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Gesturing Towards Sociality

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We have written here (here, here, and here) and elsewhere about the photojournalistic penchant—indeed, we are inclined to call it a photojournalistic convention—to produce photographs that feature hands (and feet). Often such images feature the fragmented human body, emphasizing the hand (or the foot), and thus diverting attention away from the face. The face is, of course, the chief marker of the liberal individual and by deemphasizing it notice is directed away from the particular individual to a more universal(izing) “human feature. The inclusion of the face in the image above is something of an exception to the typical convention that makes the point, as the caption to this image calls attention to an Argentine Court’s ruling that “Sandra,” an orangutang who has spent 20 years in a Buenos Aires zoo, is a “non-human person which has some basic human rights.”  Humanity here trumps personhood.

The photograph is part of a Big Picture slide show titled “Hands in the News.” According to the BP, “Hands tell stories. They are functional and they have the power to communicate emotions…. Represent(ing) hope, communication, power, connection, and longing.” All of this is true. But there is more. For such photographs don’t just invite us to see the “hand,” but rather to see “with the hand,” and as such it activates a traditional way of thinking about sociality and politics (e.g., the body politic) that is adapted to conditions of public representation: it is fragmented rather than organic, realistic rather than idealized, and provisional rather than essentialist. Most important, the dismemberment of the body implies a body politic that is no longer whole yet still active and engaged.

In short, the image of the hand (or the foot) as a bodily fragment signifies the distributed body of modern social organization, the pluralistic body of modern civil society, the multicultural body of a transnational—or as with the photograph above, transhuman—public sphere. This is the body that resists the abstraction and political symbolism dominating official discourse, but always indirectly, through figures of embodiment that are already dismembered. This is a rhetoric of bodily experience, but not the personalized experience of identity politics or the faux intimacy of infantilized citizenship. These images have proliferated when official authority is already discredited, and they are used to both contest that authority and finesse the problem of maintaining public legitimacy.

We should attend to them with care, not just as a stylistic affectation or an instance of cultural kitsch, but as an important convention of a powerful public art that invites us to see and be seen as citizens in the broadest way possible.

Credit: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

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Seeing With Our Feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seeing Through the Colors of Carnaval

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

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

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

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

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

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Immigration Policy and the Theater of the Absurd

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We have written at NCN on more than occasion about the problem of immigration in the U.S., or perhaps more accurately, on the problem of US public policy regarding immigration and the need for reform.  Perhaps the dominant visual trope that is affiliated with U.S. immigration policies is the “wall,” a manufactured border that purports to function as a container that separates there from here and them from us.  Of course, the problem is that however sophisticated the technology and however large an army of Border Patrols agents we employ, such walls are never impermeable.  And so the policy is already and always fated to be a failure.

The real difficulty, however, may not be that we have the wrong solution to the problem so much as we refuse to come to terms with reality of the situation that we are facing.  The photograph above is telling in this regard.  The caption reads, “Dessert for an immigrant detainee in his segregation cell during lunchtime at the Adelanto center [in San Bernadino, California].”  The institutionally grey, steel cell door is something of a wall and it dominates the photograph, cutting across the diagonal, separating inside from outside and the representative of the U.S. from the detained immigrant.  The bolt lock on the top creates the impression of security, but the opening in the door makes it clear that total separation is impossible—if even desirable given that apparently some communication and interaction seems at least useful.  It is thus, at least in some senses, a visual metaphor for the (as yet incomplete) wall that has been proposed to traverse much of the 2,000 miles of U.S. borderland between California and Texas.

But of course there is more, for what makes the photograph distinctive is not the metaphorical wall so much as the extended hands that traverse the opening.  Hands with opposable thumbs are distinctively human and here we see them as fragmented body parts.  The fragmentation is not incidental.  Typically the face is the visual marker of the liberal individual; absent such markings we don’t see particular individuals but rather social types, and thus the scene becomes something of an allegory for one dimension of the body politic as it negotiates the relationship between citizen and so-called “illegal” or “undocumented” immigrant.  Viewing the image in this register invites us to imagine U.S. immigration and border policy as played out in something like the Theater of the Absurd.

