The Thin Artifact: On Photography and Suffering | The Nation


The Thin Artifact: On Photography and Suffering

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"Places" is the strongest segment of The Cruel Radiance: informative, nightmarish. Here, with specific examples before her, Linfield navigates paradoxes that trip her up when she speaks in abstract terms of soul and porn. She considers, for example, the outré cruelty inscribed in photographs taken by victimizers—and the wily power such images have to escape their makers. Photographs by perpetrators "show that people are awfully different from one another, and that their definitions of what is unthinkable, criminal, or repugnant—or, alternately, heroic, delightful, or amusing—vary quite a bit." What do we do when our view is directed by someone reprehensible? What if we, too, see things distortedly? Linfield admits that this discomfort motivates her iconophobic colleagues. "It is true, as the rejectionists have argued, that viewers often have the 'wrong' reactions to photographs of cruelty, including contempt for the victims, glib identification, or even a prurient fascination that can border on pleasure." (These sound like responses to pornography.) "I am not sure, though, what the right reactions would be." The Cruel Radiance is best when Linfield puzzles through the Catch-22 on a personal level, with specific photographs in hand.

The Cruel Radiance
Photography and Political Violence.
By Susie Linfield.
Buy this book

About the Author

Frances Richard
Frances Richard is the author, most recently, of ANARCH. (Futurepoem).

Also by the Author

In the poems of Peter Gizzi, the powers of tradition meet and mingle.

Two new books explore the truths and artifice of photography.

A fascinating instance of renegade pictorial meaning is a group of snaps by a German sergeant named Heinrich Jöst. In 1941, in his uniform, on his forty-third birthday, he strolled through the Warsaw ghetto, taking in sights like that of the starving woman selling armbands. In photographs like Jöst's, Linfield says, "I do not see—or see only—images of despicable Jewish weakness, which is what the Nazis intended: I see Nazi barbarism." I do too. But then: "Jöst may not have understood what was happening to the Jews, but his camera did." This last phrase is a figure of speech, but it is inaccurate. Cameras don't understand; they denote whatever they are pointed at. Such relentless, conscienceless neutrality constitutes a dilemma for "rejectionists."

Nevertheless, people do have intentions when they make pictures, and Linfield argues another excellent point when she considers the importance of evidentiary photography to those who have lived through man-made hells. She quotes, for instance, testimony by the Spanish Communist Jorge Semprun, who had been interned in Buchenwald. In Switzerland after the war, he went to the movies; a newsreel showed the camp being liberated. "In becoming, thanks to the film corps of the Allied armies, a spectator of my own life, a voyeur of my own experience," Semprun wrote, "I felt as if I were escaping the wrenching uncertainties of memory.... I had not imagined Buchenwald." Li Zhensheng, a newspaper photographer in Harbin, China, in the 1960s, made two separate bodies of work. One dutifully celebrated the Cultural Revolution. The other—he called them "'negative' negatives"—memorialized the humiliation and brutalization of accused counterrevolutionaries. Li hid these negatives under his floorboards until the late 1980s, when twenty of the thousands he had saved were shown in Beijing; after the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, he smuggled them to the United States, where they became a book called Red-Color News Soldier (2003).

In a similar vein, Mamie Till Bradley insisted that the casket stand open at her son Emmett's funeral in 1955, exposing his bludgeoned face to photographers. "There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see," she said. The murderers in Money, Mississippi, were not thinking of Till's mother's grief when they beat her 14-year-old son to death, and Linfield seems to echo Bradley's words when she urges, "We do not honor the victims by being too delicate—too respectful—to look." The quote about the open casket is not cited in The Cruel Radiance (it can be found in Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement From the 1950s Through the 1980s, edited by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer and published in 1990). To be sure, Linfield must have felt overwhelmed by the sickening number of world-historical examples relevant to her study. But she devotes just one paragraph to photographs and postcards of lynchings, images that were circulated in staggering numbers in the first half of the twentieth century in this country. Nearly a hundred such pictures have been assembled by James Allen in the ongoing multimedia project (an exhibition, a book and a website) titled Without Sanctuary. Linfield, like Allen, believes that viewing these kinds of materials can fulfill a profound civic responsibility; having discussed in detail another series of awful torture photographs, she submits a sober judgment. "Every American, I would argue, is obliged to look [at], and think about, the Abu Ghraib photographs," she writes. "We need to feel in our guts, and think carefully about, what these images show (and what they don't); we do not have the option of ignoring, denying, or disowning them." Is this not a fortiori true of photographs like those in Without Sanctuary? The Abu Ghraib images depict, and constitute, crimes. Yet the genocidal crime of lynching went on for a much longer period, not in the incommunicado cellblocks of a war-zone prison but in the public squares of small towns, where it involved a much larger number of ordinary citizens in ghastly rituals of violence and spectatorship.

