“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.”
“Picturing Violence: Aesthetics and the Anxiety of Critique” is Mark Reinhardt’s introduction to the exhibition, titled, Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain and the accompanied it. The questions raised pertain to images of human suffering: who and what is allowed to be photographed, how these images should be considered and shown to an audience, and reasons behind these choices.
“Photographers who take pictures of people in pain of in situation of danger or degradation sometimes aim to arouse concern, to provoke indignation, perhaps even to move viewers to action. The photographs solicitations may fail. Viewers may remain unmoved, un persuaded, or simply uninterested.(Reinhardt, 13).”
“The meaning and effects of the images are at once singular and shared, intimate and public. The issues in the world beyond the image are as large as life and death but also because of the dilemmas involved in the framing of the pictures themselves.(Reinhardt, 14).”
A common term for expressing concern about ways in which photographs can fail in response to human suffering is “aestheticization.” The reasoning for the exhibition and book is a way to explore this criticism, “aestheticizing suffering is inherently both artistically and politically reactionary, a way of mistreating the subject and inviting passive consumption, narcissistic appropriation, condescension, or even sadism on the the part of the viewers (Reinhardt, 14).
Reinhardt addresses the reluctance of American news outlets to publish photographs that revealed death, violence, and suffering during the invasion of 2003. The only images were aerial shots, further distancing us from what was happening. We cannot protest or act against that which we cannot see.
This is why the images from Abu Ghraib had a devastating impact that changed public opinion on the war and of the military. I have only seen the “iconic” images and maybe two videos from Abu Ghraib. I know more exist and one day, I will bring myself to look at them. I liken them to my experience with images of the Holocaust. Holocaust images still have an emotional hold over me, these images operate in a similar way for me, however, the Abu Ghraib images exist differently. I think about the time frame in which it happened, I was a senior in high school, the fact that they are in color, they are not aestheticized, which is critique of concentration camp photographs, that the people who let this happen are still alive and possibly still involved in the military. Also, knowing that some or most of the victims were civilians. Those images also may have damaged what else can be shown to the public. “The camera that were, in this instance, ubiquitous did not merely record what happened: they were instruments used to abuse and humiliate prisoners.” Most did not have anonymity.
One of the points that Reinhardt addresses is that photographs of suffering are damaging and actually promote suffering. “Insofar as photographs of this kind are performative artifacts that help to create or prolong the very suffering they document… endingly extending the moment of violation.” (Reinhardt, 17). I do not fully agree with Reinhardt position. My understanding of Reinhardt’s use of suffering is negative, but it is not actual suffering. The image is a shadow of what happened, it needed to be documented and shown. “It was seeing the mistreatment that produced the outrage.” (Anthony Lewis). He also suggests that “when and how to present them requires careful consideration (Reinhardt, 17).” A point that both Azoulay and Sontag addressed: Azoulay -you have to stop watching and start looking and Sontag “If we could do something about what the images show, we might not care as much about these issues.” These images still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable doing… Don’t forget.”
This is where I can interject this photograph and the story behind its use.
Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard, 21. Bernard was hit with a rocket propelled grenade in a Taliban ambush Friday, Aug. 14, 2009 in the village of Dahaneh in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. The photograph was taken by an embedded AP (Associated Press) photograph, Julie Jacobson. I encountered this story and this photograph when it was released to the public. The Marine was killed and the photographed was released days after his funeral out of respect, however, prior to the release, AP asked the Bernard’s family if they could publish the photograph. His family declined and the photograph was published anyway. There was public backlash at the time, from his family specifically his father a USMC veteran, John Bernard (Interview with John Bernard) and Defense chief Robert Gates. Gates wrote to the AP President:
“Out of respect for his family’s wishes, I ask you in the strongest of terms to reconsider your decision. I do not make this request lightly. In one of my first public statements as Secretary of Defense, I stated that the media should not be treated as the enemy, and made it a point to thank journalists for revealing problems that need to be fixed – as was the case with Walter Reed.”
“I cannot imagine the pain and suffering Lance Corporal Bernard’s death has caused his family. Why your organization would purposefully defy the family’s wishes knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish is beyond me. Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right – but judgment and common decency.”
The criticism was aimed at AP and the photographer. Questioning if she could have reacted and helped save Joshua Bernard and because of the praise she received. I did not have an issue with the photograph being published, when I first encountered and even now. My criticism stems from the fact the asked if the photograph could be published and disrespected the wishes of the family. I posted a couple links about the
Aestheticization in photography is when suffering is transformed into “an object of enjoyment”; the photograph is judged on the “aesthetic attitude” and focused on the formal qualities that make the images beautiful instead of the depicted suffering within the frame. Reinhardt uses the photography of James Nachtwey and Sebastiaão Salgado to illustrate this point. It is a common criticism for the works of Nachtwey and Salgado. For Nachtwey, I never saw his work solely operating as examples of aesthetization or judged his work specifically on that. More importantly because of the example Reinhardt uses. Yes, this picture is aesthetically pleasing, however because the formal qualities, the tonal range, the framing, emphasis is on the figure. It is impossible to ignore their circumstance of suffering. Also, from studying the images of Nachtwey and being introduced to his work through the film, War Photographer, my understanding of his intentions is that on an anti-war photographer that uses his photography as a call for action and his own action.
