Mark Reinhardt – The Ethics Continued
This week’s reading was interesting, but in a different sort of way. Where Sontag just poses questions over and over again, Reinhardt attempts to find artists (photographers in this case) that are trying to break with what Sontag found so problematic. He is also interested in the idea of beauty and aesthetics, something that he rightly does not believe are the same thing but thinks that many mistake one for the other. The essay comes from a catalog that accompanied an exhibition titled Beautiful Suffering and that was exhibited in 2006.
Subversion of Suffering
The Abu Ghraib photos are an interesting example of picturing suffering. I find them interesting because they were created with an entirely different intention. These were not images that were created to cry out to the public about the tragedies that were being committed at Abu Ghraib, these were images that were originally produced to humiliate the prisoners. And while there had been reports of torture being committed by the guards, as Anthony Lewis pointed out, “it was seeing the mistreatment that produced the outrage.”
But it was interesting to read about how those images ended up being published. In many cases, specifically those involving nudity, the genitalia were blurred but many of the faces were left. However, as Reinhardt points out:
“American newspapers and magazines did conclude that decency required the suppression of many photographs and the alteration of others, but these editorial decisions appeared to be focused more on the readership’s sense of propriety than on the dignity of the tortured…Pictures deliberately blurred genitalia to the point of illegibility. Faces, however, apparently required no such digital drapery: in the Post, as in most other publications, they were not altered. And so the victims were identifiable and – since many of these photographs remain in circulations – anyone may still look at them, endlessly extending the moment of violation.”
But the question then remains, should the images have ever come out? I still think it is important for these images to have been released, because I think it is the only way that those responsible will be held accountable for their actions. The debate about what to blur then becomes the matter. The story gets interesting though, because when the ALCU filed a FOIA request to get a look at the rest of the images, the government fought the request by sighting the Geneva Conventions, “arguing that releasing photographs from Abu Ghraib would be a form of public humiliations and would thus constitute a violation of [those] Conventions.” So, what I guess was said was that using photography in private to humiliate a torture a human being is fine, only when releasing those images to a larger audience (larger than the one that the soldiers were threatening the prisoners with sending the images to) does it become a violation of the Geneva Conventions and “public humiliation.”
This reminds me of a case that just happened and the subsequent law that was passed in Iowa. In Iowa, an animal rights group had members apply to work on farms and then filmed abuses that were taking place. They then put the footage together and made a PSA about animal cruelty. Farmers were upset (I guess about the fact that they don’t treat their animals very well?) and so the Iowa legislature, in all it’s great wisdom, decided to enact a law that states it is illegal to get a apply for a job in the farming industry with the intention of filming abuses. That action is not punishable by a year in prison plus a fine. The lawmakers say that this won’t prevent abuses from being filmed by other employees, just not by employees that intended to do it before they were hired. However, that is one slippery slope. I’m curious what would happen if we applied this to human suffering?
Stopping back by Abu Ghraib for a minute, I found the section about Ali Qaissi admitting that he was the hooded man in the now famous image extremely interesting. First, it was interesting to hear about someone using the images for their own purpose, in a sense taking back some of the power from those that had humiliated him. But then to learn that he had lied and was not indeed the person in the photograph (although he was a prisoner and tortured). It would seem that he did gain some notoriety because of it as well. I see that as co-opting the suffering of another even though he still experienced something like it first hand. It is an interesting situation.
I can’t believe that I am going to be writing about Ruff again, but I found the section about Ruff’s JPEG images, specifically the one of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 especially important. While there are many images of suffering in the world, Ruff’s image jpeg ny01 seems to escape some of the classic tropes of what constitutes an image of suffering. The biggest aspect being that there is no physical suffering pictured. Granted, because we know the event (a strong reference in American, and much of Western culture) we as viewers understand that there are people suffering inside. But they are not pictured here for us to see, we only have the allusion to that suffering. The image goes further though. The image is highly pixelated. This is important for two reasons. First, it distorts the image even further. Which disassociates the suffering and further removes it. Even though we know there is suffering to be had inside the building, the distortion prevents the viewer from looking for that suffering. It, like much of Ruff’s previous work, creates only a projected surface to be looked at and makes it difficult for the viewer to penetrate the image and in effect be ‘in’ the picture. The second aspect of the distortion is to recall or reference both the media coverage of the event, perhaps making a comment on how images of suffering such as this one are portrayed and broadcast to a large public audience effectively turning an event of mass devastation and suffering into a form of entertainment to be viewer repeatedly, as well as the mass spreading of images like this through social media and reposting (which each time degrades the quality of the original image). Reinhardt says, “Ruff’s photograph also invites doubt or anxiety about its own labor.” Ruff’s image is more a comment on the culture that created it rather than a cry for help or mercy for those pictured suffering in the image. This image does not promote outcry nor is it supposed to.
