THE CRUEL RADIANCE
THE CRUEL RADIANCE
Photography and
Political Violence
Susie Linfield
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637
The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London
© 2010 by The University of C...
For Jay,
who can see in the dark;
and in memory of E.W.
Driven back and utterly shamed
Shall be those who trust in an image.
Isaiah 42:17
Urgent. . . . Have possibility of taking...
List of Figures xi
Preface: The Black Book xiii
PART ONE: POLEMICS
1 A Little History of Photography Criticism;
or, Why Do...
1.1 Farnood, protest against reelection of Ahmadinejad. Tehran, Iran
(2009) 2
1.2 Jerome Delay, women in cemetery. Baghdad...
xii
Figures
6.2 Josef Koudelka, woman with bloody flag. Prague, Czechoslovakia
(1968) 161
7.1 Robert Capa, POUM fighters d...
xiii
When I was about three, my older sister discovered a new game called
reading; and, unbeknownst to our parents, she pr...
Preface
xiv
in those pictures within the context of the people I knew and loved—
my family and our friends—who all seemed ...
xv
The Black Book
ist heirs and their sour, arrogant disdain for the traditions, the practice,
and the ideals of documenta...
Preface
xvi
sense, photographs teach us about our failure—our necessary failure—to
comprehend the human. That, too, is a p...
xvii
The Black Book
from the wars in Sierra Leone and other African countries; here I try to un-
derstand the increasingly...
Preface
xviii
when I was a child poring over The Black Book of Polish Jewry—these are
our pictures and our histories. And ...
PART ONE
Polemics
Figure 1.1
Tehran, Iran, 2009: The country was rocked by a series of huge demonstrations after Mah-
moud Ahmadinejad’s rig...
3
In 1846, Charles Baudelaire wrote a short essay called “What Is the Good
of Criticism?” This is something that virtually...
Chapter One
4
meaningful, most vivid when she sat in a dark movie theater, or that Ken-
neth Tynan felt the same way at a ...
5
A Little History of Photography Criticism
indulgent. They approach photography—not particular photographs, or
particular...
Chapter One
6
with Sontag. Barthes describes photographers as “agents of Death” and
the photograph as “flat,” “platitudino...
7
A Little History of Photography Criticism
More generally, drawing on a metaphor clearly derived from the atomic
bomb, Be...
Chapter One
8
though I see it as more of a pathological one. At the same time, the post-
moderns were attracted to photogr...
9
A Little History of Photography Criticism
integral part of capitalism but its obedient slave. AbigailSolomon-Godeau,
for...
Chapter One
10
such as progress and truth became common, if not mandatory; Rosler, for
instance, charged that the “liberal...
11
A Little History of Photography Criticism
felt when I found myself liking Thornton Wilder’s Our Town; I was almost afra...
Chapter One
12
like “the now-discredited authenticity once attributed to photography,”
as if the question of photography’s...
13
A Little History of Photography Criticism
unthinking ways “does not respond more freely but less freely and less
fully ...
Chapter One
14
symbol of democratization,” the critic Ariella Azoulay has observed. “Pho-
tography had been presented as a...
15
A Little History of Photography Criticism
Pécuchet, he included a “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas” in which the entry
for...
Chapter One
16
graphs was the discovery that ordinary people could take good photo-
graphs; this is one of several things ...
17
A Little History of Photography Criticism
intellectual respect, which is fitting, but with a kind of fundamentalist
rev...
Chapter One
18
ing. For Benjamin, the photograph wasn’t a fixed, dead thing. On the
contrary, it could embrace past, prese...
19
A Little History of Photography Criticism
photograph is not the person but the sum of what can be subtracted from
him o...
Chapter One
20
cess. “A consciousness caught up in nature is unable to see its own material
base,” he wrote. “It is the ta...
21
A Little History of Photography Criticism
“Little History,” Benjamin quotes Brecht: “Less than ever does the mere re-
f...
Chapter One
22
but the men are sworn enemies who represent antithetical political proj-
ects, though one could never know ...
23
A Little History of Photography Criticism
Contorts the features.
Anger, even against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse.
...
Chapter One
24
raphy could be more than just another opiate (or thoughtless agitator)
of the masses. Heartfield’s caustic,...
25
A Little History of Photography Criticism
inspired by the insights of Brecht and the Frankfurt critics, we cannot
simpl...
Chapter One
26
each other, and seem to be in conversation; one rests her open palm on
the coffin as her other hand cups he...
27
A Little History of Photography Criticism
mainly, her flat nose and her plump, deeply creased cheek. But what an
eloque...
Chapter One
28
less difficult than to anything else? Victims deserve our help and protec-
tion, and our compassion if we c...
29
A Little History of Photography Criticism
It is precisely because the Delay and Dhiya photographs are so open
ended—suc...
Chapter One
30
scornfully reject, we might see them as part of a process—the beginning
of a dialogue, the start of an inve...
31
A Little History of Photography Criticism
and feeling, immediacy and history. Along with Baudelaire, they can turn
plea...
Figure 2.1
Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2001: Thousands of women in Bangladesh and Pakistan have been
burned with acid for “crimes” ...
33
“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a docu-
ment of barbarism,” Walter Benjamin famousl...
Chapter Two
34
images? And why is there, especially in the present moment, such a back-
lash against these photographs?
A ...
35
Photojournalism and Human Rights
disgraced idea of the human was the only authority to which one could
appeal: nature, ...
Chapter Two
36
moral community stretch beyond one’s family, clan, or tribe.” Theodor
Adorno believed that an obliviousness...
37
Photojournalism and Human Rights
Indeed, the flood of unwanted exiles revealed the ugly secret at the
heart of human-ri...
Chapter Two
38
tary photographers, like Jacob Riis, depicted a poverty so debased and
all-encompassing that it reduced its...
39
Photojournalism and Human Rights
photographers have forced us to envision what a better world, or at least a
less-bad w...
Chapter Two
40
is more often true: the photograph singles out the individual from the
mass and confronts us with the parti...
The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
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The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
The cruel radiance; photography and political violence (2010)
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  1. 1. THE CRUEL RADIANCE
  2. 2. THE CRUEL RADIANCE Photography and Political Violence Susie Linfield The University of Chicago Press Chicago and London
  3. 3. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637 The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London © 2010 by The University of Chicago All rights reserved. Published 2010. Paperback edition 2012 Printed in the United States of America 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 3 4 5 6 7 ISBN-13: 978-0-226-48250-7 (cloth) ISBN-13: 978-0-226-48251-4 (paper) ISBN-10: 0-226-48250-2 (cloth) ISBN-10: 0-226-48251-0 (paper) Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Linfield, Susie. The cruel radiance : photography and political vio- lence / Susie Linfield p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN-13: 978-0-226-48250-7 (cloth : alk. paper) ISBN-10: 0-226-48250-2 (cloth : alk. paper) 1. Documentary photography. 2. Political violence in mass media. 3. Violence—Press coverage. 4. Photo- graphic criticism. I. Title. TR820.5 .L55 2010 070.4'9—dc22 2010013705 o This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).
  4. 4. For Jay, who can see in the dark; and in memory of E.W.
  5. 5. Driven back and utterly shamed Shall be those who trust in an image. Isaiah 42:17 Urgent. . . . Have possibility of taking photos. . . . Send film roll as fast as you can. Jósef Cyrankiewicz and Stanislaw Klodzinski, Auschwitz prisoners, in a note smuggled to the Polish Resistance, 1944
  6. 6. List of Figures xi Preface: The Black Book xiii PART ONE: POLEMICS 1 A Little History of Photography Criticism; or, Why Do Photography Critics Hate Photography? 3 2 Photojournalism and Human Rights: The Calamity of the Kodak 33 PART TWO: PLACES 3 Warsaw, Lodz, Auschwitz: In the Waiting Room of Death 65 4 China: From Malraux’s Dignity to the Red Guards’ Shame 101 5 Sierra Leone: Beyond the Sorrow and the Pity 125 6 Abu Ghraib and the Jihad: The Dance of Civilizations 151 PART THREE: PEOPLE 7 Robert Capa: The Optimist 175 8 James Nachtwey: The Catastrophist 205 9 Gilles Peress: The Skeptic 233 Acknowledgments 259 Notes 261 Bibliography 295 Index 309 CONTENTS
  7. 7. 1.1 Farnood, protest against reelection of Ahmadinejad. Tehran, Iran (2009) 2 1.2 Jerome Delay, women in cemetery. Baghdad, Iraq (2003) 26 1.3 Ahmed Dhiya, schoolboys. Baghdad, Iraq (2004) 29 2.1 Ulrich Jantzen, burnt woman screaming. Dhaka, Bangladesh (2001) 32 2.2 Unidentified photographer, prisoner of Stalin. Lubyanka Prison, Soviet Union (1931) 55 2.3 Unidentified photographer, child prisoner of the Khmer Rouge. Tuol Sleng, Cambodia (date unknown) 58 3.1 Heinrich Jöst, woman selling Jewish armbands. Warsaw Ghetto (1941) 64 3.2 Mendel Grossman, women kissing before deportation. Lodz Ghetto (date unknown) 80 4.1 Li Zhensheng, Cultural Revolution struggle session. Harbin, China (1966) 100 4.2 Jack Birns, captured Communists. Songjiang, China (1948) 121 5.1 Candace Scharsu, Memuna Mansarah and her father. Murray Town Amputee Camp, Sierra Leone (2000) 124 5.2 Stuart Freedman, boy looking at father’s prosthetic legs. Makeni, Sierra Leone (2004) 146 6.1 John Moore, man after suicide bombing. Rawalpindi, Pakistan (2007) 150 FIGURES
  8. 8. xii Figures 6.2 Josef Koudelka, woman with bloody flag. Prague, Czechoslovakia (1968) 161 7.1 Robert Capa, POUM fighters dancing. The Aragon front, Spain (1936) 174 7.2 Robert Capa, blind immigrants. Gedera, Israel (1950) 195 8.1 James Nachtwey, starving man. Ayod, southern Sudan (1993) 204 8.2 James Nachtwey, hanging man. Unidentified location, Afghanistan (1996) 220 9.1 Gilles Peress, the Shah’s torture victims. Tehran, Iran (1979) 232 9.2 Gilles Peress, corpse’s feet with shoes and socks. Xerxe, Kosovo (1999) 257
  9. 9. xiii When I was about three, my older sister discovered a new game called reading; and, unbeknownst to our parents, she promptly taught it to me. Soon she and I began trolling through my father’s library, and one day we discovered that a second row of secret books existed behind the public ones on the front of the shelves. All sorts of books—about sex, art, politics—were to be found on the hidden rows, and my sister and I delighted in discovering them together. (The lure of the forbidden can never be overstated.) But there was one book in this secret trove that I did not tell her about, and that I returned to many times over the years. I could not, for a long time, understand most of the text, but from the first its pictures transfixed me: they are what I re- member best. I am looking at a copy of that book now. It is called The Black Book of Polish Jewry, and it was published in 1943, in New York; it details, in words and photographs, the Nazi destruction of the Polish Jews. It is a grim book to look through, though it does not tell or show the worst: for it could not, of course, document the camps. I had never heard the word “Holocaust” when I first saw this book. But I knew that something I could not understand had been done to the people in those pictures; and I knew that the abject, defeated wraiths in them were Jewish, just like—yet also not just like—me. Looking at those photographs, I felt sadness, indignation, disgust, and puzzlement, but my overwhelming emotion (I can feel it now) was shame. How, I wondered, could I belong to such a wretched group? And how could I place the people PREFACE The Black Book
