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Seeing With Our Feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“… My Kingdom for a Drink of Water”

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Yes, I know, the quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard III concerns horses and not water, but then there was a time when horses were scarcer than water and at least arguably more important to survival.  Those days are gone. And we didn’t need the most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to make the point or to underscore its importance.  Such reports have been made over and again in recent years indicating that water shortages are accelerating throughout the world as patterns of industrial and agricultural usage are increasingly polluting both ground water and the water table, and consumption is outstripping renewable sources at progressively alarming rates. Nor is the problem one that is only taking place in underdeveloped regions or nations, as those living in California or West Texas can immediately and readily attest.

The photograph above is not from California or West Texas, but shows those living on the southern bank of the Yangon River in Myanmar using paint cans to collect drinking water during the annual dry season in which water shortages have led to the drying up of the reservoirs, forcing local elders to create rationing systems.  And yet, while it is not California or West Texas it is not all that difficult to imagine how it could be in the altogether near future—or perhaps one of the other 34 states that the GAO anticipates will face water shortages in the near term.  To get the point one needs to avoid focusing on the bare feet and rusted out paint cans that have been repurposed as water containers, let alone the brown skin, all of which underscore something other than a first world experience, and concentrate instead on how the photograph directs attention to the way(s) in which the need for water dominates everyday life in an otherwise visually indistinct location.  There was a time when we would look at photographs of exotic locations and imagine that “their present is our past”; what we see here, however, is the way in which water is the great leveler that perhaps predicts that their present is our future.

The photograph did not receive much attention in the national media.  I found it in a “pictures of the day” slide show at the Seattle Times nestled between images of a moving sculpture at a music festival in California and men warming themselves at a fire near the barricades at a Ukrainian security office proximate to the Russian border.  As one more sluice of life incidentally contrasting the hardships of life “there” to the fun and festivities of life “here,” it would be altogether easy to miss, or merely to glance past without paying too much attention to it. Indeed, there was a time, not so long ago, when photographs of this sort would show up in places like National Geographic where readers would be encouraged to view the “present” of indigenous people in such exotic locations as “our past,” the assumption being that one day they too can experience the progress that modernity promises; here, however, it would seem that their present is cast as “our future.”  Or more to the point, it is a future that is already present without our clear recognition of it.

What makes the photograph all the more poignant is not just the way in which it serves as a kind of foreboding prophecy, but more, as it functions as something of an allegory for how to imagine the very problem of water shortage itself.  Note how the scene underscores the necessity of performing a careful balancing act, both socially and environmentally, to make the system of water recovery work. More to the point, note in particular not just how feet and hands strain so as to maintain equipoise on the balancing beam, but also how both participants need to coordinate with the other so as to avoid disrupting the overall ecology in which each operates. Whether or not we can actually adjust our contemporary patterns of resource usage and consumption so as to effect a sustainable world is open to question. But it will take effort and strain, and surely the appeal to “balance” that makes this system appear to work is more than worth the effort; indeed, it seems altogether necessary.

The bigger point, of course, is that solutions to such problems are right before us if we are willing to see them.  And photographs such as this, however subtle or otherwise hidden within the visual landscape, can serve as a powerful optic to help us do just that.  Look.  See. Engage.

Credit:  Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

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Seeing and Being Seen Through the Eyes of Anja Niedringhaus: In Memorium

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I was saddened—and more, really, thoroughly distressed—to learn of the tragic death of photojournalist Anja Niedringhuas in Afghanistan’s Khost Province, murdered by a rogue Afghan police officer as she was preparing to photograph the upcoming elections in that country.  Her photography was a testament to what photojournalism at its best enables, which is not simply an objective view of the world, but a complex realism that acknowledges its reliance on a  capacious sense of imagination.  “Imagination” is not mere fancy—the mind at play with things it already knows—but rather a way of extraordinary seeing that allows us to project our sight beyond the horizon of ordinary observation or conventional belief.  Put differently, the photograph is always an indexical imitation of some part of  reality, but also a way of seeing that reality more extensively, whether as through the lens of a microscope or a telescope.

