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The Problem of Scale


I have been reading a good bit about “big data” lately (e.g., here).  The basic assumption is that when you expand the scale large enough last century’s concern with sampling as the basis for prediction becomes irrelevant, the value of accuracy or “rigid exactitude” is mitigated by the overall messiness of large data sets, and correlation becomes more important than causation.  The result is a capacity to see things we could never see before, such that algorithms based upon 45 carefully calculated search terms arrived at after processing 450 million mathematical models and based upon what individuals were searching related to “coughs,” “fevers” and the like allowed Google to pinpoint the path of a flu epidemic much more effectively than all the doctors in the world with tongue depressors and mouth swabs or the CDC with its wide ranging national networks of information.  We have always relied upon data, but “scale” it seems is the operative principle of the brave new world of judgment and decision making.

Scale, of course, has always been one of the things that photography marks particularly well. Animated by a technology that presumes a realist aesthetic, the photograph can call our attention to the relationship between large and small through the presentation of provocative comparisons and contrasts.  Consider the photograph above.  The caption notes that we are viewing the silhouette of a small jet cast against the background of a rising moon in Arizona.  The contrast in scale—the enormity of the moon and tiny speck of a jet—invites the viewer to consider the hubris in claims like “man is the measure of all things,”  or at the least it encourages us to recognize the irony in such claims.  But the photograph enables other considerations of scale as well.  As large as we know the moon to be, and as small as we know even the largest jet to be, the moon here might be seen to pale in the comparison; large, yes, but not so large that we can’t imagine blocking it out its view completely with relatively small number of jets.  And the point is, of course, that the value of scale is riven by the usages to which we put it and the questions we seek to answer.  This seems to be an attribute of the emphasis on scale that is always put on display by the particularity of the photograph, but is somehow too often  ignored or forgotten in the more abstract, quantitative representation of data.

And there is more, as the photograph below indicates:

Screen shot 2013-03-12 at 9.34.33 PM

Once again scale is the operative principle as large and small are juxtaposed with one another, as the large, former NBA basketball player dwarfs the little prince.  Or is it the other way around?  Does North Korea’s Supreme Leader dwarf the fading sports celebrity?  In the end, both readings of the image operate simultaneously such that the photograph challenges the particular meaning of scale by calling attention to the carnivelesque relationship between two public figures in ways that suggest that the stature of neither is very considerable.

Scale is important, to be sure, but it is best not to lose sight of the ways in which it always operates as an optic of critical judgment and in that register the data—big or small—is always subordinate to a more complex register of interpretation and usage.

Photo Credit:  Charlie Riedel/AP; North Korean Central News Agency via European Pressphoto Agency


Photography’s Theory of Action

It would seem that photography could not have a theory of anything: a theorem is a proposition or set of propositions that can explain a process, while a photograph is not a proposition at all and records only a single place in a single moment of time.  Theorems can be proved to be true or false, and if true they account for some pattern, relationship, or regularity that can occur more than once.  Photographs always show what they show, even if faked, and they are tethered to particularity.  The image below is not a theory of diving or swimming or falling bodies or winter rituals or anything else; it is a photograph of a man diving into a lake on a winter’s day.


Unless, that is, you want to actually think about what is in front of your eyes.  This remarkable image has captured something essential about the nature of action.  Whether defined as intentional motion, conduct to achieve a result, performance of a function, military encounter, or legal initiative, action involves throwing oneself forward into a space that is both known and unknown.  There is prior deliberation, the decision to act, the action, the experience that ensues, and the result, and all can be occur in a single rush of consciousness–something like entering the water of a winter lake.

Photography stops time to reveal each separate moment in the logical unfolding of an action.  Here the man is caught in to sheer act of acting: of throwing himself forward, suspended between past and future—between the prior time that led to this bold, decisive point from which there is no turning back, and the moment when consequences will suddenly, irrevocably exist.

As with the man’s silhouette, this sheer act is mirrored by the serenity of the smooth surface of the water, with just the faintest ripple of his leap beginning to show.  The calm surface will cease to exist in an instant, but in this moment it is a mirror that reveals not only the ephemeral nature of the act itself, but also the ability of the camera to create a silhouette above the water, and one that lasts long after the act itself have disappeared.


