Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Isn't this the most civil of claims?" by Ariella Azoulay and "Picturing violence: aesthetics and the anxiety of critique" by Mark Reindhart

(Please excuse the shadow... I don't have a scanner, I have to take photos of my visuals.)

      In Isn't this the most civil of claims? by Ariella Azoulay, the Testimony project by Gillian Laub is discussed. The main photograph described is an Arab woman fully clothed walking into the water at an Israeli beach. Azoulay notes that this project, as well as Laub's previous project of photos of her family, are similar in the way that peoples' identities in these pictures are formed by the "objects and attributes surrounding them," for example, the clothes and kerchief on the woman's head in the beach picture.

     It seems that an important part of Laub's work is how viewers can "get to know" her subjects by reading context clues without making a very simplified judgment: looking at physical identifiers in the picture, and getting information from other pictures in that project. Yet the connection made between viewer and subject will still be "imaginary" according to Azoulay, but even so, Laub's subjects usually address the camera.... except for the Arab woman. In this image the woman’s back is to the camera, and she is holding the hand of a young child. Everyone else in the photo (which are children), whose race/culture/etc is not certain, seems to be looking at the woman pass through. Azoulay says that Laub’s work gets at the difference between people that transcends “class, identity or belonging” (p. 99). In Testimony, Laub often photographs people with a serious difference from many others - people who have come close to death to the point of it being visible on their bodies. In Laub’s work, viewers can see the existential question of “why am I here?” being addressed, which bypasses religious, racial, cultural, etc. borders. Laub also plays off of the similarity of pairs of people she photographs - physical similarities in which it is easy to miss the difference between the people who seem so perfectly matched at first.

Tal and Moran - barely 18 year old girls serving in the military

Guy and Ranit

    Laub also has her subjects write about themselves , which helps to “suspend the political context of the project” and instead, helps viewers to just think about the subject in the photograph. It seeks to draw attention away from the fact that Israeli Jews are occupying Palestinian land. However it is hard to ignore all the political references in every picture. Despite Laub trying to portray suffering on both sides of the conflict, the power struggle is still evident… yet Laub is not trying to show a cycle of “violence and revenge.” At the same time, the suffering portrayed in the pictures is not supposed to be universal either. But viewers still usually end up dividing the subjects into “sides” even if Laub is intending to show just similarities and differences. The subjects themselves even seldom talk about the “sides” in a negative way that is expected of them.

     In Mark Reindhart’s Picturing violence: aesthetics and the anxiety of critique, the very beginning opens with the sad reality that photographs of suffering usually do not move viewers to truly care or take action, despite the frequent aim of photographers to evoke those things. Still, it is not always easy to forget the images once we’ve seen them, especially because they are seen so frequently in media. But reaction is often based on personal conviction, political views, where the viewer is located, the things the viewer uses to identify themselves, etc.  Viewers may see the suffering  as depicted in an exaggerated way, or may be displeased with the graphic nature of a photograph and see it as exploitation. The uneasy emotions are evoked because of the nature of the issues in the photos - they are serious. So when something doesn’t seem right in a picture, the concern s justified. The problem of something not seeming right is when the suffering is aestheticized in a picture. This seems like disrespecting the subject.

    One problem addressed is the reluctance of the media to show certain images despite them being available. Some pictures are kept out of the public eye because of the way they threaten the popularity of war. This was proven with the Abu Ghraib prison pictures from 2004 in which Iraqi prisoners are being tortured  by Americans. These photos even upset people who supported the war. The images as opposed to the stories released first are what caused the anger from people.

Still, whether the pictures were shown or not would probably not have helped the victims. And the media’s decision to withhold some of those pictures was not to preserve dignity of victims but to preserve the moral code of what is acceptable to show in public. The Washington Post, for example, said the excessive nudity was not acceptable.  Any nude pictures had genitals censored, yet faces were not, which did not do much to prevent humiliation. On the flip side, however, for Americans it is a whole other story. Identities are not even supposed to be revealed in any picture of someone suffering (for example, dead soldiers, which is prohibited and any photos, if taken, are not to be shown in media).

As for aestheticization, the issue here is when photography transforms suffering into a striking picture. This was addressed as far back as 1934 by Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Author as Producer.” According to him, even “abject poverty” is transformed into “an object of enjoyment.” Susan Sontag, in her essay “On Photography” notes that anything we may feel for the subject in these kinds of pictures is immediately “neutralized” by the way photography aestheticizes.

     What is aestheticization? Reindhart uses some various philosophers’ ideas to explain it. The “aesthetic attitude” is basically paying attention to something because of the way it looks, sounds, or feels. It is the kind of attention we would pay to a beautiful still life painting. Yet we turn that kind of attention to an image of tragedy. If the camera is turned toward a human in their time of pain in order to produce a picture nice to look at by focusing on the formal aspects of the situation, the responsibility viewers have towards that situation is removed and the photography does a disservice to tragedy and suffering in the world. But we have to ask ourselves which photographs function like this and if it is ALL photography of suffering.

