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Seeing, Maybe, Another Bombing in Baghdad

We’ve seen it before.

Iraq bombing aftermath

I’ve even posted on it before. Not exactly the same photograph, of course, but one very much like it.  Suicide bombings are on the rise in Iraq again, and so the news returns to the same crime scenes, the same wreckage, the same helplessness.  The news that, like much else that was needed to prevent the bombing, arrives too late.

Maybe that guy in the cameo is an official of some type, and maybe the state has something to do–a bit of forensic work, perhaps, and some record keeping.  To me, he looks more like the guy with the tow truck, and the only decision to be made is how he’s gonna get that metal carcass up on the flatbed.  As for the rest of those present, well, what can they do beyond what they are doing?  They mill about aimlessly, look for the odd remnant, look around to see who else is there, try to take in the scene as a whole (but what is that?), and generally rely on their presence and the passing of time to somehow bring the world that was there before back into focus.  What else would you expect?  After all, they are spectators.

Spectators like us.  Another bombing, another photo of its aftermath, another moment where you arrive too late to be reminded that there is little you can do anyway.  And what did you expect?  The photo does not make an emergency claim–there are no ambulances, no heroic first responders, no valiant citizens resolved to fight on.  Instead, we see trauma reduced to curiosity as a society, for want of any other option, returns to something like normalcy.

Nor does the photo make a call on our compassion or any other strong emotion.  Instead the scene is emotionally diffuse, even deadening.   Any dramatic actions or reactions are off stage.  In their place is stasis, inaction, banality.  The photo shows us how few options ordinary people have when living amid  violence.  The question remains, are the options any better for the person viewing the photo?

By this point, many writers would have laid the blame for any inability to do much else on the medium of photography.  We’ve been told far too often that it makes us into voyeurs or tourists and exhausts or perverts our moral sense.  That could be true, although frankly I think you are safe.  Let’s consider instead how the photo from Baghdad is doing something else.

It’s not a great photo; it may even be unusually flawed, unless you can tell me what that inchoate white column is in the middle of the main vehicle.  But that doesn’t matter.  Whatever its “quality,” the photograph is a worthwhile realist statement: first, because of how is it one of many like it, all of them keeping the war visible–and I mean the war, not the abstractions that fuel it.  Second,  it shows how large-scale forces are experienced by ordinary people: experienced, that is, as disasters and as ongoing disruptions and as events that will never make sense even as everyone becomes more or less accustomed to coping.  Third, it reminds us that spectatorship alone is an insufficient basis for an effective response to what is shown.

And I’m not just talking about the spectators in the photograph.  If photography is to confront violence, speak truth to power, or meet any other noble aspiration of the public media, it has to be linked to audiences and organizations who can act where it counts.  That may be in the legislature or the refugee camps or a thousand other places, but we have to be able to imagine doing something and then work with others to the same end.  Photographic realism works through spectatorship, but the objective is something more organized.

As far as Baghdad goes, I don’t know if any good options are available within the city or elsewhere in that country.  It may be that the photograph is disturbingly realistic, in the sense that it implies that there is no basis for those in the picture to organize themselves against the next bombing.  They seem to have nothing but the inadvertent associations of a crowd at the scene of an accident.  There are political and military organizations offstage, of course, but they are the problem, not the solution.  In a photo of the aftermath of a bombing, there may be even less to see than we had thought.

As far as the US or other countries that are or could be involved, well, we each need to look in the mirror.  The problem is not what is or is not being shown, but whether there exist any political organizations capable of doing what is needed to move from war to peace.

That said, one symptom of a lack of solidarity or political efficacy is that people acquire a habitual blindness on some topics.  Topics like war, for example.   When you’ve seen it before, and since there is nothing you can do, it’s easy not to see it again.  And then the destruction and despair are sure to continue.

Photograph byKhalid Al-Mousily/Reuters.


