The Thin Artifact: On Photography and Suffering
To look at a photograph entails a peculiar kind of participation: distanced in time and space, and severely limited in regard to the context leading to and consequences stemming from the moment fixed on film, yet often viscerally affecting. When the object of attention is a photograph of atrocity or abject misery, the viewer can hardly begin with enjoyment. To begin with revulsion would seem to deny the raw response with which an upsetting photograph seizes one's awareness, as surely as a feeling of pleasure would poison that response with prurience. And so the viewer of desperate photographs faces an intractable conundrum.
Susie Linfield writes forcefully about this predicament. In The Cruel Radiance her eye for the unplanned, wounding photographic detail that Roland Barthes called the punctum is acute, and her empathic intelligence shines when she examines, for example, the wrinkled collar on the blouse of a little girl who will shortly be murdered in Cambodia's notorious Tuol Sleng prison in the 1970s—the Khmer Rouge executed children—or the tattered concert posters on the wall behind a skeletal Jewish woman in the Warsaw ghetto in 1941, who has been reduced to selling armbands emblazoned with the fatal star. To ponder what it means to be shown, but not to experience, dire tribulations like those undergone, but not survived, by this girl and this woman is a challenging task. (One lifetime is not sufficient.) To place such observations in context geopolitically and morally, and then to draw distinctions between analytical and stylistic trends relating to photography in general and photojournalism specifically—that is, to evaluate photographic "concepts of truth and reality," as Linfield puts it—is no less challenging. To do so while also diagnosing a break in the character of warfare, as evidenced by what is defined in The Cruel Radiance as new "non-ideological...wars of disintegration," is a lot to accomplish in 258 pages of text. One can see why Linfield understands the parts of her argument as implicating one another. They do. Her book would have been better, though, had she taken on less.
Linfield is director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and has served as arts editor of the Washington Post, deputy editor of the Village Voice and editor in chief of American Film. In the preface to The Cruel Radiance she identifies two wildly different writers, Susan Sontag and James Agee, as touchstones for her polemic. Her book, she explains,
is written, in large part, against the photography criticism of Susan Sontag. This is not because Sontag was wrong about most things; on the contrary, many of her insights remain sharp and true. But it is Sontag, more than anyone else, who was responsible for establishing a tone of suspicion and distrust in photography criticism, and for teaching us that to be smart about photographs means to disparage them. I am writing, even more, against the work of Sontag's postmodern and poststructuralist heirs and their sour, arrogant disdain for the traditions, the practice, and the ideals of documentary photography. Unlike those critics, I believe that we need to respond to and learn from photographs rather than simply disassemble them; unlike those critics, I believe that we need to look at, and look into, what James Agee called "the cruel radiance of what is."
Classed with Agee (who wrote about film) are other arts reviewers, including film critic Pauline Kael, dance writer Edwin Denby and folk music aficionado Greil Marcus. Adapting their mode of freely opinionated first-person journalism, Linfield writes, she wants "to begin developing a new kind of criticism—a new response to photographs—that rejects the opposition of thought and emotion." To study political atrocity and humanitarian crisis through the mediation of photographs, she adds, requires study of "two late-twentieth-century developments: first, the fissure between violence and politics and the rise of non-ideological, astonishingly tenacious wars of disintegration; second, the postmodern assault on the concepts of truth and reality—concepts on which documentary photography has, traditionally, been so dependent."
In order to speak on behalf of documentary photography, Linfield oversimplifies the case against it. Her call for an informed, compassionate response to images of immiseration, and her intention to develop a critical vocabulary with which to appraise photographic reportage, could not be more relevant at the cusp of photography's second century, as we invent ever cleverer technologies for harming our sisters and brothers with ordnance or pixels. Nevertheless, Linfield's rhetorical choices lead to odd omissions and a certain naïveté regarding what she calls "the traditions, the practice, and the ideals of documentary photography." What are these ideals and traditions, and why have critics since the 1960s tended to doubt them? Has it really been only "sour, arrogant disdain"? The Cruel Radiance references, in addition to Sontag, a who's who of expert lookers-at-photos, including Barthes, John Berger, Douglas Crimp, Andy Grundberg, Martha Rosler, Luc Sante, Allan Sekula, Abigail Solomon-Godeau and Carol Squiers. Certainly these thinkers and others like them may at times be hyperbolic in their pronouncements. But each has worried in print about how to ensure principled engagement with the split-second array of light and shadow that is a photograph. Linfield is disingenuous when she says that such critics do not believe "that we need to look at, and look into" the chemically or digitally fixed shapes that are created when light bounces off a subject placed before a lens, and a mechanism called a camera processes the pattern into an icon that we—people whose visual literacy is "modern"—read as a trace of reality.
The question is how we do this. How to look into a flat smear of ink or emulsion? In his book-length essay Camera Lucida (1981), in which he discusses the notion of the punctum, Barthes speaks of his desire to "turn the photograph over, to enter into the paper's depth, to reach its other side." This is just what a photograph can't allow. How, then, to comprehend the thin artifact, especially when it shows people we'll never know under duress? Is it always right to look? Is it ever all right to turn away? What do we learn, and can such lessons translate beyond passive beholding into political or existential acts?
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The Cruel Radiance is divided into three parts. The first, "Polemics," surveys the history of photographic criticism and theory since its beginnings with Charles Baudelaire, and discusses photojournalism and the concept of human rights, the defense of which is often invoked as a reason for making and circulating otherwise abhorrent pictures. Here Linfield considers what it means—politically, ethically, aesthetically, psychologically—to view photographs depicting acute suffering. Her book's second part, "Places," surveys particular catalogs of images and frames them historically. She discusses photographs taken by prisoners and Nazis alike in Auschwitz and the Warsaw and Lodz ghettos; by Chinese and Western journalists during the Cultural Revolution; by international journalists in the aftermath of civil war in Sierra Leone (1991–2002); and by administrators and guards in prisons, among them Pol Pot's Tuol Sleng, Stalin's Lubyanka and the Bush administration's Abu Ghraib. Part three, "People," presents capsule critical biographies of three celebrated photojournalists. These are Robert Capa, witness-hero of the Spanish Civil War and D-Day landing in Normandy and co-founder of the Magnum Agency, who died reporting from Vietnam; James Nachtwey, a member of the legendary Bang-Bang Club that photographed in South African townships in the 1990s, who has since covered conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq and Romania; and Gilles Peress, who documented the Iranian Revolution in Tehran in 1979 and has worked in many of the same zones of woe as Nachtwey, including Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Rwanda and Lower Manhattan after 9/11.