Tuesday, March 25, 2008
---------------------------------------Pittsburgh to Nairobi---------------------------------------
Flight 1 - Tuesday, 6 May 2008 Status : confirmed
Departure : 05:00 PM - Pittsburgh, USA - Pittsburgh International
Arrival : 06:19 PM - Detroit, USA - Detroit Metro, terminal
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++>Change of plane required. Time between flights = 0:46<+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Flight 2 - Tuesday, 6 May 2008 Status : confirmed Departure : 07:05 PM - Detroit, USA - Detroit Metro Arrival : 09:20 AM+1day(s) - Amsterdam, Netherlands - Schiphol Airline +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++>Change of plane required. Time between flights = 0:55<+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Flight 3 - Wednesday, 7 May 2008 Status : confirmed Departure : 10:15 AM - Amsterdam, Netherlands - Schiphol Arrival : 07:10 PM - Nairobi, Kenya - Jomo Kenyatta Airline ---------------------------------------Nairobi to Lilongwe--------------------------------------- Flight 1 - Thursday, 8 May 2008 Status : confirmed Departure : 08:30 AM - Nairobi, Kenya - Jomo Kenyatta Airline Arrival : 12:20 PM - Lilongwe, Malawi - Lilongwe International ---------------------------------------Lilongwe to Pittsburgh--------------------------------------- Flight 1 - Sunday, 8 June 2008 Status : confirmed Departure : 01:20 PM - Lilongwe, Malawi - Lilongwe International Arrival : 04:25 PM - Nairobi, Kenya - Jomo Kenyatta Airline +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++>Change of plane required. Time between flights = 5:50<+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Flight 2 - Sunday, 8 June 2008 Status : confirmed Departure : 10:15 PM - Nairobi, Kenya - Jomo Kenyatta Arrival : 05:30 AM+1day(s) - Amsterdam, Netherlands - Schiphol Airline +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++>Change of plane required. Time between flights = 2:30<+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Flight 3 - Monday, 9 June 2008 Status : confirmed Departure : 08:00 AM - Amsterdam, Netherlands - Schiphol Arrival : 10:35 AM - Detroit, USA +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++>Change of plane required. Time between flights = 3:00<+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Flight 4 - Monday, 9 June 2008 Status : confirmed Departure : 01:35 PM - Detroit, USA - Detroit Metro, terminal EM Arrival : 02:39 PM - Pittsburgh, USA *****************************************************************************************************************************************************Penalties Per Person) Before DepartureCancel: Not-Allowed Change: $350.00 After DepartureCancel: Not-Allowed Change: $350.00 ***************************************************************************YOU MUST BRING YOUR GOVERNMENT ISSUED PHOTO ID TO THE AIRPORT. A VALIDPASSPORT IS REQUIRED FOR ALL INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL. PLEASE MAKE SURE THAT THENAME ON THE TICKET MATCHES THE NAME ON THE PASSPORT. NAME CHANGES ARE NOT ALLOWED ONCE TICKET IS ISSUED.PLEASE REVIEW YOUR ITINERARY TO MAKE SURE YOUR NAME &TRAVEL DATES ARE CORRECT BEFORE YOU PAY FOR THE FLIGHT. IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO ENSURE YOU HAVE THEPROPER VISAS AND DOCUMENTS.FAILURE TO HAVE APPROPRIATE DOCUMENTATION MAY RESULTIN DENIED BOARDING OR DENIED ENTRY AND YOU WILL LOSETHE FULL VALUE OF YOUR TICKET.PLEASE VISIT http://www.state.gov/, OR THE EMBASSY OF YOURDESTINATION COUNTRY TO OBTAIN FURTHER INFORMATION.
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Tuesday, March 18, 2008
"Ah, that mother. How she made me angry in the beginning. I couldn’t stand to see her on screen- convincing the world that joining the army was the ideal thing to do- perfectly happy that her daughter and son were ‘serving’ America- nay, serving, in fact, the world by joining up. I hated her even more as they showed the Iraqi victims- the burning buildings, the explosions, the corpses- the dead and the dying. I wanted to hate her throughout the whole film because she embodied the arrogance and ignorance of the people who supported the war.
