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Making it real

March 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Thanks to Photojournalism Links (O excellent blog that it is), I found a thought-provoking essay on reactions to graphic photos from Haiti, at the American Journalism Review.

I could (and probably will) write many things in response to that essay, but for now I’m going to curb my enthusiasm and explore a tangent. That tangent arises here:

[The photographer Patrick] Farrell once again was dispatched to Port-au-Prince right after the earthquake to document fresh heartache. “I thought [the quake] was the worst thing I’d ever seen. I was thinking if it gets worse than this, it’s the end of the world,” he says. “You can’t tune it out; until you’re looking at your pictures on the computer, you’re thinking this is a movie, it isn’t real.”

I pick this out because it both echoes and contradicts Susan Sontag, in On Photography, who continually insists that photographs make reality real, or are more real than reality, and also says this:

It is common now for people to insist about their experience of a violent event in which they were caught up—a plane crash, a shoot-out, a terrorist bombing—that “it seemed like a movie.” This is said, other descriptions seeming insufficient, in order to explain how real it was.

Well, heck, since I’m quoting people, why not quote me? In reconsidering On Photography, I made this point:

But this is not what those people are actually saying — by comparing events to a movie, they’re either saying that it seemed unreal, as a movie is, or they’re admitting that their only other experience of trauma is through film.

And this is exactly what Farrell is saying: that the events, the sights, did not seem real. But curiously, he then underscores Sontag’s broader point, in saying that the things he saw seemed unreal until he saw his own photographs.

What’s up with that? How do photographs become more real than the evidence of our own eyes?

We’re creatures of memory. Time keeps on flowing past us; in a sense, everything we see, we see in memory. Living in the present, that infinitely thin slice of time, is an impossibility. Savouring any experience—Bob Dylan’s incomparable August 23, 2003 performance of “High Water (for Charley Patton),” say—means, primarily, to reflect on how good it was, instants after it happens.

And experiencing a walk through Port-au-Prince, or any other scene of disaster, means to recall each sight moments after seeing it, to question the evidence of your own eyes, and to distrust the tricks of memory. Could it really have been that bad? Couldn’t that have been something else, in the rubble? These things, they only happen in the movies, right?

Until you see the photographic evidence, which proves your memory accurate. Then the pictures make it real.

A new democracy of photography

March 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Naturally, I read Steve McCurry’s blog, which, as it happens, is called “Steve McCurry’s Blog.” (I guess when you’re Steve McCurry, you don’t need a cute title.)

McCurry’s latest post is on the photography of students who live in a Buenos Aires slum. One of the reasons that post interests me, apart from the photographs themselves (I particularly like the 4th and 5th on that page) is that it underscores a point I made recently concerning Susan Sontag’s On Photography.

Sontag, writing in the mid-1970s, identified photography as the pursuit of the western middle classes, and its sensibility as essentially bourgeois. Similar complaints are leveled against McCurry, who has been accused of an orientalist sensibility. This is largely thanks to his reliance on colour, which encourages us to find his pictures exotic. But considering the amount of time McCurry has spent in south Asia, this complaint seems shallow and unfair — especially when we consider that it normally springs from students who once spent a week in Thailand, and therefore know all about it. I’d be willing to wager that no western photographer has spent as many days in south Asia as has McCurry; it seems silly to suggest that he doesn’t know the culture.

In any case, Sontag’s complaint was debatable in 1977, but it’s nonsense now. Cameras are no longer the property of a western elite. They are everywhere. The students whose work appears on McCurry’s blog are the exception, I think, working in traditional black-and-white; with the rapid spread of cell phones across the developing world, everyone is now toting some kind of digital camera. Photojournalism is increasingly the product not of Magnum and the like, but of local stringers. Witness the coverage of the Chilean earthquake, in which all the early photographs seemed to be from Chilean shooters.

This new democracy of photography should, one supposes, enlarge our understanding of the world. Now we can see the cuidad oculta through the eyes of its own residents, rather than from the perspective of National Geographic. And this should be a good thing.

But, of course, we remain vulnerable to manipulation, and to our own prejudices. When we consider the recent World Press Photo flap, it’s legitimate to ask if the word “collaboration” would be so heavily in play if the photographs in question were the product not of Farah Abdl Warsameh, but of a guy from Birmingham named Joseph P. Smith. It matters little whose eye produced the photograph, if we insist on seeing it through our own.

