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The Shrouds of Kiev

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The Battle for Kiev is over, at least for now.  The President has been duly ousted by the Parliament, Independence Square is slowly being cleared of the barricades, and shrines to the dead are beginning to appear.  How many dead is hard to know, but numbers range from 70 to more than 100, with at least 500+ serious injuries on top of that number—and that is just among the protestors of the Yanukovich administration, there were deaths and injuries amongst government police as well.

Photographs of blood stained streets and shrouded dead bodies are prominent, made all the more distressing by virtue of the fact that much of the violence was perpetrated by the police against the citizens of a democratic society who, presumably, it was their job to protect.  Before we get too sanctimonious, however, we should recall that this is not the first time that democratic governments have turned their power and force tyrannically against their own citizenry, and with disastrous results.  One need only recall the use of guard dogs and water cannon in attacks against nonviolent civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama or the deaths of four students at the Kent State Massacre when student anti-war protestors were fired upon by the Ohio National Guard.

In many ways, the photograph above recalls the famous photograph of a young woman wailing in anger, pain, and grief in the in the midst of the Kent State killings.  But, of course, there are important differences.  In the Kent State photograph the woman is not only younger, but she is prominently situated at the middle of a public scene that recalls much of the action going on around her, and her expression is cast outward to others, as much a plea for help—or an expression of public outrage—as anything.  Here the photograph is closely cropped so that the woman fills the frame and her grief seems more inward, more personal than public.  Indeed, pain and grief seem to be the conspicuous emotions being invoked, not anger or outrage.  And more, she doesn’t seem to be calling out to anyone so much as absorbing and containing the pain within herself.  Notice how she covers her face in this regard, blocking out the scene that she cannot bring herself to witness.  And there is another difference as well.  The dead bodies that lie on the ground behind her are covered, barely recognizable as such; indeed, without being alerted by the caption one might fail to see  them altogether.   Contrast the veiling of bodies and emotions with the photograph of the Kent State Massacre where the young woman kneels next to the prostate body that lies prominent in front of her—and in front of us, always and forever an image of the costs and effects of a democracy turned tyrannous.

As one works their way through the many photographs of the dead in Kiev it is hard not to notice that almost all of the photographs of the dead are shrouded, with only small parts of their bodies exposed to view, a stomach here, a knee there.  In many ways this is as it should

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be as it indicates respect for the deceased and saves their families and friends from having to live forever with horrific images of their loved ones.   And yet, there is a cost here too, as it reifies the dead body, transforming it into an anonymous, collective entity that inadvertently denies all sense of personal identity and individual loss.  The image above is especially telling in this regard as the flag that drapes the bodies combines with the  helmet and flower to ritualize the deaths that are both signified and memorialized, revealing them as part of a national cause fought in the name of democracy—as they were—but at the same time veiling or erasing (or at the very least mitigating) the outrage that led to their individual sacrifice by covering the bodies.

There is perhaps no truly good way to represent such a situation, but that does not mean that we should ignore the implications of the choices of representation that we take, however conventional they might be.  The protestors who died in Independence Square were heroes, to be sure, but they were also individual citizens shot down and butchered by the very forces that should have been protecting them.  And that is not something that should ever get lost in the telling of—or seeing—the Battle of Kiev.

Credit:  Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters; Darko Bandic/AP



Why Can’t Photographs Persuade?



In the past couple of weeks the public has been confronted with evidence of systematic and extensive torture in both Syria and North Korea.  The Syrian crimes were publicized first, due to the release of 55,000 photographs that had been smuggled out of the country; the photos had been taken by the government and left little doubt that the atrocities were government policy.  That disclosure was followed this week with the release of a UN report that documented a gulag of prisons where hundreds of thousands of North Korean citizens were tortured, worked to death, and murdered.  In each case, the stories were widely publicized across major media outlets, and the UN and individual states discussed sanctions and other reactions to protest and possibly stop these crimes against humanity.

Now here’s where it gets interesting.  In the case of the Syrian photographs, the release prompted discussion–again, in major forums such as the Op-Ed page of the New York Times–lamenting the inability of the photographs themselves to adequately motivate public action.  Nor were these ill-considered or unsophisticated discussions: for example, the contributions by Susie Linfield at the Times and Fred Ritchin at Time Magazine’s Lightbox are thoughtful analyses by two of the best in the business.  Each is trying to articulate a core ethical principle for photography as it is a public art, and to identify changes in the “social contract” of public spectatorship (to use Ritchin’s phrase) that may be occurring due to the technological innovations that are transforming all media today, and to invite the reader to think carefully about how moral decency and solidarity can be supported in that media environment.  Every controversy should have it so good.

