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The Thin Artifact: On Photography and Suffering | The Nation

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The Thin Artifact: On Photography and Suffering

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In her chapter on Robert Capa, Linfield recounts an anecdote from Paris in 1950. "Eve Arnold, then a young Magnum photographer, admitted to journalist Janet Flanner that she didn't think Capa's photographs were 'very well designed.' Flanner looked at Arnold with pity and replied, 'My dear, history doesn't design well either.'" Capa's photographs—like those by his Magnum colleagues Gerda Taro, David Seymour (known as Chim) and Henri Cartier-Bresson—have taught us to expect this mimetic link between a haphazard-looking photograph and the haphazardness of history. Linfield sums up the assumption: "If a picture seems sloppy, it's okay to look." The flip side of this convention dictates that a dramatically framed image composed with an eye toward classical notions of, say, lighting and symmetry implies not authentic witness captured in the heat of the moment but a narcissistic investment in self-expression on the part of the photographer.

The Cruel Radiance
Photography and Political Violence.
By Susie Linfield.
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About the Author

Frances Richard
Frances Richard writes frequently about contemporary art. She teaches at Barnard College and the Rhode Island School of...

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Linfield crisply explains that this attitude "confuses moral weight with aesthetic clumsiness." But as she makes clear in her complicated discussion of Nachtwey's and Peress's work, highly stylized representations of wretchedness do place us—we who have never suffered in heinous ways, or live in parts of the world where, we imagine, such sufferings can never come—in a strange position. We can try to imagine. But "we are not inside those prisons: they were." To skip over this fact is puerile egotism. "We are simply too late. The 'demands of justice'...will never—can never—be met." It is instead "the inability to understand, the inability to grieve, the inability to act—that these photographs present." What's left when the empathic imagination fails, or is blocked, is the uncomfortable delectation of a stunning image.

Capa's rough-and-ready pictures soften this awareness of belatedness. An echt-Capa shot encodes the photographer as participant, physically present at the scene he is covering and therefore a comrade of the people he represents, vulnerable as they are to gunfire or whatever else goes on; insofar as the photographer is our conduit into a pictured situation, we participate vicariously rather than voyeuristically. In Paris in the 1930s, Capa and Chim photographed left-wing Popular Front demonstrations. "There is a feeling of zesty pleasure" in their pictures, Linfield muses; "one can almost hear the singing of songs, feel the pounding of feet, and sense the building atmosphere of excitement and hope." In the lush, hieratic images Nachtwey makes, and to a lesser extent in the fragmented, syncopated prints by Peress, this open invitation to events shuts down. Our sense of photojournalists as partisans morphs into a sense of the photographers, and hence ourselves, as irremediably remote. One can understand this as a principled refusal of too-easy identification; it may well be a pleasure, for politically woebegone American leftists in 2010, to imagine that we are demonstrating with the Popular Front, but in reality we are no more intimate with those crowds than we are with Memuna and her dad. More problematic, the handsomely polished photojournalistic image may suggest a rejection of spontaneity and an incapacity to identify with a beleaguered Other. (Nachtwey has been injured more than once in the field. There is, of course, no impenetrable scrim between him and his subjects; the pictures just look as if there were.)

Linfield is alert to such shades of gray. But it is here that her nostalgia for liberal-humanist, democratic-revolutionary photojournalism filters in. Capa, she writes, "admired good fighters who defended good causes...his pictures document those invaluable times when politics encompassed freedom and solidarity, individuality and brotherhood." This sense that Capa photographed "good" revolutions reflects, in part, his mobilization of time-honored iconographic cues, which Linfield of course understands; all the same, she slips freely from discussion of visual motifs to sweeping statements about nonphotographic reality:

Capa, despite all his innovations, was working within a centuries-long tradition of the West in which the slaughter of innocents, and those who defended them, represented ideals of religious purity, bravery, patriotism, political principle, or sacrifice for others. In the photographs of James Nachtwey, we see what happens when...the atrocities they so nakedly depict are almost completely divorced from religious, political, or historical redemption.

With questions of iconographic potency versus historical veracity on the table, I was surprised to find that Linfield never mentions a well-known controversy regarding what she calls "the classic war image, as well as the classic antiwar image, of the twentieth century," the photograph known as The Falling Soldier (1936). For almost thirty years, allegations that Capa had staged this shot of a man collapsing, his arms flung out in Christlike abandon, swirled through critical literature. In 2002 Capa's biographer Richard Whelan submitted evidence that The Falling Soldier captures a Loyalist militiaman named Federico Borrell García at the moment of his death. Predictably, debate has not been quelled; doubts about the location pictured in the photo were raised by a Spanish researcher in 2009. Perhaps Linfield wanted to avoid restaging a he said/she said discussion. All the same, as with her decision not to dwell on Without Sanctuary, her choice to account neither for the controversy nor her reticence about it bewilders me.

* * *

The hint of hagiography tingeing Linfield's Capa chapter links to her wider assertion that

something has changed in the nature of war. The ideologically based conflicts that characterized the 1930s, World War II, and the subsequent anticolonial wars of independence (and that distinguished virtually all revolutions dating back to the eighteenth century) are far less prevalent—or, in some cases, have lost whatever ideological raison d'être they once possessed.

Conventional wars, she continues, have been replaced by

other kinds of conflict that we might call wars of disintegration. Such conflicts are expressions not of imperial expansion, national liberation, socialist revolution, or even fascist counterrevolution, but are more akin to auto-exterminations.

