24 November 2008


This post is going to meander around a little bit, tying together a set of comments and concerns about using captions to name the subjects in photographs. In part, I want to make some notes to myself. But since that is what I do a lot of the time here, I'll prompt some remarks from readers too.


Let's start with some pictures & captions, each from the "24 Hours in Pictures" for 20 November 2008 at The Guardian:

Democratic Republic of the Congo: Furah carries wood and
her 18-month-old daughter, Shukyru, down the road from
Rupango to Sake
. Photograph © Jerome Delay/AP.

Soemmerda, Germany: Roberto Chudzinski checks solar modules
on the roof of Soemtron AG, a sustainable energy company.
Photograph © Jens Meyer/AP

Doma, Zimbabwe: Vhukani Sibanda snaps the neck of a bird he
caught to eat. Photograph © Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP.

It struck me that in each instance the caption names the person depicted. It may just be me, but it seems like this is a relatively new practice. I thought at first that maybe is was because all the photographers are from AP. But there are other photographs in the same slide show that are from AP photographers but do not name their subjects. A quick browse of the offerings for several other days suggests that this practice is hit or miss. So, have I simply been missing this all along?


Among the absurd things Susan Sontag does in her Regarding the Pain of Others is draw a direct parallel between Sebastião Salgado's Migrations project and the photographs Nhem Ein took documenting the victims that the Khmer Rouge tortured and murdered at Tuol Sleng prison. How does Sontag justify such a thought-defying leap? Neither photographer names his subjects. Hence they remain an anonymous aggregate or mere bearers of some role. There are reasons behind this complaint -namely Sontag's tacit assumption that compassion affords the nexus around which politics and photography revolve. But, nevertheless her comparison strains credulity.

Rawalpindi, Pakistan: A barber shaves a customer.
Photograph © Emilio Morenatti/AP.

So, does the anonymity of the men in this photo (also from The Guardian "24 Hours" slide show) differentiate it from any of those I've lifted above? How about the anonymity of the man and children in this photograph that prompted an earlier post? For Sontag (and those who find her complaint persuasive) there must be a qualitative difference. What might it be?


Lydia Chen (1987). Photograph © Robert Mapplethorpe.

All of the preceding made me take notice of this discussion, by Luc Sante, of Robert Mapplethorpe and the way he named the subjects in some of his most notorious photographs. In particular, Sante is addressing the way critic Arthur Danto interpreted such naming in his Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe (University of California Press, 1995).
[. . .] Pleasure and sacrifice are of course entwined in Mapplethorpe's conception. Arthur Danto rightly notes that while numerous critics have referred to Mapplethorpe's "Catholic" aesthetic with regard to his love of symmetry (and he himself often talked of "making altars"), such construction is merely generally sacerdotal. "What is finally Catholic is the abiding mystery of spirit and flesh," Danto writes, not putting too fine a point on it. What he means is that the most profoundly Catholic images are those of sadomasochistic ritual.

The infamous "X Portfolio" is represented in Mapplethorpe by a selection marked off by red pages of light card stock (so that, perhaps, cautious parents can tape them shut). "Jim and Tom, Sausalito, 1977," which was famously characterized at the Cincinnati trial as a "figure study," and shows a leather-hooded man urinating into the open mouth of another man, evokes for Danto the classical theme of "Roman charity" (the daughter offering her breast to her shackled and starving father). It might more simply be said to refer to holy communion: the standing donor, half-extending his arm, stands over the supplicant, who kneels and presents his upturned face, eyes reverently closed. The two are surrounded by darkness but streaked with a light that comes from above. Whatever one's visceral or acculturated reaction to the act depicted, there is no denying that the picture conveys a hush, a powerfully concentrated peace that overrides the menace of the leather hood and the sordidness of the grimy bunker.

Other pictures are less comforting. Some bristle with the hardware of chains and straps and ropes and pulleys, and refer the viewer to a thousand gruesome fifteenth-and sixteenth-century panels of saints' martyrdoms as well as, in their head-on and deliberately ugly lighting, to the artless brutality of photographs in true-crime magazines. "Helmut and Brooks, N.Y.C., 1978," the "fisting" picture that prompted an expert witness in Cincinnati to natter about "the centrality of the forearm," is a sculptural enigma that entirely excludes the viewer, any viewer. After you have figured out what is going on, you are immediately expelled by the monstrous arm and buttocks that devour all space. It is not a privileged display, not a window onto anything; it is an aggressive, even hostile declaration of limits. They are breaching theirs; you are confined to your bubble.

Sharing a spread with this picture is "Richard, N.Y.C., 1978," which is likewise calculated to shred all the niceties of critical palaver. It shows a penis and testicles lashed cruciform to a board, no more and no less. The viewer here is simultaneously pushed into outer darkness and forced to experience vicarious pain, a palliative middle distance being only marginally achievable by dryly considering the relative textures of wood, metal, cord, pubic hair, and stretched, blood-engorged, capillary-striated skin. Good luck.

