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And Life Goes On

Life Goes on 1

The Civil War in Syria rages on.  More than 100,000 have died by so-called “conventional means,” plus however many thousands more by chemical means.  Horrific images abound of bombs exploding, burned out buildings and vehicles aflame, child warriors, tortured and dead bodies, random limbs strewn about and more.  In some ways, however, the most disturbing images are not those that put the conflict on display in all of its goriest details, but rather those photographs that slip through to show a society that seems to have accommodated itself to the war as if it were a normal and ordinary event.

The photograph above is from the north of Syria near the Turkish border in the city of  Ras al-Ain.  According to the caption his living room has been “damaged” by an attack perpetrated by Kurdish militia and we see him rehanging a painting of Jesus Christ on his wall.  It would be easy to make a good deal out of the iconography of Jesus as we view this conflict from the Christian West, but there is a different and more subtle point to be made.  Buildings are “damaged” by storms and floods and earthquakes and fires; although there are exceptions, these are typically natural phenomenon over which humans have little if any control. Often they cannot be anticipated or predicted with any precision, and their main effects are primarily material and economic.  War, of course, is different.  No less physically disastrous than natural phenomena, its effects are as much psychic—if indeed not more so—as they are corporeal. Such psychic trauma is often difficult to see, marked usually in images of demonstrable grief or the now famous “thousand yard stare.” Or as in the image above, it can be altogether invisible, made to appear as part of the natural, ordinary business of cleaning up as if after a storm or an earthquake.  Yeah, sure, there was a mortar attack.  But now we just fix the windows, pick up the furniture, put the painting back on the wall and go about our day.

The point is driven home by the photograph below of a father and daughter making their way through the city of Aleppo on a cart. The caption says that they are in the process of

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migrating from the war torn city. The physical effects of the war are present everywhere, from the rubble that covers the alleyway to the burned out bus stacked on top of another vehicle in the background.  But what makes the photograph so potentially disturbing—horrifying even—is that no one seems to notice.  The father and daughter make their way through the city without any sense of distress or particular attention to the ruins that surround them.  Others go about their business as well, apparently unimpeded by the physical destruction.  It is just another day in Aleppo.  Indeed, the young girl seems more interested in the person taking the photograph than anything else in her environment, a sign no doubt that she has fully incorporated the apocalyptic state of war into her consciousness as an ordinary and everyday event barely worth paying attention to.  The caption underscores the point, noting that she is “blow[ing] a bubble” as if to signal that she really doesn’t have a care in the world.

The real horror of war may well be the way in which those in its midst are forced to assimilate to its damage and destruction as a function of the sheer everydayness of ordinary life.  The real horror of war, in other words, may well lie in the ways in which its effects are invisible to the naked eye.  And that is what photographs can often put on display.

Photo Credits: Ras al-Ain/Reuters; Karam al-Masric/AFP/Getty Images

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Aesthetics, Morality, Politics, and Disaster

Perhaps not every drought is beautiful, but this one is.

Yangtze dried-up riverbed

The dried riverbed of the Yangtze looks like gracefully aged wood.  The undulating landforms perfectly match the sinuous water.  The great river must be powerful, yet here it suggests a quiet serenity, as if the basins were holding a gently receding snowfall.  Water and earth lie woven together; as they extend to the horizon, one can easily sense how the scene is the result of vast natural forces seamlessly, namelessly unified.  In the words of Wallace Stevens, “the swarthy water/That flows round the earth and through the skies,/Twisting among the universal spaces, //Is not Swatara.  It is being.”

Against such a backdrop, the human figures in the foreground appear small, tentative, and very temporary.  The motor is out of the water, already becoming useless as the waters disappear in yet another year of drought on a steadily warming planet.  This species may poke around for awhile longer, but once they’ve burnt enough of their ecosystem that will be that.  And the forces that made the river will flow on without a ripple registering our moment of disruption.

