Arts & Culture

The Treacherous Medium

Why photography critics hate photographs

September 02, 2006

Update: September 23rd, 2008

In his New York Times blog called "Zoom," filmmaker Errol Morris (Standard Operating Procedure) has argued that photographs contain no truth value–no reality–at all. In this view, nothing real exists outside of language:

The issue of the truth or falsity of a photograph is only meaningful with respect to statements about the photograph. Truth or falsity "adheres" not to the photograph itself but to the statements we make about a photograph… All alone– shorn of context, without captions– a photograph is neither true nor false… For truth, properly considered, is about the relationship between language and the world, not about photographs and the world.
[NYT Morris blogs]

Yet the undeniable limitations of the photograph, especially its inability to reveal relationships or explicate causes, don't negate its distinctive essence: unlike a painting or a piece of writing, it is a document of the real. Sometimes a photograph baldly proclaims; at others, it whispers. It may be hard for us to know what a photograph says, but that does not mean it is silent; it may be hard for us to understand the full reality at which a photograph hints, but that does not mean it is empty. The fact that we need to go outside the frame to discover larger, deeper truths doesn't mean that what's inside the frame is meaningless, useless, or not-there. As theorist Georges Didi-Huberman writes in his book about four photographs from Auschwitz, "Images do not say the truth but are a fragment of it. . . . The image is neither nothing, nor one, nor all."—SL


In 1846, Charles Baudelaire wrote a little essay called “What is the Good of Criticism?” This is a question that virtually every critic asks herself at some point, and that some have answered with 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, Baudelaire wrote, “passion … raises reason to new heights.” A few years later, he would explain that through criticism he sought “to transform my pleasure into knowledge”—a pithy, excellent description of critical practice. Baudelaire’s American contemporary Margaret Fuller held a similar view; as she put it, the critic teaches us “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 a critic’s emotional connection to an artist, or to a work of art, is the sine qua non of criticism, and it usually, therefore, determines the critic’s choice of subject. 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 meaningful—hell, most alive—when she sat in a dark movie theater, or that Kenneth Tynan felt the same way at a play? 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. Randall Jarrell, certainly no anti-intellectual, 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.”

The great exception to all this is photography criticism. There, you will hear precious little talk of love or passion or terrible nakedness. There, critics view emotional responses—if they, or their readers, have any—not as something to be experienced and understood but, rather, to be vigilantly guarded against: to these writers, criticism is a prophylactic against the virus of sentiment. When we enter the world of photography criticism we travel far from Baudelaire’s exploration of his pleasure; for there is little pleasure to be had, and even that is condemned as voyeuristic, pornographic, or exploitative. Put most bluntly, for the past century most photography critics haven’t really liked photographs, or the experience of looking at them, at all. They approach photography—not specific photographs, or specific practitioners, or specific genres, but photography itself—with suspicion, mistrust, anger, and fear. Rather than enter into what Kazin called a “community of interest” with their subject, these critics come armed to the teeth against it. For them, photography is a powerful, duplicitous force to be defanged rather than an experience to embrace.

• • •

Susan Sontag’s On Photography was published in 1977, and it remains astonishingly incisive. It has been, rightly, immensely influential on other photography critics. And immensely influential, too, in setting the particularly reproachful tone of photography criticism. Look, for instance, at Sontag’s description of photography in the first chapter of the book, which establishes a voice, an attitude, an approach that is maintained throughout. Sontag describes photography as, among other things, “grandiose,” “treacherous,” “imperial,” “voyeuristic,” “predatory,” “addictive,” “reductive,” and “the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” A typical 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! On Photography was written by a brilliant skeptic.

So, too, was Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, first published in France in 1980. Delicate and playful, this book is a love letter to the photograph. Barthes celebrates the quirky, spontaneous reactions that photographs 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, for Barthes describes photographers as “agents of Death” and the photograph as a “catastrophe”; also as “flat,” “platitudinous,” “stupid,” “without culture,” and—most unkind— “undialectical.” The photograph “teaches me nothing,” Barthes insists: it “completely de-realizes the world of human conflicts and desires.”