The photograph above is in many ways emblematic of Anja Niedringhaus’s considerable archive of photographs (e.g., see here, here, and here) from Afghanistan.  What makes it interesting for me is precisely how it puts seeing and being seen in tension with one another.  On the one hand we have a child playing as if she were an adult (no different in this regard than a young girl in the US trying to walk in her mother’s high heeled shoes), and thus being seen, and at the same time underscoring what it might mean to see from that perspective, one’s sight obscured by the screen that alters what can be seen. And indeed, the photograph shows the young girl adapting to the change in perspective as her hands frame what the screen in the burqa already limits and obscures.   The photograph below, shot at a separate moment in time, provides the reverse shot, focusing more on seeing than being seen.

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One could make much from these two photographs about how women are seen and what they are able or allowed to see in Islamic cultures, but there is a different point I want to emphasize here as these two photographs double for how the photograph as an optical medium itself works, always and already positioning us as those who see and those who are seen. And as the two photographs above demonstrate, seeing and being seen are not altogether innocent activities (think again of the young girl walking around in her mothers shoes), but are traversed by vectors of power and colonized by societies and their institutions.  And it is when the photograph accesses its capacity to energize the imagination in this capacity that it removes us from the world of simple questions of who, what, where, when, and why—all important questions, to be sure—and helps us to see questions of relevance, resonance, and engagement.  In short, they can help to pull us out of our ordinary indifference, and perhaps to challenge—or at least acknowledge—conventional wisdom or denial.  It shows us as “seeing” and “seen” subjects.

Anja Niedringhaus was a master at employing her art—and let there be no mistake, photojournalism is a public art— to display a more nuanced realism that prodded us to see the world in extraordinary ways and thus to imagine what it might mean to associate with others—to see and to be seen—in a more humane fashion.

RIP

Photo Credit: Anya Niedringhaus/AP Photo

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As Time Goes By

Kiss in war

Two lovers caught in a passionate embrace.  He on the left, she on the right.  Their faces barely recognizable as their bodies meld into one another.  Oblivious to all that surrounds them, it is a tender, private, intimate moment in a public space.

At first blush it could be two individuals (once again) performing the now famous Times Square Kiss in a modern setting.  But look again.  The differences are both subtle and profound.  Neither is wearing a recognizable uniform.  She is actively engaged in the kiss, her arms pulling him towards her as much as (if indeed not more than) he is pulling her towards him. Notice for example how his right arm seems barely to be holding her while her arms reach fully around him, holding him in place. More interesting still is the fact that she is holding a slab of concrete in one hand, her finger nails giving the impression of being freshly manicured.  If the sign of the kiss in the original photograph was animated by an aggressive, masculine representation of state military power, here the kiss is no less a sign of aggression—it is hard to imagine that the concrete slab would be used as anything other than a weapon, particularly given that the caption tells us that this is taken at the site of a protest—but it is now no longer institutionalized by the state and it is gendered feminine.  Last, and perhaps most important, while the kissers are plainly and visibly in a public space, there are no onlookers who can channel a public attitude about what is going on.  Indeed, there is a clear sense of voyeurism here as we, the viewers, seem to be intruding on an altogether private moment.

 So what are we to make of this photograph?  The caption identifies the kissers as protestors in Caracas, Venezuela, the site of prolonged and massive public protests against rampant crime, protracted food shortages, and an altogether ineffective and authoritarian government.  The government crackdown against such protests has resulted in nearly forty deaths and hundreds of injuries, leading to demands for investigation by the Organization of American States (OAS).  That too has produced its own manner of controversy as the OAS leadership challenged the legitimacy of opposition leader Maria Corina Machado to address the body.  When she was finally allowed to speak, the sessions were held behind closed doors; one member of the OAS noted that the meetings would be conducted “With total transparency: In privacy.” The photograph above seems to mock this “war is peace, slavery is freedom” logic as it failingly purports to perform intimacy in a public space under the broken veil of privacy.  There may be no viewing public observable to legitimize the union, but then of course there is the camera and our own spectatorial gaze which gives the lie to the whole process.  Transparency in private is at best a comfortable fiction and at worst an intentional deception.