Now consider the case of the UN report on North Korea.  The report is 372 pages in length–the executive summary is 38 pages–and details crimes that are far more extensive than the 11,000 deaths documented by the photographs from Syria.  Other news sources provided additional summaries, including the “10 starkest paragraphs” from the report, and there was extensive discussion of whether North Korea would change its behavior.  Those analyses featured a raft of geopolitical considerations: the role of China, US and North Korean relationships with South Korea, problems at the UN, etc.   Of course, and as illustrated by CNN, no one really thought that anything would change.  What they did not feature, however, was serious discussion of the rhetorical incapacity of the written word.  The analyses stayed close to the political situation and acted as if the print medium had no responsibility by itself to motivate action.  Information only, please, and leave the rest to us, or them actually, or to the photographs that are supposed to do the heavy lifting of persuasion.

Not to put too fine a point upon it, but this disparity is nuts.  In one case the bar certainly is too high, and in the other it probably is too low.  Was the language of the UN report part of the problem?  I guess we’ll never know.  Were the Syrian photographs evidence of a moral failure, even though many of the reports on their release provided only glimpses of the images, or none at all?  Of course, they had to be.

I’ve posted on some of these issues before and won’t rehearse that here.  Let me be clear, however, that I am not saying that there are no relevant differences between the media–for example, that photographs cannot be more emotionally evocative–although I think those differences often are characterized in terms of gross simplifications that occlude more important continuities across media.  The point I want to make today is that both public and academic discussion has saddled photography with a highly unrealistic model of persuasion.  The assumption is that photographs are supposed to persuade, and any failure to do so then motivates increased ethical scrutiny of the medium.  This failure and subsequent scrutiny are most likely to occur when the stakes are highest, that is, with atrocity photographs.

This approach to photography relies on a particular model of persuasion, which can be summarized in three steps: The horrific image should create a direct encounter, that produces a moral shock, that produces a decisive effect.  The model seems intuitive because each of the three experiences does occur, and not only with photographs but also with language and other media as well.  We all have felt the intense connection that can arise in face to face argument or when engaged with a work of art; we all have been stopped in our tracks by a personal revelation or documentary photograph; we all have seen a statement of fact or a graph change the entire tone of a meeting, or watched a speaker turn an audience on a dime.  Persuasion such as this does happen, and it does happen with photographs.  But it happens very, very, very rarely.

To see that, just reflect on the rest of your experience talking with people, arguing at home or at work or anywhere else.  And consider how strange the world would be if the decisive effect happened all the time, and consider by contrast the enormous amount of energy and redundancy that are needed to get any kind of agreement on political issues.  “It takes time to turn a battleship,” “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and similar adages are much closer to the actual conditions of consensus.

Nor is this because human beings are stupid or morally lax (although we are).  We also are separate individuals living in pluralistic societies and democratic institutions, and highly constrained otherwise.  The result is that for each of the three ideal results to occur, a great deal also has to be in place.  When we do observe those dramatic transformations, a great deal already is in place–so much so, in fact, that we can take it for granted to the extent that allows to us think that the image or text or speaker alone is doing the work.  With atrocity photos the case is even more complicated, as the paradigmatic images continue to be the images from the Holocaust, which came out only after the need for action had passed.  So it was, and is, that we could experience the moral shock in almost pure form, without having to face questions of commitment and constraint.  (I am among those who was changed forever when first seeing those images in the 1960s, but I did not go to war against Nazi Germany.)  Images do persuade, but the range of effects is much wider and less immediately obvious than is typically assumed.

