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The Seeing Citizen

Camera + Silhouette

The scene borders on the sublime. A silhouette of a woman cast in the glow of a distant fire that appears to be burning out of control. The gulf between the woman and the blaze is altogether calm, inviting a clear contrast with the raging flames and by extension underscoring the space—simultaneously near and far—between safety and danger. And, of course, it is the silhouette that ultimately frames the photograph and its affect. To get the point, imagine the photograph without the silhouette? The contrast of golden hues would still register as beautiful for most viewers no doubt, but all measure of the distance between here and there, of the sublime horror invoked by the image, would be effaced – or at least largely so.

All that aside, it was not color or even the silhouette that initially drew my attention to this photograph, but rather the fact that it is a photograph of someone taking a photograph. Photographs of people taking photographs has become something of a convention in recent times, and all the more so now that many (if not most) people in the western world carry cameras with them in their pockets and seem inclined to take photographs of … well, just about everything. And the question is, why? Not why do people take photographs of everything. I think we have done that for a long time now, contemporary technologies simply making it easier and easier to do. Rather, the question is, why has the photograph of people taking photographs become something of a visual trope … and a trope of what? In the photograph above the camera’s brightly lit screen stands in stark contrast with the golden color cast of just about everything else in the image—including the silhouetted photographer—and thus perhaps invokes a sense of the tension between nature and technology, a point gestured to by the caption which notes: “A woman takes a picture of fires raging through the Los Alerces National Park … A lighting strike is believed to be the cause.” And so the photograph here might indeed be driven by a profoundly artistic and/or ideological sentimentality. There is of course no way to know, but the omnipresence of the technology in modern times simply cannot be ignored.

The trope is perhaps  a bit harder to explain in other, more common occurrences such as this photograph:

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Here the caption reads: “People take photographs as the body of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister is transferred form the Instana Presidential Palace.” One might wonder why we don’t just have a photograph of the body itself being transferred. Or, for that matter, of the crowds gathered to view the transference. What is it about the fact that people are taking photographs of this scene that makes the convention so affecting?

I don’t have an answer to this question firmly worked out at the moment, but my suspicion is that it has something to do with the relationship between actors and spectators. There was a time, not so very long ago, when the prevailing assumption was that citizen spectators lacked agency. They viewed events, but they did it from an altogether passive space that muted their political voice if it did not erase it altogether. The seeing citizen did little more than see. The advance of camera technologies, and in particular the utter ubiquity of camera phones and portable screens, as well as the capacity for digital circulation, has given citizen spectators a whole new way of registering their voice—or is it their gaze? It helps us to see how one person uses their spectatorship to accent the space between culture and nature, as in the silhouette above, or how others mark the importance of the passing of a revered leader.  In short, the seeing citizen is now also, and at least in some measure, an acting citizen.

We photograph people taking photographs perhaps because it marks an important shift in what it means to be a citizen spectator and, as with photojournalistic images in general, it helps us to understand how we see and are seen as citizens.

Photo Credit: Emiliano LaSalvia/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images; Tom White/European Pressphoto Agency.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.


’Tis the Season …

Xmas Joy

I used to think that one didn’t have to be Christian to celebrate and appreciate the Christmas season. Yes, for the devout it marks the birth of Christ, and in that context it has an important spiritual significance that should not be scanted. But it also corresponds roughly with the winter solstice and, for the past century, at least in the West, it has been a secular holiday that celebrates the virtues of charity and selfless giving regardless of one’s religious affiliation. If it were only so simple!

Sadly, Christmas has also become a season for the gross accumulation of commodities under the sign of charity and giving. Children—in all of their innocence—are the primary beneficiaries of the holiday as they are indulged with all manner of toys and goodies distributed, somewhat magically, by an elfish deity who somehow distinguishes good from bad. And, of course, the more toys and goodies all the better. Or at least such is the myth of its representation in popular discourse. But truth to tell, there is something of a fetish to such giving that is more important to the adults who underwrite such indulgences than to the children who receive it—think of all the commercials you’ve seen where the parent’s satisfaction in observing their children far exceeds the joy of the children themselves. Put differently, the joy of giving in this scenario is more a justification for one’s own desire for the accumulation of goods than it is a desire to please the other.

The photograph above is only one of many representations of Black Friday, where adults camp out for hours in anticipation of the opportunity to accumulate commodities at a highly discounted rate. The supply always far exceeds the demand accenting the value of the goods and animating the desire for their possession, often leading to violence. Here, adults and children fight over a high definition television. There are many things worth fighting for, to be sure, but a television set? What is most revealing about the scene, however, is not so much the scuffle as it is the reaction of the spectators, some who have already claimed their own televisions. Some seem to be ignoring the scene altogether, not unlike the way they might walk past a homeless person as if they weren’t there, while others look on with a sadness that stands in marked contrast to what is supposed to be the joyousness of the season.

