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“Oh Happy Day”

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This past week marked the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University.  “Oh happy day,” announced the former president.  And as is the convention with such dedications, it was a grand celebration of the past president’s legacy.  And for the most part photojournalists followed the script, featuring numerous images of the five living presidents collected together in fraternal solidarity, as well as snapshots of various library exhibits such as the dedication to “free people” shown above, or in photographs of Barney and Miss Beazley’s food dishes and the former president’s baseball collection.

The dominant theme for the library is “What would you have done?” inviting visitors to participate with interactive displays allowing them to second guess the president’s various controversial policy decisions, from the search for weapons of mass destruction to the handling of Hurricane Katrina to addressing the debacle on Wall Street, and more.  Ironically enough, such judgments were rarely if ever solicited during the president’s two administrations and when they were expressed by various publics (or “free peoples”) they were systematically ignored.  But it is of course impossible to visualize something that did not occur—and in any case is not featured in the museum—and so the best that photojournalists were able to do was to call attention to the glitz and glamour.

One photograph, however, broke through the veneer of praise and acclaim that dominated the day’s festivities, although it was not featured in very many places.

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The prosthetic leg belongs to Army 1st Lt. Melissa Stockwell (Ret.), the first female American soldier to lose a limb during the war in Iraq. She is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with the Bush family standing in the background.  Interestingly enough, neither of the former first ladies is looking directly at Lt. Stockwell, each carefully averting their eyes, while former President George W. Bush appears to be staring at her with a befuddled and confused look on his face.  We can only imagine what he might actually be thinking, but his gaze clearly directs our attention to her star spangled, red, white and blue prosthesis, an ersatz symbol of the personal and private cost of the war in Iraq that contrasts with the shape and contour of her remaining, normal leg.

We cannot see Lt. Stockwell’s face, but perhaps that is altogether appropriate, for while she is without doubt a hero and the cost to her has been inestimable, she is not alone. Indeed, she stands literally to represent the more than 1,300 military personnel who have lost an arm or a leg (with more than 40 triple amputees and 5 quadruple amputees) in Iraq or Afghanistan (and with more than 63% from the war in Iraq alone).  Perhaps this photograph and those statistics should be featured at the museum exhibit which announces: “No stockpiles of W.M.D. were found.”

After all, if a “free people” are truly to “set the course of history” they should have access to all of the facts.

Credit: Allison V. Smith/NYT; Alex Wong/Getty Images

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The Winters of Our Discontent

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I wish I could claim sole authorship of the title for this commentary, but in fact it is an adaptation of a recent article in Scientific American (which adapted it from the title of John Steinbeck’s last novel who in turn borrowed it from Shakespeare’s malevolent characterization of Richard III).  But for all of that it is no less a compelling characterization of our current state of climactic affairs as we find ourselves confronting the acceleration of what has become known as “slow violence.”

Slow violence refers to environmental disasters that occur so gradually that we barely see them, but which reap long-term, catastrophic outcomes.  Recent global warming trends top the list and what makes such phenomena all the more problematic is how they can often appear to be incredibly, breath takingly beautiful, approaching what we might even call the sublime—representations that in some measure transcend reality, transporting us to a place that defies the very capacity for representation itself.  The photograph above is perhaps such an image where sky and water bifurcate the horizon of here and there as variations in lightness and darkness mark the temporal distance between now and then (or perhaps past and future).  The orange and magenta tones of the sky cast a calming shadow upon the sea which masks the mysteries of who knows what within its otherwise murky depths.   And overall the image invites both our approach and avoidance as if a heavenly and sanctified location.  It is hard to not look it and to be in awe.  Only the protuberances that emerge from the bottom of the frame call attention to the fact that this is a photograph and not a scene that fully transcends human occupation.

What we are actually looking at is “haboob,” a white shelf cloud of dirt that has been stirred up by a ferocious dust storm in the Indian Ocean off of the coast of Western Australia.  This dust storm, one of many that has caused brush fires over nearly one million acres is the result of uncharacteristically hot temperatures peaking at more than 119 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of Australia.  The result of those brush fires invites consideration of sublimity’s counterpart, the grotesque, as a second photograph from New South Wales pictures the carcasses of sheep incapable of breaking free of a fence that contained them while a wildfire consumed the earth on which they stood.

