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When Cotton Was King

Memory32

Photographs serve many purposes, not least witnessing and memory. Here we have a photograph of a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta near the town of Money. But what is being witnessed or remembered?

You probably have never heard of Money, Mississippi, but you probably have heard of Emmett Till. An African American born in Chicago, he visited relatives in Money at the age of fourteen during the summer of 1955. While there he allegedly “flirted” with a married woman—a white, married woman—in a local grocery store. And for that “crime” he was stripped, beaten and shot in the head, his face mutilated beyond all recognition, and his bodied tied to a cotton-gin fan and deposited in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral and the now famous photograph of the disfigured Emmett Till appeared first in Jet magazine before being picked up by the mainstream media. The two perpetrators—Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam—were found “not-guilty” by an all white jury who deliberated for less than an hour in a segregated courthouse in nearby Sumner, Mississippi.

One might imagine that a contemporary photographer seeking to memorialize the lynching of Emmett Till might photograph the dilapidated grocery store—or its historical marker—where Till violated the rigid codes of the Jim Crow South, or perhaps the spot on the river where Till’s body was eventually discovered. Or maybe even the Sumner, Mississippi courthouse. Instead, Andrew Lichtenstein chose to photograph a nearby cotton field.

It is hard to know if the sun is rising or setting here, but whether you imagine that the camera is facing east or west there is no question that cotton is cast within a metaphorical timescape. The sun is either setting on cotton and hence a reminder that by the 1950s the economy that relied upon it was in full decline, or the sun is rising on it, and a reminder of the new day soon to be be ushered in by the nascent Civil Rights Movement. In either case, the photograph of a cotton field in Money, Mississippi is a poignant testament to the fact that while Bryant and Milam lynched Till and tied his body to a rusted cotton-gin fan, it was truly cotton—and the economic and social order that it animated—that killed him.

Andrew Lichtenstein, Forgotten Moments

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Remembrances of Things …

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We take lots of photographs these days. Photojournalists account for thousands every day and hundreds of thousands every year, but their output is dwarfed by the number of images taken by non-professional, most taken with a mobile device like a phone camera. The photograph above shows a printout of the photographs uploaded on Flickr in a single 24 hour period in 2011 and the number of images taken in a given day surely exceeds what we see in this one photograph.

There is nothing particularly new about taking lots and lots of photographs. We have been doing this for nearly a century since the camera became an affordable commodity and Kodak convinced us that it was a necessary accouterment to bourgeois life. The so-called “digitial revolution” has made taking photographs easier, not least because just about everyone carries a mobile camera of some sort, but also because photographs are now simpler to produce and to circulate—the darkroom is now an antiquity and the family photo album has been replaced by a website of one sort or another. It is thus a bit odd that some bemoan the new found abundance of photographs, such as we find in a recent NYT Style Magazine article titled “Remembrances of Things Lost.”

In the most general sense the complaint is not new. The reliance on photographs will undermine our capacity for remembrance. This, of course, was Plato’s protest against writing (see his Phaedrus) and which has resurfaced over and again across the millennia with the development of each new technology of mediation and representation. And, of course, it is at the core of the iconoclastic critique of photography that we can trace in almost a direct line from Baudelaire to Susan Sontag. And, equally of course, it is wrong—or at least grossly simplistic. Yes, changing technologies alter the ways in which we practice and experience memory. The shift from orality to literacy is a case in point, but what was lost was not memory per se, but a particular way or register in which memory was practiced and understood. And the same could be said for every subsequent development of a new technology or medium of representation. The bigger problem, however, is not that photography – digital or otherwise – has undermined our capacity for remembrance, but that the mindless repetition of this argument underwrites a critical discourse of photography that minimizes—if it doesn’t miss altogether—the power and capacity of the medium to help us think with and through such images as we encounter the problems and possibilities of modern life. And this is not least with respect to how the present—which in some measure is the only thing we can actually photography—functions to help us to (re)member the relationship between the past and the future in powerful and provocative ways.

Consider, for example, this photograph published on the front page of the NYT—both print and on-line—on the same day as the above article lamenting the loss of remembrance animated by contemporary photographic practices.

