Hot off the presses! And with a full color photo-essay by Nina Berman.
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.)
In the U.S. we tend to think of protests as extraordinary events that mark a disruption in the everyday. We assume that they are performed by rabble-rousers or activist fanatics for one cause or another, or by people who don’t have more important things to do with their time, not by responsible citizens with jobs and families to raise. And more, they block traffic, get in the way of commerce, and generally force the rest of to think about things that most of us would rather just let be, even if we disagree with them. In short, protests operate in the more or less rarified context of the political, a space which presumably stands over and against the social and, in any case, confounds what purports to be the normal and natural rhythms of ordinary life. Keep politics localized in Washington D.C. or in the State House, but don’t make me late for work or get in the way of the marketplace. That’s our motto.
The photograph above tells a somewhat different story. According to the caption these are anti-government protestors on their way to the barricades in Kiev to continue their challenge to the government of Ukrainian President Yanukovich. They could just as easily be on their way to a factory job. Neither hurried nor agitated, they move along the sidewalk at a normal pace, just as the woman walking in the opposite direction in the street moves at an equally steadied pace. Indeed, each seems to be guided by the normal and natural rhythms of the day. And note too that she pays them no attention, not in the manner of actively ignoring them, but in the way that we typically fail to acknowledge the others we pass in the street. They belong there with their homemade shields, as does she with her stylish bag, each going about the business of the day. The barricades they are about to populate have been maintained for sometime now, and as most of the photographs representing the remonstrations against the Yanukovich government indicate, the battles lines between the police and protestors are tightly drawn, with blood being spilt on both sides of the divide. In short, these protests are not a simple disruption in the everyday. Rather, as photographs of protests around the world—everywhere from Bangkok, Hebron, Kosovo, and Tuzla … and that is just this week—indicate, like it or not, such activities and the politics that they engage are part and parcel of the workaday world.
No one—and certainly not us here at NCN—wants to see the kind of violence affiliated with such protests worldwide reenacted anywhere in the United States. But it might do for all of us to recognize that our world might be a better place if we were to acknowledge the everydayness of political protests as pointing to something more than just a rarefied political activity and not to be content with leaving the world of politics to the politicians alone. Put differently, activities like political protests are part of the work of being a citizen and they should be honored as such.
Photo Credit: Gleb Garanich/Reuters
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
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
There is no shortage of photographs of riot police containing protests against austerity measures instituted by various countries in the European Union, from Germany to Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and beyond, including most recently Turkey, which has made application to join the EU. And there is nothing particularly distinctive about the vast majority of these images as they pit generally youthful and bedraggled unemployed protestors against state security forces dressed in black riot gear that might well be the late modern version of medieval armor, prominently wielding riot shields, batons and tear gas grenades. The conflict marked by these photographs is altogether generic and but for the occasional signage in Greek or French or Slovenian they are all interchangeable with one another. They could be anywhere in Europe, a feature that contributes to naturalizing the image as it signifies an “other” world wholly distinct from the US. And at least one implication is, “it can’t happen here.”
The photograph above caught my eye because despite the fact that it is similar in many regards to the numerous other such images of European austerity protests it is distinctive in one important respect that warrants our attention. Shot outside the Parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona it shows Spanish police forces advancing on Spanish firefighters with their riot batons raised. What makes this image distinct is not so much the aggressive stance taken by the police—as disturbing as the poised baton, ready to strike, is—but the fact that they appear to be attacking other civil servants who are also sworn agents of the State. In short, we are not just witnesses to an instance of civic unrest; rather, we are spectators of a more profound, extreme civic disorder that borders on something like mutiny or perhaps even civil war. Put simply, we are viewing the State fighting against itself in a manner that challenges the very legitimacy of whatever it is that the police officers are “defending.” One can only wonder how long a State can persist under such conditions?
Austerity hounds in the US have faced a number of strong challenges in recent weeks stemming from the fact that the economic scholarship which presumed to ground their case has been proven to be seriously flawed. This has not stopped them from repeating their mantra, that “we don’t want to end up like Greece or Spain.” There are good reasons why the fiscal crisis in the US is different than that in the EU and thus the analogy doesn’t apply all that directly. That said, the photograph above suggests one of the potential risks of too austere a response to the recession that we certainly don’t want to see in the US. We probably don’t face a strong likelihood of this happening at the present moment as unemployment and other signs of large scale economic improvement like housing prices seem to be rebounding—albeit at a snail’s pace; but if those pushing for something on the order of the Ryan Budget in the House were to get their way it is not impossible to imagine how a growing number of “have not’s” could be pushed to the outer limits of their ability to sustain themselves. And if that were to happen images very much like the one above might become more than just a bad nightmare, giving a different meaning to the plaint that “we don’t want to end up like Greece or Spain.”