To return to the reports about Syria and North Korea, consider how neither photography nor written prose are the primary problem.  First, the news was not news.  We were told that brutal authoritarian regimes were in fact authoritarian and brutal.  (The use of stock images such as the one above for the North Korean story illustrate that point.)  In addition, the news reports were highly conventional.   Thus, instead of a direct encounter, redundancy.  Second, the atrocities were not news.  Crimes against humanity have been being committed relentlessly around the globe for too many years, making a mockery of “never again.”  Terrorism and state terrorism, genocide and “untethered” violence (to use Susie Linfield’s term), mass rape and permanent open air prisons: a muted response can have more to do with not being a fool rather than with moral exhaustion.  So, no moral shock.  Finally, what could be done?  The Syrian government already is being attacked by forces receiving support from many nations, only to replace it with a regime that could be as bad or worse.  North Korea sits on China’s doorstep and has nuclear weapons that can reach South Korea and Japan; not much to be done there.  So, no decisive action.

None of this assessment argues against moral and political engagement or for a status quo of doing nothing.  It does suggest that the political imagination is being held hostage to a myth of how public action should occur.  The model of direct encounter, moral shock, and decisive effect is that myth: it is relevant some of the time but taken to be relevant all of the time, which allows other elements of the social structure to escape accountability.  Instead of worrying about either the image or the spectator, perhaps we might ask instead just what and who else should have to answer for modernity’s continued entanglement with horror.

Photograph from Reuters.


Southern US Hit With Storm of Kindness and Humor

It was a disaster, all right: thousands of vehicles stranded; major highways closed; entire cities shut down in eerie silence.  Reminds you of the Congress, doesn’t it?  The conjunction of a major ice storm in the South and the President’s State of the Union speech is nothing but mere coincidence, but still, you might want to think about it.  In the one case, the paralysis is due to an unexpected swerve in the weather, and it will be temporary.  In the other, well, you know the story.  Oh, yeah, and the response to the natural disaster involved many examples of people helping one another.

Georgia highway kindness

I freaking love his photo.  The dude is walking down Interstate 285 in Dunwoody, Georgia to hand out snacks and water to stranded motorists.  Probably is a hedge fund manager, don’t ya think?

Just imagine, he’s gone out and gotten the stuff, loaded up his bags, and is trucking along the icy road to help complete strangers who he probably will never see again.  Nor is he a special case, as Rebecca Solnit documented in her study of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.  But he doesn’t have to be unique to be admirable.  His small act of kindness is what makes the difference between a harsh society and a decent one.

But kindness is not the only thing that is needed.  We also need art, and play, and those little moments of playful doodling that are the difference between taking yourself too seriously and enjoying life.

Alabama snowmen

Amidst all the anxiety, frustration, and fault-finding that naturally accompanies any disruption in our lives, someone in Mobile, Alabama had a better idea.  Again, the small scale is important.  No one here is changing the world.

They only are making it a better place.

Photographs by Branden Camp/AP and Lyle Ratliff/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.


Waiting for the Cosmic Bus at the Australia Stop

Of course the fire makes the picture, but it’s the silhouettes that have the most to say.  Which is interesting, as they are enigmatic.

Firefighters take part in a backburning operation near Bilpin, in the Blue Mountains in New South Wa

Silhouettes often are, which may be why they can stand for a dimension of photographic representation that we often overlook.  Behind the realism, there is a formalism that is especially important for visual meaning; and behind the detailed textures of specific people and places, there is embodiment of the impersonal poses and attitudes that structure social behavior.

This is not to choose one dimension of the image over another, but to respond as prompted by the photographer’s art.  And by working into the image along that path, interpretation can lead to much more than documenting circumstances.  Those circumstances may support reflection or become irrelevant for the time being (and only that), but they no longer are the primary content of the image.

So it is noteworthy that this is a photograph of firefighters in a backburning operation in New South Wales, but they could be in LA or Arizona or Greece or many other places.  And if the poses still have the traces of British clothing and deportment, that may be fact or conjecture, but there is no need to make too much of it, even for a joke.  Jokes to come to mind, however, and so the trace might be a good clue that something interesting is lodged there.  Stiff upper lip and all that, you know.  Say, do ya think the coach is due, mate?  Aussies will howl, but like I said, the details don’t really matter.

So what does matter?  That’s a double question here.  First, what matters in the composition?  The answer seems to be the stark contrast between the holocaust in the background and the calm, silent, reflective poses of the people in the foreground.  Keeping their distance from one another, staring in different directions, hands in pockets, each seems to be lost in thought, while all of them seem to be standing as if waiting for a bus or train, strangers on street or platform, nothing out of the ordinary, just another day in the life.  They stand as many stand while enduring the obligatory routines of traveling through impersonal public spaces, safe but not familiar with the strangers around them, biding time until they can get to where they are going, each on a private journey made possible by but still separate from what they have in common.

