03 November 2005

Revisiting "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America"

This evening I attended a lecture on campus here by James Allen, the man behind the recent, controversial exhibition of photographs of the lynching of blacks in the United States. You can find the web page for the exhibition here: Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Also speaking at the event was Natasha Barnes, Professor of English and of African -American Studies at the University of Illinois -Chicago. In their talks they raised several points that bear repeating.

First, photography was integral to these lynchings (which occurred from the 1870's through the 1960s). It was directly implicated in the violence, a component of the events rather than incidental to them. It was not generally part of a journalistic enterprise. People made images of the torture and killing for profit. And people bought the images, often as postcards to send to relatives and friends. So photography did not just capture the ritualized violence involved, it was part of that ritualized violence.

Second, during the questions one student asked if there was any connection between the events portrayed in the pictures and events here in Rochester. He seemed blissfully unaware that the technology that allowed the images to be made was intimately linked to Rochester. As James Allen made clear in his remarks, car headlights were used to illuminate the scenes for photographers and, eventually, many particpants could capture the memory of lynching with Kodak brownies. An interesting question - if the Kodak slogan "You press the button, We do the rest!" is accurate, how many Kodak employees spent time developing amatuer photographs of lynching? Or how many of the professional photographers who attended the lynchings used Kodak products in their portable dark rooms?

Finally, Allen tried very hard to resist the urge to draw direct links beween the lynching photographs he has discovered and contemporary politics. But, in part, the photographs in his collection are powerful because they help us think not only about the violence they immediately partake in, but to think beyond that to more recent forms of systematic officially sanctioned violence.

Here, for instance, is Susan Sontag:

"So, then, is the real issue not the photographs themselves but what the photographs reveal to have happened to ''suspects'' in American custody? No: the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken -- with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives. . . . If there is something comparable to what these pictures show it would be some of the photographs of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880's and 1930's, which show Americans grinning beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging behind them from a tree.
The lynching photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the pictures from Abu Ghraib. The lynching pictures were in the nature of photographs as trophies -- taken by a photographer in order to be collected, stored in albums, displayed. The pictures taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, however, reflect a shift in the use made of pictures -- less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated." ("Regarding the Torture of Others," NY Times Magazine, 23 May 2004, pages 26-7).

And here is Luc Sante:

"The pictures from Abu Ghraib are trophy shots. The American soldiers included in them look exactly as if they were standing next to a gutted buck or a 10-foot marlin. That incongruity is not the least striking aspect of the pictures. The first shot I saw, of Specialist Charles A. Graner and Pfc. Lynndie R. England flashing thumbs up behind a pile of their naked victims, was so jarring that for a few seconds I took it for a montage. When I registered what I was seeing, I was reminded of something. There was something familiar about that jaunty insouciance, that unabashed triumph at having inflicted misery upon other humans. And then I remembered: the last time I had seen that conjunction of elements was in photographs of lynchings. In photographs that were taken and often printed as postcards in the American heartland in the first four decades of the 20th century, black men are shown hanging from trees or light fixtures or maybe being burned alive, while below them white people are laughing and pointing for the benefit of the camera. There are some pictures of whites being lynched, too, but these tend not to feature the holiday crowd. Often the spectators at lynchings of African-Americans are so effusive in their mugging that they all seem to be vying for credit. Before seeing such pictures you might expect the faces in them to express some kind of collective rage; instead the mood is giddy, often verging on hysterical, with a distinct sexual undercurrent. Like the lynching crowds, the Americans at Abu Ghraib felt free to parade their triumph and glee not because they were psychopaths but because the thought of censure probably never crossed their minds. In both cases a contagious collective frenzy perhaps overruled the scruples of some people otherwise known for their gentleness and sympathy -- but isn't the abandonment of such scruples possible only if the victims are considered less than human? After all, it is one thing for a boxer to lift his hands over his head in triumph beside the fallen body of his rival, quite another to strike a comparable pose next to the bodies of strangers you have arranged in quasi-pornographic tableaus. The Americans in the photographs are not enacting hatred; hatred can coexist with respect, however strained. What they display, instead, is contempt: their victims are merely objects." (Tourists and Torturers," NY Times, 11 May 2004, page A23)

Allen is using the images he has collected to encourage us to think more systematially about cruelty and torture and hatred and dehumanization. For putting these images together and challenging us to face them and the violence they embody we are deeply his debt.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pictures taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, however, reflect a shift in the use made of pictures -- less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated.

This statement bothers me. I feel like the intention remains the same -- these pictures are trophies, to be stored and displayed -- but the medium has changed, such that "scrapbooks" are now unbound and unlimited.

It falls back to my last claim, that photography is a form of communication. I'm not sure that's really true. I spent part of last weekend hosting a party, and took a number of pictures of attendees. Many of the people protested that they never had good photos, but when they saw my results, they wanted copies. In my mind, I can't figure how those pictures are communication.

05 November, 2005 00:58  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The shift is away from the photo as the expression and onto distribution-as-expression. The specific model is photography as in pornography, of the kind that became commonplace over the internet, with many of the poses lifted directly from that (just look at the many "witty" porn sites, where they write on the woman's pants or shirts or the subject has to hold a handwritten sign). It isnt the detached trophy over "nature" - the marlin or so on - but the trophy of transgression, these are VERY clearly aware of the models and money shots, from the websites they watch and read, the networks they link with.

So there were many images being posted by American soldiers and Abu Ghraib now stands as the hallmark for all that. For a while images were appearing where friendly, innocent Iraquis were honestly posing with soldiers they thought were friendly. The posed Iraqis held signs given them in english, not knowing these were usually insulting in a sexual connatative way. The nature of that "joke" is like the standard pornography online, same handwriting on sign (or tshirt etc) and same jeering, leering yahoos in control of the apparatus.

The network of distribution these all circulate within, just express the way pornography became the accepted image-communication in the U.S., the most viable image-based economy due to - but not only - the internet, and of course, how that sense of misogynist, exploitative relations, of bodies...over humans, matches perfectly to the sense of this war.

24 November, 2005 00:09  

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