Monday, March 17, 2008

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.

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