  10. 10. Preface xiv in those pictures within the context of the people I knew and loved— my family and our friends—who all seemed so energetic, so outspoken, so alive? The Black Book of Polish Jewry was my first introduction to photographs of defeat and atrocity, which is to say to photographs of grievous history. I cannot say that this book haunted me throughout my childhood, but I cannot say that I ever forgot it, either. Still, I wasn’t particularly interested in pictures like these until about a decade ago, when I found myself look- ing, more and more, at photographs—mostly in newspapers and maga- zines but sometimes on the Internet or in galleries and museums—of the gruesome slaughters in Sierra Leone and Liberia, the Congo and Soma- lia, Rwanda and Uganda, Bosnia and Chechnya. I wondered what these photographs said, and failed to say, about the new world order that was emerging in the aftermath of the cold war; they seemed to demur from, if not negate, the triumphal rhetoric of universal peace and democracy that was becoming so popular. It seemed to me that these images, so striking and yet largely ignored, were telling me things that I urgently needed to know—and at the same time that the realities they documented could not be found only, or primarily, in the pictures themselves. This book is my response to that paradox. It is also a response to my childhood self who was simultaneously drawn to and humiliated by the photographs of the Polish Jews. It is an attempt to understand, and to wrestle with, the photographs I have seen and the histories of which they speak. This is a book of criticism, not theory. It seeks to claim for photography criticism the same freedom of response championed by film critics like James Agee and Pauline Kael, dance critics like Edwin Denby and Arlene Croce, theater critics like Kenneth Tynan, and music critics like Greil Mar- cus. It is written, in large part, against the photography criticism of Susan Sontag. This is not because Sontag was wrong about most things; on the contrary, many of her insights remain sharp and true. But it is Sontag, more than anyone else, who was responsible for establishing a tone of suspicion and distrust in photography criticism, and for teaching us that to be smart about photographs means to disparage them. I am writing, even more, against the work of Sontag’s postmodern and poststructural-
  11. 11. xv The Black Book ist heirs and their sour, arrogant disdain for the traditions, the practice, and the ideals of documentary photography. Unlike those critics, I believe that we need to respond to and learn from photographs rather than sim- ply disassemble them; unlike those critics, I believe that we need to look at, and look into, what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is.” Photographs help us do that; so would the kind of criticism that believed in their worth. This book is also written, though with great reluctance, against the pro- gressive view of history: against the belief, sustained since the Enlighten- ment by liberals and the left and taken up more recently by certain neo- conservatives, that the arc of modern history bends toward freedom and justice. This is the tradition in which I was raised; I continue to cherish it. But I have come to believe that it is the experience of degradation, immis- eration, violence, and defeat that defines the lives of millions, and that in large part defines history. Such experiences do not necessarily lead those who suffer to create a better world when they shake off their chains; on the contrary, suffering is just as likely to warp its victims and turn them, sometimes quickly, into persecutors and tyrants. That is why we cannot talk—at least in meaningful or realistic ways—about building a world of democracy, justice, and human rights without first understanding the ex- perience of their negation. The attempt to forge such an understanding is what I mean by “empathy,” a value I repeatedly return to; without it, the politics of human rights devolve into abstraction, romantic foolishness, and cruelty. In thinking about all this I have been influenced by a number of writers, especially Jean Améry, Hannah Arendt, and Primo Levi, each of whom wrestled, in lucid and courageous ways, with what we human beings have made of our world. None of those thinkers wrote about, or cared much about, photogra- phy. But it is photographs, I believe, that bring us close to those experi- ences of suffering in ways that no other form of art or journalism can. Yet in bringing us close, photographs also illuminate the unbridgeable chasm that separates ordinary life from extraordinary experiences of political trauma; what was done in the Nazi death camps of Poland, or the ones built by the Khmer Rouge, cannot be easily absorbed into our understand- ing of how civilizations progress or of what human beings are. In this
  12. 12. Preface xvi sense, photographs teach us about our failure—our necessary failure—to comprehend the human. That, too, is a paradox that haunts this book. Throughout these chapters certain questions recur, though the photo- graphs and historic events that inspire them are quite varied. What does it mean to look at photographs of violence and suffering? Is the refusal to do so a form of respect? Why are such photographs tarred as voyeuristic, exploitative, and pornographic? What would solidarity with the people in such photographs mean? How would we understand the world if there were no photographs, and why do some thinkers believe that an imageless world would be a better one? What does it mean to acknowledge another’s suffering, knowing full well that to embrace it is impossible? And how has the photography of political trauma and political witness responded to the radical changes in how war is made, and what it is made for, in the course of the past eight decades? In the book’s first section, titled “Polemics,” I look at the history of pho- tography criticism and especially at the tremendous, though not always felicitous, influence that Weimar-era writers such as Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, and Bertolt Brecht have exerted on it. Here I seek, also, to begin developing a new kind of criticism—a new response to pho- tographs—that rejects the opposition of thought and emotion. In the second chapter I consider the relationship, if any, between the develop- ment of human-rights ideals and the practice of taking photographs. In the course of the past century, many pictures of manmade misery have been taken and shown; has the suffering of the world been ameliorated, if only slightly, by those shocking images? The second section, titled “Places,” explores four historic moments and some of the photographs that document them. I start with photographs of the Holocaust, particularly those that were made by the Nazis them- selves, and investigate the intense resistance to viewing them. I look at photographs of China’s Cultural Revolution and chart the Chinese revolu- tion’s devastating trajectory from the assertion of dignity—which was, traditionally, a key aspect of Marxist ethics—to the use of shame and hu- miliation as tools of revolutionary transformation. The following chapter explores photographs of child soldiers and their maimed child-victims
  13. 13. xvii The Black Book from the wars in Sierra Leone and other African countries; here I try to un- derstand the increasingly apolitical nature of contemporary war and the responses to it. The last chapter of this section analyzes the cultural de- bate over the Abu Ghraib photographs and the onslaught of images from the Muslim world that celebrate suicide bombings, beheadings, and other forms of barbarism; I argue that these two sets of presumably antagonis- tic images are the most intimate of partners. I also consider photographs from the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Israel-Palestine: wars that I hope, but doubt, will be ended by the time you read this. The final section, called “People,” focuses on three photojournalists whose works raise crucial political questionsaboutwarandaestheticques- tions about photography. The first is Robert Capa, who is widely regarded as the most prominent war photographer ever; in the mid-twentieth cen- tury he set the standard for, and altered, the course of photojournalism. The others—James Nachtwey and Gilles Peress—are our contempo- raries; and though in some senses they are Capa’s sons, their photographs are radically different from his. (And very different from each other, too.) Here I consider how modern photojournalism has responded to two late- twentieth-century developments: first, the fissure between violence and politics and the rise of non-ideological, astonishingly tenacious wars of disintegration; second, the postmodern assault on the concepts of truth and reality—concepts on which documentary photography has, tradition- ally, been so dependent. Though much of this book concentrates on photographs per se, I often delve into the historic contexts out of which these photographs grew— and into memoirs, fiction, and works of political philosophy. I trust that readers will not regard these as digressions, for they are central to my proj- ect. Put most simply: when we look at a documentary photograph we look at the histories, the politics, the world that gave birth to it; the former makes most sense, and is most meaningful, when it prompts a deeper con- sideration of the latter. I hope, of course, that people read this book and engage its ideas. But I hope, too, that the book encourages readers to seek out the photo- graphs discussed here—and others that aren’t—and to think about the catastrophic histories of which they speak. For—just as I somehow knew
  14. 14. Preface xviii when I was a child poring over The Black Book of Polish Jewry—these are our pictures and our histories. And this is so whether or not we choose to look at them, and even if we pretend that they don’t belong to us. History and photography have, alas, created more than one black book. March 2010 Brooklyn, New York
  15. 15. PART ONE Polemics
  16. 16. Figure 1.1 Tehran, Iran, 2009: The country was rocked by a series of huge demonstrations after Mah- moud Ahmadinejad’s rigged “reelection” in the summer of 2009. Here, a prodemocracy demonstrator holds up her camera. Thousands of amateur and underground photographs were taken by activists and subsequently transmitted, often via the Internet, to a worldwide audience. Photo: Farnood/Sipa Press.
  17. 17. 3 In 1846, Charles Baudelaire wrote a short essay called “What Is the Good of Criticism?” This is something that virtually every critic asks herself at some point, and that many have had trouble answering; it has been known to evoke hopelessness, despair, even self-loathing. Baudelaire didn’t think that criticism would save the world, but he didn’t think it was a worthless pursuit, either. For Baudelaire, criticism was the synthesis of thought and feeling: in criticism, he wrote, “passion . . . raises reason to new heights,” and he urged his fellow critics to eschew antiseptic writing that “deliber- ately rids itself of any trace of feeling.” A few years later he returned to the subject, explaining that through criticism he sought “to transform my pleasure into knowledge”: a pithy, excellent description of what criti- cism should be. Baudelaire’s American contemporary, Margaret Fuller, held similar views: she urged her colleagues to reject dogma—“external consistency,” she called it—in favor of “genuine emotion.” The critic, she wrote, should create an I-thou relationship between herself and her read- ers and guide them “to love wisely what we before loved well.” By “pleasure” and “love” Baudelaire and Fuller didn’t mean that critics should write only about things that make them happy or that they can praise. What they meant is that the critic’s emotional connection to an artist, or to a work of art, or to a genre, is the sine qua non, the ground zero, of criticism. Who can doubt that Edmund Wilson loved literature— and that, to him, it simply mattered more than most other things in life? Who can doubt that Pauline Kael found the world most challenging, most 1 A LITTLE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY CRITICISM; OR, WHY DO PHOTOGRAPHY CRITICS HATE PHOTOGRAPHY?
