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Gesturing Towards Sociality


We have written here (here, here, and here) and elsewhere about the photojournalistic penchant—indeed, we are inclined to call it a photojournalistic convention—to produce photographs that feature hands (and feet). Often such images feature the fragmented human body, emphasizing the hand (or the foot), and thus diverting attention away from the face. The face is, of course, the chief marker of the liberal individual and by deemphasizing it notice is directed away from the particular individual to a more universal(izing) “human feature. The inclusion of the face in the image above is something of an exception to the typical convention that makes the point, as the caption to this image calls attention to an Argentine Court’s ruling that “Sandra,” an orangutang who has spent 20 years in a Buenos Aires zoo, is a “non-human person which has some basic human rights.”  Humanity here trumps personhood.

The photograph is part of a Big Picture slide show titled “Hands in the News.” According to the BP, “Hands tell stories. They are functional and they have the power to communicate emotions…. Represent(ing) hope, communication, power, connection, and longing.” All of this is true. But there is more. For such photographs don’t just invite us to see the “hand,” but rather to see “with the hand,” and as such it activates a traditional way of thinking about sociality and politics (e.g., the body politic) that is adapted to conditions of public representation: it is fragmented rather than organic, realistic rather than idealized, and provisional rather than essentialist. Most important, the dismemberment of the body implies a body politic that is no longer whole yet still active and engaged.

In short, the image of the hand (or the foot) as a bodily fragment signifies the distributed body of modern social organization, the pluralistic body of modern civil society, the multicultural body of a transnational—or as with the photograph above, transhuman—public sphere. This is the body that resists the abstraction and political symbolism dominating official discourse, but always indirectly, through figures of embodiment that are already dismembered. This is a rhetoric of bodily experience, but not the personalized experience of identity politics or the faux intimacy of infantilized citizenship. These images have proliferated when official authority is already discredited, and they are used to both contest that authority and finesse the problem of maintaining public legitimacy.

We should attend to them with care, not just as a stylistic affectation or an instance of cultural kitsch, but as an important convention of a powerful public art that invites us to see and be seen as citizens in the broadest way possible.

Credit: Natacha Pisarenko/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.)


Immigration Policy and the Theater of the Absurd

Immigrant Hands.1

We have written at NCN on more than occasion about the problem of immigration in the U.S., or perhaps more accurately, on the problem of US public policy regarding immigration and the need for reform.  Perhaps the dominant visual trope that is affiliated with U.S. immigration policies is the “wall,” a manufactured border that purports to function as a container that separates there from here and them from us.  Of course, the problem is that however sophisticated the technology and however large an army of Border Patrols agents we employ, such walls are never impermeable.  And so the policy is already and always fated to be a failure.

The real difficulty, however, may not be that we have the wrong solution to the problem so much as we refuse to come to terms with reality of the situation that we are facing.  The photograph above is telling in this regard.  The caption reads, “Dessert for an immigrant detainee in his segregation cell during lunchtime at the Adelanto center [in San Bernadino, California].”  The institutionally grey, steel cell door is something of a wall and it dominates the photograph, cutting across the diagonal, separating inside from outside and the representative of the U.S. from the detained immigrant.  The bolt lock on the top creates the impression of security, but the opening in the door makes it clear that total separation is impossible—if even desirable given that apparently some communication and interaction seems at least useful.  It is thus, at least in some senses, a visual metaphor for the (as yet incomplete) wall that has been proposed to traverse much of the 2,000 miles of U.S. borderland between California and Texas.

But of course there is more, for what makes the photograph distinctive is not the metaphorical wall so much as the extended hands that traverse the opening.  Hands with opposable thumbs are distinctively human and here we see them as fragmented body parts.  The fragmentation is not incidental.  Typically the face is the visual marker of the liberal individual; absent such markings we don’t see particular individuals but rather social types, and thus the scene becomes something of an allegory for one dimension of the body politic as it negotiates the relationship between citizen and so-called “illegal” or “undocumented” immigrant.  Viewing the image in this register invites us to imagine U.S. immigration and border policy as played out in something like the Theater of the Absurd.

The hand on the right extends from inside the cell door, so it is clearly marked as “other” and “dangerous,” but apart from being large enough to be masculine and appearing to be white, the only social marking that it reveals is a wedding ring, linking its bearer to a time honored social ritual and tradition.  Were one to encounter this hand in any other situation it is unlikely that it would be seen as inherently alien, let alone precarious or threatening. The hand extending from the left is fully covered, a sleeve extending to the wrist and overlapping with a blue rubber glove, the two cinched by a watch strap.  The glove is the sort that we see being worn by investigators at a crime scene or a chemical spill, both situations where it is important to avoid contamination.  The overall impression, then, is that the arm and hand are hermetically sealed, and the implication here is hard to avoid: the hand on the left is protected from the presumably menacing or infectious hand on the right.