I can’t explain the feelings I had towards her. I pitied her because, apparently, she knew very little about what she was sending her kids into. I was angry with her because she really didn’t want to know what she was sending her children to do. In the end, all of those feelings crumbled away as she read the last letter from her deceased son. I began feeling a sympathy I really didn’t want to feel, and as she was walking in the streets of Washington, looking at the protestors and crying, it struck me that the Americans around her would never understand her anguish. The irony of the situation is that the one place in the world she would ever find empathy was Iraq. We understand. We know what it’s like to lose family and friends to war- to know that their final moments weren’t peaceful ones… that they probably died thirsty and in pain… that they weren’t surrounded by loved ones while taking their final breath." (Riverbend Wednesday, September 15, 2004)
Sontag writes that Salgado's, grand-scaled, beautifully composed images seem to focus on anonymous powerlessness globalized to a scale of suffering that invites passivity..."invites them to feel that the sufferings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local political intervention. With a subject conceived on this scale, compassion can only flounder - and make abstract. But all politics, like all of history, is concrete." (Sontag 79) Riverbend shows a complex weave of the concrete with the ongoing historical context on both the global and local level. Her work gives history an essential human scale.
On Riverbend's blog "I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend.." is the first line that met me and she seemed to address it to everyone, Americans included, even when she broke out in outbursts of frustration with just what dunderheads we were acting like. Sometimes her blogs read like little mini-theses, as she used the language of eggheads and politicos, sometimes she sounded like the postcards Postsecret, sharing snatches of such personal, intimate response and everydayness, sometimes she sounded like she was writing letters to me, one of the soldiers whose everyday decisions and choices to be decent or not really did make a big difference. She gave pretty specific advice on how to help make a few, concrete things better by the ways we could behave within the limits we were given. Sontag says "Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers." (Sontag 101) Riverbend gave some detailed recipes for how to translate our compassion into action within the very particular time and place that she had some clues about, being kind of an expert on being an Iraqi. Good manners are a big plus, she wrote - here's how you might express good will and respect even if you don't know the language she prompted. I still thank her.
Fortunately for photographers, much has changed since the 1850's when Baudelaire declared his ideas. Today photography is considered as much an art as painting or sculpture is. Artistic photographs can be found just about everywhere in today's culture. Not only are artists highlighting their work through creative venues like museums and galleries, but they have found a place in commercial venues as well. Newspapers, magazines, and advertisements all use artistic photography. It is not enough to simply show an image of a scene or a person. There needs to be an idea behind the image that is shown through the layout, framing, and lighting of the photo. In his essay "The Photographic Message," Roland Barthes goes into great detail about the aspects that go into creating a photograph. He talks about the "trick effects" that a photographer can edit into his image, the posing of the figures that can be captured, the objects that are placed or removed from the scene, and how the image can be enhanced by elements of photogenia (lighting, exposure, printing). A photographer uses all of these aspects to create his artistic view in his image.
Even the images that we seen in the daily news about wars and disasters around the world take into account these elements. Each photographer has his or her own opinion about the event that he or she covers. As much as we like to believe that objectivity exists in the news media, we all know this isn't really that true. A photographer has an opinion and his images reflect that opinion. Photographers use the artistic elements of photography to show their ideas in their images. I think that art naturally finds its place in war and disaster photography simply because of the way photographers go about capturing their images.
Looking at Salgado's photo essays, the artistic elements are very evident. Even though Salgado's images did not appear in a newspaper or other form of media, they are still of disaster and suffering around the world. I think the fact that Salgado has won awards for his photography shows that art is definitely found in war photography. His images can also be considered beautiful. They are not beautiful in the traditional way, but beautiful in the way in which they evoke compassion. I think that this idea of beauty has in some ways taken over as what defines sometimes as beautiful. Pretty faces and sunny landscapes are rarely described as "beautiful." I think that people have come to expect beautiful images to evoke strong emotions. Viewers want to feel something when shown a landscape or a face.