A question of why

March 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Sean O’Hagan at The Guardian questions the pornography of violence today, in a column examining the World Press Photo winning story, “Stoned to Death,” by Farah Abdi Warsameh.

That story has been controversial, touching off complaints that it is too graphic, too shocking, that it goes beyond normal limits. Perhaps it does; perhaps it doesn’t. Where do those limits lie? And what, precisely, is our objection to these pictures?

O’Hagan’s interest is in the ethics of the photographer, a question that springs from Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, which he quotes extensively (and which I posted on yesterday). But before quoting Sontag, it’s a good idea to make certain that she’s not being sloppy with the facts in the service of her argument. Sontag never was afraid to distort the truth to make a point concerning some greater truth.

O’Hagan quotes her on Eddie Adams’s Saigon execution, one of the most famous photos of the Vietnam War. Sontag contends that the photo “was staged — by General Loan, who had led the prisoner, hands tied behind his back, out to the street where journalists were gathered; he would not have carried out the summary execution there had they not been available to witness it. Positioned beside his prisoner so that his profile and his prisoner’s face were visible to the cameras behind him, Loan aimed point-blank.”

And this is essentially true — except that Sontag really has no way of knowing where, or whether, Loan would have executed the prisoner there in the absence of the cameras, and as the film of the shooting makes clear, he wasn’t very concerned about positioning himself for the cameras — in fact, one of his men stepped in front of the TV camera as he fired the shot (after, as other clips show, making his way through a crowd of soldiers).

The power of still photos lies in their ability to freeze time, and this power in turn distorts their truthfulness. Looking at Eddie Adams’s photo, we may imagine that General Loan stands alone, that he has positioned himself for the camera, and that he aimed the pistol before firing, giving Adams time to react. But the film clips show that none of these assumptions are true — and so, the extent to which Loan (who said that the photo ruined his life) “staged” this photo is legitimately in question.

And Sean O’Hagan then quotes Sontag inaccurately, as saying, “one can gaze at these faces for a long time and not come to the end of the mystery, and the indecency, of such co-authorship.”

There clearly was no co-authorship, and Sontag did not use that word. Sontag used “co-spectatorship.”

O’Hagan wants to talk about authorship here, not viewership. He wants to talk about the ethics of collaboration, despite the obvious fact that there is no collaboration in Farah Abdi Warsameh’s story. The man has been sentenced to die, and that sentence will be carried out regardless.

You can’t intervene. You can’t stop it. Putting your camera down and walking away won’t save anyone. So you shoot your pictures. Whether anyone will see those pictures is a question for tomorrow.

Sontag is on the money here: the ethical question is not authorship, but spectatorship.

Photos such as these become pornographic not when they are made, but in the eyes of the audience. They become pornographic when we gawk at them like accident-scene rubberneckers, when we show them to someone else to enjoy their reaction. They are not pornographic when we consider them seriously, as we should.

What makes this story so appalling is not the bloodied face of the dead man, but the opening frame: the picture of him being buried to the chest before he is stoned to death. This is the picture that brings home the victim’s humanity, that arouses our sympathy. You can feel that dirt piling in on you, knowing that you can’t move, that you can’t escape or protect yourself in any way from what is about to happen. This photograph raises questions about capital punishment as no photo of a man walking to the scaffold, or the electric chair, or the lethal injection ever could, because the man is physically trapped. And he knows what is coming.

In fact, that first photo is the one that matters here, the one that gives the story its power. The others are simply context.

Is it hard to look at? Yes. And this is the motivation of knee-jerk condemnation.

Should we look at it? O’Hagan quotes Sontag, again: “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it … or those who could learn from it.”

The question is not whether we should look at it, but why we do.

Regarding the Pain of Others

March 7, 2010 1 comment

Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag. Picador, 2003. 131 pages.