There is something altogether farcical about the relationship here and what calls it out is the piece of fruit being passed ever so tenderly from left to right as “dessert.”  On the one hand (no pun intended), the offer of dessert—not just food or nutrition—is a humane gesture designed to provide some measure of pleasure to the person connected to the “othered” hand on the right; and yet, on the other hand, one has to wonder about extending such a gesture to an alien who is truly dangerous, so much so that any contact whatsoever would somehow threaten the well being of the person connected to the hand on the left.  That one would make such a gesture recognizes a fundamental, ethical human and social responsibility that simply cannot be avoided or ignored, even when there are risks at stake.  Neither walls nor borders can erase it.  And even in our most paranoid state, it peaks through as an obligation that we have to our human brothers and sisters.

And so the point: the immigration problem we have in the U.S. is not, at its core, a matter of how to contain our borders so as to avoid making contact with alien others, as much as we might convince ourselves that such contact is risky,  but rather to recognize the fundamental obligation(s) we have to extending human rights in as humane a fashion as possible to all who share our humanity.  Once we allow ourselves to see that obligation and then commit ourselves to upholding it we will be better prepared to imagine how to negotiate the presence of immigrants within our midst and to produce policies that honor our very humanity without reverting to the theater of the absurd.

Credit: John Moore/Getty Images


“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


The Visibility of the Everydayness of War

Allepo Catapult 2

With sequestration staring us in the face and all of the teeth gnashing concerning the possibility that the Department of Defense will be confronted with $500 billion dollars in budget cuts over the next ten years—no small chunk of change, but nevertheless a relatively small part of the overall DOD budget—I was intrigued by the photographs, such as the one above, coming out of Syria that show the primitive and makeshift weaponry employed by the Free Syrian Army.

The slingshot or catapult can be traced to ancient and medieval times, but in the contemporary era it is usually associated with rebel or guerilla warriors (think of all of the images we regularly see of Palestinian youth using slingshots to hurl rocks at Israelis), in large measure because it requires so little in resources to make it work. State sponsored armies have budgets that can be cut, rebels and guerillas … not so much.  And so the later cobble together whatever is available, converting the objects of ordinary life into weapons of war.

It is this last fact that bears some attention.  Elsewhere we have talked about how war has been normalized by being made more or less invisible in the United States, such that the accouterments of warfare have been converted into everyday objects that appear to have no connection to war (think of Jeeps and Humvees, or the way in which camouflage  has become something of a fashion statement, not to mention the AKC-47 assault rifle cast as a hunting rifle), but here we see everyday objects employed to the ends of death and destruction.  This too is an act of normalization, but one that runs in the opposite direction, putting war on display as quotidian, making it visible as a normal part of the everyday experience.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this inversion, but I am reminded of Elaine Scarry’s characterization of torture as “world unmaking,” converting the objects of everyday life into instruments of pain.  Doctors become administrators of pain, refrigerators and filing cabinets become bludgeons, bathtubs becomes miniature torture chambers, etc.  Watching someone creating weapons out of everyday objects for their own use is not exactly the same thing, since there is no clear identification of torturer and tortured; then again it is arguably all the more torturous inasmuch as those producing and using such weapons seem to have little real choice in the matter as they become the active agents in unmaking the world around them.  It is, in its way, the most perfect and efficient form of torture; a perversion of a perversion in which the torturer and the tortured are one in the same person.

I was struck by the broad implications of this thought when looking at the picture below:

Phone Bombs

Once again the photograph is of members of the Free Syrian Army.  And once again the soldiers we see are involved in producing a homemade weapon of war.  Here, however, there is no pretense of primitive weaponry; characterized in the caption as an “anti-aircraft weapon,” it is thoroughly modern, even if it does not display the most sophisticated and up-to-the-minute technology.  Indeed the bright colors of this image suggest a degree of contemporaneity that is muted by the drab shadows and colors of the photograph of the catapult.  But what is most striking is the use of a smart phone to arm and guide the missile.  Here we have an everyday object—and an item that virtually everyone reading this post has in their pocket—that has made it possible to create community across time and space, allowing us, as Ma Bell used to say, “to reach out and touch someone.”  It does that here as well, of course, but only after perverting the normal and ordinary usage of an otherwise salutary and everyday instrument of communication.