  18. 18. Chapter One 4 meaningful, most vivid when she sat in a dark movie theater, or that Ken- neth Tynan felt the same way at a play? This same sort of intuitive connec- tion was at the heart of James Agee’s approach to writing about the mov- ies. Introducing himself to the readers of the Nation in 1942, he wrote that he had been lovingly immersed in movies since childhood and yet—just like his readers—was “an amateur” who knew little about them; he must, therefore, “simultaneously recognize my own ignorance and feel no apol- ogy for what my eyes tell me as I watch any given screen.” A similar emo- tional affinity led a young woman named Arlene Croce, who knew nothing about dance, to begin writing criticism after a life-changing evening at the New York City Ballet in 1957; that performance, she said, “made an addict out of me.” Croce, who developed an uncannily astute understanding of Balanchine’s modernism, would go on to become the best dance critic of the twentieth century. “All I can tell you is, dance is the thing that hit me the hardest,” she explained. For these critics and others—those I would consider at the center of the modern tradition—cultivating this sense of lived experience was at the heart of writing good criticism. Their starting point was, always, their subjective, immediate experience, which meant that they had to be honest with themselves. Randall Jarrell wrote that “criticism demands of the critic a terrible nakedness . . . All he has to go by, finally, is his own response, the self that makes and is made up of such responses.” Alfred Kazin agreed; the critic’s skill, he argued, “begins by noticing his intuitive reactions and building up from them; he responds to the matter in hand with perception at the pitch of passion.” For such critics, emotional reac- tions and critical faculties weren’t synonomous, but they weren’t oppo- sites, either. These critics sought, and achieved, a fertile dialectic between ideas and emotions: they were able to think and feel at the same time, or at least within the same essay. The great exception to this approach is photography criticism. There, you will hear precious little talk of love, or terrible nakedness, or passion’s pitch. There, critics view emotional responses—if they have any—not as something to be experienced and understood but, rather, as an enemy to be vigilantly guarded against. For these writers, criticism is a prophy- lactic against the virus of sentiment, and pleasure is denounced as self-
  19. 19. 5 A Little History of Photography Criticism indulgent. They approach photography—not particular photographs, or particular photographers, or particular genres, but photography itself— with suspicion, mistrust, anger, and fear. Rather than enter into what Kazin called a “community of interest” with their chosen subject, these critics come armed to the teeth against it. For them, photography is a pow- erful, duplicitous force to defang rather than an experience to embrace and engage. It’s hard to resist the thought that a very large number of photography critics—including the most influential ones—don’t really like photographs, or the act of looking at them, at all. Susan Sontag’s On Photography was published in 1977, though the individ- ualessaysthatcomprisethebookbeganappearing,andmakinganimpact, in 1973. The book remains astonishingly incisive, and has been immensely influential on the thinking of other photography critics—and immensely influential, too, in setting a certain tone of photography criticism. Look, for instance, at Sontag’s description of photography in the book’s first chapter, which establishes a voice, an attitude, and an approach, all of which she maintains throughout. Sontag describes photography as “gran- diose,” “treacherous,” “imperial,” “voyeuristic,” “predatory,” “addictive,” and “reductive.” Photographs, we learn, simultaneously embody “seduc- tiveness” and “didacticism,” “passivity” and “aggression.” Sontag’s cool- ness is unfaltering, as is her unfriendliness: photographs are described as “a sublimated murder—a soft murder” and as “the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” A typical Sontag sentence reads, “The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate—all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment.” Metaphor indeed! Three years later came Roland Barthes’s CameraLucida.This book, deli- cate and playful, is a love letter to the photograph (and to Barthes’s dead mother). Barthes celebrates the quirky, spontaneous reactions that pho- tographs can inspire—or at least the quirky, spontaneous reactions they inspire in him: “A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Still, Camera Lucida is a very odd valentine, and it shares an intellectual approach, if not a literary style,
  20. 20. Chapter One 6 with Sontag. Barthes describes photographers as “agents of Death” and the photograph as “flat,” “platitudinous,” “stupid,” “without culture,” a “catastrophe,” and—the cruelest cut—“undialectical.” The photograph “teaches me nothing,” Barthes insists, for it “completely de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires.” Continuing this tradition of photography criticism is John Berger, the most morally cogent and emotionally perceptive critic that photography has produced. “My first interest in photography was passionate,” Berger has written; and when you read his work, you know this is so. (As a young man, Berger dreamed of composing a book of love poems illustrated with photographs.) Berger has frequently included photographs in his books. More important, he has argued that photographs represent an “opposi- tiontohistory”bywhichordinarypeopleaffirmthesubjectiveexperiences that modernity, science, and industrial capitalism have done so much to crush: “And so, hundreds of millions of photographs, fragile images, often carried next to the heart or placed by the side of the bed, are used to refer to that which historical time has no right to destroy.” Like Sontag, Berger is acutely aware of the central place that photography occupies in modern life; unlike Sontag, he respects the prosaic yet meaningful ways in which people throughout the world use photographs. Yet in Berger’s canonical essays he, too, took a decidedly dark view of photography, and he was especially critical of photographs that document political violence. Such images, he insisted, were at best useless and at worst narcissistic, leading the viewer to a sense of self-conscious helpless- nessratherthantoenlightenment,outrage,oraction.Thinkingaboutpho- tographs by Don McCullin of the then-ongoing Vietnam War, Berger ob- served that “McCullin’s most typical photographs record sudden moments of agony—a terror, a wounding, a death, a cry of grief.” He continued: These moments are in reality utterly discontinuous with normal time. . . . But the reader who has been arrested by the photograph may tend to feel this discontinu- ity as his own personal moral inadequacy. And as soon as this happens even his sense of shock is dispersed: his own moral inadequacy may now shock him as much as the crimes being committed in the war. . . . The issue of the war which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised.
  21. 21. 7 A Little History of Photography Criticism More generally, drawing on a metaphor clearly derived from the atomic bomb, Berger described the photograph—all photographs—as a “fission whereby appearances are separated by the camera from their function.” Yet the particular instance of the Vietnam War that Berger cited under- mines rather than supports his thesis. Photographs of that conflict—such as the one taken by Eddie Adams of a streetside execution or by Nick Ut of a naked, napalmed girl—didn’t foster feelings of moral inadequacy. (Nei- ther did McCullin’s.) On the contrary, they mobilized political opposition to the war. Barthes, too, held no brief for photographs of violence. Writing about an exhibit of “Shock-Photos” in Paris, Barthes argued that “most of the photographs exhibited to shock us have no effect at all.” Such images are too finished, too complete—“overconstructed” is Barthes’s word. As such, they deprive us of our freedom of response: “We are in each case dispos- sessed of our judgment: someone has shuddered for us, reflected for us, judged for us; the photographer has left us nothing.” (Walter Benjamin, as we’ll see, also feared that photography impairs independent judgment.) Sontag’s objections went further. Because photographs present us with scenes of catastrophe but can do nothing to explain their histories or causes, she was highly skeptical of the photograph’s ability to be ei- ther politically or ethically potent; photographs, she argued, present ar- chetypical abstractions, whereas “moral feelings are embedded in history, whose personae are concrete, whose situations are always specific.” And she insisted—an insistence that has now become the conventional wis- dom—that the cumulative effect of such photographs is to create a society of moral dullards: “The shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings . . . In these last decades, ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.” Starting in the mid-1970s, the postmodern and poststructuralist chil- dren of Sontag, Berger, and Barthes transformed their predecessors’ skep- ticism about the photograph into outright venom; in an influential essay written in 1981, for instance, Allan Sekula decried photography as “primi- tive, infantile, aggressive.” Indeed, for the postmoderns, a relentless hos- tility to modernist photography—and to any belief in the photographer’s authenticity, creativity, or unique subjectivity—was an ethical stance,
  22. 22. Chapter One 8 though I see it as more of a pathological one. At the same time, the post- moderns were attracted to photography precisely because they saw the medium—with its infinite capacity for mechanical reproduction—as the worm in the modernist apple. In assaulting photography, the postmod- erns hoped to undermine modernist “claims to originality, showing those claims for the fiction they are,” as Douglas Crimp wrote; the aim, he con- tinued, was “to use the apparent veracity of photography against itself” and to expose “the supposed autonomous and unitary self” as “nothing other than a discontinuous series of representations, copies, fakes.” These critics weren’t really alive to photographs per se, much less to the world they reveal; what attracted them to photography—especially the postmodern photography of appropriation—was, as Rosalind Krauss wrote, “photography’s travesty of the ideas of originality, or subjective expressiveness, or formal singularity,” its ability to “undermine the very distinction between original and copy,” and its “refusal to understand the artist as a source of originality.” The assault on photography was, in short, a servant to the larger postmodern “project of deconstruction in which art is distanced and separated from itself.” To attack photography, especially high-modern and documentary photography, was to storm the bastions of modernism itself.* In the view of the postmoderns, one of photography’s original sins was its supposedly supine relationship to capitalism. In particular, pho- tography’s admittedly maddening (and obviously false) claims to objective truths—truths divorced from class and culture—made it a particularly dangerous ideological tool that could hinder critical thinking about the prevailing class system. The postmodern refusal of the fiction of objectiv- ity—and of its close cousin, neutrality—was a genuine intellectual ac- complishment. But whereas Sontag had written that advanced industrial capitalism re- quires a ceaseless production of images, the critics who followed her were far more reductive. For the postmoderns, photographs were not just an * Postmodernism and poststructuralism are, of course, large and complex subjects, espe- cially as they worked themselves out in philosophy and literature; here I discuss, specifically, their effect on photography criticism.