On The Road Again

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Your NCN guys are on the road again this week, but fortunately the World Press Photo Awards came out this past week.  We didn’t write about the winner, but we did post several times on Tyler Hicks’ second place award winning photograph for spot news (here) as well as a different version of the scene by a different photographer (here and here).  We encourage you to revisit what we had to say and how others responded … and perhaps also to consider what distinguishes the two photographs from one another.  We will be back with our regular schedule on February 23rd.

Credit: Tyler Hicks/NYT, Stringer/Reuters


A Second Look: Judging In Camera

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Yes, this is the same photo featured in our Sunday postMichael Humphrey commented on that post with the accusation that it was animated by “moral idiocy” masquerading as “moral seriousness.” His argument is that publishing photographs that underscore the notion that “war is hell” don’t accomplishing anything without being accompanied by a “serious statement.”   His position is a serious one, and indeed something of a conventional piety that gets repeated often and again by any number of iconoclasts (most notably Susan Sontag) and it deserves serious response.

The iconoclastic position is simple enough: photographs can at best be only a surge of raw emotional energy that is devoid of the rational capabilities necessary for ethical relationships; this is so, as the photograph—by itself—cannot provide moral knowledge. Accordingly, the viewing public is locked into a passive spectatorship that leaves little room for anything like serious moral engagement (i.e., at its best something like compassion fatigue, at its worst, “moral idiocy masquerading as moral seriousness”). Photography may be put to better or worse uses but remains a profoundly suspect medium of representation, indeed one that is presumably and inherently fraudulent because the image can never provide the adequate knowledge of reality that is promised.

The argument assumes that photography bears the burden of representation, which is to say that the “truth” of any photographic image is mitigated by the fact that it always offers a partial and limited view of the world—and in its most extreme forms the argument is that photographs offer little more than fantasy, deceit, and manipulation. So far so good, as any medium—not least, the spoken and written word—is subject to precisely the same limitations. The difficulty is that proponents of this position place the full burden of representation on the photograph with the assumption that its inherent inadequacies can be solved by turning to the word (i.e., “serious statement”) without recognizing that rational discourse and verbal narratives are no less subject to the exact same problem. To get the point, note how discussions of photographs often underscore the fact that we need to “know more than is shown” or that the “context” needs to be elaborated, but we never see rational or narrative reports that include serious discussion of the inadequacy of the word to fully explain a situation.

Ultimately, all media are mixed media, and the image needs the word as much as the word needs the image, so this is not an argument against “serious statement.” It is, however, an argument in favor of taking the photographic image on its own terms and to be willing to “think” with and through it. That is, not just to look at it, but to see what is being shown on its own terms and to seriously consider its implications. Mr. Humphrey quotes a Washington Post editor who is altogether blithe in conceding that “war is hell” as a simple matter of fact without being willing to interrogate its particular hellishness (as displayed in the photograph of carnage) apart from a “serious statement,” and in so doing creates the conditions for normalizing our attitudes towards war as a taken for granted assumption. What matters then are the rational causes for conflagrations and not the affective or moral implications of the body of the dead child that the photograph above forces us to stand in witness to.

Mr. Humphrey assumes a degree of “moral clarity” to the political situation in the Middle East. Maybe from his perspective it is morally clear, but I don’t quite see it. When I allow myself to think with and through the above photograph on its own terms, however, I find myself questioning the world in new and different ways as it invites consideration of what is at stake when we concede that “war is hell” and move on to other matters. Are we comfortable participating in a world that assents to the normalization of war as a taken for granted assumption and, more, one that accepts any rationale whatsoever as justification for the murder of children? Whatever the answer to these questions, the point is that the photograph invites—perhaps demands—their asking, and it such invitations/demands that coaches moral seriousness.