Dorothea Lange's photo "Migrant Woman" taken for the FSA during the Depression, shows a woman gazing past the photographer deep in thought. Her struggles are clear on her face and she is not shown to be "pretty," but the image, and the woman, are still beautiful. The beauty of the photograph comes from the emotion that the woman's intense gaze delivers. Images like these show that even if a photographer is taking pictures during wartime or struggling, his artistic ideas still show through in his images, and it is these ideas that make a photograph beautiful.
Ut's photograph was credited with launching the anti-war sentiment in America, and led Nixon to question its authenticity. Adam's photo, along with increasing the American anti-war sentiment, ruined Loan's life -- the general was villainized in American and South Vietnamese newspapers. When Loan, fifteen years after the fall of Saigon, moved to Virginia to open a pizza parlor, a few of his patrons soon discovered that he was the one from that famous photograph. Loan found the words WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE spray-painted on the bathroom wall one night while he was cleaning, and soon after business dropped off and the parlor was closed down.
The power of a single image is astonishing. Or in my father's case, a series of images -- in 1958, when he was only sixteen, Life magazine ran a series story called "Crisis in Education." Two sixteen-year-old boys peer out from the cover of the series’ first issue. Above their juxtaposed photographs, in red letters against a black background, it reads: "Exclusive pictures of a Russian schoolboy versus his US counterpart." The Russian, Alexei Kutzkov, purses his lips beneath a soot-streak moustache. His shoulders disappear into an armor of fur. A black shapka sits pushed back from his squinted eyes, which in any language appear to ask, "What the hell are you looking at?"
The American opposite him, however, is easy-smiling, each tooth standing straighter than a post in a white picket fence. His Flat-Top with Fenders haircut lay perfectly coifed, James Dean leather jacket half-zipped over a wool sweater. The caption identifies him as Stephen Lapekas of Chicago, Illinois. He is a vestige of Life’s long (and ultimately losing) battle with television and changing tastes, the poster boy for everything that was once wrong with America. He is a faded reflection of myself at sixteen. He is my father -- and after this magazine hit newsstands in 1958, he was instantly famous. For one week in February of that year, a Life photographer and journalist had followed him around the halls and classrooms of Austin High -- snapping pictures, asking questions, never mentioning what the article would look like when finally published.
And when my father finally read the article, he understood why.
“Stephen Lapekas of Chicago,” it begins, “starts out every school day by meeting his high school steady, Penny Donahue, and heading for Austin High. Ten minutes later he gets to Typing II class, slips behind a large electric typewriter and another pleasant school day begins.” A photograph of my father adjusting the tabulator, staring at the Underwood as if at a lab specimen: “I type about a word a minute,” he jokes in the box beneath. On the next page is a shot of my dad walking back from a blackboard graffitied with mislabeled angles and shapes, biting his lip to keep from laughing: “Stephen amuses the class with his ineptitude,” the caption says.
Alexei’s pictures fill nearly the rest of the five-page article, and in only one of them is he laughing: “When not reading Tolstoy or Chekov, Alexei can be found playing fervent games of chess with classmates,” reads one caption. In the photograph overhead he is seated across from Oleg Koryokavsky, a schoolmate, chuckling because the game is almost over and as the last line of the caption reveals, “Alexei won.”
On the third page of the article, “Alexei labors with keen concentration upon a Gaz truck in shop class. Though he is college applicant, he must still take vocational courses because they are in curriculum.” His classmates clamber around him, friends of his or the camera?
On the next page my father stands at the head of his English class, under fifty stars and thirteen stripes, reading aloud from Great Expectations. His finger follows the words while a girl seated at the back peruses the pages of Modern Romances, which she has tucked tightly inside her notebook.
On another page my father can be found dancing with Penny, his high school girlfriend. “After-school theatrics,” proclaims the caption under this page-sized picture, “occupies Stephen Lapekas who, with Penny Donahue (right), dances Rockin’ Cha at the YMCA. Stephen spent four hours a week for two months rehearsing the YMCA centennial.”
And on the page directly beside this one, “After school study brings Alexei Kutzkov to the curtained silence of his home. Alexei, who seldom has a date, spends three to four hours a night on homework.” Alexei, alone, a silhouette hunched over his desktop. Dancing with famous names and dates and numbers in the dark.
