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Public Life; or Living in Public

On any given night there are more than 600,000 homeless citizens of the United States who do not have indoor shelter.  Most live in urban communities and are consigned to finding places to sleep wherever they can, beneath bridges or in parks, alleyways, and culverts, sometimes in tents and sometimes not, sometimes in cars and sometimes simply on public streets and walkways.  Their presence is often perceived by those not so unfortunate as a public nuisance and so, not surprisingly, there has been something of an explosion of  laws nationwide that criminalize all manner of behaviors which penalize people for being homeless.

The assumption, it seems, is that we can address the “problem” of homelessness by making it more or less invisible in public spaces, and if we can’t do that then we will at least label it as deviant by making it illegal.  It is not entirely clear how effective such a strategy might actually be, since such laws are typically not accompanied with sufficient alternatives to “house” or otherwise accommodate such individuals.  But there is a larger problem, for it assumes that homelessness is a moral aberration that somehow mitigates one’s rights as a citizen to occupy and utilize public spaces.  The issue is not whether the homeless are “deserving” or not of their condition, nor for that matter whether their very presence undermines economic commerce in certain areas or neighborhoods, but whether a liberal-democratic society can function effectively by refusing civic (or human) rights to citizens on the basis of their socio-economic status.

Put differently, it seems likely that the condition of homelessness is not about to go away anytime soon—indeed, as some have argued it is endemic to the social, political, and economic worlds in which we live—and its not clear how the polity is served by treating the homeless as a group whose civil rights are nugatory.  The man sleeping on a public street in Berkeley, CA in the photograph above has been homeless for ten years and it is not likely that his condition will change anytime soon.  Declaring him a criminal and denying him access to the public parks and streets does nothing to address either the “problem” of homelessness or to promoting a democratic culture predicated on egalitarian principles.  At their best, such laws simply cast the homeless as scapegoats for a situation with which we are otherwise uncomfortable, and thus making it less visible to the public gaze.  But even at that, we have to recognize that, as in the photograph above, there will always be those like the young child who stare cannot be fully controlled. How much better might it be to imagine the homeless as citizens and to accord them the basic right to be in public spaces?

Credit: Ramin Rahimian/NYT


Sight Gag: The Binder That Matters

Credit: Adam Zyglis

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.


Sony World Photography Awards 2013

The World Photography Organization manages the Sony World Photography Awards, which offer several levels of competition ranging from amateur to professional photography.  This year’s deadline for submission is January 4, 2013.  Information is available at the website, along with images of previous winners and notables as well as current entries.

“Bear’s Claw,” Moorcroft, Wyoming, by Mitch Dobrowner, 2102 SWPA Photographer of the Year.


What Can’t Be Seen in Afghanistan

I’ll get straight to the point: What can’t be seen in Afghanistan is no reason for being there.  Now let’s consider how “seen” is more than a metaphor.

So, what can be seen?  No one photo–no hundred photos–could answer that question, but let’s look at the image above, which appeared yesterday.  A soldier is receiving emergency care after being wounded by a roadside bomb in Logar Province.  The photo captures key features of US military behavior: the troops are thoroughly provisioned, very well trained, directly engaging the enemy, and disciplined under fire, and they take care of one another.

For all the conservative anxiety about letting African-Americans, then women (yes, they opposed that, too), and now Muslims and GLBT citizens serve in the military, you don’t have to worry about unit cohesion with this company, or any other.  One soldier is tending carefully to one of the leg wounds, while another checks on the soldier himself, and it is easy to imagine (and confirmed by other photos) that the rest of the troop is deployed to make sure that everything gets taken care of, from the man down to the mission.

The uniforms include US flag arm patches, but that identification is well short of the patriotic rhetoric that put them there.  Instead of grand pronouncements, we see dirt and gear.  Instead of lofty projections about democratization, we see only a small swatch of terrain: grass, trees, grass, trees leading into the nondescript background.

Alan Trachtenberg has remarked that the shift from illustration to photography in the 19th century lead to “a loss of clarity about both the overall form of battles and the unfolding war as such and the political meaning of events” (Reading American Photographs, pp. 74-75).  Thus, the realism that rightly displaced idealized illustrations of war came at the cost of a coherent narrative that would justify the fighting.  Thus, it might well be that no photograph can provide a strategic rationale for war–although it certainly could challenge any rationale that substituted illusion for the facts on the ground.

In short, it might be that one could never “see” a reason for being in Afghanistan, and that the medium of photojournalism was biased against supporting any overarching rationale for war.  One might think that war then should be left to military experts and political leaders: that is, to rational assessment of forces, strategic calculations, and the political will to accept those sacrifices that are needed on behalf of raison d’etat.  But what if those reasons really aren’t there in the first place?  What if the original reasons no longer apply, and we are left only with inertia, an unwillingness to accept sunk costs, political face-saving, and other  examples of war’s well-documented ability to corrupt decision-making?