There is an additional dimension to the photograph that bears attention, and it has relatively little to do per se with the economic and political turmoil in Venezuela.  Instead, it concerns how we understand  Alfred Eisenstadt’s Times Square Kiss and all it stands for in our cultural memory.  The original kiss photograph took place on the occasion of VJ Day and the end of World War II.  It is often remarked as illustrating the return to normalcy.  But its contrast with the image above helps to reveal how constructed the conventions of such normalcy can be: men kissing women, women being kissed; the legitimation of violence as a manifestation of masculine, state governed military institutions; the forced separation of Eros and Thanatos; the performance of intimacy in public, and so on.  All such constructions—or should we call them “comfortable fictions”— indicate a particular worldview, to be sure, and perhaps even one that we might want to endorse, but the point is that it is particular, not universal.  Each photograph shows “a” truth, or many such truths, but certainly not “the” truth, however objective the photographic representation of the event on hand might be.

As the song says, a kiss is just a kiss … or is it?

Photo Credit: Christian Veron/Reuters

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Playing Jeopardy

Sticks and Stones

Photographs of Palestinians hurling stones or aiming slingshots  at Israeli troops are a dime a dozen.  They are so common that we don’t even need to see the Israelis, or for that matter a caption, to know what it is that we are being shown.   Indeed, a week barely goes by without one or two such photographs appearing in this or that mainstream internet news slideshows, lodged, as the image above, in between images of pole dancers in Sydney, grief-stricken relatives of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, a farmer racing his Oxen through a rice paddy at the annual Kakkoor Kalavayal festival (it is in India, look it up, I had to!), and sunbathers in Nice.

So what exactly is going on here? By one account the stone throwers are performing for the camera, and there may be some of that going on, but such an account begs the question as to why the photographers are so invested in the activity to begin with or why photo editors are so willing to pay heed to the images and to give them pride of place in their publications with such regularity.  One could argue that there is an anti-Israeli influence operating in the western media, as such images feature a stateless people fighting against a modern military state with the most primitive of weapons; but then again, one could just as easily also argue that there is a pro-Israeli influence in as much as what we are being shown are criminal malcontents disrupting the prevailing order of a legitimate, modern state.  And there is the rub, for in an important sense such photographs leave the question entirely open to discussion.

There are two thoughts worth considering here.  The first concerns the regularity of such photographs and their often random placement in slideshows that make them seem to be rather routine and ordinary events, if not also something like exotic curiosities on the order of annual pole dancing competitions, oxen races, or sunbathers.  From this perspective, of course, the viewer is cast as a passive spectator witnessing an event from afar with little real investment in what is going on.  There is something of a performative contradiction in this practice as the very regularity of the event, which should incline us to focus on its tragic significance—and I mean “tragic” regardless one’s particular political sympathies—seems to work against that understandng.  This is not a matter of so-called “compassion fatigue,” but rather an instance of turning attention against itself such that the regularity of the event normalizes it and thus mitigates its importance.  Ah yes, it’s springtime and so the sunbathers are out once again.  And the beat goes on.  And so the question might be, what is the point of the weekly slideshow and how are photos chosen for inclusion?

But there is a second and perhaps more pertinent concern:  If we take the time to look at the photograph as a singular event, what is it that our attention is being directed to?  Susan Sontag makes the point that photographs lack “a” narrative.  The article is important, for it is true enough that there is no single narrative animated by or contained by any photograph.   That is not the same, however, as saying that there are no narratives.  And indeed, as I’ve suggested above, there are at least two operative within this image, one which casts the Israeli state as the protagonist and one which casts it as the antagonist.   Perhaps both are correct.  And there are likely other narratives as well.  The point is that the photograph directs our attention to “an” event without necessary definition and encourages us—or more properly helps us —to imagine the range and register of useful questions to pose.

In a sense, engaging photographs is rather like playing the game of Jeopardy.  And the point, of course, is always to put your answer in the form of a question.

Photo Credit: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

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A Return to Normalcy (?)

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A sailor kissing a woman in public is not exactly news. But this photograph of a Russian sailor kissing a woman in St. Petersburg bears enough similarity to what is perhaps one of the most famous pictures in the American family photo album that it warrants just a little bit of consideration on our part.

