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Sep 05, 2011

The Costs of Gun Violence

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Since 9/11 there have been over 400,000 gun deaths in the USA from privately owned guns. That’s approximately 33,000 deaths per year – murders and suicides combined – and it doesn’t take account of the approximately 80,000 injuries each year. To put it all in context, the Congressional Research Service estimates that from the Battle of Lexington and Concord to the war on Afghanistan, 1,171,177 US citizens lost their lives in American wars; according to the FBI, since 1968 1,387,171 American have lost their lives to firearms. Most recently it was reported that the direct and indirect costs of gun violence amount to $229 billion dollars per year – that’s more than the estimated cost of obesity ($224 Billion) and nearly as much as the cost of Medicaid ($228 Billion). Or to make it personal, the per capita cost ranges from $234 per person (in Hawaii) to $1,397 per person (in Wyoming). The average national per capita cost is $750.

Now I know that attitudes about the 2nd Amendment are polarized across the nation, but whatever your ideological position is it is pretty hard to deny that we have a serious problem here. And the photograph above points to at least a small part of the trouble. That’s a Barrett .50 caliber rifle—often referred to as a “sniper rifle”—on display at the annual NRA meeting in Nashville, TN. It shoots ten rounds per second is a semi-automatic weapon that holds a ten round magazine, projects an effective range of 2,500 meters, and has been known to cleanly sluice through the engine block of a truck. The man wielding the gun is intense and focused. He seems to be having a good time. And therein likes the rub.

I realize that some will take exception to this claim, but I truly cannot imagine how a private citizen could possibly need quite that much firepower, whether for hunting or self-defense or … for what? The International Association of Chiefs first recommended banning the private ownership of such weapons in 2004 as a protection for law officers, a recommendation endorsed by strict regulations passed in the State of California and the District of Columbia. And yet, as the photograph above suggests, the rifles are still not only being manufactured, but promoted at national events … a phenomenon no doubt encouraged by the popularity of this past year’s biographical movie American Sniper. One cannot only see such weapons, but one can play as if they were actually shooting one. And to what end? To imagine assassinating a foreign leader? Or stopping an invading tank?

The question is, can we have a sensible endorsement of the 2nd Amendment without going to the extent of encouraging the purchase of or identification with weapons that clearly have no other purpose than to kill and maim at great distances. After all, weapons such as this are not used for target practice or sport and the thought that a rifle of this size and caliber might serve as self-defense is laughable. Perhaps its only virtue is that it is so large that it can never serve as a concealed weapon. The point, I guess, is that the debate over gun control has extended to such absurd limits that we have failed to produce any kind of sensible regulations on gun control at all. The Constitution grants the right to bear arms, just as it grants the right to “free speech.” But as we know in the later case, such rights are neither absolute nor without obligations. They have to balanced against the costs. And when the costs get too high the rights must, reluctantly, be restricted and restrained.

Rather than to endorse playing with guns, the bigger the bang the better, the NRA would serve itself and the nation more productively if it worked to think about how the 2nd Amendment might be sensibly adapted to a growing (and tragic) cost that seems to exceed its benefits.

Credit: Harrison McClary/Reuters


Fashionable Ordnance

Fashionable Ordnance

The spring/summer fashion season is upon us, and what would fashion be without a full complement of accessories, including handcrafted jewelry. Women are apparently the fastest growing segment of the gun buying market—approximately 20% of all gun permits were issued to women over the last three years—and so it is perhaps no surprise that fashion accessories of all sorts are being designed to meet the demand of women gun enthusiasts for bodily adornment and display. Bullet Designs is just one company catering to this demand, as with the medallion above crafted from spent bullet casings, and such offerings are made available at fashion and firearms shows all across the country.