     According to critics, Reindhart says, the aesthetic attitude is a problem with pictures by photographers such as James Nachtwey  and Sebastiao Salgado.  The beauty of their pictures is what makes them fail to arouse a caring attitude about the situations taking place in them. It redirects viewers’ attention to the formal and aesthetic qualities of the picture from the suffering of humans viewers should be paying attention to.

     But Reindhart argues that, despite how beautiful some pictures may be, it is still impossible to ignore the circumstance and suffering in them. Particularly this image of Sudan by James Nachtwey, according to Reindhart.

     Intention must be noted as well; Nachtwey makes it clear he is an anti-war photographer and wants his photos to be calls to action.

     In this reading, Allan Sekula says something that really was striking: “Documentary photography has amassed mountains of evidence. And yet… the genre has simultaneously contributed much to spectacle, to retinal excitation, to voyeurism, to terror, envy and nostalgia, and only a little to the critical understanding of the social world.” Benjamin says that we rely on a caption to make the meaning of the photo, and Sontag says “Moralists who love photographs always hope that words will save the picture.” Personally, I could not think these three things could be more true. Though I become emotional viewing pictures of suffering (I nearly cried and had to say a quick prayer when Googling the Nachtwey image from Sudan), they still tell me few concrete details about the situation there at hand and a caption would indeed have helped me gain a better understanding. Yes, a person is obviously suffering and starving in the Nachtwey photo. But to learn why, I clearly need to do research. The fact that we need text could be the “source of anxiety,” according to Reindhart.

     This brings us to the events of September 11th, 2001. The mass amounts of photographs taken questioned just what the limits were in regards to photographs of tragedy. Mayor Rudy Giuliani had to put a ban on photographing at the site. Thomas Ruff commented on this with some images in his jpeg series, for example, jpeg ny02, which is actually a photograph by someone else. (I could not find jpeg ny01 appropriated by Patrick Sison.)

     Reindhart comments that Ruff is aestheticizing suffering here by literally using it as a subject of a photo that must be looked at for its formal qualities due to the intentional pixelating. Reindhart remarks that a picture of suffering could not “simply be without aesthetic qualities,” which is basically what the Ruff appropriation seems to be saying.

     Now the distinction must be made between beauty and aesthetic. A photograph can have aesthetic qualities and be very striking without being beautiful; many pictures of suffering are not beautiful. And by making a picture of suffering beautiful, it may encourage being passive towards the suffering and we may disregard any initial “moral response” we may have had. Reindhart quotes Arthur Danto as going as far as saying that we may delight in suffering if it is beautified.

This is particularly questionable when thinking about Shimon Attie’s Steinstrasse 22.

     Attie collected photos from the 1920s and 30s of Berlin’s prewar Jewish area, Scheunenviertel, and in 1992 and 1993, projected them at night onto the buildings and addresses his found photos were originally taken, and photographed the process. Though the projections were haunting and uncomfortable, commenting on the population no longer existing there, the images produced of the process are beautiful. But clearly, this work being beautiful does not diminish the tragedy of the genocide of Jewish people nor does it take away their dignity. Furthermore, there is no way of knowing if the people in Attie's found photos actually suffered.

     What can we expect a photograph of suffering to do?  What does it ask of the viewer? According to Sontag, a photograph cannot explain, just acknowledge, and that is not enough for her. But according to philosopher Stanley Cavell, acknowledging is just what  we need to do when viewing those kinds of photos, and to avoid it is refusing to relate to those people. Apparently, “photographs fail morally and politically when what they invite from a responsive viewer is something less than acknowledgment.” According to this reading, Nachtwey’s Sudan image fails in this way because of the way the giver of hydration salts is cut out of the frame; this makes viewers feel like they are helping just by viewing the picture. It may cause us to feel upset, but does not cause us to see our relationship to the subject; it is “a failure of acknowledgment.”

According to Reindhart, Alan Schechter’s It’s the Real Thing - Self Portrait at Buchenwald does a great job of acknowledging suffering in photography. As a Jewish person himself, he digitally places his own picture into a famous photo of the liberation of Buchenwald by Margaret Bourke-White. While he makes a connection between his own heritage and the people in the original photo, himself appearing well-fed while drinking a soda that does not nourish the body (yet it looks “alive” by being in color) next to people who are very malnourished also distances himself from the people, perhaps mirroring the same thing we do when looking at photographs of suffering. We may briefly identify, but soon realize our distance from the situation.

I obviously had a hard time connecting these two readings. Here is where I explain my diagram. According to the Reindhart article, there are 3 ways pictures of suffering can function: in an aesthetic way, a beautiful way, and an acknowledging way. There seems to be a "moral scale" of pictures generating little moral responsibility to great moral responsibility, and the 3 functions all fall on that scale, with acknowledging pictures evoking the greatest moral response. I took the most prominent artists mentioned in this reading and attempted to place them in each of the 3 functions along the moral scale. Some fall in between/into more than one category, and I attempted to place Laub's work as functioning in all 3 ways because that is how I see her work and how I think Reindhart might see it as well. Her photography is interesting and striking, often quite beautiful, and still acknowledges the suffering and causes viewers to do the same, especially because of the text - the writings her subjects did for the pictures.

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