  23. 23. 9 A Little History of Photography Criticism integral part of capitalism but its obedient slave. AbigailSolomon-Godeau, for instance, charged that the documentary photograph commits a “double act of subjugation” in which the hapless subject is victimized first by oppressive social forces, then by the “regime of the image.” John Tagg went further, describing photography as “ultimately a function of the state” that is deeply implicated in the ruling class’s “apparatus of ideo- logical control” and its “reproduction of . . . submissive labour power”; he added, in a particularly inapt metaphor, that photography is a “mode of production . . . consuming the world of sight as its raw material.” Martha Rosler proclaimed that “imperialism breeds an imperialist sensibility in all phases of cultural life”; and photographs, it turned out, were the most imperialist of all. Photographers are usually drawn to, and excited by, the new. In con- trast, a deep sense of fatigue permeated postmodern photography and the criticism that praised it. In 1986, the critic Andy Grundberg observed that postmodern photography “implies the exhaustion of the image universe: it suggests that a photographer can find more than enough images already existing in the world without the bother of making new ones.” Fredric Jameson described this enervated worldview: In a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles . . . Contemporary or postmodernist art . . . will involve the necessary failure of art and the aesthetic, the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past. Postmodern criticism and photography became notable for embody- ing, indeed celebrating, this sense of weary repetition; as the artist Rich- ard Prince wrote, the way to make it new was to “make it again.” The postmoderns declared war on the formalism of high-modernist criticslikeJohnSzarkowskiwho,theycharged,isolatedphotographyfrom its social and political context. (They reviled Szarkowski as a cold manda- rin, yet failed to notice that he wrote about photographs with more empa- thy and insight than they.) But they were equally hostile to documentary photography that rooted itself in the social and political. Sneering at lib- eral, socially conscious photojournalists who clung to old-fashioned ideas
  24. 24. Chapter One 10 such as progress and truth became common, if not mandatory; Rosler, for instance, charged that the “liberal documentary assuages any stirrings of conscience in its viewers the way scratching relieves an itch. . . . Documen- tary is a little like horror movies, putting a face on fear and transform- ing threat into fantasy.” Similarly, Sekula assailed the photographer Paul Strand’s belief in “human values,” “social ideals,” “decency,” and “truth” as “the enemy”—a statement that, I admit, I have always found shocking. The depiction of powerless, vulnerable people is a fraught enterprise that can easily veer into condescension. But from these critics it evoked a tsunami of too-easy scorn. Carol Squiers dismissed photojournalism’s depictions of suffering as the “tableaux of profound abjection.” Rosler, in a rising tide of fury against social documentarians, castigated images of “pathetic, helpless, dispirited victimhood,” “victims-turned-freaks,” “the marginal and pathetic”—enough! She went on to describe contemporary photojournalism as “the petted darling of the monied, a shiver-provoking, slyly decadent, lip-smacking appreciation of alien vitality.” There are, I suppose, some documentary photographs that fit this description; but it’s odd that Rosler and her colleagues ignored the challenging work then be- ing done by, among others, Gilles Peress and Abbas (in Iran), Susan Meise- las (in Nicaragua), David Goldblatt (in South Africa), Eugene Richards (in the U.S.), and Don McCullin (everywhere). One could react in various ways to their difficult, unsettling photographs, but it is doubtful that their im- ages relieved any itches or provoked an epidemic of smacked lips. It is no accident that many of the postmodern critics were women: the fear of sentimentality is particularly potent for female intellectuals, es- pecially those who address a primarily leftwing audience and who write about popular rather than high culture. (Pauline Kael was an invigorating exception: she could write about movies with girlish enthusiasm without losing her edge or seeming too girlish.) Along with this anxiety—this fear of frivolity—comes the mistaken idea that chronic negativity equals fear- less intelligence. Mary McCarthy, looking back on her days as the theater critic for Partisan Review, addressed the problem: Aesthetic puritanism . . . has, like all puritanism, a tendency to hypocrisy—based on a denial of one’s own natural tastes and instincts. I remember how uneasy I
  25. 25. 11 A Little History of Photography Criticism felt when I found myself liking Thornton Wilder’s Our Town; I was almost afraid to praise it in the magazine, lest the boys conclude that I was starting to sell out. Far worse than the postmoderns’ rigid negativity, though, was their utter denial of freedom. They insisted that even a scintilla of autonomy, for either photographer or viewer, was impossible; insisted, that is, that the photographer could never offer, and the viewer could never find, a moment of surprise, originality, or insight when looking at a photograph. To invest a photograph with meaning is always a sad delusion: “The whole- ness, coherence, identity, which we attribute to the depicted scene is a projection, a refusal of an impoverished reality in favour of an imaginary plenitude,”Victor Burgin wrote. In the viewof these critics, it is impossible to see the world anew, for we are all helpless, brainwashed spiders caught in capitalism’s ideological web—which is spun, apparently, of unbreak- ableiron.Indeed,Burgincondemnedtheactivityoflookingitself—anodd stance, one would think, for a photography critic: “Our conviction that we are free to choose what we make of a photograph hides the complicity to which we are recruited in the very act of looking.” Photography, he claimed, can offer only a grim Sophie’s choice between “narcissistic identification” and “voyeurism.” In short, the postmodern critics viewed photography as a generally nasty business—the photograph is a prison, the act of looking, a crime—which may be why reading their work often feels like trudging through mud. There are fine contemporary photography critics who have rejected the congenital animus of the postmoderns—I think particularly of Max Kozloff, who began writing regularly in the early 1960s, and of younger critics like Rebecca Solnit, David Levi Strauss, and Geoff Dyer, who have responded to the postmodern critique without succumbing to it. Indeed, it may seem as though the “corrosive, hermeneutic irony about pictures” fostered by postmodernism is no longer in fashion. But if fewer essays like Sekula’s and Rosler’s are written now, it is in part because their ideas have been absorbed and accepted by so many in the academy, the art journals, the museums, and the galleries; as theorist W. J. T. Mitchell has written, “reflexive critical iconoclasm . . . governs intellectual discourse today.” Thus, in more recent publications, one bumps up against casual phrases
  26. 26. Chapter One 12 like “the now-discredited authenticity once attributed to photography,” as if the question of photography’s truth-value has been tossed without regret into the dustbin of history. Even worse are the ways that these ideas have seeped into the general public, encouraging a careless contempt to- ward documentary photographs. Since such images are cesspools of ma- nipulation and exploitation: why look? It has become all too easy to avert one’s eyes; indeed, to do so is considered a virtue. * * * It is interesting to compare all this—the postmoderns’ obsession with victimization, their refusal of freedom, their congenital crabbiness—to the opening pages of Pauline Kael’s essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” written in 1969. Kael, too, set a certain tone, both for her readers and other critics. Here it is: A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again . . . make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. . . . The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good per- formance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense. IfOnPhotography waswrittenbyabrilliantskeptic, “Trash, Art,and the Movies” is the work of a smitten lover. And what Kael showed is that the lover can see just as clearly, and be just as smart, as the skeptic. Kael had two great insights in “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” One was that trash, far from contaminating judgment, can help the viewer develop an autonomous aesthetic that will lead her to art. Second, she argued that the only truly capacious, truly mature way to experience movies is to com- bine our deepest emotional reactions, which should never be disowned, with a probing analysis of them. She did not, as some have mistakenly thought, champion unadulterated emotion or unexamined fandom; on the contrary, she insisted that the viewer who approaches movies in such
  27. 27. 13 A Little History of Photography Criticism unthinking ways “does not respond more freely but less freely and less fully than the person . . . who uses all his senses in reacting, not just his emotional vulnerabilities.” Kael urged her readers to reclaim their emo- tions as a key part of their aesthetic, intellectual, and moral lives: feeling could enhance rather than undermine critical thinking. Yet this, after all, is the same insight that Baudelaire had when he wrote of seeking “the why of his pleasure”; it was the view of Randall Jarrell when he explained that the good critic combines the “sense of fact” with the “personal truth”; it was what Alfred Kazin meant when he claimed that “the unity of thinking and feeling actually exists in the passionate opera- tion of the critic’s intelligence.” This quest for the synthesis of thought and feeling—and the essentially comradely, or at least open, approach to art that it suggests—was the central project for generations of critics, espe- cially American critics in the twentieth century. Yet it is just this project that photography critics reject. The question is: why? Photography is a modern invention: one that, from its inception, inspired a host of conflicts and anxieties in participants, critics, and onlookers. Indeed, when we talk about photography we are talking about modernity; the doubts that photography inspires are the doubts that modernity in- spires. Photography is a proxy for modern life and its discontents, which may explain some of the high expectations, bitter disappointments, and pure vitriol it has engendered. From the first, the essential nature of photography was puzzling. It tended to blur categories—which can be exciting, unsettling, or both. Was photography a form of art? of commerce? of journalism? of surveillance? Was it a form of science, or of magic? Was it an expression of creativity, or was its relation to reality mimetic, or even that of a parasite? One thing was clear: photography was the great democratic medium; Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “the true republican style of painting.” And it was viewed, from the first, as a social medium: in 1839, the French Cham- ber of Deputies declared that Louis Daguerre’s new invention should not be privately patented but, instead, belonged to the French people and to the world. In doing so, France “hoped to turn photography itself into a
  28. 28. Chapter One 14 symbol of democratization,” the critic Ariella Azoulay has observed. “Pho- tography had been presented as a gift given to the nation, a blessing be- stowed on it, and a right granted to it.” But such newness, and such egalitarian newness, could stir intense anx- ieties—even in a great modernist like Baudelaire. He hated photography for many reasons, including its general availability and its great popular- ity. “In these deplorable times,” he warned in 1859, “a new industry has developed,” one supported by the ignorant mob. Like an Old Testament prophet, he railed, Our loathsome society rushed, like Narcissus, to contemplate its trivial image on the metallic plate. A form of lunacy, an extraordinary fanaticism, took hold of these new sun-worshippers. Strange abominations manifested themselves. Baudelaire feared that photography’s superior ability to capture reality would destroy painting, for “it is simple common-sense that, when indus- try erupts into the sphere of art, it becomes the latter’s mortal enemy.” He continued: Poetry and progress are two ambitious men that hate each other, with an instinc- tive hatred. . . . More and more, as each day goes by, art is losing in self-respect, is prostrating itself before external reality, and the painter is becoming more and more inclined to paint, not what he dreams, but what he sees. Not what he dreams, but what he sees: this is a powerful condemnation of mechanical reproduction, and might give pause to even the most ardent photographer (or critic). And though Baudelaire knew that it would be useless to call for the abolition of photography, he demanded—equally uselessly, of course—that photography confine itself strictly to factual documentation: “Let it adorn the library of the naturalist, magnify micro- scopic insects, even strengthen, with a few facts, the hypotheses of the astronomer.” Art should be left to the artists, a category that definitely did not include the camera-wielding masses. Flaubert, too, noted the antagonism between the new form of photog- raphy and the established art of painting. In his last novel, Bouvard and
