Sunday, March 11, 2012

Picturing Violence: Aesthetics and the Anxiety of Critique

In Mark Reinhardt's introduction to Beautiful Suffering, he addresses the challenge of representing images of pain and human suffering and questions what end this representation serves.

The article begins, interestingly, with a black photograph, representative of images either not taken or not shown.  It is particularly interesting to think about what images were and were not allowed to be seen in American media outlets during this last decade of war.  Reinhardt mentions that photographs of dead American soldiers were especially absent, suggesting that images do hold significant power to sway public opinion, despite arguments that we as viewers are immune to and unaffected by photographs. 

There was a man in my neighborhood in Boston who lost his son in the war, and partially in response to this lack of visibility, created an elaborate memorial on his pickup truck with a flag-draped casket, political signs, and many pairs of combat boots.  He drove this truck around, seemingly all of the time, and often parked it in public places, calling attention to the unrepresented loss of American soldiers.  Here is a bit more about his story and the truck (though the photo does not show it fully decorated).  It was amazing how effective this was, as his truck became a recognized part of the community.  I often saw it on my way to the bus, out to get coffee, etc- moments when I was simply going about my day and not watching the news or intentionally engaging with thoughts of the war. 

The idea of what is or is not permissible to photograph and distribute, and the reasoning behind these decisions, is at the crux of this article. 

In addition to a dearth of images of dead American soldiers, Reinhardt also wrote of a lack of images that showed the suffering of Iraqi citizens.  In reference to a blank image, he writes, "this 'image' stands in for the reluctance of the news of the United States' media- widely noted by critics of the American occupation of Iraq- to present photographs that would reveal the death and violence that the invasion of 2003 visited upon ordinary Iraqis.  It is not that such photographs were never taken, but that American media outlets typically declined to show them, even when they were available."  (Reinhardt, 15)

This inquiry brought to mind the work of Nina Berman, whose project "Marine wedding," in which she photographed Marine Sgt. Ty Ziegel who "was seriously wounded by a suicide car bomber while serving in Iraq."  Her images document his return home and his relationship with his fiance, who he married and then later divorced.

I remember being very affected by these images the first time I saw them.  It is a very different engagement to see the effects of the war on a human life than it is to simply hear about them or read a description of them.  Yet, after reading this article, I have reservations about even posting them here.  What is the proper engagement with this work?  How can we, as viewers who will likely never go through what Ziegel went through, sufficiently acknowledge these images?  Are they a call to action?  A call for awareness?  Simply one person's difficult story?  Is the re-posting of these images simply "adding insult- another kind of injury- to the injury that is pictured?"  (Reinhardt, 14)  What kind of response, exactly, do/should these photographs inspire in us as viewers?

Granted, the dynamic of consent in these images is different from photographs such as Nachtwey's "Sudan," as Ziegel clearly consented to sharing his story visually, well after the moment of initial injury or suffering. 

Reinhardt questions whether our difficulty in defining what should or should not be shown, and to what end, is simply because of the severity of what is being pictured or if it has more to do with the very fundamental nature of representation itself.  Is it possible to make a photograph of pain or suffering, which by its very nature must be aestheticized on some level, that functions appropriately, provoking a productive response rather than a self-congratulating empathetic response?  Or that doesn't simply extend the suffering in a way that is humiliating to the people in the photographs?

Reinhardt writes about the photographs taken of prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib and how the camera functioned not only as a way to document abuse, but as an actual tool of torture.  The act of photographing was a part of the torture and humiliation being carried out.  He points out that of course torture could have, and did, exist without beyond documented.  The photographs that emerged from Abu Ghraib are even more horrifying in that their making was integral to the torture, and the torture to their making. 

Reinhardt writes, "torture in prisons could, of course, have been carried out without the aid of photography, as it has been on countless other occasions throughout history, but the cameras that were, in this instance, ubiquitous did not merely record what happened: they were instruments used to abuse and humiliate prisoners.  Nor was that use exhausted in the initial encounter.  In many pictures, the faces of the tortured stare out at us in a moment not only of fear and pain but also of shame, as we, by looking, prolong the shaming.  Viewing and disseminating these pictures thus complete the rituals of degradation, first enacted in the prison."  (Reinhardt, 16)

Of course I remember seeing all of these images when they were first released, but when I did a quick google search for photos to post in this blog, I was horrified all over again by how many of these images exist, and how readily available they are.  I actually do not think I will post any here in this blog, on account of them being awful and most people having already seen them.  Somehow it seems like an unnecessary insult to post them all over again for an audience who is already familiar with their horror.  It was interesting how Reinhardt tied the outrage over Abu Ghraib to the fact that people could see the torture being carried out, and that later accounts of even worse that were not accompanied by images did not inspire the same outrage.  Is it true that we (the majority of Americans who have not witnessed war directly) need to see the effects of war and torture to believe it is happening?  And then the question remains: what is an appropriate response? 