Photo Credit: Paco Serenelli/AP
This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama. By many accounts it was the tipping point in generating national public support for the civil rights movement, and much of that effect is often attributed to the national news reports that showed Birmingham police officers using attack dogs and fire hoses on nonviolent protestors. Chief among the most famous of those images is Bill Hudson’s photograph of high school student Bill Gadsden being attacked by a police dog. It appeared the next day, May 4th, above the fold in the New York Times and has been reprinted perhaps more than any other image affiliated with the civil rights movement. The photograph was memorialized in a statue in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park in 1993, fixing the meaning of the civil rights movement as a response to repressive state action.
There is much that could be said about this photograph, but perhaps most important is the way in which it puts the relationship between dominance and acquiescence on public display. Prior to the Boycott in Birmingham one could find photographs that visualized the ways in which white citizens sought to enforce the codes of social and racial hierarchy through verbal and physical intimidation, the most prominent example being the photograph of Hazel Barnes “barking” at Elizabeth Eckrich in the streets of Little Rock. But typically such images located the agency of such control in the hands of civil society, i.e., ordinary citizens. Here the agents of action are duly authorized police officers armed with guns and in control of highly trained attack dogs. And of course that marks a huge difference. Indeed, it should be of little surprise to anyone that the scene above, cast in the full light of day and executed by officers of the state, was characterized as a “legal lynching.”
To see the image through the haze of memory and framed by the contemporary consensus that state sponsored racial segregation was a profound injustice destined to be eliminated by a truly egalitarian society is in some ways to dull the effective, functional power of the image at its point of production and dissemination–however powerful it remains today. But imagine seeing the photograph in 1963 and in the context of reports made by the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” O’Connor, that the protestors were a serious threat to public security.
The young man in the photograph does not appear to be a threat to anybody. Note in particular his somewhat passive stance. Despite being viciously attacked by a police dog his right hand rests at his side, while his left hand is on the police officers arm in a manner that seems either to be steadying himself or pushing the police officer away. We might imagine a much more defensive or even aggressive stance in response to such an attack, but here we have an almost textbook example of nonviolent resistance.
The lack of threat is manifest in other features of the image. Notice, in particular the countenance of the two police officers. One seems to be pulling the youth into the dog’s maw, not so much trying to subdue him as to hold him still while the dog attacks. The other police officer, with a handgun prominently displayed in its holster, heels his dog while he observes the scene before him. One might imagine that if the black youth were truly a threat, so much so as to warrant the use of a dog to attack him, that the second police officer would be more directly and actively engaged. Surely he would have his dog assisting in subduing the suspect, or that he would have pulled his gun. But nothing of the like happens. And the reason is manifest, for the action in the center of the screen is not about public safety. Rather it is a public spectacle put on display for the enjoyment of the second police officer (and who he represents) and for the intimidation of the black citizens in the background.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was challenged by reticent and fearful black religious leaders in Birmingham with the question, why are you here, he responded, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” Injustice can be a difficult concept to put into words, but once made palpably visible it is difficult to ignore. Sometimes we have to look closely to see it for what it is, sometimes it is there simply waiting to be seen.
Photo Credit: Bill Hudson/AP
It has been a full year since Japan was overwhelmed by an earthquake and tsunami and like clockwork the major media slideshows have responded with a series of “then” and “now” photographs (e.g., here, here, and here) marking the slow but steady progress of an advanced society—in many regards a society much like our own—as it returns from utter devastation to a bustling, self-sustaining economy. It has not fully returned, but it is on the path to recovery and the comparisons surely invite our sympathy and admiration. In January we saw a similar set of visual comparisons (e.g., here) on the one year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, but with this difference: while it appears that Haiti has recovered some from the disaster, it continues to be an impovrished, utterly dependent, “other world” nation that invites neither our identification nor our sympathy so much as our pity.