  29. 29. 15 A Little History of Photography Criticism Pécuchet, he included a “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas” in which the entry for “Photography” simply read: “Will dethrone painting.” George Bernard Shawalsopredictedthatphotographywoulddefeatart.ButShawwelcomed painting’s demise as a liberation rather than feared it as the revenge of the philistines. Indeed, when it comes to photography, we might think of Shaw as the anti-Baudelaire. Writing in 1901, Shaw derided what he saw as the fussy mannerism of painting, with its “old barbarous smudging and soak- ing, . . . faking and forging.” He loved the modern, truthful clarity of the photograph, and he heralded its triumph: “The old game is up. . . . The cam- era has hopelessly beaten the pencil and paint-brush as an instrument of artistic representation . . . As to the painters and their fanciers, I snort defi- ance at them; their day of daubs is over.” Shaw reportedly claimed, “I would willinglyexchangeeverypaintingofChristforonesnapshot!”—astatement that,notsurprisingly,hasendearedhimtocontemporaryphotojournalists. Almost as soon as photography was invented, it became clear that every butcher and baker—at least in the industrialized countries like England, Germany, France, and the U.S.—would be able to purchase photographic reproductions; “even the poor can possess themselves of tolerable like- nesses of their absent dear ones,” the Scottish writer Jane Welsh Carlyle noted in 1859. They could make pictures, too: “Daguerreotype calls for no manipulation which anyone cannot perform,” the physicist Domi- nique François Arago explained to the French Chamber of Deputies. “It presumes no knowledge of the art of drawing and demands no special dex- terity.” Photo taking, it turned out, was available not just to the butcher and baker but to the governess and schoolteacher. Indeed, photography was one of the few activities in which nineteenth-century women and men could partake on a quasi-equal basis; as Daguerre himself wrote, “The little work it entails will greatly please ladies.” The interest in photography spanned classes, too; photography “has become a household word and a household want,” Lady Elizabeth Eastlake observed in 1857, and “is found in the most sumptuous saloon, and in the dingiest attic . . . in the pocket of the detective, in the cell of the convict.” There are few inventions that have been adopted for so many uses by so many kinds of people so quickly. More startling than the fact that ordinary people could take photo-
  30. 30. Chapter One 16 graphs was the discovery that ordinary people could take good photo- graphs; this is one of several things that, from the start, has set pho- tography apart from other disciplines. Most people, after all, can’t paint a wonderful painting or write a wonderful play. But lots of ordinary people—with no training, no experience, no education, no knowledge— have taken wonderful photographs: better, sometimes, than those of photography’s recognized masters. (This is what Sontag meant, I think, when she wrote of the “disconcerting ease with which photographs can be taken.”) Yet this, too—and the leveling tendencies it implies—is trou- bling. For where such egalitarianism dwells, can the razing of all distinc- tions be far behind? Who can admire an activity, much less an art, that so many uneducated, untrained people can do so well? Photography’s demo- cratic promise has always been photography’s demotic threat. Then, too, photography evokes our ambivalence about technology. Un- like painting, writing, dancing, music making, and storytelling, photog- raphy began not thousands of years ago with innocent, primitive man but less than two hundred years ago with compromised, modern man. And unlike other forms of expression, photography depends on a machine and a chemical process. Photography, in short, is an impure, “disconcerting” art (or craft), and we have approached it with that contradictory mixture of expectation and distrust, of glorious hope and tremendous gloom, with which we have approached the machine age itself. Photography is the per- fect receptor for both techno-utopianism and technophobia; perhaps in- evitably, then, photography criticism has encompassed optimism, disap- pointment, ambivalence, and contempt. Yet there is something else, something beyond all this, at the heart of photography criticism’s peculiar hostility to its subject. Most twentieth-century photography critics—Sontag, Berger, Barthes, and the postmodernists and poststructuralists—were heavily influenced by the melancholy writers of the Frankfurt School, especially Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin and, through him, Bertolt Brecht, who was Benja- min’s friend and comrade. These men, who were living in the increasingly dark shadow of an increasingly dark Europe, did not write mainly about photography (though Kracauer was a film critic and, later, theorist). But what they did write has been treated by contemporary critics not just with
  31. 31. 17 A Little History of Photography Criticism intellectual respect, which is fitting, but with a kind of fundamentalist reverence, which is not. Though Benjamin was in some ways highly critical of the photographic enterprise, it would be false to say that he disliked photographs. On the contrary: as a dialectician, he believed that the photograph held out lib- erating, indeed revolutionary, possibilities. In his essay “Little History of Photography,” originally published in 1931, Benjamin argued that photog- raphy had created a “new way of seeing,” one that brought masses of ordi- nary people closer to the world and would enable them “to achieve control over works of art.” Several years later, in his now enormously influential “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he wrote of the ways in which film and photography contributed to the smashing of tradition: “Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. . . . Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics.”* For Benjamin, photog- raphy was part of the descralization of the world, which is to say part of the painful but necessary task of modernity. This new way of seeing could be a kind of truth serum. The photogra- pher Eugène Atget, who “set about removing the makeup from reality,” inspired in Benjamin some of his most appreciative, and most beautiful, writing: He was the first to disinfect the stifling atmosphere generated by conventional portrait photography in the age of decline. He cleanses this atmosphere—indeed, he dispels it altogether . . . And thus such pictures . . . suck the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship. Equally important, Benjamin understood the subjective power of the photograph—its spooky ability to make us want to enter the world it de- picts and even, sometimes, change it. Indeed, it is this potential spur to identification and action that so distinguishes photography from paint- * The veneration in which this essay is now held was not shared by all of Benjamin’s con- temporaries. Brecht regarded it as a kind of mumbo jumbo, writing in his journal: “It is all mysticism mysticism . . . It is rather ghastly.”
  32. 32. Chapter One 18 ing. For Benjamin, the photograph wasn’t a fixed, dead thing. On the contrary, it could embrace past, present, and future: the photograph was a document of history and possibility. Looking at a nineteenth-century daguerreotype of a man and his fiancée (she would later commit suicide), Benjamin praised the photograph’s “magical value, such as a painted pic- ture can never again have for us.” He mused, The beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long- forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may re- discover it. But all the negatives were also true. Benjamin was highly suspicious of the passive, aestheticized society that he feared photography was helping to create: mass events—from “monster rallies” to sports competitions to war—were all “intimately connected with the development of the tech- niques of reproduction and photography,” he wrote. He believed that pho- tographywasaformofmystification,forit“canendowanysoupcan”—did he foresee the age of Warhol?—“with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists.” He distrusted photography’s ability to beautify: photography had turned “abject poverty itself . . . into an object of enjoyment” and made “human misery an ob- ject of consumption.” Yet he also distrusted photography’s opposite attri- bute: its facticity. For Benjamin, photography’s claim to depict an obvious, unquestionable reality was a threat to independent, dialectical thought. With the rise of photography, he wrote, “a new reality unfolds, in the face of which no one can take responsibility for personal decisions”; instead, “One appeals to the lens.” Benjamin feared that the presumably infallible, objective judgment of the camera would conquer the subjective, flawed judgment of mere men; the simplicity of the photographic world would obscure the complexity of the human world. Even more than Benjamin, Kracauer regarded the photograph as a kind of diminution. Rather than presenting us with the exciting immediacy of a human character, as its advocates promised, Kracauer insisted that “the
  33. 33. 19 A Little History of Photography Criticism photograph is not the person but the sum of what can be subtracted from him or her. The photograph annihilates the person.” Kracauer could sound almost enraged—almost like Baudelaire, though for different reasons— when he wrote about photography: “In order for history to present itself, the mere surface coherence offered by photography must be destroyed.” And far from revealing previously hidden realities, Kracauer believed that the photograph occludes: “In a photograph, a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow.” In the Weimar years, Kracauer wrote as a journalistic critic rather than a theorist, publishing almost two thousand articles and reviews in the FrankfurterZeitung, a liberal daily newspaper. Yet he was alarmed by inter- war Berlin’s cacophonous, newly uncensored press, in which hundreds of journals, tabloids, newspapers, and magazines—often lavishly illus- trated with photographs—flourished. For some of his contemporaries, this press, and especially its new and sometimes startling use of photo- graphy, was a glorious herald of modernity (and a source of employment; it was here that a teenaged Robert Capa got his start). “Photography!” the artist-photographer Johannes Molzahn exulted in an article called, “Stop Reading!Look!”publishedin1928.“Thisgreatestofthephysical-chemical- technical wonders of the present—this triumph of tremendous conse- quence! One of the more important tools for elucidating current prob- lems, for recreating the harmony between the processes of work and life.” But Kracauer was decidedly unimpressed. “The flood of photos sweeps away the dams of memory,” he charged. “Never before has a period known so little about itself. In the hands of the ruling society, the invention of illustrated magazines is one of the most powerful means of organizing a strike against understanding. . . . The ‘image-idea’ drives away the idea. The blizzard of photographs betrays an indifference toward what the things mean.” Photographs, Kracauer insisted, fight contemplation; even if the new photojournalism was practiced by thoughtful people, or po- litical radicals, or intellectuals—which it sometimes was—it did not ap- peal to the intellect, and was therefore highly suspect. Still, Kracauer, like Benjamin,believedthatmodernity’scultural disintegration—whichthese new forms of media represented to him—might radicalize the masses, and he saw photography as a key instrument in this world-historic pro-
  34. 34. Chapter One 20 cess. “A consciousness caught up in nature is unable to see its own material base,” he wrote. “It is the task of photography to disclose this previously unexamined foundation of nature. For the first time in history, photogra- phy brings to light the entire natural cocoon; for the first time, the inert world presents itself in its independence from human beings.” Kracauer wrote about popular culture—chorus girls, arcades, bestsell- ing books, the circus—with utmost seriousness. But he was no populist; on the contrary, his disdain for the mass audience was palpable. (Espe- cially the female audience, whose “silly little hearts” he disparaged.) The products of mass culture frequently repelled him, or at the very least evoked scorn. Kracauer’s essay “Film 1928,” for instance, is an almost un- relievedly negative overview of that year’s cinematic offerings in which every genre—fictional features, documentaries, newsreels, art films—is attacked. Yet Kracauer’s antipathy grew, I think, more out of dashed ex- pectations than contempt: he harbored the desperate hope that popular culture might help avert the catastrophe-in-the-making that he under- stood the Weimar Republic to be. Thus the apocalyptic tone of his writ- ings, as when he claimed that photography, by opening up the possibility of a radically altered consciousness, “is the go-for-broke game of history.” Not all of Kracauer’s colleagues on the left shared his antipathy to the mass media. The Communist artists George Grosz and John Heartfield sought to disseminate their work in popular, accessible forms such as pamphlets, posters, book covers, and newspapers: the cheaper and more vernacular, the better. Heartfield’s work was inconceivable without mass- market photographs and mass-market papers, and Grosz was a fan of American pop culture. But it was Kracauer’s mandarin, often censorious tone that would flourish among successor generations of cultural critics who write about photography. Most of all, though, it is Brecht whose shadow hangs over photography criticism and whose sensibility continues to define it. Brecht, I think it’s fair to say, really did loathe photographs, or at best deeply distrust them; in 1931 he wrote, “The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about the conditions in this world. On the contrary, photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth.” And in
