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Seeing Through the Colors of Carnaval

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Lent is upon us, and that means the Carnaval season, with its abundance of hyperbolic, bodily exaggerations and all around revelry that mark a world turned upside down.  And, of course, there is a profusion of lavish colors; a coordination of fluorescent reds and yellows and blues and greens, all of which underscore the festive nature of the event, but more importantly accent the relief from the regular conventions and constraints of everyday life.  Indeed, the combination of bodily excesses and explosions of color has made Carnaval a prime destination for photographers and every year the slide shows at all of the major news outlets comply by featuring a profusion of such images of the event in Brazil and around the world (see, e.g., here, here, and here).  If one didn’t know better the regularity and regular similarities of such slide shows might appear to be motivated by a commercial interest in advertising La Paz or Rio de Janeiro and other similar locations as sites for tourists in search of an exotic holiday.  What is missing, of course, is any sense for the history of the celebration or its close connection to nationalist sensibilities as it appears both naturalized and commodified.

But, of course, Carnaval is more than just a commercialized, global event designed to attract tourists with its outrageous revelry.  And so we have this image from the celebration in a rural community in Trinidad.

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Here too we have the appeal to bodily excess and exaggeration, and with it a marking (and mocking) of the conventions of everyday life, though the appeal is to a more localized history of colonial control. I am especially drawn to the tension between the exaggerated, historical costumes and the somewhat dainty parasols on the one hand, and the contemporary footwear on the other.  I don’t know if those are Nikes or Adidas or some other internationally marketed running shoe, but they are as uniform as the rest of the costumes being paraded about, and both no doubt speak to the colonial influences that have been imposed upon Trinidad from abroad, both then and now.  Few are likely to flock to rural Trinidad for an exotic vacation, but that doesn’t mean that the celebration of Carnaval that takes places there is any the less interesting or worthy of consideration.

But there is another point to be made, and it concerns the contrast between color and black and white photography.  There was a time not so very long ago that one would rarely if ever see a color photograph in a newspaper or in most magazines (National Geographic would have been the most notable exception).  That changed within the past twenty years or so, and now color photography has become something of the photojournalistic norm with black and white photographs relegated largely to the world of art photography. When black and white photographs were the norm, color photography underscored the ways in which the grey tones of black and white images were an artistic representation that was and was not the reality being displayed.  And now that color photography has become more-or-less the norm, black and white photography operates in something of the same register, albeit in reverse, reminding us that the tonality of an image—and no less the tonality of the society that we are seeing—implicates and is implicated by the manner in which it is constructed and represented.

Photo Credits: Juan Karita/AP; Pablo Delano/Trinity College

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Ironing Out the Wrinkles

We appreciate rituals at NCN.  And surely the run up to a statewide, presidential primary election is nothing if it is not ritualistic.  And one need only look at the many slideshows on the recent Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary to take a measure of the homespun, hand shaking, baby kissing, “impromptu” barbershop/hardware store/local diner visiting, town hall meeting rituals that are repeated ad nauseum, state by state, party by party, and year after year.

Given that the current primary election season begin nearly a year ago and has been running virtually nonstop ever since, one might expect that we would have something to say about the way in which it has been documented photographically within the public, visual culture. But the truth of the matter is that the various campaigns have been something of an embarrassment, more a caricature of themselves than anything else.  If someone like Mel Brooks were to spoof the current contest for the Republican nomination it is impossible to imagine how he could cast it better than to have the candidates play themselves or how he could script it better than to have them repeat their own lines on cue.  We simply have not been able to bring ourselves to speak to the issue because, for the most part, the photographic record has followed the pattern of a timeworn template of visual tropes that have represented this campaign and the various pretenders to the title of “the not Romney” as if it was like any other. It isn’t, of course, but photographers have had a difficult time documenting the differences.

The photograph above may be a good star at challenging the norms, in its own way a perfect parody for the present primary campaign season.  One of the goals of a primary political campaign is to give the candidates an opportunity to metaphorically “iron out the wrinkles” in their positions and policies. That hasn’t happened, of course, as just about every candidate has taken his or her turn rising to the top only to fall all over themselves in slapstick fashion, their wrinkles intact and in most cases all the worse for the wear.   But in the end there is Governor Romney, his hair carefully coifed and even his American flag—captioned and signed—carefully (one might say “obsessively”) steam ironed so that none of its wrinkles will show. What began as a metaphor to explain the political process in the language of everyday life has returned, in all of its banality, as a literal practice.  As such, the photograph suggests, the stage is empty, as is the campaign itself writ large … little more than a vacant podium, a flag that is being prepared by a stagehand to give the illusion of being perfect, and an empty platitude.  It is hard to believe that this is any way to elect a candidate for the presidency.