Of course, the man leaps to enter the water, and so the first image shows us something about to happen.  This second photograph is remarkable not because of the amazing physical skill of the man on the beach, but because of how it uses his yogic power to expose action in the moment that it is happening.  Paradoxically, his immobility shows us the soul of intentional motion: instead of being merely a falling body, he arrests motion to demonstrate bodily control.  The contrast with the beach chairs makes the point all the more clear.  They can stand there much longer than he can hold his position, but that is all they can do and they can’t even decide to do that.  They are inert matter, while he is the demonstration of embodied spirit.  Natural forces suffuse the scene, but his repose demonstrates a unique capability for action that is more than any natural force.

The photograph also works paradoxically: it’s ability to freeze movement seems unnecessary, as he will be almost perfectly immobile, but the ability of the camera is mirrored by his action, and so we are more than usually aware of how the moment of action can be extended, how long it can seem from within, how much concentration and effort can be present within what seems to be all flow.


This next photo takes us to what follows: the instant through which what is happening includes something unhappening.  The man is acting, moving forward, and although he seems to be surging through the fourth wall into our space, the camera has caught what is only a relatively routine activity.  He acts by rowing a boat on the Ganges, but the marvelous, world changing reality of action is revealed by the birds exploding off the water. They may be just reacting, but in doing so they and he together reveal the charismatic property of action.  It undoes whatever stasis that was, creating a second burst of energy.  He could be an eternal figure, but not Charon on the river Styx; no, he reveals how acting is a simultaneous making and unmaking of the world.  Like the diver, he moves into what is both known and unknown, but now we are more aware of how changes lie behind him as much as they are in the future.


And so we get to the last photo or a protester kicking in the glass of a commercial building in Barcelona, Spain.  This photo exposes everything at once by capturing a moment of perfect equipoise from which ferocious energies are being released.  This is the world shattering moment when the actor is both exploding into the future and being thrown back into the past.  This act of force acquires a multiplying factor, for action and reaction are perfectly paired processes, much like the protestor and his mirror image, joined at the point of impact and already falling away in opposite directions.  There was an ordered world, and then this moment of radical change, and then everything will continue to fall forward and backwards, into continual change not yet foreseen and past circumstances that may change very little except to be forgotten.

Photography is a medium that documents people acting and being acted upon.  The action itself often can be taken for granted while attention rightly turns to its motives or effects.  But action itself is a profound form of being in the world.  It may not be limited to human beings, but it defines them nonetheless.  Understanding action remains an unfinished task for philosophy, but it also might benefit from paying more attention to photography.

Photographs by Petar Kujundzic/Reuters, Ariel Schalit/Associated Press, Zach Gibson, Juanfra Alvarez.  Gibson and Alvarez are the first two photographers featured in an excellent Big Picture exhibition of Photojournalists Under 25.


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.


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.



Watching Men About to Die in Aleppo

We typically forget that photography–and life itself–happens faster than the blink of an eye.  And death, too.

The camera caught these Syrian rebels at the instant that they were bathed in fire from a tank blast.  The moment is uncanny: they stand exactly as they were a a split second before, and yet the fire and shock wave is already unleashed upon them.  Before, they had been picking up their weapons in anticipation of the tank that had been reported coming into the vicinity.  Now, they are caught in the fraction of a fraction of a second before being killed.  It’s as if the camera has isolated the invisible crack in time between cause and effect.  And between life and death.

The men caught in the light died from the blast, while the one darkened to a silhouette escaped with minor injuries (if we don’t count the psychological damage).  The camera uses both light and darkness, but there as elsewhere we depend most upon the light.  Yet here the flames both reveal and kill, while the dark clouds of dust and debris in the next image obscure the rest of the dying while sparing the lone survivor.  (The sequence of still images and a video are  here.)  As with war more generally, things are inside out or backwards, defying our ordinary sense of moral order.  Being in the right and dedicated and prepared didn’t help one bit, and men who seem to be living in the fire without harm are about to die.

I won’t pretend to account for all of this incredible photograph, much less the remarkable sequence of images that comprise the visual story.  Discussion is already underway–for example, at Michael Shaw’s prompting at BAGnewsNotes–and there are a number of issues in play.  For the record, I don’t think there need be any moral failing in showing or marveling at or being moved by the image.  The men and the moment are treated with respect, nothing disturbing beyond the inescapable fact of their being killed is shown, and that fact is so salient that there is little room to aestheticize the violence.  In any case, one set of moral qualms can displace other resources for understanding and judgment.

