01 October 2005

Embeddedness: In the Eye of the Beholder?

Among the oddities I have noticed as I started to think about politics and photography is that relevant essays appear in all sorts of out-of-the-way places. Well, these places are out-of-the way in the sense that they are distant from the sorts of journals I normally read, and the sorts of places you might expect to find them, and, most importantly, distant from one another. That latter distance presents an obstacle to any hope of developing a conversation among writers with similar, or overlapping interests.

Consider two essays. Judith Butler is a well known feminist theorist at Berkeley who occasionally writes on photography. She has written something of a memorial to Susan Sontag in the house journal of the Modern Language Association: "Photography, War, Outrage," PMLA 120(3):822-27, 2005. David Campbell teaches cultural & political geography at Durham University (UK) where he also is part of the core faculty at the Centre for Advanced Photographic Studies. He has written a review essay on Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others in a journal published by the Carnegie Foundation: "Representing Contemporary War," Ethics & International Affairs 17(2): 99-108, 2003. What is the subset of people who have even heard of both of these outlets let alone regularly read them both? I stumbled across each of these papers more or less accidentally. But reading them prompted me to think about what I means for photographers to be "embedded." This is a practice that Butler and Campbell both forcefully and properly criticize with respect to our current, disastrous war in Iraq.

Butler disputes Sontag’s claim that pictures cannot create and sustain a distinctive interpretation of an event because they are too selective:

"For our purposes, it makes sense to consider that the mandated visual image produced by embedded reporting, the one that complies with state and defense department requirements, builds an interpretation. ... We do not have to have a caption or a narrative at work to understand that a political background is being explicitly formulated and renewed through the frame. In this sense, the frame takes part in the interpretation of the war compelled by the state; it is not just a visual image awaiting its interpretation; it is itself interpreting, actively, even forcibly." (823)

This assessment seems pretty much right to me, even if I would locate the agency here more at the level of individual photographers (and their editors, employers and their advertisers, patrons etc.) as they respond to the constraints imposed on them by official government policies and those who enforce them. The "frame" of which Butler speaks emerges, I suspect, from those interactions. Here Campbell is helpful. For as he makes clear, if embedded photographers were complicit in the policies, they also regretted and, sometimes, resisted that complicity. But Campbell offers details of how the official frame has constrained images of the war. "One of the principle effects of having journalists, cameramen, and photographers embedded with particular units was to ensure that the stream of images coming back from the front line revolved around allied military hardware and personnel" (105). A notable consequence of this preoccupation is that in the "coverage of the Iraq war ... the images of the conflict produced by the allies media [... are ... ] relatively clean, being largely devoid of the dead bodies that mark a major conflict. In this outcome the media is a willing accomplice" (105). So one effect of embedding photographers with military units is that we quite literally have been spared the experience of regarding the pain of others. The war has been sanitized for us. And that interpretation arguably has helped to sustain popular acquiescence in, if not exactly enthusiasm for, the war and the ill-advised foreign policy surrounding it. It also plausibly helps sustain a broader attitude toward war as a relatively clean and costless instrument of foreign policy.

Here , it seems to me, we need to follow out the implication of this sort of analysis for thinking about politics and photography more generally. If "embedding" photographers with military units can, as Butler and Campbell suggest, generate and sustain an interpretation of the war in Iraq specifically and war as a phenomenon more generally, does it operate in analogous ways in other settings? I mentioned below an exhibition -"Democratic Republic of Congo - The Forgotten War" - that is currently showing in New York. The exhibition is a collaboration between photographers of VII Agency and Medicins sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders. I have not seen it yet but plan to do so next weekend. The title brings to mind Sontag’s insistence that events that induce massive suffering - famine, war, forced dislocation - only become real for those not directly involved by being photographed.

There are complicated issues here. Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF) is an NGO. It is not prosecuting a war. Instead MSF is engaged in the admirable effort to remedy the mess that wars and other man-made disasters cause. And so this exhibition is documenting the human consequences of war not (to the best of my knowledge) depicting ongoing battles. MSF is not even representative of aid agencies more generally. But the photographers who work with them would, in all likelihood, not have access to the hospitals, refugee camps, and aid distribution centers without the cooperation of the organization. What difference does it make to popular interpretations of the horrible conditions in the Congo that the VII photographers are "embedded" with MSF rather than with local military units, or (counter factually) United Nations peacekeeping forces, or some other aid agency such as the Red Cross?

This might seem a preposterous set of comparisons. But as Campbell rightly reminds us in yet another essay, aid agencies have "visual strategies" that are hardly innocent. As he points out with respect to images of famine in Africa, the "imaging of famine remains controversial." Here is Campbell’s harsh assessment the standard ways photographers embedded with aid agencies depict of famine:

"These images portray a particular kind of helplessness that reinforces colonial relations of power. With their focus firmly on women and children, these pictures offer up icons of a feminized and infantilized place, a place that is passive, pathetic, and demanding of help from those with the capacity to intervene. They are manifest most obviously in the mother-and-child images that have dominated both still photography and video footage of famines." ("Salgado & the Sahel: Documentary Photography & the Imaging of Famine." In Rituals of Mediation. F. Debrix & C. Weber, eds. Minnesota. 2003).

One could pursue this line of thought, drawing on existing commentary, to question the work of photographers like Avedon who are (in part) "embedded" with advertising agencies or even canonical figures like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange who were "embedded" with the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s - the FSA, after all, could be seen as a propaganda agency for the Roosevelt administration. Again, this line of thinking pushes us to consider not "photographs" and their relation to the subjects they represent, but the various uses of photography and how the differ.

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Anonymous smart shade of blue said...


I really hadn´t controlled for the "intellectual property" variable. You have a point, although you could still analyze some photos and just make a link to them (yes, I agree that´s a not-so-good-second best). But I realize that maybe I got the real objective of your blog wrong for the description by CT. It was, let´s say, "lost in translation"...

Good luck with your interesting blog.

02 October, 2005 08:22  

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