Continuing this classic-modern tradition of photography criticism is John Berger, the most urgent, morally cogent critic that photography has produced. “My first interest in photography was passionate,” Berger has written (as a young man, he wanted to compose a book of love poems illustrated with photos), and when you read him, you believe him. Berger has frequently worked with photographs, producing, among other works, four books with the Swiss documentarian Jean Mohr. More important, he has argued that photographs represent an “opposition to history” by affirming the subjective experiences of ordinary people 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.”

And yet in Berger’s canonical photography essays he took a decidedly dark view of the practice. Photographs of political violence, he insisted, were at best useless and at worst narcissistic, leading the viewer not to enlightenment, outrage, or revolution but instead to a sense of “his own personal moral inadequacy.” (In Sontag’s last book, Regarding the Pain of Others, she softened her stance toward photography, but she too concluded that photographs of war do nothing to bridge the chasm between victims and voyeurs: “We don’t get it. . . . Can’t understand, can’t imagine.”) More generally, Berger described the photograph—all photographs—as a form of “violence” and, drawing on a metaphor clearly derived from the atom bomb, as a “fission whereby appearances are separated by the camera from their function.” Berger allowed that photography is a “god,” but he called it the most “cynical” one—and one that, he believed, made amnesiacs rather than critical thinkers of us all.

In the 1980s, the postmodern children of Sontag, Berger, and company transformed this skepticism into outright antipathy.1 Indeed, for the postmoderns, suspicion of the photograph was an ethical stance, though I see it as closer to a pathological one. For these critics, the photograph was simply a tool of late capitalism, exploiting its subject and duping its viewer. Thus, Abigail Solomon-Godeau charged, the documentary photo—or what she grandly called “the regime of the image”—commits a “double act of subjugation” in which the hapless subject is victimized first by social forces, then by the photographer and viewer. John Tagg went further: photography, he wrote, is “ultimately a function of the state,” deeply implicated in the ruling class’s “apparatus of ideological control” and its “reproduction of . . . submissive labour power.” (In an interview, Tagg explained that he drew on the work of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault to formulate his ideas, though it is not clear why these two theorists were the best guides to understanding a photograph.) And it was not fashion or art photographers who incited the wrath of these critics but, rather, socially conscious photojournalists, with their foolish belief in such old-fashioned fictions as progress, truth, and justice. “The liberal documentary assuages any stirrings of conscience in its viewers the way scratching relieves an itch,” Martha Rosler scoffed in a seminal, oft-quoted piece. “Documentary is a little like horror movies, putting a face on fear and transforming threat into fantasy.”

Most important, these critics denied that a scintilla of autonomy—for either photographer or viewer—was possible; denied, that is, that the photographer could ever offer, or the viewer could ever find, even a moment of surprise, originality, or insight through looking at a photograph. To think otherwise was to partake in a sham: “The wholeness, 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 view of these critics, it was impossible to ever see the world anew, for the gaze of both the photographer and his audience was predetermined, and irreparably infected, by reactionary ideological forces beyond our control; in their scheme, we are all simply helpless spiders caught in capitalism’s web, which is spun, apparently, not of silk but of iron. (As Berger would tartly note, “Unlike their late master, some of Barthes’ structuralist followers love closed systems.”) Indeed, Burgin condemned the actual activity of looking—an odd 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,” he insisted. In short, these critics regarded the photograph as a prison and the gift of vision as a crime. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” might well have been the epigraph to their books, which are no fun at all to read.

Compare all this—this obsession with victimization and predetermination, this utter refusal of freedom, this insistent moroseness—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 for numerous 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 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 performance, or the joy of 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.

Kael continued, “Because movies are the most total and encompassing art form we have, these reactions”—that is, the reactions of the moviegoer sitting in front of the screen—“can seem the most personal and, maybe the most important, imaginable.” “ Trash, Art, and the Movies” was written by a brilliant lover.