Looking back, now fifty years later, my father understands that the Life article is purely propaganda. "A product of the time," he calls it -- and he's right: that article was published five months after the launch of Sputnik. America was terrified, and we needed a place to point our fingers. My father became that place (that face) only by accident, and a half-century later he is still embarrassed about it.
So as much as technology (photography, specifically) has affected our ability to understand world events, it has conversely affected our ability to misunderstand them. If anyone at the time had bothered to research the events behind Eddie Adam's photo, he would have found that Loan, a highly decorated general, was simply doing his job. The same is true for my father. His family and friends knew that he was, despite being a c-student, intelligent, motivated, and diligent, but the country's perception of him, based on only a handful of the two-thousand photographs taken over the course of that week, was quite the opposite.
History is memory cobbled together, understood differently by each individual. Much of our understanding of world events since the 1800’s can be called to mind visually, events represented by single frames. Sontag states “This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding,” (89). In an increasingly media-saturated culture, has technology affected our ability or our desire to understand world events? Is it enough to know that such events are happening?
In today’s culture, I think the desire to understand world events is often overcome by a false feeling of knowing everything already. The expression ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ suggests that the images that pervade our culture tell the whole story. Consider John Kifner’s writing about the image of the Serb militiaman kicking the Muslim woman: “It tells you everything you need to know,” (90). I think many people expect photographs to be a quick and easy tell-all for world events. In the same way that someone might browse headlines online instead of reading news stories, they might browse the images and captions in order to know what’s going on. This cursory overview might seem like an adequate way of “understanding,” but it’s not. As Sontag says, “but of course [a photograph] doesn’t tell us everything we need to know,” (90).
A photograph shows us one scene or image through the perspective of one photographer. It can be manipulated (either digitally or through the presentation) to mean something to one group and something totally different to another group. For example, “during the fighting between Serbs and Croats at the beginning of the recent Balkan wars, the same photographs of children killed in the shelling of a village were passed around at both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings. Alter the caption, and the children’s deaths could be used and reused,” (10). Clearly, a picture can be shown to mean something it does not, which makes the desire to find an all encompassing truth in a photograph dangerous.
Our ability to understand world events is thus altered by treating an image as a quick capsule of truth. Since people think that “everything we need to know” can be taken in a glance, there is apparently less need and less desire to actually research or investigate the event. Knowing of an event rather than about it makes people docile. If, when looking at a typical image of a bloat belly child in an African famine, the viewer feels shock and empathy, they might consider their job done. They have seen the image, and now they “know” there is starvation and suffering, and they have felt sufficiently bad about it. But this doesn’t solve anything. It’s necessary to see a picture and wonder what’s going on outside the frame.
I think this same logic holds true on a smaller scale. When Sontag says, “this remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding,” (89), she’s right – and not just about world events. A lot of my “memories” cannot exist without the photograph of the event. I say that I “remember” playing in my pap’s pigpen with the pigs, but what I’m really remembering is a picture of me in a dress crouching down in some hay petting pigs. The stories I’ve heard about it fill in my “memory,” but what I understand about the event hinges on the image.
The same type of memory affects the way I think about world events. The image on the girl running from the napalmed village in Vietnam really influenced the way I “understood” the Vietnam War. I first encountered the image in a high school history course and without knowing much of anything about the war I based my opinions and understanding on that one image. It’s a hollow, false way of trying to understand anything, and the use of images in the media is dangerous for exactly that reason. In the same way that the Serbs and Croats could be made to feel hate based misrepresented images of dead children, images today could be misrepresented to influence us.
Although photographs are useful resources, they only capture a fraction of the event. As Gourevitch explains in We Wish to Inform You, it’s appealing to look at the dead bodies but just looking is not enough. The bodies hold only a part of the history of the genocide. A frame can only hold so much, and it takes all parts to make a whole.
And yes, I do believe that simply knowing such events are occurring in the world is enough. “Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses,” Sontag writes. “A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen” (13). Even the most politically active individual cannot possibly be involved in all world issues. By being aware that all the events are happening, individuals can at least take minor or indirect steps to managing the problem at hand such as voting for political candidates, protesting or even taking personal initiative such as (in the case of environmental issues) using less electricity or water. Environment and personality are really what matter when going deeper into world issues on an individual level: Which issue(s) do you have personal interest or expertise in? How can you go about taking steps to remedy it at your current location or in your local community?