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The bodies are not human, and so the tragedy is not as pronounced as it might be—not that we should scant the lives of sheep or other living beings—but it is not hard to imagine that they could be human bodies.  The image is hard to look at, but that would seem to be the point, as it works as a powerful, visual counterpoint to the awe-inspiring beauty that all too often and all too easily diverts our attention and placates (gratifyingly so) our acceptance of slow violence in the first place.

This is the third winter in a row that we have faced extreme weather patterns throughout the world.  These are the winters of our discontent. How much longer will they go on before we respond responsibly as global citizens is the real question we need to be asking.

Photo Credit: Brett Martin/Reuters/fishwrecked.com; Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

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“A well regulated Militia, being necessary …”

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” — Second Amendment, U.S. Constitution

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The children of Sandy Hook Elementary School returned to their classrooms this past week; President Obama reiterated that solving the “gun problem” would be among his highest priorities in the weeks ahead, even as Republican leaders in the Senate insist that the only issues that will receive any serious attention in the coming months will be the deficit; and nearly 400 people have died in gun related events since the Sandy Hook massacre, including four people yesterday in a townhouse in Aurora, CO.  And the beat goes on, for as gun advocates never tire of reminding us, the Constitution guarantees their absolute “right to keep and bear arms.”

The problem here is that when gun advocates reiterate this clause of the Constitution, which has taken on the quality of a sacred mantra, they forget  that it is qualified by a preceding clause that links the absolute right to ownership to the necessity of maintaining “a well regulated Militia” for “the security of a free State.”  This was a time, we might recall, when “standing armies” were seen as something of a threat to freedom and liberty—think British Redcoats—and calling out of the Militia required individual soldiers to supply their own weapons.  I don’t know for certain, but I seriously doubt that the U.S. military currently even allows soldiers to bring their own weapons with them when they are called to duty, let alone requires it as part of maintaining a “well regulated  Militia.”  The point here is not that we should eliminate the right to keep and bear arms,  but that the conditions that animated the original intent of this amendment no longer abide.  And given that fact, it surely makes sense to reconsider the standing of the right as an “absolute,” as well as the regulations needed to secure a “free State,” especially given changed and changing weapons technologies and circumstances.

But there is a second point to be made as well.   The “arms”  that the Founders had in mind were the sort of single file muzzle loaders seen in the photograph above and on display at the East Coast Fire Arms antique gun show sponsored this past week in Stamford, CT, not the Bushmaster semi-automatic, military-style assault rifle with thirty bullet clips—seen below— and used to take the lives of twenty school children and six others  at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT on December 14th.

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If Adam Lanza, the mass murderer who wrought havoc and tragedy on the village of Sandy Hook, was carrying a muzzle loader it is possible that one person might have been injured or died instead of twenty-six.  One person.  At most.  Maybe.   And that is something that we should bear in mind every time we hear the Constitutional invocation of an absolute right “to keep and bear arms” used to justify the ownership of semi-automatic weapons.

Photo Credit: Christopher Capozziello/Getty Images North America; Anon/Wikipedia. Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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The Missing Photograph From Newtown, CT.

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The tragedy that betook Newton, Ct. this past Friday leaves one searching for words, but there has been no shortage of photographs.  My initial impulse is to see that as one more piece of evidence to support the general claim that we make here at NCN that photography is a technology that provides access to a world of affect and understanding that is not easily or efficiently represented by words—or by words alone.  But careful review of the archive of images being published gives some pause for concern, as many (if not most) of the photographs we are seeing have an increasingly generic quality to them that makes them seem rather like visual commonplaces.  As Michael Shaw and Alan Chin noted at the Bag, clichés emerge when something is repeated over and again to the point that the thing represented is something of a taken-for-granted assumption that loses the power of presence it once animated.  Look at the full archive of images from Newton, CT. without captions or historical context and it would be easy enough to imagine that we are looking at a scene in Columbine or Blacksburg or Aurora or Oak Creek, and the list goes on.  In some measure the visual record has fallen prey to the success of its production and circulation, a mode of artistry that has succumbed to its own conventionality.  In a sense, just as we find ourselves searching for the right words we are left searching for photographs that invite us to understand and empathize without reducing everything to a cardboard cliché.