At that point, perhaps the inability to see grand purpose in a photograph could stand for the actual absence of purpose.  And what if the photo also showed what happened when the battlefield no longer served the national interest: that is, how the soldiers rightly focus on the only good intentions left: doing their jobs well and caring for one another.

This older photograph, which just as well could be from any day this year, puts the problem in starker detail.  The soldier is a lot worse off, and the medical response is ramped up as well.  He was lucky enough to get to the Heath Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.  Again, we see key elements of military organization: both high-tech medical support and the caring attentiveness and reassurance of a fellow soldier, all in the service of nation.  But while the flag was small and utilitarian in the first photo, here is is overlarge and distant.  Whether too small or too big, it has been tacked on to what is really happening.  (Note how the flag above hangs awkwardly over the more functional decor below, as useful as a politician’s bluster back home.  There will be another reason it is there, however, as it has to compensate for the really bad news often occurring below.)

Sadly, the flag does not provide a reason to be there.  Afghanistan once harbored terrorists who deserved to be punished, and were.  But it no longer presents any threat to national security, while continued occupation has lead to the Taliban’s resurgence as a key player in local politics.

These photographs of American military sacrifice show much that is good about the US military effort in Afghanistan.  But no matter where you look, it seems, you can’t see a reason for them to be there.

Photographs by Munir Liz Zaman/Getty Images and Patrick Barth/Frontier Africa TV.


Sight Gag: It’s My Party and I’ll Lie If I Want To

Credit: Unknown

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.

 1 Comment

Kennedy to Kent State: Exhibition and Symposium

Kennedy to Kent State: Images of a Generation

Exhibition: Worchester Art Museum, September 30, 2012-February 3, 2013

The Worcester Art Museum presents an exhibition of some of the most powerful American photographs of the 1960s, the images through which the country shared that dynamic period and by which it is remembered. All from the museum’s permanent collection, the images date from 1958 to 1975, and include the presidency and assassination of John F. Kennedy, as well as the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the American space program and its mission to the moon, the antiwar movement and counterculture.

Symposium: Photography, Media, and Society: the 60s and Beyond
Saturday, October 13, 8am-5:30pm
WPI Campus (Olin 107) and the Worcester Art Museum
Free and open to the public
This major symposium will explore how photography has contributed to the collective memory of the country and has influenced American identity and thought. This day-long event will examine how consumption of visual images has changed – and how that change has influenced our collective consciousness. Topics of discussion include: why and how people remember images across time and cultures; how images have been transmitted to the public and what has evolved and changed to deliver messages differently (newspaper, television, and magazines, to websites and blogs); how “images,” even imagined, have a lasting resonance in our culture; and how media moments can affect our culture.

Speakers will include:

John Louis Lucaites & Robert Hariman (co-authors of the book/blog No Caption Needed)
Judy Richardson (Former SNCC staff, historian, and filmmaker, specializing in Black History & Civil Rights Movement)
James Willis (Journalist, professor, Azusa University, Author 100 Media Moments That Changed America)
Bestor Cram (film director/producer, and member Vietnam Veterans Against the War)
Jerry Lembcke (Author The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam and Hanoi Jane)
Gallery Discussion with Matthias Waschek, WAM Director and David Acton, WAM Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photography, and Curator of Kennedy to Kent State

 1 Comment

Rubble World: The Sequel

Beirut, Sarajevo, Grozny, Baghdad, and now Aleppo. When it comes to the senseless destruction of cities, no one even makes the pretense to say “Never Again.”  After all, they can be rebuilt, can’t they?  Look at how Europe was rebuilt after World War II.  But that was then: not just a different war, but a different conception of war and of peace.  Today, war’s destructiveness is both less widespread and more continuous.  Destruction seems to have found a different role in the historical process, and war produces not new world orders but rather more localized forms of sustainable catastrophe.  If so, an outline of this shift in the nature of things might be evident in a photo such as this one.

A few people walk through what remains of Aleppo’s main Saadallah al-Jabari Square after a bombing.  But don’t think for a minute that this scene is particularly unique or dramatic.  There are hundreds of photos of other streets in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria and elsewhere around the globe.  The media coverage long gone, most of them are now part of a story no one wants to cover: decaying infrastructure, abandoned tanks and burnt-out trucks used as makeshift playground equipment, people coping as best they can with little outside investment and not much to hope for.  Where once they lived in vibrant communities, now they live among the ruins in Rubble World.