Kael had two great insights in this piece. One is that trash, far from blinding viewers to art, actually prepared them for it; or, rather, that through understanding one’s visceral enjoyment of trash, a viewer could begin to formulate her own, independent aesthetic that could lead to an equally visceral enjoyment of art. Kael’s second truth was that the only capacious and intelligent way to experience movies was to combine one’s 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 unthinking ways “does not respond more freely but less freely and less fully than the person who is aware of what is well done and what badly done in a movie, who can accept some things in it and reject others, who uses all his senses in reacting, not just his emotional vulnerabilities.” But this, after all, is the same insight that Baudelaire had come to when he wrote of seeking “the why of his pleasure”; it was the view of Randall Jarrell when he wrote that the good critic combines the “sense of fact” with the “personal truth”; it was what Alfred Kazin meant when he wrote that “the unity of thinking and feeling actually exists in the passionate operation of the critic’s intelligence.” It is this quest for the synthesis of thought and feeling—and the essentially comradely, or at least open, approach to art that it implies—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. Indeed, when we talk about photography we are talking about modernity; the doubts that photography inspires are the doubts that modernity inspires. Photography is a proxy for modern life and its discontents.

What are some of these troubles? From the first, the essential nature of photography was puzzling. It tended to blur categories—which can be both exciting and unsettling. Was photography a kind of art? of commerce? of journalism? of science? of surveillance? Was it a form of creativity, a way of bringing newness into the world, or was its relation to reality essentially mimetic or, even, that of a parasite?

One thing was clear early on: photography was, and perhaps still is, the great democratic medium. Baudelaire, who launched his famous diatribe against photography in 1859, hated the new form for many reasons, one of which was certainly its populist character. “In these deplorable times,” Baudelaire warned, “a new industry has developed,” one supported by what he called the “stupidity of the masses.” Like an Old Testament prophet, he railed,

An avenging God has heard the prayer of this multitude; Daguerre was his messiah.… 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.2

Almost from the beginning, it was clear that every butcher, baker, and candlestick maker—at least in developed countries such as England, Germany, France and the United States—would be able to purchase photographic reproductions. But with the introduction of lighter, cheaper cameras, which began in the late 19th century and continued throughout the 20th, it became clear that the butcher and baker could not only purchase photos but could make them, too. Even more startling: they could make good photos. This is one of several things that sets photography apart from the other arts. Most people, after all, can’t paint a wonderful painting or compose a wonderful poem or write a wonderful play. But lots of ordinary people—with no training, no experience, no education, no knowledge—have taken wonderful photos: better, sometimes, than those of the great artists. Yet this, too—and the leveling tendencies it implies—is troubling. (This is what Sontag meant, I think, when she wrote of the “disconcerting ease with which photographs can be taken.”) For where such egalitarianism dwells, can the razing of all distinctions be far behind? Who can admire an activity—much less an art—that so many people can do so damn well? Photography’s democratic promise has always been photography’s populist threat.

Then, too, photography stirs up our anxieties about our love-hate relationship to technology. Unlike painting, writing, dancing, music making, and storytelling, photography began not thousands of years ago with innocent, primitive man but less than 200 years ago with compromised, modern man; and unlike those other arts, it is dependent on a machine. It is, therefore, an impure and highly contingent art, and we have approached it with that trepidatious mixture of expectation and distrust, of glorious hope and tremendous gloom, with which we approach the machine age itself.

Yet beyond all this, there is something else at the heart of photography criticism’s peculiarities. Most photography critics—Sontag, Berger, Barthes, and certainly the postmoderns—were heavily influenced by the Frankfurt School critics: especially Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin and, through him, Bertolt Brecht, who was Benjamin’s friend and comrade. In fact, none of these men wrote mainly about photography, but what they did write has been treated with biblical respect—and undergone hermeneutical scrutiny—by late-20th-century critics.

It would be false to say that Benjamin and Kraucauer hated photographs. On the contrary: as great dialecticians, they (and especially Benjamin) believed the photograph held out liberating, indeed revolutionary, possibilities. In his now enormously influential essay “Little History of Photography,” originally published in 1931, Benjamin argued that photography had created a “new way of seeing” and would enable people “to achieve control over works of art.” Several years later he wrote of the ways that 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.”