Photo Credit: Stringer/Reuters


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Zaatari and Urban Development in the 21st Century

It seems the New York Times has a thing going for the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordon.  Along with regular reports, they’ve provided an interactive graphic and a multimedia feature story on camp growth.  The stories always include attention to the considerable suffering involved in getting there and living there, and to the resourcefulness of the people in adapting to their difficult circumstances.  You would never have described the reportage as upbeat, but that may be changing.  The latest report was titled “Refugee Camp Evolves as a Do-It-Yourself City,” and it was pretty clear that we may be looking at a model development–indeed, an “urban incubator” that has exciting prospects for a world with 50,000,000 refugees.

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The slide show accompanying the story is suitably banal, but this photo did a good job of capturing the deep ambivalence that I think lies beneath that narrative.  Supermarket shelving stocked to the brim with packaged foods is one of the stock images of the abundance provided by modernization.  Indeed, I never get completely past marveling at this everyday institution, which typically will stock 45.,000 products in a single store.  (As a member of the latte-drinking liberal class, I should know better than to marvel at rows upon rows of product extensions of junk food, much less making a fetish of the whole capitalist system, but I can’t help myself.  Besides, it beats poverty.)  In the photo above, the message should be pretty clear: they have it pretty good, all things considered.

OK, they do, and it sure beats being crushed in the queue for the food truck, which is what we’ve seen in too many other camps.  And I can’t help thinking that the woman behind the cart is laughing, whether at a joke or the act of being photographed, which either way would be another type of abundance.  She may simply be avoiding the camera, however, or even overcome with worry or discouragement.  Whether wanting privacy or more than that, the sense of privation is picked up bot the empty spaces behind the products lined up on the shelves.  And despite the basic conformity with supermarket design around the world, that ceiling is too low, the lighting too spotty: this is not the same as getting that high-end store in the new urbanist development near you.

And, by the way, they are refugees.  They have fled a war that is destroying the real cities where they and their families had lived, perhaps for generations.  And nothing that happens in the camp is likely to have any effect on the outcome of that war.  They are coping, but here that means dealing with effects, not causes; being resourceful, but not being able to believe in a viable future; getting by, but still dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Hence the ambivalence.  Zaatari is not a good solution to the problems that created the refugee crisis, but it may be the best option for coping with that crisis.  More to the point, there is a lot there that Jane Jacobs would like, and that therefore might be a basis for thinking about urban politics not only in the camps or the Global South but everywhere.  But I can’t believe that will address the root problem, which is that war is expanding across too many countries and displacing far too many people.

Boosterism aside, the Times article is well written and makes a very important argument.  If ordinary people are given the opportunity to turn a camp or a slum or any other disaster zone into a city, they will do that.  (Detroit, are you listening?)  Life, not merely bare life, will grow like weeds.  As cities always do, prosperity and culture will be created and shared.  The people thinking about refugee camp management are right to be valuing the achievement on the ground at Zaatari.  “A number of forward-thinking aid workers and others are looking at refugee camps as potential urban incubators, places that can grow and develop and even benefit the host countries.”

So we get to what might be a distinctive form of urban development in the 21st century.  Can host countries create new cities out of the camps that are being created by the wars that are wrecking other cities and other countries?  It’s a rotten question, but it seems to be one we need to face.

No city has to have a noble beginning, but the question of where it will end should not be taken lightly.

Photograph by Adam Ferguson/New York Times.  It turns out that I have a thing for Zaatari too.  I’ve posted on it twice before: here and here.  I wouldn’t say those posts are out of date, but the story continues to evolve.


Remembering to Shop at Tiananmen Square

Important news sources ranging from the Onion to the New York Times have discussed China’s amnesia regarding the Tiananmen Square massacre that occurred 25 years ago this week.  The Times article was accompanied by an illustration that picked up on what has become a common lament: in place of the quashed democratic revolution, China has become a case study in consumer capitalism.  Citizens have become shoppers, thronging to the malls instead of the public square.


Needless to say, the point is made visually by invoking the iconic image of a man standing before a row of tanks on Chang’an Avenue.  The contrast is clear: by substituting more contemporary figures for the man before the tank, a public act of protest against the authoritarian state has been replaced with political quiescence on behalf of commercial consumption.  Nor is the shift in values limited to China.


