects that we have manifested in our reality, now I find myself trying to articulate the trends and causes that we, as modern humans, are making on our world.”

Guilherme Ghisoni is a Brazilian photographer born in Santa Catarina with a background in philosophy and music. While researching the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein for his Ph.D. at the Federal University of Sao Carlos in Brazil, his reading began to affect his photographic art and layers of meaning began to emerge.  His piece, “Yet Present – Itapema” features a hummingbird flying gracefully with beak proudly lifted, in front of a nondescript purple background surrounded by layers of white airy bubbles.  He remarks that”My current works can be seen as a consequence of my interest in the contemporary philosophy of time and its bearing on photography.”

Artsia is working to create and support a community of passionate professional artists like these in every kind of medium, and is now representing more than 500 carefully selected artists worldwide.


Palin Heavy: Paul Ryan on the National Stage

Someone needs to say it: Paul Ryan is this year’s Sarah Palin.  This comparison is not to deny the considerable differences between then: Ryan has far more government experience, influence within his party, and facility with the English language.  Indeed, he is touted as the intellectual among his Republican peers, the man of New Ideas and Big Ideas.  Palin, by contrast–well, we don’t need to go there.  In any case she was known primarily for her clothing and performative panache.  No professor or liberal, she.  Or he, for that matter:

This image of Ryan hitting the stage in Fisherville, Virginia, could be right out of a country western concert.  Look at those boots, for example–not typical gear in either Wisconsin (where he lives) or at Miami University of Ohio (where he went to college), but he’s stylin’ now.  (Likewise,  Sarah from Alaska had no trouble shopping in New York City; it’s where you’re going, not where you’re from, right?)  More to the point, every detail of Ryan’s entrance is pitched perfectly for the big stage.  He is a young, energetic, accomplished performer, and he knows how to play to the crowd.

And that’s where the comparisons start getting more than skin deep.  Palin and Ryan are energizing the same, extreme, right-wing base of the Republican party.  They both look good where it really counts: they are ideologically doctrinaire, populist demagogues who can light up a stage because they have boundless ambition and no qualms about anyone or anything else.  And, most important, they are equally vacuous about any of the policies they pitch.

Despite his superior polish, Ryan has said nothing that is any better than Palin’s garbled nonsense.  His new ideas are the same tired, flawed, failed ideas that Republicans have been pushing since 1980: cut taxes, cut government services, and deregulate all business, all to transfer wealth upward in the hope that a bit more will trickle down again.  And big ideas?  Well, these are the same ideas as above but scaled up for maximum impact: Don’t cut taxes, make them ever lower at the top and ever more regressive across the board; don’t negotiate workable solutions, ram through draconian policies and count on the market to take care of everything else.  Ryan can’t deliver the goods–actual programmatic details, actual budget numbers, independent budget assessments–any more than Palin could.  He just sings better.

It gets worse, as Palin probably was so out of her league that she didn’t have to lie.  She could just make stuff up because that’s all she knew.  With Ryan, however, it’s harder to believe that he isn’t knowingly bending the truth.  The Times article accompanying the photo put the matter well when it said that “his convention speech was like Christmas morning for fact-checkers.”  Which is odd, because intellectuals aren’t supposed to lie, or to be so deluded that they can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction.

Paul Ryan is no more an intellectual than Sarah Palin.  In fact, he is Palin Heavy: just a more expensive, higher impact version of the original.  Neither one should be entrusted with the hard work of actually governing in a democratic society.

Photograph by Josh Haner/The New York Times.  The photo accompanied this profile of Ryan in the New York Times Magazine.

 1 Comment