But even as I write that last sentence I must give pause once again, for there is at least one image from Newtown that invites reflection and consideration.  It is a photograph of a young boy and girl standing together in a wooded area presumably looking towards the Sandy Hook Elementary School.  The boy’s hands cover his mouth and nose, but not his eyes, which seem transfixed on the chaos and carnage that is before him.  He is clearly horrified, but he cannot look away.  The young girl has her arms around the boy, making human contact that no doubt comforts both of them, but she intentionally looks away from the scene before her, fixing her eyes on the ground at her feet.  And therein lies the conundrum of the regular and oft repeated mass killings we have been experiencing in recent times—we either gaze in horror or we look away.  But in either case we fail to act.  Like these children we huddle together in search of collective comfort, passively quiescent in the presence of a spectacle that leaves us more or less speechless and incapable of seeing what is clearly before our eyes.

And so that brings me to the question posed by the title for this post: The missing photograph.  As I read the newspapers this morning and listened to the talk shows I was dismayed to hear everyone focusing their primary attention on what motivated the actions of the gunmen.  Did he have Asperger’s Syndrome or had he been mistreated as a child?  Can we do more as a society to diagnose and treat mental health issues?  And so on.  These are important questions, to be sure, and there is no doubt that we need to be much better at promoting mental health.  But they are also secondary questions that completely miss the point of what happened in Newtown, CT.  Whatever motivated the gunmen, it is impossible to imagine that he could have been nearly as destructive as he was if he did not have access to automatic weapons.  It is really as simple as that.  The photograph that is missing from the archive of images of this tragedy is the photograph of the automatic weapons that were used to extinguish twenty six innocent lives.  Until we see that photograph, and I mean really see it as the material cause for what is happening, we will be caught perpetually in the embrace of looking in horror without speaking or looking away.  And soon enough the same clichéd images will reappear, and once again we will wonder why.

Photo Credit: Michelle Mcloughlin/Reuters

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Strange Fruit in California

So what do you see in this photograph?  Look closely and carefully.  The tree is knotted and gnarled, its branches reaching out like so many arms, going this way and that, almost as if it were a human being thrashing about in a hostile world.  At first blush it reminded me of the tree in The Wizard of Oz that throws its apples at Dorothy and her troupe.  Then again, it looked like might be from a more recent movie, perhaps one of the episodes of The Lord of the Rings or maybe even the fantasy world of Harry Potter.  But whatever you think you might see, look closely and ask yourself: What is missing?

The photograph was once the scene of a brutal lynching. Lynchings are a part of American history, and as James Allen helped us to understand a few year back with his Without Sanctuary project, they were not simply events that took place in the dead of night and away from the public eye.  Indeed, lynchings  were often carefully planned activities—spectacles really—with the trains adjusting their schedules so that church goers could attend the “festivities” and numerous photographs taken to mark the occasion, many of the later converted into postcards to be sent to friends and family.

Lynchings of this sort no longer take place in the U.S. and so it is all too easy to locate such events in a distant past, a time we might imagine as long, long ago. And perhaps that is so inasmuch as such lynchings have been exceedingly rare since the early 1950s. But the problem with such consignment to a once malignant but now benign past is that it invites us to ignore the depths and ignominy of such behaviors.  Most, no doubt, think of lynching as an activity used by southern whites to discipline blacks in the reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.  That it was, but we should not forget that such lynchings also occurred in many places north of the Mason-Dixon line (one of the most famous took place close to where I write from in Marion, Indiana) and as Ken Gonzales-Day, has recently demonstrated, several hundreds of Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians suffered a similar fate in California between 1850 and 1932.

