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Mythic Visions in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is not only a difficult military mission, it’s also a hard war to report on as well.  And for the same reason: you have a modern army trying to subdue guerrilla fighters in a desolate land for no clear political purpose.  The deployment of heavily equipped troops provides continual demonstration of enormous organizational and technological power, but with no identifiable enemies, territorial objectives, or sound strategic rationale the sense of things seems to drain away into the vast, almost lunar terrain.  In these conditions, some photographers have managed to tap into mythic visions.

Afghan patrol, Gurkhas

This photograph of troops on patrol was captioned to report that they are soldiers of the Royal Gurkha Rifles and Afghan National Police on patrol in Helmand province.  That information tells you very little, however, and not enough to understand either the image or the war.  Instead of reporting anything of note, the image evokes the mythic theme that war is eternal, and like other forms of eternity, a place where something elemental about moral life is revealed.

The patrol is moving out, two by two, across featureless terrain into some unseen, unknown future.  One figure is stopped for a moment, and the profile allows us to see the burden he carries.  Although he is equipped with a radio, he seems caught in silence, as are the others, their thoughts to themselves while everything else is reduced to being silhouettes.  We don’t know where they are going, but in the myth it doesn’t matter.  The long grey line continues forever, and they are simply carrying the load for their brief time.  They walk through history into the unknown, as good soldiers always do and always will, ennobled by their simple devotion to duty.

Like I said, it’s a myth.  I won’t deny it entirely, but I will note that it can expand into full sentimentality because there is so little in its way, and because mythic significance becomes especially appealing when no other, more pragmatic rationale is available.  Whatever the photographer’s intention, something deep has been evoked by this image.  What could be a parable of military activity without purpose  evokes instead a sense that war is, if not an end in itself, something close to that.

Myths are used to make sense of large forces that exceed understanding.  Mythic allusions may be particularly available in images of Afghanistan because there is a deep need to make sense of something that is becoming increasingly senseless.  It has dawned on me that I now have several posts that identify various mythic projections infiltrating the optical unconscious: how the war is a form of extreme sport, or Afghanistan a new frontier.  In each case, media culture digs into its storehouse to put up images that imply some otherworldly yet familiar narrative.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think the image above does double duty in this regard, as it also could be a scene from a sci-fi movie where the heroes head out from their craft to explore a dry, unforgiving planet.  And so you can imagine my reaction when I saw this photograph:

Afghan night, stars

This photo of the night sky over Camp Hansen in Helmand province is a stunning image of the firmament, so much so that I can feel the pull to go there and see the heavens so close, bright, vast, and deep.  But I see something else as well: another mythic vision, this time from science fiction.  Camp Hansen could be perched on some distant planet, a small outpost of humanity now flung across the stars.   Across the stars, but still at war.

Photographs by Bay Ismoyo/AFP-Getty Images and Hyunsoo Leo Kim/AP/The Virginian-Pilot, thanks to The Big Picture.

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Photographs of Afghanistan: Orientalism or Critical Reflection?

Photographs can show us not only what was in front of the camera but also ways of seeing.  Two recent photos from Afghanistan each present a scene and at least two different perspectives on what is seen.  Although not representative of all the images being taken there, they can illustrate a dilemma confounding attempts to understand that distant country.

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The caption at the New York Times stated that “An Afghan police officer stood guard Thursday in Kabul during a campaign stop by Ashraf Ghani, a presidential candidate.”  But is it the policeman or his silhouette?  Are we seeing his shadow cast on a wall, or is it him with everything but his outline obscured by the intense contrast between darkness and light?  One can’t be sure whether we are seeing reality or a mirage.

This illegibility that comes from casting the Afghanis in darkness can be taken in at least two ways.  We may be seeing the continuing projection, as if a movie on the wall, of a colonial world.  The local (client) militia are there in our stead, complete with colonial cap and weapons supplied by the West, but they remain shadows rather than people, much less a force to be reckoned with.  Dark, ephermeral, and mere cutouts of the Western military they are imitating, they represent only the outline of civilization against a barren backdrop close to the state of nature.  Their culture is likewise located in darkness, signified here only by the enigmatic figure in traditional garb on the right–is he being guarded or merely a spectator?  Mystery and danger are mingled together in the darkness that hides those who, for whatever reason, avoid the light–and enlightenment.