Even when what they have in common is territory on fire on a planet that is getting hotter every year.  Which gets us to the second sense of what matters, that is, what the photo is about.  The answer to this question takes us both closer to those in the picture and farthest from the actual circumstances of the moment.  More detailed knowledge of the scene probably would verify that they are a close-knit, well-trained work crew, that the fire (which they set) is under control, and that no one is at risk because of their skill, knowledge of the terrain, available escape routes, and similar precautions.  My take on the image moves away from all of that, to get closer to what is being shown.

What matters is that people can get used to anything, that Western culture will follow its commitment to controlling nature to the gates of hell, and that denial of global warming comes as easily as waiting at the bus stop because it comports so well with maintaining the routines which are among the few anchors we have in an era of rapid change.  So, we can wait for the cosmic bus to come and take us away to some better place, or we can turn and look around, and look at each other.

What matters in the world today is that people stop pretending that there isn’t a fire raging in the background.  The photo shows us just how close we can get while still in denial.  “Just a back burn; we’ve got this one under control; move along now, these aren’t the causes you want.”

Even the beauty of the conflagration is there to help: if we could at least recognize that, it would be step forward.  Fire is beautiful, but cinders–not so much.  Take a look, while you still can.

Photograph by Brad Hunter/Newspix/Rex Features.  FYI, for other posts on silhouettes, go here; on wildfires, go here.


Seeing the Past Through the Present (and Visa Versa)


I was about to turn eleven when the black and white photograph above was taken.  My family lived in East Orange, NJ, a half-step up the socio-economic ladder from Newark, where I was born and my father worked.  My best friend was Maurice and my parents referred to him as “your little colored friend.”  My grandparents had another name for him.  I wasn’t very interested in political matters at the time, my passions extending to baseball and the space program, but I sensed that something important was happening when Maurice’s grandparents loaded him and his sister on a church bus to take them to what they called “the march for freedom” in Washington, D.C..  When Maurice returned home it was all he could talk about for a week, but then our attention turned to other matters, like the hapless New York Mets.  Just before school started we agreed to become “blood brothers,” using a penknife to knick our thumbs and then let our blood mix.  Both our parents were livid.  The following year my parents moved our family to a distant suburb.  I remember hearing my father tell my grandparents that he wanted to get us “away from the wrong element.”

I had forgotten about all of this until it came back in a rush of memories after stumbling across the above photograph, part of Joseph Powell’s “Looking into the Past” project.    It is a testament, of course, to the function of photographs as aide memoire, but there is something else going on with this image as well.  Powell’s photograph relies on a visual trope we might call “then and now” as it calls attention to temporal differences and in my case the photograph not only invoked a racist tinged, nostalgic trip down memory’s lane, but it also made me think about how different (and similar) I am now from who I was in 1963.

More important than my personal memories, of course, is how we as a “people” remember and experience the relationship between now and then; after all, the photograph features the Mall in Washington, D.C., and if there is a visual marker for a national meeting place this surely has a pretty strong claim on it.  The most obvious tension in the photograph comes from the difference between black and white (then) and, so called, “living color (now).   But perhaps a more subtle and important tension is animated by the relationship of the container (the present) and the thing contained (the past). Differences in color tell us that one is past and the other more recent, but it doesn’t tell us how to read that relationship; locating the former picture within the frame of the later, however, suggests movement.  And more, it implies that the past should be read through the lens of the present.  To get the point, imagine the photograph as if the images were reversed, and the present was located within the larger landscape of the past.

Metaphors are important, and the key question here is not just what do we see when we look to the past through the lens of the present, but what does the lens invite or enable us to see in the present—or as with any optic, what does it restrict from vision?  In this photograph the black and white past (which references a society divided into black and white) is miniaturized by the expansive magnification of the landscape of a multicolored present (which references a multicolored society).  The implication is a somewhat liberal narrative of racial and national progress, perhaps even gesturing to that world where, in Dr. King’s terms, one is measured by the “content of their character” and not “the color of their skin.”  But there is more, for then race relations were the occasion of a national “moral crisis” and those populating the Mall were citizens demanding justice; but notice that in the contemporary, multicolored landscape there is not even the hint of political activity as the active citizens in the earlier photograph morph into passive and leisurely tourists.  Perhaps that is the world that Dr. King had in mind when he imagined his version of the American dream, but somehow I doubt it.

