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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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Report from Istanbul

Guest Correspondent: Brandon Thomas.

It has been one week since protests over the planned destruction of a park in Taxim Square erupted in Istanbul and unleashed a virtually ceaseless flow of information, photography, and video footage over the internet. Twitter hashtags #occupygezi and #direngeziparki became top trending topics globally. Facebook updates switched from oversaturated bathroom selfies to ominous confrontation warnings and images of ‘biber gazi’ encounters. Reports of how the originally peaceful protest ignited into all night standoffs between police and civilians made headlines all over the world.

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Protesters read to police on the second day of a sit-in to save the Taxim Gezi Parkı, a small green space at the heart of Istanbul’s cultural center in Beyoglu.

Though analysts may argue over the root causes of the movement, the view from the streets is much less complex. So far it appears that police use pepper spray and water cannons (and perhaps rubber bullets) to disperse otherwise peaceful crowds. People gather with flags and banners and signs attempting to march in support of other people with flags and banners and signs. They want to go somewhere, but they encounter a squad of police who say they must go home instead. This is the catalyst for conflict. People don’t want to go home, so they attempt to go forward. Police attempt to stop them. Conflict escalates, lines are drawn, words turn into weapons….

This continuous conflict plays out in the streets like trench warfare. An armored vehicle takes a position across from a scrap pile of debris drug together by a crew of protesters. Riot police fire pepper gas canisters and streams of water which disperses the crowd until the wind clears the fumes and they return back to the front lines alternately cheering, booing, and chanting anti-government slogans. It gets grittier though. Paving stones are pulled up and thrown. Graffiti is everywhere. Shop windows are bashed in. Sometimes there’s blood.

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Police standoff against protesters on a main street in Istanbul. The vehicle in the center is a TOMA, a riot control vehicle equipped with armored plating, bulldozer, roof-mounted water cannon, and a 150 gallon water tank.

However, the protesters are not just the youth, the disenfranchised or the marginalized, but everyday members of Turkish society. I watched a fully covered teenage girl kick a gas canister down the street, a middle-aged woman squirt lemon juice in stinging eyes, a child handing out free sandwiches. Once, when the police advanced with particular severity, people were pushed out of the street and across a trim green lawn. When their backs were against the wall at the Hilton, the concierge opened the double doors and smiled “Welcome.”  Inside, bleary-eyed protesters dusted off as the well-moneyed patrons tried to look casual and hide their surprise.

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In the early morning of June 1, thousands of citizens marched across Istanbul’s iconic Bosphorus Bridge to join ongoing protests in Beyoglu.

The almost universal solidarity is amazing to see. On Saturday police withdrew from Taxim Square. People were jubilant as they arrived. However they soon got restless with nothing to direct their anger towards and some got a bit destructive. A building was set aflame. Abandoned police vehicles were targeted for abuse. Still, the constructive protesters seem to outweigh the provocateurs. A bucket brigade was assembled to douse the fire. Time will tell if it’s enough to keep the movement’s credibility.

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An abandoned and toppled police vehicle in Taxim square. The sign reads “Pepper gas doesn’t work on a nation that uses a lighter to check the gas tank.”

Anyway, these are the things going on last weekend in Istanbul. No one seems to know how important these events will be. Many people believe this is the beginning of the end of the current political party’s administration. Some think the military will intervene. After seeing the beauty and the horror of this powerful people’s movement, it’s difficult to say.

Still, at the end of the day, the images speak for themselves and alternately tell stories of hope and anger, violence and peace. This transmediation, as useful as it is dangerous, shapes the process of interpretation and creates a visual shorthand for understanding events. And like the future of the Turkish public, the way we will remember this past week in Istanbul remains to be seen.

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Wreathed in tear gas, a young protester waves the national flag atop a makeshift barricade on the streets of Besiktas.

Brandon Thomas is an MA student currently living in Istanbul, Turkey.  The author received these images through Twitter, Facebook, and various other social media sites.  Like most viral images shared online, photo credits were not appended to the files.  Any information on the photographers always is welcome.