Jewelry, of course, serves many functions, some quite instrumental, like the belt buckle or the watch, and others more aesthetic, designed either to coordinate the elements of one’s ensemble, such as a broach, or simply to accent various features of the body. Additionally, it also can serve as a symbol of social, cultural and/or political identity, as with a wedding ring or a lapel pin that marks one’s status or affiliation with a group or institution. And of course none of these more or less practical functions are altogether discrete, so that any piece of jewelry can (and generally will) serve two or more of these functions simultaneously. Regardless of how we think about such ordinary functionalities, however, there can be little question that jewelry (like a photograph) is meant to be seen—perhaps that is its supreme function—and the question then has to be: what exactly are we seeing?

The photograph above was part of a local news story about “How Women Can Look Good While Packing Heat,” and its ostensible purpose seems to be to illustrate one of the many accessories available for purchase at a local “fashion and firearms extravaganza.” And it does that pretty well, drawing upon the conventions of advertising and still life photography that highlight its features, accenting the relationship between the brass fitting, the sparkling jewels, and the bullet casings. But the photograph does more than that as it invites us to look carefully at the medallion as it is decontextualized from its more practical functions. In short, it asks us to consider what is being shown.

There is perhaps no shortage of answers to this question, but one answer must surely be that it shows us the beautification of a technology that was designed primarily for the purpose of killing and maiming. Bullets can be used for shooting at targets, of course, but it is hard to imagine that they would have been invented for that purpose alone. There may be good reasons to have bullets—I leave that topic for another time—but even if you believe that they are necessary to a civilized society it should give some pause to think that an instrument of death would be normalized as a fashion accessory. So what exactly do we see here?  Is it the conscious celebration of one aspect of a culture of violence? Or it is  a sign of a culture that lacks the capacity (or will) to reflect upon its unconscious tendency to animate the tragic cycle of violence that seems to haunt us?

Photo Credit: Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star.

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



… the more things stay the same.

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Of all of the hundreds of photographs of the protests and violence and destruction to come out of Ferguson, MO in the past week it was this image that stung me the most. A lone black man squatting amidst a raging cauldron of hate and fear and frustration, he bears the simple message “Black Lives Matter.” The flames that surround him cast him in a shadow of backlight but illuminate both his sign and the graffiti behind him that implores whoever encounters it to “Kill Cops.” Each message is equally outrageous and absurd however meaningful it might be under the current circumstances. Of course black lives matter; that the claim even has to be made—and there is no question from this quarter that it does—is a national shame. To incite the killing of police—the avatars of preserving “the peace” and maintaining “order” —is a call to barbarism that beckons to a world governed by the Hobbesian “war of all against all.” In short, the photograph is an allegory for how tenuous the fabric of our contemporary society has become.

What made the photograph most striking for me, however, was not the way in which it cautions us against the current tragedy of Ferguson, MO, but how it stands as a notice that the problem of black-white relations is the true American tragedy, a problem that never seems to go away, but recurs in cyclical fashion for every generation. And so I could not help but remember another photograph, equally absurd—and equally meaningful in its context—from my youth.

Mourner at Martin Luther King's memorial

1968 seems so incredibly long ago—a lifetime for those in my generation—that it is hard to think of this photograph as anything but an aide memoire from the era of the civil rights movement. And yet for all the progress we presume to have made in the intervening decades, for all the talk of being in a “post-civil rights” era or a world of “hope,” there is no getting around the fact that the claim to manhood in the older photograph is a precursor to the precarity of black life marked in the contemporary photograph.

 The more things change …

Credit: Stephen Lam/Reuters; Bob Adelman/Corbis.

Crossposted at BagNewsNotes.


Judging In Camera

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A Facebook “friend” living in Tel Aviv recently admonished analyses of Mideast politics from academics “who only know about the Mideast from their shithead blogs and cherry picked newspapers.” Scatological references aside, I was prepared to agree. The history of the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestine conflict in particular, is so fraught with local complexities that anyone who has never been part of that world—intellectually, socially, politically— would have to be either a fool or incredibly arrogant to enter the fray. And then I came across the photograph above at more than a few major news outlets, and I was literally stopped in my tracks.