The hand on the right extends from inside the cell door, so it is clearly marked as “other” and “dangerous,” but apart from being large enough to be masculine and appearing to be white, the only social marking that it reveals is a wedding ring, linking its bearer to a time honored social ritual and tradition.  Were one to encounter this hand in any other situation it is unlikely that it would be seen as inherently alien, let alone precarious or threatening. The hand extending from the left is fully covered, a sleeve extending to the wrist and overlapping with a blue rubber glove, the two cinched by a watch strap.  The glove is the sort that we see being worn by investigators at a crime scene or a chemical spill, both situations where it is important to avoid contamination.  The overall impression, then, is that the arm and hand are hermetically sealed, and the implication here is hard to avoid: the hand on the left is protected from the presumably menacing or infectious hand on the right.

There is something altogether farcical about the relationship here and what calls it out is the piece of fruit being passed ever so tenderly from left to right as “dessert.”  On the one hand (no pun intended), the offer of dessert—not just food or nutrition—is a humane gesture designed to provide some measure of pleasure to the person connected to the “othered” hand on the right; and yet, on the other hand, one has to wonder about extending such a gesture to an alien who is truly dangerous, so much so that any contact whatsoever would somehow threaten the well being of the person connected to the hand on the left.  That one would make such a gesture recognizes a fundamental, ethical human and social responsibility that simply cannot be avoided or ignored, even when there are risks at stake.  Neither walls nor borders can erase it.  And even in our most paranoid state, it peaks through as an obligation that we have to our human brothers and sisters.

And so the point: the immigration problem we have in the U.S. is not, at its core, a matter of how to contain our borders so as to avoid making contact with alien others, as much as we might convince ourselves that such contact is risky,  but rather to recognize the fundamental obligation(s) we have to extending human rights in as humane a fashion as possible to all who share our humanity.  Once we allow ourselves to see that obligation and then commit ourselves to upholding it we will be better prepared to imagine how to negotiate the presence of immigrants within our midst and to produce policies that honor our very humanity without reverting to the theater of the absurd.

Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

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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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What Does Injustice Look Like?

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This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama.  By many accounts it was the tipping point in generating national public support for the civil rights movement, and much of that effect is often attributed to the national news reports that showed Birmingham police officers using attack dogs and fire hoses on nonviolent protestors. Chief among the most famous of those images is Bill Hudson’s photograph of high school student Bill Gadsden being attacked by a police dog.  It appeared the next day, May 4th, above the fold in the New York Times and has been reprinted perhaps more than any other image affiliated with the civil rights movement.  The photograph was memorialized in a statue in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park in 1993, fixing the meaning of the civil rights movement as a response to repressive state action.

There is much that could be said about this photograph, but perhaps most important is the way in which it puts the relationship between dominance and acquiescence on public display. Prior to the Boycott in Birmingham one could find photographs that visualized the ways in which white citizens sought to enforce the codes of social and racial hierarchy through verbal and physical intimidation, the most prominent example being the photograph of Hazel Barnes “barking” at Elizabeth Eckrich in the streets of Little Rock.  But typically such images located the agency of such control in the hands of civil society, i.e., ordinary citizens.  Here the agents of action are duly authorized police officers armed with guns and in control of highly trained attack dogs.  And of course that marks a huge difference.  Indeed, it should be of little surprise to anyone that the scene above, cast in the full light of day and executed by officers of the state, was characterized as a “legal lynching.”

To see the image through the haze of memory and framed by the contemporary consensus that state sponsored racial segregation was a profound injustice destined to be eliminated by a truly egalitarian society is in some ways to dull the effective, functional power of the image at its point of production and dissemination–however powerful it remains today.  But imagine seeing the photograph in 1963 and in the context of reports made by the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” O’Connor, that the protestors were a serious threat to public security.

The young man in the photograph does not appear to be a threat to anybody.  Note in particular his somewhat passive stance.  Despite being viciously attacked by a police dog his right hand rests at his side, while his left hand is on the police officers arm in a manner that seems either to be steadying himself or pushing the police officer away.  We might imagine a much more defensive or even aggressive stance in response to such an attack, but here we have an almost textbook example of nonviolent resistance.