As for “art’s” place in war or disaster photography, I think (as cliché as it sounds,) that it all depends on your definition of “art.” Art, to some, is simply paints and canvas. To me, music is art: the more depressing and raw or real world oriented the lyrics tend to be, the better. And that’s not simply because I view the world in a negative light; I just enjoy realism as opposed to idealism. It’s entertaining. War photography can be seen in much the same way. It very often reveals human life and violence in blunt and gruesome ways; a photograph offers no shield or fancy language to dance around the horror of war. As Sontag writes on page 47, “Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs.” She continues with this thought a little later in the book: “No sophisticated sense of what photography is or can be will ever weaken the satisfactions of a picture of an unexpected event seized in mid-action by an alert photographer” (55). In other words, the simple fact that the photographer can capture the essence of life and the reality and fast-paced nature of it in a standstill picture, makes it art. Like song lyrics, images that simply depict war as an unsatisfactory reality of life itself make them beautiful and artistic.
Monday, March 17, 2008
Sontag addresses this on page 30 with her discussion of David Seymour's photograph "Land Distribution Meeting, Extremadura, Spain, 1936." What was supposed to be a picture of a woman at a political meeting--four months before the Spanish Civil War even began--has become a monument to the disastrous air raids on Spain's innocent villages. Sontag writes that "Memory has altered the image, according to memory's needs..." This isn't a case of overly harmful propaganda or a contrived alternate narrative, but it does show the fallibility of "photographs as history."
Images are a way of supplementing what knowledge already exists: they can lead us in a variety of wrong directions as we quest for deeper understanding, and we need something to fall back on.
The “media-saturated culture” we live in can work both ways. It’s a negative in that the constant overflow of information can make it difficult to concentrate on an issue or even to care. Having so much information readily available tends to discourage people from thinking too hard…it’s much easier to look at the brightly colored pictures and infographics flashing across a screen. It’s also a positive because anyone with the desire to deepen their understanding of world events is not only able to do so, but able to do it faster and more accurately than ever before. The saturation of information, then, tends to increase ability while decreasing desire. It’s difficult to keep up with everything—Iraq, Darfur, Israel and Palestine, climate change, the election, etc. And even though the information is out there, sometimes it’s just too much. "Non-stop imagery," Sontag writes, "is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image." (22) That’s why photographs have such power—they’re simple and quick, and they’re easy to take in. That’s also why they’re prone to abuse.
This picture, clearly not for public use (sorry, Reuters), is representative of many images broadcast to the West from the Middle East every day. Chances are, most people old enough to remember 9/11 will also remember a picture like this one. What story does it tell?
What if it's paired with this one?
Or this one:
Whether or not it's working, I'm trying to show how a sequence or deliberate grouping of images can create a narrative idea, a history in the mind of the viewer. If the first and second pictures are looked at together, it might be assumed that the first picture is a mob of extremists burning the American flag. If the first and third pictures are looked at together, it looks like a group of Palestinians are stomping on the Israeli flag or vice versa. The first picture is actually a combination of these things, plus some: it is a group of Syrians burning the Israeli flag in support of Hamas at an anti-American demonstration.
The danger here is that with so many images available and so much distraction surrounding them, it will inevitably get easier for any interest to use any photo for any purpose. For example, the image of the attacks on the World Trade Center has probably had more influence (both direct and indirect) on world politics and peace than the actual event. With the image comes the freedom of interpretation and manipulation, and any restraining context is lost. Now that the actual event is behind us, the image can be used as a justification for just about anything, something we've seen repeatedly over the last seven years.
Of course, as Sontag writes, "One can feel obliged to look at photographs that record great cruelties and crimes." (95) I'm not arguing that easily manipulated photographs should be forgotten or destroyed; they are usually the most important and the most universal symbols of the time. But there is a responsibility to be upheld, both by the exhibitioner and the viewer, and Sontag continues with a warning: "One should feel obliged to think about what it means to look at [these photographs], about the capacity to assimilate what they show. Not all reactions to these pictures are under the supervision of reason and conscience."
