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.
It was under the "tremendous, though not always felicitous, influence" of Weimar-era German thinkers like Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht and Siegfried Kracauer, Linfield observes in "Polemics," that Sontag and her colleagues developed skepticism regarding a camera's ability to capture truths. Like Benjamin and Sontag, Linfield understands this doubt as a historical symptom: "When we talk about photography we are talking about modernity." No one on her list of theorists—including the Weimar writers, who helped to invent the prototypically postmodern field known as cultural criticism, and that wellspring of modern spleen, Baudelaire—would disagree. "The age of the Photograph is also the age of revolutions, contestations, assassinations, explosions," Barthes remarks. For Sontag, "Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience."
The problem with "Polemics," in other words, is that critics like Sontag didn't quite say what Linfield says they said. Sometimes Sontag said more or less what Linfield is saying. The Sontag whom Linfield nominates as her antagonist is the stentorian aphorist of On Photography, published in 1977. In this volume, Linfield reminds us, "Sontag describes photography as 'grandiose,' 'treacherous,' 'imperial,' 'voyeuristic,' 'predatory,' 'addictive,' and 'reductive.'" Harsh words—though I, for one, would prefer that the adjectives not be plucked from their sentences this way. Perhaps Sontag also thought she had been too harsh. In 2003 she published another book on photography called Regarding the Pain of Others. Regarding others' pain is Linfield's subject, so it is peculiar that she mentions Sontag's later book only in passing and does not distinguish its viewpoint from that of On Photography. The Cruel Radiance does not, for example, acknowledge that Sontag addressed the issue Linfield seems most troubled by. This is the idea that we—consumers of globalized media—should hygienically refuse to look at photographs of suffering because suffering's urgency is thereby diminished, brought down to the level of products in ads, celebrities in puff pieces and any other trivial thing that can be stuck in front of a camera. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag writes:
Consider two widespread ideas—now fast approaching the stature of platitudes—on the impact of photography. Since I find these ideas formulated in my own essays on photography—the earliest of which was written thirty years ago—I feel an irresistible temptation to quarrel with them. The first idea is that public attention is steered by the attentions of the media—which means, most decisively, images.... The second idea—it might seem the converse...is that in a world saturated, no, hyper-saturated with images, those that should matter have a diminishing effect.... In the first of the six essays in On Photography (1977), I argued that while an event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been had one never seen the photographs, after repeated exposure it also becomes less real. As much as they create sympathy, I wrote, photographs shrivel sympathy. Is this true? I thought it was when I wrote it. I'm not so sure now.
Linfield is certain; Sontag wasn't, fully. Still, Linfield does not contradict Sontag's late thought when she asserts, "In fact, the desensitization argument is exactly wrong. For most of history most people have known little, and cared less, about the suffering of those who are unknown or alien." Against such complacent tribalism, Linfield contends, "it is the camera—the still camera, the film camera, the video camera, and now the digital camera—that has done so much to globalize our consciences." She cites the philosopher Richard Rorty, who asked, "Why should I care about...a person whose habits I find disgusting?" He suggests, Linfield continues, "that the best answer might be: 'Because her mother would grieve for her.' The camera has been a key tool—perhaps the key tool—in enabling such empathic leaps."
Empathic care for the stranger and her mother is hard to muster if you believe, in meta-postmodernist fashion, that the close and bodily matrix we call "reality" has been virtualized into the manipulable code of a Matrix of another kind. Linfield is justly offended by this seductive generalization. But then, so is the Sontag of Regarding the Pain of Others:
To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment—that mature style of viewing which is a prime acquisition of "the modern," and a prerequisite for dismantling traditional forms of party-based politics that offer real disagreement and debate. It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world.
Linfield observes how the desensitization argument "implies that a golden age existed in which people throughout the world responded with empathy, generosity, and saving action when confronted with the suffering of others. When, I wonder, did this utopia exist?" Yet elsewhere in the book, she implies that, after all, there may have been a golden age of photographically supported decency: in the early twentieth century, during the era of Capa and Agee. It was then, it seems, that a tradition was established in which "the best photographic portraits, like the best painted portraits, present us not with biographical information but with a soul." This is the type of assumption that "sour" critics—the "rejectionists"—have tried to undo. What if a viewer fails to acknowledge soulfulness in this drama or that Other? Conversely, the belief that soulfulness is conferred by suffering, and therefore ameliorates and justifies that suffering, is ancient. So what if the "soul" apparently evinced by a given portrait is mere self-gratifying projection, a fancy way of relieving stress in contemplating—even allowing enjoyment of—a photograph of someone in extremis?
Another important piece of Linfield's argument in "Polemics" is her discussion of the frequent comparison between shocking photojournalism and pornography. The "pornography" label, she maintains, is a rhetorical trick. It is "used to describe a suspiciously wide variety of contradictory responses: too little concern for suffering and a narcissistic identification with it, inappropriate numbing and inappropriate excitement; lazy carelessness about the pain of others and a creepy preoccupation with it." Granted, pornography is produced for one reason (two, if you count making money) while journalistic photographs serve multiple purposes: to record, inform, advocate. Are the reactions Linfield describes really widely various, however? To be narcissistically, creepily preoccupied with the image of pain as a tableau to gaze at rather than an injustice to redress is, precisely, to be ethically careless, too little concerned in any way that might aid the sufferer or educate the viewer. "Not all pornography is 'bad,' that is, exploitative, degrading, or violent," Linfield points out, "which is why its use as an epithet makes little sense." The first half of this statement is undoubtedly the case; it is another way of saying that the category "pornography" is notoriously unstable. Yet if, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you can't define it but you know it when you see it, then calling a photojournalistic picture pornographic, or not, creates the same problem as calling it soulful. What may look exploitative, degrading and violent—or heartfelt, eloquent and mysterious—to one viewer might not look that way to another. Why, then, praise the soulful interpretation and condemn the pornographic one?
Questions pertaining to the truth quotient in news-based portraiture come up again in parts two and three of The Cruel Radiance. For the moment, regarding part one, consider the Agee passage from which Linfield has taken her book's title. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1940), his lyrico-documentary collaboration with Walker Evans on the lives of three sharecropping families in Alabama, Agee offers a paean to the unfiltered tenderness that Linfield cherishes:
For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands...and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.
Linfield, however, relegates to her endnotes his next sentence, a condemnation as virulent as any by Sontag circa 1977:
This is why the camera seems to me, next to unassisted and weaponless consciousness, the central instrument of our time; and is why in turn I feel such rage at its misuse: which has spread so nearly universal a corruption of sight that I know less than a dozen alive whose eyes I can trust even so much as my own.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.