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The Blessing of Serenity

Winter snow, tree

Like every snowflake, many images are unique yet much like many others.  Snow and photography are both repetitive, and with each accumulation can become a burden.  With snow, accumulation also can create a distinctive sense of serenity.  Winter solitude can be a blessing, and one that is needed again every year.  We hope that this single image, unique and yet seen before, can bring a moment of repose during this busy time of the year.

Best wishes for a peaceful holiday.  We’ll return to our regular schedule on January 6.

Photograph from Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada by Victor Liu/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest.


Sight Gag: Everyone’s A Critic

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Photo Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters (via

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.


Paper Call: The Visual Communication Conference

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Call for Papers and Panels – 2014

Deadline for proposals is February 28, 2014
Hosted by the University of Rhode Island & Roger Williams University
June 22-26, 2014
Whispering Pines, West Greenwich Rhode Island

The organizers of the 28th Annual Visual Communication Conference invite faculty and students to submit research and creative presentations from the varied and emergent field of visual communication. Topics may include, but are not limited to, graphic design, visual aesthetics, visual rhetoric, semiotics, still and motion photography, documentary and feature films, visual literacy, visual ethics, multimedia and new communication technologies, visual culture, and pedagogy in visual communication. While traditional research is welcome, authors and creators of all accepted submissions must present their work in a visual way.  In addition, video presentations of research will be considered creative work and reserved for the creative work sessions.

Additional information on the paper call is here.  The VisCom main page is here.


Seeing Terror

She has seen terror, she is seeing terror, you are seeing terror, we will continue to see terror.  The grammar is at once familiar and out of place; we might call it a declension of violence.

A victim lies on a hospital bed after an attack on a passenger microbus by an unidentified group in Kathmandu

The caption said, “A victim, with her eyes wide open, lies on a hospital bed after an attack on a passenger microbus by an unidentified group in Kathmandu.”  Too many elements of this scenario are all too familiar: civilians being targeted by unknown attackers, institutional support coming after–not before–the carnage, while eyes are wide open yet seemingly unconnected to any means to stop the violence.

And not just her eyes: ours are open (and perhaps opened) as well.  We see her and we see her seeing, which raises the stakes for photography’s promise as a communicative art.  It seems that the photograph might channel her seeing directly into ours, or, if that connection fails, at least consider what she might be seeing and what we ought to see.

In this case, whatever still holds her eyes in fixed, horrified attention remains invisible to us.  All we can see is the terror itself: How it stuns body and soul; how it drives consciousness to a fixed point of horror amidst a welter of disorder, confusion, and pain.  How she is too transfixed by the damage to even be able to plead for help, much less for an end to the arbitrary slaughter of human beings.

The photograph’s intelligence doesn’t end there, however, for it starkly highlights how much we don’t know simply by seeing.  Our vision is limited to a portion of her face, and we see that through a slit in the curtain along her bed.  The narrow aperture is as salient as the face behind it, while the blinds on each side make a thick frame designed to obscure.  The message is clear: what you see through the aperture of the camera is not the whole picture.

Too often the full import of that point is misunderstood, not least by those who suggest that adequate compensation is available otherwise.  Better captions, extensive written reportage, historical study, ethnographic immersion–whatever the alternative, the idea is that an adequate corrective is available.  Those and other investments are certainly needed, and not just in the war zones, but I think this photograph goes one better.

It says that the whole picture is never available.  Pull aside the curtains, and what do you see but the rest of the battered body?  Interview the doctors and emergency workers and bystanders and diplomats, and what do you know?  One can learn quite a bit, but nothing that will erase her terror.  That may be why the oxygen mask is so, well, terrifying: she seems to have been transformed into something half-bestial, a declension from human to merely animal, from person to prey, and at the mercy of those in the room now instead of those who threw the bomb.  Somehow even the medical technologies, like the technology of the camera, have been co-opted into an apparatus of terror, as if they and not the bomb were harming her.  That’s not true, but it is one measure of how terror works by making the familiar world into an environment of pain and fear.

Of course, everything that can be done to help the victim and to understand the situation should be done, but one does need to beware the illusion that all distance between the victim and the unharmed can be eliminated.  This photo, by contrast, shows us how that distance is part of our experience of her experience.  We are able to see that something awful lies beyond mediation, and thus beyond knowledge, and that our experience is mediated.  Yet, for all that, we are still put in a relationship with a single bombing victim far away from most of those who will see this photograph.  That’s why the photo has more than academic interest.  You might say that one of the contributions of photography is that it shows how solidarity with others doesn’t have to wait on fully sharing or understanding their experience.