To that end, let me make two quick points.  The first is simply that the image is a perfect example of what Barbie Zelizer has identified as the genre of the About-to-Die photograph.  I won’t summarize her extensive analysis of the genre, which you can read for yourself in her excellent book, About to Die: How News Images Move the Public. Suffice it to say, however, that there have been many images that confront the public with this unique moment, and that they can offer the spectator an opportunity to reflect on the event itself, and on how it is or is not tied to the narratives and other interpretive contexts that surround it, and how our knowledge and reactions depend on the camera and the larger apparatus of the news, whether for good or ill.

One can ask these questions any time, of course, but some moments seem more fraught with significance than others.  One reason the about-to-die photo matters is that it reveals how any moment can be incredibly significant regardless of how it fits into a larger narrative, geopolitical conflict, or moral order.  There is no other moment left for those in the photograph above, and by ignoring it one would demean life itself.

My second point is that the image above has both literal and metaphorical value, not least because of how it exposes a moment of unexpected rupture.  I’m writing in the immediate aftermath of the attack on American consulate in Libya, and so it is easy to think of a flash point, and of the world changing in an instant, and of specific individuals going from life to death senselessly.  With each of the four Americans who were killed at the consulate, there will have been a moment and then another and another where things went from bad to worse, until each got to the last, thin crack in time.  With each attack, wherever it occurs, nations around the globe pass through a moment when hidden causes explode violently, and the idea that we can live within the flames is exposed as sheer illusion.

Photograph by Tracey Shelton/Global Post.


Flying Through Photography’s Fourth Wall

I doubt that any title can quite capture the aesthetic intelligence contained in this photograph of an artwork by Arlés del Río at the 11th Havana Biennial.

I’ve referred to the fourth wall in order to highlight some of what the photographer has added to del Río’s remarkable installation.  The wall refers to the formal barrier between stage and audience in the theater, and by extension between the artwork and audience in any work of fiction.  The term is rarely applied to photography, which instead is assumed to either directly reproduce reality or immerse the spectator within visual experience.  By contrast, this photograph clearly discriminates a series of viewer positions in regard to both the artwork and the photograph: the direct, embodied, even imitative response; the more distant act of recording the event with a camera; and the still more distant act of viewing the photograph.  Each spectator is set out in a spatial array along the central axis–just off center right, back and further right, and then further back to center for your standpoint–and so you are oriented directly toward the art work but also zigzagging toward or away from it through these other viewers.  Thus, a question arises: you can see what they are doing, so what are you doing?

But perhaps this is backwards, for I have described the photographer’s framing of the scene in place of its central object: del Río’s artwork. And what a work.  The plane’s silhouette cuts through the screen with terrifying force–indeed, it is the presence of terror as it evokes the image of those planes hurtling into the twin towers on September 11, 2001.  The poles at the center of the screen make that point emphatically, for they need not be there and so remind us that in place of an ethereal image real aircraft collided with buildings of steel and glass.  Because this plane is but an outline and air, it becomes a ghostly sign of all that now is gone forever, from the planes to the buildings to the people within.  In the artwork, however, the plane both hangs in the air and has already cut into the wall of the building.  It is just at the other side of impact and already past that point, barreling past us in an invisible fireball.  We see a provisional structure of concrete blocks and metal fencing, and an impossible compression of time and space, and a terrifying emptiness.

But is it really a 9/11 image?  No one actually saw the outline of a plane cut into one of the towers–that image is entirely reconstructive.  Likewise, the woman entraining her body with the outline is being playful, not mournfully commemorative.  She seems to be channeling her inner child, as if running around the yard imagining that she’s a plane, although now also with something of the dancer’s body sense of weights, ratios, and coordinated movement that is available to an adult.  She imagines not horror but the beauty of flight, and perhaps also its fantasies of adventure, liberation, or transcendence.  By showing one viewer’s response, the photograph reminds us that meaning is characterized by plurality.

And what of the woman behind with the camera?  Whatever her attitude, it is confounded by the much more prosaic act of taking the photograph.  And is she trying to record the artwork or her friend’s imitation of it?  (Thanks to cheap imaging technologies, tourists now regularly play this life-imitating-art game in museums, as when kids will act out a sculptural tableau for the camera.)  Because either photographer could have taken a picture of the artwork alone, we have to assume that they are intending to foreground viewer responsiveness.  But is the artwork just a pretext for a little play in the performance of everyday life, or are art and audience being brought into view in order to question what they have in common?

