January 20, 2005
Oh, I put it out of my mind, but it started in the morning, with the picture of the little girl that ran in the Times; Steve Gilliard posts it (fourth picture down, you can't miss it) and the rest of the series. This picture could be like the napalm-girl, or my lai, it is that bad. Those pictures got lucky; it is random, how a terrifying picture of war can sink or swim. Unless someone has a theory of horrific celebrity.
Posted by dbrown at January 20, 2005 12:35 AM
actually, Sontag probably does have a theory of horrific celebrity, but I have not read that book yet.
"Only starting with the Vietnam War is it virtually certain that none of the best-known [war] photographs were set-ups. And this is essential to the moral authority of these images. The signature Vietnam War horror-photograph from 1972, taken by Huynh Cong Ut, of children from a village that has just been doused with American napalm, running down the highway, shrieking with pain, belongs to the realm of photographs that cannot possibly be posed...
"To catch a death actually happening and embalm it for all time is something only cameras can do, and pictures taken by photographers out in the field of the moment of (or just before) death are among the most celebrated and often reproduced of war photographs."
--Sontag, from "Regarding the Pain of Others"
though this passage, near the end, seems essential as context, as these and other photographs stand as records of horror but also as catalysts for our political dialogue and of our political leadership,
"Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood."
But the last is a catch 22, or at least a very fine line to walk, between being shockable -- moveable -- and being a "moral or psychological adult." I have seen thousands of pictures of depravity, and most do not rise above the general level of noise, and yet here we are in a war and the pictures -- especially these, of the little girl -- shock.
To be shocked--to be disturbed--is an adult and moral response. But I think Sontag's point is precise: once shocked, you do not return to the same set point, you do not resume a naive faith, a belief, in humanity's infallibility. That does not mean you are not moved when you behold depravity and cruelty; it means you do not claim, for your own sake or for the sake of politics or religion, that such depravity is unthinkable. You remember.
I still cannot speak to Sontag -- really gotta read that, yes? -- but the discussion reminds me, has to remind me, of Hebrew school and being gradually inundated with imagery of the Holocaust. Shock wears away, to the point that you may remember, but you also forget. (There is the problem of scale, too; the personal and the institutional, the circle of two and the circle of many, or however Trow puts it.)
In your Sontag quote above -- "to catch a death actually happening" -- the act she descibes is not that uncommon, and not what has moved the masses. Action-death shots have been with us since at least the Spanish Loyalist (Capa) and then there's Eddie Adams's Viet execution; all that goes back to Crimea and the Civil War. It's the emotionally arresting pictures, though, that get through -- Napalm Girl, My Lai, the Thousand Yard Stare.
But then, the picture of the girl ran in the Times, and it ran on the BBC, and there is no difference, except in my mind.
She speaks to the Spanish loyalist (which she does stands as a celebrity to horror), and to the execution. In fact, immediately after that sentence discussing a "death actually happening" she talks about how the execution photo both captures that talisman and fails, on some level, because it is not fully genuine--it was staged, by the executioner if not by the photographer. I nearly included that, but thought it might complicate the discussion. But you are too smart for simplicities.
And, yes, she resurrects the question of whether the nature of mass media--the deluge, the repetition--numbs us to sensation. In "On Photography," she had suggested it does; in "Regarding the Pain of Others," she distances herself from that thesis.
I wonder, though, how much time she spent considering the different responses we might have to a high-volume push-medium (tv) versus a high-volume pull-medium (this thing here). What if someone is seeking out those images of horror, clicking further and deeper into the ether to find, again, that shock? Will he or she still be shocked, exposure after exposure? Or will it become numbed unless and until a new level of depravity is found?
I am thinking, of course, of sexually explicit material (my specialty, these days, still), which, as a business gets something--perhaps--out of diving into those darkest recesses. Something different than those who send us to war.
way back in graduate school, when photoshop was still a mysterious force, i spent some time mucking around with some war photographs. i'm not really clear what my intention was but something about mapping the reasons or the ideas of why these images happened, to direct the emotions. i was born in 1972, these images are history to me. i think i wanted to incorporate some context, or something.
needless to say, they didn't go over well in critiques. but the reason i'm telling you all this, is because 20+ years after the facts the professors were still shocked and outraged by the original photographs. after dismissing me as juvenile and pedantic, the professors would spend the rest of the time talking with each other about agent orange and dow chemcical and nixon and bombing hanoi and secret wars and protests, etc. these pictures, the originals, were very much alive for them.
and, it was also the only time i've ever seen the pomo cut and paste anything types disturbed. one actually turned to me and asked rhetorically, menacingly, if i had taken that picture. he backpedaled in a heartbeat all the jive he'd been dishing out for years.
the message was clear: don't mess with napalm girl