It has been some time since I have posted on the seemingly vexed topic of beauty and photography, especially
the use of beauty
of suffering and the varieties of cruelty and mayhem that give rise to it. I return to the topic today because I just read an essay at openDemocracy
by Mai Ghoussoub
. The essay, entitled "Beirut and Contradiction: Reading the World Press Photo Award
" focuses on this now well-known image by Spencer Platt
which won the WPF
Award for 2006. The essay was first published in oD
shortly after the award was announced last February
and was republished last month.
World Press Photo of the Year 2006 ~ Young Lebanese drive through a devastated neighborhood of South Beirut, 15 August© Spencer Platt, Getty Images
concedes that the prize was "well-deserved," she also finds the photograph quite thoroughly disturbing. Here is what she says about this "beautiful" photograph of "beautiful" young people surveying the rubble left behind by Israeli attacks last summer.
"I am certain that Spencer Platt's picture which won
the World Press Photo prize for 2006 looked disturbing
and even repellent to most viewers at first glance. I
admit that it bothered me when I first saw it on my
screen. But I also admit that I kept on looking at it.
What was it that intrigued me in this picture despite
my unexplained revulsion? Why did I feel that I had
to write about what I saw in the picture? ...
I believe that the photo is stunning in the metaphor
it creates about war photography. It tells us about
the voyeurism of the photographer, of the act of
taking photos in tragic situations: if there is a
contradiction, it is in the encounter between
art, beauty and tragedy. ...
Here is an image, a mirror of the self, an inverted
gaze shot impulsively or in "cold blood" by the
photographer/artist. The act of taking a picture ...
is mirrored and seen through the woman whose face
is strained and body tilted while taking a picture of the
same devastation from the seat of the red car. Did
the photographer question his own behavior by showing
the voyeurism of another person, a non-professional?
Is he saying that the voyeur's need to witness human
misery and affliction, and to let others see it
through their eyes, is in all of us?"
I have to say that I find this all too common line of criticism perplexing. Of course, having been born in Beirut, Ghoussoub
has a much closer identification with the city and its residents than do I and very nearly all Americans. But I do not see why the beauty that Platt
captures even in such a dire situation is objectionable. And I surely do not find the criticism of the young man and women in the car persuasive at all. Imagine the young woman capturing the devastation with a cell phone camera. Perhaps there are others - her family or friends, nearby or in some far-away place like London - who might not quite believe the damage, or who could not imagine it or who, even though locals, could not, from fear or otherwise
, bring themselves to travel the city so openly. Might she not be snapping pictures to share with those others? The charge of voyeurism is, I think, remarkably presumptuous and uncharitable. Can Ghoussoub
presume to know what these young people are doing or why they had come to witness the post-bombing mayhem and carnage?
That leaves the worries about beautifying tragedy and hardship and suffering. This afternoon I happened to be reading an interview with Alfredo Jaar
who addressed similar sorts of criticisms that have been leveled at his own work, especially his Rwanda projects. Jaar
responds to the sorts of criticism that Ghoussoub
articulates in this way:
"In a way, the question is: are we allowed as artists
to create art out of suffering? Or should we let these
tragedies sink into invisibility? Why can't I resist
their invisibility in the media and offer my own
reading, my own image, my own outrage, my own
accusations about this tragic situation? To create
these works is not only to put Rwanda on the map,
but is also in a modest way to express solidarity, to
create, as I did, a memorial to the victims of genocide
in Rwanda. Now, how many gestures of solidarity have
you seen? How many memorials to Rwanda have you
seen? This is a memorial to one million people.
What is this worth?"
I think this challenge places the burden back on Ghoussoub
and those whom she echoes. Perhaps it is too much to say that Platt might've
been expressing solidarity
with the young people of Beirut. But his image raises a question that, as the father of teenage sons, I automatically asked myself when I saw this picture. Why do these young people have to live through this? Shouldn't their youth (and that of their contemporaries elsewhere, including Israel
) be without this sort of fear and care and anxiety? Perhaps that is naive. The clean clothes and shiny car that capture Ghoussoub's
attention are hardly compensation for living in a war zone. And, as it turns out
, the kids in the car actually lived in the neighborhood and had returned to survey the damage to their home.
Labels: Beauty, Prizes, World Press Photo