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On Not Seeing the Homeless

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Homelessness in the United States persists. Estimates vary, but by most conservative accounts 3.5 million people experience homeless each year. That said, it is only a mere 1% of the population. And the number has actually declined a small bit in the past few years. No problem, right?

But consider this: 35% are families with children, 25% are under the age of 18, 23% are military veterans, 30% have been the victims of domestic violence, and, no surprise here, 25% suffer from some form of mental illness. The problem is significant, in other words, and many of the most vulnerable are in little position to do anything to help themselves. And so the socially conscious continue to pursue awareness campaigns.

The photograph above is from Cape Cod, MA, where 27 high school students “slept in cardboard boxes and took turns playing in a 10-hour continuous soccer game throughout the night.” The effort is well-intentioned and even honorable, but the question is: what do we see? Or perhaps, more to the point, what are we being shown? Not the homeless—or their condition—that’s for sure.

There is something of an irony here. At its heart, a huge part of the problem with homelessness is that it is a human condition that we are conditioned not to see; indeed, it is a social phenomenon that we actively turn our head away from: as children we are told not to stare and as adults we look through the homeless on our streets as if they were altogether invisible. And so, of course, the need for awareness. But there’s the rub: As much as we seem to try to animate awareness we do it by turning attention away from the thing itself and to those who no doubt feel righteous in their service to a larger cause. And as with this photograph we complicate the problem further by substituting faux homelessness for the real thing.

Look closely at the photograph. Those sleeping “in cardboard boxes” is a bit of a misnomer. They look more like children who have constructed a play fort in their living room or basement more than anything approximating a homeless person consigned to sleeping in a tattered and used cardboard box. They all look well fed. While they are surrounded by a wall of cardboard they are actually sleeping in what look to be clean and warm sleeping bags with more pillows than they know what to do with; comfortable and content, they rest with their faces fully exposed to the world as if without a care in the world. And why not. After all, they are not exposed to the elements. There is no rain or snow or cold to contend with and the bright lights of the gymnasium add an extra level of security that those sleeping in parks or alleys or under highway by-passes and bridges can rarely if ever rely upon. Those not sleeping are playing soccer, another sign that all is safe and secure. And, of course, when morning comes they will return to their homes—no longer homeless!—where breakfast and their own warm beds await.

So again, what are we being shown? The all too easy answer is the efforts of young people working to right a social wrong the best way that they know how. And the photograph certainly does that. But more than that it also shows how easy it is to sentimentalize a profound and complex social condition, to invoke the pathos necessary to action—and for that matter to access our very humanity—and at the same time to contain and direct such emotions away from the actual problem itself. Instead of seeing the homeless and the common problem that it poses for a liberal democratic society, once again we are encouraged to look elsewhere.

Credit: Stan Grossfeld/Boston Globe Staff

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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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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

 

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Caught in the Shadows

The woman above is a beggar.  The scene is Pamplona, Spain, but there is nothing that marks its location per se.  In point of fact, within the last six months I’ve seen the almost identical scene in New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis.  And my guess is that others have seen it in many other cities and towns as well.  Or maybe not.  For while such scenes are all too present we have conditioned ourselves not to notice, to be blind to the situation.  Indeed, we teach our children that it is impolite to stare at such people, and I fear that we learn our lessons all too well, choosing as adults not just to avoid staring but to take comfort in not seeing them at all.  The problem that is created is a vexing one, as the photograph illustrates:  The poor, the unemployed, the homeless are compelled to perform their abjection in public as a means of survival, but at the same time they must shroud themselves under the veil of a shadow, seeable but not noticeable, observable but not seen.  It is hardly a situation conducive to encouraging public assistance, but then that doesn’t seem to be its purpose. Indeed, it seems to underscore a public-private dichotomy that forces (enables?) us to imagine (but never really see) the downtrodden as private individuals and not as members of a public, civic community.