Whether stylish consumers or fat cat merchants, everyone is on the take.  Democracy has been sold out; surely the martyrs did not die for this.

They did not die for China’s mashup of capitalism and authoritarian government, but the story always was more complicated than the ironic contrast would suggest.  To see that, you need look no farther than the iconic image.

As John and I argued in No Caption Needed (the book), the Tiananmen tank icon channels a deep tension within Western, liberal-democratic societies: it articulates both democratic and liberal attitudes, reflecting what is a persistent trade-off one way or the other in modern politics.  This tension often is resolved very productively, but it is constitutive and dangerous.  As Tocqueville, Benjamin Barber, and others have suggested, democracy nurtures liberalism, which ultimately can subvert democracy.  Note also that China has expanded private liberties without democratization.

The democratic commitment is to governance of, by, and for the people.  The liberal commitment is to respect and protect the autonomy of the individual person.  These are not the same thing, and neither is an unalloyed good thing: democracies can become a tyranny of the majority, and individual freedom can be used to harm one’s fellow citizens.  More to the point of the Tiananmen commemorations, liberal democracy means that you should be able to elect your public officials, and to ignore politics altogether while you shop until you drop.

In the tank icon, a lone individual stands up the to impersonal state on behalf of the people, and so it is a liberal-deomcratic vision, but more liberal than democratic.  Consider, for example, how much is not being shown of the democratic movement that had inhabited the Square for weeks.  Consider also that the original protester was holding what appears to be a shopping bag.

The full argument runs to 34 pages, which I’ll leave to your discretion.  (Hey, would it kill you to buy the book?)  Nor am I suggesting that commemorations of the massacre are misplaced.  The people living in Hong Kong will not let us forget, and we shouldn’t.  But nor should we get off too easy.  Citizens are turned into consumers every day while democratic governance is being subverted on behalf of oligarchy, and I’m not talking about China.

The man standing before the tank embodies two fundamental principles, not one, and the challenge of making them work together is one of the great ongoing tasks of modern societies around the globe.  I have no doubt that China needs more democracy, but I would not offer the present mix of populism and neoliberalism that defines politics in the US today as a splendid model to which they should aspire.

One virtue of iconic images is that they can provide models for citizenship.  The tank icon does so, but it also says something about the world in which we have to act.  And what seems to be an image, may also be a mirror.

Cartoons by Michela Buttignol/New York Times and Scott Stantis/Chicago Tribune.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.


Deep Copies and the Photographic Archive

In Focus has put up some of the entries for the National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest.  All are remarkable examples of natural wonder and artistic skill, and some are simply stunning.  One might ask, however, to what extent they are original.  Are we really seeing something new, or seeing with new perspective and insight, or are the photographs recycling images that, however lovely, are nonetheless familiar sights.  The leading image at the In Focus slide show provides a useful vantage on the question, for it is a double image.

MIrror wave

Beautiful, isn’t it?  It’s also a study of geological processes, and of photography as a way of seeing.  Now that we’ve exhausted my knowledge of geology, we can turn to the optical dimension.  A still pool of water mirrors the earth and sky above; one element becoming a reflective medium for two others.  Deep in the center of the image, a tiny figure stands and is reflected as well.  These double images model the actual photograph, which is the still reflection of what was actually in front of the camera.  Nature is copied inadvertently by itself (in the water) and then again and intentionally so by the photographer.  (I believe it was Shaw who said that human beings are nature becoming aware of itself.)  And the single photograph’s depiction of copying also can reflect its repetition at the National Geographic website, In Focus, here, and surely elsewhere as well, and with that the definition of photography as a medium of mechanical reproduction.

Which may be why we shouldn’t be surprised to have seen the image before.