The United States is a far distance from Syria in just about everyway that one can imagine, economically, politically, culturally, and so on.  And yet, looking at these images—almost as if through Alice’s looking glass— has to give us pause as we recognize our own pretenses and patterns of  acclimating ourselves to the visual everdayness of a culture of war.

Credits:  Asmaa Wagulh/ Reuters; Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters.  Elaine Scarry’s provocative  discussion of the relationship between torture and war appears in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.  New York: Oxford UP, 1985.


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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“I Guess, You Know, Stuff Happens”

You might have heard that there was a shooting in midtown Manhattan late last week.  It was in all of the papers and on the nightly news. Of course, then again, such events seem to be routine so maybe you missed it.  The perpetrator got off five rounds, all aimed directly at his target; the police got off seventeen shots.  Nine bystanders were hit with bullets.  Do the math.

The photographic record of the event ranges from the somewhat clichéd representation of yellow and blue police line tape and numbered crime scene markers shot from on high and at a distance to mark the official response to a somewhat voyeuristic image of a dead body resting in a sea of red blood to the absolutely bizarre snapshot of smiling tourists (from France, no less) posing in front of the scene where the carnage too place.  But it is the photograph above that tells the story that really needs to be told.

The woman, Madia Rosario, is one of the nine innocent bystanders hit by police bullets (that’s right, all nine were wounded by police bullets or ricochets).  She is thankfully in stable condition, as are apparently the other eight bystanders who were wounded. But what should concern us is that she and the others were shot at all.  There have already been calls to investigate whether the officers were following regulations when they discharged their weapons with bystanders at risk, but there is a different point to be made.  Or maybe two.

The first point is that this is just one more of a continuing—weekly if not daily—litany of such shootings, each of which is treated as if it were an entirely individual and isolated event.  A disturbed individual goes berserk and shoots up a school yard or a campus or a church or a movie theater. As one of the bystanders hit by a police bullet put it, “You know, stuff happens.”  But of course these  are not isolated events, for what connects them quite palpably is the simple fact that in each case the perpetrators all had too easy access to automatic or semi-automatic weapons.  There is no easy way to represent that connection photographically, and so we resort to commonplaces that individuate the problem by emphasizing the perverse psychology of the perpetrator and/or visualizing the official response.  But of course  in countries with more restrictive access to such weaponry events like this happen far less frequently. On this point the facts are incontrovertible.  Once again, do the math.

The second point is really a response to those who claim that everyone will be safer when we all have guns and can thus protect ourselves from such violence and bloodshed. But the photograph of Madia Rosario suggests perhaps otherwise.  The police are enjoined never to “put civilians in the line of fire.”  And more, they are trained in how to respond to crisis situations in which chaos reigns and human behavior is animated more by fear and the rush of adrenalin than reason or common sense. And on par they do a pretty decent job.   And yet for all their training and preparation, “stuff happens.” One can only imagine what stuff would happen if bystanders not trained in crisis management of any sort were carrying weapons and started shooting.  Just do the math.

Photo Credit: Uli Seit/New York Times


The Shame of Survival

The VA reports that 18 veterans commit suicide every day.  And last week the U.S. Army reported that the suicide rate among active duty soldiers has risen from 9.6 per 100,000 in 2005 to 24.1 per 100,000 in 2011. The number of attempted suicides is astronomically higher still and all out of proportion with the suicide rate among the civilian population.  Reports of all of this leak out from time to time, of course, but the tendency is to make the problem abstract by focusing on the aggregate and not so much on the individuals.  The numbers underscore the sheer magnitude of the problem, but at the same time they make it almost impossible to imagine the individual trauma … or perhaps the better word here would be “envision.”  And because the real effects of the problem are harder to see in the abstract, they are also easier to be blind to.  We are not inclined to quote totalitarians in the affirmative here at NCN, but Josef Stalin’s characterization of such situations is much to the point, “[o]ne death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.”  The situation is thus really something of a catastrophe: a problem that we don’t appear to know how to solve (assuming we exclude the obvious and refuse to eliminate the root cause, which is sending our young men and women to fight  such wars in the first place) and yet one that is so large and so present that the logic of its representation encourages us to acknowledge and ignore it simultaneously.