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Captioned a “shrine to defiance,” the photograph shows a small bungalow in Seattle that seems to have stood in the way of progress. Hemmed in by high rise buildings that all but touch its outer walls, and otherwise bordered by a busy public thoroughfare, the house is altogether out of place—and out of time. It gestures to a past – one can imagine a row of such houses that once stood here – even as it points to the inevitable future that will soon be upon us as modernity move relentlessly forward. But it does so with an interesting edge. Notice that it is the bungalow that offers up the slightest hint of color—of individualism—in an otherwise and uniformly muted, almost black-and-white world. It will not survive for long, at least not in that space, but what the photograph testifies to is the fate of the unique individual in an increasingly modern society where progress refuses to stand still. But more, it also invites consideration of the tension between a more colorful past and a more uniform, colorless present, and to the tint and tone of the future that it portends.

In short, this second photograph complicates our sense of what it means to remember and how we do it, and it does so in a powerful way. Not every photograph will do this, of course, but the potential is there and enough will achieve that potential that it is a profound error to repeat a tired argument about how the medium is a problem for remembrance without also emphasizing its powerful affordances otherwise. Our photographic practices have changed over the years—and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to do so in the years ahead; the more important point is that it is long past the time at which we should change the ways in which we talk photography as a cultural practice and phenomenon so as to understand it as the important mode of public art that it is in all of its forms.

Credit: Erik Kessels/Foam at Amsterdam; Ian C. Bates/NYT

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Masking the Solitude of Self

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The “signature injury” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). According to the DOD, and by the very most conservative of estimates, nearly a quarter million U.S. military personnel have been diagnosed with TBI since 2001. Typically caused by close proximity to a “blast event” generated by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), there are “no known” ways to “prevent it”—there is no body armor that can protect the brain from the successive waves of the blast—and there are no known cures for its array of effects, including “headaches, seizures, motor disorders, sleep disorders, dizziness, visual disturbances, ringing in the ears, mood changes, and cognitive memory and speech difficulties.” And, of course, it is no stretch to imagine that it is connected in some measure with the near epidemic of suicides among soldiers and veterans in recent times.

What makes the injury especially tragic is that unlike war injuries that visually maim the body, TBI is an altogether invisible wound. A victim of TBI can look as ordinary and able as the average person you are likely to meet on any given day, the pain and disorientation that they experience a wholly internal private affair. And as with the horror of combat more generally, the injury exacerbates the effects of a kind of psychic aphasia that makes it impossible to express their feelings. At the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, victims of TBI are encouraged to create masks that put a face on their injuries and thus to give some voice to what they are experiencing.

The photograph above is of Marine Cpl. Chris McNair (Ret.), injured in Afghanistan in 2012. His mask is modeled after the “muzzle” that he came across in a photograph of Hannibal Lecter that he found on the internet. “That’s who I was,” he notes. “I had this muzzle on with all these wounds and I couldn’t tell anybody about them. I couldn’t express myself.” The analogy to Lecter is telling in two different senses. On the one hand, Lecter is a fictional character who displays refined culture and civility, and yet is capable of somewhat unpredictable outbursts of extreme violence making him incredibly dangerous … much like many of the victims of TBI. On the other hand, Lecter has been muzzled so as to protect us from his anti-social transgressions … much as we have created a public discourse that “muzzles” the wounded warrior as a pitiable survivor—”there but for the grace of God go I”—whose pain and injury we view from a distance but which we really don’t want to get too close to.

The photograph above is especially revealing in this last regard, for it underscores how isolated the wounded warrior is as a singular individual, marking his pain and his struggle as altogether alienated and private. Clothed impeccably in his dress blue uniform, his campaign medals on display, his brass buckle sparkling, he is the heroic warrior, but he sits alone on a swing on his front porch. He remains the soldier who sacrificed for his nation, but he must confront his pain and suffering by himself and in the most domestic of settings, wholly segregated from the public who sent him to war in the first place. While the mask purports to give voice to his inner pain, it also makes it possible for us to observe him (from a distance) without actually seeing him.

And therein lies the problem, for however well intentioned art therapy projects of this sort are—and I have no doubt that they are well intentioned—they also underscore the public stigma that we attach to the victims of such injuries, as well as the implicit assumption that the “cure” to their injuries is private and individual — more their personal burden to bear than a shared public trauma. Until we can find ways to overcome both the stigma and that assumption it will be nearly impossible for such victims—or for us as a nation—to every truly be healed.  And that may well be the biggest tragedy of the trauma of war.

