Thursday, September 30, 2010

Excerpts from "Regarding the Pain of Others" by Susan Sontag and "The Civil Contract of Photography" by Ariella Azoulay

      These readings yet again forced me to sift through a bunch of "stuff" to get to the meat.

     In the beginning of Susan Sontag’s excerpt, she feels the need to revise her ideas from her previous writings on photography.

         Back in 1977 in her book On Photography, she wrote that though photographs make events more real (photojournalistic images shown to the public during times of war, for example), they also diminish the public’s sympathy for the people portrayed in those pictures. Viewers may more quickly become bored by images shown on television due to the frequency of how they are displayed. Sontag notes that as far back as 1800, the public has been overwhelmed with images of horror from daily life and the news. Over time we have become more and more desensitized to them because of new technology being able to spread these images even more, and even more frequently as well. The television has taken away the shock value of images that should be arousing sympathy within us. Yet, it is not possible to have the media “cut back on” how many shocking, sad, terrible images they show us.

    This view expressed back in 1977, Sontag calls “the conservative critique.” She calls it this because reality itself is not entirely gone, but the “sense” of it is when we see appalling images. In addition to that, reality (situation, that is. For example, war) has to be turned into a “spectacle” as images for it to even be interesting to us. Sontag even quotes French philosopher and writer Andre Glucksmann mentioning that “the war would be won or lost not by anything that happened in Sarajevo, or indeed in Bosnia, but by what happened in the media.”

    But to say reality is becoming a spectacle is to assume that all people watching media are viewing news as entertainment and that suffering is not a real thing in the world. Though many people may be spectators, unaffected by what they see, it is not everyone. This is where Sontag begins to change her opinion. She says that it is cliché to think that images of tragedy have no emotional effect on anyone at all. There are those people who are “consumers of violence as spectacle” as she says, who are trained to be unaffected. There is also another side to all of this: the people being photographed. Certainly they do not want their photographs to be seen as just another tragedy alongside the rest. In fact, Bosnians photographed by photojournalist Paul Lowe wanted their recorded sufferings to be unique and were not happy when those photographs were displayed alongside photographs taken in Somalia of similar subject matter.

    In the following chapter of this excerpt, Sontag boldly makes the claim that once we reach a certain age, we should no longer be allowed to be ignorant of, indifferent of, or surprised by images of tragedy. There are so many pictures of atrocity floating around in the world that, at the very least, we should be reminded of how cruel human beings can be to each other. Yet there is such a vast history of human wickedness that is difficult to remember all of it. It is natural to turn away and forget. But the images cannot do much more for us than to call us to pay attention to and think about what is going on in the world.

    In the last chapter of this excerpt, Sontag says that if tragic images should make us think and “deepen our sense of reality,” like “secular icons,” we should have a special place to meditate on them. (I think she is likening this experience to praying in a Catholic or other denomination church in which the interior of the building is decorated with sacred statues or pictures of Jesus, saints, etc.) This is because she thinks it is exploitative to view these pictures in a gallery. Because pictures acquire different meanings in the vast amount of different settings to look at them (from galleries to newspapers to magazine), there is really nowhere for them to be looked at in a respectful way and really respond to them. In a space in which they are hung on a wall as art, there is much talking, distractions, people passing by, etc. and the solemn-ness of the photograph is removed; it is better preserved in a book privately viewed, but even then, the emotions we feel when looking at it will pass when we close the book.

the photo of the boy in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 mentioned in the beginning of this chapter.

    Sontag then poses the question of whether an image could move us to oppose war. A photograph she finds very powerful in maybe doing this is “Dead Troops Talk” by Jeff Wall from 1992, which was mentioned in week 1’s blog entry. Despite this picture not being taken at a real event during the war, it still is quite realistic looking. The “dead” soldiers engage with each other but take no notice of us as viewers in the least bit. This is because as hard as we try, we can never truly understand how horrible war is if we have never experienced it firsthand.

    Ariella Azoulay begins her introduction of  The Civil Contract of Photography with stories about her experiences during the Palestinian occupation when she was younger, and how headshot portraits of Palestinians in the Hebrew daily newspaper Hadashot urged her to write about photography while she was writing about art in general at the time. She did not know how to begin writing about photographs like these, especially with writers like Susan Sontag and others claiming that the public is desensitized to these images.

