31 October 2005
30 October 2005
Kratochvil's dismal tour criss-crosses the developing world mostly in Asia, Africa and Latin America but also (presciently, as Katrina revealed) Louisiana. His aim is to prompt viewers to see that their affluent everyday lives are sustained by processes of production and extraction that are almost unimaginably destructive of distant environments, both natural and social. It is not just global demand for luxury goods - gold (Guyana), 'bush meat' from poached wildlife (Congo), diamonds (Angola), or caviar (Azerbaijan) that are problematic here. Less remarkable commodities like tobacco (Zimbabwe), minerals such as tin (Bolivia), oil (Ecuador, the Caspian Sea, Iraq), illegally harvested timber (Cambodia) and chemicals (Louisiana) create mayhem as well. And the problem is not with "markets" for these items. Or, that is not the most acute problem, at least. What Kratochvil underscores is how the political economy of these products generates and, in turn, is sustained by massive violence; government repression, civil war, terror, military invasions, forced migration and mass murder are integral rather than incidental to the processes of production and extraction he depicts. In combination, these pressures threaten lives and life forms with extinction too. Kratochvil hopes to make us witness what is vanishing and to grasp why.
This tour ends in NYC. One of the final images is of the concrete barriers that now surround Grand Central Station. It suggests that just as lives and resources and communities are disappearing under pressure of production and violence in all of the places I just mentioned (and others) so too American principles and commonplaces (like liberty and security) are endangered. This theme persists in Kratochvil's more recent work. Aperture commissioned a spread of photographs from him for its May 2005 issue. (You can see the images as well as an interview with the photographer here.) The photographs are of the US in the summer of 2004 - the immediate prelude to our last election (yes, the one that finally lent "legitimacy" to an administration populated by an increasingly long list of incompetents and ideologues and indictees). In the Aperture interview Kratochvil relates his experience of being harassed (allegedly in the cause of "homeland security") by law enforcement officers for taking photographs of monuments on the mall in Washington over 4th of July. In response to a question about how he thinks his recent work will be received in Eastern Europe where America is viewed as a bastion of liberty, Kratochvil says: "I'm not trying to be subversive, I really do believe in this liberty that has been established in this country, regardless of its problems, it is a good model, what irritates me is that I see it vanishing."
26 October 2005
Beauty & Photographs of Suffering, II
"The first urges that beauty, by preoccupying our attention, distracts attention from wrong social arrangements. It makes us inattentive, and therefore eventually indifferent, to the project of bringing about arrangements that are just. The second argument holds that when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object. ... The complaint has given rise to a generalized discrediting of the act of "looking," which is charged with "reifying" the very object that appears to be the subject of admiration" (58).
Scarry rightly points out that one cannot simultaneously endorse both of these criticisms - at least so long as one strives for a modicum of consistency. In the first place, in order to reify something we must attend to it in a way that is at least causally and perhaps conceptually incompatible with being indifferent toward it. Moreover, the first view clearly assumes that attention to some unjust or otherwise disturbing state of affairs (the sort of attention with which beauty somehow interferes) can be politically useful and beneficial while the second view insists that such attention (the sort of attention that beauty draws) is necessarily harmful or damaging.
Scarry also suggests quite plausibly that those who endorse one or the other of these two ways of attributing nefarious political effects to beauty actually disagree among themselves more than with those who promote beauty. "It seems that the two opponents of beauty have a greater quarrel with each other than with us and should perhaps be encouraged to press forward their claims, since they will together eliminate both grounds of opposition and leave us free once more to speak of beauty" (59-60).
Want an example from the realm of photographic criticism? Consider this pair of passages from Ingrid Sischy's (The New Yorker, 9 September 1991) notoriously uncharitable condemnation of Sebastiao Salgado's images of famine in the Sahel. She first advances the first complaint - the beauty in his images distracts us from unjust social conditions he hopes to portray:
"Still, it's tricky to unravel what is meretricious about his work, because it is so uncompromisingly serious. ... But often there is something else in his compositions: beauty. In fact, beauty is a word one hears a lot when Salgado's photography is discussed, and you can see why people respond to the formal beauty of his pictures. ... And this beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal. To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action."
