26 September 2005

Beauty & Photographs of Suffering: An Initial Salvo

Among the themes I plan to address here is the place of beauty in photography and especially in the practice of photographers who depict hardship and suffering. This topic comes up regularly in criticism of, say Sebastiao Salgado or James Nachtwey, two photographers whose work I admire, both of whom, despite what I consider the significant differences in their work, are accused of "beautifying" or "aestheticizing" the suffering caused by war, famine, forced dislocation, and other large-scale political undertakings.

Today, I want to simply offer a brief passage from T. W. Adorno (not among my favorite theorists) that speaks to the predicament that lies at the juncture of politics and photography. Writing of Schoenberg's work Survivor of Warsaw, Adorno puts his finger on the problem.

"There is something embarrassing in Schoenberg's composition - not what arouses anger in Germany, the fact that it prevents people from repressing from memory what they at all costs want to repress - but the way in which, by turning suffering into images, harsh and uncompromising though they are, it wounds the shame we feel in the presence of the victims. For these victims are used to create something, works of art, that are thrown to the consumption of a world which destroyed them. The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it. The moral of this art, not to forget for a single instant, slithers into the abyss of its opposite. The aesthetic principle of stylization, and even the solemn prayer of the chorus, make an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning; it is transfigured, something of its horror removed. This alone does an injustice to the victims; yet no art which tried to evade them could confront the claims of justice."

The relationships between beauty, art, and politics are complicated in ways I cannot address at the moment. By naming the problem in this way, though, Adorno resolutely challenges those who complain about, for instance, the beauty in Salgado's or Nachtwey's photographs. Doing justice is not a simple thing. We should not allow our own shame, discomfort, or resentment lead us to think otherwise.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll be interested to read more of what you post. So far, I'm quite impressed, and I particularly like this start to a discussion of beauty. Thanks.

28 September, 2005 14:45  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The majority of images produced are by everyday people, taking photos of events that they wish to remember, childhood, weddings, summers, holidays. Images of the people they know, love, having fun, images of joy. The instant reaction when having a camera pointed at them is to smile, also on editing photographs for albums images that are deemed as unflattering are excluded, creating a record of happy smiling beautiful people. Yet with this knowledge of the beautifying aspect of image making, the fact that the opposite could happen seems not to enter the average viewers mind. The most prolific observation of this can be found in Ernst Freidrich's 1924 book "War against War", in which he would place shocking pictures of the atrocities of war, and then to juxtapose the official patriotic and militarist propaganda images and rhetoric of the period. Before this, the public's only contact with the horrors of WWI had been through their own personal involvement, or through the work of artists and poets. At the start of the war, many poets published antiwar poetry evoking the brutality which many of them experienced, and also artists produced paintings, drawings and montages documenting the horrors of war. Kurt Tucholsky wrote that this book "should not just be shown to our friends who are already pacifists and who do not want to repeat the old mistakes that are so often made: to send missionaries to Rome. Instead we should show it to our opponents, and should distribute it to schools, organizations, meetings, and cafes and to those who want to know nothing of these horrors. And one should also be sure to show it to women--indeed, should show it especially to women." Tuchoksky also wrote that "The photographs of battlefields, these slaughterhouses of war, and the photographs of those mutilated by war belong to the most horrendous documents that I have ever seen. There exists no publication that offers anything similar in monstrousness, in basic truths, and in education." and although this book can be rarely found now, it still as powerful a document as ever and a powerful testament to the documentary image.

19 October, 2005 07:01  
Blogger James Lomax said...

I think this is a larger, and more complicated subject: less formulaic than Adorno would suggest. Thus, some famous images depicting suffering and abuse (like the girl running from napalm) have a notably healing and balancing effect on outrage and offence. The napalm girl photo helped to end the Vietnam war, when people were shocked by it.

Secondly, the 'voyeuristic pleasure' thing is related to the more substantial and on-going debate about violent cinema: the intersection between spectatorship, and psychological response. Who is to say a photo of brutality offers the possiblity of pleasure, and on that basis is dangerous or suspect? Adorno's remark probably fits his wider thesis, which reflects a relative position rather than a definitive understanding.

21 October, 2005 09:55  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've found this blog particularly interesting. I wonder if you could let me know the source of the T.W. Adorno quote you have both in this blog, and on the right hand side of the page? I would be extremely grateful.

08 November, 2006 04:51  

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