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A Realist Imagination (or is it An Imaginary Realism?)

Realism and the Image

By some persistent, traditional accounts photographic representation is driven by a technological determinism that derives its power from the mechanical capture and reproduction of an event. Accordingly, the fundamental measure of a photograph is its indexicality, i.e., the photograph establishes that the thing was there to be photographed. This position has been critiqued by those who underscore the difference between analogue and digital photographs as if the question of indexicality could be reduced to measurement of a positive reality. But of course there are two problems with this that underline what seems to be a naïve and simplistic sense of “the real.” First, of course, we can never fully test the accuracy of the positive existence of the indexical reality presumably represented because every photograph is always a representation of a transient moment in the past. The best we can measure it against is human memory which, as we know, is fallible in multiple registers. Second, even the best analogue photograph offers a two dimensional representation of the scene recast which inevitably flattens the thing represented (and even stereographic representations, analogue’s predecessor to 3D digital technologies, was an illusion of two dimensional representation).  If the “real” is to mean something useful in the discourse of photography it is going to have to avoid such naiveté and offer a more complex sense of photographic realism.

I cannot offer such a theory here today, though we begin to develop such an approach in forthcoming work, but the photograph above does offer something of a gesture to what such a theory might include. Here we have a photograph of a man painting a scene which is included in the photograph. The painting has an impressionistic quality to it underscoring the role of the imagination in recasting the scene before him. But the photograph is not simply about the painting of the scene or the man doing the painting, but rather calls our attention to how his creativity is important to making sense out of the photographic event itself. In an important sense the photograph is divided between foreground and background, of the man and his painting and of the scene that his being painted. The lens is wide open and so the depth of field is wide, teasing the eye to move back and forth between the shaded areas in the foreground and the natural light that illuminates the background. And in the end it is almost impossible to settle one’s vision on one vs. the other for very long. In short the photograph implores us to reflect on the relationship between the role of realism and imagination in making sense out of what we are seeing.

We might thus call this photograph a representative anecdote for the “photograph matrix” that always and already consists of both a referential (or indexical) orientation and an imaginative orientation. Any photograph is both more or less a record of what has happened, and more or less an artistically enhanced experience, both more or less empirical, and more or less interpretive, both more or less accurate, and more or less suggestive.  The point here is that photographs –whether analogue or digital—operate in the interspace between reality and imagination. The camera records the surface of the world like no other instrument, but the truth of what is shown can be realized only through an act of imagination. Stated otherwise, the photograph is inherently not reducible to a simplistic realism, but is instead a heterogeneous object where different sources of meaning intersect, and the intersections are lodged in the formal design and explored through interpretation. How those intersections occur is the subject for another time, but for now it is enough to note the need for a complex photographic realism that is not reduced to a simple or naïve notion of indexicality and such a conception needs to think hard about the inherent– necessary–connection between the real and the imaginative.

Photo Credit: Carols Barria/Reuters (Caption: An Artist paints a picture of a pro-democracy site near government buildings in Hong Kong.)



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



“… ‘Till Death Do Us Part”


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The post today can be somewhat brief, not because there isn’t much to say, but rather because, well, we’ve said it several times already (e.g., here and here), most recently two weeks ago (here).  Today’s photograph simply makes the point in dramatic fashion.

Wildfires are overrunning different parts of the world and in ways that are completely out of synch with normal weather patterns … and in ways that really ought to be of some serious concern. They are catastrophic in their effects, both economically and environmentally. But the bigger catastrophe—or perhaps the proper term is “tragedy”—is that we seem to have begun to take them wholly for granted, treating them as the new normal. Or, as in the photograph above, treating it as an interesting backdrop to an otherwise romantic scene of personal avowal and commitment. What better way, after all, to secure one’s wedding vows—“for better or for worse, through sickness and in health”—than to locate the beginning of one’s life long future with another person against the conflagration that apparently promises to be there forever and anon.

