The Uses and Abuses of Photojournalism
Do we approach the photograph as spectators, or as citizens of the world?
April 1, 2001
Apr 1, 2001
26 Min read time
Do we approach the photograph as spectators, or as citizens of the world?
So you should simply make the instant
Stand out, without in the process hiding
What you are making it stand out from.—Bertolt Brecht, "theater poem, c. 1938"I found more skepticism than daring in art as well, more irony, more narcissistic fascination with form than concern for the fittest subject of study: the great, stern, inscrutable world.—Adam Zagajewski, Another BeautyI have thought, … I might take photographs so painful that they make people want to look away; that they will feel the urge to enter and put right the world they represent.—Delia Falconer, The Service of Clouds
In the August 2000 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, readers were treated to a lengthy piece, written by tough-guy journalist Sebastian Junger, entitled "The Terror of Sierra Leone." The article's subhead promised to introduce us to "rebel troops of drug-crazed teenagers" and the "cold-blooded calculation" that fuels their "insanity," and it delivered. What stopped me cold, though—and may have stopped others, too—was a full-page photograph, taken by Dutch photojournalist Teun Voeten, of a little girl identified as "three-year-old Memuna Mansarah." Memuna is wearing a clean, frilly white dress and a gold earring. Her left hand clutches what looks like a crumpled piece of soft bread; her right arm is a stump, amputated just above the elbow by her compatriots in the so-called Revolutionary United Front.
In our image-glutted culture, our connection to photographs resembles a bad but inescapable marriage in which one unhappy partner distrusts yet depends upon the other.
The picture is revolting, because the deed it records is revolting. Yet something beyond the violence of the picture is disturbing. Memuna looks up at the camera—and at us—imploringly, her enormous dark eyes widened into almost perfect circles, the plumpness of her cheeks clearly visible, the barest hint of a smile on her lips. She hovers, in short, on the verge of being cute. It is as if—though only three years old, and living in a Freetown refugee camp—Memuna intuits something important and true about her future American viewers. And what she seems to know is that her physical injuries, and her injured humanity, will not be enough to anger, shame, or frighten the readers of Vanity Fair. Only if she also looks charming—impish, vulnerable, and entirely devoid of rage—will we consider her case. Adorable victims can win our pity, and this is important for Memuna because pity is, increasingly, one of the few remaining threads tying our world—the developed world of globalization's winners—to Memuna's world of "insanity."1
This may be a useful time to reconsider our relationship to photojournalism. For it is a relationship that is increasingly disturbed and yet absolutely key to our understanding of, and bewilderment about, the world outside our selves (and possibly, therefore, about our inner selves as well). In our image-glutted culture, our connection to photographs—and especially to those that record atrocities, wars, and other manmade disasters—resembles a bad but inescapable marriage in which one unhappy partner distrusts yet depends upon the other. (As in so many unhappy marriages, there is a convenient third party—in this case, the exploitative photojournalist—to blame.) And the ease with which we feel pity for Memuna, combined with the difficulty of thinking about her in any other way, is central to our photographic quandary.
When it comes to photographs, we are all deconstructionists now. After thirty years of Derrida, Foucault, and Baudrillard, anyone can confidently (if incorrectly) proclaim that photographs lie, manipulate, oppress; that they are "fictive constructs" and "discourses of power"; that they reveal only their own prejudices, not objective reality; that they express privilege, never truth. Yet more and more, it is upon these presumably meretricious, morally stained documents that we rely—not just to bring us news of the world, but to form our ethical and political consciousness and even, sometimes, to determine our actions.
