Monday, March 17, 2008

Photographs as History

Is it enough to simply be aware that world events are happening? No. “Knowing” without understanding is what leads to deception, propaganda and false claims to authority. It’s what leads to one-sided thinking, abandonment of reality, and reckless excuses for “solutions” to complex problems. (Troop surge, anyone?) I think that photography—especially in the digital age of immediate urgency—can be part of the problem. I’m not talking about the medium as a whole; I think photography is wonderful and important. My point is that history is too vast and too intricate to be adequately understood as a series of single frames. Unfortunately, I think Sontag is right when she claims that “remembering through photographs eclipses all other forms of understanding.” (89) The problem is that the recollection of a photograph is not a form of understanding. Photographs tell a story, but they don’t tell the whole story. And over time, they might tell whatever story people want them to tell.

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."

--Ryan Rydzewski

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