Photo Credit: Lynn Johnson

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

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Imag(in)ing the World Now and Then

 

D-Day Now

The scene could be a community beach front almost anywhere in the world. Cabanas set up for those who can afford them. Tents and umbrellas for others. White sand, small dunes, and blue sea for everyone—swimmers, sailors, and those who just want to sit and catch the breeze coming in off of water. Sun bathers intermixed with children, families coming and going. Soon, one can imagine, the sun will be down, the tide will be up, and only a very few will remain on the beach. A quiet, restful place, with only the rhythmic sound of the waves beating on the surf, lights perhaps shining from the windows in the buildings lining the beach as a reminder of a living community.

But for all of that, it is not just anywhere. It is Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, France. Seventy years ago this past week it was known as Juno Beach, one of the primary landing zones in the D-Day invasion. Taking this beach head was necessary to provide flanking support to the operations at Gold and Omaha beaches and to give the Allied forces a direct route to a German airfield near Caen. The beach was heavily fortified by two German battalions armed with over 500 machine guns plus numerous mortars, a defensive position enhanced by weather patterns that made it necessary for landing crafts to come as close to the fortifications as possible before releasing troops and equipment. The responsibility to take the beach head fell to the 3rd Canadian Infantry division, which suffered over 1,000 casualties by day’s end—the highest ratio of Allied casualties for anyone other than those landing at the more famous and costly Omaha and Utah beaches.

Photographs, of course, only mark a sliver of time—typically only a fraction of a second that frames the here and the now in stark and radical terms. One cannot know what happened moments (or months or years) before this photograph was snapped, let alone what might happen even seconds after the shutter has opened and closed. Temporal continuities with the past, let alone alternate future possibilities can only be surmised. Such limitations don’t mitigate the value of images, but instead only emphasize the need for us to be imaginative in how we understand the reality that they put on display. And too, it requires us to recognize the ways in which the historicity of an image operates in tension with what it was then (or it what it might be later). It is, in short, part of an archive that has to be curated and engaged.

And so here we have Juno Beach shortly after the D-Day invasion. A crashed fighter plane where families today luxuriate. The detritus of battle washed up against fortifications that protected Axis forces from the landing Allies. The appearance of a solitary ghost town cast in somber grey tones where today colorful commerce flourishes, marked by the flags of multiple nations.

-Day Then

This too, of course, was only a stark sliver in time. A scene of courage and fortitude, of death and destruction that can only remind us that what was before the lens when it clicked was there and then, even as it only framed a reality that could survive only in imagined memories.

Credit: Chris Helgren/Reuters; National Archieves of Canada (for other “before” and “after” pictures of the D-Day invasion click here.)

 

 

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Reflections … Of You and Me

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The National September 11 Memorial and Museum opens to the public this week. Sadly, we have gotten all too practiced at memorializing human tragedy – the 6th Floor Museum at Dealy Plaza in Dallas, TX; the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN; the Oklahoma City National Memorial at the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building; and the list goes on. In each instance senseless violence and awful, terrible, heart rendering loss is remembered in solemn displays that mix our collective grief with, strangely, tourist-like attractions that often require admissions fees and include “gift shops” where one can purchase everything from books and t-shirts to what can only be referred to as memorial kitsch. I don’t want to be cynical here. I have visited most of these places and I have happily paid the entrance fees—though I have avoided making purchases at the gift shops—and I would do so again, but there is something oddly unsettling about the process and I don’t quite have the words to express what it is.

Sometimes photographs can gesture to what words are hard pressed to express—or at least to express in any way that we might consider to be focused and efficient in a clearly narrative or propositional form. The image above shows several members of the public looking through the windows into the 9/11 Memorial Museum prior to its official opening this coming week, though others appear to be simply passing by. None of the recognizable artifacts of the tragedy of 9/11 are present. One cannot see the salvaged tridents recovered from the World Trade Center, or the accouterments from fire fighters and other first responders, or the cards, patches, and other mementos left as part of various vernacular memorials that surrounded the site of Ground Zero. And truth to tell, but for the caption that marks this as a glass façade that looks into the museum it would be hard to know exactly what we are looking at. But what we can see are the mirrored reflections, both of those who have stopped to look intently through the glass façade and of the life of the city that seems to be going on around the memorial and museum; and here, not just people who appear to be walking by, but also a city that is undergoing construction as marked by the crane in the center of the image, but also those reflected in the mirror (in the upper right corner) that would otherwise be outside of the frame of the image.