Sischy then almost immediately advances the second complaint - the beauty in Salgado's images objectifies and so damages the people in them:
"But what do his pictures really succeed in doing? In a photograph of people in a refugee shelter in the Sahel, two young figures loom in the foreground, one sitting the other slightly propped up. Salgado's perspective creates the impression that the viewer is close enough to touch the boy who is propped up: his elongated body and bald head stretch along the bottom half of the picture. His bone thin legs are spread apart, and his shorts bunch around the tops of his thighs, which have a much smaller circumference than the shorts are made for. Yet despite the sculptural image that he has become in Salgado's picture, this boy is made of flesh, not wood. The shock of what he looks like is strong, but Salgado's objectification of the boy's body make the image a setup - and, like most setups, it evokes reactions that are mechanical. ... It isn't fair to make Salgado responsible for how we do or do not respond to the content of his pictures, but there are certain gimmicks and attitudes in them that seem designed to trigger specific reactions and reflexes that are insulting to the people being portrayed."
Not fair, indeed. But let's leave to one side the fact that among her complaints about Salgado's photographs of the Sahel, Sischey neglects to mention that he could not find a US publisher because the images were deemed too disturbing. She seems considerably more intent on expressing her resentment at what she feels is the "bullying quality" of Salgado's aesthetic strategies then on expressing outrage at the conditions he depicts. I venture to suggest that the problem there hardly lies with Salgado. For present purposes, it is more important to notice that Sischy finds the beauty of Salgado's compositions simultaneously distracting and objectifying. One need not endorse Scarry's precise claims regarding the tight connections between beauty and being just (I hope to return to those claims at some point) to see that Sischy and others tempted to her views cannot have it both ways. Indeed, if Scarry is correct, and I think she is, it is not clear that they can have it one way. We simply must await the outcome of the disagreement between those who find beauty politically suspect, albeit for inconsistent reasons.
Why am I rehashing this seemingly dated criticism of Salgado? In part, because the theoretical issues remain important. In part too, I want to call attention to the fact that Salgado's photographs of famine in the Sahel - the very ones that so incensed Sischy - finally found a US publisher in 2004. They were originally published in France in 1988.
[You can find Sisichy's essay reprinted in Liz Heron & Val Williams, eds. 1996. Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850's to the Present. Duke University Press. The passages I cite appear on pages 277, 278 and 282.]
The last I knew my insipid hometown newspaper the Democrat & Chronicle (to which I do not subscribe) still refuses to report casualty and death figures for fear that facing reality is somehow unpatriotic. By contrast our local, independent City Newspaper regularly runs the grim numbers and names the names. Here are a couple of early photos (2004) of dead service men and women arriving at Dover AFB. Of course, these had to be pried away from the government in a freedom of information procedure.
These photos are a reminder of some of the costs that the Bush administration has imposed on families in the United States. While we contemplate that, of course, we need to recall that the death toll among Iraqis dwarfs our two thousand. As Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked of the Vietnamese in 1967, the Iraqis surely must see us as "strange liberators."
25 October 2005
It is in many ways a fascinating book. He weaves examples throughout the book in ways that do not exactly argue for, but instead illuminate and illustrate, his primary claim. Indeed, the structure and style of the book is impressive. Which of these more specific examples did I find most persuasive? Dyer advances an extremely telling interpretation of Dorothea Lange. In particular, he locates the tension between the impulse to capture general predicaments and the equally strong desire to accord individuality to those who endure them. On the one hand he stresses the ubiquity in Lange's work (and that of other documentarians of the era) of men wearing hats where "the hat serves to personalize the human costs of impersonal economic forces." Likewise, he brings our attention to "Lange's ability to use hands rather than the face as a way of individualizing her subject." (104,99). By calling our attention to how Lange tacks back and forth from the particular to the aggregate, Dyer - wittingly or not - encourages viewers to resist the depoliticizing tug of "compassion."