What is to be made of all of this?  That, of course, is where things get tricky, for the past is not necessarily a prelude to the present (or for that matter the future), nor is the present the only lens through which to imagine the past.  As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington there is an impulse to read the relationship between then and now as one of racial progress that remembers the past all too simply in terms of the present.  And that is a compelling narrative that has some merit, even as we acknowledge that we have miles to go before we might achieve anything like a truly post-racial, egalitarian future. But reversing the lens reminds us that any progress that was made was hard fought, achieved by the blood and sweat of the active citizens willing to take on significant individual and collective risk to serve a public good.  It asks us to consider the difference between then and now in terms of a much wider array of factors and outcomes.  And when we see the photograph this way it has to give us pause to wonder if the public that represented such important civic activity then has now gone into eclipse.  It is only a question, but it is one we ignore at some peril.

Photo Credit:  Joseph Powell


Andrew Fisher’s Images of Emptiness Beside the Seaside

One might ask why a public art would have a place for emptiness.

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Photography certainly does.  Whether looking across a Civil War battlefield, or at a road in the Crimea, or at the desolate streets and empty storefronts of urban decay, or at grasslands burnt down to dust by drought, scenes of desolation have played an important part in photography’s history.

One result is that it is easy to see another exhibition of empty places as verging on cliche; haven’t we been here before, and what is to be gained by looking again?  When the loneliness is part of an amusement park or boardwalk or beach, one can feel manipulated: isn’t it just a cold day or off season?  What’s to be learned when we know the people are just somewhere else and perhaps having a good time anyway?  Is the point merely to contrast the artist’s work from the Happyville aesthetics of commercial media?  That very likely is one motive behind a lot of documentary photography, but is that all we have here?

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These questions were part of my initial reaction when looking at Andrew Fisher’s exhibition, Beside the Seaside, but something else keep me looking a bit longer.  What I like about these images is that they don’t just show a degraded public space, even though the decay on the posts in the first photo hints at that.  What I get instead is a complex sense of public space that says several things at once: that pubic life requires a built environment, however minimal that might be; that minimal is often good enough, because of how much will happen simply by people being present to enjoy a bit of leisure in a largely uncoordinated fashion; how it really is about the people and how they can share a common space, something we can forget when dazzled by newer construction or when isolated in our places of media consumption; and how association can lead to abandonment of the place and of each other as people follow their different interests to go elsewhere; and how even that sadness need be only for a while and can become a basis for reflection and repose.

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So we need images of emptiness after all.  Public culture is not just a story of bustle, excitement, conflict, change, and progress.  It is all of this, but they all are prey to time, which is in fact something that Andrew is trying to tell us.  We experience the amusement or the conflict or any specific event as if it will always reverberate across our lives, and some do.  But there also is the down time, the emptiness, which was there before and will come again and is within us right now, always.  Sometimes it helps to see that.

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The Man Behind the Curtain


The run up to the coronation of Pope Francis this past week was a sight to see.  And I mean that in the most literal of terms.  For once we get past the litany of “firsts” – first non-European Pope, first Latin American (much, no doubt, to the chagrin of Fox News, who was surely betting on an American Pope, not a Pope from the “Americas”), first Jesuit, and so on – what becomes pretty clear is that what we are witnessing is the ritualized, modernist spectacle of the medieval appointment of a divine rights monarch.

Neither rituals nor spectacles are inherently problematic as a general matter.  But what is perhaps important to note in the hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs leading up to the puff of white smoke and then the new Pope’s first public appearance beneath the carefully prepared red curtain that shrouds the Loggia of the Blessings of St. Peter’s Basillica are the ways in which the ritual is colonized by modern mass media technologies to move backwards in time towards the re-feudalization of religious and political power and an era when the public had no visual presence at all. It is a spectacle of absolute sovereignty.

The photograph below is telling in this regard, as it is shot from the Pope’s eye view looking out upon the masses from his balcony.  Well above the people below and at some distance the Pope emerges deus ex machina, as through a proscenium arch; God’s lieutenant on earth, he simply appears as if from behind a curtain to be seen and little more.  Indeed, there is even the sense in which he need not be seen at all, as the ritual itself guarantees his divine appearance, material or not.