A large part of the difficulty is that it is virtually impossible to get photographs of actual suicides and one would surely have to challenge the ethics of taking such photographs if one could do so. And yet it is not sufficient to turn a blind eye to the situation.  A slideshow at the Denver Post titled “Welcome Home” is much to the point in this regard as it invites us to see into the life and mind of at least one contemporary war veteran and his struggles with readjusting to the civilian world.  Part of the story conveyed by the slideshow is the all too conventional tale  that the veteran’s return home is experienced as altogether lonely and alienating, and in any case anything but welcoming.  That narrative is no less true for being conventional, but the photograph above signals a second, more poignant and even more troubling story as well. Tattooed with what appears to be the face of death—a marking which it will turn out is probably not incidental—the wrist belongs to Brian Scott Ostrom, an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Marine Corp’s Second Reconnaissance Battalion who served two tours of duty in Iraq.  Ostrom did not commit suicide, but as the fresh stitches that mark his wrist indicate, he made a serious attempt at doing so.  In fact, it was his second such attempt.  The question, of course, is why?

Like so many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ostrom suffers from PTSD, a psychological disorder that manifests itself in panic attacks and fits of rage that often lead to physical violence.  Frequently that violence is directed outwards at other people or physical objects, but just as often it is directed inward at an intractable guilt that simply never goes away—and, of course, that cannot be seen. Part of that guilt is a result of having voluntarily participated in a troglodyte world in which all empathy for the other is evacuated, a world in which there is no difference between doing’s one’s job and behaving in the most brutal ways imaginable … and yet, in Ostrom’s own words, not feeling bad for “anything I did over there,” but “for what I didn’t do.”

The words are as cryptic as is the face of death on Ostrom’s wrist.  But both take on an eerie and troubling significance when we recall something he said earlier in his narrative, reflecting on his PTSD, “I think it comes from the fact that I survived.  That wasn’t my plan.  It’s an honor to die for your country, but I made it home.”  And then this, “Every one of us has a suicide plan.  We all know how to kill, and we all have a plan to kill ourselves.”  What he didn’t do was to die for his country.  The words are as hard to hear as the photograph above is to look at.

But look at it we must, for in its own way it illustrates the problem faced by our returning war veterans writ large—a point emphasized by the fact that the hand itself is disembodied; it could belong to Ostrom (as it does) but it could belong to any of the thousands of returning veterans (or for that matter to those who might be inducted to fight in future wars):  Bred to kill and marked by death, our warriors are assimilated into a topsy-turvy world in which survival is a sign of failure, and doing one’s job well results in dishonor.  And there does not seem to be any way out except for one.   Perhaps the only wonder is that the suicide rate amongst our veterans is as low as it is.

Photo Credit: Craig F Walker/Denver Post.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Gesturing Towards the Costs of War

We have discussed the costs of war on many occasions.  And as we have noted, such costs cannot easily be calculated as they are variously and incommensurately measured in dollars and cents, lives interrupted and lost, the disruption of social and civic norms, and so on. Photography, with its capacity to enact a realist aesthetic—the so-called “window on the world”—offers a powerful optic for how to see these costs in bodily terms, and occasionally in ways that challenge our normative assumptions about where the bottom line might reside.  The photograph above is a case in point.

The liberal assumption is that we identify individuals by their faces—or maybe by their clothing.  But here the camera focuses on the hand to the exclusion of any other bodily identifications.  In fact, what we see are two hands grasping one another. Gender is effaced, but so too nationality, or for that matter, any obvious political, or ideological differences.  But more to the point, is that there do not appear to be any clear signs of pain and injury—but somehow we know that both are present.  Ultimately, it is the caption that clues us to the particularities of the scene as it indicates that one hand belongs to  U.S. soldier who how has suffered the effects of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province, while the other belongs to a U.S. flight medic giving comfort and aid. But in a larger sense it is the grasping embrace itself—tight but also tender—that makes the point; perhaps it is something on the order of a universal sign of support and connection, of contact at a moment of crisis or distress, that underscores the  fundamental humanity that is at stake.  The hands touch one another and in the process they touch us.

The hand, of course, with its opposable thumb, is uniquely human. As such, photographs that feature only the hand become synecdoches for the human experience and by extension models of human polity.  Indeed, the gestural iconography in which hands are employed to communicate the sentiments of public life is far ranging and complex, but at its heart is a collective rather than idiosyncratic or personal experience. The reaction of one person to an event might be a human-interest story, and the deeply personal experiences of private life can achieve profound resonance in literature or other arts, but photojournalism typically depicts experiences that are created by common conditions.  A photograph that focuses solely on the hand can intensify and amplify those conditions.  What matters in the photograph above, then, is that care is being enacted at a moment of distress.  It matters little that we know the individual identity of the people involved.  The photograph communicates the experience of caring and connection, and so offers the realm of collective experience as a model for human engagement.