Photographs of corpses are always gruesome and hard to look at, but the image of a dead child is especially hard to view; when it is the result of human volition—and in this case military ordinance—it is nearly impossible to avoid judgment. The photograph here is especially difficult to look at. The child cannot be more than six or seven years of age. Dressed for what looks to be a day at the beach, he carries all of the innocence of childhood; he should be flying kites or building sand castles, not lying face down, his body wracked and contorted by the force of the blast of the shell fired by an Israeli gunboat. Wars may be necessary, or at least inevitable, as hard as such ideas are to swallow. But one can only wonder what threat this child posed to those who chose to bombard this strip of Gaza beach.

If this were the only photograph of the only Palestinian child killed by Israeli air raids and bombings it would be enough to demand that we sit in judgment. But of course it is neither. Such images are abundant and it is not sufficient to say either that there are Israeli children who have suffered a similar fate or that Palestinians have been given “fair warning” when such bombings are about to take place. Were the photograph above of an Israeli child killed by a rocket launched indiscriminately by Hamas the demand for judgment would be no less. And to warn those locked within a narrow strip of land with no real opportunity for cover to take heed is, well, no warning at all.

But what judgment to make? There’s the rub. This photograph—as with any photograph— forces us to stand in witness, to question and to query, to see what is before our eyes and to take responsibility for what we see; in short, it calls out for our engagement if only by way of imaging the possibility of a future that is different from the past. It does not tell us what judgment to make—though it is hard to imagine the circumstance that warrants the indiscriminate killing of innocent children, regardless of the provocation—but it demands that we not sit idly by. Judge or be judged; that is the calling of such photographs.

Photo Credit: Stringer/Reuters



The Shrouds of Kiev

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The Battle for Kiev is over, at least for now.  The President has been duly ousted by the Parliament, Independence Square is slowly being cleared of the barricades, and shrines to the dead are beginning to appear.  How many dead is hard to know, but numbers range from 70 to more than 100, with at least 500+ serious injuries on top of that number—and that is just among the protestors of the Yanukovich administration, there were deaths and injuries amongst government police as well.

Photographs of blood stained streets and shrouded dead bodies are prominent, made all the more distressing by virtue of the fact that much of the violence was perpetrated by the police against the citizens of a democratic society who, presumably, it was their job to protect.  Before we get too sanctimonious, however, we should recall that this is not the first time that democratic governments have turned their power and force tyrannically against their own citizenry, and with disastrous results.  One need only recall the use of guard dogs and water cannon in attacks against nonviolent civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama or the deaths of four students at the Kent State Massacre when student anti-war protestors were fired upon by the Ohio National Guard.

In many ways, the photograph above recalls the famous photograph of a young woman wailing in anger, pain, and grief in the in the midst of the Kent State killings.  But, of course, there are important differences.  In the Kent State photograph the woman is not only younger, but she is prominently situated at the middle of a public scene that recalls much of the action going on around her, and her expression is cast outward to others, as much a plea for help—or an expression of public outrage—as anything.  Here the photograph is closely cropped so that the woman fills the frame and her grief seems more inward, more personal than public.  Indeed, pain and grief seem to be the conspicuous emotions being invoked, not anger or outrage.  And more, she doesn’t seem to be calling out to anyone so much as absorbing and containing the pain within herself.  Notice how she covers her face in this regard, blocking out the scene that she cannot bring herself to witness.  And there is another difference as well.  The dead bodies that lie on the ground behind her are covered, barely recognizable as such; indeed, without being alerted by the caption one might fail to see  them altogether.   Contrast the veiling of bodies and emotions with the photograph of the Kent State Massacre where the young woman kneels next to the prostate body that lies prominent in front of her—and in front of us, always and forever an image of the costs and effects of a democracy turned tyrannous.