The darkness will be cooler than the sun-blasted street, however, and the photographer could be showing us not only what was there but also how little we can know about it at a glance.  (The image will have been selected for its visual distinctiveness, of course, but that doesn’t solve the interpretive problem.)  In fact, the silhouettes (whether actual or apparent) present a more accurate corollary to the caption: we are seeing exactly that–an officer standing guard–and nothing more.  For the rest, you have to not only see more but know more.  Stated otherwise, you know almost nothing about “Ashraf Ghani, a presidential candidate” from this photo, or about anything else of the event it depicts.  Thus, the photograph does the neat trick of not only documenting what is there–which may include traces of colonial relationships still present today–but also highlighting our ignorance about what we are seeing.

In sum, the photograph presents one scene but two mentalities: Someone can see it through the lens of orientalism, where the exotic other is not quite real and so a blend of fact and fiction, mystery and danger, an object of fear or desire but never an equal; or one can see it with an awareness of the ignorance that comes from not being there, not knowing the language, and having to depend on this small fragment of an image to add to what meager knowledge we might have.  Nor does one have to choose which interpretation is most real–that would be like trying to determine whether one is seeing a person or his silhouette.   And, of course, if you have to ask. . . .

With that tension in mind, take a look at this photograph:

afghanis-in-kabul-cemetary

The Times caption identifies these figures as Afghans at a cemetary in Kabul.  And so they are.  And, as above, the adults (those wholly socialized into their culture) are black figures, unidentifiable save as types.  Like the seated figure above, they have their backs to the viewer.  Are they shrouded in their culture and still oriented toward the past, or are we being reminded of how little we know about this place and the people who love, grieve, live, and die there?

Photographs by Tyler Hicks/New York Times and Massoud Hossaini/Agence France-Presse—Getty Images.

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What We Dare to See

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A total eclipse of the sun is a rare phenomenon. In ancient times it was understood to be an omen or portent.  Herodutus reports that an eclipse halted a battle between the Lydians and Medes, noting that  “when they saw the onset of night during the day …[t]hey stopped fighting, and both sides became eager to have peace.” Would that it had the same effect in contemporary times.  Superstitions of one sort or another continue, of course, particularly in tribal and polytheistic cultures, but from the perspective of the so-called “modern” world an eclipse is a natural event that manifests what we might call the “sublime,” an awe-inspiring spectacle, simultaneously beautiful and foreboding; as a sublime object a total eclipse commands our attention even as we know that looking at it directly is forbidden lest we risk losing our sight altogether.  And more to the point, we almost always take the dare.

There was a total eclipse of the sun that crossed nearly half of the earth last week, cutting across most of East Asia from India to China and lasting for nearly seven minutes  And we looked.  Not directly, of course, but through various media that filtered our vision.  Those in the direct path of the eclipse relied on indirect projection, smoked glass, exposed slide film or x-rays, and all other variety of solar filters.  The rest of us have had to rely on photographic representations such as those available at The Big Picture to satisfy the desire to look at the forbidden object.

Viewing an eclipse through a camera’s lens or a view finder can be no less dangerous than unmediated observation (and maybe more so to the extent that it telescopes and magnifies the view), but that doesn’t seem to have deterred the various photographers who alternately took pictures of people viewing the eclipse and pictures of the eclipse itself.  Interestingly enough, pictures of the eclipse are divided into two categories, those that feature various stages of the eclipse itself without any external reference points (as with the photograph above) and those that locate the eclipse against the silhouette of various cultural backgrounds, such as in a statue of Chairman Mao in Hubei Province.

mao-eclipse

Such photographs are interesting allegories for the naturalizing mystique of photography itself: a technology that presumes to separate the viewer from the thing viewed at a safe distance, even as it creates the illusion of being there.  So we can presume to view (and in viewing to experience the “beauty” and “pleasure” of)  a solar eclipse—or other manifestations of the sublime such as wars and catastrophes—without the risk of wound or demise.  Of course here the silhouette of culture against nature emphasizes the illusion and thus reminds us of the real  distance from the thing we are viewing, both physically and technologically. What we need to remember is that photographs don’t always foreground their artifice, and therein lies the true risk in what we dare to see.

Photo Credits:  Saurabh Das/AP Photo; Stringer/Reuters

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We the People, One by One

The worldwide celebration of Obama’s victory has made it clear that this election was about much more than turning out the vote. Nothing less than the nation’s soul was on the line. Individual voters need not have seen it that way, but this was one of those moments when the collective significance of the outcome went far beyond any individual interest or conventional political preference. The US was at a fork in the road, and only one candidate even knew that was so. Because he won, the election brought people together again on the best of terms: committed to equality, justice, freedom, and a better future for all. Democracy in American seems to have proved itself once again.