The other person that is talked about in the essay is Shimon Attie and her Steinstrasse 22. This is another example of a subversion of the photographing of suffering. This work focused on an area of Berlin that had once been a Jewish area, however, after the second world war it had been cleared out of it’s previous inhabitants. Attie went back and projected images of the former residents. These were not photos from concentration camps, but were many times photographs from before the war began. Therefore, while many of those pictured had presumably suffered and many had been murdered, they were not suffering in the images presented. What Attie’s work does is to point to the fact that someone that was here, as certain people as a whole, have disappeared. Everyone knows why, but the image acknowledges the fact that they have been removed. Reinhardt mentions that these “photos cannot but conjure the policy of systematic murder.” I find this attempt a smart subversion of what we think of as picturing suffering.
I find it interesting that the photos that are also critiqued in this essay are the one’s that Attie took of the projections. I am not sure why it is necessary to critique these. I understand that the images that Attie took are what is exhibited, but this work is much more conceptual than photographic. I don’t think that the art is on the gallery wall in this case, the art is the performance and the experience of the projection. The images that Attie actually took are just documents of that performance. This is equivalent to critiquing some of Vitto Acconci’s photographs instead of the performance that they document and to me, the critique of Attie’s photographs is totally irrelevant.
One other artist I’ll bring in to the conversation is someone I have written about before. I will just copy in what I said about them earlier:
Broomberg and Chanarin have also found a way to escape the type of documentary photography that Sontag is commenting on in Regarding the Pain of Others, and I would be curious to know what she thought about this move. The project that they worked on was titled The Day Nobody Died. From their website about the project:
In June of 2008 Broomberg and Chanarin traveled to Afghanistan to be embedded with British Army units on the front line in Helmand Province. In place of their cameras they took a roll of photographic paper 50 meters long and 76.2 cm wide contained in a simple, lightproof cardboard box. They arrived during the deadliest month of the war. On the first day of their visit a BBC fixer was dragged from his car and executed and nine Afghan soldiers were killed in a suicide attack. The following day, three British soldiers died, pushing the number of British combat fatalities to 100. Casualties continued until the fifth day when nobody died. In response to each of these events, and also to a series of more mundane moments, such as a visit to the troops by the Duke of York and a press conference, all events a photographer would record, Broomberg and Chanarin instead unrolled a seven-meter section of the paper and exposed it to the sun for 20 seconds. The results – seen here – deny the viewer the cathartic effect offered up by the conventional language of photographic responses to conflict and suffering. (emphasis mine)
This is interesting because where photographers normally would take photos, Broomberg and Chanarin only recorded the light as seen by a roll of photo paper. While a typical photograph of one of these events would create a window into the world of warfare, Broomberg and Chanarin only create a relic, an object that was specifically created in response to a certain event. It does not picture the event and the only allusion to that event is the title. This is how Broomberg and Chanarin escape the normal tropes of war photography.
Aesthetics v. Beauty
The other aspect that Reinhardt writes about is the idea of ‘beautification’ and ‘aestheticization’. I think that these two things are different, yet I have mixed them up in the past as well. The idea that an image of suffering can be aesthetically pleasing and that it can be beautiful are two very different things. As photographers, we inherently take aesthetically pleasing photographs. That is the difference (supposedly) between a photographer and someone with a camera. That aestheticization can have the effect of making people look. As bad as it is to say, viewers do not look at aesthetically unpleasing photographs. If you are someone who wishes to convey a sense of suffering and perhaps urge viewers of the image to be of some help to those pictured, that image must, in a sense, be attractive. Does that mean the image has to beautiful? No.
To defend Nachtway to an extent–although I have a number of other issues with him–his images are aesthetically pleasing, but an example like Sudan does not appear beautiful, at least not to me. Maybe where Delahay’ s images fail is that they are beautiful. They are not simply well-composed photographs, but because of how he shoots, how he prints, and how he exhibits, he has turned them into beautiful, covetable objects. Once they become collectable objects, any aspiration for a message to the viewer, a cry for help, evaporated.
I find that this is the problem with some of Salgado’s work as well. He photographs people with extremely hard lives, and transforms that form of suffering into beautiful objects. Things to be coveted. And when that happens, the viewer begins to care more about the object than the people pictured. I think that is what Sontag was getting at, but I think she used the wrong vocabulary. We are photographers and we inherently make well-composed, aesthetic images. Those images make people look, but that does not mean that they have to be beautiful things.