I miss a discussion of lynching photographs in part because Linfield is a smart critical companion for thinking about vexed looking; at her best, she does become a kind of Pauline Kael of Magnum and the New York Times front page. A case in point is her discussion of two portraits of Memuna Mansarah, taken in 2000. Memuna is 3 years old, living in a refugee camp in Freetown, Sierra Leone. One image, by the American photographer Candace Scharsu, shows Memuna with her father; she smiles impishly and wears a pretty dress. In the other, by the Dutch photojournalist Teun Voeten, she is alone and looking pensive. Her right arm, and her father's, end in stumps, the result of violent attacks by the marauding Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Referring, in particular, to Voeten's picture, Linfield admits, "I have looked at Memuna's photograph many times, thought about it, described it to friends, and now I am writing about it; but I am not at all sure how to do these things, much less how to do them right."

My rage against Memuna's tormentors turned into pity for her, and my pity made me feel manipulated and trapped. What could I do with this pity, which felt so predictable and useless. And then my dislike of my pity—which was now, alas, self-pity—became the focus of my reaction to this photograph; Memuna herself began to recede.... It is exceedingly hard to formulate any reaction to her photograph other than shock, revulsion, anger, and disgust.... And because of this, looking at her photograph becomes an ethical problem. Her picture illustrates the peculiar dislocation of our time: we can know an enormous amount, and might even feel an enormous amount, about what is happening in the world, but our knowledge and our emotions have no natural fulfillment in political action.

As Linfield acknowledges, in his essay "Photographs of Agony" (1972) John Berger described the same drift of emotion, in which the viewer's "moral inadequacy may now shock him as much as the crimes being committed in the war." Berger was writing about images from Vietnam, and he hoped that the presumably American viewer's confrontation with his or her political unfreedom would facilitate homegrown insurrection. "A socialist revival doesn't seem imminent," Linfield comments dryly. "And so when looking at Memuna, I wonder: is there any place—any useful place—to situate oneself between pity and revolution?" This question probably can't be asked too many times. Compare Linfield's passage, though, with one from Regarding the Pain of Others:

It is because a war, any war, doesn't seem as if it can be stopped that people become less responsive to the horrors. Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated.... It is passivity that dulls feeling. The states described as apathy, moral or emotional anesthesia, are full of feelings; the feelings are rage and frustration.... The imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others that is granted by images suggests a link between the faraway sufferers—seen close-up on the television screen—and the privileged viewer that is simply untrue, that is yet one more mystification of our relations to power.

The difference between Linfield's criticism and that of Sontag or Berger is not, as Linfield would have it, that they "disparage" photographs while she respects them. It is that Linfield's voice, her critical persona, is distinct from theirs. Where Sontag was brisk, Olympian, and Berger (at least in the 1970s) avowedly Marxist, Linfield is warm, confessional, rueful about her youthful enthusiasm for Mao and common-sensical about the critic's role as representative viewer rather than chief theoretician. This urge to blend a candid emotional response to pictures into a sophisticated survey of photojournalistic practices is the prime motivation of The Cruel Radiance, and it is true that this distinction between Linfield's work and those of her colleagues is important. Even so, as I make it, Memuna, in the grievous specificity of her experience, recedes another step into the background.

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