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It Can’t Happen Here

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There is no shortage of photographs of riot police containing protests against austerity measures instituted by various countries in the European Union, from Germany to Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and beyond, including most recently Turkey, which has made application to join the EU.  And there is nothing particularly distinctive about the vast majority of these images as they pit generally youthful and bedraggled unemployed protestors against state security forces dressed in black riot gear that might well be the late modern version of medieval armor, prominently wielding riot shields, batons and tear gas grenades.  The conflict marked by these photographs is altogether generic and but for the occasional signage in Greek or French or Slovenian they are all interchangeable with one another.  They could be anywhere in Europe, a feature that contributes to naturalizing the image as it signifies an “other” world wholly distinct from the US.  And at least one implication is, “it can’t happen here.”

The photograph above caught my eye because despite the fact that it is similar in many regards to the numerous other such images of European austerity protests it is distinctive in one important respect that warrants our attention.  Shot outside the Parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona it shows Spanish police forces advancing on Spanish firefighters with their riot batons raised.  What makes this image distinct is not so much the aggressive stance taken by the police—as disturbing as the poised baton, ready to strike, is—but the fact that they appear to be attacking other civil servants who are also sworn agents of the State.  In short, we are not just witnesses to an instance of civic unrest;  rather, we are spectators of  a more profound, extreme civic disorder that borders on something like mutiny or perhaps even civil war.  Put simply, we are viewing the State fighting against itself in a manner that challenges the very legitimacy of whatever it is that the police officers are “defending.”  One can only wonder how long a State can persist under such conditions?

Austerity hounds in the US have faced a number of strong challenges in recent weeks stemming from the fact that the economic scholarship which presumed to ground their case has been proven to be seriously flawed.  This has not stopped them from repeating their mantra, that “we don’t want to end up like Greece or Spain.”  There are good reasons why the fiscal crisis in the US is different than that in the EU and thus the analogy doesn’t apply all that directly. That said, the photograph above suggests one of the potential risks of too austere a response to the recession that we certainly don’t want to see in the US.  We probably don’t face a strong likelihood of this happening at the present moment as unemployment and other signs of large scale economic improvement like housing prices seem to be rebounding—albeit at a snail’s pace; but if those pushing for something on the order of the Ryan Budget in the House were to get their way it is not impossible to imagine how a growing number of “have not’s” could be pushed to the outer limits of their ability to sustain themselves.  And if that were to happen images very much like the one above might become more than just a bad nightmare, giving a different meaning to the plaint that “we don’t want to end up like Greece or Spain.”

Photo Credit: Paco Serenelli/AP

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War and Representation: Showing the Limits of Comprehension

There’s been a lot of talk lately, including a post at this blog, about accuracy in photojournalism: How much can a photograph be adjusted artistically and still be considered true?  How much detail should the captions provide, and in respect to what questions or values?  Despite strong and often heated disagreements, most commentators across the spectrum seem to assume that the reportage could be thoroughly accurate, specific, relevant, and otherwise up to the task of giving the public what they need to form sound judgments about current events.

Let me now suggest that sometimes we are better off without that assumption.  More to the point, one of the jobs that photojournalism also has is to remind the public how much eludes understanding.  Thus, some of the photos (and their captions) are good journalism because of how they show us the limits of what can be seen.

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The caption at Time said, “May 13, 2013. Syrian army soldiers take control of the village of Western Dumayna, some seven kilometers north of the rebel-held city of Qusayr.”  The “seven kilometers” suggests that we are being given a precise description of what is happening, even though you can’t see any of that fact in the photograph.  Many viewers might feel adequately anchored at that point and so look a moment longer and then move on.  But wait a minute: is this an image of “control”?

Horrific flames and dark, thick smoke billow from the other side of the wall.  The open doorway reveals only blackness, as if a void lies within.  A swatch of fire has dropped on the outside of the wall, near which a lone soldier is about to enter through another doorway into the interior.  The soldier is controlled, disciplined, brave, and probably used to working amid the roiling destructiveness of battle, but he also is a marginal figure in the composition and appears almost furtive as he enters what is effectively the back stage of this set.  Set in diminutive contrast to the powerful flames, he can’t be the locus of control.  Likewise, additional reportage (the full caption not included at Time) tells us that a Syrian advance had gained a strategic advantage and cut supply lines in Qusayr, but that larger sense of command and control also is not evident here.  In fact, this image seems to be very much a picture of something closer to chaos.