20 October 2005
"The photographer's desire for invisibility ..."?
Dyer starts out discussing this famous picture by Paul Strand, "Blind Woman - New York, 1916." Dyer, I expect since I have not gotten very far in the book, aims to trace influences of old photos on more recent ones and, in the process, to reflect on photography more generally. So here is something that Strand's photograph prompts him to say: "At the time Strand was preoccupied with the difficulty of how to use his bulky Ensign camera to take pictures of 'people in the streets without their being aware of it.' How do you make your subjects blind to your presence? This is another reason why the photograph is emblematic: it provides a graphic illustration of the photographer's ideal relationship to his subject." Dyer presents this image as the exemplar of Strand's pioneering techniques for taking photographs that capture people unawares - techniques that subsequent photographers have refined. "Strand had no qualms about this kind of subterfuge; it was only by deceiving his subjects that he could be faithful to them. 'I felt that one could get a quality of being through the fact that the person did not know he was being photographed,' he recalled. The blind woman is the most extreme extrapolation of this argument. The photographer sees his subject as she is unable to see herself. An unconscious embodiment or representative of the process whereby the photographer becomes undeeded, invisible, she is in turn a projection of his ulitmate ambition: to become her - and the world's - eyes" (12-13, stress altered).
Now, I am unsure whether Dyer is endorsing this notion that invisibility is the photographer's ultimate ambition, or whether he is simply interpreting this as Strand's project. But it seems implausble to make this a general claim. Here I would contrast, for instance, Jerry Thompson's discussion in his Truth and Photography (Ivar Dee, 2003) of Walker Evans' famous portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs. Thompson speculates on the probable tensions involved in the interaction beween Evans and Burroughs as he, working with unwieldy equipment, tried to keep her, uncomfortable and so, tacitly at least, resistant, in place long enough to take a series of closely framed close-up shots of her. In what sense can we accommodate the interactions this episode exemplifies (Evans apparently is something of a hero to Dyer) into the view that the general quest of photographers is for invisibility?
The discussion here opens up a pretty obvious ethical tension at the intersection of truth and photography: if someone like Strand might say that in order to reveal the truth of a person's being in the world to viewers, photographers must be willing to deceive their subjects, how do we assess truthfulness in photography?
17 October 2005
Comments on Picturing Humanitarianism
"In the camps in Zaire following the Rwandan genocide, humanitarian groups rushed to the scene in order to show the flag and impress funders back home. Working in an orphanage photographs well and brings in revenue, but building clean latrines and sanitation systems does not - even though it is equally if not more essential for saving lives. ... De Waal posits a Gresham's Law for humanitarianism: bad humanitarian action can crowd out good action because hmanitarian organizations are rewarded for being seen rather than for saving lives."
Barnett's essay is followed by an insightful reply/comment by Janice Stein "Humanitarianism as Political Fusion."
16 October 2005
Thinking with Photography, I
"The world of a painting is not continuous with the world of its frame; at its frame a world finds its limits. We might say: A painting is a world: a photograph is of the world. What happens in a photograph is that it comes to an end. A photograph is cropped, not necessarily by a paper cutter or by masking but by the camera itself. The camera crops it by predetermining the amount of view it will accept; cutting, masking, enlarging, predetermine the amount after the fact. ... the camera, being finite, crops a portion from an indefinitely larger field; continuous portions of that field could be included in the photograph in fact taken; in principle it could all be taken. Hence objects in photographs that run past the edge do not feel cut; they are aimed at, shot, stopped live. When a photograph is cropped the rest of the world is cut out. The implied presence of the rest of the world, and its explicit rejection, are as essential in the experience of a photograph as what it explicitly presents. A camera is an opening in a box; that is the best emblem of the fact that a camera holding on an object is holding the rest of the world away. The camera has been praised for extending the senses; it may, as the world goes, deserve more praise for confining them, leaving room for thought."