The differences between Japan and Haiti are signified in a multiplicity of ways, not least in how the devastation in Japan seems to have been largely structural, effecting roads, bridges, buildings, and other forms of physical property, whereas the devastation in Haiti has been more social and economic, exacerbating an already starving, unemployed, uneducated, and generally impecunious population. The above photograph is telling in this regard. It is a photograph of lost photographs collected in a local school gymnasium in Natori, Japan, waiting for their owners to seek them out and recover them. Some are quite obviously old, perhaps even antique, and thus mark a sense of historical continuity that spans generations and thus mitigates the impact of the more recent and comparatively minor “then”/”now” dialectic that commemorates no more than a span of twelve months. But perhaps more importantly, these photographs are obviously cherished items, their value signified not just by the fact that they are framed and were thus objects of display in the home, but because they were patiently and laboriously culled from the detritus left behind by the earthquake and tsunami and collected with the hope that they would be found by their respective owners.
Collection centers such as the one above can be found throughout Japan, and some are down right enormous as in the photograph below which identifies a site that contains more than 250,000 photographs . And the point should be clear: more than lost property, these lost photographs are quite clearly significant momento mori, cultural artifacts that identify the society that takes them and preserves them as a modern, technologically sophisticated, bourgeois civilization (not that one has to be bourgeois to take and keep photographs, and the practice of snapshot photography cuts across all economic classes where it is an established cultural convention, but it rarely occurs in societies that lack an established middle-class).
And so it is that when we turn to retrospectives of Haiti we don’t find the preservation of family photographs at all. That is not to say that photographs are unimportant, but as with the image below, they signify not an established, modern cultural practice, but rather a modernist intervention of sorts.
Here a Haitian woman shows a photograph of herself as she was pulled from the rubble of a house that had fallen upon her. The photograph was taken by an AP photographer and then given to her. It is clear that she values it, but importantly it is more a curiosity—or perhaps a marker of humanitarian aid—than a conventional cultural artifact, and as such it designates the society in which she lives as pre-technological if not in fact premodern. One finds a similar curiosity and intrigue displayed and accented in photographs that show Haitian children (here and here) being introduced to cameras and photography by the Art in All of Us project.
The simple point would be to notice how two societies are distinguished by their attitudes towards photographic technology: one modern and mature, the other premodern and either immature or innocent, but in any case defined as childlike and needy. But perhaps more important is the way in which the photographs above function in each instance as media that model social relations, inviting us to see and be seen as members of a social order driven by the differences that simultaneously separate us and connect us. That, perhaps more than anything, defines the modern condition.
Photo Credits: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images; Toru Hanai/Reuters; Dieu Nalio Chery/AP Photo
The woman above is a beggar. The scene is Pamplona, Spain, but there is nothing that marks its location per se. In point of fact, within the last six months I’ve seen the almost identical scene in New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis. And my guess is that others have seen it in many other cities and towns as well. Or maybe not. For while such scenes are all too present we have conditioned ourselves not to notice, to be blind to the situation. Indeed, we teach our children that it is impolite to stare at such people, and I fear that we learn our lessons all too well, choosing as adults not just to avoid staring but to take comfort in not seeing them at all. The problem that is created is a vexing one, as the photograph illustrates: The poor, the unemployed, the homeless are compelled to perform their abjection in public as a means of survival, but at the same time they must shroud themselves under the veil of a shadow, seeable but not noticeable, observable but not seen. It is hardly a situation conducive to encouraging public assistance, but then that doesn’t seem to be its purpose. Indeed, it seems to underscore a public-private dichotomy that forces (enables?) us to imagine (but never really see) the downtrodden as private individuals and not as members of a public, civic community.
What makes this photograph provocative is how it reminds us that we are all subject to the veil of the shadow. Notice how those passing by, whether walking to or fro, cast (or are cast in?) their own shadows. There is a difference, of course, as the shadows of those walking are dynamic, exuding a sense of agency, while those of the beggar are altogether static, belying any sense of intentional action whatsoever. In an important sense, however, the difference is minimal, no more really than a function of how the light casts its rays upon us—illuminating or hiding us by turns. And when we see the photograph in this context it is not difficult to imagine how quickly the roles played by the actors in the scene above can be reversed as casting a shadow morphs all too easily into being contained by one. In a sense, one might say, the photograph stands as a visual reminder of the cultural aphorism, “there but for the Grace of God …”
It is a humbling lesson, but one all the more important for it if we are to recognize and attend to the precarious and profound economic differences that seem to separate us.
Alvaro Barrientos/AP Photo
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