  35. 35. 21 A Little History of Photography Criticism “Little History,” Benjamin quotes Brecht: “Less than ever does the mere re- flection of reality reveal anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG”—the massive German armaments and electric com- panies, respectively—“tells us next to nothing about these institutions.” These two sentences have been quoted, ad infinitum, with the unques- tioning piety usually reserved for gospels; they were clearly influential on the indictment of photography launched by Sontag, Barthes, Berger, and the postmoderns. (Four decades after Brecht—and despite the massive body of photojournalistic work that had been created in the interim— Sekula would make an almost identical claim: documentary photography, he charged, has “contributed much to spectacle, to retinal excitation, to voyeurism, to terror, envy and nostalgia, and only a little to the critical understanding of the social world.”) And on one level, there is no doubt that Brecht was right. Photographs don’t explain the way the world works; they don’t offer reasons or causes; they don’t tell us stories with a coher- ent, or even discernible, beginning, middle, and end. Photographs can’t burrow within to reveal the inner dynamics of historic events. And though it’s true that photographs document the specific, they sometimes blur— dangerously blur—political and historic distinctions. A photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Barcelona from 1937 looks much like a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Berlin in 1945, which looks much like the bombed-out buildings of Hanoi in 1972, Belgrade in 1999, or Kabul from last week. But only a vulgar reductionist—or an ab- solute pacifist—would say that these five cities, which is to say these five wars, represent the same circumstances, the same histories, or the same causes.Still,thephotographslookthesame:ifyou’veseenonebombed-out building you’ve seen them all. This kind of deceptive similarity can be found in photographs of people, too. I am looking, as I write this, at two photographs that appeared side by side in the New York Times on January 25, 2009. One shows a Pal- estinian man, hand clutching his bent head, as he grieves over four Hamas fighters who were killed by the Israeli army in Gaza. The second picture shows a group of Israeli soldiers, hugging each other and crying, as they mourn a comrade killed by Hamas. The iconography of these two images is startling similar, which is no doubt why the Times printed them together;
  36. 36. Chapter One 22 but the men are sworn enemies who represent antithetical political proj- ects, though one could never know this from the pictures themselves. It is precisely this anti-explanatory, anti-analytic nature of the photograph— what Barthes called its stupidity—that critics, especially those on the left, have seized on with a vengeance and that they cannot forgive. Yet the problem with photographs is not only what they fail to do. I think that a greater problem, for Brecht and his contemporary followers, is what photographs succeed in doing. Photographs excel, more than any other form of either art or journalism, in offering an immediate, viscerally emotional connection to the world. People don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of global capitalism, or the reasons for the genocide in Rwanda, or the solution to the conflicts in the Middle East. They—we—turn to photographs for other things: for a glimpse of what cruelty, or strangeness, or beauty, or agony, or love, or disease, or natural wonder, or artistic creation, or depraved violence, looks like. And we turn to photographs to discover what our intuitive reactions to such otherness—and to such others—might be. There is no doubt that we ap- proach photographs, first and foremost, through emotions. For Brecht, this was the worst possible approach to anything. His po- etry and plays are an assault not just on sentimentality but on sentiment: for Brecht, the two were kin. He regarded most feeling—apart, perhaps, from anger—as dishonest and indulgent; he associated emotion with the chaos and irrationality of capitalism itself. Surely only Brecht could have written—without irony: “I have feelings only when I have a head- ache—never when I am writing: for then I think.” As George Grosz once remarked, Brecht “clearly would have wanted a sensitive electric computer instead of a heart.” And George Grosz was a friend. There is much that is bracing about Brecht’s emotional astringency; I can only admire a man who, in one of his earliest poems, announces to the women in his life, “Here you have someone on whom you can’t rely.” And it was Brecht who, in five beautifully spare lines, laid out the toll that violent emotions exact, even in causes that are just: And yet we know: Hatred, even of meanness
  37. 37. 23 A Little History of Photography Criticism Contorts the features. Anger, even against injustice Makes the voice hoarse. What is often forgotten, however, is that Brecht and the Frankfurt crit- ics were particular men who lived in a particular time and place and who observed particular events, not holy oracles who had discovered eternal truths. Their time and place was Weimar Germany, whose daily reality was extraordinarily turbulent and extraordinarily traumatic; as Kracauer observed in 1926, “In the streets of Berlin, one is often struck by the mo- mentary insight that someday all this will suddenly burst apart.” Weimar was embracing, but also reeling from, heretofore unknown forms of mass politics and mass culture; for over a decade it lurched from one calamity to another as Social Democrats, Communists, and Nazis battled it out in the press, the Reichstag, and the streets. Weimar was the crisis of modernity, in its most exaggerated, tragic form; Brecht lived within the specter of its unfolding disaster. Brecht’s genius was to understand the role of unexamined emotion in this fatal process, and to create works of art that subverted it. Brecht saw—correctly—that his compatriots were drowning in a bath of toxic emotions: of rage over their defeat in World War I; of resentiment against Jews, intellectuals, and leftists; of self-pity, bathos, fear, and loathing. Brecht saw—correctly—that this poisonous mix of increasingly exagger- ated feelings, and the voodoo conspiracy theories to which it lent itself, was the perfect incubator for fascism. Against this tidal wave of irrational- ity, Brecht sought to entertain, reason, and shock his audience out of its delusions. Brecht and his colleagues lived not just within a unique political mo- ment but at a specific time in the development of photography. Photo- graphs had become an integral part of everyday life and everyday culture, yet they were also alien and confusing; it is no exaggeration to say that Weimar Germans were bedazzled and bewildered by the rush of images. Photographs were used, and sometimes grossly manipulated and altered, by the political parties as forms of propaganda, and were a key part of an increasingly hysterical political scene. Still, there were signs that photog-
  38. 38. Chapter One 24 raphy could be more than just another opiate (or thoughtless agitator) of the masses. Heartfield’s caustic, audacious photomontages—one con- temporary critic described them as “photography plus dynamite”—under- mined the presumed naturalism of the photographic image; they appeared regularly in Communist newspapers and other publications. Equally im- portant, the Arbeiter-Fotografen, or “worker-photographers” movement, was creating a leftwing body of work that documented the harshness of working-class life; its adherents regarded photography as a form of social- ist activism. And soon to come were photographs, pioneered by Robert Capa and his colleagues in Spain, that would bring a mass audience close to the horrors of fascist aggression. (Benjamin’s “Mechanical Reproduction” was published in 1936, the year the Spanish civil war broke out.) Brecht charged that photographs were held “in the hands of the bourgeoisie,” but he was wrong. All over the world, the practice of documentary photogra- phy would be dominated by liberals and leftists. Like Brecht, we live in dark times: of exploitation, inequality, and vio- lence.AndyettherearerealdifferencesbetweenourdarknessandBrecht’s. We do not live in a society that is the precursor, much less the architect, of Treblinka and Sobibor; the United States of 2010 is not the Germany of 1933, and we lose rather than gain insight by conflating the two. And we are far more adept at navigating mass culture than the Berliners of eighty years ago; photography has grown and changed, as have our understand- ings and our uses of it. Brecht’s relentless insistence on the necessity of distancing us from emotion was politically and artistically (and, I suspect, psychologically) necessary for him, but it has been adopted in an all too uncritical way by generations of photography critics working in very dif- ferent times and facing very different challenges. Indeed, today, we are all Brechtians—or, at least, professional ironists; we excel at ridiculing passion and mocking sentiment. We are experts, too—especially in the digital age—at distancing ourselves from photo- graphs: every teenager knows how to manipulate them, tear them apart, dismiss them as lies. What we have lost is the capacity to respond to pho- tographs, especially those of political violence, as citizens who seek to learn something useful from them and connect to others through them. Antipathy to the photograph now takes us only so far; though we can be
  39. 39. 25 A Little History of Photography Criticism inspired by the insights of Brecht and the Frankfurt critics, we cannot simply follow their lead. * * * Brecht and his colleagues feared, and fought against, what they saw as the Pavlovian, conformist responses of the audience; mass culture, Kracauer charged,“createsthe homogeneouscosmopolitanaudience inwhicheveryone has the same responses, from the bank director to the sales clerk, from the diva to the stenographer.” I suspect that the postmoderns are motivated by an additional, indeed opposite, anxiety: they fear not just the obedient, automatic reactions of the viewer but her disobedient, politically incorrect ones. They worry that our unfiltered gaze—our intuitive reactions—will reveal things about us that may not be good, and that our pesky, poten- tially uncontrollable emotions will burst out of the armor of ideology they have tried to construct around us. This fear is not unfounded; in fact, it is probably true. Even more than other images, photographs evoke unexpected, unruly responses; as Max Kozloffwrote,photography“displaysawonderfullyincongruoustendency to show that life has its own purposes, independent of any scheme.” And sometimes those responses are not so wonderful: we may feel disgusted by the photograph of a starving person, or sexually aroused by the pho- tograph of a child; we may feel bored—or, alternately, too excited—by a photograph of carnage. In looking at photographs, the repressed really does return; it is hard to get our feelings “right” when it comes to photo- graphs, especially photographs that bring us news of the unkind things people do to each other. The discomfiting ability of photographs to conjure unwelcome feelings was brought home to me recently as I looked through a book of pictures, taken by photojournalists from several nations, called Witness Iraq: A War Journal, February–April 2003. One photograph in the book, printed in color as a double-page spread, shows six women in a drab, sand-colored cemetery outside Baghdad. (Cemeteries in Baghdad are busy places; in the background we see two fresh, unfilled graves and the scaffolding for an unfinished structure.) The women are gathered around a wood coffin that is adorned with Arabic writing on two sides. Five of the women face
  40. 40. Chapter One 26 each other, and seem to be in conversation; one rests her open palm on the coffin as her other hand cups her face. The sixth woman, who is in the picture’s foreground, turns away from the others and toward the cam- era; her head tilts to the left, her arms are folded. All the women wear black abayas; several have covered not only their heads and bodies but parts of their faces too. The picture, dated March 29, 2003, was taken by Jerome Delay, a French war photographer for the Associated Press, and the caption tells us, “Relatives of Mohammed Jaber Hassan weep over his coffin . . . Hassan, 22, died when a bomb fell on a busy market in Baghdad’s Shula district, killing 52 and wounding scores.” This is a portrait of deep sadness that merges into anguish. The woman in the foreground of the photograph, who is clearly part of the group and yet seems alienated from it, has covered her eyes and mouth; we see, Figure 1.2 Baghdad, Iraq, 2003: Jerome Delay photographed these women mourning their relative, twenty-two-year-old Mohammed Jaber Hassan; he was killed, along with fifty-two others, in a bomb attack on an outdoor market in Baghdad. The picture raises complex questions about our reactions to loss and victimhood, and to the histories of which they speak. Photo © AP Images/Jerome Delay.