The lack of threat is manifest in other features of the image.  Notice, in particular the countenance of the two police officers.   One seems to be pulling the youth into the dog’s maw, not so much trying to subdue him as to hold him still while the dog attacks.  The other police officer, with a handgun prominently displayed in its holster, heels his dog while he observes the scene before him.  One might imagine that if the black youth were truly a threat, so much so as to warrant the use of a dog to attack him, that the second police officer would be more directly and actively engaged.  Surely he would have his dog assisting in subduing the suspect, or that he would have pulled his gun.  But nothing of the like happens.  And the reason is manifest, for the action in the center of the screen is not about public safety.  Rather it is a public spectacle put on display for the enjoyment of the second police officer (and who he represents) and for the intimidation of the black citizens in the background.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was challenged by reticent and fearful black religious leaders in Birmingham with the question, why are you here, he responded, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”  Injustice can be a difficult concept to put into words, but once made palpably visible it is difficult to ignore. Sometimes we have to look closely to see it for what it is, sometimes it is there simply waiting to be seen.

Photo Credit:  Bill Hudson/AP

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The Public Mirror

The camera, we say, shows us the world it is pointed at.  A mechanical representation of the world, it nevertheless presumes a degree of agency in the assumption that the camera lens fragments and frames the world, and someone has done the pointing.  In this sense, it is an art.  The mirror, however, presumes an enhanced degree of objectivity and a  relative degree of passivity inasmuch as it literally reflects back everything within its purview. Lacking any obvious agency it is assumed to be fundamentally inartistic and thus arguably more “authentic.”   Or at least that’s one theory of the relationship between the gazes of the camera’s lens and the mirror.  But what happens when we photograph the mirror’s gaze?

Photographs of the mirror’s gaze are not uncommon and they are offer provocative examples of what W.J.T. Mitchell calls “showing seeing,” a pedagogical strategy for challenging the boundaries between nature and art, or what we might call the “real” and the “image.”  The two photographs below are a case in point.

This first image is of Palestinians “reflected in mirrors as they sat outside a store in Gaza City.”

The mirrors have been affixed to a wall, one set within an octagonal frame, the other a simple shard of glass.  Importantly, they are triangulated and connected to one another by what appears to be a broken picture frame, its matted image slipping out of sight.  The difference between mirror and photograph are thus accented; mirrors can be framed, just like photographs, but even when the mirror’s frame is broken or missing, as with the shard of glass, it continues to relentlessly reflect its gaze back to the viewer.  But even as the difference is underscored it is effaced, for what the photograph we are looking at shows is how the mirror is a medium for representing social relationality, framed by its very placement on a wall in a public place.  Put differently, mirrors—like photographs—are an artifice by which we take account of our self presentation to the world, and that abides whether the mirror is mounted in our private hallway or in the agora of public relations.

The point is made somewhat differently in this second image of people “reflected at a shopping center in downtown Tokyo.”

Here, the photograph displays the mirrors reflections of a shopping center as a fragmented panorama of people coming and going in every which way.  Because the glass is cut in a variety of geometric forms that are then welded together at odd different angles, the reflection is simultaneously real and imaginary.  Each fragment (or shard?) is accurate in its representation, but the articulation of those fragments leaves us with a scene that is chaotic if not altogether incoherent.  And so, once again, the viewer is confronted with the artificial—and hence artistic—representation of the mirror’s gaze.  And once again, the very public location of the mirrors puts us in position to take account of ourselves as social beings.

That social self in these two images seems to be very different, and there is no doubt that that difference bears careful consideration.  But the bigger point here is how these photographs of the mirror’s gaze remind us of the similarities between cameras and mirrors and the ways in which they function as artistic, reflexive spaces for monitoring ourselves, whether in private or in public.