I think that the outcome is even more remarkable yet. Here’s one reason why:

This photo is a particularly good example of the hundreds of shots that were put up on November 4 and the day after. The slide shows featured long lines of ordinary people with their coffee cups and other paraphernalia of everyday life, all waiting together as if one community. But they weren’t a community pure and simple, and this image shows why. The silhouettes capture habits that might be overlooked when seen directly: each person is standing apart as a single individual. The sharp shadows also feature details of individual preoccupation that emphasize the point: a cellphone, book, or magazine are in each case technologies for avoiding interaction with the person next to you.

There are good reasons not to have to talk to a stranger for three hours, and I’m not going to knock any of the things people do to pass the time. But we ought to note that photographs such as this one record the social habits of a liberal democracy, that is, a democracy that has developed sufficiently to make individualism second nature. These people typically will be strangers to one another, gathered together for only a few minutes every several years. Otherwise they live their own lives and, as Tocqueville noted almost two centuries ago, sever themselves from the community and willingly leave society at large to itself (Democracy in America, vol 2, Bk 2, chapter 2). According to Tocqueville, modern democracy doesn’t drive people to become a multitude, but just the opposite: to individuate to an extent that first “saps the virtues of public life” and eventually “attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in selfishness.”

Tocqueville’s claim can explain a lot of the habitual practices of American society, but not the election. The miracle of November 4 is that the majority of the voters affirmed a return to public virtues. They did so as individuals, as they is what they are, but they voted more than their individualism.

Our awareness that Americans are individuals rather than one people in shared solidarity leads to a second reason to appreciate what can be accomplished in a voting booth. Another of Tocqueville’s insights was that individual autonomy both elevates and dwarfs the individual. “When the inhabitant of a democratic society compares himself individually with all those about him, he feels with pride that he is the equal of any one of them; but when he comes to survey the totality of his fellows . . . he is instantly overwhelmed by the sense of his own insignificance and weakness” (2.1.2; and my apologies for the gender specific diction in the Reeve translation). In short, it is easy to recognize that your vote doesn’t count. A rational voter wouldn’t vote, and especially when one factors in not only the other voters but the enormous size, complexity, and power of the modern state.

I think this photo captures the paradox perfectly. Each of the voters is small, isolated, and surely incapable of matching the institutional power and inertia represented by the wall of the building behind them. That wall–complete with flag high above the rest, not to human scale–has all the features of governmental authority, impersonality, and indifference. And yet they vote as if they don’t know any better. Because they vote, democracy happens. It happens among strangers, among individuals devoted to living private lives, among people who have no power to speak of otherwise. It’s a miracle.

Photographs from huffingtonpost.com and Chang W. Lee/New York Times.

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And Where Have You Seen This Before?

This t-shirt is available for sale at Turntable Lab 04, a website that tailors to hip-hop DJs and producers. Take a close look at the silhouetted pattern? Does it look familiar? Have you seen it somewhere else before? Maybe an abstract painting in a modern art museum? Or in a Rorschach Test? Somewhere else? Click on the shirt to see where.

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Credit: In4mation; and with special thanks to Erik Johnson, Northwestern University for bringing it to our attention.

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"… the Shadow Knows"

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Last week over at BAGnewsNotes Michael Shaw featured a picture of President Bush leaving the oval office in preparation for a trip to Southern California to “view the damage done by the wildfires in Southern California.” Difficult to see in the predawn shadows cast on the West Wing of the White House, but nevertheless physically present, the president is pictured in sharp contrast to the brightly lit window of the Oval Office through which we see Vice President Cheney who apparently has stayed behind to handle whatever everyday business might need tending to – say the war in Iraq. The photograph was a poignant comment on who might actually be running “the show” in Washington, D.C. these days. There was a time when the president would stay close to the Oval Office during times of crisis, and the vice president would function as the official emissary of the White House, but in this image the roles are clearly reversed.

I was reminded of that image when I saw the above photograph posted at the New York Times this past week. Once again the president is leaving the White House, this time on a trip to campaign for a Republican senate candidate and to visit troops graduating from boot camp at Fort Jackson, SC. And once again he leaves via the west portico of the White House in almost the exact location as in the previous picture. But there are important differences that deserve comment.