From: Stanley Cavell. 1979. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. (Enlarged Edition). Harvard University Press. Page 24.
Of course, politics lurks here quite obviously - for if we can use photography to confine our senses, our perceptions, then it can be an extremely valuable tool for those who might well prefer to direct our attention here rather than there. See my earlier thoughts on "embeddedness."
12 October 2005
The striking feature of the image is the juxapositon between "traditional" goings-on and the proliferation of satellite dishes. These latter, or course, are just the same as those Touma captures in his cityscape of Aleppo, Syria. The brief catalogue entry that accompanies Shaath's photos reads as follows:
"In traditional Cairo the roof was the place for relaxation. Families grew plants, kept pigeons, or looked at the stars. After 1920 the roof took on a new funciton. With the arrival of the high-rise and apartment complexes the roof became the living quarters for cleaners and concierges. In the 1960s, after the fall of the monarchy and the nationalization of considerable private property, a wave of migrants came from the countryside to the city. In the hope of a better life they joined others from their families who already lived on the roofs of Cairo. A rank growth of shanties on roofs was the result."
Here is yet another of Shaath's photographs. This one - of a man watching television - prompted me to think about the relationship of individuals to political and cultural authorities and especially the ways that such relations unfold in private as opposed to public spaces.
More specifically, this image brought to mind other, more directly confrontational and arguably "heroic" interactions. In my earlier post on Touma's "political landscape" I invoked Josef Koudelka's pictures of Czechs confronting Warsaw Pact tanks in Prague, 1968. Shaath's image brought to mind yet another, more recent, and so probably more widely known picture.
Again, the contrast between these anonymous men - one in the relative privacy of his home, the other quite literally in the public square - seems to reiterate my perplexities about how politics is embodied in events and how we can think about the latter.
04 October 2005
According to the website, the exhibition "brings together five photographers from around the globe that have been covering global warming to show in dramatic detail the ways global warming is affecting the planet. Global warming is often presented as an abstract concept, something we should worry about but not today, tomorrow or anytime in the near future. The goal of this exhibit is to make global warming a concrete concept in people's minds through photography. The show will include subjects that each photographer has covered in-depth. Veteran wildlife photographer Gary Braasch has spent several years tracking down photographs of where glaciers were in the past and photographing them from the same position today to show the dramatic changes. British photographer, Ashley Cooper has photographed the troubles in Alaska with melting permafrost causing houses to sink. Cédric Faimali of the French journalism Collective, Argos, spent time in Chad photographing the damage to their way of life caused by the drying up of Lake Chad. Peter Essick whose by-line appears regularly in National Geographic, contributed a section on how scientists across the globe are researching global warming and Joshua Wolfe spent several months in the island nation of Tuvalu photographing their responses and worries about the rising sea levels associated with global warming. In addition a group section of the show will feature the many ways global warming is affecting the United States. "
One of the photographers, Gary Braasch, has created an informative web page www.worldviewofglobalwarming.org - the title captures the issues he addresses.
The exhibition will run October 14 - November 6, 2005, with an Opening Reception October 14 6pm - 9pm. It is located at the JW Gallery (111 Front St, #228, Brooklyn).
03 October 2005
Thinking With Rather Than (Just) About Photography
Allen is concerned with the barriers to citizenship. She offers a prolonged meditation on that topic - and, more specifically, of the ways sacrifice and fraternity figure into democratic citizenship. She starts by considering the ways the events surrounding the efforts of a handful of black students to integrate the public high school in Little Rock, Arkansas in September 1957 have been depicted and discussed. Her interlocutors, at least initially, are Hannah Arendt and Ralph Ellison.
Allen claims that distrust, especially once it becomes "congealed" or "fossilized" as a result of persistent insecurity and vulnerability, is an insuperable barrier to democratic citizenship that poisons the political practices of the advantaged as well as the insecure and vulnerable. She argues that the barriers to citizenship are not simply exclusionary institutions and a preoccupation with securing the peace and public order (as, on her view, Arendt claims) but instead (here following Ellison) overly restrictive conceptions of politics that repeatedly impose "loss and disappointment" for minorities within a polity. The problem (very roughly) for democratic politics, then, is how to "address those phenomena that follow from loss and disappointment, namely resentment and distrust" (35-6).