What makes this photograph provocative is how it reminds us that we are all subject to the veil of the shadow.  Notice how those passing by, whether walking to or fro, cast (or are cast in?) their own shadows. There is a difference, of course, as the shadows of those walking are dynamic, exuding a sense of agency, while those of the beggar are altogether static, belying any sense of intentional action whatsoever.  In an  important sense, however, the difference is minimal, no more really than a function of how the light casts its rays upon us—illuminating or hiding us by turns.  And when we see the photograph in this context it is not difficult to imagine how quickly the roles played by the actors in the scene above can be reversed as casting a shadow morphs all too easily into being contained by one.  In a sense, one might say, the photograph stands as a visual reminder of the cultural aphorism, “there but for the Grace of God …”

It is a humbling lesson, but one all the more important for it if we are to recognize and attend to the precarious and  profound economic differences that seem to separate us.

Alvaro Barrientos/AP Photo

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The Shame of Survival

The VA reports that 18 veterans commit suicide every day.  And last week the U.S. Army reported that the suicide rate among active duty soldiers has risen from 9.6 per 100,000 in 2005 to 24.1 per 100,000 in 2011. The number of attempted suicides is astronomically higher still and all out of proportion with the suicide rate among the civilian population.  Reports of all of this leak out from time to time, of course, but the tendency is to make the problem abstract by focusing on the aggregate and not so much on the individuals.  The numbers underscore the sheer magnitude of the problem, but at the same time they make it almost impossible to imagine the individual trauma … or perhaps the better word here would be “envision.”  And because the real effects of the problem are harder to see in the abstract, they are also easier to be blind to.  We are not inclined to quote totalitarians in the affirmative here at NCN, but Josef Stalin’s characterization of such situations is much to the point, “[o]ne death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.”  The situation is thus really something of a catastrophe: a problem that we don’t appear to know how to solve (assuming we exclude the obvious and refuse to eliminate the root cause, which is sending our young men and women to fight  such wars in the first place) and yet one that is so large and so present that the logic of its representation encourages us to acknowledge and ignore it simultaneously.

A large part of the difficulty is that it is virtually impossible to get photographs of actual suicides and one would surely have to challenge the ethics of taking such photographs if one could do so. And yet it is not sufficient to turn a blind eye to the situation.  A slideshow at the Denver Post titled “Welcome Home” is much to the point in this regard as it invites us to see into the life and mind of at least one contemporary war veteran and his struggles with readjusting to the civilian world.  Part of the story conveyed by the slideshow is the all too conventional tale  that the veteran’s return home is experienced as altogether lonely and alienating, and in any case anything but welcoming.  That narrative is no less true for being conventional, but the photograph above signals a second, more poignant and even more troubling story as well. Tattooed with what appears to be the face of death—a marking which it will turn out is probably not incidental—the wrist belongs to Brian Scott Ostrom, an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Marine Corp’s Second Reconnaissance Battalion who served two tours of duty in Iraq.  Ostrom did not commit suicide, but as the fresh stitches that mark his wrist indicate, he made a serious attempt at doing so.  In fact, it was his second such attempt.  The question, of course, is why?

Like so many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ostrom suffers from PTSD, a psychological disorder that manifests itself in panic attacks and fits of rage that often lead to physical violence.  Frequently that violence is directed outwards at other people or physical objects, but just as often it is directed inward at an intractable guilt that simply never goes away—and, of course, that cannot be seen. Part of that guilt is a result of having voluntarily participated in a troglodyte world in which all empathy for the other is evacuated, a world in which there is no difference between doing’s one’s job and behaving in the most brutal ways imaginable … and yet, in Ostrom’s own words, not feeling bad for “anything I did over there,” but “for what I didn’t do.”

The words are as cryptic as is the face of death on Ostrom’s wrist.  But both take on an eerie and troubling significance when we recall something he said earlier in his narrative, reflecting on his PTSD, “I think it comes from the fact that I survived.  That wasn’t my plan.  It’s an honor to die for your country, but I made it home.”  And then this, “Every one of us has a suicide plan.  We all know how to kill, and we all have a plan to kill ourselves.”  What he didn’t do was to die for his country.  The words are as hard to hear as the photograph above is to look at.