Sure, it’s not exactly the same, but take a good look.  Note the many formal similarities, right down to the single grey figure in the foreground of the second photograph and the background of the first.  Prop0rtions, colors, cropping, and the like vary a bit, but let’s not deny the obvious.  In fact, we’ve shown it before at this blog, but that is the least of it.  The second image has been publicly available, including on the cover of one of the photographer’s books and through charity auctions for environmental causes.  Even the comments on the first image when it was the Photo of the Day at National Geographic include remarks that it’s been seen before, particularly as desktop wallpaper; significantly, these are not criticisms, they don’t diminish the reader’s sense of natural beauty, and one comment leads to explicit admiration of the work necessary to get the shot.

Does this mean that originality doesn’t matter to either photographers or their audience?  Not really, but it does suggest that the question of originality is the wrong question.  First, we should consider that not everyone will have seen any given image before, including perhaps the photographer who took the more recent version, and that new viewers are coming along all the time; originality, like clarity, is not a product of the image or the text but rather a relationship between the work and its audience.  Second, allusion and more direction reproduction of previous work is an important component of fine art, and many fine artworks are studies in very similar subjects in very similar styles; originality is rarely the only value in aesthetic judgment, and consider also how judgment has gone awry when it was the only consideration.  Third,  multiple readers of a book by the same reader, or multiple viewings of a painting by the same viewer, are taken to be a compliment and not the sign of some failing; an artwork rewards revisiting because it is a distinctive (and reflective) encounter with its subject, and photography can do that as well.  Fourth, and most important, photography is not a public art, and its more casual attitude about originality is one mark of that difference; what needs to be appreciated, however, is how the high rates of replication are, although not without their problems, nonetheless a source of cultural value.

People don’t go to the Vermilion Cliffs Monument to see something no one has seen before; they go to have an encounter with nature’s beauty; something that may be a distinctively human response.  We don’t look at a photograph of the natural marvels to be seen there because we want to have a unique aesthetic experience, but to have one that others have enjoyed as well.  In place of the original, a copy; in place of the unique work of art, a community.

These habits are easy to belittle, and let me be clear that I think the world needs every kind of art, not simply those I would label public arts.  That said, the images above might merit additional appreciation.  Let’s think of them as Deep Copies: that is, as images that reflect reflection and reproduce reproduction, and do so elegantly, beautifully, profoundly.  Nor do they do so abstractly, but rather by showing how these processes for replication are part of something material, whether mineral strata being laid down crystal upon crystal for eons, or the social habits that continuously pass along human societies from generation to generation, or the imaging processes of the human brain as it creates consciousness itself.

And to see any of that, we will have to see the same image more than once.

Photographs of The Wave landform, Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, Arizona, by Nicholas Roemmelt/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest and Jack Dykinga/Corbis-iLCP.

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Refugee World: Where a Camp Is a City and a City is a Camp

I’ve written before about the first photo below, but today another image prompted a second look.

An aerial view of the Zaatari refugee camp near Mafraq, Jordan

This is an aerial view of the Za’atari refugee camp near the Jordanian city of Mafraq, some five miles from the border with Syria.  As of July, it housed 144,000 refugees.  In the desert.  But for the lack of little things like trees, it could almost be mistaken for the grid plan of Chicago that you see when flying into O’Hare.   The rectilinear neighborhoods and long arterials, including a few on the diagonal, are evidence of good urban planning.  Density is given legible units while access to services is managed efficiently.  The urban core remains a vital center of administration, while continued growth can spread in long rows of housing and distribution facilities across the plain.  Close your eyes and you can almost imagine the desert blooming with suburbs and malls.

I wouldn’t want to bet that no one has floated such insanity as a development option for Za’atari, but of course the reality on the ground is hardly the stuff of either comedy or fantasy.   This is a slow moving tragedy in the making, a catastrophe hardening into something like a permanent condition, yet one where those living there will have to approach every day as a struggle, every day as an endurance test that can push them to the limit of resourcefulness, and yet never to get ahead, improve their lot, escape to a place where they can have a future instead of another day, month, year of harsh fatality.