And what about you?  The photograph clearly creates a space for the viewer: that is, it points backwards toward the space inhabited by the viewer.  In fact, each of the positions becomes calibrated as what we might call degrees of separation: the artwork from the reality it represents, followed by the direct response, followed by the documentary response, followed by the mediated response.  What is more important, however, is how the image can simultaneously mark and collapse those distances.  Photography has a fourth wall, but like del Rio’s artwork, it also can remind us that the task of art is not to reproduce the direct encounter.  Photography works by making things present, but also by evoking what is absent; by bringing things closer, but also by maintaining the distance needed for reflection.

Photograph by Jose Goitia for The New York Times.  The artwork Arlés del Río is entitled “Fly Away.”

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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The Silent Erasure of Executive Order 9066

Tule Lake, Minadoka, Heart Mountain, Grenada, Topaz, Rohwer, Jerome, Gila River, Poston, Manzanar: their names should be etched on our national consciousness as a reminder of how quickly fear can blind us to the “better angels of our nature” and activate the dark side of our democratic sensibilities.  But of course they are not; indeed, in all but a few cases the names are barely recognizable.   This week marks the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, President Franklin Roosevelt’s ignominious decision to “relocate” some 110,000 Japanese-Americans—over two thirds of whom were U.S. citizens—in the ten internment camps listed above and scattered throughout the western portion of the nation.   Roosevelt signed the order on February 19, 1942, and that the national media has chosen not to acknowledge the occasion of its anniversary only compounds the original tragedy by contributing to the erasure of its memory.

The photograph above was taken twelve years ago at Manzanar, a relocation camp located five miles south of Independence, California—the irony of its name should not escape us—and home to over 10,000 interned Japanese-American residents. The rusted and bent barbed wire that frames the landscape, emphasizing the wide open spaces and the big sky, is at home in the American west where it was a tool used to establish the boundaries of land ownership in an expansive frontier, and to contain and control cattle or other livestock.  Ordinarily such a framing of the landscape would not warrant a second look as perhaps anything more than a photographer’s affected representation of the relationship between nature and civilization.  But here, of course, the barbed wire is not a tool of civilization but a weapon of war, its purpose to imprison a race of people whose only crime was that they didn’t quite look like “us” and whose ethnicity identified them with a country that was at war with the United States.

When located in relationship to its proximate political history the focus invites us to shift our attention from the background to the foreground, from the majesty of the sky and the distant mountains to the violent protrusions of the barbs, from now to then. While all else seems to have been erased—the stables that were initially used to house humans, the eight guard towers that surrounded the compound and provided twenty-four hour surveillance, and indeed the compound itself—the barbs, cast almost but not quite in silhouette, linger as a twisted reminder of our own violent and unjust past, of what once was and risks being again if only because it risks being no more in our collective, public memory.

Photo Credit: Getty Images North America

Manzanar is now a national historical site maintained by the National Park Service.


The Human Form: How Much for that Image in the Window?

Photography’s subjects include the other visual arts along with their institutions such as museums, theaters, galleries, shows, festivals, and auctions, and their modes of spectatorship such as gallery tours or 3-D movie audiences.  So it is that occasionally the daily slide shows include images such as this one.

A woman is walking past an artwork at the 2011 Armory show in New York.  It is significant that she is shown in silhouette, that the photograph’s caption didn’t include the name of the artwork or artist, and that both spectator and artwork are framed in black.  Art and spectator are unified by a shared darkness, which also places them in a figure-ground relationship.  She is tied to the artwork even though not looking at it (she is walking by as if it weren’t even there to be seen), and it becomes the vehicle for revealing her presence (as if it had been designed for that purpose).  Neither inference is true, yet that is irrelevant to the photograph’s artistic effect as it is viewed by another, unseen spectator: you.

Way back in the twentieth century, it was easy to speak of the human person ensnared in structures of alienation, and to believe that the art could expose that alienation.  One could read this image in that way, but, well, the colored panels are just too bright, and the human form is not so much trapped as simply passing by.  By featuring both the jawline and the tightly bound ponytail, the silhouette has a decidedly anthropological cast.  She seems to be almost primitively human, as if part of one of those 19th (and 20th) century “ascent of man” pictures that were a centerpiece of evolutionary anthropology during its racist and sexist heyday.  But isn’t she going in the wrong direction?  Yes, and that is one reason we can assume that the old hierarchies no longer apply.  But what is going on?