I first wrote about Rubble World in 2008, and not much has changed for the better since then.  Even with the Arab Spring, it can often seem that the swath of destruction is not so much the temporary cost of progress but rather a harbinger of even more gun running and militia violence.  Instead of seeing the expansion of civil society–although that, too, is part of the historical struggle–the promise of a better life is betrayed to some strange combination of international networks and clan politics.  Whatever the mix, the priorities don’t often involve rebuilding the cities.

Of course, people are much more important than property, and the many images of Syrians being killed–among the several hundred killed every day–are rightly a more salient and more effective witness to the tragedy that is unfolding slowly and painfully.  (See, for example, the first image here.)  But I also find these images of concrete desolation to be moving.  No one cries for concrete, but the built environment is both substance and symbol of urban community.  (So it is, for example, that both architecture and graffiti prompt public debate.)  War harms both individuals and communities.  An individual can lose a limb or a loved one, and a city can lose its culture and its future.

So it is that an image of the present may double as a glimpse into where civilization is headed.  It can’t tell the whole story, of course, but it can suggest how one possible pathway is already coming into existence.  I almost said, already being built, but it may not exactly work that way.  The future may involve a particularly perverse form of creative destruction: one in which the new city is being created by the same process that is destroying the old one.

Photograph by George Ourfalian/Reuters.


A Second Look: A Kiss is Just a Kiss … Or is it?

It is perhaps the most famous kiss in the annals of kisses.  But the question has now been raised, is it more than just a kiss?  And more, could it be an instance of sexual assault in full view of the public?  There is much to suggest that, as it has typically been portrayed, the photograph is the representation of a joyous kiss celebrating the end of a war and the return to normalcy.  And perhaps the most important evidence here is the reaction of the members of the public who look upon the heterosexual kissers approvingly, smiling rather in the way we might imagine an older generation’s response to the exuberance of young love.

But there are also reasons for concern.  The sailor is clearly the aggressor and the nurse is clearly passive.  Take note of the fact that she is not returning his embrace.  Indeed, from one perspective, at least, she appears to have gone limp, succumbing but hardly complicit.  And then there is this: The most recent woman to be identified as the nurse, Greta Zimmer Friedman, reports that “[i]t wasn’t my choice to be kissed.  The guy just came over and grabbed!”  And more, “I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in his vice grip [sic].”  And then this, “That man was very strong.  I wasn’t kissing him.  He was kissing me.”  If this were to be reported today it is pretty clear that we would judge the sailor’s behavior as more than just inappropriate but as a sexual assault.  The question seems to be, should we impose contemporary norms on what we might imagine as a somewhat distant culture?  The answer is not obvious.

Perhaps we should begin with some context.  Everyone remembers the photograph as an icon of VE Day.  What most forget is that it was one of a series of images in a Life magazine photo essay titled “The Men of War Kiss From Coast to Coast,” and more to the point it was the last image in the array and the only one to occupy a full page.  To a number all of the other photographs depict lascivious if not downright transgressive public acts (here,  here and here).  But, and here is the point, in almost every instance, the women appear to be—or are described in the captions—as being complicit.  When we turn to the “Times Square Kiss” in this context we see something that seems to be the model of restraint: two kissers lost in passion even as they enact the decorum that is the necessary discipline of public life.  We hardly attend to the original caption that notes, “an uninhibited sailor [who] plants his lips squarely on hers.”  It was clearly a different time.  As one soldier from the “Greatest Generation” was quoted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1944, among the things we fight for is “the priceless privilege of making love to American women.”  And in their own way, this full array of Life photographs makes the point.

And yet there is something altogether dissatisfying with leaving it at that.  And not just because times have changed.  Ariella Azoulay has recently asked, “Has anyone ever seen a photograph of a rape?”  Her point is not that such photographs do not exist – they do, however rare.  Nor is it that they are not available for viewing – they are, although again their circulation is rather limited.  Rather, her point is that even as we have reconstituted our notion of rape since the 1970s in ways that liberalizes the meaning of sexual assault and underscores the responsibility of the state to protect women, it continues to be an invisible object in the public discourse, an image that we proscribe from showing and, more importantly, fail to see even when it is before our eyes.

The real challenge here then is not so much to critique the blind sexism of an earlier moment in our history, however much it might be mischaracterized as a golden past, but to question why we continue to refuse to see what might now be before our eyes. Put differently, the question is not what does this photograph tell us about our past, but rather what does our refusal to see the photograph in the context of Greta Zimmer Friedman’s memory of that day tell us about our present.

Photo Credit: “VJ Day in Times Square, August 14, 1945,” by Alfred Eisenstaedt, © Time Inc.

We have previously written about this photograph on this blog (hereherehere, here, here, here, and here) and in print (here and here).

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Sight Gag: The 47% Percent

Credit: Matson, Roll Call

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.