But look at it we must, for in its own way it illustrates the problem faced by our returning war veterans writ large—a point emphasized by the fact that the hand itself is disembodied; it could belong to Ostrom (as it does) but it could belong to any of the thousands of returning veterans (or for that matter to those who might be inducted to fight in future wars):  Bred to kill and marked by death, our warriors are assimilated into a topsy-turvy world in which survival is a sign of failure, and doing one’s job well results in dishonor.  And there does not seem to be any way out except for one.   Perhaps the only wonder is that the suicide rate amongst our veterans is as low as it is.

Photo Credit: Craig F Walker/Denver Post.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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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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The In/visibility of the Warrior-Citizen

Much of what we experience as war photography focuses attention on the manner in which war is fought.  And whether the photographs we see shows soldiers conducting military campaigns, interacting with local children in occupied territories, experiencing the boredom of war that punctuates the time between skirmishes, suffering from wounds both physical and psychological, or returning home to the hugs and relief of friends and families—or worse, in flag drapped coffins, the focus is always on what we might call “the conduct of war.” And because wars are typically fought in the name of collectivities the role of the individual is played down—not erased entirely, but nevertheless minimized, as such photographs underscore the archetypal quality of the scenes displayed.  Individuals tend to stand in for something larger than themselves.  And yet for all of that, one of the genres of war photography continues to be the individual portrait.

The most common portraits of soldiers tend to be taken prior to battle and usually feature the soldier in full uniform.  This is of course a practice that is as old as the Civil War.  And whether taken by the military itself or by friends and family members, such portraits veil the identity of the individual beneath the uniform and mark the soldier first and foremost as a representative of the nation-state.  In recent years a number of photographers have begun to challenge such work and in a ways designed to remind us of the individuals doing the fighting (here and here).  Among such work is the photography of Suzanne Opton.

In a series of projects beginning as early as 2003 Suzanne Opton has been photographing individual soldiers, emphasizing the artistic conventions of portraiture designed to help us engage and understand the individual qua individual.  And with stunning results. Taken “at home,” rather than on the war front, the soldiers she photographs are all out of uniform.  And thus there is a sense in which their status as “citizen” is accented, rather than their status as “warrior.”  And yet at the same time they are unmistakably marked by their experiences as warriors.

In one set of images, titled “Many Wars” she photographs veterans in treatment for combat trauma, but what marks the series is that they cut across every American war from World War II to the present.  As with the photograph above, they are shrouded in cloth, and generally distinguished by age, though only somewhat incidentally by the particular wars in which they fought. And the point seems to be that we need to see them as one, even as they are portrayed as individuals—a paradox that underscores the in/visibility of war as it crosses generations (and more).

 

In one of her most recent works, titled “Soldiers” she photographs veterans returning from Iraq, by asking them to lie on the ground with their faces at rest, almost as if they were preparing to go to sleep.  The pose not only resists the typical conventions of portraiture (showing the individual sitting or standing up straight, shoulders back, emphasizing their strength and agency) but locates them in that liminal state between full and active consciousness and the dream world of sleep. The pose surely operates as a visual metaphor for the condition of such individuals.  There is also a gesture here to the “two thousand yard stare” that recurs as a convention of war photography, made all the more haunting by the fact that these individuals are out of uniform and thus that much closer to us as citizens on the home front.   These photographs were part of a provocative and controversial “Billboard” campaign which, in their own way, demonstrate the sense in which the soldier has become more or less in/visible.

Whatever one makes of Opton’s work, it is clear that she is challenging us to think about the conventional representations of war and the warrior-citizen, and more, the implications for how we experience and engage such representations as we go about our daily lives.  Suzanne Opton will be lecturing on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, IN on Monday, October 3, 2010.  The title of her presentation is “Many Wars: The Difficulty of Home” and it will take place in Fine Arts 015 from 7:00-8:30.  If you are in the neighborhood I encourage you to attend.

Photo Credits: Suzanne Opton

Note:  My colleague Jon Simons and I are co-hosting the 2011-2012 Remak New Knowledge Seminar on “The In/Visiblity of America’s 21st Century Wars.”  As part of the seminar we will be bringing eight speakes to campus including Michael Shapiro, Roger Stahl, Diane Rubenstein, Nina Berman, David Campbell, Wendy Kozol, and James Der Derian.  Suzanne Opton is the first speaker in the series.  In April 2012 we will be hosting a conference on the same theme that will include presentations by Robert Hariman and Michael Shaw.