The key to the photograph is not that we simply see people stopping to look or passing by or that we see a city under construction, but that all of these things are accented by their mirrored doubling in the reflections cast off from the glass façade of the museum itself. It is the way in which the photograph captures (and performs?) the reflection that invites something of a critical sensitivity to what is that stands before us. Whether passers-by choose to stop and look or not, it would seem, is of little matter; what matters is that the memorial is a visual echo of the world that surrounds it. We cannot escape it even if we wanted to—whether we choose to pay the “entrance fee” or not.  That is something worth thinking about.

Credit:  Anthony Behar/AP

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Seeing With Our Feet

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Hopkinton is a lazy New England town in Massachusetts’s Middlesex County, population approximately 2,500 residents.  It features an annual Polyarts Festival, as well as a Fourth of July celebration that includes most of the locals, and a summer concert series in the town commons.  It also happens to be approximately 26.2 miles from Boylston St., Boston and so this morning—as on the third Monday of every April, a day also designated in Massachusetts, Maine, and Wisconsin as “Patriot’s Day” in commemoration of the Battles of Lexington and Concord—it will host approximately 36,000 runners from around the world prepared to compete in the 118th running of the Boston Marathon. Of course this is no ordinary running of the race, as it comes on the one year anniversary of last year’s tragic bombing at the finish line that killed 3 and injured 264 more, some quite seriously as indicated by the photograph above which shows one of the survivors participating in a Relay that traversed the course of the Boston Marathon this past week in an effort to raise money for children in need of prosthetic limbs

Photographs index an objective reality, and there is no getting around the painful and horrible experience of losing one’s leg in a terrorist attack.  Photographs do more than mark objective realities or the most literal of truths, however, and can also activate the imagination, inviting the viewer to see the world differently or anew.  Sometimes that is done by invoking a perspective by incongruity as when, for example, a photograph takes the view of a non-human animal appearing to pass judgment on its human counterparts.  Or at other times it can occur when a photograph emphasizes incidental features of everyday life that turn out to be quite significant. And there are many other possibilities as well.  One increasingly common visual convention relies on the trope of synecdoche, substituting the part for the whole (or visa versa), and thus inviting the viewer to imagine a scene as a matter of scale.  Think, in particular, for how the face becomes the representation of a whole body, or the individual can stand in for the collective.

The photograph above is a case in point, as it reduces a collective of individuals to their feet—and more, to the shoes that they are wearing.  The ersatz patriotism displayed on the shoes in the foreground and worn by the most obvious of victims is pronounced, and so we cannot not ignore it, but it should also be noted that no one else seems to have coded their footwear with their politics, or at least not so explicitly and boldly.  And indeed, the longer you gaze at the photograph the more it becomes clear that the shoes in the foreground call attention to themselves precisely because they are so pronouncedly performative.  Appearing to stand at attention, they indicate the (undoubtedly justified) pride and motivation of the person wearing them, but it is the distinct, multi-colored shoes—all running shoes to be sure—of everyone else that define the collectively that has congregated.  And note how they all appear to be moving in different directions and yet don’t seem to get in the way of one another. They are something of a community, perhaps all committed to the mantra of “Boston Strong,” but they are also not driven by an overwhelming stylistic uniformity that demands anything like a stultifying unity.

What are we to make of that?  If all we see here are a set of feet, there might be little to say.  But if we stand back for a moment and see with the feet then we can acknowledge how the photograph activates a traditional way of thinking about politics—the body politic—as it has been adapted to the conditions of public representation: the body politic appears to be fragmented rather than totalizing, realistic rather than idealized, and provisional rather than essentialist.  Put differently, in its fragmented, dismembered form we are seeing a body politic that is no longer whole yet still quite active. Perhaps this part-for-whole image of the bodily fragment signifies the distributed body of modern social organization, and in particular the pluralistic body of modern civil society.  “Boston Strong” may be an effective rallying cry, but it is the rhetoric of bodily experience that here eschews facial recognition and ultimately finesses one of the primary problems of contemporary society, i.e., the problem of the inclusion of difference.  Note in particular how even the affective presence of the prosthesis and its “stand at attention” pose that mimics so many photographs of wounded soldiers, is ultimately mitigated by the overall scene of the image as such difference itself is elided and ultimately accepted as one part of the community.  Perhaps this is what “Boston Strong” is all about.