Despite scores of published reports that poured out of Sarajevo, for instance, it was 1992 British television footage—and subsequent still photographs, printed in newspapers and magazines throughout the world—of gaunt Muslim men imprisoned behind barbed wire that spurred calls for intervention in Bosnia (and the useless debate over whether the Serbs' offenses constituted "another Holocaust"). It was 1994 images of Rwandan refugees dying of cholera that prompted a wave of humanitarian donations—though the genocide that created the refugee crisis was met with almost total indifference. It was images of the 1984 Ethiopian famine that inspired those glorious Live Aid concerts, and images of the Somali famine in 1992 that prompted our military intervention, dubbed "Mission of Mercy," into that unfortunate land. (The mercy evaporated, and the mission was quickly aborted, after another image surfaced—this time, Paul Watson's photo of a jeering Mogadishu crowd dragging a dead American soldier through the streets. Suddenly the Somalis looked a lot less hungry.)2
When it comes to photographs, we are all deconstructionists now.
Such photographs show us that great misery exists in the world. But they cannot tell us what we most need to know, which is why. And this is not because these photographs are bad, or doctored, or fake—and certainly not, as postmodern theorists would argue, because they are fictions or imaginary constructs. These photographs fail to offer coherent, explicated knowledge because they are photographs, which is to say, they are isolated fragments of a larger truth. Photographs surely show us something, but just as surely they tell us nothing, for they are inherently lacking in narrative powers. For the proverbial beginning, middle, and end, the photograph substitutes a single moment; for the fluidity of connected events—connections through which we discover meaning—the photograph offers a freeze-frame. "Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy," Susan Sontag observed in On Photography. "Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph." A viewer cannot "know" reality from a photo any more than a reader can "know" reality by isolating one phrase from a paragraph. What happens, though, when the part begins to substitute for the whole, when "speculation and fantasy" are confused with context, when the emotional shock that photographs provide is mistaken for actual knowledge—mistaken, that is, for an understanding of the complex web of events, human choices and social conditions that we call "history"?
These questions are not new; they intrigued and sometimes plagued critics, journalists, political activists, artists, filmmakers, photographers, and writers for much of the twentieth century. (In the 1930s, for instance, James Agee and John Dos Passos were fascinated by the wondrous possibilities of the photograph, and by its very real limitations.3) But they have become more urgent in the last decade. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War were supposed to usher in the "peace decade"; instead, the world is starved for bread and awash in cheap guns.4 The 1990s saw the rise, or exacerbation, of an extraordinary number of civil wars in which civilian populations were targeted for massacres, mass rape, starvation, and extermination (think Bosnia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Chechnyna). These wars offer a plethora of "perfect" opportunities to the photojournalist, for photography excels at documenting the grotesque, the brutal, the moments of extreme anguish, grief, and cruelty.
At the same time, photography is the worst possible medium for exposing, or at least exploring, these conflicts, for their political meanings are often fantastically complicated, and difficult (if not impossible) to explain in traditional political terms. A photograph of desperate refugees can make you feel sad, but it cannot tell you that many of these refugees are guilty of mass murder, which is precisely why they are refugees. A photograph of an emaciated child can make you feel terrible, but it can illuminate nothing about the reasons for the catastrophe you are viewing. (Famines are not always caused by food shortages, and food aid will not necessarily end them.) A photograph of Memuna Mansarah may horrify or disgust you, but it will do nothing to elucidate the role of our government in propping up the sadists who mutilated her. Photography's ability to condense events into icons is its great power, and its great flaw.
The confusing, indeed dizzying, politics of the new world disorder have prompted "the feeling," as Michael Ignatieff has written, "that the world has become too crazy to deserve serious reflection." The global village has turned into a global plantation, and there is ample evidence that the motto (or is it the logo?) of the developed world is now, "Only disconnect." Our reliance on images is intimately bound up with this severance. The less we understand—or feel responsible to—the world, the more we rely on the shorthand of images to "explain" it to us; the more we rely on this shorthand, the less we understand. Photographs, and especially photographs of suffering, are the ideal medium for people who wish to appear well-informed, educated, and cosmopolitan—civilized, in short—while maintaining their political illiteracy. They are custom-made, too, for those who enjoy a nice bath of deep feelings—cluck-clucking over the misfortunes of others—while dispensing with the difficulties of critical thought. Tears are cathartic, but they often occlude vision.5
Photography's ability to condense events into icons is its great power, and its great flaw.