First, of course, this later image is taken not in the early morning hours when darkness still shrouds the White House and when one would hardly expect to see a great deal of pomp and circumstance as the president moves about. Rather, it is shot in the light of day, sometime in the early afternoon judging from the length of the shadows. And yet the president is completely alone – no entourage, no secret service, no military honor guard. Indeed, he appears to be slinking off in broad daylight – which may in fact be what he is doing given the gravity of national problems and the partisan, photo-op purposes of his trip. In this instance there are no lights on in the Oval Office—it is completely dark— and so it is hard to know if anyone is attending to business at all. The key difference between the two photographs, of course, is that here we don’t actually see the president, but rather his silhouette, a gossamer-like presence that recalls the flickering images in Plato’s cave. And notice too that his spectral stature, relative to the door he has just passed, suggests that the man casting the silhouette is a mere shadow of his appointed, presidential self, certainly not someone who is apparently up to rigors of his high office. No longer even just an emissary for the White House, here he is reduced to a shadowy existence that borders on political nothingness.

The salience of this most recent rendition of Lil’ Bush is emphasized by contrasting it with a photograph of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, which appeared on the Washington Post website on the same day.

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Shot at an oblique and low angle, the image catches the hint of an LED screen in the lower right corner, thus foregrounding the political theater being performed. Normally we might imagine this as a somewhat critical move, but notice how it distinguishes this image from the picture of the president. The image of the president is shot straight on and without any attention to the camera capturing the scene; it thus implies an ironic realism to the image that underscores the fact that this is not George Bush playing the role of being president, here he is off-stage, and … what you see is what you get. A mere shadow.

But there is more. For while the Speaker is the focal point of the image, her presence looms large relative to the ceremonially adorned rostrum at which she stands—and notice that she is speaking, literally acting out her role for the American people, and as the caption tells us, in defiance of the president’s threat to veto a revised version of the SCHIP —her physical body actually occupies only the left third of the screen. Behind her, and dominating the remaining two-thirds of the image is a bank of six American flags. The pomp and circumstance altogether absent in the Bush image (thus again emphasizing the realism of the image) is here in spades. And just left of center is the shadow of the Speaker cast on the screen of flags. Her shadow is smaller than she is (just like Lil’ Bush), but here it appears with economy and force, situating her visually where she might prefer to stand politically – acting in the name of the American people, in the full light of day (or at least in view of the media), and in a decisive but moderate stance, again, just left of center.

There are numerous points that could be made here, not least the extent to which those of us on the progressive Left should feel more or less uncomfortable with the second image and the ways in which it blends speaker and nation, visually understating the row of flags (which really do seem excessive) displayed as the source of national identification and authority. But for now I want to call attention to how the “shadow” can function differently as a conventional, visual marker of power and presence, at once minimizing or maximizing one’s stature, inviting either alienation or identification.

Photo Credits: Matthew Cavanaugh/European Pressphoto Agency; Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg News


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Sputnik: The 50-Year-Old Dream

Today is the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Sputnik satellite:

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The launch is still seen as the official beginning of the Space Age. Doesn’t that term sound quaint today? “Grandpa, what was the Space Age?” Even so, the anniversary is an occasion for news stories, commemorative events, a documentary film, special (promotional) reports, retail products, and surely a joke or two.

NASA’s home page features presentations on the “50th anniversary of the space age” and on the history of NASA. Perhaps I’m over-reading, but I can’t help but think that the agency is a bit ambivalent about the occasion. Why, when it is their moment of origin? Because they have invested so heavily in “manned” space travel, rather than in the much less dangerous and much more cost effective “unmanned” technologies. Now that the space race is over and the shuttle program has become something like a children’s museum in the sky, that investment seems increasingly mistaken. Even the myth itself is shopworn: space is not the “final frontier,” astronauts are not explorers, science and technology are transforming life on earth rather than transporting it into space.

Dreams die hard, however, and I don’t like to be a cynic. So it is that this photograph caught my eye a few days ago:

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You are watching spectators looking up at the launch of the Dawn spacecraft, which is beginning an eight-year trip to the asteroid Vesta. There are no teachers on board.