And so, back to the photograph above.  It is one in a series of photographs taken by Gonzales-Day called Searching for California’s Hang Trees and is part of his attempt to witness an aspect of our national past that it has been all too easy to erase from our public and collective memory (see also his Erased Lynching series)—both geographically and otherwise.  The “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday sung about is nowhere to be found in these photographs, but that would seem to be the point. The tree could really be anywhere: north, south, east or west. And those tortured while hanging from its branches could have been men, women and children of many different ethnicities and colors. It is not a part of our past of which we can be proud, but it is a part of our past and it needs to be remembered.  And visualized.  So, once again, what do you see when you look at the photograph?

Photo Credit: Ken Gonzales-Day

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A Second Look: A Kiss is Just a Kiss … Or is it?

It is perhaps the most famous kiss in the annals of kisses.  But the question has now been raised, is it more than just a kiss?  And more, could it be an instance of sexual assault in full view of the public?  There is much to suggest that, as it has typically been portrayed, the photograph is the representation of a joyous kiss celebrating the end of a war and the return to normalcy.  And perhaps the most important evidence here is the reaction of the members of the public who look upon the heterosexual kissers approvingly, smiling rather in the way we might imagine an older generation’s response to the exuberance of young love.

But there are also reasons for concern.  The sailor is clearly the aggressor and the nurse is clearly passive.  Take note of the fact that she is not returning his embrace.  Indeed, from one perspective, at least, she appears to have gone limp, succumbing but hardly complicit.  And then there is this: The most recent woman to be identified as the nurse, Greta Zimmer Friedman, reports that “[i]t wasn’t my choice to be kissed.  The guy just came over and grabbed!”  And more, “I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in his vice grip [sic].”  And then this, “That man was very strong.  I wasn’t kissing him.  He was kissing me.”  If this were to be reported today it is pretty clear that we would judge the sailor’s behavior as more than just inappropriate but as a sexual assault.  The question seems to be, should we impose contemporary norms on what we might imagine as a somewhat distant culture?  The answer is not obvious.

Perhaps we should begin with some context.  Everyone remembers the photograph as an icon of VE Day.  What most forget is that it was one of a series of images in a Life magazine photo essay titled “The Men of War Kiss From Coast to Coast,” and more to the point it was the last image in the array and the only one to occupy a full page.  To a number all of the other photographs depict lascivious if not downright transgressive public acts (here,  here and here).  But, and here is the point, in almost every instance, the women appear to be—or are described in the captions—as being complicit.  When we turn to the “Times Square Kiss” in this context we see something that seems to be the model of restraint: two kissers lost in passion even as they enact the decorum that is the necessary discipline of public life.  We hardly attend to the original caption that notes, “an uninhibited sailor [who] plants his lips squarely on hers.”  It was clearly a different time.  As one soldier from the “Greatest Generation” was quoted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1944, among the things we fight for is “the priceless privilege of making love to American women.”  And in their own way, this full array of Life photographs makes the point.

And yet there is something altogether dissatisfying with leaving it at that.  And not just because times have changed.  Ariella Azoulay has recently asked, “Has anyone ever seen a photograph of a rape?”  Her point is not that such photographs do not exist – they do, however rare.  Nor is it that they are not available for viewing – they are, although again their circulation is rather limited.  Rather, her point is that even as we have reconstituted our notion of rape since the 1970s in ways that liberalizes the meaning of sexual assault and underscores the responsibility of the state to protect women, it continues to be an invisible object in the public discourse, an image that we proscribe from showing and, more importantly, fail to see even when it is before our eyes.

The real challenge here then is not so much to critique the blind sexism of an earlier moment in our history, however much it might be mischaracterized as a golden past, but to question why we continue to refuse to see what might now be before our eyes. Put differently, the question is not what does this photograph tell us about our past, but rather what does our refusal to see the photograph in the context of Greta Zimmer Friedman’s memory of that day tell us about our present.