The practice of photography—and photojournalism too—has been radically altered, if not revolutionized, since the days of Robert Capa and Eugene Smith. So has the consciousness of many viewers—though not necessarily for the better. A photograph's ability to convey truth is always limited, but it is never fixed; it can, indeed must, expand or contract according to the context in which it is seen. Thus, in 1939, when the American photographer Julien Bryan photographed a Polish girl beside her dead sister—victims of a German air raid—"the effect on the British and American publics was almost like a call to arms," the British journalist Neal Ascherson has written. "The picture was read [as saying] … '[T]his is an enemy we have to destroy before he destroys the human race." Similarly, when Robert Capa photographed the suffering in Madrid, his international audience—rooted in the culture of antifascism—understood Franco as a political threat who represented an evil system. Today, when American viewers see a photo of snipers shooting civilians in Sarajevo, or of corpses piled high in Kigali, or of the once-vibrant cities of Kabul and Grozny reduced to rubble, it need not occur to us that we have the slightest connection to (much less complicity in) such sorry affairs.
More important, it is easy to view such events as essentially humanitarian disasters, akin to those created by floods or hurricanes, rather than as the result of evil men making conscious choices and of bad systems working out their necessary logic. And this "natural" interpretation of photographs—which is actually a form of passivity—can easily override the more overtly political intent of the photographer himself. In 1987, writing of Sebastião Salgado's wrenching photographs of famine in the Sahel, William Shawcross and Francis Hodgson concluded, "Their message is that humanitarianism is not enough." Though Salgado himself—a blunt critic of global capital—would no doubt agree, this message has been turned on its head.
Today, the photograph of famine does not suggest that war, dictatorship, and the inequitable concentration of wealth will inevitably result in mass starvation. Rather, it implies that terrible things happen—mysteriously, spontaneously, repeatedly—to certain unlucky people; the solution, obviously, is to send a check to Oxfam and get on with the day. The photograph of suffering now informs us that people all over the world need emergency donations of food, medicine, and blankets, not the sustained chance to create societies based on democracy, equality, and freedom from want. (This may be why photographs of Rwandans murdering each other—which implied the presence of intractable political and moral problems—elicited little response from the West, but photographs of Rwandans wasting away from disease inspired an outpouring of concern and money.) We have become adept at seeing abject victims who need our charity, but blind to fellow humans who demand different sorts of things—justice, perhaps, and the opportunity to make and remake history. The shift is categorical: we cannot learn anything about power or oppression from these photos—cannot read them as a "call to arms" to change the world—because we have become too comfortable and too insulated to think in systemic terms instead of sentimental ones. Despite the self-flattering paeans to our "visual literacy," we have lost the desire, the capacity, and the sheer energy to delve into the world that documentary photographs present; a shriveled isolationism has been born.6
This change in ethical vision is not confined to consumers of images. It is to be found, unsurprisingly, among their makers too. In the mid-1980s, the critic Andy Grundberg used the phrase "crisis of the real" to describe the state of postmodern photography. The crisis was, really, a crisis of extremes, of replacing one untenable position with an equally defective substitute. It went something like this: upon realizing that the truths photography offers are not—as had been claimed for more than a century—objective and complete but, rather, subjective and unfinished, a generation of artists concluded that the photograph must be a lie; upon realizing that images are an essential part of consciousness, they concluded that consciousness must consist only of images; upon realizing that the "I/thou" relationship every photograph encapsulates is a problematic and often unequal one, they eliminated the "thou." Like children who are permanently traumatized by the discovery that their parents are fallible, these photographers fled from the dangerous, messy world into the safety of the studio, where they could endlessly construct, deconstruct, assemble, manipulate, appropriate, and "rephotograph" the photograph—anything, that is, other than actually document the world.