The photo shows us terror that is stalking the world today, and it reminds us that many viewers are fortunate enough to see it at a distance.  The close framing of her act of wide-eyed concentration reminds us that she may not be seeing what is in fact in front of her–she could be blind to the room because still back in the blast–and that we may not be seeing what is in fact in front of us.

Perhaps it suggests that context is needed, but I think that is settling for too little.  She isn’t looking at us, but the photograph does ask at least one question on her behalf: Now that you see how she has been changed by the attack, how have you been changed?  Who is willing to look terror in the face, and to stand with those who continue to suffer?

Photograph by Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNews.


“Oh, the Humanity! Uhh, I Mean, the Irony!”



Photo Credit: TheChive.Com

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.

 1 Comment

Aperture Gallery Workshop on Photographic Collaboration

Collaboration: Revisiting the History of Photography


Saturday, December 7
1:00 pm – 6:00 pm
Aperture Gallery and Bookstore
547 West 27th Street
New York, NY

Join Ariella Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, and graduate students from Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design for an Open Lab at Aperture Gallery, as they develop the first draft of a research project that reconsiders the story of photography from the perspective of collaboration. The team will map out a timeline of approximately one hundred photography projects—in which photographers “co-labor” with each other and with those they photograph—on the walls of the Aperture Bookstore.

“The timeline includes close to one hundred projects assembled in eight different clusters. Each of these projects address a different aspect of collaboration: the intimate ‘face-to-face’ encounter between photographer and photographed person; collaborations recognized over time; collaboration as the production of alternative and common histories; as a means of creating new potentialities in given political regimes of violence; as a framework for collecting, preserving, and studying existing images as a basis for establishing civil archives for unrecognized, endangered, or oppressed communities; as a vantage point to reflect on relations of co-laboring that are hidden, denied, compelled, imagined, or fake.

“These clusters are taped to the walls as a large modular desktop, susceptible to multiple readings and changes. The different projects are ‘quoted’ through small reference prints in a laboratory mode, and juxtaposed on the wall with verbal quotations from the participants in the event of photography, as well as other archival documentation. This display format is a first draft that will be extended and modified following the discussions with the audience in the space.

“In this project we seek to reconstruct the material, practical, and political conditions of collaboration through photography and of photography through collaboration. We seek ways to foreground—and create—the tension between the collaborative process and the photographic product by reconstructing the participation of others, usually the more ‘silent’ participants. We try to do this through the presentation of a large repertoire of types of collaborations, those which take place at the moment when a photograph is taken, or others that are understood as collaboration only later, when a photograph is reproduced and disseminated, juxtaposed to another, read by others, investigated, explored, preserved, and accumulated in an archive to create a new database.”

This one-day event is a unique opportunity to engage with the project. All gallery visitors are invited to see the Open Lab in progress, and encouraged to contribute to the informal discussion about photography and collaboration.

The Saturday schedule and additional information is here.

Photograph by Wendy Ewald: Harshad, Hasmukh, Chandrakant, and Dasrath learning to hold the camera.


There Are No Still Photographs

Writers on photography typically emphasize the importance of the still image.  This immobility twice distinguishes the medium: first, from the other distinctively modern visual media of cinema and television; second, from the temporality or ephemerality of whatever is the subject of the photograph.  Only the photo stops time, holding everything caught in 1/500 of a second unchanged for all time.  Only then can one really look at what was there, then; only in that time out of time can one really see and carefully reflect on what is being shown.

The writers of this blog are among those who have relied on this definition, not least because it does argue for the relative value of the medium while identifying one of its resources for understanding the world.  Unfortunately, like the other writers, we were wrong.

Or more precisely, not wholly wrong so much as subject to overstatement.  I say this because the time has come to consider the contrary thesis, which is that there are no still photographs.  Likewise, we should consider how the temporal immobility of the photograph that we do experience is an illusion, perhaps one of those illusions that grow up around any medium as one of its effects and part of its distinctive habitus.

Such illusions become part of our common sense, and not least because they prove to be useful, so let me be clear that I am not trying to dismantle all of that.  Of course, any photograph seems to be still, just as any movie seems to be moving while actually being a succession of still images.  Likewise, I really do value the reflective space that is created by the photographic event, and a sense of having the time to look is an important part of that experience.