So how on earth can we say that the drought is beautiful?  Nor can you evade the issue by saying, oh, it’s just the photograph that is beautiful, not the drought itself.  Yes, there is artistry involved in making the photo, but the aesthetic reaction is to the material forms themselves.  Few would be dead to this tableau if standing there, but then light up with delight when looking through the viewfinder.  Indeed, no one would think to take the photograph at all, if not already marveling at the scene itself.  It’s not the art or culture alone, but a human capability for seeing the world, a capability that then leads to arts and other products of the human imagination.  So this drought can be beautiful, as are firestorms, floods, and melting glaciers.

And that’s a problem, right?  When the waters dry up, people suffer, and as heat waves spread people are suffering around the globe.  To then take a picture and admire the view would seem to be obscene.  Aesthetics and morality must be two very different modalities, and if the former can interfere with the latter, shouldn’t we be wary of that risk?

And we’ve even been here before.  Recognition that these two powerful dimensions of human being are in fact not seamlessly coordinated was one of the traumatic experiences of the twentieth century.  Nazis listened to classical music while overseeing genocide, and so Adorno drew the terrible conclusion that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”  (Go here for a good brief explication of the quote.)  If art could be used so easily alongside of evil, and worse yet to aid its operation, surely the only ethical option was a severe renunciation of aesthetic pleasure.

With the passage of time, it has become easier to reconsider the problem.  Perhaps the separation was artificial, a crucial construction for a particular phase of modernity, but one that is becoming increasingly untenable.  The two modalities are still not coordinated explicitly–as if, for example, bad would be ugly and good delightful–but there may be an ecology to human consciousness that we are just beginning to understand.

Instead of being wary of our aesthetic responses, perhaps they could contain hidden resources for solving the very problems they seem to deny.  Perhaps aesthetic and moral responses can work together like water and riverbed.

To see that, we would have to shake off the old suspicions that come from the prior distribution of our aesthetic and moral senses.  Unfortunately, those suspicions are still the dominant habits in most of the humanities and qualitative social sciences.  Not everyone, of course, and that list includes scholars working in political theory and in visual culture: for example, Jacques Ranciere, Frank Ankersmit, Roland Bleiker, Davide Panagia, Crispin Sartwell, Mark Reinhardt, Holly Edwards, David Levi Strauss, Ariella Azoulay, and others (including moi).

Wallace Stevens knew as much.  In the same poem he says, “And these images/these reverberations,/And others, make certain how being/Includes death and the imagination.”  Disaster and imagination here are continuous, both part of that great stream, and perhaps each able to say something about the other.

So, perhaps the time has come to admit to how beauty is part of both the best and the worst that can happen, and perhaps particularly so when facing environmental catastrophe.  The effort involves nothing less that trying to bring all human capacities to bear on the most pressing problems of our time.  That can’t be such a bad thing.

It’s just a pity that it took so long, as time may be running out.

Photograph by a stringer for Reuters.  The poem by Wallace Stevens is “Metaphor as Degeneration,” and can be found in Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind, edited by Holly Stevens.  You can read an earlier post on the topic here.

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The Work of Art in the Age of Photographic Memory

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We live in an age of Photoshop, where the even the slightest adjustment to a photograph can call forth charges of dishonesty and all sorts of teeth gnashing and acrimony.  And at the same time, as this photograph suggests, there is a part of us that appreciates the power of the art of photography to remake the world the way we want it to be, even if it is something of a fantasy and we know it.  You wait your whole life to visit Hong Kong and you want a picture for the family photo album to prove that you were there that is worthy of the effort, one with blue skies and puffy cumulous clouds, not a haze filled skyline that casts a scrim like veil over the city that casts everything in grey scales.  And what is wrong with that anyway?