It really is hard to know what to make of this photograph. For one thing it has appeared at a number of different “pictures of the week” slide shows for different national news groups, none of which otherwise pointed to or commented on the wildfires burning in the background. And even if there was something “new” to report on this account, its not like one more photograph of the fire is adding probative evidence to make a claim about basic facticity. I mean, does anyone really question whether these wildfires exist (even as I write that I know that there have to be “fire deniers” somewhere in the world, but for the remaining 99.99% of the population, do we really need one more picture of a wildfire to make the case that such fires are and have been raging out of control?). That said, it should also be noted that the photograph is being taken by a photojournalist, not a wedding photographer, and yet it is also something of a mashup of two photographic genres.  So if the photograph is not contributing to the “news” what is it doing?

One answer to this question might be that it is offering evidence of a pervasive attitude—and attitudes, of course, are incipient actions.The caption identifies a couple near Bend, Oregon posing for a wedding portrait.  It is hard to register the photograph as anything other than a publicity stunt, perhaps an advertisement for the next apocalyptic movie to come down the pike.  But, there you have it, its a “real” photograph of a real couple.  Why settle for a lake or a pond or a nestled grove of trees to mark your nuptials for posterity when you can have a raging wildfire in the background! The fire was apparently close enough that the minister performed a “shortened ceremony” so that the wedding party could be safely transported elsewhere for the reception, but then again it was not so close that the couple seems distracted by it from the passionate fires that burn within their own breasts (or so we might assume). The irony is astonishing. Then again, perhaps the irony here cuts in a different direction if we can assume that this woman and this man are actually dedicated environmentalists and that they are using the occasion of their union to call attention cynically to the inanity of such rituals and ceremonies when in fact the world is ablaze—and the fire is getting ever closer. Perhaps in the next moment (or at least after their reception) they peel off their wedding vestments and don the attire of activists concerned to alert the world to the need to address the problem. Maybe. It’s hard to know.  It would certainly make for an interesting movie.

However you read the photograph—whatever attitude you note or potential action you see— there can be little doubt that it pictures a profound problem that surely predicts a troubling future.  Right now it seems to point to a tragic outcome, particularly if we persist in accepting the background in the photograph as just another backdrop for a dramatic wedding portrait. The fire, after all, will only continue to burn brighter and to get closer.  If we continue to ignore that problem, however, or worse, if recast it as something which is altogether normal,  it is  possible that the story which points to a tragedy will end as a farce.

For better or for worse … indeed.

Credit: Josh Newton/AP



Imag(in)ing the World Now and Then


D-Day Now

The scene could be a community beach front almost anywhere in the world. Cabanas set up for those who can afford them. Tents and umbrellas for others. White sand, small dunes, and blue sea for everyone—swimmers, sailors, and those who just want to sit and catch the breeze coming in off of water. Sun bathers intermixed with children, families coming and going. Soon, one can imagine, the sun will be down, the tide will be up, and only a very few will remain on the beach. A quiet, restful place, with only the rhythmic sound of the waves beating on the surf, lights perhaps shining from the windows in the buildings lining the beach as a reminder of a living community.

But for all of that, it is not just anywhere. It is Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, France. Seventy years ago this past week it was known as Juno Beach, one of the primary landing zones in the D-Day invasion. Taking this beach head was necessary to provide flanking support to the operations at Gold and Omaha beaches and to give the Allied forces a direct route to a German airfield near Caen. The beach was heavily fortified by two German battalions armed with over 500 machine guns plus numerous mortars, a defensive position enhanced by weather patterns that made it necessary for landing crafts to come as close to the fortifications as possible before releasing troops and equipment. The responsibility to take the beach head fell to the 3rd Canadian Infantry division, which suffered over 1,000 casualties by day’s end—the highest ratio of Allied casualties for anyone other than those landing at the more famous and costly Omaha and Utah beaches.