Photo Credits: Mohammed Salem/Reuters; Koji Sashahara/AP

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The Modern Condition

It has been a full year since Japan was overwhelmed by an earthquake and tsunami and like clockwork the major media slideshows have responded with a series of “then” and “now” photographs (e.g., here, here, and here) marking the slow but steady progress of an advanced society—in many regards a society much like our own—as it returns from utter devastation to a bustling, self-sustaining economy.  It has not fully returned, but it is on the path to recovery and the comparisons surely invite our sympathy and admiration.  In January we saw a similar set of visual comparisons (e.g., here) on the one year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, but with this difference: while it appears that Haiti has recovered some from the disaster, it continues to be an impovrished, utterly dependent, “other world” nation that invites neither our identification nor our sympathy so much as our pity.

The differences between Japan and Haiti are signified in a multiplicity of ways, not least in how the devastation in Japan seems to have been largely structural, effecting roads, bridges, buildings, and other forms of physical property, whereas the devastation in Haiti has been more social and economic, exacerbating an already starving, unemployed, uneducated, and generally impecunious population.  The above photograph is telling in this regard.  It is a photograph of lost photographs collected in a local school gymnasium in Natori, Japan, waiting for their owners to seek them out and recover them.  Some are quite obviously old, perhaps even antique, and thus mark a sense of historical continuity that spans generations and thus mitigates the impact of the more recent and comparatively minor “then”/”now” dialectic that commemorates no more than a span of twelve months.  But perhaps more importantly, these photographs are obviously cherished items, their value signified not just by the fact that they are framed and were thus objects of display in the home, but because they were patiently and laboriously culled from the detritus left behind by the earthquake and tsunami and collected with the hope that they would be found by their respective owners.

Collection centers such as the one above can be found throughout Japan, and some are down right enormous as in the photograph below which identifies a site that contains more than 250,000 photographs .  And the point should be clear: more than lost property, these lost photographs are quite clearly significant momento mori, cultural artifacts that identify the society that takes them and preserves them as a modern, technologically sophisticated, bourgeois civilization (not that one has to be bourgeois to take and keep photographs, and the practice of snapshot photography cuts across all economic classes where it is an established cultural convention, but it rarely occurs in societies that lack an established middle-class).

And so it is that when we turn to retrospectives of Haiti we don’t find the preservation of family photographs at all.  That is not to say that photographs are unimportant, but as with the image below, they signify not an established, modern cultural practice, but rather a modernist intervention of sorts.

Here a Haitian woman shows a photograph of herself as she was pulled from the rubble of a house that had fallen upon her. The photograph was taken by an AP photographer and then given to her.  It is clear that she values it, but importantly it is more a curiosity—or perhaps a marker of humanitarian aid—than a conventional cultural artifact, and as such it designates the society in which she lives as pre-technological if not in fact premodern.  One finds a similar curiosity and intrigue displayed and accented in photographs that show Haitian children (here and here) being introduced to cameras and photography by the Art in All of Us project.

The simple point would be to notice how two societies are distinguished by their attitudes towards photographic technology: one modern and mature, the other premodern and either immature or innocent, but in any case defined as childlike and needy.  But perhaps more important is the way in which the photographs above function in each instance as media that model social relations, inviting us to see and be seen as members of a social order driven by the differences that simultaneously separate us and connect us. That, perhaps more than anything, defines the modern condition.

Photo Credits:  Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images; Toru Hanai/Reuters; Dieu Nalio Chery/AP Photo

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It’s A Small World After All (After All)

The point is a simple one, and perhaps not all that new, but hopefully no less profound for all that.  The camera offers us a way of seeing, and with it a reminder that for all its realist  pretensions, the cliché that “seeing is believing” must always be measured against the register or scale from which sight itself always begins.  And so it is that the photographers’ lens can take the simple and make it appear complex (or visa versa), just as it can render the ordinary altogether exotic (and the reverse).  The photographs below of last week’s lunar eclipse, which have been featured at a number of slide shows (here, here, and here), do both while also underscoring magnitude, indicating how what otherwise appears large is truly small, and how the small can be truly gargantuan (or maybe it is the other way around).

It will certainly not solve the world’s problems in realizing how small it is (or alternately, how small we are in it), but then again, as a new year is soon upon us it would not be a bad place to start.