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Home Again, Again

Guest post by Lisa Carlton

Literary and visual tropes of homecoming are essential to narrating war.  Take, for instance, the timeless Greek war mythology of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  Both of these poems invoke the theme of “nostos” or homecoming.  Or we might think of the iconic WWII image of the Times Square Kiss. Typically, homecoming tropes signify an end to a time of national conflict and strife—a relative return to normalcy.  But the wars of the new millennium are perpetual.  They resist narrative’s conventional markers of a beginning, middle, and end.

The image above was taken at a homecoming ceremony for the South Dakota Army National Guard’s 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade on May 3, 2011.  It appeared in the Memorial Day collection of “In Focus,” The Atlantic’s news photography blog.  According to the caption, the little boy in the photograph is four-years-old and the little girl is two.  This means the boy was born around 2007 and the girl was born in 2009.  By then, the war in Afghanistan had been underway for over five years and almost ten.  These children were born into a culture where war is the norm.

The uniformed father figure is identified by the caption as Major Jason Kettwig of Milbank, South Dakota.  An officer-level rank suggests that Kettwig has been in the Army National Guard for quite some time; Probably before his young children were born.  The photograph’s caption explains that this particular “group of approximately 200 soldiers has been serving in Afghanistan for the past year.”

One year ago the little boy in the photograph was three; and the little girl was just one-year-old.  In the image her hands lovingly and gracefully cup her father’s neck.  She is not clinging to him, as we might expect a young child to do to her father.  Instead, her head is pulled back from his.  She gazes at his face with a mature, furrowed brow, a look of relief, concern, and wonderment, commonly identified on the faces of adults.  She has not seen this face in one year and she appears to be studying it, searching for traces of change since the last time she saw it.  It reminds me of the way parents look at their teenaged children after their first long stint away from home.  But her father does not return her gaze.  He appears to be looking at his son.

The son, who is four-years old, stares off into the distance over his father’s shoulder.  His facial expression is less engaged than his sister’s.  His lips part and turn upward, but the smile looks almost hesitant.  Perhaps he has experienced this homecoming scenario before.  Maybe, by his ripe old age of four, he has experienced his father’s deployment and return once already.  The boy wears a green tee shirt, almost identical to the color of his father’s desert camouflage.  And his short, clean haircut adds to the father-son likeness.  As the father looks at his “mini-me,” the reader is invited to wonder if military service is in this little boy’s future.  So as the father looks at his son, and the son looks off into the distance, and we, the viewers look at these children, all of the gazing that animates this image is oriented toward the future.

While the children are the most salient figures in this photograph, with their adorable, round faces and the light bouncing off their shiny, sandy blonde hair, the father figure is positioned as central.  However, it is the back of his shoulders, neck, and head.  We cannot see his face, and as such, we have a harder time identifying emotionally with him.  We can only imagine what his face looks like.  Does it express happiness?  Relief?  Melancholy?  The back of his head does not provide cues for how we should feel.   Perhaps the absence of his visage marks a loss of his humanity while at war, or perhaps it symbolizes an anticipation of his death, or maybe it’s a social commentary on what has been described as a faceless war effort.

The photograph’s composition is an uncanny inverse of Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother.  Instead of identifying with the mother — or the absent father figure — as we might have with Lange’s image, this photograph turns our attention to the children’s faces for a model of how to feel and how to interpret the action in the scene.  This important shift in subjectivity positions the viewer as childlike—an infantile citizen who, like the four-year-old and two-year-old in the photograph, has become a little too acclimated to a culture of perpetual war.  When we take on the gaze of the confused and bewildered child, we as citizens are invited to remain complacent and uncritical.  Again.

Photo Credit: Eisha Page/Argus

Lisa Carlton is a Ph.d student in Communication Studies at the University of Iowa.  She can be contacted via e-mail at lisa-carlton@uiowa.edu.