Alfred Eisenstadt’s “Times Square Kiss”— often dubbed “Return to Normalcy”—marked VJ Day and the effective end of World War II.  Every ending is a beginning, of course, and so one might also imagine it as the beginning of the post war era which soon became known as the “Cold War” and extended until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The “War on Terror” has redefined our understanding of the East-West split in the intervening years and the Russian threat to the West has generally been muted by  its relatively weak economic condition and its willingness to cooperate on a number of small scale international initiatives. Muted, that is, until the Putin administration, which has demonstrated its willingness to resist entreaties from  the G8, NATO, and the United States on a range of issues beginning, not least, with the civil war in Syria.  And now with the Russian “occupation” of the Crimean peninsula and President Obama’s warning that this this will be seen as a serious threat to the US and the West, it is fair to say that we may be moving in a new and different direction in our mutual co-exsitence—and it is not entirely clear that we have an effective or useful vocabulary to describe the mentality that will govern this new relationship.  But back to the picture of the sailor and the woman kissing.

The photograph appeared in an on-line slide show on the Russian military that was posted two days before the Russian Parliament authorized a military takeover of the Crimea.  Most of the photographs in the slide show focus on members of the Russian military in training and, truth-to-tell, in many instances it would be difficult to distinguish what we see from training sequences in almost any modern military organization across the globe, including the US military. But there are also a number of photographs that mark the scene as distinctively Russian, and more, link Russia with the image of its authoritarian, anti-Western, Soviet past, including near iconic images of soldiers and tanks making their way through Moscow’s Red Square in a show of strength.  And then, near the middle of the slide show we find the picture of the kiss.  And one can only wonder what it is doing in a photo essay otherwise dedicated to posing the question: does the Russian military pose a threat to the West?  It could be an ironic gesture that serves to damper what else appears to be the projection of a hostile and belligerent nation state.  See, they are just like us, humans caught up in the worldly tensions between Eros and Thanatos, and we need to identify with them as such with all of their foibles intact.  Or, it could be a more cynical gesture to a “Return to Normalcy” where the war was “cold” and we could identify who our enemies were–after all, that’s not exactly Times Square in the background and the kissers are not exactly front and center.  Comedy or tragedy, its really a matter of what we choose to see.

Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted on the Sunday morning talk shows as indicating that the current situation “is not Rocky IV.”  We can only hope so, for it would be all too easy to “cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.”  We have had too much of that in recent years.  And so, to return to where we began, no, a sailor kissing in a woman in public is not exactly news.  But then again, perhaps that’s exactly the point.

Photo Credit: Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

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All That There Is To See

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The weather has been in the news a good deal lately.  Snow storms, sub-zero temperatures, ice dams, and so on, and of course each such weather event makes for all manner of beautiful and otherwise comforting photographs ranging from frozen water falls to children catching snowflakes on their tongues to individuals making snow angels in the street on Times Square.  There are also troubling photographs, such as those that feature the homeless forced to sleep on steam grates to capture any manner of warmth. And there are many others as well.  The photographs that have captured my attention, however, are those that call attention to the medium of photography itself, as with the photograph above (or here and here) that underscores the paradox in how the photographic image simultaneously shows and veils its subject.

According to the realist perspective, the photograph—at least in its pure form—is fundamentally the result of a mechanical, chemical, and/or digital process that captures all that there is to see within the frame of the lens.  A split second, captured and frozen in time.  The “truth” of the image is thus an objective reproduction of what was there to be seen, nothing more and nothing less.  Photographers point the camera, of course, and photo editors choose which photographs will be seen by others, and so we can’t avoid authorial intentions altogether, but nevertheless what the camera captures within its frame was there to be seen.  All of this is true enough, but what it is often missed from such a perspective is the way in which the photograph shows us how to see the world as caught in the tension between revealing and shrouding what there is to be seen.

The ice encrusted automobile is a case in point.  There is no question but that this is an automobile, the windshield wiper, the logo, and license plate all too obvious to anyone with a modern sensibility.  The object is clearly revealed as an automobile; but then again, not all that clearly so, for the actual manufacturer and the license plate themselves are veiled by the ice that coats everything and distorts the specifics of the vehicle beyond recognition.  What the image shows then is not just the effects of weather on the objects of everyday life and all that that implies—depending upon your perspective, i.e., aesthetic, sociological, meteorological, etc.—but the way in which the photograph itself envisions its own capacity—both its strengths and its limitations—to put the world on display.  In short, it shows all that there is to show, both what can be seen and what cannot be seen.