Photo Credit: Jim Wilson/NYT

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Going Gaga Over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

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Notwithstanding the oratorical skills of Lady Gaga, the U.S. Senate voted today to block debate on a bill designed to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  It might be easy to lay the blame on the forty Republican Senators, bolstered by two renegade Democrats (plus the majority leader whose vote was a procedural ploy that allows him to reprise the bill at a later date), who voted against letting the bill come to the floor for debate, but that would be to ignore any number of complicating issues, such as efforts by the Democratic majority to add contentious amendments to the bill concerning immigration policy.  All of which is to say that its not exactly clear what specific interests were being served here on either side of the aisle.

One might imagine this as standard operating procedure for a legislative body that seems intent on letting partisan political self-interest stand in the way of national interest, and hardly worthy of note but for the presence of Lady Gaga.  What is interesting here is how the national media has given significant attention to her ersatz protest rally without fully recognizing the way in which her transparently self-conscious spectacle is not just an appeal for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but is also (and maybe more) a parody of the mass mediated political process itself.  To get the point, notice how many if not most of the reports on her rally are primarily if not exclusively photographic, almost to the exclusion of any consideration of what she actually had to say. The irony, of course, is that a quasi-faux rally cast as political spectacle received far more coverage than the presumably unintentional spectacle of actual Senators deciding the fate of the military.

Perhaps the most interesting representation of the Lady Gaga rally occurred in the pictures of the day slide show at the Washington Post.   Despite the possible significance of the Senate filibuster on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the pictures of the day at WAPO feature a photographer at a photo fair in France trying on a pair of 3-D glasses, a child in Slovenia sitting next to his friends on a curb and with a bucket on his head, and Bristol Palin displaying her legs in a PR shot for the television show “Dancing with the Stars.”  There are no pictures regarding the debate over gays in the military.  Or at least not at first glance.  But as one moves through the thirty seven images in the slide show one eventually comes across the above photo of Lady Gaga, public advocate, characterized as “rail[ing] against what she call[s] the injustice of having goodhearted gay soldiers booted from military service, while straight soldiers who harbor hatred toward gays are allowed to fight for their country.” The alternative she prefers, we are told, is to “target straight soldiers who are ‘uncomfortable’ with gay soldiers in their midst.” That the caption fails to acknowledge either the irony or the parody of Lady Gaga’s performance is underscored by the two photographs that follow.

The first of these photographs shows a “former” member of the Air Force taking a picture of the rally.

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Perhaps he is one of those “good hearted gay soldiers,” but nothing in the photograph suggests as much.  Indeed the photograph suggests incoherence as much as anything. Shot in long distance we see only his face and hands as they peek up from behind a poster to take a picture for Twitter of the anonymous and faceless audience waving hands.  The background shows a large American flag, but its meaning is made ambiguous by the somewhat incomprehensible legend on the poster that implores the audience to “Leave them Speechless.”  Lacking any reference to context, the overall effect of the photograph is one of clutter and confusion. And as a result, the political and parodic effects of the rally are muted, or worse, made to appear senseless.

It is the second photograph, however, that by contrast politicizes the slideshow, suggesting an antidote to the apparently incoherent spectacle of Lady Gaga’s rally.

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Here we have a member of the Army National Guard preparing to leave for a training assignment in Texas and a subsequent deployment to Iraq.  Shot in medium close-up, a soldier (not a “former soldier”) and his wife say goodbye.  It is a tender moment.  The two lovers gaze into each others eyes as he offers solace by placing his left hand on top of her right wrist, while her right hand gently supports her chin in a gesture that suggests a degree of vulnerability.  It is hard to tell if she is smiling or crying, and probably she is doing a little of both given the stresses and strains of the impending separation.  He is apparently “straight,” but it is hard to imagine him harboring “hatred” towards anyone, let alone why he should be “targeted.  Indeed, though this is a scene of separation and not reunion, and while he is not a sailor nor she a nurse, one can nevertheless imagine them embracing in Time Square to the nodding approval of the public that views them.

And therein lies the problem. For what gives this photograph its affective power is the way in which it visually repeats the conventions of the famous Times Square Kiss. It not only foregrounds traditional, heteronormative assumptions, but it does so by valorizing a private moment in a public space.    Of course there is nothing especially new here.  We have long sought to manage our anxieties about war and the military by normalizing our understandings in the context of a sentimentalized heteronormativity.  To get the full effect, imagine two men or two women in the same pose.  And, that, of course, is the point.  Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Sentimentality, it seems, trumps parody … or at least in this case.  But in truth, both scenes are media spectacles that demand more careful attention than the tired and nonchalant glance they are too often given by contemporary media.

Photo Credits: Joel Page/Reuters, Pat Wellenbach/AP, Joe Jaszewski/AP

Crossposted at BagNewsNotes

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