Photo Credit: “VJ Day in Times Square, August 14, 1945,” by Alfred Eisenstaedt, © Time Inc.

We have previously written about this photograph on this blog (hereherehere, here, here, here, and here) and in print (here and here).

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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The Real War

If you grew up south of the Mason Dixon line you probably know it as the Battle of Sharpsburg, but of course the Union won the war and so its official name bears the northern nominative: the Battle of Antietam.  In either case, today is the sesquicentennial of the bloodiest single day of fighting in American history—then or since—with more than 23,000 casualties in a twelve hour period, including at least 3,500 deaths.  To gain some sense of the magnitude keep in mind that this is almost a third again as many people who died in the 9/11 attacks, but the U.S. population in 1862 was approximately 31 million people, while according to the 2000 census the U.S. population was 281 million strong.   Nearly 4,000 reenactors showed up this weekend to restage the battle—the second of two such events in a two week period—as well as 2,000 spectators per day over a three day period.

Reenactors are typically known for their commitment to authenticity, right down to the socks they wear, the number of buttons on their uniforms, the instruments and music they play, the food they eat and the ways they prepare it, the tobacco they smoke and chew, and so on.  Indeed, their encampments are a living museum and there is plenty to be learned by attending such festive events.  But what we can’t learn, of course, is what it is like to be at war.  It is an old bromide that war is unrepresentable, an experience that defies our ability to communicate it to those who have not experienced it in anything but the most trivial of ways.  There are those who do the fighting and those who view wars at a distance, a dialectic that has become all the more pronounced in late modern times, and as the photograph above underscores, the boundary between soldier and spectator is discrete and discernible, perhaps one more way in which such reenactments (inadvertently?) reinforce their commitment to authenticity.

But the larger point is that however accurate such events might be in some regard, they ultimately reduce to an instance of play acting.  The sheer boredom and tedium of waiting for battle is erased by a carefully prescribed schedule of events.  Supply shortages are not an issue. There is no disease and dysentery. No bones are crushed, no limbs are blown apart, no bodies are invaded by musket balls.  No one stays around the week after such events to recover and bury the rotting corpses left behind. In short, the real war experience is nowhere to be found.  And it is little wonder how such events—cast as a family outing—contribute to a romantic understanding of war and the warrior.

Such was a prevailing attitude prior to 1862 as well, before the viewing public was introduced to an exhibit at Mathew Brady’s New York City gallery titled “The Dead of Antietam.”  The photographs (actually shot by Alexander Gardner who did not receive credit at the time), many of them employing the new stereographic technique that produced something of a three dimensional quality, led the NYT to report that Brady’s exhibit “bring[s] home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war.  If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”  For the first time the American public qua public was confronted with a reality of war that could not be captured by the report of daily body counts or the public readings of lists of the names of the war dead.

The realist aesthetic of Gardner’s photographs, seventy in all, gave the lie to—or at least seriously challenged—the romance of war and were eventually important resources for Stephan Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.

It would be a tragic mistake simply to turn tables and assume that somehow these photographs tell the “real” story of the Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg all by themselves.  But it would be equally tragic to assume that we could understand the battle without the “terrible reality and earnestness of war” they put on display.

Photo Credit:  Ric Dugan/Herald-Mail; Alexander Gardner

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Hiding the Cost of War

The photograph above is of Tammy Duckworth, a candidate for U.S. Congress in Illinois’ Eighth District, speaking at the Democratic National Convention this past week. She is also a war hero, having been among the first women to fly combat missions in Iraq, losing both of her legs when a grenade landed in her lap while piloting a Blackhawk helicopter north of Baghdad.  Her opponent for Congress, the incumbent Republican Joe Walsh has accused her of not being a “true hero” because she makes a point of discussing her military service in her campaign.  To quote former President Clinton in a different context, “that takes some brass,” especially coming from someone who has never served a day in the military in his life.  But the photograph above is not about Congressman Walsh’s Neanderthal attitudes nor even about Tammy Duckworth’s heroic service and sacrifice to her nation—or at least not explicitly so.