Photographs such as the one above are unique inasmuch as they emphasize the process of revealing and concealing when weather events get in the way of ordinary life, but the point to be made is that the same process is inherent to all so-called realistic photographic representations.  That is to say, realist photographic representations, like all representations in general, both enable and invite us to see some things to the exclusion of other things;  and that is one of the things that they are always showing us however much we fail to see it.

Photo Credit: Devon Ravine/AP

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Religion on its Way Back to Ordinary Time

Like press coverage more generally, photojournalism doesn’t really know what to do with religion.  Most of what is meaningful to the pious is experienced internally, subjectively, and away from the public gaze, while most of what is observable by outsiders can appear arbitrary, archaic, or ridiculous (or all three).

Prague Magi

This procession through the streets of Prague to celebrate the festival of Epiphany would seem to qualify. The mashup of Babylonian and medieval costumes seems right out of an old oil painting.  The alternation of festive and dutiful attitudes among the performers also seems appropriate, as between them they ensure that the ritual is only that and not an occasion for getting closer to God.

Most visual coverage of religion probably goes no further than the categories of Ritual, Rapture, and Violence: we watch as the devoted go through their curious motions, or are overcome by powerful emotions of anguished penance or spiritual connection, or are killing other people for having made the mistake of being born into the wrong faith.  Come to think of it, that does cover quite a bit of ground. . . .

Even so, much still is being overlooked, and perhaps necessarily so.  Any medium has its limits, whether the medium is spiritual or technological.  Let me suggest that something might be there to be learned nonetheless, and not just about religion.

I selected the photo above because it is actually among the more mundane examples of the season.  Between slow news cycle around Christmas and the end of year/new year transition, the slide shows are full of eye candy, and especially from the religious festivals.  The photo above falls within that pattern, but also within the dull routines, muted emotions, and general banality of the midwinter, work-a-day world that awaits everyone once the holidays are over.  That aesthetic and social downtime corresponds to what is known in the Christian liturgical calendar as Ordinary Time.  (I love that label.)  In the photo above, it’s almost as if the procession is passing through an aperture in time, moving methodically from the temporary, ritualized, make-believe disruptions provided by the holidays into the unif0rm, linear time of a modern, secular society.  I can almost imagine them going around the corner and vanishing, leaving only an empty street on another cloudy day.

Modernity itself knows no time other than ordinary time, an endless progression forward without any possibility for magical interludes, eternal returns, or other supernatural distortions.  So it is that religion, like violence, typically is thought of as a pre-modern holdover, another form of traditional folk culture that stubbornly persists but eventually will become negligible.

That may be, and that may be for the best, but I think the photograph above slyly suggests another possibility.  Instead of simply vanishing, perhaps, like the group in The Journey to the East, they might continue to exist after others stop believing in them; perhaps they could travel into another world, one of many alongside this one in a time out of time.  The procession would still be silly, somber, peculiar, and otherwise out of joint with the modern world, and the difference would be our loss.

Photograph by Michal Cizek/AFP-Getty Images.

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Immigration Policy and the Theater of the Absurd

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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

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Gun Laws and Visual Rhetoric: Shooting Open Carry Advocates

Molly Ivins, where are you when we need you?  I’ve got to think Texas’s own progressive columnist would have loved to sink her teeth into this story.

Open Carry Advocates front

It seems that a local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America was meeting in a suburban Dallas restaurant.  But before we go any further, I’ve gotta say that MDAGSA is not exactly a snappy acronym, and the name itself is no better.  Maybe people weren’t thinking about name ID when they formed the organization in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting.  Still, a strategic element is missing, which, as we shall see, is not limited to MDAGSA.

OK, where were we?  Oh, yeah, the meeting.  And then one of the moms looked up and saw people walking around outside carrying long rifles, including AR-15s and Ak-47s.  They had no reason to be worried, as those carrying the guns were law abiding citizens peacefully exercising their gun rights, but since the women were liberals, they of course felt threatened.  According to the New York Times report of the story: “I was terrified,” said one who was so scared she wouldn’t even give her name.  “They didn’t want to talk.  They wanted to display force.”