The photograph above does not answer this question, but it does help to identify the problem that it poses.  As we frequently note at NCN, one of the chief things that photographs do is to put the habits of social and civic life on display for reflection; and because these are habits of everyday life we tend to see them literally as normal, more or less natural and, as a result, altogether unremarkable features of an image.  So it is that one might focus on the man taking the photograph and see nothing that is particularly noteworthy, as do most of the other people in the image who pass by without so much as a notice.  And the reason for this would be patent, for what we are seeing is precisely the habit of casting and controlling our memories for posterity, and in particular how natural it seems to be—indeed, I suspect that many of us can imagine ourselves doing something similar given comparable circumstances—even as it stands in stark contrast to what we know the truth of the matter to be.

And there, I believe, is the rub, for what the photograph above also features is the contrast between the memory we produce that exists within the frame of the image that is preserved for posterity—here the photograph we see being taken that we can only imagine in all of its bright colors—and what occurs outside of that frame in the haze-tinted smog of the real Hong Kong.  It would be easy, of course, for us to assume that such a problem applies only to snapshot photography and the conventions of crafting and preserving family photo albums where the primary goal is the production of a nostalgic and happy memory for subsequent generations.  But that would be an error, for every photograph, amateur or professional, analog or digital, black and white or in living color are subject to the same constraints.  That does not mean that we should reject the “truth” of the image, but it does mean that we should recognize that the truths that we see are always partial and that the meaning of any image is subject to change as we extend the dimensions of the frame we are enabled to see.

This is something we all know.  In its own way it points to an attitude that is something of a habit of modern life.  And in that context the virtue of this photograph is how it puts this habit on display as both a reminder and a site of reflection concerning its importance.

Photo Credit:  Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

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Museum Photography: Syria’s Lost Civilization

There is an art to taking photographs of artifacts or artworks in a museum.  Think of all the images you’ve seen in photography books or magazines or newspapers–and how you didn’t even think of the fact that they were photographs–or of how those snaps you took with your camera didn’t turn out so well.  It takes skill to put art into circulation.  Even so, there is little reason not to take it for granted, and in any case photography’s most important museum is found outside the gallery walls.

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position inside a house in Deir al-Zor

But not necessarily outside.  This dark interior contains no light of its own, as if it were a cave.  The weak shaft of light seems to have to bend to get there, as if refracted along canyon walls before entering this animal’s den.  The animal seems to be human, although his shadow looks like a rat, and that feral insinuation might be closer to the truth of his circumstances.

The caption says, “A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position inside a house in Deir al-Zor.”  One could almost say, “what had been a house.”  The place seems to be returning to darkness, to an inchoate void that soon will absorb everything there.  Imagine how much has been lost already.  Walls that will have been decorated and echoed with conversation and laughter now are pockmarked from destructiveness.  What had been a table or chair now is the soldier’s stepladder.  What appears to be clothing and other domestic goods are piled on the floor, thrown perhaps because they couldn’t be taken to a refugee camp, or so they wouldn’t be in the way of the fighting.  Whatever the story, it’s one of lives being undone.

And so we get to the washing machine and the window.  Each is remarkably salient, each has a presence as if it were something uncanny, each is both where it is supposed to be and yet dramatically out of place.  In other words, each now has the properties of a work of art.  The machine stands there like a surrealist found object, a machine of domesticity framed as a thing in itself, or perhaps as a historical curio–say, a Soviet capsule intended to send a monkey into space.  Such options are far-fetched, but compare them with the impossibility of the washer simply being what it was: a banal part of ordinary life.

And that window!  Was it ever banal?  Perhaps there are many like it, and on close inspection it looks like a machined knockoff of merely decorative designs.  But still, it is at once beautiful and so vulnerable.  You can’t believe that any soldier on any side in this street fight is going to hesitate to shoot through it the second they see a target.  And such a shame, as the stained glass and abstract pattern resonate across art history, sacred and secular, from Gothic cathedrals to Islamic calligraphy to modern art.  Of course, it was just a nice window in someone’s house, admired occasionally and ignored much of the time, but that’s how a good society works.  When ordinary life is well above the level of living in a cave, it’s because ordinary things are continuous with so many fundamental achievements in art, science, government, and the other arts of civilization.