Camps can become cities, as those in the Occupied Territories, Pakistan, Thailand, and elsewhere know all too well, but they never become cities like Chicago, or Peoria for that matter.  Za’atari currently is the fourth largest city in Jordan, but I don’t think you will read about it soon in either the business or travel sections of the newspaper.

And I’ve said this before, so why bring the photograph up again?  One of the conditions of photography is that there always is another photo to replace the one before, always another image of another disaster.  Both the events and the images are produced by powerful forces shaping the modern world, and they seem to run together into one long-running humanitarian movie.  Refuge World, with a cast of 45,000,000, coming to a theater near you.  And we know how effective that would be.  So, what’s new about refugee camps?


Well, perhaps it’s notable that they are being built in Las Vegas.  And I don’t mean the detainment centers for deportees–that’s another, sadder story.  Today I’m talking about this “desert housing block,” which is not–despite the label–a prison.  But it doesn’t it look somewhat like that camp in Jordan?  Sure, it’s neater, more compact, and affluent (you can see that even at this distance), but you can observe the same design principles, the same harsh environment, the same geographic isolation.  In fact, the most obvious difference is that this looks more like a camp–even a Roman military encampment–while the camp looks more like a city.  But guess which one will have all the rights, powers, and privileges of a city?

I think both photographs are shocking, not least because of how each reprises and bleeds into the other.  The camp should not be so large and well organized, so close to becoming a permanent city.  The city should not be so isolated and placed in such a barren, arid environment.  The camp should not look so modern; the city should not look like a frontier outpost.  Each photograph can trouble the viewer, that is, move the viewer from information relay to critical reflection, because each already contains the template of the other.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, individual images can acquire critical resonance because the photographic archive is so large and redundant.  Instead of dulling viewer response, photography’s ability to overlay image upon image can activate the imagination.

And so it is not difficult to imagine what might happen to that camp in Las Vegas.  A city charter is one thing, and one’s relationship to nature is another.  As with the other photo, a catastrophe is in the making, although this time the result will be abandonment and ruin.  The desert will not sustain such development, even though here the fantasies have had the benefit of capital investment, cheap mortgages, and all the rest that goes with the crazed optimism of American real estate development.  And for what?  To become refugees in their own country.

Photographs by Mandel Ngan/AFP and Alex MacLean/Beetles+Huxley.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.


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.


“Oh, The Humanity”: A Second Look at the Hindenburg Explosion

This past Sunday marked the 75th anniversary of the explosion of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, NJ.  As we have indicated elsewhere, when it occurred on May 6, 1936, the event, prominently depicted in the above photograph, was immediately and subsequently identified as a gothic image of a “brave new world” that invited a bleak and cautionary attitude towards the catastrophic risks of industrialization and technology—a dystopian icon of an emerging, universalized, technocratic modernity.  What is especially important to note is that the explosion of the Hindenburg, resulting in 36 fatalities, was neither the first nor the most deadly of such explosions—the explosion of Britain’s R-101 dirigible killing 46 passengers five years earlier on October 5, 1930.  The key difference was that in the case of the Hindenburg the media was present with live radio coverage and, of course, we have the above photograph, which quickly became the iconic representation of the disaster.

The last point is especially important, as it stands as a reminder of the centrality of the mass media in creating disasters.  I don’t mean, of course, that the mass media cause disasters in a direct cause-effect fashion, but rather that what is recognized as a disaster is largely a measure of its status as a discernible “event” and outside of local and immediate experience.  Such discernability is largely a function of the role that the media play in depicting and disseminating occurrences of one sort or another.  As Rob Nixon has recently demonstrated in his book Slow Violence, tragedies that defy easy representation as a discrete occurrences—say disease and death caused across generations of the members of a community by toxic waste—are very difficult to cast as disasters because we simply cannot visualize their longitudinal effects.  A graph marking deaths across time simply lacks the presence and verisimilitude of a photograph.