Equally important, Benjamin understood the subjective power of the photograph, its spooky ability to make us want to enter into the world and even, sometimes, change it. For Benjamin, the photo wasn’t a dead thing; on the contrary, it could embrace not just the past but the future. Looking at one photograph—a 19th-century portrait of a man and his fiancée (she would later commit suicide)—he mused:

Immerse yourself in such a picture long enough and you will realize to what extent opposites touch, here too: the most precise technology can give its products a magical value, such as a painted picture can never again have for us. . . . 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 rediscover it.

At the same time, these critics were highly suspicious of photography and the passive, aestheticized society they feared it would help create. Benjamin wrote that mass events—including “monster [political] rallies, . . . sports events, and
. . . war” were all “intimately connected with the development of the techniques of reproduction and photography.” He believed that photography was a form of mystification, for it “can endow any soup can”—did he foresee the age of Warhol?—with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists.” And he charged—somewhat bizarrely—that with the rise of photography “a new reality unfolds, in the face of which no one can take responsibility for personal decisions.” (Instead, “One appeals to the lens.”) Both he and Kracauer regarded the photograph as a kind of diminution: “The photograph is not the person but the sum of what can be subtracted from him or her,” Kracauer wrote. “The photograph annihilates the person.” And while many artists and journalists working in Weimar Berlin’s cacophonous, newly uncensored press—notable for its plethora of heavily illustrated publications—viewed the photograph as a harbinger of modernity, 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.”

Most of all, though, I believe it is Brecht whose shadow hangs over photography criticism. Brecht, it’s fair to say, really did dislike photographs, or at best deeply distrust them; in 1931 he described them as “a terrible weapon against the truth.” In “Little History,” Benjamin quotes Brecht: “Less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG”—the massive German armaments and electric companies, respectively—“tells us next to nothing about these institutions.”3

These two sentences have been quoted ad infinitum and launched a million Ph.D. theses. 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 coherent, or even discernible, beginning, middle, and end. Photographs live on the surface: they can’t burrow within to reveal the inner dynamics of historic events. And though it’s true that photographs document the specific, they tend, also, to blur—dangerously blur—political and historic distinctions: a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Berlin, circa 1945, looks much like a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Hanoi, circa 1969, which looks awfully similar to a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Baghdad from last week. Yet only a vulgar reductionist—or a complete pacifist—would say that these three cities, which is to say these three wars, are fundamentally the same cities or the same wars. Still, the photos look the same: there’s a very real sense in which if you’ve seen one bombed-out building you have indeed seen them all. (“War is a horrible repetition,” Martha Gellhorn wrote, and this is even truer of photographs than of words.) It is this anti-explanatory, anti-analytic quality of the photograph—what Barthes called its stupidity—that critics have seized on with a vengeance and that they cannot, apparently, forgive.

But the problem with photographs is not only that they fail to explain the world. A greater problem, for Brecht and his followers, is what photographs succeed in doing, which is to offer an immediate, emotional connection to the world. People don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of monopoly capitalism or the reasons for the genocide in Rwanda. They—we—turn to photographs for other things: for a glimpse of what cruelty, or strangeness, or beauty, or suffering, or love, or disease, or natural wonder, or artistic creation, or depraved violence, looks like. And we turn to photographs, also, to find out what our intuitive reactions to such otherness might be. (This curiosity is not, as the postmoderns have charged, an expression of “imperialism,” “racism,” or “orientalism”: the peasant in Kenya and the worker in Cairo are as fascinated—if not more so—by a picture of New Yorkers as we are by an image of them.) None of us is a creature solely of feeling, and yet there is no doubt that we approach photographs, first and foremost, on an emotional level.