If a tank fires, the entire room will be obliterated.  At that point, all that will remain of these remarkable works of art will be the photograph.  I’ve said recently that photography can provide an archaeology of the present: the images that would remind us of how close we can be to becoming ruins.  We could also say that photography is creating a virtual museum: a vast, continuously unfolding gallery of those things that are already becoming part of the past.  Ordinary things that are becoming precious, useful things that are becoming junk, sentimental things that now can only be the set up for irony.

This is the best kind of museum photography, precisely because it is there to document lost civilizations that still have a chance of survival.  In Syria’s case, much already has been lost to the darkness.  There is still time, perhaps, to find a way peace and the restoration of something like a normal life for the millions currently suffering from the civil war.  What seems to be lacking is a sense of urgency.  Perhaps it might help to take a walk through photography’s museum.  Take another look, and ask yourself if any part of the present is as secure as it might seem.

Photograph by Khalil Ashawi/Reuters.

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From the Foggy Shores of Lake Wobegon

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It has been a quiet week in the District of Columbia’s version of Lake Wobegon. Well, not exactly quiet, as there has been all sorts of hot air and subterfuge from those who run the U.S. Congress, leaving the entire city cast in a smoky fog, but it is hard to see that anything has really been accomplished.  Then again, that’s not exactly right either, since one of the premiere credit rating agencies (Fitch) has now put the U.S. government on a “credit watch” given that the Congress seems so willing to put the full faith and credit of the U.S. government at risk; so I guess that’s something since its never happened before in the nation’s long history.  And yet one would think that we could really expect more from our representatives and senators.

Cynicism aside (and that really is a difficult thing to do under the present circumstances), the photograph above, which has appeared prominently in a number of recent slide shows with direct reference to the current government shutdown, is an important reminder of how difficult it is to picture the partisan divide that has tied the nation’s capital in notes.  Put differently, we too often assume that photojournalism is ground in a realist  sensibility that literally shows us what is taking place within boundaries of the frame—that and nothing more.  But for the most part it is well nigh near impossible to show the principles that are truly at stake in such a standoff in any literal sense—and this goes whether you are a Tea Party conservative who believes that the government is too big for its britches and needs to be brought down a few notches or a left of center President who believes that a democratic government cannot reasonably  sustain itself when a minority faction of the minority party seeks to subvert the rule of law by forcing its will on the majority.  This is no doubt why the vast majority of photographs that we have seen of the government stand off  over the past few weeks have been altogether uninformative and banal: pictures of congressional leaders coming too or fro, or delivering speeches, or leading constituent tours in the Capital; and the same can be said for the President, who is either speaking from the Rose Garden or on the stump somewhere, or as in one photo shoot, helping to make sandwiches for those who have been furloughed by the government shutdown.  And more than just being uninformative and uninteresting, they lack any real sense of affect.

The photograph above is different in this regard.  Its sensibility is not so much a function of its realist representation of a sunrise on the Washington Mall as it is the way in which it depicts an attitude towards the current situation by placing otherwise common and recognizable elements into figurative relationships via the creative articulation of visual metaphors.  It is shot at dawn, just as the sun is rising, but the image nevertheless challenges the confidence one might have that this will be a truly sunny day.  The clouds in the sky could turn out to be storm clouds, its not entirely clear, and the fog and mist lend a washed out quality to the image that accents the ways in which the Mall itself is backlit, casting it in shadows that are hard to discern—there could be evil foreboding here, but its really hard to tell.  The Washington Monument is under reconstruction, as marked by the scaffolding that surrounds it, a sign perhaps of the reality that government itself needs to be renovated from time to time, a point reinforced in some ways by the cranes that dot the skyline.  The cranes are at a standstill, just as one might imagine them to be in the early morning hours, but the foggy haze makes it unclear just when clear skies will abide and hence when all will be back at work. This, it would seem, is a picture of the nation’s capital caught in the standstill of partisan divide: foggy, confused, and not clear where it might be headed.