Medieval Spectacle Part 1

For all of its appeals to social justice, the modern Church remains a secretive, hierarchical, medieval institution, its political machinations hidden from public view, and so there is probably nothing all that strange about this.  It is not as if the Catholic Church has ever endorsed or contributed to the emergence of what Jüergen Habermas referred to as the “bourgeois public sphere” or the ensuing late modern politics that recognize the popular sovereignty of multiple publics.  What is odd, however, is how the contemporary western mass media have played along, emphasizing—and in its way, valorizing and endorsing— the ritualized spectacle of what has to be among the least democratic, western institutions to wield legitimate social and political power.

But for all that, the occasional photograph slips through to resist the dominant narrative and remind us that an active visual public persists and that such spectacles are often fictions contrived for our edification.  As an example, consider this photograph of a Roman Centurion, surely amongst the fiercest warriors of the ancient world, now consigned to hawking bottled water and roasted pork sandwiches made to your specifications in Rome’s Piazza di Pietra.

Roman Centurion

Rome and the Vatican are not identical, of course, but that this image has made its way into international circulation at the same time that the carefully calculated ritual and spectacle of Pope Francis’s impending enthronement are taking place and it should surely give us pause to consider what we have been seeing—at least on the public side of the curtain—and how we are implicated in it as spectators.

Photo Credit:  Eric Gaillard/Reuters; Alessia Paradis/ABACAUSA; Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

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Repurposing Public Arts

Statues of civic heroes are not placed in the town square to become splattered with bird shit, but that is what happens.  In fact, birds pay attention to the monuments long after human attention has faded.  Once the work has become part of the background of daily life–not to mention an antique artform–it takes a second act of dedicated looking to capture the initial sense of monumentality.  And even then, the birds can alter the visual effect.

Birds roost on the rifle of a statue of Benjamin Milam at dusk

You might say they’ve become part of the picture.  (You can see another example here.)  What’s remarkable about this photograph is how it captures simultaneously both the original intention of the art work and its mildly comic appropriation by the birds.  Indeed, it blends intention and use in interesting ways.  The defiant gesture is beautifully highlighted by the contrast between the dark silhouette and blue and grey sky, while the bird’s behavior also makes perfect sense, not least as they are spaced evenly almost as though part of the original design.

This blending of different perspectives (gun or perch) is reflected symbolically as well.  On the one hand, the doves could seem to be an implicit criticism of the martial citizenship that has been set in stone.  Instead of the Sturm und Drang of history, they seem to have admirably simple concerns.  Instead of battling for sovereignty, they represent another kind of liberty.  Instead of trying to make a statement in stone, they alight and fly away as they please.  And at the end of the day, it seems that war is trumped by peace.

On the other hand, that bird on the end almost seems to be shot from the gun, and one could say that war buys peace and liberty.  This monument in San Antonio to Benjamin Milam celebrates the Texan war of independence, and that political act might acquire the aura of natural law once it is seen as so easily coordinate with a cloudy sky, the symbol of peace, and an act of soaring into space.  If you don’t think so, just consider how opinions differ on gun laws.  The fact that this image appeared in a slide show during a time of renewed debate about those laws may not be entirely coincidental, and it may well capture a basic dilemma at the heart of that controversy.

Public arts can be used in more than one way.  Birds use the statue in ways not intended, and humans do the same.  More to the point, the artwork never has only one meaning, even at the moment of dedication.  No design can compel only one response, and the meanings vary because viewers vary.  The passage of time works in more than one way as well: the public artifact becomes increasingly part of the background, seen but not seen, while the society’s range of possible responses becomes ever larger and more complex.

Photography is a public art, and it records other artworks.  Thus, it is subject to all the problems that come with being placed in the public square, but it also can reactivate awareness of what can be seen and how we see in civic spaces.  I hate the word “repurposing,” but it captures exactly what has become a common habit of a media-intensive society.  Images and other fragments of public culture are continually being put to additional use that may go far beyond what was originally intended.  So it is that the image above need not be about the birds or the stature, but about what it means to look at a photograph.

Photograph by Eric Gay/Associated Press.


Public Witnesses to an Execution

Public hanging

There is something that is both ironic and perversely democratic about this photograph.  The location is Tehran Square in Iran and the people on the other side of the barricade are witnesses to a public hanging.   Many are photographing the event, some appear to be looking in anger or in anticipation, others reveal expressions of pain and grief or simply cannot look at all.  But all are public spectators to a state sponsored execution.