Photographs, of course, only mark a sliver of time—typically only a fraction of a second that frames the here and the now in stark and radical terms. One cannot know what happened moments (or months or years) before this photograph was snapped, let alone what might happen even seconds after the shutter has opened and closed. Temporal continuities with the past, let alone alternate future possibilities can only be surmised. Such limitations don’t mitigate the value of images, but instead only emphasize the need for us to be imaginative in how we understand the reality that they put on display. And too, it requires us to recognize the ways in which the historicity of an image operates in tension with what it was then (or it what it might be later). It is, in short, part of an archive that has to be curated and engaged.

And so here we have Juno Beach shortly after the D-Day invasion. A crashed fighter plane where families today luxuriate. The detritus of battle washed up against fortifications that protected Axis forces from the landing Allies. The appearance of a solitary ghost town cast in somber grey tones where today colorful commerce flourishes, marked by the flags of multiple nations.

-Day Then

This too, of course, was only a stark sliver in time. A scene of courage and fortitude, of death and destruction that can only remind us that what was before the lens when it clicked was there and then, even as it only framed a reality that could survive only in imagined memories.

Credit: Chris Helgren/Reuters; National Archieves of Canada (for other “before” and “after” pictures of the D-Day invasion click here.)




Reflections … Of You and Me

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The National September 11 Memorial and Museum opens to the public this week. Sadly, we have gotten all too practiced at memorializing human tragedy – the 6th Floor Museum at Dealy Plaza in Dallas, TX; the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN; the Oklahoma City National Memorial at the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building; and the list goes on. In each instance senseless violence and awful, terrible, heart rendering loss is remembered in solemn displays that mix our collective grief with, strangely, tourist-like attractions that often require admissions fees and include “gift shops” where one can purchase everything from books and t-shirts to what can only be referred to as memorial kitsch. I don’t want to be cynical here. I have visited most of these places and I have happily paid the entrance fees—though I have avoided making purchases at the gift shops—and I would do so again, but there is something oddly unsettling about the process and I don’t quite have the words to express what it is.

Sometimes photographs can gesture to what words are hard pressed to express—or at least to express in any way that we might consider to be focused and efficient in a clearly narrative or propositional form. The image above shows several members of the public looking through the windows into the 9/11 Memorial Museum prior to its official opening this coming week, though others appear to be simply passing by. None of the recognizable artifacts of the tragedy of 9/11 are present. One cannot see the salvaged tridents recovered from the World Trade Center, or the accouterments from fire fighters and other first responders, or the cards, patches, and other mementos left as part of various vernacular memorials that surrounded the site of Ground Zero. And truth to tell, but for the caption that marks this as a glass façade that looks into the museum it would be hard to know exactly what we are looking at. But what we can see are the mirrored reflections, both of those who have stopped to look intently through the glass façade and of the life of the city that seems to be going on around the memorial and museum; and here, not just people who appear to be walking by, but also a city that is undergoing construction as marked by the crane in the center of the image, but also those reflected in the mirror (in the upper right corner) that would otherwise be outside of the frame of the image.

The key to the photograph is not that we simply see people stopping to look or passing by or that we see a city under construction, but that all of these things are accented by their mirrored doubling in the reflections cast off from the glass façade of the museum itself. It is the way in which the photograph captures (and performs?) the reflection that invites something of a critical sensitivity to what is that stands before us. Whether passers-by choose to stop and look or not, it would seem, is of little matter; what matters is that the memorial is a visual echo of the world that surrounds it. We cannot escape it even if we wanted to—whether we choose to pay the “entrance fee” or not.  That is something worth thinking about.

Credit:  Anthony Behar/AP


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.)


“… My Kingdom for a Drink of Water”

Water, Water, Water ...

Yes, I know, the quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard III concerns horses and not water, but then there was a time when horses were scarcer than water and at least arguably more important to survival.  Those days are gone. And we didn’t need the most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to make the point or to underscore its importance.  Such reports have been made over and again in recent years indicating that water shortages are accelerating throughout the world as patterns of industrial and agricultural usage are increasingly polluting both ground water and the water table, and consumption is outstripping renewable sources at progressively alarming rates. Nor is the problem one that is only taking place in underdeveloped regions or nations, as those living in California or West Texas can immediately and readily attest.