The standard convention in photography is to focus on people’s faces, or of people looking at one another and communicating with one another. And yet even these common and standard conventions of photographic representation rely on photography’s inherent fragmentation of perception, always only showing a sluice of what there is to see.  Photographs of fragmented and disembodied feet, such as the image above, are not as rare as you might think, although I doubt you will find very many of them in your family photo album; when they do appear, however, they often function imaginatively to disrupt our most common and taken for granted ways of looking at the world.  And if we are willing to see with such images they just might serve to help us to reflect on how the ways in which we see and are seen as citizens are fundamentally and characteristically plagued by problems of fragmentation, separation, and the pathos of communication.  And maybe, sometimes, they might even help us to imagine new and different futures, as say a world in which community is not reduced to unity.

Credit:  Bryan Snyder/Reuters (Note:  For a fuller consideration of our take on the convention of photographing hands and feet see “Hands and Feet: Photojournalism, the Fragmented Body Politic and Collective Memory” in Journalism and Memory, ed. by Barbie Zelizer and Keren Tenenboim-Weinblatt.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.  131-47.)

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The Work of Art in the Age of Photographic Memory

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We live in an age of Photoshop, where the even the slightest adjustment to a photograph can call forth charges of dishonesty and all sorts of teeth gnashing and acrimony.  And at the same time, as this photograph suggests, there is a part of us that appreciates the power of the art of photography to remake the world the way we want it to be, even if it is something of a fantasy and we know it.  You wait your whole life to visit Hong Kong and you want a picture for the family photo album to prove that you were there that is worthy of the effort, one with blue skies and puffy cumulous clouds, not a haze filled skyline that casts a scrim like veil over the city that casts everything in grey scales.  And what is wrong with that anyway?

The photograph above does not answer this question, but it does help to identify the problem that it poses.  As we frequently note at NCN, one of the chief things that photographs do is to put the habits of social and civic life on display for reflection; and because these are habits of everyday life we tend to see them literally as normal, more or less natural and, as a result, altogether unremarkable features of an image.  So it is that one might focus on the man taking the photograph and see nothing that is particularly noteworthy, as do most of the other people in the image who pass by without so much as a notice.  And the reason for this would be patent, for what we are seeing is precisely the habit of casting and controlling our memories for posterity, and in particular how natural it seems to be—indeed, I suspect that many of us can imagine ourselves doing something similar given comparable circumstances—even as it stands in stark contrast to what we know the truth of the matter to be.

And there, I believe, is the rub, for what the photograph above also features is the contrast between the memory we produce that exists within the frame of the image that is preserved for posterity—here the photograph we see being taken that we can only imagine in all of its bright colors—and what occurs outside of that frame in the haze-tinted smog of the real Hong Kong.  It would be easy, of course, for us to assume that such a problem applies only to snapshot photography and the conventions of crafting and preserving family photo albums where the primary goal is the production of a nostalgic and happy memory for subsequent generations.  But that would be an error, for every photograph, amateur or professional, analog or digital, black and white or in living color are subject to the same constraints.  That does not mean that we should reject the “truth” of the image, but it does mean that we should recognize that the truths that we see are always partial and that the meaning of any image is subject to change as we extend the dimensions of the frame we are enabled to see.

This is something we all know.  In its own way it points to an attitude that is something of a habit of modern life.  And in that context the virtue of this photograph is how it puts this habit on display as both a reminder and a site of reflection concerning its importance.

Photo Credit:  Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

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Seeing the Past Through the Present (and Visa Versa)

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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

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All’s Well That Ends Well?

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If we take the photojournalistic slideshows at the major newspapers as evidence, the news for the past two weeks has been dominated by protests, both large and small around the world—though oddly enough hardly any that apparently warranted documenting in the United States—and a wide array of American patriotic displays, ranging from ersatz celebrations of red, white and blue to reenactors playing out the battle of Gettysburg on its 150th anniversary.  The photograph buried amidst all these images that caught my eye, however, had nothing to do with any of that and instead showed four children “playing” on a burned out armored vehicle in Kabul.

The vehicle is unmarked, and so it is hard to know who originally brought it to this spot. It could be American or British or even, however unlikely, a left over from the occupation of the former Soviet Union.  But none of that seems to matter as the particular history of this weapon of war has been erased.  What does seem to matter is that it has become a part of the “natural” landscape and that these children, young, innocent, and altogether happy, seem as comfortable climbing on it as we might imagine an American child climbing in an oak tree in his own back yard on a bright summer day.  There may have once been a war in Afghanistan that put these children at risk, but as this photograph suggests, there is now something like a return to normalcy.  Once there was a war, but now all is well.