We have become adept at seeing abject victims who need our charity, but blind to fellow humans who demand different sorts of things—justice, perhaps, and the opportunity to make and remake history.
When this stuff is confined to the academy or the gallery, it may be relatively harmless; when it seeps out into the world, things can get ugly. "One of the most crucial battles of our age [is] the war over the nature of reality," Salman Rushdie—a man who has had his own scuffles over questions of representation—wrote in 1987. The terrain of this battle is still, often, the photographic one—or, more specifically, the place where the photograph collides with history. Photographs are strange—worthless bits of paper that trace a costly past; Roland Barthes called them "magic."7 Perhaps this is why they conjure magical thinking, whereby reality and metaphor, events and depictions—and, eventually, victimizer and victim—become hopelessly conflated.
The Winter 1996 issue of Aperture, a leading photography magazine, is highly instructive in this respect. It contains two articles of interest. Each had previously appeared in the French press8 and, though the articles are separated by many pages and make no reference to each other, they constitute a kind of dialogue.
The first, entitled "No Pity for Sarajevo," is by Jean Baudrillard. It begins with an attack on Susan Sontag—whom Baudrillard identifies as a "fashionable" and "impotent" intellectual (the good professor, in contrast, must be marginal and virile)—for going to Sarajevo under siege. Sontag's position, it should be recalled, was not that Sarajevo should become a grateful ward of the West's largesse, but that Bosnian democracy should be defended militarily. Nonetheless, Baudrillard considers her trip there the utmost in "condescension." More than that, it is a kind of soul-stealing: "It is they who are strong, it is we who are weak—and who go searching in their lands for what it takes to regenerate our weakness and our loss of reality…. [I]t is they who are alive, and it is we who are dead…. [W]e import their vital forces.… One more unequal exchange." True, the Sarajevans were being shot, starved, and shelled—what Baudrillard delicately refers to as "to their credit, their objective misfortune"—even as he wrote. Nevertheless, he insists, those who find themselves in somewhat pleasanter surroundings—like, perhaps, Paris—are the sufferers of "true misery." Toward the end of the piece we learn that, unlike the condescending Ms. Sontag, Baudrillard has gleaned his information about Sarajevo from his favorite place: the television screen. He has moved beyond pity, but to an even less useful and more indulgent stance: the idealization of suffering.9
Twenty pages later, we come to the documentary filmmaker Marcel Ophuls, most famous for The Sorrow and the Pity, his beautifully complex, quietly devastating 1971 film about France under the Occupation (or, more specifically, about how France subsequently remembered itself under the Occupation). Ophuls, like Sontag, had gone to Sarajevo, where he had made a film. His view of the problem there is somewhat different than Baudrillard's, and he lambastes the noninterventionists of the West for "retreating before an army of mean and brutal soldiers, of drunks and rapists whose commanders are second-rate bluffers." He continues, "I reject the relativistic way of thinking that maintains that to show images or not to show them amounts to the same thing. When there are no cameras, it's total barbarism…. There is only one reality: either collective rapes are occurring or they are not—reality is not somewhere between the two."
Not somewhere between the two—but still awfully blurry. In the recent book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, a collection of horrific, shaming photographs, the critic Hilton Als writes: "Of course, one big difference between the people documented in these pictures and me is that I am not dead, have not been lynched or scalded or burned or whipped or stoned." On second thought, this is not such a big difference at all: "But I have been looked at, watched, and it's the experience of being watched, and seeing the harm in people's eyes—that is the prelude to becoming a dead nigger … a metaphorical lynching before the real one." Als writes convincingly of his terrifying encounters with racist policemen, but much of his essay concerns what he calls "being lynched by eyes" (an activity perpetrated by everyone from "white editors" to "certain colored people" who are "competitive" and "stupid"). In the alchemy of the photo-defined world, lynching thereby becomes a virtual, and visual, activity—not so much a lethal crime as a hostile attitude—while those whose lives have been smashed by war are the envy of Left Bank philosophers.