The photograph above is not from California or West Texas, but shows those living on the southern bank of the Yangon River in Myanmar using paint cans to collect drinking water during the annual dry season in which water shortages have led to the drying up of the reservoirs, forcing local elders to create rationing systems.  And yet, while it is not California or West Texas it is not all that difficult to imagine how it could be in the altogether near future—or perhaps one of the other 34 states that the GAO anticipates will face water shortages in the near term.  To get the point one needs to avoid focusing on the bare feet and rusted out paint cans that have been repurposed as water containers, let alone the brown skin, all of which underscore something other than a first world experience, and concentrate instead on how the photograph directs attention to the way(s) in which the need for water dominates everyday life in an otherwise visually indistinct location.  There was a time when we would look at photographs of exotic locations and imagine that “their present is our past”; what we see here, however, is the way in which water is the great leveler that perhaps predicts that their present is our future.

The photograph did not receive much attention in the national media.  I found it in a “pictures of the day” slide show at the Seattle Times nestled between images of a moving sculpture at a music festival in California and men warming themselves at a fire near the barricades at a Ukrainian security office proximate to the Russian border.  As one more sluice of life incidentally contrasting the hardships of life “there” to the fun and festivities of life “here,” it would be altogether easy to miss, or merely to glance past without paying too much attention to it. Indeed, there was a time, not so long ago, when photographs of this sort would show up in places like National Geographic where readers would be encouraged to view the “present” of indigenous people in such exotic locations as “our past,” the assumption being that one day they too can experience the progress that modernity promises; here, however, it would seem that their present is cast as “our future.”  Or more to the point, it is a future that is already present without our clear recognition of it.

What makes the photograph all the more poignant is not just the way in which it serves as a kind of foreboding prophecy, but more, as it functions as something of an allegory for how to imagine the very problem of water shortage itself.  Note how the scene underscores the necessity of performing a careful balancing act, both socially and environmentally, to make the system of water recovery work. More to the point, note in particular not just how feet and hands strain so as to maintain equipoise on the balancing beam, but also how both participants need to coordinate with the other so as to avoid disrupting the overall ecology in which each operates. Whether or not we can actually adjust our contemporary patterns of resource usage and consumption so as to effect a sustainable world is open to question. But it will take effort and strain, and surely the appeal to “balance” that makes this system appear to work is more than worth the effort; indeed, it seems altogether necessary.

The bigger point, of course, is that solutions to such problems are right before us if we are willing to see them.  And photographs such as this, however subtle or otherwise hidden within the visual landscape, can serve as a powerful optic to help us do just that.  Look.  See. Engage.

Credit:  Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP


Seeing and Being Seen Through the Eyes of Anja Niedringhaus: In Memorium

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I was saddened—and more, really, thoroughly distressed—to learn of the tragic death of photojournalist Anja Niedringhuas in Afghanistan’s Khost Province, murdered by a rogue Afghan police officer as she was preparing to photograph the upcoming elections in that country.  Her photography was a testament to what photojournalism at its best enables, which is not simply an objective view of the world, but a complex realism that acknowledges its reliance on a  capacious sense of imagination.  “Imagination” is not mere fancy—the mind at play with things it already knows—but rather a way of extraordinary seeing that allows us to project our sight beyond the horizon of ordinary observation or conventional belief.  Put differently, the photograph is always an indexical imitation of some part of  reality, but also a way of seeing that reality more extensively, whether as through the lens of a microscope or a telescope.