And that may be the point.  I’d say this photograph shows just how “control” is an abstraction that is imposed on the material destructiveness of war.  Being abstract doesn’t mean it isn’t real, but it does mean that it depends on a certain distance from the flames.  Likewise, describing the battle in terms of control is of course very much to the point of the fighting, but it also encourages denial of just how terrible life can become on the other side of that wall.

Seen in this light, the wall now assumes a double meaning.  It is still a structure about seven kilometers north of Qusayr, but it also can be a symbol of how the truth of the matter on the ground might lie forever behind a barrier.  Walls stop vision, and here it seems that the action that really counts lies on the other side of that thick, stony, silent wall.  This is not just a blockage, however, but a reminder of how vision and with that understanding is always partially blocked.  This wall now speaks eloquently of the limits of our understanding: we no more understand the battle than we did when we were told that it was about “control,” but now we have a visual emblem of that limit on our comprehension.

In marking how war can exceed representation, the image also can say something about this war.  Readers of a certain age will recall the infamous statement that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”  One can’t help but wonder if the same holds for Syria, which is being laid waste.  If we can’t see a reason for the destructiveness, it could be because one no longer is there.  As Suzy Linfield has said, violence today too often becomes untethered from any ideological rationale and political administration.  The result is not something that later can be honored as justified sacrifice for the nation or the cause, but only awful cycles of violence that burn through civilians like firewood.

Thus, by recognizing how this war exceeds our understanding, we also can consider how that is not merely a failure of perception.  War itself may lie hidden behind that wall.  Raging destructiveness without purpose or limit, fueled by ignorance and protected by abstraction, it can lure anyone to cross that threshold, only to devour them in the darkness.

That compact with oblivion is all the more reason to supply as many photographs and words as one can to show what must be shown.  But it is equally important to remember that none of us can fully know the truth, and how war can count on that.  That is no reason for despair, however.  Even when at the limits of comprehension, the ideal of peace is always on the horizon, waiting for those who will start walking in that direction.

Photograph by Joseph Eid/AFP-Getty Images.

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Reflections on a Scene (or Two)

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We don’t write about sports very much here at NCN and today will be no different.  After all, what is there to say here.  The photograph pictures the Miami Heat’s  four time MVP LeBron James about to take the Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler to the basket.  The only suspense is whether it will be a three point play or not.  No, what makes this photograph notable has almost nothing to do with the actual action taking place and everything to do with the way in which the camera has captured two scenes at once—one on top, the “real” scene, and the other, on the bottom, a reflection from the highly polished floor.

Of course, one might argue that this is only one scene, the inverted image on the bottom a natural extension of the top image.  And that would be true also.  The question, really, is how one wants to “read” the image.  We typically think of a mirror reflection as an inverted but otherwise identical (re)presentation of the original.  It is one of the reasons we are so often challenged to “look at ourselves” in a mirror, so as to see what is “really” there, or at least what others purport to see  But here, while the original and the reflection bear enough points of similarity that one might identify them as the same scene, they are not identical.

The top image is sharp and clear, consonant with the photojournalists avowed dedication to the realist aesthetic that purports a sort of mechanical objectivity—everything to scale, the light natural, the natural plane of the image represented as if one were actually there witnessing it. The bottom image has more of the quality of an impressionist painting, the appearance of thin brush strokes that call attention to texture, especially as it relates to human movement; emphasis on the quality of light as it effects the scene; and finally notice of the unnatural angle that resituates the viewer, underscoring the sense in which what we are looking at is clearly a representation that needs to be decoded and not the thing itself.

The effects of the image and its reflection are different as well.  Note, for example, how the realist image locates the contest between James and Butler in a multiplicity of scenes that first calls attention to the game itself as we see the coach calling out orders and other players positioning themselves to respond to the central action, and then calls attention to the immediate crowd watching the event.  The focus is clearly on the two principles, but they are part of a larger event.  By contrast, the impressionist image focuses our attention almost entirely on the central actors, giving them an almost epic significance, everything else cast with a spectral patina that suggests that they are both there and not there (perhaps like the external viewer of the image).