In her essay “America, Seen through Photographs, Darkly,” Sontag introduces the democracy of photography, the “generalizing” of beauty. The concept of a “beautiful” photograph no longer corresponds with what one might call beautiful. Keeping in mind what Dr. Wesley said, that “you want people to read what you write, so it must be art,” is there a place for “art” in war or disaster photography? Must a photographer rein in his or her aesthetics? (For points of reference, look back at the Salgado essays and the Sontag photos).
Sontag writes “pictures of hellish evens seem more authentic when they don’t have the look that comes from being “properly” lighted and composed, because the photographer is an amateur or – just as serviceable- has adopted on of the familiar anti-art styles. (Sontag 27) I intended to write a nice, easy, though probably boring essay about the Hungry Planet images at the bottom of the Course Documents page. It probably would have been something about carbon foot prints, native foods, over consumption, blah, blah blah. By now you are realizing that I wrote a different essay.
When I finished looking at the Times Magazine Hungry Planet II images, a link for “Three Days in and Out of Tibet” appeared. These images are interesting. They are not staged (or do not appear to be staged) as are some pictures of soldiers on the battlefield, moved to more picturesque locations and posed with ‘better’ guns.
The fourth image (at left)Has an exceptional appeal to authenticity; the barbed wire, the smoky fire, the lack of recognition of the photographer (except for the man in the white jacket staring into the photo, make me feel as though I am the one looking through the fence at the fire. Yet, this is not the type of photo that I expected to see, it is uninformative, and frankly, a bit boring.
The next photo stands in sharp contrast.
Here is the irony, the artistic irony that I had hoped to find. The caption to the photo indicates that the banner states: "Enhancing public safety management, safeguarding political stability."
I looked at this photo in awe. It is as Sontag writes “in each instance, the photograph invites us to be either spectators or cowards, unable to look” (Sontag 42). Usually, I am the coward and refuse to look at war photographs. It was the art, the ironic art, which pulled me into this one. And through that art, I appreciated the photograph, not for the horror that it depicts (and the longer I look the more horrible it becomes). I wish this photograph were staged. I wish there was not rubble lined up in front of the police, I wish that the photograph had engendered compassion towards the military and not just the Tibetans.
If I had to guess (and I do because Time magazine does not give any helpful information), I would guess that the 4th picture was taken by an armature and the 5th by a professional photographer. The lighting, the composition, the art of the 4th picture is not as refined. But by juxtaposing the 4th and the 5th picture, both images seem more real. Like the exhibition of 9/11 photography in New York City, it does not really matter who took these images, it is the appearance of a raw authenticity that gives potency to the images.
The images are beautiful, and by comparing the images I would argue no, the photography does not have to, and should not reign in their aesthetics. I looked and re-looked at the second image because of its aesthetics. If these images are meant to promote activism, to cause a response from the viewer, then they require an extended gaze, a gaze that a clumsily composed image, like the 1st would not encourage.
* * *
The above question is one that I have been forced to read many times. It took me a while to really gather my thoughts regarding the influence of image on societal beliefs, values, norms, and understandings. Media, in my opinion, has truly influenced the mind of everyone living in this day and age. In fact, it is inescapable. According to media researcher Jeanne Kilbourne and the FCC, as average Americans, we normally are exposed to 3,000 ads a day—at the least. This does not even include media references to products, advertorials and product placement in TV shows, movies, on the side of your Gmail account, or walking billboards that many Americans have become by wearing t-shirts and jeans with brand names and logos. Media is unavoidable in every way shape or form. At this point, even someone like Thoreau couldn’t escape it as it has leaked into every crack and crevice of the world.