The anniversary commemoration of this event points to a different point as well.  The iconic photograph above  lacks any nationalistic markings of any kind.  Although the name “Hindenburg” clearly designates this as a German airship, the photograph effaces that fact.  It is impossible to say that this is the reason why this photograph quickly became identified as the icon for the event, but there are good reasons to believe that it didn’t hurt the cause, both because of the prevailing desire to downplay nationalist tensions between Nazi Germany and the United States, as well as the way in which such erasure made the photograph more about technology of a universalized modernity than about politics.  But, of course, the extant photographic record suggests a different story.  And so it is that the Atlantic frames its remembrance of the event not in terms of modernity’s gamble, but precisely in the context of international politics.  So, for example, they begin with an image that shows the Hindenburg in all of its grandeur and magnitude, hovering over Manhattan.  But what is most pronounced in the photograph is the swastika that sits on the tail of the vessel.

Several such images—few of which were originally seen, or at least prominently displayed in the media of the time—follow, carefully marking the national origins of the dirigible.  And then, after a series of images that move the viewer through the ritualistic, everyday banality and catastrophic fatality of the attendant technological innovation of transatlantic air travel, it reinforces the nationalist origins of the whole event with photographs of a funereal  scene.  These photographs, replete with multiple caskets draped in swastika clad flags and Nazi salutes (images #31 and #32), are chilling in their effects, even if our contemporary reaction is marked by a presentist understanding of the horrors of Nazism that most viewers would not have been in a position to acknowledge in 1936.

The point is a simple one, but nevertheless worth emphasizing: photographs are always involved in a dialectic of showing and veiling.  If we think of the iconic image in terms of how it is often captioned with reference to radio announcer Herb Morrison’s lament, “Oh, the humanity” it is easy to see how it fits within the logic of a dystopian, technological modernity.  In short, it is a catastrophe that resists and challenges the positive resonance of modernity’s gamble.  However, when we return the swastika to the tail of the dirigible in all of its prominence, and when we locate the event within the particular narrative of twentieth-century politics animated by Hitler’s Third Reich, the meaning of the icon is overshadowed by a much larger tragedy and its dystopian resistance to the positive affect of modernity’s gamble is mitigated if not altogether erased.  It truly is a matter of what we see … or perhaps more to the point, what we are shown.

Photo Credit: Sam Shere/MPTV; AP File Photo


World Press Photo of the Year: The Debate

One sign of a healthy public art is that people argue about it.  Photojournalism appears to very healthy, as once again the World Press Photo Awards are provoking discussion.  As is happens, an earlier post at this blog was pulled into the fray.  Back on October 24, 2011 I wrote about this image, which recently received the Photo of the Year award.

I had raised the issue of how one might come to terms with seeing the image through the cultural lens of Christian iconography: by seeing the outline of the pieta, one’s response could be both emotionally true and otherwise distorted.  After the award was announced, Michael Shaw at BAGnewsNotes prompted renewed discussion, summarizing my post along with commentary by another BAG contributor, Madeleine Corcoran.  The comments that followed expanded the discussion further, including an entry by one of the contest judges, Nina Berman.  At the same time (a day earlier, actually), Jim Johnson voiced his “disappointment” with the selection, arguing that it was derivative not only with regard to the pieta but also within the history of photography, and that it depoliticized the Arab Spring, reinforced traditional gender roles, and interfered with understanding the complex politics of modern Islam.  Jim provoked a dozen comments, and once again Nina weighed in.  On the same day, the New York Times Lens Blog started out with a celebration of the selection (and quoted Nina), but the discussion there soon turned up some of the same issues.  And over at Conscientious, Joerg Colberg added to the critique, pointing out that reliance on conventional iconography makes it too easy to project our own beliefs–and, with that, our military forces.

Joerg also points out that one solution to the problem is increased visual literacy, which is precisely what each of these blogs is trying to provide.

Photograph by Samuel Aranda/New York Times.

Update: The debate is curated much more thoroughly at bitly.