At the other end of the spectrum we can find, paradoxically, an effort to restore the narrative and moral authority the photograph possessed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Last summer, New York City's News-eum hosted an exhibit—extremely popular, at least on the day I attended—called "Capture the Moment." It was a disorienting hodgepodge of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs—photojournalism's equivalent to the Academy Awards—where the hair-raising and heartwarming could peacefully coexist. Thus, one encountered "Torture in Dacca" (Bangladesh, 1971) and "Brutality in Bankok" (Thailand, 1976) in proximity to "Class Act at Southwestern High" (United States, 1987), a snap of two teenagers kissing.10
The show opened with three images of refugee camps, entitled "Fleeing Kosovo" (1999); all had been published in the Washington Post, and they were accompanied by a somewhat mystifying quote from the paper's executive editor. "More than any other journalism we have seen of the war," he wrote, "their images tell the full story."11 The photos—such as one showing a baby being passed, over barbed wire, between members of a divided family—were undeniably moving. But in fact they told us little about the Yugoslav wars, and would be useless in ascertaining the moral import or political utility of the NATO bombing. Still, the editor knows his readers, and he is on to something important: in a culture in which history has ended but spectacle is forever, we need not—and perhaps can not—grapple with the thorny quandaries or moral challenges of the "full story." Too often, a photo of a baby will suffice.
Between the Scylla of Baudrillard's relativism and the Charybdis of the mainstream press' positivism: this is where the most aesthetically interesting and ethically meaningful work in contemporary photojournalism can be found. In this context, the French-born photographer Gilles Peress stands out as a model, albeit one that is sui generis. In his work in Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Iran, and, more recently, Bosnia and Rwanda (the last two part of his ongoing series originally titled "Hate Thy Brother"), Peress incorporates photography's subjectivity, its fragmentation, its narrative limitations, while always maintaining a sturdy respect for what he has called "reality itself" which "speaks with a vengeance."
Peress does not seem to seek the "decisive moment" that Henri Cartier-Bresson defined as the essence of good photojournalism. On the contrary, his photographs acknowledge the medium's essentially incomplete nature, the ways in which it glimpses history-in-the-making but withholds a full portrait of it. His 1983 book Telex Iran was shot during the hostage crisis, but Peress appears less interested in the "crisis" per se than in the revolution as it implodes, splinters, betrays itself. (The book opens with a viewer warning: "These photographs, made during a five-week period from December 1979 to January 1980, do not represent a complete picture of Iran or a final record of that time.") The stark yet crowded photos—of mass demonstrations and funerals, veiled and wary women, drug addicts, beggars, smoky tea shops, ornate mosques, bleak cemeteries, and guns, guns everywhere—are edgy, nervous, weirdly cropped, both confused and confusing. Rather than assert their own authority, Peress's images invite the viewer to seek insights outside the frame. Though his pictures are striking, dynamic, skillfully composed, and sometimes even beautiful, they contain a striking humility, reminding us of all they can not show.
Between the Scylla of Baudrillard's relativism and the Charybdis of the mainstream press' positivism: this is where the most aesthetically interesting and ethically meaningful work in contemporary photojournalism can be found.
The deliberate elusiveness of these photographs is not mannerism but, rather, a tool to prompt sharper awareness; it is Brecht's alienation technique—the opposite of solipsism—translated into photography. "He is sitting not only / In your theatre but also / In the world," Brecht reminded his actors (and himself) of the spectator. One feels that Peress, too, never forgets where his subjects, his viewers, and his images are resolutely situated; and, like Brecht, Peress refuses to offer the consolation of easy emotions such as pity and guilt even, or especially, when he is portraying intense suffering. His photographs suggest that historic understanding is not a fixed "thing" the photographer can "give" the viewer, but an ongoing activity that requires our alert engagement; we must collude with the photograph, and then reach beyond it.