The answer lies in the artwork behind her.  She is carrying her culture with her while passing through the historical corridor of modern art, while the art seems both more vibrant and the more enduring structure.  Its form imitates the bar code or other modes of systematic information display as they are designed for machine processing.  She is not so much alienated by that information as simply different from it; not so much alienated from the rectilinear code as the life form that is symbiotically related to it.  She is a human being while it is a human design, yet she is relatively primitive as it no longer needs her input while being more directly transferable across the  domain of information systems.  (Consider which one is easier to reproduce.)   As one of its tertiary functions, however, it provides the lighted background so that she can remain visible.

And remaining visible may be a gift worth having.  This image from the Shenyang stock market was taken far away from the Armory show, yet it uses a similar artistic repertoire.  The human figure is caught, albeit only in silhouette, as it is passing across a lighted data array.  The gauzy screen that is partially visible provides a nice artistic touch, suggesting a medium in both the technological and spiritual senses of the term.  Again, however, the mood can’t be fraught with angst: true, this time the colored columns are somewhat intimidating, as if in a dream that is going bad  (the blurry numbers tower above him while an alarming red band cuts across the screen at waist level), nonetheless, he is a happy fellow, smiling brightly as it hurries along.  As he is going in the same direction as the woman above, we might wonder what is there, off in the back lot of the march of progress?

More to the point, however, we might ask what value there is in highlighting the human form in a very modern world.  Both the stock exchange and the Armory show are marketplaces, and the human figure thus acquires not only aesthetic but also economic significance.  Photojournalism, which seems resolutely dedicated to realistic documentation of people and places, also can provide a different artistic platform for thinking about larger questions of how humans can inhabit the markets and other impersonal information systems that constitute modern life.

Artworks in their own right, photographs such as these can raise good questions about the human image, and, with that, about our place in a strange world of our own making.

Photographs by Timothy A. Clary/AFP-Getty Images and Tian Weitao/Xinhua-ZUMAPRESS.com.


Cast in the Shadows of War

The battle between pro- and anti-democratic forces in Cairo has directed attention away from the fact that the U.S. continues to have nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting the longest war in our nation’s history.  The cost of the war to the U.S. is approximately $119 billion dollars annually, a small enough number in comparison to our $3 trillion dollar budget perhaps, but somewhat ironic in comparison to the GDP of Afghanistan which is approximately $14 billion dollars.  And let’s not forget the 499 Americans killed in action in 2010, as well as the thousands of civilian casualties that seem to increase with each year of our military presence.

President Obama has promised that we will begin to bring troops home in July 2011, which implies a winding down of the occupation.  But there is plenty of evidence to indicate that we will remain in the shadows for a long time to come.  So, for example, neo-cons like Senator Lyndsey Graham have been calling for U.S. military bases in Afghanistan “into perpetuity,” while recent reports from the Pentagon suggest that troop reductions this summer will come from staff positions and support personnel but, “there won’t be any combat forces cut.”  One might say that all of this leaves the American public “in the dark.”

The above photograph is of a patrol of U.S. Marines in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province but it might as well be an allegory for American presence in Afghanistan.  There is no telling if the sun is rising or setting, whether the day is beginning or ending, and so too it would seem with the U.S. occupation. Deep shadows shroud the entire scene in an eerie darkness, offset only by a distant light that seems well beyond the grasp of the forward most soldier.  Indeed, the prominent linear perspective of the line of soldiers receding to the horizon gestures towards an infinity (or is it perpetuity?) that extends—as if an optical illusion—every time we appear to get close to it.  And more, notice too how those shadows literally absorb the soldier’s silhouetted bodies, suggesting that they are inexorably fused with (or is it mired in?) the landscape. The rewould seem to be no exit from this situation

The silhouetted bodies seem to operate in a second register as well, for it is impossible to identify the soldiers in the scene as anything but soldiers.  The soldier in the close foreground is indistinct from those fading into the infinite distance, as well no doubt as those who follow behind him.  Each is like the next, and the only thing that really stands out are the weapons they are carrying.  The irony here is pronounced by the caption that quotes the platoon leader who says “We’ve definitely had a lot of progress because we do so many patrols, we get out, we put our faces out there.”  It may be that success requires winning over “hearts and minds,” but for a country that has known almost constant war and occupation for decades, if not centuries, there is little doubt that those faces are anything more than markers of an alienating otherness, metaphorically shrouded in darkness if not literally so.

