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Looking at Exposed: “Witnessing Violence”

Many decades before he captured Paris Hilton weeping in a police car, Nick Ut took an iconic photograph of Kim Phúc fleeing an American napalm attack in agony.  It’s not exactly the photographer’s change of subject that concerns me, but the fact that none of the photographs in the “Violence” section of Exposed were taken […]

Many decades before he captured Paris Hilton weeping in a police car, Nick Ut took an iconic photograph of Kim Phúc fleeing an American napalm attack in agony.  It’s not exactly the photographer’s change of subject that concerns me, but the fact that none of the photographs in the “Violence” section of Exposed were taken in this century.

That  should put a safe historic distance between me and the images. Oliver Lutz’s 2009 trick of inserting museum viewers into the crowd that surrounds a lynched body uses a photograph nearly a century old, instead of say, the Abu Ghraib snapshots. Lutz puts the us in the middle of a bad history, but it is history, and time has a wonderful way of diluting responsibility.

Age aside, the  images in “Violence”  don’t always affect me as I think they will or should.  This one  reminds me weirdly of the sadistic photographs in the “Voyeurism” section:

Tom Howard, The Electrocution of Ruth Snyder, 1928. Gelatin silver print. Collection SFMOMA.

Was there a question in here about character, about crime and just punishment or the definition of “cruel and unusual?”  Instead of provoking thought about society and justice, this awful throned figure, her attendants cropped out of the image, makes me wonder about Death itself and its boundary with Life. Given the subject, this was not the ethical looking I was aiming for.

It is the images of the harmed but living that touch me (Bill Burke’s amputee in the Hôpital Calmette, Phnom Penh, for example). Here, respectful attentiveness to another’s life seems like a nearly reverent act. And yet, images of  massacred remains as  in Susan Meiselas‘s photograph of a killing field in Nicaragua, fail to engage my humanistic concern. The corpses are permanently other, objects for me of scrutiny rather than pity.  Instead of compassion, I feel horror at the barbarism–somewhere outside the photograph, and surely with no connection to me–that made them so.

Does an ethical response to images of violence begin in feelings or in thought?  Do the values of compassion and justice require different approaches?  Should I care for the victims or stop the killers?  Is atrocity a problem rooted in psychology or in society?

Malcolm Browne, Thich Quang Duc, Buddist priest in Southern Vietnam, burns himself to death to protest the government’s torture policy against priests, June 11, 1963, 1963. Gelatin Silver Print. Collection of Alan Lloyd Paris; © Associated Press/Malcom Browne

In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag tackled images of atrocity, how we  respond to seeing them, and how we should respond.  She recognized that horrific sights can fascinate and that feeling sympathy only leads to feeling innocent of responsibility. Instead she urged “paying attention” to what images mean, “thinking” about where responsibility for savagry lies, and considering the possibility of action.

Of course we haven’t protested, thought, or wept state warfare or human cruelty out of existence yet, not since Goya’s Disasters of War, not since Alexander Gardner’s Civil War dead, not since Nick Ut’s crying Vietnamese girl, not since the abused of Abu Ghraib.

Effectiveness or its lack doesn’t account for the continuing power of these images. The dog in this old news photo  is always seconds away from closing in on his victim:

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United Press International, Suffolk, Virginia, Race Confrontation, May 6, 1964, 1964. Gelatin silver print. Collection SFMOMA. © United Press International, Inc.

The print’s  graininess makes the event recorded  seem slightly unreal, like a bad dream come back to haunt a guilty conscience.  Is racism  in this country fading away like an old print?  Does it keep repeating, morphing perhaps into new forms, finding new victims?

It still seems odd that a selection of images of mostly state-sponsored violence includes nothing contemporary.  Are we off the political hook for fresh inhumanities undertaken on our behalf?  Are we waiting for news to turn into elegy? Will images deliver us from doing evil?

Next time:  Surveillance.

Postscript:  The war images in this section of Exposed remind me of Wilfred Owen’s powerful poem about death in the trenches.  Do you have links to more contemporary war poems?