In short, for all of its realism otherwise, the photograph above is something of an allegory that helps us imagine the world as it is–or as it might be.  Like Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, what photographs like this can do at their very best is to help make the familiar strange and the strange familiar, and in the process they can inculcate an attitude—sometimes salutary and sometimes not—that invites our active engagement with the world.

Well, in any case, that’s the news from D.C.’s version of Lake Wobegon, where all the representatives are principled, the senators are reasonable, and the citizens are … you know, above average.

Photo Credit:  J. David Ake/AP

 

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Governing and the Archaeology of the Present

There isn’t a single photograph that begins to capture the Republican Party’s decision to shut down the US government, so let me provide one.

abandoned subway

This is actually a double image.  On the one hand, it’s an image of what happens when states are governed well. Civilization can be hewn out of rock, common goods such as transportation facilities can be gleaming monuments to efficiency, everyone can benefit from this investment in shared infrastructure for enjoying liberty and prosperity, and this can be done not only well but beautifully.

On the other hand, it’s also an image of the fate that awaits every government, every state, dare I say many a species including perhaps our own?  Those ancient civilizations that now lie buried were once vibrant, not least when they were overcome by the volcanic ash, moving desert, invading horde, ecological crash, plague, or other catastrophe.  We already have self-made ruins such as missile silos, defunct nuclear reactors, and highways to nowhere, but that’s the least of what could follow.  Better to imagine how something both practical and beautiful could become an empty, abandoned fragment of a lost civilization.  Although this machined space was wrested out of the earth by skill, labor, and organization, the rock will outlast anything not renewed, the silence will reign far longer than any party, and maybe, maybe it will receive the accidental tribute of someone wondering how a people so advanced could have disappeared.

At this point I probably should add that this subway station is in Stockholm, Sweden.  Now, Washington. DC has a fine subway system, so I won’t knock that, but it would be nice if the government above ground were allowed to work as well.  More to the point, this photo from another place and time can stand in for the many failed attempts to say something, anything about the current crisis.

I’m referring to those photos of “closed” signs in front of government buildings, tourist stragglers in front of empty memorial sites, political leaders looking grave, and similar fare.  The fault isn’t the photographers’, as there really isn’t much to see at all–that’s the result of something not happening–and both the reasons and the effects are even less visually apparent, at least for a while.  The fact that the media are putting up dozens of these stock images doesn’t hide their ineffectiveness even as it tries to compensate for it.  But even that’s not the real problem.

Actually, there are two problems.  One is that there haven’t been any strong photographs regarding the recent debate about the shutdown and about “Obamacare” more generally.  Let me suggest that this is one reason we have been witness to such a stunning demonstration of GOP mendacity, press complicity with their tactics, and the seemingly bottomless ignorance and gullibility of the American public.  It’s only a counterfactual supposition, but I think one cause of the low quality of public discourse is that there has been no strong image of harm or corruption to bring people to their senses.

The second problem is that none of the photos we do have are able to do what photojournalism at its best does: expose the deeper truth that lies underneath the froth of the news.  That truth would tell us something that we really need to know if we are to live well: say, something about why American society is becoming so dysfunctional and what might come of it.

Which is why I’ve offered the photograph above for consideration.  One thing that often is irrevocably lost among the ruins is the reasons people gave for fighting one another or not working together or abandoning the principles that had sustained them.  Reasons that they were so sure about, that they thought were so important at the time, that they knew were right.  Such pride goeth before the fall, but few are around to remember it.

So it is that photography might push back against the arrogance that can shut down a legitimate, well-functioning, democratic government.  In this case, it can’t work by exposing the lies, for they are present for all to see.  What it might do, however, is remind us how much can be lost, and lost even when so much else looked so good and worked so well.

Call it an archaeology of the present: the images that would remind us of how close we can be to becoming ruins.

Photograph by Valentijn Tempels/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest).