But what if we considered just how many ways the photographic image is already moving?  One way to start would be to take a seemingly difficult case, like this one.  Nick Brandt has taken photographs of animals that have become calcified after immersion in Lake Natron in Tanzania.  As they attempt to air dry, the extremely high levels of soda and salt immobilize them.  The result is at once horrific–they are buried alive in their own bodies–and aesthetic–they become ghoulishly “lifelike” statues.


So here you have an image where form and content are almost perfectly fused: both the bird and the photograph are forever fixed, still, incapable of movement.  (As Aristotle would say, they can be moved but they cannot move themselves.)  Although the water and sky at Lake Natron can change, they cannot change in the photograph, and the photographer’s skillful use of his black and white stock and tonal values support that sense of the scene.  Like the bird, everything that once was capable of movement seems forever frozen by the medium–a medium created in a chemical solution that, like the lake, can harden time itself as it turns life into image.

But look at that bird.  (After all, we have the time.)  Can’t you see the flow of the water as it drained off the body, and the subtle air currents that wafted across it?  Can’t you see the great wings poised as if for flight, and feel the powerful muscles ready to flex and contract?  And doesn’t the pathos of the image come from that sense of flight and life interrupted?   Without that sense of potential movement, the image would not be news; it would not even be an image, but only a unique particularity having no reference outside of itself.  (Some would say that’s a definition of art, and there is an affinity there that I’ll not go into today.)

I’m running out of time today, so let me cut to the chase and summarize several senses in which I think the image always is moving.  First and most obvious, the photograph always does refer to an ongoing eventfulness outside of itself.  We call this the larger narrative or flow of events, or the situation or context, or the other images on the roll or otherwise taken before and after the single moment, etc.  Sontag insisted that this was the only way in which photographs became meaningful, and that their tendency to stop time and fragment reality was a sure cause of all manner of cognitive, moral, and political problems.  I think there are a great many problems with that formulation, but (as usual with Sontag) there is an important insight there: the photograph is never really apprehended in narrative isolation or out of time.  Thus, there really are no still images, and to insist on the unique or transcendental character of the still image is to succumb to a characteristic illusion.

Another obvious and more recent sense of photography’s mobility is that the way in which images are used: whether material or virtual (and any one is both, in varying degrees), images are put in wallets, on phones, on walls offline and online, and they are shared, shuffled, liked, lost, found, repurposed, and otherwise used in varied ways that keep them moving in time as they acquire specific histories.  The image can be temporarily fixed by the act of looking, an act it solicits, but that, too, is part of larger practices of selecting, substituting, discarding, and otherwise organizing and making sense of a continuously expanding archive.

A third sense of the never still image is that its meaning always depends on interpretation, and not least by multiple viewers.  (Even if only one person sees the photograph and then burns it, the seeing and the burning alike depend on a sense of how others would see it and see it differently.)  More to the point, the photographic image is inherently imaginative: even in its more realistic modality, it requires imagining others’ intentions, other ways of looking at the scene, as well as possible causes and possible consequences.  The immobility allows time for such consideration, but that active shuttling between past and future is absolutely essential to the medium and particularly to how it is used as a medium for public culture.

Finally, and I really am running out of time here, photography is part of modernity’s continuous unfolding.  Yes, that sense of modern civilization is itself a myth, but a powerful one.  (Even getting “bombed back into the stone age” does no more than reinstate the myth: we might have to start over, but there is only one direction to go.)  Like modernity itself, any photograph is a slice of time that is projected into the future: by becoming a record of what instantly is past, it can in fact be moved forward into the next moment and the next, always still present in a world forever pitched toward a future just beyond the now.  After all, why else take the picture?

So there is more than one sense in which there are no still photographs.  I would say that each of those definitions of the image can serve some of the same purposes that were handled by emphasizing its temporal immobility.  The next step might be to endorse a dialectical movement, but let me suggest something else instead.  Whether still or never still, immobile or ever activating, any revelation will come not from that fact alone but rather how it can be the basis for artistry and insight.  Whatever the theory, everything still depends on who takes the photograph and what we do with it.

Photographs by Nick Brandt and Wojtek Radwanski/AFP-Getty Images.  Brandt discusses the images in an interview at the Huffington Post.