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Going Gaga Over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

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Notwithstanding the oratorical skills of Lady Gaga, the U.S. Senate voted today to block debate on a bill designed to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  It might be easy to lay the blame on the forty Republican Senators, bolstered by two renegade Democrats (plus the majority leader whose vote was a procedural ploy that allows him to reprise the bill at a later date), who voted against letting the bill come to the floor for debate, but that would be to ignore any number of complicating issues, such as efforts by the Democratic majority to add contentious amendments to the bill concerning immigration policy.  All of which is to say that its not exactly clear what specific interests were being served here on either side of the aisle.

One might imagine this as standard operating procedure for a legislative body that seems intent on letting partisan political self-interest stand in the way of national interest, and hardly worthy of note but for the presence of Lady Gaga.  What is interesting here is how the national media has given significant attention to her ersatz protest rally without fully recognizing the way in which her transparently self-conscious spectacle is not just an appeal for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but is also (and maybe more) a parody of the mass mediated political process itself.  To get the point, notice how many if not most of the reports on her rally are primarily if not exclusively photographic, almost to the exclusion of any consideration of what she actually had to say. The irony, of course, is that a quasi-faux rally cast as political spectacle received far more coverage than the presumably unintentional spectacle of actual Senators deciding the fate of the military.

Perhaps the most interesting representation of the Lady Gaga rally occurred in the pictures of the day slide show at the Washington Post.   Despite the possible significance of the Senate filibuster on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the pictures of the day at WAPO feature a photographer at a photo fair in France trying on a pair of 3-D glasses, a child in Slovenia sitting next to his friends on a curb and with a bucket on his head, and Bristol Palin displaying her legs in a PR shot for the television show “Dancing with the Stars.”  There are no pictures regarding the debate over gays in the military.  Or at least not at first glance.  But as one moves through the thirty seven images in the slide show one eventually comes across the above photo of Lady Gaga, public advocate, characterized as “rail[ing] against what she call[s] the injustice of having goodhearted gay soldiers booted from military service, while straight soldiers who harbor hatred toward gays are allowed to fight for their country.” The alternative she prefers, we are told, is to “target straight soldiers who are ‘uncomfortable’ with gay soldiers in their midst.” That the caption fails to acknowledge either the irony or the parody of Lady Gaga’s performance is underscored by the two photographs that follow.

The first of these photographs shows a “former” member of the Air Force taking a picture of the rally.

Standing Agsint the Flag for Lady Gaga 2010-09-21 at 11.07.37 PM

Perhaps he is one of those “good hearted gay soldiers,” but nothing in the photograph suggests as much.  Indeed the photograph suggests incoherence as much as anything. Shot in long distance we see only his face and hands as they peek up from behind a poster to take a picture for Twitter of the anonymous and faceless audience waving hands.  The background shows a large American flag, but its meaning is made ambiguous by the somewhat incomprehensible legend on the poster that implores the audience to “Leave them Speechless.”  Lacking any reference to context, the overall effect of the photograph is one of clutter and confusion. And as a result, the political and parodic effects of the rally are muted, or worse, made to appear senseless.

It is the second photograph, however, that by contrast politicizes the slideshow, suggesting an antidote to the apparently incoherent spectacle of Lady Gaga’s rally.

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Here we have a member of the Army National Guard preparing to leave for a training assignment in Texas and a subsequent deployment to Iraq.  Shot in medium close-up, a soldier (not a “former soldier”) and his wife say goodbye.  It is a tender moment.  The two lovers gaze into each others eyes as he offers solace by placing his left hand on top of her right wrist, while her right hand gently supports her chin in a gesture that suggests a degree of vulnerability.  It is hard to tell if she is smiling or crying, and probably she is doing a little of both given the stresses and strains of the impending separation.  He is apparently “straight,” but it is hard to imagine him harboring “hatred” towards anyone, let alone why he should be “targeted.  Indeed, though this is a scene of separation and not reunion, and while he is not a sailor nor she a nurse, one can nevertheless imagine them embracing in Time Square to the nodding approval of the public that views them.