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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It is All in the Eyes of the Beholder

One of the complaints against the photograph as a medium of representation is that offers a partial view of the world that distorts reality.  The complaint is spot on, though to be fair we have to acknowledge it recognizes a burden that every mode of representation bears.  A more useful approach is to recognize the capacity of photographs to offer multiple views of the world that frame and underscore the complexities of the universe.  Consider the photograph below, an image that circulated widely on mainstream slideshows last week.

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Without a caption it is hard to know exactly what we are looking at, but it is also hard not to look at it.  Shot from a distance and on high it appears to be a landscape of some sort, and the contrast between the horizon and the body of the image invites our attention. The lights below appear to twinkle, lending something of a human quality to the image, perhaps marking something like civilization, but it is the aura that marks the boundary between the horizon and the body of the image that gives the image its distinctive quality.  Perhaps the sun is setting, or maybe it is about to rise, but in either case, the image invokes what we might call a sense of “tranquility” that is altogether aesthetically pleasing.  It is a beautiful image, and whatever it is that is being represented, the perspective calls attention to that beauty.

From a different perspective, however, the affect is somewhat different.

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 Shot now from a much closer vantage, the field of vision straight on, the contrast between lightness and darkness is not gradual but stark, and as a result the image does not invite a sense of tranquility but rather a sense of violent disruption.  It is still hard to avoid looking at the image, however, but what in the earlier image appeared to be a quiet and restful twinkle is here blazing hot.  Indeed, one can almost feel the heat consuming what appears to be a tree, and in its own way it reaches out to whomever stands in front of it, at once pulling them in and warning them off.  It is what Edmund Burke characterized in the 18th century as an instance of the sublime, a representation of a natural scene that manages the contrast between intense lightness and darkness so as to invoke simultaneously a sense of horror and pleasure.

What is important to acknowledge is the fact that both photographs are of the same scene at roughly the same time.  In each instance we are observing a wildfire burning out of control in Banning, California.  Is the scene tranquil or violent?  Is world represented here harmonious or out of control?  Is it beautiful or is it sublime?  The answer to all of these questions is, in some measure, yes!  The event being represented is simultaneously tranquil and violent, harmonious and out of control, beautiful and sublime.  And it is the capacity of the camera to show us  how such apparently contradictory qualities can (and regularly do) co-exist simultaneously in a single event or phenomenon that makes it such a powerful and important technology of representation.

In short, what might be understood as the weakness of photography as a medium of representation might well be its greatest strength.  It is all a matter of how you look at it!

Photo Credit: Gene Blevins and David McNew/Reuters

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Mourning Comes to America

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The mass murder of six Sikh worshipers in a Sikh Temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin one year ago was a horribly tragic event, underscoring a latent and persistent xenophobia in American culture that manifests itself at its worst in hate crimes of this sort and calling attention once again to the problems caused by weak gun control regulations that allow easy access to automatic weapons. I am compelled by the photograph above, however, because it tells a different story, as family members of those tragically killed hold onto an American flag as they participate in a candlelight vigil mourning their lost loved ones.

Sikhs are often confused for Muslims and suffer all sorts of derision and discrimination for their national and religious otherness; one might thus imagine that they would have good reasons to turn their backs on the flag, or in any case not to celebrate it, particularly as they mourn the family members who were violently taken away from them.  But what the photograph shows instead are citizens-in-mourning.  There is no hubris here.  They do not drape themselves in the flag, nor do they use it as a totem to divert attention from national failings or to glorify an idealized past.  But neither are they willing to separate themselves from it and the sense of community—and the promises for freedom and justice—that it marks, however imperfect that community or those promises might be in practice. Indeed, there is a sense in which they animate the flag and all it stands for by holding it up, literally giving it life (rather than just letting it hang as a backdrop) and demonstrating the sense in which they are as important to it as it is to the them–even at, perhaps especially during, moments of heart rending despair.

Photography is a performative medium and here we see citizens performing what we might call a mournful love of country that does not succumb to an all too easy cycle of belligerence. It is perhaps a model for what American might yet become.