To help her audience think through these matters and specifically to focus their attention on the actualities of pain and sacrifice and loss and distrust, Allen reproduces as a crucial element of her text a set of photographs taken by Will Counts on assignment for the local Little Rock newspaper. Here are several of the photos Allen uses:
The first in this sequence of pictures shows National Guardsmen, present under orders of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, preventing Elizabeth Eckford a young African American girl from entering Central High School in Little Rock even as they allow an unidentified white girl access. (Actually, Allen does not reproduce this exact image but one in the same sequence that makes it less clear that the Guardsmen are preventing Eckford from entering the school.) The next two pictures show a mob of white Little Rock residents cursing and harassing Eckford as she walks away and, subsequently, a crowd (complete with reporters) surrounding her as she waits at a nearby bus stop. The final image shows a white mob attacking African American journalist Alex Wilson close to Central High.
These pictures capture both exclusionary institutions and another episode in a persistent mal-distribution of sacrifice and suffering. The National Guard and Governor occupy official places in, and the School itself performs functions vital to, the political institutions of Arkansas, and by extension, the remainder of the nation. The violence of the mob and the suffering of Eckford and Wilson embody existing - just as they also set the stage for future - resentments and distrust.
Allen attributes special force to Will Counts' photographs, especially the one depicting Elisabeth Eckford enduring the curses of the white mob. She rightly insists that that "picture stripped away the idealized conceptions of democratic life," laying bare "a nightmarish version of a town meeting" characterized by domination, exclusion, enforced silence and humiliation. Its "power to engage the imagination" resided in the forceful way it presents those realities. Allen first poses and the answers the crucial question: "And what changed with the photographs? Exactly that: how citizens of the United States imagine their political world." (4-5).
One final observation: It is relatively easy to find the photos shown above (as well as several closely related images) on the web - they appear most visibly on sites marking the 40th anniversary of the events in Little Rock. There are a couple of others images that Allen uses, however, that I have not been able to easily locate; these are images of planned marches by white residents of Little Rock replete with American flags and pre-printed placards proclaiming "Stop the Race Mixing March of the Ant-Christ," among other things. It seems we are willing to celebrate unquestioned heroism and concede the putatively "random violence" of undisciplined mobs, even as we remain unable to confront the organized political practices of racial majorities.
And a final query: what does all this about political imagination have to do with the photographs we have seen of post-Katrina New Orleans?
01 October 2005
Embeddedness: In the Eye of the Beholder?
Consider two essays. Judith Butler is a well known feminist theorist at Berkeley who occasionally writes on photography. She has written something of a memorial to Susan Sontag in the house journal of the Modern Language Association: "Photography, War, Outrage," PMLA 120(3):822-27, 2005. David Campbell teaches cultural & political geography at Durham University (UK) where he also is part of the core faculty at the Centre for Advanced Photographic Studies. He has written a review essay on Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others in a journal published by the Carnegie Foundation: "Representing Contemporary War," Ethics & International Affairs 17(2): 99-108, 2003. What is the subset of people who have even heard of both of these outlets let alone regularly read them both? I stumbled across each of these papers more or less accidentally. But reading them prompted me to think about what I means for photographers to be "embedded." This is a practice that Butler and Campbell both forcefully and properly criticize with respect to our current, disastrous war in Iraq.
