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.”