For Brecht, of course, this was the worst possible approach to anything. Brecht’s entire oeuvre is an assault not just on sentimentality but on sentiment itself; indeed, for Brecht, the two were synonymous. Brecht regarded all feeling—any feeling—as dishonest and dangerous; he associated emotion with the chaos and irrationality of capitalism. 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, and revelatory, and so wonderfully challenging about Brecht’s emotional astringency. Who can not admire a man who, in one of his very first poems, announces to the women in his life, “Here you have someone on whom you can’t rely.” What is often forgotten, however, is that Brecht—like Moses—was a particular man who lived in a particular time and place and who observed particular things. Brecht’s time and place was Weimar Germany, and he saw—correctly—that his compatriots were drowning in a toxic bath of unexamined emotion: of rage over their defeat in World War I, of ressentiment against Jews and intellectuals and others, of self-pity, of bathos, of fear. Brecht saw—correctly—that this poisonous mix of increasingly hysterical feeling, and the voodoo conspiracy theories to which it lent itself, was the perfect incubator for fascism.

Like Brecht, we live in dark times, which is to say times of confusion, violence, and injustice. And yet there are real differences between our darkness and Brecht’s. We do not—unlike Brecht—live in a society that is the precursor, much less the architect, of Treblinka and Sobibor. Brecht’s relentless war on emotion was ethically, politically, and artistically necessary for him, but it has been taken up in an all too uncritical way by Anglo-American photography critics working in very different times and places and facing a very different set of challenges.

• • •

And while Brecht feared, and fought against, what he saw as the thoughtless, Pavlovian responses of the audience, I suspect that the postmoderns are motivated by a different anxiety. That is, they worry not so much about the obedient, automatic reactions of the viewer but about her disobedient, politically incorrect ones. 4 This strange, confounding ability of photographs to make us feel things that we do not think we should was brought home to me recently as I perused a book of photos, taken by photojournalists from many nations, called Witness Iraq: A War Journal February–April 20003.5

One image in the book, reproduced in color as a double-page spread, shows six women in a cemetery outside Baghdad. (Cemeteries in Baghdad are busy places; in the background of this photo 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 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 camera; her head tilts to the side, her arms are folded. All the women wear long black abayas; several have covered not only their heads and bodies but parts of their faces too. The picture 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.” Because the picture is dated “03/29/03,” we know that the bomb was probably an American one,6 and that it was dropped on the civilian marketplace almost certainly by accident—which is not the same as forgivably. (If the picture, and the bomb, were dated yesterday or today or tomorrow, we would know that it was planted by members of the Baathist or Islamist insurgency, and on purpose.7

This is a portrait of deep sadness that merges into anguish; it is amazing how much emotion partially hidden faces can convey. The woman in the foreground—who is clearly part of the group and yet seems isolated from it—has covered her eyes and mouth; what we see is, mainly, her flat nose and her plump, deeply creased cheek. But what an eloquent crease! Something in it speaks of deepest pain. It is as if the accumulated experience of a lifetime—a universe of sorrow—has been compressed into that one carved line. The crease howls.

That universe of sorrow is, in all likelihood, a wide one, and did not originate in the premature death of Mohammed Jaber Hassan. It is probable that the lives of these women, all of whom look middle-aged, have not been good; probable that they suffered through the brutal years of Saddam, the Iran–Iraq War, the first Gulf War and the ensuing, immiserating sanctions; that they have suffered at the hands of the Americans, and perhaps at the hands of their own fathers and husbands too;8 that they are suffering, right now, through the increasingly sadistic sectarian-political-criminal violence sweeping Iraq. I cannot pretend to approach, much less share, the depth and the number of these sorrows, and I cannot pretend that, as an American, I am not deeply implicated in crucial parts of this pain.

And yet, and yet: looking at Delay’s picture, that universe of pain did not encompass me, or pull me in; the photo created no bond between me and the Iraqi women. I did not feel empathy, or sympathy, or guilt, though I wished I could and thought I should. Instead I felt impatience, and even disgust: rather than embracing these women, I wanted to shake them. We have seen, and we will continue to see, countless pictures of women in black abayas (or chadors, or burkas) wailing over their sons—and often, also, celebrating them as martyrs. That wailing and that celebrating have persisted for a very long time, and I am pretty sure they will continue long after the United States pulls out its troops and grounds its planes. In fact, I doubt that such sorrows can even begin to abate until the women in the cemetery take off their veils, and stop wailing and mourning and celebrating, and enter into the modern world to begin making modern politics. Such politics can be cognizant of, but cannot be founded on, mourning; they cannot be made by people who dwell in shadows with their faces covered and their ideas unformed; they cannot be created by those who live in what Michael Ignatieff has called “the dream time of vengeance.”

