Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Images Readings Response

There is no doubt in my mind that technology—in our “increasingly media-saturated culture"—has affected our society’s ability and desire to understand world events. For the better. With news channel websites and You Tube in particular, up-to-the-minute news and world happenings are right at our fingertips. Though it is true that most if not all websites, photographs and video streams are biased towards the views of the photographer, anchor or behind-the-scenes crew member (Sontag notes: “Photographs had the advantage of uniting two contradictory features. Their credentials of objectivity were inbuilt. Yet they always had, necessarily, a point of view,”) the stories and images themselves tend to spark an interest in the bigger picture (26). Sontag writes that not all imagery and media are considered equal: “Nonstop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) is out surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite” (22). Inevitably, some Americans will get their news from one source and one source only, but that is a problem in and of it self. I contend instead that a large portion will further research world events learned of from that one small story, video or image: they will want to learn more, and therefore seek out other sources to expand what they already know, ultimately leading to close to a full circle, all-encompassing take on the issue or event.

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.

1 comment:

Donna said...

Dear All,

I'm sorry Margaret--I didn't get an invitation, and I'm not sure how else to post. So here is my answer to Question #2. Is there a place for “art” in war or disaster photography? Must a photographer rein in his or her aesthetics?

I believe that aesthetics in war or disaster photography are not only necessary but inevitable. Since it is impossible to separate the photographer from the photograph, it is also impossible to isolate the photographer’s inherent aesthetic principles —for good or ill.
Susan Sontag makes this point cogently in Chapter 2 of Regarding the Pain of Others. “Photographs had the advantage of uniting two contradictory features,” she writes on page 26. “Their credentials of objectivity were inbuilt. Yet they always had, necessarily, a point of view. …[Photographs are] both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment or reality and an interpretation of that reality.” Should a photographer coyly “style” a war or disaster scene, in such a way as Sontag alleges Alexander Gardner did with the Confederate soldier in Gettysburg? My instinct is that such tampering is unethical; that, although the viewer will tacitly understand that photography is not wholly objective, he or she also expects the photographer to follow certain (again, tacit) rules of conduct. Incidentally, I believe the same tact rules of conduct apply to questions of “truth” in creative nonfiction—readers expect memoirists to try to capture memory as much as they are able, but realize that memory is not infallible. Imperfect recall is acceptable; whole-cloth fabrication of major incidents, a la Margaret Jones or James Frey, is not.
The point of view of the photographer is also inevitable in this way: photographers choose their shots, just as writers choose their scenes. In such a way, the photographer/artist defines what comprises disaster. And while the definition of disaster, as so chosen, might seem simple, I believe that it is not. Anything but.
For example, I believe that Diane Arbus, whose work I generally detest ( I should be frank, right?), could qualify as a disaster photographer. Granted, the scope of disasters that Arbus caught on her lens were personal, rather than national. And perhaps my sense of disaster arises more from the artist, the suicidal Arbus, than the subjects themselves. Perhaps my sense of disaster even comes from within me, which is hard to admit. But I will forever be haunted—and not in a good way—but Arbus’s photographs of the mental ward patients, which I saw many years ago. What is haunting is the utter lack of dignity and compassion with which the patients are depicted. (Again, perhaps it is my own lack of compassion, or intense discomfort with the images, that makes the shots seem disastrous for me.) I disagree with Sontag’s assessment, in her essay “America, Seen through Photographs, Darkly,” that Arbus’s one-note photography is “simply (or falsely) naieve” (41). I see her work as so supremely voyeuristic that it becomes malevolent. After all, Arbus could always take refuge in her relative (at least, visually, superficially) normalcy. Her photographs seem to whisper to the viewer, “see how strange, how odd, my subjects are. How brutally life has dealt with them. How removed from them are we.” In this way, as Sontag acknowledges near the end of her essay on page 45 (“the freakish is no longer a private zone...people who are bizarre, in sexual disgrace, emotionally vacant are seen daily on the newsstands, on TV”) Arbus is the psychological forebear of Jerry Springer. She is the harbinger, appropriately via the visual image, of the crassness of tabloid journalism and reality TV.
But to get back to my point, crassness aside, I believe that personal disasters do qualify as disasters, if they are so framed by those rendering them—either visually or verbally. (I know that many writers and thinkers, such as Elmad Abinader, who referred to her Mills students’ work as “little stories,” disagree with me.) Granted, they clearly do not impact a nation or a society in the way that a genocide or a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina, does. I’m not arguing that personal disasters, however self-defined, are that significant, or that horrific. But I’m uncomfortable with the notion of limiting (and thereby diminishing) what is “disastrous” in someone else’s life. “Little stories” can spell emotional ruin and spiritual isolation, with or without a corresponding national narrative. For these reasons, I find some of Arbus’s work more disturbing than the work of Salgado. Sontag’s shots at Salgado aside, his photography is less morally ambivalent, his motives are far less questionable, than are Arbus’s. (Maybe I actually both love her work and hate it? She certainly is powerful.)
I also realize that, with these statements, I am lining up with what distresses Professor Faith about traditionally American narratives—the privileging of the personal story over a communal story. But I would argue that the focus on the personal in narrative is a tradition that far predates America. The Iliad and the Odyssey also rely in personal stories. The tradition may be Western—and limited in that sense—but it is also ancient and venerated. --Donna