As one works their way through the many photographs of the dead in Kiev it is hard not to notice that almost all of the photographs of the dead are shrouded, with only small parts of their bodies exposed to view, a stomach here, a knee there.  In many ways this is as it should

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be as it indicates respect for the deceased and saves their families and friends from having to live forever with horrific images of their loved ones.   And yet, there is a cost here too, as it reifies the dead body, transforming it into an anonymous, collective entity that inadvertently denies all sense of personal identity and individual loss.  The image above is especially telling in this regard as the flag that drapes the bodies combines with the  helmet and flower to ritualize the deaths that are both signified and memorialized, revealing them as part of a national cause fought in the name of democracy—as they were—but at the same time veiling or erasing (or at the very least mitigating) the outrage that led to their individual sacrifice by covering the bodies.

There is perhaps no truly good way to represent such a situation, but that does not mean that we should ignore the implications of the choices of representation that we take, however conventional they might be.  The protestors who died in Independence Square were heroes, to be sure, but they were also individual citizens shot down and butchered by the very forces that should have been protecting them.  And that is not something that should ever get lost in the telling of—or seeing—the Battle of Kiev.

Credit:  Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters; Darko Bandic/AP



If it Bleeds it Leads … Sometimes

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Photographs of violent death show up in the mainstream media slideshows with some degree of regularity.  Not every single day, to be sure, but often enough to identify some sort of genre.  Such images don’t always include mourners, as does this one, which amplify the pain and suffering by extending it to the living, here a family member in grief, but they almost always feature the bruised and bloody body, often gruesomely so.  This image comes from Cairo, where the  government recently cracked down on supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, but it could have been almost anywhere in the world, from Afghanistan to Chile, to Syria, Tibet and beyond.

The key phrase in that last sentence is “almost anywhere in the world,” because it is highly unlikely—approaching certainty—that we would ever see such a photograph taken in the United States and on display in the mainstream media.  Going back as far as the 1950s one of the very few exceptions I can think of is the photograph of the tortured and mangled body of Emmett Till, and that horrific image was put on display because his outraged mother insisted that the world bear witness to his lynching.  Another exception might be one of the photographs that appeared at the time of the slaying of students by the National Guard at Kent State University in 1970, though even there the most vividly gruesome images (here and here) received very little sustained attention, while a less  gruesome image went on to achieve iconic status.  And there maybe other exceptions, though I am hard pressed to identify them, but in any case they are so rare as to stand as proof to the rule of the convention.

The obvious question to ask  is why?  Why do we encounter such photographs from other parts of the world with regularity in the mainstream media, but not from our own world? This is not an easy question to answer.  Perhaps fewer such pictures are actually taken in the US, but that only begs the question, for while there might not be the same degree of concentrated violence in the US as elsewhere, there are surely enough occasions where such photographs could be taken and shown, but are not.  Or perhaps it is that we privilege the privacy of the individual in our own culture, but don’t allow privacy concerns to impede the ways in which we represent and depict alien cultures.  Or perhaps it is simply a perverse voyeurism that promotes our own culture over those we might characterize as “others.”  And there maybe other possibilities at well.

However we answer this first question, there is a second and, perhaps, more important question to ask:  Given the regularity and almost ubiquity of such images in the mainstream press, how is it that we see them without actually noticing them, viewing them all too frequently with a tired glance as we flip from one image to the next.  Just another photograph.  Some are no doubt content to answer this question with the old sop of “compassion fatigue,” but if that were true it is unlikely that photographers would keep taking the images or that editors would keep posting them with regularity, especially in slideshows where they are often surrounded with other images that don’t clearly address or inflect the violence that was perpetrated.  There has to be something else going on here.  I don’t know the answer, but the regular (commodified?) presence of such images of people from distant lands is surely a provocation to consider how it reflects our values and desires as much, if not more, than those of the people and countries being depicted.

Photo Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP

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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


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