To understand the irony and the perversion you have to remember that there has not been a public execution in the United States since the hanging of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, KY in 1936, despite the fact that there have been 1,320 state sponsored executions between 1976 and 2013. The irony, of course, is that Iran is run by an autocratic dictatorship while the U.S. is an open democracy, but at least in this instance the former, it would seem, is far more open and transparent than the later.  Iran’s motivation is hardly democratic inasmuch as the purpose for the public spectacle is to serve as a brutal warning rather than to inculcate the legitimacy of its actions, and hence it is in this sense a perversion of democracy, but there is also something compelling about the idea that if the state is going to exact such punishments that the public—and not just a hand full of journalists—ought to stand in witness to the action.  We don’t endorse the death penalty at NCN, but the larger point here is that it seems fundamentally undemocratic to engage in such an extreme form of punishment outside of the public eye and apart from the full participation of the people.

If we think of the above photograph in cinematic terms as the “shot,” then this second photograph might function as the “reverse shot” or what the spectators are viewing.

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In Barbie Zelizer’s terms, we might call it an “about to die” shot.  But what makes it important for our purposes is how it captures the complexity of emotions that the spectacle of a public execution can put on display.  What is particularly telling is how even the hoods designed to conceal the identity—and not incidentally the affective responses—of the executioners are ultimately incapable of masking what can only be a moment of human compassion as the hangman on the left comforts one of the individuals about to meet his fate.  And one can only wonder if the reason we don’t have public executions in the United States is because we are afraid of letting the public witness the brutality of the punishment, or alternately, is it because we don’t want them to witness the displays of ambivalence of those responsible for performing their charge as executioners?

Photo Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi/Fars/AP; Amir Pourmand/Iranian Studewnts News Agency/AP



The Ghost in the Machine During Fashion Week

Fashion Week never ceases to teach me something.  And now that the week lasts most of the year as the shows blossom one after another around the globe, there is much to learn.  Not least about photography.


This image is from the New York Show last September.  Fashion isn’t timeless, but the photographer’s artifice has captured something about photography itself.  Perhaps the over-the-top artifice of the shows gave the photographer more artistic license than usual, for most would not intentionally overexpose the model that supposedly is the focal point of the event.  By focusing on the audience, however, the image both brings them out of the darkness while turning her into a creature of light.  Which she always was, of course.

But which is stranger: to see an all-white silhouette, or to see the act of spectatorship offered to view?  One answer is that both are strange, with the emphasis depending on where you want to go philosophically.  By focusing on the model, images of haunting come to mind, and one might recall how images of ghosts, fairies, spirit worlds, and other premonitions of life beyond death were a prominent part of the early history of photography.  Ultimately (but not completely), realism trumped that exercise in imagination, but photography has remained a medium in several senses of the word ever since.  As the bare outline of the model suggests, the camera is only capturing traces of what is there, with the rest to be supplied by the imagination.  Likewise, one can imagine how images are already within the camera, waiting to be released, and also floating unseen through the air, waiting to be captured.  Haunting is omnidirectional, I imagine.

But is there one ghost or many?  As the members of the audience are brought out of the shadows, we are reminded how they also haunt the camera: always there unseen and often unbidden, waiting for the image to appear.  Without the audience, there is no need for the image, so in one sense they have to always be there, unseen, as the potential force that allows the camera to flash.

They are more like us than any of us are like the model.  They double our viewing, as we do theirs.  I find the experience of seeing them seeing to be a bit troubling.  (If you want to get a good dose of the experience, sit through the scene in the film Amour when the concert audience is waiting for the performance to begin.)  We might ask why that is, but I don’t have time to consider that question today.  I’ll close instead by noting how much there is to see about seeing.

The gazes in the audience shown above are by turns appraising, calculating, desiring, distracted, bored, and more.  Some are extended into taking photographs, thus also doubling the act of taking this photo.  Photography is a study in plurality, extended further by its own reproduction, and ultimately about itself only when it is showing what it means to see and be seen.

Or perhaps I should have said, to see what often goes unseen, even during Fashion Week.

Photograph from the J. Mendel Spring/Summer Show, New York, September 12, 2012, by Andrew Burton/ Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.