Whether you see one scene or two either (both) is (are) shot with the same camera, with the same aperture, from the same vantage point, and at the same moment in time. And yet what we see are two potentially and palpably different (albeit related) events, each calling attention to the otherwise taken for granted conventions that underscore both what is present and what is absent in the other and thus animating the possibilities of meaning.  What makes the photograph particularly interesting then is how it schools the viewer concerning the everyday necessity of visual literacy, always “reading” an image, not just glancing at it, seeing it for what it always is: an artistic construction.

Photo Credit:  Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

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About to Die (But not in the USA)

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The man we see here is in the clutches of death. Still alive, but only for a few seconds before his body meets with the pavement five floors below, his death is imminent and all but certain.  As Barbie Zelizer points out, such “about to die” images sanitize the visual representation of death, emphasizing the contingency of the moment while nevertheless gesturing to the only logical conclusion.  Such images not only neutralize the emotional affect and spectacle of a broken and mutilated body, but they serve as well to draw the viewer into the scene, inviting contemplation of the subjunctive moment and to consider the possibilities inherent in the image (if not in history itself).  Photographs of death have a finality to them that the visual trope of an “about to die” photograph challenges.  And because the still image stops the action for all time it leaves open—for all time—the tentative possibility of alternate outcomes.

The photograph above is of a man who has “fallen” from a burning building in Lahore, Pakistan.  Or at least that is how the caption for the image typically reads.  It is more likely that he jumped to his death—as did at least four others—to avoid the immolation that killed at least seventeen people.  But whether he jumped or fell, it is clearly an “about to die” image.  It was reproduced in many of the “pictures of the day/week” slideshows that are now featured at most journalistic websites.  What drew my attention to it, however, had less to do with the simple fact of its quality of an “about to die” image and more with how it reprises similar images of people plunging to their deaths from Manhattan’s Twin Towers on 9/11.

There is no official count of how many people jumped from the towering infernos on that fateful day, but the lower end estimations put the number at nearly 200.  Many of the jumpers were captured by videographers and a number of still photographs appeared in newspapers, though almost never on the front page.  More importantly, these photographs disappeared from public view almost as quickly as they had originally appeared, virtually erased from the public record through at least the tenth anniversary of the event itself.  One can now access some of these photographs by searching on the internet, but the larger question has to be why it was deemed inappropriate to broadcast and publish such images then, and yet now it seems acceptable to document the tragic fire in Lahore with virtually identical images and, indeed, to feature the photograph in institutionally sanctioned journalistic websites?

One answer to this question is the assumption that foreign lives count for less than American lives; it is hard to abide such cynicism, but events in recent years make it an answer that we should not discount altogether.  Nevertheless, I think there is something more going on here than an hyperbolic and over-extended American exceptionalism.  One of the features of the “about to die” photograph is that it activates an audience engagement with the image that bridges the distance between here and there, implicating the viewer in the scene being depicted by requiring them to complete the event frozen in time, both cognitively and affectively.  This can produce an especially powerful identification when the actors portrayed are strangers, distant others, as we would imagine most Pakistani citizens to be for most American viewers.  When the actors are easily identified with—by type if not as particular individuals—the problem is reversed, as there is an emotional need to provide some measure of distance.  In the immediacy and aftermath of 9/11 the problem of distance from those who died in  the terrorist attack had to be managed differently as the photographs operated in an interpretive register that distinguished social identity (which arguably needed to be pushed to the background so as to mute social pain) from political identity (which needed to be placed in the foreground to animate the anger needed to spur collective action).

The point is a simple one, but worth emphasizing:  as with linguistic conventions, so with the conventions of visual representation, literacy dictates attention to context at multiple levels: historical, social, cultural, political, and so on.  And perhaps most important in recent times, international and global.  And more, it is in learning how to interpret and engage with such images that we begin to get a sense for what it means to see and be seen as citizens in all of these different registers.