Immigration Policy and the Theater of the Absurd

Immigrant Hands.1

We have written at NCN on more than occasion about the problem of immigration in the U.S., or perhaps more accurately, on the problem of US public policy regarding immigration and the need for reform.  Perhaps the dominant visual trope that is affiliated with U.S. immigration policies is the “wall,” a manufactured border that purports to function as a container that separates there from here and them from us.  Of course, the problem is that however sophisticated the technology and however large an army of Border Patrols agents we employ, such walls are never impermeable.  And so the policy is already and always fated to be a failure.

The real difficulty, however, may not be that we have the wrong solution to the problem so much as we refuse to come to terms with reality of the situation that we are facing.  The photograph above is telling in this regard.  The caption reads, “Dessert for an immigrant detainee in his segregation cell during lunchtime at the Adelanto center [in San Bernadino, California].”  The institutionally grey, steel cell door is something of a wall and it dominates the photograph, cutting across the diagonal, separating inside from outside and the representative of the U.S. from the detained immigrant.  The bolt lock on the top creates the impression of security, but the opening in the door makes it clear that total separation is impossible—if even desirable given that apparently some communication and interaction seems at least useful.  It is thus, at least in some senses, a visual metaphor for the (as yet incomplete) wall that has been proposed to traverse much of the 2,000 miles of U.S. borderland between California and Texas.

But of course there is more, for what makes the photograph distinctive is not the metaphorical wall so much as the extended hands that traverse the opening.  Hands with opposable thumbs are distinctively human and here we see them as fragmented body parts.  The fragmentation is not incidental.  Typically the face is the visual marker of the liberal individual; absent such markings we don’t see particular individuals but rather social types, and thus the scene becomes something of an allegory for one dimension of the body politic as it negotiates the relationship between citizen and so-called “illegal” or “undocumented” immigrant.  Viewing the image in this register invites us to imagine U.S. immigration and border policy as played out in something like the Theater of the Absurd.

The hand on the right extends from inside the cell door, so it is clearly marked as “other” and “dangerous,” but apart from being large enough to be masculine and appearing to be white, the only social marking that it reveals is a wedding ring, linking its bearer to a time honored social ritual and tradition.  Were one to encounter this hand in any other situation it is unlikely that it would be seen as inherently alien, let alone precarious or threatening. The hand extending from the left is fully covered, a sleeve extending to the wrist and overlapping with a blue rubber glove, the two cinched by a watch strap.  The glove is the sort that we see being worn by investigators at a crime scene or a chemical spill, both situations where it is important to avoid contamination.  The overall impression, then, is that the arm and hand are hermetically sealed, and the implication here is hard to avoid: the hand on the left is protected from the presumably menacing or infectious hand on the right.

There is something altogether farcical about the relationship here and what calls it out is the piece of fruit being passed ever so tenderly from left to right as “dessert.”  On the one hand (no pun intended), the offer of dessert—not just food or nutrition—is a humane gesture designed to provide some measure of pleasure to the person connected to the “othered” hand on the right; and yet, on the other hand, one has to wonder about extending such a gesture to an alien who is truly dangerous, so much so that any contact whatsoever would somehow threaten the well being of the person connected to the hand on the left.  That one would make such a gesture recognizes a fundamental, ethical human and social responsibility that simply cannot be avoided or ignored, even when there are risks at stake.  Neither walls nor borders can erase it.  And even in our most paranoid state, it peaks through as an obligation that we have to our human brothers and sisters.

And so the point: the immigration problem we have in the U.S. is not, at its core, a matter of how to contain our borders so as to avoid making contact with alien others, as much as we might convince ourselves that such contact is risky,  but rather to recognize the fundamental obligation(s) we have to extending human rights in as humane a fashion as possible to all who share our humanity.  Once we allow ourselves to see that obligation and then commit ourselves to upholding it we will be better prepared to imagine how to negotiate the presence of immigrants within our midst and to produce policies that honor our very humanity without reverting to the theater of the absurd.

Credit: John Moore/Getty Images


NCN Takes a Working Holiday


We’ll be immersed in traveling and other obligations for the next two weeks, to return on December 2.  In the meantime, you might try to guess what these guys are doing.  First one to get it right will receive a year’s free subscription to

Photograph by Francois Xavier Marit/AFP-Getty Images.  We’ll update with the correct answer when we return.

Update: The photo is of competitors in the men’s 10-meter synchro platform preliminary diving event in the FINA World Championships at the Piscina Municipal de Montjuic in Barcelona, July 21, 2013.

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