  41. 41. 27 A Little History of Photography Criticism mainly, her flat nose and her plump, deeply creased cheek. But what an eloquent crease! Something in it speaks of bottomless pain. It is as if the accumulated experience of a lifetime—a universe of sorrow—has been compressed into that one carved line. And yet: looking at Delay’s picture, that universe did not encompass me or pull me in; the image created no bond between me and the Iraqi women. I did not feel empathy, or sympathy, or pain or guilt, though I wished I could and thought I should. Instead I felt impatience, even anger: rather than embracing these mourners, I wanted to shake them. The photograph can’t reveal the specific beliefs of these women (the absence of such knowl- edge is a major shortcoming of photographs), and it is probable that Mo- hammed Jaber Hassan was simply an innocent civilian who was unjustly killed. But this picture reminded me of countless other photographs of black-draped women as they wail over their sons—and, often, celebrate them as martyrs and spur others on to new, deadly feats. That kind of weeping and that kind of praising have persisted for a very long time and will, almost certainly, continue for a very long time. In fact, I doubt that such sorrows will even begin to abate until the many women in the many cemeteries stop wailing and praising and instead demand entry, as active citizens, into the world; as the human-rights theorist Thomas Keenan has written, “Moaning, lowing, crying—expressing one’s private suffering—makes no claims on others, remains outside of discourse, hu- manity, the political sphere.” And in the summer of 2009, we saw the mak- ing of precisely such claims—and such pictures—when hundreds of thou- sands of Iranian women took to the streets to demand a political voice and political power: not as Shiites, as mourners, or as mothers but, simply, as citizens. One such picture, taken at an opposition demonstration, shows a young, black-clad woman hoisted above the crowd on the shoulders of a bearded man. Like an angel of victory she spreads both arms wide, and in one hand she triumphantly holds up a small camera. In viewing other photographs of bottomless, impotent suffering, in- cluding some from the Holocaust, I have felt the same impatience that Delay’s picture prompted. It is not a pretty reaction; yet why should it be otherwise? Why should our relation to victimhood, suffering, and loss— and to the wrenching histories of which they speak—be less thorny or
  42. 42. Chapter One 28 less difficult than to anything else? Victims deserve our help and protec- tion, and our compassion if we can muster it; but this does not mean they are admirable or that they have no responsibilities to fulfill. Nor should we assume that suffering ennobles or that it creates empathic identifica- tion. On the contrary: as the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya has observed, “Victimhood . . . is the greatest killer of solidarity with others that could possibly be invented.” The picture of Iraq that has struck me most does not refer directly to violence or death, though it was taken in the midst of the war. It is a wide- angle color shot, taken by an Iraqi dentist named Ahmed Dhiya, of the spare but sunny yard of a Baghdad school; made in 2004 and published in the small photography magazineDaylight, it is captioned, “Al Hussein with his friends at recess.” In the background we see more than a dozen kids playing and chatting. Many of the girls wear uniforms of dark pinafores and white shirts, and one is munching on a bag of chips; one woman, per- haps a teacher, wears a headscarf, though the girls do not. The picture centers on two young boys in the foreground who stand stock-still in the midst of their classmates’ activity. The boys are neatly dressed in blue jeans and brightly colored T-shirts; they seem to be about ten. Al Hus- sein, who looks straight at the camera, wears the kind of dark sunglasses that I associate with Los Angeles hipsters. His friend has large, funny ears that jut out a little; his gaze trails slightly, gently sideways. In a pose that is both casual and intimate, he drapes his right arm around Al Hussein’s shoulders. The boys are handsome, but it is their look of utter gravity that arrests me. Al Hussein projects forthrightness, while his friend looks a bit awk- ward and shy; yet both convey a sense of dignity that must be innate. The unapologetic stance of these boys, and their obvious affection for each other, makes me curious about them. I wish I could know what they think, what they feel, and how they see the world and their futures; I wish I could know if the war has done anything at all for them; I wish I could meet up with them, ten years from today, to find out what kind of men they have become. This is a quiet photograph—not really a war photograph—taken by a nonprofessional; yet more than any other image I have seen from Iraq, it is Ahmed Dhiya’s that has moved, intrigued, and humbled me.
  43. 43. 29 A Little History of Photography Criticism It is precisely because the Delay and Dhiya photographs are so open ended—such utter failures at providing answers to the tangled politics of the wars in Iraq—that they are so valuable: by refusing to tell us what to feel, and allowing us to feel things we don’t quite understand, they make us dig, and even think, a little deeper. In approaching photographs such as these, the point is not to formally disassemble them as a way of gain- ing mastery; nor to reject them as feeble, partial truths; nor, certainly, to deny the sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes unfamiliar reactions they elicit. Instead, we can use the photographs’ ambiguities as a starting point of discovery: by connecting these photographs to the world outside their frames, they begin to live and breathe more fully. So do we. Instead of ap- proaching these images as static objects that we either naively accept or Figure 1.3 Baghdad, Iraq, 2004: These two schoolboys—Al Hussein (on the left) and his buddy—were photographed by Ahmed Dhiya, an Iraqi dentist, as part of a project organized by the Ameri- can photography magazine Daylight. In the spring of 2004, the magazine distributed dispos- able cameras to ten Iraqis—amateur photographers—urging them “to show the American public what you want them to see.” Though Dhiya’s picture was taken in the midst of war, it affirms the resilience and the dignity of ordinary life. Photo: Daylight Magazine/Ahmed Dhiya.
  44. 44. Chapter One 30 scornfully reject, we might see them as part of a process—the beginning of a dialogue, the start of an investigation—into which we thoughtfully, consciously enter. With changed circumstances should come changed approaches. Unlike Brecht, we don’t need to view photographs as carriers of a fatal emotional germ; unlike the postmoderns, we don’t need to avoid emotion the way Victorian virgins avoided sex. Nor do we need to regard photographs sim- ply as henchmen of capitalism or tools of oppression: pace Sekula, “the enemy” is to be found in the forces that make people suffer, not in the documentation of their injuries and despair. In approaching photographs with relentless suspicion, critics have made it easy for us to deconstruct images but almost impossible to see them; they have crippled our capac- ity to grasp what John Berger called “the thereness of the world.” And it is just that—the texture, the fullness of the world outside ourselves—into which we need to delve. Photographs can help us do that. In the Weimar days, antipathy to the photograph was part of a radical, even revolutionary agenda (although not all radicals shared it). Today it is not. Though most contemporary photography critics—or at least those I have discussed—identify themselves with the left, their loathing of pho- tography is not a subversive stance. It aligns them, in fact, with the forces of deplorable backwardness: with, for instance, the frenzied crowds in Ka- bul and Karachi, Damascus and Tehran, who called for the execution of the Danish cartoonists. Here—in the hatred of images and the lust to police our imaginations—is where premodernism and postmodernism merge. For those demonstrators, too, regard images as an exploitation, an insult, a blasphemy: as an imperialist “act of subjugation” indeed. It is time, and it is possible, for photography critics to come out of the cold.TheycanjointhegreatcriticaltraditionofAgeeandKaelandsomany others: not to drown in bathos or sentimentality but to integrate emotion into the experience of looking. They can use emotion as an inspiration to analysis rather than foment an eternal war between the two. They can al- low the suffering of the world to enter into them instead of despising it as abjection. They can, in short, permit themselves and their readers to come to the photograph as full human beings: as women and men of intellect
  45. 45. 31 A Little History of Photography Criticism and feeling, immediacy and history. Along with Baudelaire, they can turn pleasure—and its opposites—into knowledge; along with Fuller, they can teach us how to see, and perhaps even love, more wisely. Yet even if criticism could bloom in such ways—if it could, as W. J. T.  Mitchell has written, make pictures “resonate” rather than “smash” them—another set of questions remains. Can photography itself make the world more livable? Can it justify its claims to give a voice to the silent and expose the plight of the powerless? Can it act as a connective tissue between different, even antagonistic cultures; can it illuminate the dark?
  46. 46. Figure 2.1 Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2001: Thousands of women in Bangladesh and Pakistan have been burned with acid for “crimes” such as refusing arranged marriages or filing for divorce. The Danish photographer Ulrik Jantzen took this picture at Bangladesh Medical College, the only place in the country that treats such women and their children, who are also sometimes wounded in these attacks. Violence against women is only nascently being recognized as both a form of terrorism and a human-rights abuse. Photo © Ulrik Jantzen.