I have felt a similar impatience and a similar revulsion looking at other photographs of bottomless, impotent suffering, including some from the Holocaust. It is not a pretty reaction—and yet why should it be otherwise? Why should our relation to victimhood, suffering, and loss, and to the histories of which they speak, be less thorny than our relation to anything else? In 1944, Hannah Arendt approached this question in a provocative essay called “The Jew as Pariah.” She described, with obvious admiration, the French author and political activist Bernard Lazare:

He demanded . . . that the pariah . . . come to grips with the world of men and women. In other words, he wanted him to feel that he was himself responsible for what society had done to him. . . . . However much the Jewish pariah might be, from the historical viewpoint, the product of an unjust dispensation . . . politically speaking, every pariah who refused to be a rebel was partly responsible for his own position and therewith for the blot on mankind which it represented. From such shame there was no escape.

This was an unsparing view for Lazare to hold, and it was an unsparing thing for Arendt to write, and it would be an unsparing thing to say to the grieving relatives of Mohammed Jaber Hassan. But I am not sure it is any more harsh, or any less useful, than empathy or sympathy or guilt.

• • •

It may be that the images that move us most now—not necessarily into empathy, but into fresh thinking—are not those of pure grief. Perhaps, at this blood-soaked moment, cemeteries can teach us little.9 There is another kind of picture that, while it surely documents suffering, speaks also of the strange and jarring contradictions that mark so many of today’s violent conflicts. Two such pictures in Witness Iraq struck me.

One was taken by Damir Sagolj, a Bosnian photographer who works for Reuters. It shows a pudgy U.S. Marine. He wears wire eyeglasses, and goggles pushed onto his forehead, and he sits outdoors on a patch of parched ground (we are not told the exact location, only that it is in central Iraq); in the blurry background we see soldiers with machine guns. Our Marine seems unarmed—the caption tells us he is a doctor—and we see, placed neatly in his front vest, a pen, a toothbrush, and a pair of scissors. He wears blue plastic gloves and looks down impassively into his lap, where he holds . . . a small, dark-haired Iraqi girl cradled in his arms. She looks to be about four; she is barefoot, and her naked little toes curl downward, as if her feet are clenching into fists. She is dressed in what look like knit pajamas; they are pink, and one arm is stained with blood. The girl looks straight ahead at her feet—not at the Marine—but one of her hands grasps his chest. The bulkiness of the Marine seems to overwhelm and yet protect her; she nestles almost perfectly within the enclosure of his arms.

What are we to make of this photo? It is a picture of contingent refuge in the midst of violence; of dependence, but of the most unequal kind; of tremendous strength and tremendous vulnerability; of two people who are neither enemies nor friends. Is the Marine savior or villain? The soft pink of the girl’s outfit contrasts sharply with the muddy, grayish-green color of the soldiers’ uniforms and the dry, unforgiving earth, and thus echoes the jarring discordancies of the war itself. One could make up many stories—the Marines killed the girl’s family; the Marines protected the girl’s family—but who knows what is true? And what of the future of the people in the photo? What has happened to the girl, and to her family? Is the Marine dead or alive? A photograph, John Berger wrote, “ always and by its nature refers to what is not seen,” and this was never truer than in this case. I almost gasped when I saw this picture—not in alarm, but in surprise—and the more I have looked at it, the less I understand it. It is a mystery that will not be solved.

Another weird and intriguing image, taken by the French AP photographer Jean-Marc Bouju, has been widely seen; it won the World Press Photo of the Year Award in 2003. (Over 63,000 images were considered for the prize.) The combination of cruelty and kindness that it depicts is discomfiting, almost creepy, and upends any ideas we might have that the two can always be cleanly separated. Bouju traveled with the 101st Airborne Division (so much for the charge that embedded journalists are merely government propagandists), and he took this picture on March 31, 2003, in Najaf.