It is hard to know what to make of all of this, but perhaps there is a clue in the presence of the videographer who is capturing the scene for the nightly news. He knew exactly what was going to happen because what he is watching is a ritual event that takes place throughout the capitalist world (this scene is in a superstore in Wembley, England, but it could be in any Best Buy or Walmart in any city in the United States, or elsewhere for that matter), year after year, and as much as we might revile the greed that seeps through in such images we seem to celebrate it as well, casting such images each year as real time performances (advertisements?) of what we secretly  value the most—and that is not the joy of giving but the accumulation of goods.  As the bumper sticker says, “He who dies with the most toys wins!”

No, one does not have to be Christian to celebrate the Christmas holiday, and all I can say is … more’s the pity.

Credit: Luke MacGregor/Reuters



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


Public Witnesses to an Execution

Public hanging

There is something that is both ironic and perversely democratic about this photograph.  The location is Tehran Square in Iran and the people on the other side of the barricade are witnesses to a public hanging.   Many are photographing the event, some appear to be looking in anger or in anticipation, others reveal expressions of pain and grief or simply cannot look at all.  But all are public spectators to a state sponsored execution.

To understand the irony and the perversion you have to remember that there has not been a public execution in the United States since the hanging of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, KY in 1936, despite the fact that there have been 1,320 state sponsored executions between 1976 and 2013. The irony, of course, is that Iran is run by an autocratic dictatorship while the U.S. is an open democracy, but at least in this instance the former, it would seem, is far more open and transparent than the later.  Iran’s motivation is hardly democratic inasmuch as the purpose for the public spectacle is to serve as a brutal warning rather than to inculcate the legitimacy of its actions, and hence it is in this sense a perversion of democracy, but there is also something compelling about the idea that if the state is going to exact such punishments that the public—and not just a hand full of journalists—ought to stand in witness to the action.  We don’t endorse the death penalty at NCN, but the larger point here is that it seems fundamentally undemocratic to engage in such an extreme form of punishment outside of the public eye and apart from the full participation of the people.

If we think of the above photograph in cinematic terms as the “shot,” then this second photograph might function as the “reverse shot” or what the spectators are viewing.

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In Barbie Zelizer’s terms, we might call it an “about to die” shot.  But what makes it important for our purposes is how it captures the complexity of emotions that the spectacle of a public execution can put on display.  What is particularly telling is how even the hoods designed to conceal the identity—and not incidentally the affective responses—of the executioners are ultimately incapable of masking what can only be a moment of human compassion as the hangman on the left comforts one of the individuals about to meet his fate.  And one can only wonder if the reason we don’t have public executions in the United States is because we are afraid of letting the public witness the brutality of the punishment, or alternately, is it because we don’t want them to witness the displays of ambivalence of those responsible for performing their charge as executioners?

Photo Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi/Fars/AP; Amir Pourmand/Iranian Studewnts News Agency/AP



The Ritualistic Means of Politics

“War,” say the realists, is the “continuation of politics by other means.”  But of course war—whether symbolic or actual, whether fought with bullets or with words—is also arguably the last resort of the incompetent; a means of managing power when all other manner of negotiations have been frustrated and exhausted.  War, of course, inevitably leaves carnage in its wake, whether it is fought on a literal battlefield or in a legislative chamber.  And so rather than to concede the purportedly “essential truth” of the realist mantra and all that it portends we should perhaps consider the possibility that the political process operates best when it dances to a different drummer.

“Dance” is not an idle metaphor here, for it calls attention to the artistic and ritualistic quality of politics.  Politicians, after all, are courtiers, and whether they are courting votes from their constituencies or courting an opposition with which they must co-exit, they are engaged in an important ritual of cooperation.  I submit that this is important in almost any political system, but that it is especially so in a democratic polity where the very legitimacy of the process relies on the mutual commitment of any opposition to a common cause that supersedes any particular outcome.  Rituals of cooperation that underscore civic friendship, whether feigned or not, prefigure the grounds on which the dance of political compromise might precede.

And so we come to the photograph above which appeared in numerous publications this past week, both in print and on-line.  Representatives John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, the Majority and Minority leaders of the House of Representatives respectively, ritualistically cooperate in the building of the platform on which the winner of the November election will be inaugurated in the new year.  Of course, it is perhaps one of the few places at which they have cooperated at anything over the past four years, and so one might read the image as cynical political theater. We should not ignore that possibility too quickly, and truth to tell the photograph was cropped in some publications so as to focus tightly on Boehner and Pelosi and the somewhat surprised look on her face in a manner that cast the scene as one of awkward discomfiture. But rituals need to be seen against a broader horizon of activity and interaction, situated in a context that locates the performance in a symbolic history of repetition that underscores their longevity and normative significance.