Peress's 1995 book, The Silence, was shot in Rwanda during the genocide of the preceding year. It is divided into three sections: "The Sin," which documents the immediate aftermath of the massacres themselves; "Purgatory," which depicts the stampede of refugees into Tanzania and Congo (then Zaire); and "The Judgment," which portrays the Goma refugee camp, a cesspool of disease and brutality. The book opens with a few pictures of the prosaic—machetes, knives, the tools of an agriculturalpeople—but we know that these ordinary implements have been used for extraordinary purposes. It is as if the world of Walker Evans, who found such loveliness in the worn articles of everyday life, has been horribly turned on its head, for here we see how easily the mundane becomes barbaric.
It is difficult to write about this book for, as its title suggests, it records events that are in some sense beyond words, and beyond comprehension. The piles of putrefying corpses—bloodied, twisted, tortured, hacked; the mutilated, stunned children who somehow survived; the churches and schools that became killing centers…. These are obscene, indeed profane, images, though not nearly as obscene as the human actions they document.
The Silence dispenses with captions. Too often, this invites a flight from the jolt of specific meaning—these things were done to these people, in this place, at this time—into a vague and soothing aestheticism. In this case, though, the absence of text works differently.12 If you stick with this book—if you do not give in to the understandable impulse to hide it, burn it, deny it—The Silence's relentless images can take you on a strange and difficult journey. In order to look, really look, at these photographs, you will need to relinquish your useless, Pavlovian responses (from "Exterminate all the brutes!" to "Never again!"). You will need to abandon the impulse to separate yourself—on the basis of race, geography, or nation, or simply out of sheer revulsion—from the ordinary people it depicts. You will need to throw away the comforting illusion that you belong to a different tribe, a different category, a different species than the Rwandans. And having done all that, you will find yourself in a no-man's-land of knowing something terrible, but not nearly enough. You may have little choice, then, but to embark upon the hard work of attempting to discover more, to educate yourself, to understand how these things came to be, all the while perceiving that the inability to understand is a part of your humanity, too.13
Even more than Telex Iran, The Silence propels the viewer into pursuing a deeper knowledge of the events it documents; to refuse this process turns the book into pornography. Peress pushes us into a decisive moment: to look deeper, or turn away.
The political philosopher Michael Walzer has noted that though critics "make the world visible, they don't make it over." The same might be said of photojournalists. The photograph can introduce us to experience, or at least events; it can also, and easily, separate us from the world, parse meaning, sever us from the past. Its limitations—aesthetic and ethical—have been closely scrutinized; they will not be transcended through innovation, imagination, artistry, theory, or goodwill. So it is time, perhaps, to look at what we, the viewers, bring to the photograph and at how we choose to use it. The photographer, it has been said, brings not just her eye and her camera but the whole of her life to each picture she takes; surely the same must be true of the viewer. The photograph is not a one-way street.
Can we look at the world and still love it? This is the question that photojournalism poses.
Photojournalism shows us that human beings do things we would like to think are not human. It stretches our definition of humanity, though often in ways that grievously wound us.14 Can we look at the world and still love it? This is the question that photojournalism poses. Can we stare at what James Agee called "the cruel radiance of what is" without shielding our eyes? Can we drop the alibi of ignorance—the endless insistence that we did not know—and resist the seductive lures of solipsism, of denial, of dissociation? Can we acknowledge the reality of the world we have made, without forgetting that a different one is possible—and necessary?
At this particular point, questions, not answers, may be photojournalism's greatest gift. Can we weave the single moment the photograph documents into those that preceded it and those that may follow, creating a "now" that is not deracinated? Can the photograph become a connective tissue between ourselves and others, rather than a type of quarantine? Can we transform information into insight and even, possibly, wisdom? Do we approach the photograph as spectators, or as citizens of the world?