Other analysts—including the Australian political theorist John Keane, whose phrase "uncivil wars" Linfield borrows—have advanced similar arguments. This facet of Linfield's thesis, however, did not feel well integrated into other aspects of her book. Is the insane sadism of the RUF in Sierra Leone in the 1990s wholly incomparable to the insane sadism of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the '70s, or that of the Third Reich in Europe in the '30s and '40s? Linfield proffers a compelling comparison of the Cultural Revolution in China and the war in Sierra Leone vis-à-vis the special susceptibility of children to regimes preaching mercilessness; she quotes the critic Richard Lacayo, who says of Nachtwey's collection Inferno (1999) that "in the post–cold war world, 'history is still being made the old-fashioned way, with land mines and machetes.'" Are these similarities, paradoxically, also stark oppositions? I do not mean to quibble, but Linfield is making a large claim about contemporary armed conflict. In a book about photography, it is hard—perhaps impossible—to include the breadth and depth of research and analysis that would ground this claim more subtly. "We, the viewers, must look outside the frame," Linfield states, and she is emphatically right. The photojournalistic practices she examines cannot be well understood in isolation from the hostilities they track, and it speaks to Linfield's ambition as a scholar that she entertains this level of inquiry. Nevertheless, this part of The Cruel Radiance left me with more questions than it answered.

It also gave me pause regarding Linfield's discussion, in particular, of Nachtwey. She comments, for instance, that "Nachtwey's subjects are, more often than not, severely deformed through various forms of violence, and they seem disconnected from history and politics." This claim follows from the idea of a fundamental distinction between old "ideological" war and new "disintegrative" war. However, as a statement about the subjects in Nachtwey's portraits, it strikes me as wrong. Famine, AIDS, car bombings and sniper fire are not transhistorical forces sculpting human bodies into totems of annihilation. The emaciated and bereaved people in Nachtwey's pictures are obviously radically disenfranchised. But still—therefore—they seem to me like embodiments of history and politics: of postcolonial violence and exploitation, ecological disaster, ethnic hatreds, religious intolerance, epidemic and intractable struggles over land and water rights in an increasingly desertified and polluted world. If these people look like timeless figures on a frieze, it is because Nachtwey photographs them that way.

Questions about the nature of contemporary war and ideology, and conflicting definitions of modernity, are too big to sort out in a book like The Cruel Radiance. Is modernity a liberal-democratic concept exclusive to secular, Western, capitalist-technological societies? What term would we use, then, to name what has been going on for the past 100 or more years in the rest of the world?

These are certainly questions too complex to handle thoroughly in a review, so I fall back on a description already in place. One definition of modernity is that it is photographic. There is a Nachtwey image showing two women, fully veiled, who are having their portrait taken in a photographer's studio in Kabul in 2002. Linfield says she finds it—the photograph, but by extension also the situation captured in it—"hilarious":

Who would have thought that feudal Afghanistan would produce a postmodern joke? Yet here we have it: the portrait—that great document of individual expressiveness—recreated here, without a face.

The James Nachtwey Studio denied permission to reproduce his work in The Cruel Radiance, but I found the Kabul picture online (micr.ch/d/exhib/explore_archives_war2_d.html). The photographer's studio is small, papered with colorful, mural-sized backdrops of what look like paradisiacal villas and gardens; presumably clients can choose which they want in their photo. Two standing lights rhyme with the standing women; as Linfield notes, a poster hung against the backdrops shows a glamorous model in incongruous décolleté. The two women are not identically dressed: one's blue burqa is decorated with white embroidery; the other's is plainer. The garments hang down like capes at the back and sides but end at the waist in front, revealing that both women wear baggy black trousers; the one in the embroidered veil wears white boots or leggings, and her right hand peeks from the decorated edge of the wrap that conceals her face.

They "stand upright, with seeming pride," as Linfield observes. So presumably these women consider the experience of being photographed meaningful, and understand the image they present to the lens as eloquent of something they wish to express. Elsewhere in The Cruel Radiance, Linfield comments, "Photographs—especially portraits, though not only they—demand that we encounter the individual qua individual: precisely what totalitarian ideologies forbid." This is a more convincing formulation of the assumption about the relationship between portraits and the soul. She also describes the burqa as "a grotesque, indeed totalitarian garment." Would I argue? I could never defend the burqa, embroidered or otherwise. I do, however, want to think about those women's ability—even under a totalitarian, misogynist regime—to see themselves, as they understand themselves, in the mundane and crazy mirror that is a photograph. The delicate negotiation between concealment and display, cultural piety and cultural experiment, suggested in Nachtwey's image does not appear to me comical, or divorced from political history. On the contrary, it seems that if we, as Linfield's readers, are amazed to find "postmodernism" in Kabul in 2002, then our definition of the postmodern is too narrow.

"We are in a tension between the speed of history—which happens very, very fast—and progress, which happens very, very slowly," wrote Gilles Peress in 1999, in a passage Linfield cites. As if answering Agee's yearning to plunge into the "immediate world" with "weaponless consciousness," Peress's judgment bespeaks the double difficulty of trying to assess photographs that help to make history while history unspools at breathtaking speed. The Cruel Radiance is not the last word in how to comprehend photography and political violence. But it is a dense and demanding attempt at comprehension—and besides, such a last word cannot be written, any more than a shutter can click on the definitive photograph.

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