And therein lies the problem. For what gives this photograph its affective power is the way in which it visually repeats the conventions of the famous Times Square Kiss. It not only foregrounds traditional, heteronormative assumptions, but it does so by valorizing a private moment in a public space.    Of course there is nothing especially new here.  We have long sought to manage our anxieties about war and the military by normalizing our understandings in the context of a sentimentalized heteronormativity.  To get the full effect, imagine two men or two women in the same pose.  And, that, of course, is the point.  Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Sentimentality, it seems, trumps parody … or at least in this case.  But in truth, both scenes are media spectacles that demand more careful attention than the tired and nonchalant glance they are too often given by contemporary media.

Photo Credits: Joel Page/Reuters, Pat Wellenbach/AP, Joe Jaszewski/AP

Crossposted at BagNewsNotes

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Fear and Self-Loathing in an Environmental Catastrophe

Oil Soaked BIrd2010-06-06 at 11.12.03 PM

I cannot look at this photograph without being utterly and thoroughly disgusted.  I can feel the bile form and rise in my stomach, there is a stench that triggers the first hints of an urge to wretch, my gag reflex forces me to avert my gaze.  And at the same time I can’t stop looking at the image. Disgust is among the most visceral and sensuous of emotions; in point of fact, it might be thoroughly corporeal, an affect that literally defies verbalization.  Hate, anger, fear, even love to some extent, can be put into words, even rationalized.  But the very attempt to explain disgust recasts it as something like “contempt” and thus shifts the locus of judgment from a moral to an ideological register.  Put simply, disgust is beyond contempt, an intuitive, affective response to our own impurities; but, and here’s the rub, because they are our own impurities, part and parcel of our own waste and decrepitude, we can identify with them in some measure, we are attracted to them as much as we are repulsed by them.

It is for this reason, I believe, that photos such as the one above “speak” to the current environmental catastrophe in the Gulf in ways that are far more revealing—and certainly more powerful and compelling— than any study an environmental scientist can offer, any report an investigative journalist can write,  or any speech an activist or even the President can make offer (angry or not). Shot in tight close-up the photograph is devoid of all context, underscoring its universality rather than its particularity; indeed, the image incorporates many of the conventions of portrait photography with the point of focus slightly off-center and with the subject both filling the frame and yet looking askance the lens so as to put itself on display.  There is something of a regal quality to the bird’s pose, as if to acknowledge that it is on view for all to see and yet refusing to succumb to the humiliation of the muck and mire that covers and encases it. It is not a stretch to say that the bird exudes a prideful majesty—a sense of dignity—that resonates with the better part of the human spirit.

But there is more, for there is nothing in the photograph that directs our attention to the immediate cause of the bird’s plight.  The caption locates the bird on a beach in Louisiana’s East Grand Terre Island, and so we might be inclined to point our fingers at British Petroleum or perhaps the oil industry more generally.  But the photograph itself fails to provide any direct evidence to support that conclusion.  If any blame is identified in the photograph it must come from elsewhere, and as with any portrait this one urges us to look inward, to see ourselves lurking in the image somewhere.  When we do that, and if we are in any measure honest with ourselves, we have to recognize that for however much BP is culpable for the catastrophe in the Gulf—and there is no question that they own a considerable portion of the blame—the responsibility for this bird’s quandary is not theirs alone.  Everyone of us who enjoys—or more, who demands—the use of petroleum and oil byproducts must own up to our responsibility as well.  This does not mean that BP should be let off the hook when it comes time to pay for its negligence in the Deepwater Horizon accident, but it does suggest that we need to do more than simply hold the oil industry in contempt.  As a society we need to view the disgusting effects of our usage of oil on its own terms and in the context of a larger moral universe.

What we see in the photograph then is an image of ourselves.  The disgust we experience in viewing it is a measure of self-loathing animated by the implicit recognition of own impurities and decrepitude.  The question is, will we simply assume that this is part of the natural order of decay  and thus continue as if nothing is to be done (or assume that the problem can be solved by stronger regulations),  or will we recognize and act upon the need to change the way we live our lives?  It should not be seen as overly dramatic to suggest that our future hangs in the balance.

Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel/AP Photo.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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