  47. 47. 33 “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a docu- ment of barbarism,” Walter Benjamin famously wrote. When it comes to photography, the opposite is also true. Every image of barbarism—of im- miseration, humiliation, terror, extermination—embraces its opposite, though sometimes unknowingly. Every image of suffering says not only, “This is so,” but also, by implication: “This must not be”; not only, “This goes on,” but also, by implication: “This must stop.” Documents of suf- fering are documents of protest: they show us what happens when we unmake the world. That is the dialectic, and the hope, at the heart of the photograph of suffering. But lodged within that dialectic and that hope is a complicat- ing, devastating paradox. There is no doubt—pace Brecht, Sontag, and Sekula—that photography has, more than any other twentieth-century medium, exposed violence—made violence visible—to millions of people all over the globe. Yet the history of photography also shows just how lim- ited and inadequate such exposure is: seeing does not necessarily translate into believing, caring, or acting. That is the dialectic, and the failure, at the heart of the photograph of suffering. What, then, is photography’s role in revealing injustice, fighting ex- ploitation, and furthering human rights? Photojournalists have been key creators and disseminators of what the historian Samuel Moyn called “the spectacle of blood . . . fastened on extravagant bodily violation and pain.” What, if anything, is there to show for this century-long spectacle of grim 2 PHOTOJOURNALISM AND HUMAN RIGHTS The Calamity of the Kodak
  48. 48. Chapter Two 34 images? And why is there, especially in the present moment, such a back- lash against these photographs? A half century before the invention of the camera, the American revolu- tionists declared the “unalienable” right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the French soon followed by proclaiming the “natural” rights of man and the citizen—rights defined, in the words that still inspire, as “liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.” In the nine- teenth century, Marx—who, as John Berger observed, “came of age [in] the year of the camera’s invention”—conceived of a worldwide proletariat that transcended national borders. But it is only in the late twentieth cen- tury that the consciousness, if not the reality, of something called “uni- versal human rights” takes hold. It is in our era that a new claim is made, a claim that would have sounded strange if not absurd for most of human history. The claim is this: every person—even the pauper, the nonwhite, the stranger, the female, the child, the stateless refugee—is entitled to dignity, safety, and freedom. Yet when the idea of human rights reemerged in the second half of the twentieth century, it was precisely because the vision articulated two hundred years before had not been made real. We know of human rights because we live in a world in which they do not exist for most of the people on earth; as the historian Lynn Hunt wrote, “We are most certain that a human right is at issue when we feel horrified by its violation.” Especially since the Holocaust, suffering rather than idealism has been the incubator of human rights: their epiphany is negative. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the fledg- ling United Nations in 1948, reflects this failure and this negativity: it was born not in the early, optimistic years of the twentieth century, and cer- tainly not as a direct, unobstructed descendent of the French and Ameri- can Revolutions, but in the aftermath of the destruction of the Jewish people and scores of millions of others. It was born, that is, amidst the rubble of a stunned world that had descended into a violence so inexpli- cably depraved that it was forced to consider what, if anything, makes human beings human. The terrible irony is that, as the millions of corpses were being counted and the displaced-persons camps swelled, the now-
  49. 49. 35 Photojournalism and Human Rights disgraced idea of the human was the only authority to which one could appeal: nature, god, and history had become irrelevant at best. Thus, Han- nah Arendt wrote in 1951, “Man of the twentieth century has become just as emancipated from nature as eighteenth-century man was from history. History and nature have become equally alien to us . . . Humanity . . . has today become an inescapable fact.” In 1951, as today, this inescapable fact was not a hopeful one: modern man, Arendt wrote, “has shown us po- tentialities that were neither recognized nor even suspected by Western philosophy and religion.” The modern human-rights movement, then, grew not out of pride at what we accomplished in the twentieth century but out of shame, indeed terror, at what we destroyed. The Holocaust taught us things about our- selves we did not want to know yet could not afford to ignore. “Human rights is not so much the declaration of the superiority of European civi- lization as a warning by Europeans that the rest of the world should not seek to reproduce its mistakes,” rights theorist Michael Ignatieff has writ- ten. “The Universal Declaration set out to reestablish the idea of human rights at the precise historical moment in which they had been shown to have had no foundation whatever in natural human attributes.” In this light, the idea of human rights represents our attempt to con- quer our natures, or at least our histories, in the hope of creating a more bearable future; in this light, the human-rights movement seeks to create something new and artificial rather than return to something old and au- thentic. The establishment of human rights is a project—a life-and-death project—to build a kind of “species solidarity” that is deeper and stronger than culture, nation, religion, race, class, gender, or politics. Does such a project make any sense? Is it grounded in anything stron- ger than wishful thinking? The philosopher Richard Rorty pointed out that, for most people throughout most of history, the idea of universal brotherhood has been thought of as ludicrous (if it was thought of at all). “Most people are simply unable to understand why membership in a bio- logical species is supposed to suffice for membership in a moral commu- nity,” Rorty wrote. “This is not because they are insufficiently rational. It is, typically, because they live in a world in which it would be just too risky—indeed, would often be insanely dangerous—to let one’s sense of
  50. 50. Chapter Two 36 moral community stretch beyond one’s family, clan, or tribe.” Theodor Adorno believed that an obliviousness to the distress of strangers—he called it “coldness”—was a key part of our human DNA, and a deadly one: “The inability to identify with others was unquestionably the most impor- tant psychological condition for the fact that something like Auschwitz could have occurred.” Rorty articulated something equally important but less frequently ac- knowledged: the baffled revulsion with which members of industrialized, post-Enlightenment societies regard those who fail to recognize human rights is matched by their equally baffled revulsion for us: It is of no use whatever to say, with Kant: Notice that what you have in common, your humanity, is more important than these trivial differences. For the people we are trying to convince will rejoin that they notice nothing of the sort. Such people are morally offended by the suggestion that they should treat someone who is not kin as if he were a brother, or a nigger as if he were white, or a queer as if he were normal, or an infidel as if she were a believer. They are offended by the suggestion that they treat people whom they do not think of as human as if they were human. In this view, the obstruction to solidarity, or at least to tolerance and care, is not a dearth of reason but of concerned identification; and if this is so, rational arguments will not do much to further human rights. It was Arendt who saw the fatal paradoxes at the heart of the concept of human rights more acutely than anyone before or since. She argued that the Holocaust, and the years leading up to it, had shown the irredeem- able failure of human-rights doctrines. The millions of illegal, unwanted refugees and exiles who roamed through Europe between the world wars were not recognized as fellow humans—not recognized as deserving of life—by the “civilized” countries to which they fled. “The incredible plight of an ever-growing group of innocent people was like a practical demon- stration of the totalitarian movements’ cynical claims that no such thing as inalienable human rights existed,” she wrote. “The very phrase ‘hu- man rights’ became for all concerned—victims, persecutors, and onlook- ers alike—the evidence of hopeless idealism or fumbling feeble-minded hypocrisy.”
  51. 51. 37 Photojournalism and Human Rights Indeed, the flood of unwanted exiles revealed the ugly secret at the heart of human-rights doctrines: the only person who makes an appeal— who must make an appeal—to something as vague and weak as human rights is the person who has been stripped of everything and is, therefore, no longer recognizably human. Home, land, family, profession, nation: ev- erything that distinguishes the human from the animal had been stolen from the refugees; what, then, was left? These homeless, stateless people embodied the degraded reality of the abandoned pariah rather than the noble ideal of the rights-bearing person whom the French revolutionists had envisioned. “Once they had left their homeland they remained home- less, once they had left their state they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightless, the scum of the earth,” Arendt wrote. And where could one find this scum? In the intern- ment camp, the refugee camp, the ghetto, and, finally, the concentration camp: these were the only places that welcomed the unwanted. (I have alwaysthoughtofAuschwitz asa kindofdementedinternationale.)Again, the negative epiphany: “It seems that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man.” For Arendt, it is concrete politics embedded in the nation-state, not abstract morality or humanitarian sentiment, that make rights real and protect the holders of them; rights are a political accom- plishment rather than a natural attribute. The philosophies that undergird ideas about human rights are, then, built around absence. And photographs, I would argue, are the perfect medium to mirror the lacunae at the heart of human-rights ideals. It is awfully hard to photograph a human right: what in the world would it look like? In fact, rights don’t look like anything at all. What, then, does a person with hu- man rights look like? Well, like a person: that’s it. But what photographers can do, and do peculiarly well, is to show how those without such rights look, and what the absence of such rights does to a person. And they can, and have, shown us what people struggling for rights look like, in victory and defeat. Starting in the late nineteenth century, photojournalists began to doc- ument these absences, these defeats, and these victories. Some documen-
  52. 52. Chapter Two 38 tary photographers, like Jacob Riis, depicted a poverty so debased and all-encompassing that it reduced its victims to an animal-like existence. Others have shown us people fighting for political power: Robert Capa and David Seymour (Chim) in the Paris of the Popular Front, mixing with the socialists and the strikers; Josef Koudelka in Prague, witnessing the socialist spring that turned into the bitterest of Stalinist winters; Danny Lyon in the American South, documenting the stoic dignity of the early civil rights activists; Peter Magubane in apartheid South Africa, recording the revolt of the desperate yet jubilant students of Soweto. They have shown us what whole countries look like in war: Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim in Spain as it fought for the Republic; Marc Garanger in Algeria as it resisted the French; Philip Jones Griffiths in Vietnam as it battled the Americans. They have shown us the shattering grief of war, as in Don McCullin’s searing visual dispatches from Cyprus, Congo, North- ern Ireland, and Lebanon. They have shown us nations as they cease to exist: James Nachtwey in Chechnya, Ron Haviv in Bosnia. They have shown us countries in the midst of multiple wars: Ashley Gilbertson, João Silva, and Tyler Hicks in Iraq, photographing everything from burly young American soldiers interrogating terrified civilians to the anguish wrought by the suicide bombers. They have shown us what political madness looks like, as in Li Zhensheng’s newspaper photographs of China’s Cultural Revolution and Abbas’s documentation of the Iranian revolution as it moved from revolt to tyranny. They have shown us mass death, as in Gilles Peress’s disjunctive pictures from Rwanda; and the struggle to resist it, as in Sebastião Salgado’s sorrow-drenched images from the manmade famines of the Sahel. And increasingly, they show us the no-less-political violence that results from the most intimate relationships. Look, for in- stance, at Ulrik Jantzen’s photographs of Bangladeshi women—scream- ing, bleeding, blackened, scarred—who have been burnt with acid by their angry “suitors” as punishment for refusing marriage or by their husbands for requesting a divorce; or at the charred girls and women of Afghanistan, for whom suicide-by-fire is the only escape from forced marriages. Photojournalists have shown us a world unfit for habitation. They have enlarged our conception of what human beings do to each other, though often in ways that grieve, surprise, frighten, and disgust us. In doing so,
  53. 53. 39 Photojournalism and Human Rights photographers have forced us to envision what a better world, or at least a less-bad world, would be; but they also suggest how hard it is to create one. Why are photographs so good at making us see cruelty? Partly, I think, because photographs bring home to us the reality of physical suffering with a literalness and an irrefutability that neither literature nor painting can claim. “Hunger looks like the man that hunger is killing,” wrote the Uruguayan essayist Eduardo Galeano as he looked at a photograph by Se- bastião Salgado. The very thing that critics have assailed photographs for not doing—explaining causation, process, relationships—is connected to the very thing they do so well: present us, to ourselves and each other, as bodily creatures. Photographs reveal how the human body is “the original site of reality,” in Elaine Scarry’s words. “What is remembered in the body is well remembered.” The body is our primary truth, our inescapable fate. Which is precisely what Jean Améry learned, to his never-ending amazement, when he faced his Gestapo torturers: all those attributes that a man might think of as “his soul, or his mind, or his consciousness, or his identity, are destroyed when there is that cracking and splintering in the shoulder joints.” Torture—and then Auschwitz—taught Améry, a proud intellectual, just how real his body was (and how equally useless his ideas turned out to be, or so he claimed). Photographs show how easily we are reduced to the merely physical, which is to say how easily the body can be maimed, starved, splintered, beaten, burnt, torn, and crushed. Pho- tographs present us, in short, with physical cruelty and our vulnerability to it. The vulnerability is something that every human being shares; the cruelty is something that shatters our very sense of what it means to be human. “The violation of the human body . . . has a visceral, irrational, and irrevocable quality about it,” Kanan Makiya wrote. “It is the bedrock under all the layers of horrible things that human beings do to one another.” The photograph of suffering presents us, too, with the specific, individ- ual experience of suffering. Victims of human-rights abuses are members of larger groups who are exploited, oppressed, even exterminated. But each experiences her pain and her death, as do we all, through the prism of her unique self. The indictment of the photograph as vague and abstract, made by writers like Kracauer and Sontag, can go only so far. The opposite
  54. 54. Chapter Two 40 is more often true: the photograph singles out the individual from the mass and confronts us with the particularity, and the terrible loneliness, of suffering. (This insistence on the individual’s worth is itself an affirma- tion of human rights.) And though it is true that we often do not know the names or life stories of those we see in a photograph, the same can be said of a portrait by Rembrandt or by Lucian Freud. The best photographic portraits, like the best painted portraits, present us not with biographical information but with a soul. As we saw in chapter 1, documentary photography’s ability to confront us with powerful images of suffering—images that we do not, cannot, always understand or master—has been the subject of sometimes vitriolic at- tacks from a range of critics. Particularly in the post–World War II period, photographs depicting violence and poverty, especially in the so-called third world, have been denounced as patronizing, imperialist, and racist.  1

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