Photo Credit:  Damir Sagolj/Reuters

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“Oh Happy Day”

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This past week marked the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University.  “Oh happy day,” announced the former president.  And as is the convention with such dedications, it was a grand celebration of the past president’s legacy.  And for the most part photojournalists followed the script, featuring numerous images of the five living presidents collected together in fraternal solidarity, as well as snapshots of various library exhibits such as the dedication to “free people” shown above, or in photographs of Barney and Miss Beazley’s food dishes and the former president’s baseball collection.

The dominant theme for the library is “What would you have done?” inviting visitors to participate with interactive displays allowing them to second guess the president’s various controversial policy decisions, from the search for weapons of mass destruction to the handling of Hurricane Katrina to addressing the debacle on Wall Street, and more.  Ironically enough, such judgments were rarely if ever solicited during the president’s two administrations and when they were expressed by various publics (or “free peoples”) they were systematically ignored.  But it is of course impossible to visualize something that did not occur—and in any case is not featured in the museum—and so the best that photojournalists were able to do was to call attention to the glitz and glamour.

One photograph, however, broke through the veneer of praise and acclaim that dominated the day’s festivities, although it was not featured in very many places.

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The prosthetic leg belongs to Army 1st Lt. Melissa Stockwell (Ret.), the first female American soldier to lose a limb during the war in Iraq. She is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with the Bush family standing in the background.  Interestingly enough, neither of the former first ladies is looking directly at Lt. Stockwell, each carefully averting their eyes, while former President George W. Bush appears to be staring at her with a befuddled and confused look on his face.  We can only imagine what he might actually be thinking, but his gaze clearly directs our attention to her star spangled, red, white and blue prosthesis, an ersatz symbol of the personal and private cost of the war in Iraq that contrasts with the shape and contour of her remaining, normal leg.

We cannot see Lt. Stockwell’s face, but perhaps that is altogether appropriate, for while she is without doubt a hero and the cost to her has been inestimable, she is not alone. Indeed, she stands literally to represent the more than 1,300 military personnel who have lost an arm or a leg (with more than 40 triple amputees and 5 quadruple amputees) in Iraq or Afghanistan (and with more than 63% from the war in Iraq alone).  Perhaps this photograph and those statistics should be featured at the museum exhibit which announces: “No stockpiles of W.M.D. were found.”

After all, if a “free people” are truly to “set the course of history” they should have access to all of the facts.

Credit: Allison V. Smith/NYT; Alex Wong/Getty Images

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What Do We See When We See Tears?

There have been many tears shed this past week, like every week.  Somehow those of a woman in China seem especially evocative.

China quake elderly woman

She is siting outside of a house that was damaged by the earthquake last Saturday in Sichuan province, China.  Her family’s house, we can assume.  You can guess that someone has moved the couch into the courtyard and parked her there, while other items are also being salvaged so that they can have water and perhaps a meal.

A much younger woman is caught mid-motion, and it is easy to imagine her going back and forth, in and out, attending to the many new problems all around her, but always with the unconscious energy of those not yet old.  She doesn’t need a heavier coat for the same reason, as she will be continuously active throughout the day.  The damage and disruption will be causing her a lot of trouble, but she can be engaged in dealing with that, and the quake already will be moving into the past while she has plenty of future in front of her.

By contrast, the older woman can only sit and absorb the fear and loss still reverberating like aftershocks through her small world.  She is bundled up for the cold and seems vulnerable, even precarious, holding on to the armrest as if she might fall, even though her body seems too heavy to move on its own.  The bright floral cushions and her stylish hat and coat seem almost a mockery of her predicament: instead of an abundant life, she seems on the verge of abandonment.

And she is crying.  Perhaps it’s a delayed physiological reaction to the earlier trauma, or fear of the unknown or of her own vulnerability, or distress at not being able to be helpful, or grief over possessions that have been lost or loved ones who are unaccounted for or have been harmed.  Or, or, or. . . .  There are many reasons to cry.

Critics of photography often fault the medium for a supposed propensity to emotional excess and to evoking the wrong emotions–not least those self-serving, power-laden, condescending, bourgeois emotions such as pity.  This photo could be seen that way, but I don’t think that is really what is being offered.  Frankly, there is every indication that the women is going to be OK.  So what are we being shown, or asked to do?