1. To its credit, in a subsequent issue Vanity Fair published a series of very different photographs. They were taken, astonishingly, by the Revolutionary United Front itself (and obtained from an anonymous source), and they document atrocities as they were being committed by the RUF. The people in these photographs are not cute, and it is unlikely that the photos will inspire pity (though they may well support previously suggested ideas about "insanity"). In this case, though, the reaction of Vanity Fair's readers may be of little import; according to the accompanying article, the photographs will be used as evidence in the war-crimes trials that have been tentatively planned for Sierra Leone.
2. None of this is meant to suggest that we live in a world composed primarily of images, or that people now make history for the purpose of making images (the so-called "CNN effect," which is especially easy to overrate in those parts of the world where nearly every household can tune in to CNN). It is only to say that inhabitants of the wealthy, presumably educated world look more and more to the quick hit of images (both still and televised) for their political information.
3. For an incisive examination of Dos Passos's disillusionment with photography—and particularly with the Dutch Communist filmmaker Joris Ivens, with whom he worked during the Spanish Civil War—see Carol Shloss, In Visible Light (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
4. Much of the world is neither safe nor comfortable. In the mid-1990s, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that 56 wars were being fought; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that, as of January 2000, there were 22 million refugees from armed conflicts. Approximately three billion of the earth's inhabitants currently live on less than two dollars per day.
5. David Rieff has noted that the problem with a politics based (only) on feelings is that "sentiment is almost the antithesis of real conviction."
6. The essentially apolitical worldview fostered by photographs has been noted by a wide range of people—including, recently, Subcomandante Marcos of Chiapas, no slouch himself at using new forms of media. Writing last year in Le Monde Diplomatique, Marcos decried the shift in the "centre of gravity … from the written word to visual effects," and to "what is immediate and direct." He argued that "progressive thinkers" now find themselves at a "considerable disadvantage," for it is difficult to "fight the power of the image with nothing but words." Still, he is optimistic; "skepticism" and "critical analysis" are powerful weapons with which to fight the "visual age," and oppositional intellectuals, he predicts, "will be able to see through the virtual beauty to the real misery it conceals."
7. Barthes's Camera Lucida is imbued with a kind of tender fury toward the photograph; the book may be the most conflicted love-letter of all time. He describes the photograph as, among other things, "matte," "stupid," "heavy," "motionless," "stubborn," "flat," and "undialectical."
8. The first in Libération, 1993; the second in Le Monde, 1994.
9. For Sontag's diametrically opposed views on the meaning of the Bosnian war, see "'There' and 'Here': A Lament for Bosnia," The Nation, 25 December 1995. Sontag excoriates "the morosely depoliticized intellectuals of today, with their cynicism always at the ready, their addiction to entertainment, their reluctance to inconvenience themselves for any cause, their devotion to personal safety."
10. The show was apparently envisioned as a giant Cliff Note of history: "The photographs of rebellions, revolutions and refugees make you realize how widespread conflict and suffering have been in the past sixty years," explained a Newseum press release.
11. The comment is especially puzzling given the Post's often excellent coverage of the Balkan Wars, particularly by reporter Peter Maass from Bosnia.
12. The Silence comes with an insert on Rwandan history beginning in 1897 that places the 1994 events—including the shameful actions of the US and French governments—in some perspective, but this text is separated from the photos themselves.
13. Perhaps a Rwandan Primo Levi or Paul Celan will emerge; until then, the best journalistic work (in English) I know that recounts the "stories" of the genocide, and their moral implications, is Philip Gourevitch's We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998). For a minutely detailed account of the genocide and its aftermath, see Alison Des Forges, Leave None To Tell the Story (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999). Mahmood Mamdani places the genocide within the context of a much wider historical and regional crisis in When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
14. And this expansion into knowledge can never contract into innocence. "[O]nce a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been," Hannah Arendt wrote. The "specific crime" to which Arendt alluded in this case was genocide.
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April 01, 2001
26 Min read time