(In order, the photos were shot from New Delhi, Sydney, Amman, Jerusalem,  Rome, San Francisco, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, and Seoul.)

Photo Credits:  Saurabh Das/AP; Tim Winbourne/Reuters; Ronen Zvulun/Reuters; Ali Jareki/Reuters; Tony Gentle/Reuters; Beck Diefenbach/Reuters; Bazukl Muhammad/Reuters; David Gray/Reuters; Jo Yong-Kak/Reuters

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How Does One Survive a Moral Virus?

The above photograph was taken while we were on a brief hiatus but I figured there would be plenty of time to write about it once we returned after the Thanksgiving Holiday.  Little did I imagine that it would go viral, become a meme, and basically disappear from attention in a period of ten days.

One of the things that we’ve learned in writing this blog for the past three years is that the news cycle can be brutal.  Blink and it has moved on to something more immediately interesting, as if our attention span is incapable of pondering the rightness and wrongness of human behavior for more than the time it takes to click through a slideshow.  But one would hope that genuine acts of unrepentant moral turpitude would not be cast aside so easily or so quickly.  Maybe it is because the image of Mary Anne Vecchio wailing in distress at the murder of Jeffrey Miller at a different student protest in the 1970s is so seared in my consciousness that I find the photograph of Officer Pike assaulting students who are the very image of nonviolent rectitude to be so appalling. I taste bile in my mouth every time I look at the image, even now, ten days after first seeing it.

Others have commented on how casual Office Pike appears as he sprays the students, and the point is all the more pronounced in the various U-tube videos that provide live documentation of the event.  Indeed, he looks rather like the weekend gardener in ads I’ve seen selling weed spray, killing the chickweed that has infested his otherwise perfectly green lawn as if it doing so makes him a good neighbor by maintaining property values.  It is no doubt in large measure that sense of nonchalance that has animated the “Officer Pike” meme that became the basis for literally hundreds of appropriations that show the pepper spraying of everything from cuddly kittens to the founding fathers, as well as inserting him into virtually everyone of the major iconic photographs of 20th century U.S. public culture, such as the flag being raised at Iwo Jima, the Times Square Kiss, accidental napalm, the Tiananmen Square tank man, and the photograph of Mary Anne Vecchio at Kent State.

One could go on at some length to analyze these many appropriations, though their production in such a compressed time period, coupled with how quickly they seem to have become irrelevant, makes it difficult to know quite what to make of it all.  There is outrage being expressed at Officer Pike’s nonchalance, to be sure, but also equally heavy doses of adolescent irreverence and cynicism that might lead one to think that the response in general is as much a conditioned, knee jerk reaction as anything at all.

But there is an additional point to be made and one that seems to have been missed by the many commentators and appropriators of the Officer Pike meme.  What makes the scene captured here so morally outrageous is not just that the behavior of the police officer is casual, but that it lacks any moral concern at all, despite the fact that it is being witnessed by hundreds of photographers and videographers.  It is one think to behave casually in ways that might be morally questionable, it is something altogether different to do so in the full light of day and with the knowledge that the world is watching.  Indeed, if anything Officer Pike’s behavior is marked by a conceit that reminds me of the photograph of a lynching that took place in Marian, Indiana in the 1930s where the townspeople are smiling for the camera as they direct attention to the hanging black bodies in the background.  Lacking any sense of shame for the scene in which they found themselves, they pointed with pride to what their community had “accomplished.” The officers in the photograph above—and here I mean to call attention to all of the officers—know that they are being photographed and yet they proceed as if there could be no question but that it is appropriate to shoot pepper spray into the faces of citizens sitting on the ground and posing a threat to no one.  It is, in short, an image of moral hubris that should be anathema to a liberal-democratic public culture that relies for its life blood on civil (and civilized) dissent.

And yet for all that, we seem to have moved on, the viral video little more than one of the millions of u–tube videos that seem to serve the contemporary role of bread and circuses, the Officer Pike meme  an online joke that is on the verge of becoming a trivia question.  And the moral outrage that should haunt us all is lost to the news cycle.

Photo Credit: Louise Macabitis

 

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