15 October 2009

Using Pictures of the "Unborn Child"

"If no theoretical distinction has been made between the photograph as scientific evidence and the photograph as a means of communication, this has been not so much an oversight as a proposal.

The proposal was (and is) that when something is visible, it is a fact, and that facts contain only the truth." ~ John Berger

Anti-abortion protesters near their van at a prayer vigil in
Owosso, Mich., in September. Photograph © Stephen McGee
The New York Times.

Toward the beginning of her Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes:
“To those who are sure that right is on one side, oppression and injustice on the other, and that the fighting must go on, what matters is precisely who is killed and by whom. To an Israeli Jew, a photograph of a child torn apart in the attack on the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem is first of all a photograph of a Jewish child killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. To a Palestinian, a photograph of a child torn apart by a tank round in Gaza is first of all a photograph of a Palestinian child killed by Israeli ordinance. To the militant, identity is everything. And all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions. During the fighting between Serbs and Croats at the beginning of the recent Balkan war, the same photographs of children killed in the shelling of a village were passed around at both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings. Alter the caption, and the children’s deaths could be used and reused.”
I was reminded of that passage when I came across this story and this slide show/blog post that The New York Times ran last week on the ways some militant anti-abortion activists use photographic images. To the activists, apparently, the images speak for themselves. The protesters treat their gory images as "facts" and as embodying "truth" - as though that is clear to anyone with eyes to see. Except, of course, that the "explanatory" captions are needed here too. And here, too, causes can be ignored, context suppressed, numbers denied. The activists are not providing evidence, they are only proposing that what they show falls into that category; they nevertheless are testifying (and in that way seeking to communicate). But just what is it that they are saying? And to whom?

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Blogger stansivlav said...

Jim -

I wonder could you give me the citation for John Berger quotation? I have his Selected Essays, but it's very hefty at >500ppgs, so help would be graciously appreciated.


I think Ariella Azoulay's work ("Death's Showcase") is pretty germane in terms of yours and Sontag's commentary on the uses of photographic images of suffering as testaments to truth.

Kind regards,
- s.

15 October, 2009 15:15  

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