Here as elsewhere, it is difficult to assess just how Mapplethorpe intends his title to be taken. Danto founds his case for Mapplethorpe on the principle of consent—that Mapplethorpe was not a voyeur like Gary Winogrand or a stalker (his word) like Cartier-Bresson or a betrayer of confidences like Diane Arbus. This is true enough; all his published pictures feature fully informed models who signed releases, and all that they depict was carefully staged (they are not photographs of sex, but of sexual displays). But Danto cites Winogrand's kamikaze shots of nameless women on the street as products of a predatory tactic that is tantamount to rape-by-lens (neglecting to mention that Winogrand operated identically when photographing society people, ranchers, politicians, writers, cars, lampposts, parking lots), and contrasts their heartless anonymity with Mapplethorpe's respect for his subjects as demonstrated by his titles:

Even when all we are shown is a nude torso, cropped, like that of Lydia Cheng, at the knee and neck, so that the body looks altogether impersonal, it is given an identity and an owner: it is the body of a particular woman who consented to be shown nude.
Perhaps this is so, although it is disconcerting that of all the many pictures he took of Lydia Cheng, not one shows her face [. . .]. When it comes to his pictures of individual precincts of male anatomy, the message seems more deliberately mixed. A penis can be simply "Cock," or it can be "Lou" (according credit to its namesake for the hair-raising feat of inserting his little finger past the first knuckle into his urethra), or it can be "Mark Stevens" (a celebrity phallus). Or it can be "Richard," which seems to mean (besides any considerations of the fact that Richard might not want his face and his tortured member to appear in the same shot, although he is proud of it) that Richard is equivalent to his trussed penis, that his spirit resides within it, that he is thereby exceptional among the endless parade of nameless meat in the back room. [. . .]

I read this passage a while back in Sante's recent collection of essays but you can find the original essay here too. A couple of obvious questions: (1) Does naming actually imply consent, as Danto (according to Sante) would have it? and (2) What is the difference between using a proper name as opposed to a label or a title to identify a picture?

Finally, should we expect naming to carry the same weight and perform the same function across the various genres of photography ~ photojournalism, propaganda (bookkeeping), documentary, art.

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Blogger R.A. said...

What is the difference between using a proper name as opposed to a label or a title to identify a picture?

There is a difference, and a lot of this has to do with treating the person photographed as a subject of generalization vs. treating them as an individual. Using names can be more respectful, and can provide a kind of personal context.

But that does not mean that people always want their names attached to images. Sometimes they don't. It depends on what people want, and photographers should pay attention to that--it's a responsibility.

Finally, should we expect naming to carry the same weight and perform the same function across the various genres of photography ~ photojournalism, propaganda (bookkeeping), documentary, art.

I don' think we should assume that it would play out evenly across the board. Naming people in photographs can have all kinds of effects--from expected effects to those that are completely unforeseeable. The function of naming doesn't even remain constant in any one of those examples, let alone ALL of them, IMO.

Interesting post. I think more people should be talking about this stuff.

26 November, 2008 00:34  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for the comment. I guess there is a predicament here. You are right that giving a name is a way of recognizing subjectivity and agency. But ...

Take the first image I reproduce: It depicts the woman as active, as taking steps to provide for herself and her daughter. Does adding her name to the caption enhance or diminish that/ And, more importantly, the predicament in which she finds herself is not, and individual one - she is among a population displaced by armed conflict. The general problem is precisely what is at issue. The remedy for her predicament lies in seeing it as a general or collective one. The remedy is not providing assistance to individuals (important as that may be) but identifying a away to stop the conflict so she might return to her home.

Maybe the issue is that labels and captions tend to be so minimalist. (And, of course, the venue in which I found all these first three images had abstracted them from whatever accompanying story there might've been.)

As for your second remark, I think you are just right. We need to recognize the plurality of uses to which we put photography and think within that plurality. That is a big help. Thanks.


26 November, 2008 17:26  
Blogger R.A. said...

"Maybe the issue is that labels and captions tend to be so minimalist. (And, of course, the venue in which I found all these first three images had abstracted them from whatever accompanying story there might've been.)"

I think you are very right there. In many cases the problem is that photos are used as decontextualized illustrations. Captions can really help fill in the context, locate the subject, and bring it out of being just some picture of some person/event.

This kind of illustration without context has been a big problem in anthropology for a long time. Anthros have been using photographs for a long time, but that haven't always problematized the process.

"As for your second remark, I think you are just right. We need to recognize the plurality of uses to which we put photography and think within that plurality. That is a big help. Thanks."

The naming vs anonymous issue is super complicated. In fact, there were several years where I just stopped taking pictures altogether because of the problems associated with using images of people. It's always something that I try to be careful about, but no matter what, it's complicated.

Just this past summer I was working on a project that had a big photographic component--oral histories and photographs. Most people who I interviewed, after I explained the project goals, wanted to have their real name used. But some definitely did not...and I have to admit that I was a little surprised in some cases. There have been other anthropologists who have worked there, and in many cases people in photographs were not named; many people in the community told me that they would have preferred that names be attached.

But, in a few cases, it was the opposite. You never know.

At the same time, my advisor does completely different work than me, and anonymity is critical--because her work is about some pretty touchy issues in the community. Mine, which is about local history and identity, is fairly benign.

Anyway, I always appreciate your site, and the perspectives that you provide.

28 November, 2008 15:58  
Blogger Chuckling said...

I think in most cases it's an aesthetic decision. Usually, as in the Mapplethorpe example, naming the subject makes the impact of the photograph much more powerful than if it were simply "nude." But sometimes a generality works better. And of course in traditional photojournalism the subject should be named whenever possible.

With art photography however, I'm more interested in the question of whether captions or overly descriptive titles should be used at all. I like the idea that the photograph speaks its own language and any attempt to translate its meaning into script weakens its message.

29 November, 2008 18:03  

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