    When Azoulay began curating photography exhibits, she came to the realization that to her, no photographer can claim ownership of an image they take of someone else because every picture of another person holds the remnants of the meeting between subject and photographer; there is an event present in the picture, and no one can own that. Even if it is an image of a person that can be named, stories, theories and analyses can always be made from it. Anyone who sees a photograph is free to recreate a meaning for it. Therefore a photograph is more than just an object, an image printed on paper. The event portrayed can only be understood by “watching” a photograph instead of look at it. What this means for pictures of someone who has suffered means to visualize the situation in the photograph and understand the injury of the subject. In that case, according to Azoulay, this is a “civic skill, not an exercise in aesthetic appreciation.” She gives a slightly tighter definition on page 16: to watch a photograph is to read it “both out of and into the space of political relations instated by photography.” I personally prefer the definition I tried to make, and I had to read through a page or so about politics before I saw another actual reference to photography.

    Azoullay seems to be against the terms “empathy, shame, pity or compassion” when viewing photographs; instead, she brings up the term of “contract.” She is mostly talking about pictures of the Palestinian occupation of Israelis here, and basically, she wants viewers to feel more than compassion for the people in the pictures; instead, she wants viewers to somehow “restore their citizenship through her viewing.”

    The next thing Azoulay talks about which truly caught my attention is this: a subject’s willingness to be photographed or their own photographing of themselves and their situation during a time of suffering creates a “civil space” in which all viewers, subjects and photographers agree that this situation of suffering is not okay. To me, it seems like a desire to showcase their suffering in order for others to see it and “watch” it as opposed to looking at it.

    Next Azoulay describes the civil contract with a photographic example of 1845. In this year, a man named Johnathan Walker had his palm photographed by Southworth and Hawes, which was branded with “SS” for “slave stealer.” He was tried in court for trying to “steal” slaves and bring them to the north - he basically tried to set them free. The photograph of his palm was an objection against his imprisonment and the fine he had to pay. This photograph had power to “overturn his disgrace” if it were to be published. Now this describes the civil contract in this way: the photographer and subject made the image with the intent of it being seen by someone who would care about the injustice done to Walker. This “someone” was no one in particular, but it would hopefully be someone willing to stand up for people like Walker. This photo created this supposed community of people that would be on his side. In the civil contract of photography, each party (spectator, subject and photographer) is aware of their role and what is expected of them during the taking of the picture.

    I suppose I cannot ignore Azoulay’s constant incorporation of politics in this introduction. It is really overbearing to me and I am inclined to not really care about the political aspect of anything whatsoever. (I lean more towards the caring about people in photographs and their situations, being moved to compassion and wanting to take action, but not getting into serious political detail about all of it.) This book is a way to create an idea of citizenship through photography. Azoulay uses Palestine’s occupation to talk about citizens. Both citizens (Israeli Jews) and non citizens (Palestinian Israelis, and perhaps even visitors to the country) are all governed together, but citizens receive more privileges. So both groups of people are not equal. However, in a photograph, all people are treated the same, whether they are a citizen or not. Photography makes everyone a citizen within that medium.

     The political talk in Azoulay’s introduction was really overbearing for me. Not that I am ignorant of politics or choosing to be ignorant, I just have another agenda in my life that is truly more important to me that goes even beyond photography, so I really had to sift through this introduction to find the points about photography that were meaningful. This is because I believe the civil contract and things Azoulay mentioned can be applied to all photography (or pictures of people, anyways) and not just images that are political or taken of people during times of suffering in war. However, I do truly appreciate how personal she gets with her own experiences and how much knowledge she employs.

     My understanding of these readings is that they do not necessarily completely disagree with each other, however, Azoulay may not entirely agree with Sontag's earlier opinion that we are desensitized to pictures of tragedy. She basically seems like she believes that a photograph commands us to care; she is not quite as passive about it as Sontag, who thinks that a photograph cannot do much more for us than to make us think about the subject and be aware of human wickedness. Azoulay does not really go into detail about what we can DO when viewing images of suffering, but it is clear that she wants us to do more than just dwell on it a little.

     (I'm not entirely sure if this is allowed in this blog, but these readings kept bringing to my mind "Pictures of Tragedy" sung by Kristi Northup .... I very highly doubt anyone will listen to this considering, well, the fact that Columbia is a "liberal arts school" but this is what my other "personal life agenda" is really all about.. and literal photographs of tragedy truly do compel me to care about, pray for, and give to the suffering - and that includes suffering of all kinds, all politics aside.)

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