The photo shows an Iraqi man in what the caption identifies as a POW camp. He sits on dusty ground behind massive coils of barbed wire (they are the first thing that we see). The unnamed prisoner—who might be guilty of vicious murders, and might be completely innocent, and might be somewhere in between—wears a loose white shirt and pants, and sandals. His head and face, like those of the women in the cemetery, are hidden, though not voluntarily: his are covered by a pointy, shiny black hood, a seemingly medieval artifact many of us now associate with the tortures of Abu Ghraib.

The man’s head tilts forward—toward his four-year-old son, who sits pressed up close against him, held within his arms. The boy is dressed in a green shirt and pants, and is barefoot; there is a pair of small sneakers nearby. The boy’s mouth is slightly open—he looks stunned, and tired—and mucus drips from his nose; his face is dirty. The man, like parents the world over, holds his son’s forehead in one palm, as if calming him; his other arm wraps around his son’s body. Bouju has said that the boy was crying when his father was arrested and so the American soldiers allowed the two to stay together, then cut off the father’s plastic handcuffs so he could hold his child.

One can read this picture as a symbol of compassion (of the soldiers toward the prisoner, of the father toward his son), and equally of its opposite; the dissonance is symbolized by the way the harsh, ugly inkiness of the black hood contrasts with the softness of the boy’s face. The photo is simultaneously obscene (what is a four-year-old doing behind barbed wire? and what can he make of his father’s monstrous hood?) and immensely moving: the tenderness with which the father holds his boy in the midst of what are obviously horrific circumstances shines through, and suggests that a father’s love is stronger than barbed wire. But it would be a mistake to sentimentalize this photo: it shows us one innocent, but not necessarily two.

These photos speak not just of the plight of children in wartime, though they depict that too. But perhaps more important, they suggest—though do not explain—the strange incongruities of the Iraq war, which cannot be summed up by phrases like “U.S. imperialism” or “war on terror.” It is a war in which an army of liberation quickly became an army of occupation, offering an unusual, catastrophic blend of negligence and oppression; in which the overthrow of a dictator led to the unleashing of tremendous violence against his already wounded people; in which a nation newly freed from decades of brutal rule turned, furiously, inward, its lessons in sadism learned all too well.

It is precisely because these photos are so confusing—such utter failures at providing answers—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 photos such as these, the point is not to formally disassemble them in the hope of gaining mastery; nor to reject them as feeble, partial truths; nor to deny the uncomfortable, unfamiliar reactions they elicit. Instead, we can use the photos’ ambiguities as a starting point of discovery, a tool with which to delve into the larger historic realities at which the images can only hint. By connecting these photographs to the world outside their frames, they begin to live, to breathe, more fully; otherwise they simply devolve into spectacles.

• • •

With changed circumstances should come changed approaches. The world we live in is not Brecht’s, and photography critics today don’t need to fear all emotion, as did Brecht; they don’t need to purge all emotion, as did Brecht; they don’t need to spend such ferocious energy distancing us from images. In doing so, they have made it easy for us to deconstruct photographs but difficult to see them; they have made it difficult, that is, to grasp what Berger called “the thereness of the world.” And though most photography critics—or at least those I have been discussing—identify themselves with the left, this detestation of the photograph is not a subversive or progressive or revolutionary stance, but in fact aligns them with the forces of the most deplorable backwardness: aligns them, for instance, with the frenzied crowds in Kabul and Karachi, Damascus and Tehran, who called for the execution of the Danish cartoonists and promised what they called a “real” holocaust. Here is where pre-modernism and postmodernism merge, for those demonstrators, too, view images as an exploitation, an insult, a blasphemy: as an “act of subjugation” indeed.

It is time, and it is possible, for photography critics to come out of the cold. They can join the great critical tradition of Kael and Jarrell and Kazin, of James Agee and Arlene Croce and so many others: not to drown in bathos or sentimentality, but to integrate emotion into the experience of looking. They can use emotion as a starting point, an inspiration, to analysis rather than maintain an eternal war between the two. They can, in short, allow themselves and their readers to come to the photograph as full human beings: as men and women of heart and mind, of immediacy and history. Along with Baudelaire, they can turn pleasure—and its opposite—into knowledge, and they can even teach us, perhaps, how to love more wisely.