Excerpt from interview with James Nachtwey:
Have you ever been in a situation where you put down your camera and interceded in what was taking place in front of the lens?
That’s happened several times. But most often, when there’s a soldier wounded, they’re tended to by their own comrades or a combat medic, in which case my getting into it would be superfluous. My job is to record it and communicate it. And I stick to that except in those cases where I’m the only one who can make a difference — if there isn’t someone there to help or there aren’t enough people to carry the wounded to a safe place. Once in Haiti and once in South Africa, I rescued people from lynch mobs, from being beaten to death. I tried to do the same thing in Indonesia but wasn’t able to save him. When it’s clear to me that I’m the one person who can make a difference, I put down my camera.
Is there anything further you want to say about your work?
Yes, there is one thing that is important for people to understand — that’s perhaps a misconception about how the press works in these situations — and that is, especially in the case of famines, when we’re photographing victims of starvation, we’re not just walking away from them and leaving them there without food or help. We’re photographing the famine victims in feeding camps and feeding centers that have already been established by humanitarian organizations. They are already being helped as much as they can be helped at that time.
The events of September 11th, 2001 is among the most photographed event in world history. “It brought questions about the ethics of representing suffering into broad popular circulation.”
The resulting Joel Meyerowitz’ “conveys a sense not only of destruction and lose but also of active, even heroic, recovery.” The fact that these specific are taken after the events these images should be considered differently than those of Nachtwey. They are not fixated on the moment of suffering, but on the rebuilding.
With the comparisons, Joel Meyerowitz and Thomas Ruff and James Nachtwey and Alfredo Jaar, Ruff and Jaar have a conceptual approach to the subject of suffering and it seems that Reinhardt praises this way as being a more valid way to approach these subjects. To “indirectly” address indirectly so to speak, however, the reading of these pieces are dependent on the archive that is already available. These conceptual pieces could not exist or have the same impact without already having visual knowledge. They operate because of the visual language or codex, that has been established. I think the point he is trying to make, hopefully, that images like those of Meyerowitz and Nachtwey, and photojournalist exist in order, to get to this more conceptual place. In a way, this way of working, reactive and ‘pointing the camera’ at something, is valid because it validates the conceptual works, and that is the actual work that points towards action. But even with Jaar’s installation piece, it does not mean that it will have more impact. Reinhardt even states that the published piece in the book fails in comparison to the actual piece in person. The viewer relationship also, to quote Sontag (Reagarding the Pain of Others, pg 125) “We’ — this ‘we’ is everyone who never experience anything like what they went though — don’t understand. We don’t get it.”
The part in the Reinhardt, I find most intriguing is the idea of acknowledgment. Reinhardt uses a quote from Sontag On Photography, “unfortunately photographs do not explain; they merely acknowledge.Sontag’s resistance to beauty in particular, or aesthetic qualities more broadly, flows from that sense the photographs do not or cannot tell us what we need to know.” (Reinhardt, 30.) to begin this conversation. In opposition to Sontag, Reinhardt employs the work of philosopher Stanley Cavell.
“For Cavell, acknowledgement is precisely what it is that we must offer when confronted with human suffering. It is the difficult, often painful, and thus often avoided act of responding appropriately to the pain of others. The acknowledgement of another calls for recognition of the other’s specific relation to oneself… To avoid acknowledgement is, fundamentally, to refuse to grapples with one’s relation to another. In terms that are more or less the inverse of Sontag’s Call suggest that recognition of such relations can come only through acknowledgement: the work can never be undertaken by knowledge alone. In response to problems of suffering, photographs fail when they solicit responses that fall short of acknowledgement in this sense of the word. But photographs fail morally and politically when they invite from a responsive viewer is something less than acknowledgment; this ethical and political failure is tied to the pictures’ strategies and effects. (Reinhardt, 31).
Reinhardt again uses James Nachtwey’s image of the starving man in Sudan to define this failure. “It is not clear how the photograph ask us to access our relationship to – our complicity in – the situation. The image issues no proposal or invitation on this matter. It is a failure of acknowledgment. (Reinhardt, 31). And Jaar as his opposition, “Jarr in opposition offers a kind of indictment (theatricality) “His work is about seeing and the failure to see and about how both implicated his audience in the situation to which the work response. (Reinhardt, 33).