There is a third register in which the image works as well.  If you look closely you will notice that the soldier in the immediate foreground appears to be turning backwards and looking in the direction of the camera.  His face is obscured by the darkness, of course, but it is not impossible to imagine that he is making eye contact with the viewer who is equally positioned in the darkness that seems to extend beyond the bottom front of the image.  That eye contact would imply a demand of recognition.  It is hard to say what that particular recognition might be, but it is no less hard to imagine that it would imply a measure of complicity from which it will be very  hard to extricate ourselves.

In short, the photograph seems to be a reminder that the current war in Afghanistan casts deep shadows that obscure what we are doing there and make it very hard to imagine that we will ever get out without a marked and unmistakable effort of will.  Whether the current administration is caught in the shadows or is helping to cast them is not yet clear.

Photo Credit: Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images


Violence, Art, and Politics

H. Rap Brown once famously remarked that “violence is as American as cherry pie.”  Brown was challenging dominant myths, not least the idea of America’s providential exception from the dark side of history.  Now that America has become a major exporter of violence, Brown’s statement may seem antique.  Myths die hard, however, and it remains difficult to say who might make people stop and think about the production of violence today.  One place to look is an installation by Yoko Ono in Berlin.

Yoko Ono, A Hole Das Gift

This photograph captures the artist posing behind her artwork entitled “A Hole.”  Perhaps the work need not appear to be a bullet hole, but it certainly becomes that when backed by the blood and black silhouette of her head.  It’s easy to fault Ono for putting herself in the front (even when in the back) of her art–Is at all about her?–but I think that is mistaken.  She and the photographer have created a moment of near-perfect performance, one that captures the deadly allure of the aestheticized violence in its mass market forms of detective fiction, Noir and action films, and even high fashion.

The image is a set of contrasts (of course): shimmering surface and dark depth, centrifugal dispersion across a plane and the concentrated energy of the human figure, obliteration and the human face, a circle of nothingness where a person should be.  Add to this the tension between the formal elegance of the composition and the shattering force at its center, and violence seems to become an aesthetic achievement.  If so, one might recall Walter Benjamin’s prophetic observation that humankind’s “self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.”  That may be, but one also could consider that the photo is highlighting some of the design elements of how that already has happened, not here, but elsewhere: in the movie theater, for example, or the nightly news.

It takes nothing away from the artist to note that the art can reveal only some of the truth of a complex reality.  So it is that the artistry of the image ought to be balanced by another photograph, one that may be thought of as looking at the same thing from the other side.

Yasin Malik & crowd

This image is more conventional than the photograph from Berlin but an artful study in violence nonetheless.  Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front leader Mohammed Yasin Malik stands in front of a crowd of supporters in Srinagar, India.  There are no bullet holes or other overt signs of violence here, yet the scene is all about violence and the potential for violence.  The liberation movement represents one side in a long-standing and often violent conflict over Kashmir; the crowd is protesting brutal crowd control measures by Indian government forces that have included killings; the crowd itself is capable of becoming a mob (such is one source of crowd power and its frequent definition by the state); and the leader could both unleash violence by the crowd or revolutionary fighters and be himself a target of assassination.

Here Politics mediates violence just as Art did above.  In each case actual violence is off stage, but its presence can be felt powerfully.  In the first photo, the violence is completely artificial but visible; in the second, it is implicit but leads directly to actual deaths.  Both are moments of performance, with the artist remaining hidden and the politician exposed to public scrutiny: and yet both are enigmatic, as you don’t know the artist’s opinions on the subject, while the political leader looks by turns hard, worn, calculating, concerned, and both a man of the people and yet set apart and isolated by his role.  In the first image, the scene is nowhere and anywhere there is a cinema; in the second, the urban masses of the Global South are paired with a figure who could be stepping out of Shakespeare.  Put the two photographs together, and Malik becomes the figure behind the hole made by the assassin’s bullet.

In the first image, the spectator could be the assassin; in the second, it could be the state.  It remains unclear whether that is much of a difference.

Photographs by Hannibal Hanschke/EPA and Mukhtar Khan/Associated Press.

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