I knew media-overload was real when at age 13, I walked into a West African Village in the Niumi District in Senegal that had no running water or electricity, but did manage to have a metal Coca-Cola sign nailed to the side of a wooden building. The kids in the village who I spoke to asked me if I listened to rappers like DMX, mimicking his signature dog-barking and explaining how they listened to Tupac as well. A few months later, September 11th was a first hand event for me. Although I was not standing at the base of a tower, I heard the crash of the plane during my 3rd period math class and I saw the smoke rise from The Pentagon building as I attempted to make my way home despite the bumper to bumper traffic and closed Metro System. I, however, was not the only eye witness. Where a day like 9-11 in the 1800s would have been really understood by New Yorkers and Washingtonians who had first hand accounts of the devastation of the terrorism that day, media opened the eyes of millions of people, allowing them to watch as another plane crashed into the second tower, the emergency personal rushing in to help, and the many people holding hands as they called out to them or jumped from windows in an attempt to save their lives. News stations played records of 9-1-1 calls of people watching and answering machine messages of people leaving their final messages to loved ones. Media opened the eyes of people worldwide that day making us all, as Sontag would call us, spectators.
There are countless photographs that remain of Ground Zero just as there are photographed scenes of war zones all across the world. These pictures, if nothing else, allow people to better understand the extent of a conflict if only to make them more real for someone who is not directly affected by the situation. Media has been instrumental in making the abstract into a reality for many people, and keeping the historical past alive by preserving the memory of the world’s heroic events and horrible mistakes and/or disasters. It is, however, important to note the validity that I’ve found in Sontag’s statement that “This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding,” (89). Although I’m not quite sure what understanding Sontag is referring to, I do believe that because of the abundance of media, we as Americans are bombarded with images every second of everyday and are, thus, not as observant, aware, or understanding of every event presented to us—it would be impossible to compute each one. Although images have much to offer, we sometimes overlook them. Moreover, we see so many violent images and things once considered outrageous and taboo that we have become accustomed to and thus, numb to seeing many of them. Image bombardment often seems to eclipse understanding because it has caused what may be disastrous occurrences to seem normal to us. Sontag says, “Uglifying, showing something at its worst, is a more modern function: didactic, it invokes an active response,” (81). It seems, however, that things need to be more and more drastic, tragic, to be recognized as ugly. Sontag notes that, “Photographs that everyone recognizes are now a constituent part of what a society chooses to thinking about, or declares that it has chose to think about,” (85). We see here that even though Sontag believes that remembering eclipses some parts of understanding, it still spurns some conversation. Memorials, photos, and museums do a lot to aid in the memory of an event, but as Sontag explains, it does not always do very much to understand. Instead, “Narratives help us understand,” (89).
I think we can never truly understand something until we see it, feel it, hold it, or experience it first hand, but that media can help us see that it is more real than we may initially believe. Generally, I am very literal in my reflection on pieces of literature that we have read as apart of our Creative Nonfiction curriculum, but reading Sontag’s “Reading the Pain of Others” has left me wondering more than any of the other pieces we have read thus far. I could honestly write for days, although I’m not sure that anyone could answer this question fully. I have so many questions left that I ask myself as an English Writing and Communications double major everyday. Media is so powerful. It is often censored, always discussed, and most importantly, it is often doubted. How can we really say that photographs do any more than provide an illusion of something being more real with the technologies of today’s age? I saw the smoke rise from the pentagon and piece of plane fall to the ground. I heard the crash, but still…some people still think that it was all a sham—that there was no plane at all.
In her essay "America, Seen through Photographs, Darkly," Sontag introduces the democracy of photography, the "generalizing" of beauty. The concept of a "beautiful" photograph no longer corresponds with what one might call beautiful. Keeping in mind what Dr. Wesley said, that "you want people to read what you write, so it must be art," is there a place for "art" in war or disaster photography? Must a photographer rein in his or her aesthetics? (For points of reference, look back at the Salgado essays and the Sontag photos).
In Regarding the Pain of Others , Sontag discusses the anti-art aesthetic in modern photography. “Pictures of hellish events seem more authentic when they don’t have the look that comes from being ‘properly’ lighted and composed, because the photographer either is an amateur or—just as serviceable—has adopted one of several familiar anti-art styles. By flying low, artistically speaking, such pictures are thought to be less manipulative….” This is art as devilish compromise: The artist can convincingly create the illusion of artlessness, but you have to unquestioningly buy it. Anti-art is the new art; it’s just exchanging one aesthetic for another. During the panel discussion last Wednesday, Andrew Lam addressed the question of Art vs. Socially Engaged Writing as a false dichotomy. The same could apply to photography. As Dr. Wesley said, “it must be art.” The only question is, do we want to see photographs of death and destruction at all?