The photograph above is in many ways emblematic of Anja Niedringhaus’s considerable archive of photographs (e.g., see here, here, and here) from Afghanistan.  What makes it interesting for me is precisely how it puts seeing and being seen in tension with one another.  On the one hand we have a child playing as if she were an adult (no different in this regard than a young girl in the US trying to walk in her mother’s high heeled shoes), and thus being seen, and at the same time underscoring what it might mean to see from that perspective, one’s sight obscured by the screen that alters what can be seen. And indeed, the photograph shows the young girl adapting to the change in perspective as her hands frame what the screen in the burqa already limits and obscures.   The photograph below, shot at a separate moment in time, provides the reverse shot, focusing more on seeing than being seen.

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One could make much from these two photographs about how women are seen and what they are able or allowed to see in Islamic cultures, but there is a different point I want to emphasize here as these two photographs double for how the photograph as an optical medium itself works, always and already positioning us as those who see and those who are seen. And as the two photographs above demonstrate, seeing and being seen are not altogether innocent activities (think again of the young girl walking around in her mothers shoes), but are traversed by vectors of power and colonized by societies and their institutions.  And it is when the photograph accesses its capacity to energize the imagination in this capacity that it removes us from the world of simple questions of who, what, where, when, and why—all important questions, to be sure—and helps us to see questions of relevance, resonance, and engagement.  In short, they can help to pull us out of our ordinary indifference, and perhaps to challenge—or at least acknowledge—conventional wisdom or denial.  It shows us as “seeing” and “seen” subjects.

Anja Niedringhaus was a master at employing her art—and let there be no mistake, photojournalism is a public art— to display a more nuanced realism that prodded us to see the world in extraordinary ways and thus to imagine what it might mean to associate with others—to see and to be seen—in a more humane fashion.


Photo Credit: Anya Niedringhaus/AP Photo


As Time Goes By

Kiss in war

Two lovers caught in a passionate embrace.  He on the left, she on the right.  Their faces barely recognizable as their bodies meld into one another.  Oblivious to all that surrounds them, it is a tender, private, intimate moment in a public space.

At first blush it could be two individuals (once again) performing the now famous Times Square Kiss in a modern setting.  But look again.  The differences are both subtle and profound.  Neither is wearing a recognizable uniform.  She is actively engaged in the kiss, her arms pulling him towards her as much as (if indeed not more than) he is pulling her towards him. Notice for example how his right arm seems barely to be holding her while her arms reach fully around him, holding him in place. More interesting still is the fact that she is holding a slab of concrete in one hand, her finger nails giving the impression of being freshly manicured.  If the sign of the kiss in the original photograph was animated by an aggressive, masculine representation of state military power, here the kiss is no less a sign of aggression—it is hard to imagine that the concrete slab would be used as anything other than a weapon, particularly given that the caption tells us that this is taken at the site of a protest—but it is now no longer institutionalized by the state and it is gendered feminine.  Last, and perhaps most important, while the kissers are plainly and visibly in a public space, there are no onlookers who can channel a public attitude about what is going on.  Indeed, there is a clear sense of voyeurism here as we, the viewers, seem to be intruding on an altogether private moment.

 So what are we to make of this photograph?  The caption identifies the kissers as protestors in Caracas, Venezuela, the site of prolonged and massive public protests against rampant crime, protracted food shortages, and an altogether ineffective and authoritarian government.  The government crackdown against such protests has resulted in nearly forty deaths and hundreds of injuries, leading to demands for investigation by the Organization of American States (OAS).  That too has produced its own manner of controversy as the OAS leadership challenged the legitimacy of opposition leader Maria Corina Machado to address the body.  When she was finally allowed to speak, the sessions were held behind closed doors; one member of the OAS noted that the meetings would be conducted “With total transparency: In privacy.” The photograph above seems to mock this “war is peace, slavery is freedom” logic as it failingly purports to perform intimacy in a public space under the broken veil of privacy.  There may be no viewing public observable to legitimize the union, but then of course there is the camera and our own spectatorial gaze which gives the lie to the whole process.  Transparency in private is at best a comfortable fiction and at worst an intentional deception.