Butler disputes Sontag’s claim that pictures cannot create and sustain a distinctive interpretation of an event because they are too selective:
"For our purposes, it makes sense to consider that the mandated visual image produced by embedded reporting, the one that complies with state and defense department requirements, builds an interpretation. ... We do not have to have a caption or a narrative at work to understand that a political background is being explicitly formulated and renewed through the frame. In this sense, the frame takes part in the interpretation of the war compelled by the state; it is not just a visual image awaiting its interpretation; it is itself interpreting, actively, even forcibly." (823)
This assessment seems pretty much right to me, even if I would locate the agency here more at the level of individual photographers (and their editors, employers and their advertisers, patrons etc.) as they respond to the constraints imposed on them by official government policies and those who enforce them. The "frame" of which Butler speaks emerges, I suspect, from those interactions. Here Campbell is helpful. For as he makes clear, if embedded photographers were complicit in the policies, they also regretted and, sometimes, resisted that complicity. But Campbell offers details of how the official frame has constrained images of the war. "One of the principle effects of having journalists, cameramen, and photographers embedded with particular units was to ensure that the stream of images coming back from the front line revolved around allied military hardware and personnel" (105). A notable consequence of this preoccupation is that in the "coverage of the Iraq war ... the images of the conflict produced by the allies media [... are ... ] relatively clean, being largely devoid of the dead bodies that mark a major conflict. In this outcome the media is a willing accomplice" (105). So one effect of embedding photographers with military units is that we quite literally have been spared the experience of regarding the pain of others. The war has been sanitized for us. And that interpretation arguably has helped to sustain popular acquiescence in, if not exactly enthusiasm for, the war and the ill-advised foreign policy surrounding it. It also plausibly helps sustain a broader attitude toward war as a relatively clean and costless instrument of foreign policy.
Here , it seems to me, we need to follow out the implication of this sort of analysis for thinking about politics and photography more generally. If "embedding" photographers with military units can, as Butler and Campbell suggest, generate and sustain an interpretation of the war in Iraq specifically and war as a phenomenon more generally, does it operate in analogous ways in other settings? I mentioned below an exhibition -"Democratic Republic of Congo - The Forgotten War" - that is currently showing in New York. The exhibition is a collaboration between photographers of VII Agency and Medicins sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders. I have not seen it yet but plan to do so next weekend. The title brings to mind Sontag’s insistence that events that induce massive suffering - famine, war, forced dislocation - only become real for those not directly involved by being photographed.
There are complicated issues here. Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF) is an NGO. It is not prosecuting a war. Instead MSF is engaged in the admirable effort to remedy the mess that wars and other man-made disasters cause. And so this exhibition is documenting the human consequences of war not (to the best of my knowledge) depicting ongoing battles. MSF is not even representative of aid agencies more generally. But the photographers who work with them would, in all likelihood, not have access to the hospitals, refugee camps, and aid distribution centers without the cooperation of the organization. What difference does it make to popular interpretations of the horrible conditions in the Congo that the VII photographers are "embedded" with MSF rather than with local military units, or (counter factually) United Nations peacekeeping forces, or some other aid agency such as the Red Cross?
This might seem a preposterous set of comparisons. But as Campbell rightly reminds us in yet another essay, aid agencies have "visual strategies" that are hardly innocent. As he points out with respect to images of famine in Africa, the "imaging of famine remains controversial." Here is Campbell’s harsh assessment the standard ways photographers embedded with aid agencies depict of famine:
"These images portray a particular kind of helplessness that reinforces colonial relations of power. With their focus firmly on women and children, these pictures offer up icons of a feminized and infantilized place, a place that is passive, pathetic, and demanding of help from those with the capacity to intervene. They are manifest most obviously in the mother-and-child images that have dominated both still photography and video footage of famines." ("Salgado & the Sahel: Documentary Photography & the Imaging of Famine." In Rituals of Mediation. F. Debrix & C. Weber, eds. Minnesota. 2003).
One could pursue this line of thought, drawing on existing commentary, to question the work of photographers like Avedon who are (in part) "embedded" with advertising agencies or even canonical figures like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange who were "embedded" with the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s - the FSA, after all, could be seen as a propaganda agency for the Roosevelt administration. Again, this line of thinking pushes us to consider not "photographs" and their relation to the subjects they represent, but the various uses of photography and how the differ.