Reinhardt also addresses the issue of aestheticizing a moment of pain or suffering at all, especially when appreciating something aesthetically has often been linked to beautiful imagery, such as still lives or landscapes. 

"When photographers approach real human beings in their moment of affliction, however, things may get trickier.  If such a circumstance becomes the occasion to produce an image offering pleasure, and only pleasure, through an exclusive focus on the work's formal or internal properties- so that not only the causes of and responsibility for suffering but also its meaning and implications are wholly obscured while being used as resources for gratification- then the aestheticizing work of photography would obviously be an especially unproductive, indeed pernicious, response to the world's calamities and injustices."  (Reinhardt, 21)

Reinhardt continues to question whether most viewers believe that the formal qualities of an image prevent viewers from engaging critically with its content, suggesting that photographs can be simultaneously formal and socially powerful.   

He references James Nachtwey's photographs, specifically "Sudan."  Reinhardt writes, "the formal satisfactions- if one may speak that way of a picture that is so difficult, indeed excruciating, to look at- are directly reliant on the bodily ravages and contortions that signal the man's afflication."  (Reinhardt, 22)  He also questions whether this image is effective to inspire social change- is it possible to see this person as a fellow human or do we see him reduced simply to his condition?  Further, do we feel that we have appropriately acknowledged the situation simply by feeling empathy?  Ultimately, no amount of empathy alone (without action) could actually help people who are suffering, which raises questions, again, about what an appropriate response would be to such an image.  

The issue of text's role in relation to photographs of this kind is raised again.  Is text a more effective way to tell a story than an image?  Can an image ever actually transmit enough necessary information to inspire action and not simply empathy? 

Reinhardt writes that "Sudan" exemplifies a "'too-thin' and confused humanitarianism, in which the 'intention is to acknowledge the outcast as a human being' while the 'effect is to treat the human being as an outcast.'"  (Reinhardt, 32)

These images, and this discussion, called to mind Nick Nixon's photo series People with AIDS, which he made relatively early in the epidemic.  Accompanied by text written by his wife Bebe, the project shares photographs and information from the last few months of each of the subjects' lives.  To sit with the book, to read the stories and look at all of the pictures, is heart-wrenching.  Again, the context differs from war photography in several ways, but importantly in the issue of consent.  Nixon was photographing people during the moments of their suffering, but the subjects were certainly willing participants in their suffering being documented and seen.  This work was met with great criticism and controversy when it was first shown, particularly within the gay community, who were in the midst of experiencing an enormous loss.  It is an interesting dilemma to think of how to represent such a tragedy.  Did it inspire action to show the devastation of the disease that was taking place in a very real way?  What response did this work hope to inspire?  Does the role of the maker to the subject affect our reading?  Certainly, in this particular case, many people thought that it did, and still does, affect the work and by extension, the desired response to the work. 

Unfortunately I don't think there are easy answers to any of these questions.  

Reinhardt writes about several different photographic responses to the 9/11 attacks, contrasting the work of Joel Meyerowitz with Thomas Ruff. 

Joel Meyerowitz, The base of the North Tower, looking east toward the Woolworth Building (Fall 2001)

Thomas Ruff, jpeg ny01

Neither of the works actually depict human bodies or discernable suffering, though Meyerowitz's was clearly taken after the initial attack or moment of tragedy, while Ruff's shows the moment in which people were actually dying inside of the building, though we cannot see them.  Reinhardt argues, though, that Ruff's photograph is effective partially because it calls attention to its own aesthetics and uses those aesthetics to make the viewer engage more critically with the representation of tragedy or suffering.

"It is precisely through its aesthetic strategies, however, that this remarkable photograph invites both critical engagement and a kind of metacritical reflection on the mass-mediated character of disaster, the fascination such spectacles tend to inspire, and the confidence they tend to invite in their reality- a confidence undermined by the image's flagrant distortions."  (Reinhardt, 27)

The work of artists Curtis Mann and Krista Wortendyke also engages with how we experience tragedy or war through images and the media.  I know everyone is familiar with this work but I'll post a few examples:

Curtis Mann

Curtis Mann

Curtis Mann
Krista Wortendyke

Krista Wortendyke

Krista Wortendyke

Reinhardt seems drawn to work that actively acknowledges its own aesthetics, or perhaps questions its own aesthetics, as it raises questions about the very nature of representation.  The Ruff photograph, as well as Mann's and Wortendyke's work, certainly do this. 

Before closing, Reinhardt cites a few more examples of work he feels engages these issues (work by Shimon Attie, Alfredo Jaar, and Alan Schechner).  All of these artists interestingly engage issues of history and representation, though it does not feel necessary for the sake of this blog post to summarize each one.  

In addition to ethical issues regarding what a photographer chooses to represent, and in what way, Reinhardt adds another layer to the discussion by addressing the complexities that are inherently a part of photographic representation as a medium.  

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