In Christian Frei’s film on James Nachtwey, War Photographer, we see Nachtwey’s viewpoint, courtesy of a small digital camera mounted on top of Nachtwey’s own camera. We crouch behind an overturned car as Palestinian youths throw rocks and Molotov cocktails and duck rubber bullets, listening to Nachtwey speak in a cool, detached voice-over:

Why photograph war? … It’s occurred to me that if everyone could be there just once, to see for themselves what white phosphorous does to the face of a child, or what unspeakable pain is caused by the impact of a single bullet … then they would understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person, let alone thousands. But everyone cannot be there, and that is why photographers go there, to show them, to reach out and grab them and make them stop what they’re doing and pay attention to what is going on, to create pictures powerful enough to overcome the diluting effects of the mass media and shake people out of their indifference. To protest, and by the strength of that protest, to make others protest.

This is the ideological basis of war photography, a notion that Susan Sontag convincingly eviscerates in the opening chapters of Regarding the Pain of Others, her examination of the ethics of war photography. Depending on its audience, Sontag points out, the same photograph may be a protest against war or a call to arms. What we want to believe we accept at face value; what challenges our cherished beliefs, we dismiss as a fabrication. We may be stirred to anger, or we may be stirred simply to turn the page and look up the hockey scores.

This problem is not, of course, limited to photography; it applies equally to television news, to print and online journalism, and above all to essays written for The New Yorker by writers who brand themselves as coolly critical iconoclasts.

But Sontag reserves her criticism for photography, dipping at times into the same disingenuous bag of tricks she used in On Photography. She asserts, for example, that snapshots taken by anyone in the street “may compete with the best, so permissive are the standards for a memorable, eloquent picture” — a claim that is easily refuted simply by looking at “the best.” And this unsupported (and unsupportable) statement then allows her to absolve painters of her criticism, by dint of “the artist’s skill of eye and hand.”

One reads, in short, with frequent shaking of the head, and occasional derisive snorts. But just as in On Photography, Sontag also makes many good arguments. Her complaint against photography as call to conscience, as expressed by Nachtwey and others, is impeccably argued.

Why concentrate this critique on photography, when other media are equally ineffective? Because, Sontag argues, “all images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic.” Looking at war photography is gawking at traffic accidents, hoping to see blood and bone.

But, of course, so is reading sensational news stories and watching television news. And whatever “the artist’s skill of eye and hand,” a painting depicting suffering remains art, an aesthetic object that we look at in a gallery without concern for the actual events of whatever battle it depicts. At least the photograph — presuming that it actually depicts “the violation of an attractive body,” as most war photographs do not — is presented as news.

And how is one to respond to war? Is it more effective to take a camera into Sarajevo and use it to argue for intervention, or to take up residence there for the purpose of staging Waiting for Godot by candlelight, as did Sontag? How many people were moved by the photography of Christopher Morris, who evacuated himself from the besieged city after having a breakdown? How many were moved by Sontag’s production of Godot?

There is a sense in Regarding the Pain of Others that Sontag is backing away from some of the claims of On Photography, that she discovered in Sarajevo what a glib and facetious stance is deconstruction in the face of destruction. In the concluding chapters, this becomes explicit, as she self-consciously points to two of On Photography‘s arguments and argues against them.

“To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism,” she admits. “It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in a rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment … some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved.”

This epiphany arrives only when the Manhattan essayist goes to live in Sarajevo. It’s a pity that Sontag didn’t leave her rich part of the world behind more often.

On Photography, reconsidered

February 21, 2010 Leave a comment

On Photography, by Susan Sontag. Picador, 1977.

Anyone with a serious interest in photography has probably encountered Sontag’s On Photography. I first read it about ten years ago, and thought I should re-read it as part of my homework in the run-up to the publication of Combat Camera. When you write a novel that deals extensively with photography, you should be prepared to talk intelligently about the subject. This is not a review, then. It’s simply a reaction.

On Photography is a serious and intelligent book that is continually thought-provoking. That the thoughts it provokes may often be along the lines of “You’re full of shit, Sontag” hardly diminishes it; one measure of its quality is the mental resources Sontag forces you to muster to argue against it.

At its best, On Photography is brilliant: page after page, it presents brilliant ideas concerning how we look at photographs, what photographs mean to us, and how photography alters our world.

At its worst, however, On Photography is disingenuous intellectual sleight of hand, a game of now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t in which Sontag continually shifts the goal posts to support her generalizations, and constructs houses of cards based on premises that she never fully examines.