Shot from behind the podium and at a high angle that crops her body at the waist and accents her prosthetic legs, the photograph emphasizes what the viewing audience could not see—at least not while she was speaking. Viewed from the front we see a face, the marker of the liberal individual, a person.  And any person who can make their way onto the national stage to address a live audience of thousands and a mass mediated audience of millions can’t be doing all that bad.

Viewed from the back, however, the photograph invites a different story.  It reminds us of the terrible price that this individual paid—and now note that she is anonymous, faceless, another casualty of war but not one that we have to address directly.  In short, the photograph is an aide memoire to what we desperately don’t want to see, to what we want actively to forget: that we sent her into battle and the price she paid is really our debt, but it is a debt we have no way of paying.

In a sense, the photograph is a comment on the hundreds of images we see of the more than 1,200 veterans who have lost limbs in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and yet, through the wonders of modern medical technology (ironically made possible because of advances in “war medicine”), survived to live what appear to be so-called “normal” lives.  And indeed, it is the emphasis on appearance that is very much to the point, for in the end we rarely learn very much about the ordinary lives that such people live and pain, trauma, and hardships that they face.

Consider, for example, this photograph that appeared recently in a slide show dedicated to the recovery of war veterans at Brooke Army Medical Center.

What you are looking at here are not real arms and legs, but rather “life-like covers” designed to slip over prosthetic limbs so as to masquerade a disability and to hide it from public view.  Note in particular the customized tattoos on the arm that make it appear to be individual and personal. There is every reason to believe that an amputee would want to be “seen” as normal, to hide his or her stigma, and thus to mask their prosthesis with a “life-like cover.”  Or rather there is every reason to believe that this is how someone who does not share such a disability—a so called “normal” person—might imagine how an amputee would want to cover-up his or her “shame.”  But really, the shame is ours and such “life-like covers” function, at least on par, as a veil that makes it easier for us to forget or to ignore our complicity with the sacrifice such men and women have made and the real debts that have to be paid.

Photo Credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP; John Moore/Getty Images

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The Everydayness of War

I was having a conversation with a former student recently who was exasperated by the fact that the war in Afghanistan, approaching its twelfth anniversary, is the longest American history and yet it is rarely on the front pages of our newspapers and but for the occasional report of U.S. troops being killed—usually in small numbers—there is hardly any public debate or discussion about it.  And the question, of course, is why?  Why is it that a war that is costing us roughly $100 billion a year, and has taken nearly 2,000 American lives, while wounding another 15,000 seems to have no traction in the public consciousness?

I thought of this question when I came across this photograph circulating in a number of different slideshows this past week. The scene is from Syria, not Afghanistan, but what makes the image distinctive is the way in which it frames the act of war in an ordinary and everyday environment.  The soldier here is a sniper, but he doesn’t wear a uniform, dressed instead in a camouflage vest that covers what appears to be athletic running gear. He is not on a conventional battlefield, but rather in what appears to be someone’s living room.  And he has converted the equipment of everyday life into weapons of death as he perches himself on a couch and uses seat cushions and pillows to balance and aim his high powered rifle.  Curtains seem to provide him with a modicum of cover.  And more, he exudes an uncanny nonchalance, simultaneously focused on the task before him and yet altogether relaxed.  Notice for example how he holds his cigarette while adjusting his scope, implicitly dividing his attention between the two.  War for him has become routine, neither here nor there, a condition of everyday life that can’t be ignored and so becomes commonplace, part and parcel of living in a constant zone of conflict.

There is no parallel to this image or the experience it represents in the United States.  The wars we have been fighting in the Middle East over the past eleven years are wars fought at a distance.  We are typically reminded about them only when someone we know is directly affected by them—killed or maimed—but even then for most of us the effect tends to be temporary as we mourn our loss and then quickly return to going about our lives without any serious concerns for our immediate personal safety. In short, these wars have not become part of our everyday being.  And as such, they become too easy to forget, or worse, to ignore.

Photo Credit:  Goran Tomasevich/Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Sam Shere/MPTV; AP File Photo

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