This strikes me as a poignant photograph. It is an image shaped by alignments and contrasts. The craft named Dawn launches at dawn, nature and culture perfectly aligned to carry us forward into a bright future. As it escapes “the surly bonds of earth,” the contrail becomes ever more bright and pure–and distant. As the trajectory bisects the pictorial space on the diagonal, it likewise seems to ride the edge between sunlight energy and the cold blackness of outer space. As the craft arcs cleanly outward, it seems to leave cares, fears, conflicts, all forms of gravity behind.

And we are left behind. That, too, is represented in the picture. Against the bright escape of the machine, a group of human beings look up in awe. They are silhouetted, cast in darkness, as if made of the dark earth. We don’t see individuals but rather something like a group of hunter-gatherers, or perhaps Druids or some religious cult. We are reminded that they are moderns from the cameras being lifted up as if an offering. We see not a premodern cult but rather a camera culture hoping to snare an image. And that image is itself such a tenuous connection to the craft soaring out of sight. One machine surges away into a place we will never go, while a smaller machine only serves to accentuate how we far removed we remain from one kind of heaven.

The rocket launch begins in a darkened swirl of exhaust and soars to light. Those who have come to marvel at the technocratic sublime are left with little patches of light. Data flows back to NASA, and this is real science, also thoroughly human and likely to advance knowledge that can benefit life on earth. We don’t need to be on Vesta, and the machine will do the job. But it can do nothing to stop the yearning, while the camera can remind us that even as we dream of escape, we do so while living as human beings have always lived–sharing a common fate, bound to gravity and darkness, yet capable of joining together in a common life.  All are bound by the same limits, members of the same tribe.

I like the photograph for another reason as well, one that comes from comparing it to the file photo of Sputnik. In that image, we see only the machine, its metallic surface enhanced further by sharp black and white contrasts. It is a machine for a hard environment of energy and void, where neither death nor life have any meaning, only thrust, structure, data. The satellite looks self-sufficient, the epitome of modern design that in turn represents a technocratic future. Perhaps the commitment to lifting up astronauts was, in that context, a kind of humanism. If so, that moment also has passed. Now we stand as if in the second photograph. Our machines go not in advance of us, but in place of us, whether into space or into the ocean and the bloodstream. But they go for us, not as an end in themselves. After all, we are back in the picture.

Sputnik photograph from a NASA commemorative photo gallery; launch photograph by John Raoux/ Associated Press.


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Lil' Bush at Street Level

John has written about Lil’ Bush, referring to how the president is being photographed to emphasize a diminished stature; whether the reduction in size reflects his slide in the polls, a corresponding loss of political effectiveness, or continued moral decline may be in the eye of the beholder. John and I have each written on photographs that feature hands or feet while cutting faces or the rest of the body out of the picture. And last week I wrote about a striking illustration by Barry Blitt for the Sunday New York Times. Given these interests, imagine my reaction when I saw Blitt’s illustration in this Sunday’s Times:

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There he is, a real little Bush, surrounded by the many different shoes one can see in any New York City street scene. The illustration is a stand-alone piece, moreover, as it has only a very general relationship with the Frank Rich essay for which it is a visual caption. Rich presumes Bush’s loss of credibility and focuses on the administration’s strange PR strategy of hiding behind General David Petraeus. None of this is marked in the drawing.

So what is going on? Certainly the drawing does a fine job of cutting the president down to size. (To really get the point, look at the silhouette.) The contrast with the many feet brings in more as well: Bush and the other figures represent two versions of the body politic. Bush provides the standard image of the elected official speaking to the public. In that model, the official stands in for the office that represents the body of the people. He is a single person and they are a single, unified collectivity, as if a single audience within earshot of the speaker. Obviously, Lil’ Bush isn’t up to that job. And perhaps he shouldn’t want it anyway. Instead of the president’s stock gestures (note the prominent hands), canned speech, and failed policies, we see a variety of anonymous people representing different lifestyles, going about their business briskly in different directions, without getting in each other’s way. This is a different idea of the people–a plurality that need not be One, pluribus without the unum–because they already are members (note the pun) of a liberal, pluralistic civil society.

But liberal visions need not be innocent of violence. I think the image also evokes the fantasy that one of those busy feet on the crowded street might just step on Lil’ Bush and squash him flat. You can’t blame people for thinking–or drawing–that way, but this is one example of how even the reality-based community, feet solidly on the ground, needs to be reminded that there are no simple solutions.

llustration by Barry Blitt for the New York Times, The Week in Review, July 29, 2007.

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