Sontag argues that although some viewers may become inured by images of suffering (the Parisians in particular it seems), by and large images of suffering—artful or otherwise—do good work toward keeping us thinking about the pain of others, rather than living in an artificial state of innocence (I think here of Baldwin’s semi-ironic use of that term in his “Letter to My Nephew”). Sontag believes the production and viewing of war and disaster photographs keeps us honest, and I agree. It’s not necessary to look further than Jet’s publication of the image of Emmitt Till’s mutilated corpse to find real-world evidence to support her argument.
I also find myself thinking about the (antiquated?) question of beauty v. sublimity. Kant talked about how the beautiful was associated with pleasures derived from the forms of things, but the sublime was something caused by the perception of limitlessness and formlessness. I think this is part of this question, too. A beautiful picture of war is something I associate with many of Chris Hondros's images, like the young warrior from Sierra Leon leaping through the air, or his pieta-like images of the wounded and dead. These images are ego-affirming; their Christian genealogy and beauty remind me of Hemingway’s depictions of war. Painful and stark, yes, but appealing to my western (macho?) sense of what war should be. Hondro’s picture of the screaming, blood-covered girl at the roadside checkpoint, however, seems more sublime, and more suggestive of the limitless, formless threat of chaos and war.
On second thought, in the case of the Sierra Leon warrior, I think there was some irony in the beauty of the picture. How triumphant the boy looks, and yet there he is, an emissary of death, perhaps soon to be one of the dead. The dissonance between the image and the meaning we bring to it carries its own weight. To further complicate the divide between beauty and sublimity, Sontag quotes André Breton proclaiming, “Beauty will be convulsive, or it will not be.” If, as Sontag indicates, Breton’s idea of beauty has become commonplace, then the sublime is increasingly inaccessible, and even images intended to be sublime work on us as beauty should.
So, maybe thinking about this in terms of the beautiful vs. the sublime is not so useful. The question of “the meaning we bring to it” sticks with me, though.
I have a photograph at home of an Indian holy man, a sadhu, standing inside a small white-washed temple on top of a hill. His forehead is marked with the three red and white horizontal lines that mark devotees of Shiva. His long gray hair falls in thin locks over his shoulders, which are clad in a long white robe. His eyes are expressive of great patience and otherworldliness, and he is framed inside the double-curve of the ogee arch that forms the entrance to the small temple where, we assume, he meditates. It is one of the most beautifully composed photographs I took while I was in India, and everyone who sees it (it’s tucked away in an album with the rest of my India pictures) loves it.
Personally, I can’t stand this picture. What no one realizes when looking at this picture is that I passed this sadhu along the way to another temple, one that is a popular tourist attraction. This sadhu, with his long white robes and beautiful framing, who begs for his living, set himself up as a prime photo opportunity. After I took the picture, he held up a small brass plate into which I was intended to give him alms. I was fine with giving a beggar some money. I was even OK with paying for a photograph. I was, moralistically, not OK with the forces that commodify cultural and religious traditions in developing nations. I was absolutely not OK with having accidentally become an agent of those forces.
So, when I see this photograph, which seems beautiful to some people, I see myself, outside of the photograph’s frame, converting culture into commodity. It is, to me, a photograph of me from which I have been cropped. I framed it that way.
I think what I’m getting at here is that the style with which a photograph is taken—artfully, anti-artfully, beautifully, or with the sublime in mind—matters less than frame and substance, and that matters less than how we view the photographs. It’s a tricky matter made trickier by the privileged status and authority that viewers grant to photography. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in “Picture Problem,” Colin Powell showed America photographs of something--no viewers knew just what, and Powell even admitted that he also could not personally tell just what the photographs depicted. But, he said, there are experts who do know. And based on their testimony (in absentia), we should go to war.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Monday, March 10, 2008
(The nice thing about signing-in, however, is that you can add links or photos to bolster your essays. Something I think would add quite a bit to the blog as a whole).
And so, away! Good luck with the blog, here's hoping you enjoy the seductive lure of a blank webpage!