Notes

1) In the past several years, some curators and art historians, such as Michael Fried, have devoted much attention to photography. However, they tend to be most enamored of—or at least interested in—artists such as Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky, who are known for their elaborately constructed or digitally manipulated photographs and who have therefore seceded, I would argue, from the traditional definition of photography, if not actually negating it.

2) Baudelaire feared that photography would weaken if not destroy painting. So did George Bernard Shaw, but this thrilled rather than enraged him: we might think of him as the anti-Baudelaire. Writing in 1901, Shaw derided what he saw as the fussy mannerism of painting, with its "barbarous smudging and soaking, . . . faking and forging." Shaw loved the modern, truthful clarity of the photograph, and he heralded its triumph: "The old game is up. . . . The camera has hopelessly beaten the pencil and paint-brush as an instrument of artistic representation . . . . As to the painters and their fanciers, I snort defiance at them; their day of daubs is over."

3) With Brecht, though, nothing is simple. He was an admirer of the AIZ (Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung), an illustrated newsweekly published between the wars by the Communist activist and entrepreneur Willi Münzenberg. And in 1955 Brecht's Kriegsfibel (War Primer), a book of assembled photographs he had begun working on 15 years earlier, was published in East Germany. It contains 85 photos, culled from mass-circulation newspapers and magazines, of Hitler and other Nazis, Allied leaders, war victims, partisans, ruined cities, etc. Each photo is accompanied by a sardonic four-line poem—a sort of anti-nursery rhyme—written by Brecht. The effect is quite . . . Brechtian.

4) Abigail Solomon-Godeau admitted that when looking at a photo, "trajectories of power and desire, mastery and projection . . . . run between the perceiving eye, the subjective I, and the visual field," but she quickly called on the "insights of semiotics, linguistics, psychoanalysis, and poststructural theories of representation" to rescue us from such pesky, potentially uncontrollable subjectivity.

5) Other photo books documenting the war include Bruno Stevens's Bagdad: Au-delà du miroir and Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq.

6) Though not definitely. In his book Night Draws Near, Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post writes that Iraqi antiaircraft fire may have caused the blast.

7) The day after I wrote this sentence, the front page of The New York Times bore the headline "Car Bomb Kills More Than 60 in Iraq Market." The dispatch began, "A powerful suicide car bomb ripped through a bustling street market here in a Shiite slum here on Saturday, killing at least 62 people and wounding nearly 120 . . ."

8) contains a series of photos, taken by Rita Leistner, of women in Baghdad's Rashad Psychiatric Hospital. A psychiatrist there told Leistner that since many Iraqis fear that a daughter with a mental disorder will render other girls in the family unmarriageable, the presumably ill daughters are "cast away from society by their families, who will often provide false addresses so hospital staff can never find them again. Some mentally healthy women fnd refuge at the hospital from beatings and honor killings . . . Most of the women have no choice but to live at the hospital for the remainder of their lives." Western reporters have noted a rise in so-called honor killings—a euphemism for intra-familial murder—as religious fundamentalism increases and the dismal security situation worsens.

9) Though the cemeteries, alas, are filling quickly. As I write this, Israel and Hezbollah are at war, and newspapers, news Web sites, and television screens are filled with images of Lebanese civilian suffering—and to a lesser degree, that of Israelis. One particularly startling photograph, published on the front page of The New York Times, showed a long row of coffins, identified by stark numbers, in the Lebanese city of Tyre; they would be temporarily buried in a mass grave. This newer war is being covered more thoroughly, and visually, than the one in Iraq, where many areas are too dangerous for reporters and photographers to venture into. In contrast, the media has extensive, though not complete, access to Lebanon and Israel, and Hezbollah members—far from attacking journalists, as the Iraqi insurgents do—are happy to escort the media around the ruins of southern Lebanon. Yet the fact that in the newer conflict so many casualties—on both sides—are civilian makes it more difficult, I think, for onlookers to understand the political realities behind the undeniably searing images.

Read more: 

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.