Mark Reinhardt in his “Picturing violence: aesthetics and the anxiety of critique” talks about the difficulties in rendering the pain within photography. First issue is the aestheticization. To eschew indignation or insult, for instance, photographers tend to formally represent the subject in an idealized way and the critics, on their way, oversimplify their way of looking at the photographs. This issue is Reinhardt’s concern.
Images, shown from distance, is one proof of the reluctance. Then, Reinhardt points out the critics often avoid the matter by talking about something else: “direct their indignation not at the horrifying scene itself but at those who suggested it revealed something important about the conduct and character of the war.” He talks about the images form Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse; in this case these images became a proof of the tragedy however it is interesting that trying not to show, give access to them, it was an attempt not to talk about what happened; as if without this visual proof it didn’t happen however it was a necessary tool for the abusers to use to increase the humiliation. That is noteworthy because, as awful as it could be, there have been other atrocities against humans that were never photographed, yet they happened. By using the photography as an additional tool of abuse, the causers made their act even more atrocious.
Another problem lies in the fact that the press does not want to publish the war images: “According to a comprehensive Los Angeles Times study of the contents of major news from the sources from September 11, 2004, through February 28, 2005, neither that paper nor The New York Times and The Washington Post, nor Time and Newsweek magazines published a single picture of a dead American soldier.” Reinhardt highlights the problem of withholding that shape the problems in representing human suffering.
I think it is not easy nor unambiguous to talk about the war photography or, in fact, to portray the war. A photojournalist can try his best to show with the best neutrality possible what the situation looks like, however, I don’t think that it is humanly possible not to take a side. Therefore, even if the reportage is as emotionless as possible (because a photographer is not asked to talk about it but to show the images), it would still show a certain point of view. Another question is – how much photography can show at all? Even if the photographer has the best intentions to give the most encompassing proof possible. One man cannot be everywhere all the time, the camera is not ” on duty” all the time and it cannot copy the emotions; those stay to be interpreted and there lies the problem.
French photographer Benedicte Kurzen who works for Noor, hold a degree in contemporary history and wrote on a myth of the war photographer for her thesis. When I interviewed her, I was interested what she discovered as being the myth and the truth. She replied that her main concern was and still is that a war photographer is perceived more of a modern hero as a fireman or a soldier. She wanted to understand how the society build the whole idea of war photographers being heroes and what are the elements of this image that they project. “At that time I got really upset with the fact that the war photographer was positioning himself as a ultimate witness. It’s only partly true; it’s brutal and that’s just the way it is. It’s hard to go there and not feel voyeur. It’s part of why we make all the excuses for us of being there, yet just to be there should be enough! We shouldn’t have to justify ourselves but we do. That’s the part I don’t agree with. Also, I think we give too much room for pathos, it is a vicious movement”. I think these are interesting realizations. So, where the photographer can stand not to feel voyeur, not to make himself a hero nor portray the events with potential pathos reaction? Where is the moral golden mean?
A recent exhibition I saw on war photography was held at the Brooklyn Museum in New York – “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath“. The rooms were packed as the walls – photographs from more than 280 photographers from 28 countries covering 160 years of conflict. Nothing easy to look at, to see the absurdness of humanity, the cruelty of mankind, the never-ending suffering. After a while, it was hard to breath, the room seemed to get hotter and hotter. There was quite a lot of critique on the show, mostly for not being chronological but choosing the thematic path to show the subject. I don’t think it was an issue so much; however, I’m wondering if showing what happened in one or another place is enough. And I’m not sure either if photography is the means that can change the world where political games are played as chess with real people, yet I am wondering if there could be an exhibition which would show more what and if people learn from the conflict, the war. The fact that it still happens within modern times, society where there are many laws, pacts, agreements show that it is still one of the most (if not the most) influential ways how to demonstrate the power. And it is absurd.
W. Eugene Smith’s “” shows how a soldier is unprepared for a real battlefield. I cannot imagine all the reasons why one becomes a soldier but the most obvious feels – to defend your country when in need. However when the real need is there, a soldier need to follow the instructions – a lot of those might be considered as being wrong but that is not for a soldier to decide. In this photograph, W. Eugene Smith has captured a moment where a human instinct pics up a dying child (even if it is the “enemy”) but no training informs the soldier what to do next. It feels like the soldier is asking his mate for an advice, yet there is no answer – to let it die or survive, to help the Japanese infant or try to escape and stay alive himself. The other soldier seems more reluctant – he has a cigarette in his mouth but a gun in his arms – ready to leave and/or shoot. He is waiting and not going to help with the answer. What a soldier can feel with the dilemma and if he chooses to leave the child behind? This is the image that appeared in Life magazine in 1944 which Smith had an assignment for.
W. Eugene Smith, Dying Infant Found by American Soldiers in Saipan, June, 1944
However, there was another frame where the soldier looks at the baby. In the first one he looks for the help, in the second one he tries to decide himself.
The LIFE publication showed what real war looks like. Smith wrote: “Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes-just sometimes-one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends on the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to though.”