Photography is a broad and complex subject. From Aunt Matilda’s snapshots of little Johnny’s birthday to Robert Capa’s photos of the first wave hitting Omaha beach, from the deliberately constructed work of Ansel Adams to the happenstance captures of unmanned surveillance cameras, from studio to street riot: all this is Sontag’s subject. From all this, she takes her evidence wherever she finds it, and applies it wherever it suits her.

For example, her insistence that photography is inherently aggressive, a premise that seems sensible when you consider Bruce Gilden popping his flash in your face on the street, but seems somewhat less so when the happy tourist couple asks you to take their picture with their camera. Oh, but that’s apples and oranges, you say; Sontag isn’t talking about holiday snapshots. Except that she often is, especially when critiquing photography as an acquisitive activity through which we attempt to collect the world — a context very close to that in which she calls it aggressive.

It is easy to prove anything when you’re selective in this way. Fruit are sour, for example; consider the lemon. Never mind the apple, the peach, the pear, or the lemon’s close relative, the orange. I’m going to keep you distracted by talking about lemons just long enough to get your head nodding in accordance with this notion that fruit, in general, are sour. Then we can move on.

Sontag constructs houses of cards, such as the notion that we perceive photographs as more real than reality, a claim that rests (in part) on the fact that survivors of traumatic events often say it was just like a movie. Look, says Sontag: we don’t feel that the event was real unless it was like a movie! But this is not what those people are actually saying — by comparing events to a movie, they’re either saying that it seemed unreal, as a movie is, or they’re admitting that their only other experience of trauma is through film. Specious interpretations of this sort pop up too often in support of suspect ideas.

And those generalizations! All photographs are touching if they’re old enough; it is a fact that many superb photographs are made “by photographers devoid of any serious or interesting intentions”; nobody has ever “discovered ugliness through photographs.” We read often this, many of that, and so on, with never a scrap of supporting evidence to suggest that often is not, in fact, occasionally, that many is not a few, that all is, in fact, all.

It’s natural to finish this thing feeling somewhat manipulated. I’m reminded of an anecdote Thomas McGuane told of Sontag: he had read a book she blurbed enthusiastically, and when he met her, he thanked her for her recommendation. She sneered that it was a very bad book; when he asked why she’d given it such a glowing blurb, she said that she wanted people to find out just how bad it was for themselves. This was a woman who kept copies of her published essays in her purse and handed them out to impress people at parties. It is not difficult, in this light, to see parts of On Photography as disingenuous exercises in self-promotion: look at me, I’m an intellectual.

And you can tell I’m an intellectual, because I insist that all obvious things are untrue:

Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no.

This is Sontag tipping her hand, as she also does here:

Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently.

Pick a card, any card, and I’ll show you just how wrong all your ideas are.

Sontag is deeply skeptical of humanist photography, which aspires to show us that at some level we’re all members of the “family of man”; she’s deeply infatuated with Diane Arbus, whose photography is a catalogue of human freaks. Humanism, she insists, is sentimental — and therefore, it must also be untrue. Arbus is the real deal; we’re all freaks, suffering in a permanent state of alienation.

It’s a point of view belonging to a certain time and place: to New York in 1977, and to that circle of thinkers so afraid to be labelled sentimental that they actively seek the opposite. But science, a field not known for deeply sentimental thinking, supports the humanist premise, and the view that we’re all alienated freaks belongs not to humanity but to it’s context, to the times and places where it becomes true. The fact that humanism can be sentimental does not mean that it must be sentimental, nor that it’s premise is false.

On Photography is not aging gracefully. Two of its key ideas, points to which Sontag continually returns with hammer in hand, have been overtaken by events. Photographs are no longer treated as precious relics, in the digital age; they have become disposable because of their sheer volume. And this was becoming true even in the 1970s, although Sontag failed to take note of it. The Polaroid was a disposable photograph.

And photography is no longer a “bourgeois” activity in an age where everyone owns a camera — indeed, it is no longer a “Western” activity, as international photojournalism has increasingly relied on local stringers. In fact, photography was not a “Western” activity in 1977, either; it was only that the work of Indian photographers, for example, was not seen by New York intellectuals who perceived the world as terminating just beyond the boundaries of Manhattan.

This, perhaps, is the key weakness of On Photography: it seems to be unaware that the one thing that is constant in the world of photography is change. It is so fixated on describing how we look at and think about photographs that it never considers the more important question of how our understanding of photographs may be changing, and in turn, changing us.

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