But there is more, for when such a photograph is placed in comparison with other “similar” photographs, as in a slide show on the Casualties of War, the “gesture” operates in multiple registers that serve not only as models of behavior, but also invite social and political judgments.  So then, we find this photograph:

Once again all measures of identity are effaced and one would not know that this was a young Afghan girl suffering from a shrapnel wound but for the caption.  Nor in one sense, at least, does it really matter, for now the context has changed, and not just because the gesture within the image itself seems a bit more clinical, but because together the two photographs (and others in the same slide show) serve as a gesture to the real cost of war—this war or any war—as fundamentally human.  When faces and uniforms are foregrounded it is hard to lose sight of the fundamental humanity at stake; when focusing on hands alone it is clear that the photograph itself is not simply a window on the world, but indeed is a mechanism for gesturing to aspects of the world that are otherwise difficult to see.

Photo Credit:  Johannes Eisele, AFP/Getty Images


Don’t Believe Everything you Hear

Google “What do the occupiers want?” and you will come up with something like 17 million hits in les than 0.1 seconds.  Everyone, apparently, wants to know. The problem, of course, is that just as with Freud’s question “what do women want?,” the very inquiry is tongue-in-cheek as it presumes there is no answer that can be reasonably accommodated under the prevailing regime of logic that animates it.  For Freud, of course, that was the law of the Father, and for those who challenge the Wall Street occupiers it is the logic of the market.  And in each case it presumes something like a rational, oral/verbal response.

Lacking a spokesperson or unified voice however does not mean that the occupiers are without a sense of purpose or desire however inchoate it might seem to be.   One simply has to observe what they are doing.  That is, rather than to listen to what they say they want, one needs to see how they conduct themselves.  And when one substitutes sight for sound—photographs for sound bytes—it begins to become clear on par that this is a humane, ordered, and indeed rational movement however fragmented it might be in its particular instantiations from one city or locale to the next.

Yes, it is true that the Oakland anarchists challenged this characterization in ways that give the illusion of credence to Eric Cantor’s depiction of the occupiers writ-large and across the nation as an unruly mob, but notwithstanding all of the coverage that the mainstream media gave to such—remember, “if it bleeds it leads”—the Oakland disturbances remain the aberration.  The clear exception to the rule.  And the rule has been the somewhat ordered development of tent cities that have been attentive to problems of nutrition, sanitation, and even health care.

Most of the photographs that we see in the mainstream media feature the occupiers in actual protest mode, holding up signs, engaging in street theater, marching or holding hands in solidarity, staring down the police, and so on.  And when we see them encamped they are usually sitting on the ground or on sleeping bags looking somewhat bored.  But occasionally photographs slip through that show the encampments themselves, ordered and fairly clean given the circumstances (except in those places, such as Denver, where the police rousted the tent cities and left them in shambles); or people lining up at food tables, serving and being served, and so on.  And sometimes we see images such as the one above that show the members of the community working altogether rationally to sustain itself in the face of adversity.  According to the caption this photograph was taken in Zuccotti park and it shows the “protestors” charging high-capacity boat batteries that have been retrofitted with small generators after the police confiscated their gas powered generators citing safety concerns. Adapt and adopt seems to be the rule.

I like this photograph in large part because it features the foot rather than the face, or more to the point, it features the shoe. Lots of shoes, actually, including the work boot, a black oxford, and an ankle boot.  There may even be a sneaker in the background, though it is hard to be certain.  But in any case, the emphasis on shoe and style calls attention to the pluralist world that is being organized and brought together.  Race, age, and even class are largely effaced, while perhaps gender maintains some presence (but even a woman can wear a work boot or ride a cycle!). And so what we get is not a sense of the individuals involved, who remain altogether anonymous and unspoken, but the articulation of social types all seemingly working in tandem towards a common goal.  Indeed, the photograph is in some measure an allegory for the body politic.  But instead of  an organic, idealized, or essentialist political body marked by the “official spokesperson,” we see a body politic adapted to the conditions of contemporary political life: a body politic that is fragmented, realistic, and provisional. In short, the photograph shows a conception of public life that is no longer whole—in the most traditional sense—but is nevertheless active and engaged and in its own way successful.  It is, in short, an image of a pluribus without an unum, a plurality that need not be be reduced to a stultifying One.  A public that is animated by common needs and goals without ignoring—or being reduced to—stylized differences.

What do the Wall Street occupiers want?  It is hard to say. But then again, one really just needs to look in order to begin to figure it out.

Photo Credit:  John Minchillo/AP Photo