Photo Credit:  Darren Hauck/Reuters

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Ready, Aim, Shoot!

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Much of what we do here at NCN is a celebration of photography.  And among its many virtues are that it slows the world down, indeed, it stops the world in ways that normal sight is often hard pressed to do—at 1/800th of a second, for example—inviting  us not just to look at the world around us, but to see it, sometimes with fresh eyes.  It operates as such in many registers, but sometimes it invokes what the philosopher and literary critic Kenneth Burke called a “perspective by incongruity,” literally encouraging us to “see” things in terms of things that they are not. Or perhaps, as in the photograph above, encouraging us to ponder the similarities between things that on the face of it we assume are altogether different.

According to the caption we are viewing a member of the Free Syrian Army who is simultaneously “pointing” his weapon and his camera at a “scene” in Deir al-Zor, one of the largest cities situated in the eastern part of Syria.  Of course, he is not just “pointing” his rifle, and the purpose of the gun is not to so much to capture a “scene” as to contain or intrude upon a strategic space.  And so, one might think that the language of photography somehow masks and moots the language of weaponry.  But, of course, the language could be reversed as we might say that he is “aiming” his camera and “shooting” at his enemy.  And if that seems like too much of a stretch, don’t forget how cameras have become one of the primary “weapons” in the war on terrorism—and more—surveying public spaces, authenticating identities, and so on.  And indeed, if nothing else the image of the Syrian freedom fighter is a stark reminder of how entangled the language (and, as it turns out, the history) of the camera and the gun are, each calling attention to the capacity of the respective technology to aggressively intervene in, capture, and control a situation.

There is no question that I would rather be “shot” by a camera than by a rifle, and I have no doubt that the world would be a better place if we could truly substitute “pixels for pistols.”  But for all of that,  we should not lose sight of the potential predatory power of the lens or the ways in which a camera can serve as a weapon, however good or ill the purpose to which it is put.

Photo Credit: Stringer/Reuters

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Those Who Forget the Past …

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The above photograph pictures a sluice of life in Mobile, Alabama in 1954. I don’t know who saw the photograph in 1954 or how they might have interpreted it, but it is hard to imagine that one would not have been affected by the ironic tension between the image of an elegantly dressed African-American woman and her niece, shot in “living color”—a  rarity in 1954—and the neon sign to a movie house marking the “colored entrance” and designating a stark difference between black and white.  However one might have received and engaged the photograph when it was first produced there can be no questioning the fact that the scene that it depicts serves as an aide-mémoire to a critical moment in the American experience to which we are all heirs, a collective past that we ignore or repress only at our national peril.

Of course, Jim Crow segregation was not only a southern phenomenon—I remember seeing “colored only” beaches at Asbury Park, New Jersey when I was growing up in the 1950s—but it certainly had a home in Dixie where it was aggressively defended in the name of “states rights.”  And from this perspective the photograph is a vivid and eloquent reminder that there are times when “home rule” and a parochial localism need to be governed by a more capacious moral compass, not least when human and civil rights are at stake.

It is this last point that bears special attention today as the photograph was recently printed in the NYT along with the reprise of a series of similar images shot by Gordon Parks for an issue of Life magazine originally published in 1956.  What makes it especially pertinent is that the Supreme Court is about to rule on a number of cases concerning the constitutionality of gay and lesbian marriages and legal unions. Many are arguing that such decisions should driven by local interests under the rationale of states rights.  Of course, it was not so long ago that the cultural logic that warranted the “colored entrance” sign in the photograph above also proscribed interracial marriage as an unnatural act of miscegenation in many states.  That changed in 1967 with the Courts decision in the case of Loving v. Virginia.  One needs only to ponder the photograph above and the legacy that it gestures to, both past and present, in order to understand why the Court needs to guarantee the civil right of gay and lesbian couples to marry and join in legal union.

Photo Credit:  Gordon Parks/Gordon Parks Foundation

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