There is an additional dimension to the photograph that bears attention, and it has relatively little to do per se with the economic and political turmoil in Venezuela.  Instead, it concerns how we understand  Alfred Eisenstadt’s Times Square Kiss and all it stands for in our cultural memory.  The original kiss photograph took place on the occasion of VJ Day and the end of World War II.  It is often remarked as illustrating the return to normalcy.  But its contrast with the image above helps to reveal how constructed the conventions of such normalcy can be: men kissing women, women being kissed; the legitimation of violence as a manifestation of masculine, state governed military institutions; the forced separation of Eros and Thanatos; the performance of intimacy in public, and so on.  All such constructions—or should we call them “comfortable fictions”— indicate a particular worldview, to be sure, and perhaps even one that we might want to endorse, but the point is that it is particular, not universal.  Each photograph shows “a” truth, or many such truths, but certainly not “the” truth, however objective the photographic representation of the event on hand might be.

As the song says, a kiss is just a kiss … or is it?

Photo Credit: Christian Veron/Reuters


Playing Jeopardy

Sticks and Stones

Photographs of Palestinians hurling stones or aiming slingshots  at Israeli troops are a dime a dozen.  They are so common that we don’t even need to see the Israelis, or for that matter a caption, to know what it is that we are being shown.   Indeed, a week barely goes by without one or two such photographs appearing in this or that mainstream internet news slideshows, lodged, as the image above, in between images of pole dancers in Sydney, grief-stricken relatives of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, a farmer racing his Oxen through a rice paddy at the annual Kakkoor Kalavayal festival (it is in India, look it up, I had to!), and sunbathers in Nice.

So what exactly is going on here? By one account the stone throwers are performing for the camera, and there may be some of that going on, but such an account begs the question as to why the photographers are so invested in the activity to begin with or why photo editors are so willing to pay heed to the images and to give them pride of place in their publications with such regularity.  One could argue that there is an anti-Israeli influence operating in the western media, as such images feature a stateless people fighting against a modern military state with the most primitive of weapons; but then again, one could just as easily also argue that there is a pro-Israeli influence in as much as what we are being shown are criminal malcontents disrupting the prevailing order of a legitimate, modern state.  And there is the rub, for in an important sense such photographs leave the question entirely open to discussion.

There are two thoughts worth considering here.  The first concerns the regularity of such photographs and their often random placement in slideshows that make them seem to be rather routine and ordinary events, if not also something like exotic curiosities on the order of annual pole dancing competitions, oxen races, or sunbathers.  From this perspective, of course, the viewer is cast as a passive spectator witnessing an event from afar with little real investment in what is going on.  There is something of a performative contradiction in this practice as the very regularity of the event, which should incline us to focus on its tragic significance—and I mean “tragic” regardless one’s particular political sympathies—seems to work against that understandng.  This is not a matter of so-called “compassion fatigue,” but rather an instance of turning attention against itself such that the regularity of the event normalizes it and thus mitigates its importance.  Ah yes, it’s springtime and so the sunbathers are out once again.  And the beat goes on.  And so the question might be, what is the point of the weekly slideshow and how are photos chosen for inclusion?

But there is a second and perhaps more pertinent concern:  If we take the time to look at the photograph as a singular event, what is it that our attention is being directed to?  Susan Sontag makes the point that photographs lack “a” narrative.  The article is important, for it is true enough that there is no single narrative animated by or contained by any photograph.   That is not the same, however, as saying that there are no narratives.  And indeed, as I’ve suggested above, there are at least two operative within this image, one which casts the Israeli state as the protagonist and one which casts it as the antagonist.   Perhaps both are correct.  And there are likely other narratives as well.  The point is that the photograph directs our attention to “an” event without necessary definition and encourages us—or more properly helps us —to imagine the range and register of useful questions to pose.

In a sense, engaging photographs is rather like playing the game of Jeopardy.  And the point, of course, is always to put your answer in the form of a question.

Photo Credit: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

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