Of course, notwithstanding the claim the U.S. has accomplished its combat goals in Afghanistan and turned military control back over to Afghani security forces, we know that the hostilities are not over, nor is it likely that we will see the significant downturn of U.S. or NATO military forces—whether we choose to call them combat troops, security forces, or military advisers—in Afghanistan for sometime to come.  In short, all is not well.  That said, what makes the photograph disturbing has less to do with the implication of a return to happier times, and more to do with the way in which it functions to make the past invisible by removing specific markers of the occupying forces and by naturalizing what has been left behind. And this all the more so as it appears in the midst of images of continuing conflict and social protest and American celebrations of its own exceptionalist past.

Photo Credit: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

 

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About to Die (But not in the USA)

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The man we see here is in the clutches of death. Still alive, but only for a few seconds before his body meets with the pavement five floors below, his death is imminent and all but certain.  As Barbie Zelizer points out, such “about to die” images sanitize the visual representation of death, emphasizing the contingency of the moment while nevertheless gesturing to the only logical conclusion.  Such images not only neutralize the emotional affect and spectacle of a broken and mutilated body, but they serve as well to draw the viewer into the scene, inviting contemplation of the subjunctive moment and to consider the possibilities inherent in the image (if not in history itself).  Photographs of death have a finality to them that the visual trope of an “about to die” photograph challenges.  And because the still image stops the action for all time it leaves open—for all time—the tentative possibility of alternate outcomes.

The photograph above is of a man who has “fallen” from a burning building in Lahore, Pakistan.  Or at least that is how the caption for the image typically reads.  It is more likely that he jumped to his death—as did at least four others—to avoid the immolation that killed at least seventeen people.  But whether he jumped or fell, it is clearly an “about to die” image.  It was reproduced in many of the “pictures of the day/week” slideshows that are now featured at most journalistic websites.  What drew my attention to it, however, had less to do with the simple fact of its quality of an “about to die” image and more with how it reprises similar images of people plunging to their deaths from Manhattan’s Twin Towers on 9/11.

There is no official count of how many people jumped from the towering infernos on that fateful day, but the lower end estimations put the number at nearly 200.  Many of the jumpers were captured by videographers and a number of still photographs appeared in newspapers, though almost never on the front page.  More importantly, these photographs disappeared from public view almost as quickly as they had originally appeared, virtually erased from the public record through at least the tenth anniversary of the event itself.  One can now access some of these photographs by searching on the internet, but the larger question has to be why it was deemed inappropriate to broadcast and publish such images then, and yet now it seems acceptable to document the tragic fire in Lahore with virtually identical images and, indeed, to feature the photograph in institutionally sanctioned journalistic websites?

One answer to this question is the assumption that foreign lives count for less than American lives; it is hard to abide such cynicism, but events in recent years make it an answer that we should not discount altogether.  Nevertheless, I think there is something more going on here than an hyperbolic and over-extended American exceptionalism.  One of the features of the “about to die” photograph is that it activates an audience engagement with the image that bridges the distance between here and there, implicating the viewer in the scene being depicted by requiring them to complete the event frozen in time, both cognitively and affectively.  This can produce an especially powerful identification when the actors portrayed are strangers, distant others, as we would imagine most Pakistani citizens to be for most American viewers.  When the actors are easily identified with—by type if not as particular individuals—the problem is reversed, as there is an emotional need to provide some measure of distance.  In the immediacy and aftermath of 9/11 the problem of distance from those who died in  the terrorist attack had to be managed differently as the photographs operated in an interpretive register that distinguished social identity (which arguably needed to be pushed to the background so as to mute social pain) from political identity (which needed to be placed in the foreground to animate the anger needed to spur collective action).

The point is a simple one, but worth emphasizing:  as with linguistic conventions, so with the conventions of visual representation, literacy dictates attention to context at multiple levels: historical, social, cultural, political, and so on.  And perhaps most important in recent times, international and global.  And more, it is in learning how to interpret and engage with such images that we begin to get a sense for what it means to see and be seen as citizens in all of these different registers.

Photo Credit:  Damir Sagolj/Reuters

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