One might imagine that she actually is being useful in the scene, that she has a job to do.  Her job is to experience the emotional wreckage that is the invisible consequence of the quake or any other disaster.  I’m making this up, of course, but to make a point.  The quake will have spurred many people to high levels of activity, and activity often is used to manage–that is, defer and deny–intensely negative emotions such as fear, sorrow, and helplessness.  That emotional management is necessary to contend with and recover from disaster, and perhaps not entirely a bad thing anyway (let’s not make an art of feeling miserable), but it also is a lost opportunity.  What is lost is an ability to know oneself, connect with others, and actually think about the risk that lead to the disaster–a risk that already is being forgotten.

Even when the disaster is far away, the spectators elsewhere may spend more time watching and then find the rest of their day busier for that.  And they may volunteer, send money, give blood, and so forth  (The photo was used at the New York Times to accompany a story on changes in Chinese philanthropy when responding to disasters.)  Disaster coverage can put powerful emotions into circulation, but it also can energize practices of emotional management.  Amidst all the activity, there could be no one left to cry.

So let me suggest one answer to the question in the title to the post.  When we see tears, we might see an opportunity for knowledge, solidarity, and change that we otherwise would have missed.

Photograph by a stringer for Reuters.

 

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War’s Bricolage

Reuters selected this photograph as its best of the day, and it is indeed striking.  But why?

Syrian rebel fighter in house

The caption said, “A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position inside a room as he points his weapon through a hole in Aleppo’s Saif al-Dawla district March 20, 2013.”  And that is what he is doing: positioning himself.  Hardly a dramatic action, and it is occurring in a still, spare, beige room, hardly a dramatic setting.

The room is no longer being used for its intended purpose, and a prior time of disruption is evident in the disordered decor: curtains down, furnishings strewn about, a hole punched in the wall.  It hardly seems fitted to its new use, however, for that delicate, foofoo lamp will never qualify as military hardware.  Yet “irony” seems too easy a label, as it can’t account for the way the soldier dominates the room.  Something important is happening, but what?

The sense of stasis is one clue: he is being posed for us, so that we can slow down and look carefully.  This is the opposite of an action photo, for the point of his positioning and aiming and firing that enormous weapon is still to come, involving an event that will occur outside the frame.  Instead, the point of the photograph is reflection, as if he has gathered into that space an equal and opposite concentration of energy to balance the impending gunfire.

The next clue is the way that he has repurposed the furniture.  Arranging the chairs and stacking the pillows to create his makeshift pillbox, he has given the room the same degree of thoughtfulness that went into its original decoration.  And he could do it with the same degree of cool concentration, perhaps taking his time to try out different configurations of the pillows, because he already is thoroughly at home in the business of war.

Which gets to the third clue: the natty self-possession in the way he is dressed.  You can expect to see that sweater and coveralls in next year’s fashion shows, and the beret could belong on any craftsman as he was making a cabinet or a musical instrument or a book.  Forget the camouflage, and a whole life could be surmised from his clothing and concentration; he’s even wearing a wedding ring.

Which brings us back to the room: it, too, represented a way of life, but one that now is being destroyed.  And so the deep intelligence of the photo emerges: it is documenting nothing less than how war not only destroys people and things, but also remakes the world in its own image.  This is the genius of war: it captures and rechannels the same skills, energies, and capabilities that otherwise are used to sustain peaceful, civil societies.

Force alone can do a lot of damage and thus can account for much of war’s power, but that still is the least of it.  As Chris Hedges observed, “war is a force that gives us meaning.”  What the photograph above reveals is just how thorough and nuanced that makeover can be, not least because of how it is accomplished by giving ordinary people practical tasks.

Kenneth Burke once observed that war motivates extreme levels of cooperation, albeit on behalf of the worst forms of competition.  (That is irony, and more than that.)  War also can motivate rearranging a living room on behalf of killing.  As the war “progresses,” the fighters can find themselves wholly occupied, engaged, and fulfilled by the work of destruction.  Why not: it rewards their resourcefulness.

This is the challenge that peace has to meet.

Photograph by Giath Taha/Reuters.

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