That is why I like this image shot from below and with a wider angle that takes in an emblematic representation of the presidential seal, a reminder that the inauguration platform–which here, and importantly, is a work in progress–is the physical site of a formal ritual that presumes to stand above party in the name of a united “people. ” The photograph also features the smiling and interested Senator Lamar Alexander as he observes the ritual, and he appears to do so approvingly.  Senator Alexander is not only from a different legislative body, but more to the point, he is one of the more bi-partisan members of the U.S. Congress.  A member of the Republican party, and one time candidate for his party’s nomination to the presidency, he nevertheless breaks ranks when conscience and good sense tell him that it is the prudent thing to do.  Of course, such bi-partisanship is hard to find in Washington these days, but perhaps the simple staging of this event for the photographer’s lens—itself a political ritual—is a small sign that even those who have failed to cooperate in recent times recognize the need to keep the longer, historical possibility alive.

Photo Credit: Like Sharrett/NYT


What If They Held a Protest and No Photographers Showed Up?

Democracy relies upon dissent. Not just the theoretical possibility of protest implied by the First Amendment, but the very thing itself—flesh and blood individuals speaking truth to power and thus embodying  the possibility of popular sovereignty in contexts that demonstrate both the risk and safety of political opposition.  Of course, in a mass society of over 300 million people, “speaking” truth to power has less to do with words per se—although sound bytes, posters, placards, graffiti, and 140 character tweets do play a role—and more to do with visibility.  Put differently, political protest is as at its root a matter of public spectacle, and its success or failure is generally a measure of who controls what is seen and by whom.  Of course, governments and political operatives have known this for quite some time, and each seeks to manage the dialectic between seeing and being seen to strategic benefit.  Photographers know it as well, and they too use it to strategic effects.

The NATO protests in Chicago this past weekend are an interesting case in point, as both protestors and police have jockeyed to control the public eye, each enacting what have come to be fairly conventional poses.  The protestors, of course, want to be seen en masse as a way of giving a sense of solidarity and magnitude to their popular presence, but they also want to make it clear that they “see” what is going on behind the closed doors of governments and corporations.  Theirs is, we might say, an attempt to embody a democratic gaze—the people seeing and being seen.  Governments, on the other hand, also want to be seen, but they get caught between official political/diplomatic roles played by recognizable leaders (think of all of those photo ops you’ve seen of the heads of State shaking hands with one another, or relaxing together while watching a soccer match on the television) and the maintenance of public order, (hence lots of pictures of anonymous, paramilitary forces whose task is to “uphold the peace”).  Theirs is a statist gaze or what we might call “seeing like a state.”  Corporations, it seems, are generally content to remain largely invisible—their recently achieved status as individuals to the contrary notwithstanding—in a manner that implies an apolitical neutrality.

Photographers tend to capture all of this in a manner that reinforces the status quo, which is to say it underscores the sense in which our government remains democratic (dissent is allowed), even as government officials perform their tasks (leaders meet, negotiate, do their business), and the police maintain the peace (they “watch over” the scene” and “clash” with those who pose risks to public safety).  Sometimes, of course, the police become over zealous and have to be reigned in (one more sign that the status quo is working) but in general they are professionals doing their job under difficult circumstances.

It is easy to be cynical of such an account, but there is a different point to be made.  For such images also remind us of the importance of political spectacles as a potentially important medium of public engagement that are not entirely controlled by any one agent or set of agents, whether protestors, governments, or the media—or for that matter, the audiences that consume the images. The caption to the image above notes that the police officer shown “watches demonstrators protest”  in Chicago during the first day of the NATO summit.   And the point is that he wants to be seen watching—notice his stance and how he holds his baton as a visual threat to anyone who would challenge his territory or charge; indeed, the point is precisely that he needs to be seen watching in order to enact any sort of agency.  But in this regard he is no different than the protestors who also need to be seen watching.  Both are actors in a political spectacle.

In an important sense, democracy in particular relies on such spectacles as a way of giving presence to its effectiveness and legitimacy.  And that is not an inherently bad thing, for spectacles rely upon the active involvement of a viewing audience to authenticate the experience on the ground even if its members are not directly involved in it.  That said, political spectacles always come with the risk that seeing and being seen can be manipulated as absolute and hierarchical technologies of domination and control.  In the photograph above, are we looking at the legitimate defender of a democratic regime or big brother?  There is no final answer to that question, of course, but it is one that we need regularly and vigilantly to entertain.