A more recent photograph from Spencer Platt – “Beirut Residents Continue to Flock to Southern Neighborhoods, 2006” shows young Lebanese driving by ruins. The image look unreal – the young Lebanese are beautiful, tanned, wearing sunglasses, driving in a convertible. It is not clear from the image if they are driving around to see what was happening; for instance, the woman using the cell phone – is she trying to reach someone and waiting for a signal or is she photographing? The image looks like a screen shot from a bad Hollywood movie, however the title says that they are the residents and it turns out that they were trying to get to their homes to probably later try to escape further. The absurdity of the image proves the absurdity of the situation.
Spencer Platt, Beirut Residents Continue to Flock to Southern Neighborhoods. 2006
None of these images though show the aestheticization about which Reinhardt talk about. Let’s look at this year’s World Press Photo winner’s – John Stanmeyer – image. It is a photograph of African migrants on the shore of Djibouti City where they raise their phones in an attempt to catch an inexpensive signal from neighboring Somalia. They had left their homes in order to try finding a better life in Europe. They try to communicate with their families back home. The image is taken at night, the light of the cell phones together with the moon slightly illuminate their bodies. Their gesture – hand towards the sky – looks gracious, preacher-like but if I didn’t know the story, I would even think that these men are photographing the hypnotizing moon. The color is a beautiful range of blue, maybe the metaphor for the hope but nothing in the image itself tells about the struggle and hopeless journey towards a potentially better life. The problem is aestheticized. It looks like a proof of that it exists. That is it. Besides, by aestheticizing, the image is also transformed. But then, as Reinhardt suggests, photography’s nature is to give an aesthetic form in general. If that is the case, then maybe photography simply fails in showing the suffering at all. And that is what we should accept.
John Stanmeyer, Signal, Djibouti City, Djibouti. 2013
Reinhardt asks a significant question: “Might beauty, in particular, breed passivity?” I have two different examples to discuss. First is a color photograph by Alexandra Avakian from 1992.
Alexandra Avakian. 1992
It shows a woman sitting in a bed. She deliberately shows her bandaged breast, we can see other bruising on her leg. She is looking away to her right, possibly in conversation with the photographer or another person while a young boy stands next to her bed, gazing at her. The title explains: “Leonora Gregorian was tortured and raped in front of her 4-year-old son by Azerbaijani troops before Armenian soldiers rescued her, Nagorno-Karabakh.” The contents of this image is dreadful and even if there would be no words, the fact the the boy is looking at this half naked, bruised woman is quite disturbing already. The image is direct and raw.
Another example is talking more about the aestheticizing, yet I believe that the author has done it to pay respect and not to hide the suffering. It is an image from Jonathan Torgovnik’s series “Intended Consequences; Rwandan Children Born of Rape” where he pictures woman and their children, born from rape during the Rwandan genocide – an estimate, 20 000 children. Eighteen years later, the mothers of these children still face enormous challenges, among them, being stigmatized within their communities for bearing a child fathered by Hutu militiaman.
Jonathan Torgovnik, Intended Consequences
In this image, a woman and her son are sitting on the ground besides their house. There are palm trees on the background. They are dressed in bright colors, yet their gaze is sorrowful and inquiring. Torgovnik’s images are colorful yet sad, they are calm yet intense. Besides the photo story, Torgovnik established a foundation – Foundation Rwanda – in order to help these children and give them a chance for eduction – the highest aspiration and only hope from their mothers. If photography by itself cannot create change, a photographer can help to create change with his resources, willingness and concern. The text plays an important role in this project but do these portraits tell less suffering even though they are rendered with dignity, as some critics would say, aestheticized? For me, they do express the pain, the whole disaster of the war, its consequences and also show what the life after looks like. Yes, with the help of the text which I see as a part of the work. That is in opposition with Sontag’s standpoint that “photographs do not or cannot tell us what we need to know.”
Alfredo Jaar’s response to the genocide in Rwanda is more conceptual. “The Eyes of Gutete Emerita” brings tension – looking at the eyes of a woman who saw her family killed. I think that the later form of one million slides of her eyes – representing the million people killed – is an even more dramatic rendering.
Alfredo Jaar, The Eyes of Gutete Emerita, 1994-2000
Alfredo Jaar, The Eyes of Gutete Emerita, 1994-2000
Fred Ritchin’s chapter 2 on “A Dialectical Journalism” from “Bending the Frame” is a critique towards new media and photojournalism, more precisely, he argues that the new technologies have taken an important role in the hands of amateurs in manifesting major news such as 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan or the Arab Spring, for instance. The abundance and new forms of images no longer emphasize the author or professionalism. Henri cartier-Bresson has said that the photojournalism is “keeping a journal with a camera” has undoubtedly developed, transformed to find a new form today – blogging. Ritchin, talking about the new photojournalism, provides an interesting detail (comprehensible only in English though), i.e., subjective “I” over more impersonal “eye”; also, the new tendency of the collaboration between a photographer and a writer has become more frequent and “polished”. Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor are an early representation of such a collaboration; today, Alex Webb and his wifeRebecca Norris Webb also work a lot in tandem. And, National Geographic has a long tradition of this model too.
Ritchin gives examples of how photojournalists have modified their practices to keep up with the time. Some stay more traditional, some join the stream and also use their cellphones to catch a quick image; serious papers and magazines do blog and use instagram to move along with the technology pace, therefore, the most important thing is the quality and not letting the bar lower. One of the blogs I follow, for example, is The New Yorker’s Photo Booth. Finally, I haven’t yet read the latest Aperture issue but it is dedicated to the new ideas of documentary “Documentary, Expanded”.