Which is just what the president and founder of Open Carry Texas expected to hear: “No matter what we do, they’re going to label us intimidating.  It doesn’t matter how we carry, where we carry.”  And there you have a perfectly good and all too typical example of how advocates on both sides of this contentious debate talk right past one another.  Guns are in fact differentially intimidating, and so those who are more scared are less likely to make distinctions that appear self-evident to those within a gun culture, who then are insufficiently empathetic.   And so it goes: liberals are then likely to reify gun violence in the gun–a claim countered by the bumper sticker that says that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”–while conservatives sneakily try to have it both ways–claiming both that guns will scare hardened criminals, terrorists, and tyrants, and that ordinary, unarmed citizens have no reason to be afraid of the armed strangers in their midst.

Which is why the photograph above is so interesting.  Open Carry Texas has a weekly gun walk, apparently to show citizens that they have nothing to be afraid of.  They decided to double the payoff for their weekly walk by staging a brief protest at the MDAGSA meeting.  The photo is obviously posed, and it would seem to be at once completely conventional and strategic.  It’s conventional because, other than for the guns, it conforms completely to the social and visual conventions of the social event group photo.  This is exactly what you would see at the family reunion or neighborhood Fourth of July picnic.

It’s strategic because by including the guns along with the ordinary guys, gals, kids, and smiles all around, the Open Carry message is communicated perfectly:  See, we’re just ordinary folks, wouldn’t hurt a flea, just like you.  Think of us as hobbyists, not as a horrible accident waiting to happen.  Frankly, most gun owners are just ordinary folks, and until liberals figure out a way to accept and acknowledge that fact, they aren’t going to get very far with gun control.  Even so, the argument doesn’t carry much weight (or ammo, if you will).  Open Carry might think of it this way: I’ll accept the claim that you should be allowed to do as you please because you are ordinary folks, if you grant the same to the jihadists, beastiality buffs, and other groups that make the same argument.  Until then, we need to talk about the difference from ordinary conduct, not all the other, irrelevant similarities.

And the difference in this case is that they are carrying very dangerous weapons, and doing so to advertise the right to fire those weapons in public if suitably threatened.  (Why else should the public accept the risk, if not to prevent or respond to violence?)  So there actually is something a bit odd about the first photograph after all.  It may not be as threatening as the MDAGSA member said, but it does invite questions: are they a force to be reckoned with, or not?  If not, why accept the risk that comes from accident?  If they are, then is the flag waving and kid posing just an act?

Which brings us to a second photo that was included with the Times story.  A photo that I think is a brilliant example of strategic representation.

Open Carry Advocates side

Here’s the same group shot from the side.  And I do mean “shot,” for now we are seeing their exposed flank. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help seeing this point of view as a targeting, and exactly the angle that a real enemy would take.  More to the point, we can see how the potential for violence invites a greater potential for violence.  Guns not only give fire, they draw fire; something that Open Carry may not have considered fully.  And if their spokesperson were to reply that they actually engage in military training and can operate as an armed band, I suspect that they would find out in a hurry that even the state of Texas doesn’t smile on militias other than its own.  In any case, paramilitary organization would make that first photo even more suspect.  But this photo does more than comment on the first one.

I think the most important point here is how those with guns are still all too vulnerable, still flesh and blood individuals who could be easily caught unawares and cut down in an instant.  Don’t think they don’t know as much, for that is one reason they are willing to pay for something that will give them a sense of security; who among us has never done that?  They may forget just how vulnerable they are, however, not least by having a gun in the house and by being around others in public whose gun management skills may not be top-tier.  And maybe it’s just me, but I’d like to think that if everyone involved in this controversy could acknowledge their common vulnerability, perhaps a small but sure step could be taken toward a more sensible gun policy.

As with guns, photographs can have unexpected consequences.  It’s one thing for advocates to use visual displays strategically, but it’s quite another to be able to control all of the imagery.  In posing for one photo, Open Carry Texas set itself up to be ambushed by another.  Fortunately, anyone can carry a camera.

Photographs provided by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, taken last Saturday from inside a Dallas-area restaurant.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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