Photo Credit: Joshua Lott/Getty Images North America


Ironing Out the Wrinkles

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Jim Wilson/NYT

 1 Comment

Inflating the National Value

I expected to see a lot of U.S. flags on display for the 9/11 anniversary and commemoration this past weekend.  And of course my expectations were fully met with ersatz versions of the Stars and Stripes represented in virtually every size and variety imaginable, ranging from lapel pins to newly inked tattoos and decorated cakes to a flag the size of a football field requiring hundreds of people to manage its presentation.  What I didn’t expect to see were three thousand flags clustered together in one place, as in the photograph above of Forest Park in St. Louis (and repeated in other places across the country as well).

I don’t think of myself as a curmudgeon in such matters and I do pledge allegiance to the flag on the appropriate occasions, but I also find the excess of display in the photograph above as more than just a spectacle of national hubris.  Rather, it strikes me as symptomatic of a larger cultural problematic. The flag, of course, is a national symbol.  And it means many different things to many different people, affecting the full gambit of civic emotions from patriotic piety to nostalgia to cynicism.  But the question is, what do three thousand flags represent that a single flag cannot stand in for?  Or perhaps more to the point, given the presumed gravity that we commonly grant to the meaning of the flag as the national banner–that which marks us as “one nation, indivisible,” and for which we are willing to sacrifice all–how can they represent it better?

One might see the field of flags as symbolic of the actual fatalities on 9/11, but the numbers don’t quite add up, with the official casualty count just short of three thousand, and so the potential for the mystique of identification with individual victims is not satisfied. But even if the numbers did add up, the question would still abide in some measure for the massive replication and concentration of flags in a single space has something of an inflationary effect on the symbolic currency of the national icon.  And there, I think, is the rub.  For there is little doubt that the symbolic value of the flag has diminished in recent years in proportion to the diminution of our domestic and international stature.  The multiplication of flags in such huge numbers thus perhaps functions as something of a symbolic palliative for our current psychic anxieties about national greatness.  We simply need more flags to fund our national urge.

What the photograph reminds us is that as with the effects of inflation on the dollar, the flag simply doesn’t buy as much as it used to.  And more, that at some deep level we know that but don’t want to admit it.

Photo Credit: J.B. Forbes/AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch


Sight Gag: Hurricane Irene—Follow The Bouncing Ball

Photo Credit: Chang W. Lee/NYT

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look.


The Long View

It remains to be seen if what we have witnessed in Egypt the past few weeks is a democratic revolution or not.  The people have spoken, and it seems that they were heard, but for now the military is in charge.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, at least in the short term, and there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic.  A functioning democracy requires some modicum of order without, at the same time, stifling individual liberties and the freedom to move about as one chooses.  And so far the Egyptian military seems to be mindful of the need to achieve some balance between liberty and order with an eye to the greater concerns of Egypt as a nation state. To accomplish this, of course, one needs to have an eye for both the immediate situation as well as the long view.

The photograph above is distinct in this regard. Most of the photographs turning up at various slide shows are shot from the ground and depict members of the military microscopically, up close and personal, as they work with a wide array of civilian volunteers to convert Tahrir Square back into an open and vital public sphere—removing barricades, helping with the general cleanup, and so on.  There are a few instances where the military is shown policing protestors who simply don’t want to give up their makeshift campsites, but such instances are relatively few and serve as an important reminder that the dissenters were not necessarily all of one voice and that freedom is not a license to do as one pleases.  In general, however, such images seem to suggest that the mess of democracy can be handled by individuals—both private citizens and representatives of the state—working together in common cause.  And that is true enough to a point, but what it misses is the big picture.

In the photograph above we get the long, wide view, shot at a distance and from on-high. The first thing to notice is that any register of individuality is completely effaced. The military—and thus the state—is altogether unrecognizable, and rather than to see individuals working together, we get a macroscopic view of the modern social order as masses of people interact with one another and with impersonal machines. At first glance, the scene seems to be chaotic as both vehicles and people vie for use of the common thoroughfare.  But on second view the chaos seems to exude its own careful, makeshift order, and in any case it all seems to work.  Not perfectly, of course, as the cars have to go slower than might otherwise be optimum, and the pedestrians cannot move about without attending to vehicular traffic, but nevertheless it seems to work well enough.

Ordered or chaotic, the scene is messy, and eventually all involved will make some accommodations to one another, but perhaps that is the point.  It is easy to imagine two individuals working together joining their interests in common cause.  It can even be neat and clean.  But the longer view reminds us that mass democracies are inherently messy affairs if only by virtue of their sheer magnitude.  And more, the order they create will not always be perfect, but if they strive to balance liberties and order there is a fair chance that they will work.  Not perfectly, not to everyone’s individual optimum interests, not even as rational thinkers (like, say, street engineers) would prefer, but well enough, and with the collective needs and interests of the social order at heart.  Perhaps that is what democracies do best.  But to see it we need to take the long view.  We know that the military is capable of both long and short views when planning battles, it will be interesting to see if they can apply the same optics in this situation.

Credit:  John Moore/Getty Images