26 February 2006

Local chronicles of natural disaster.

Here is a story form the Guardian Unlimited about a "relief" organization that distributes disposable cameras to people who have survived disaster - in this case the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran. The organization is called "Picture People" and they are supported financially by the British Council and Kodak - which of course is now the second largest employer here in Rochester, having this year fallen behind the University of Rochester.

My initial reaction was, "you've got to be kidding!" - given all the devastation, wouldn't the money being allocated to this enterprise be better spent in providing "necessities." In such situations what is necessary? Sure, food, medical supplies, shelter and so forth are crucial. But it also is necessary for people to make sense of what has happened ot them and photography provides a tool for them to do that. In many respects this project resembles "Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs" the exhibition and book that emerged from and built upon the outpouring of images made by New Yorkers in direct aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It is especially important not to think that manking sense of the world is a luxury for those in the developing world and an obvious, expected activity for we more privileged residents of wealthy nations.

A final point. There is a lot of talk in critical discussions of "photographs of agony," to use John Berger's phrase, about the ways professional photographers depict suffering and devastation. It would be useful to compare the amatuer work mentioned here (amd perhaps other similar work about which I am unaware) to the work of professionals. How do local populations use photography? How does the way they use it compare across different dimensions to the the ways professional photographers depict similar subjects? How has the former work been influenced by exposure ot the latter work? What might the professionals learn form the amateurs?


25 February 2006

Overly Harsh?

You may think that my last post is somehow too harsh, that I am being too hard on the largely supine US media and our way-too-loyal opposition. So here at Index on Censorship you can find a nice essay by Chandra Sekar exploring the sorts of quesitons that the press and oppostion have left not just unaswered, but unasked.

Do Photographs of Cruelty and Suffering Numb Us?

In his incisive essay (posted below) about why Salon.com decided to publish more photos from abu Ghraib Walter Shapiro writes:

"... The torture photographs that were published when the prisoner-abuse scandal first exploded have lost their power to shock. We have all seen the pictures repeatedly: a pyramid of unclothed prisoners; a naked detainee cowering in front of snarling dogs; captives wearing punitive hoods that seem borrowed from a medieval inquisition; American soldiers grinning over Iraqi dead bodies and, always, that chillingly ironic thumbs-up sign.
Eventually this visual repetition numbs the senses. ..."

One of the reasons that I found Shapiro's essay interesting is that it reiterates this familiar claim, that repeated exposure to photographs of cruelty and suffering has a causal effect - namely to diminish one's capacity to respond, to feeel outraged and so forth. This is a familiar claim made by Susan Sontag, among others and explored with greater subtlety by Susie Linfield in a series of essays I mentioned some time ago. It places a heavy expectation on photographic images. And I think that expectation is unfair. The problem, in my view, is that the mainstream media and the politicians in what passes for an opposition party in the US have not used these images of torture to place pressure on the Bush administation. Photographs by themselves do nothing. They are powerful, when they are, as instriuments in the hands of political actors. The problem resides with the politcal actors not with the implements that they refuse to wield.

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19 February 2006

Issa Touma (2)

This post is an update on Issa Touma the Syrian photographer who runs the Le Pont Gallery in Aleppo. Among the first posts I made to this blog called attention to his troubles with Syrian authorities. His work prompted additional posts here and here. I e-mailed Issa recently and have received an update from him which I summarize here.

The gallery re-opened January 8th after having been shut down for nearly nine months. Within two weeks local authorities had come to close it down again, but they were stopped, in turn, by the Syrian Secret Pollice who assured Issa that he is free to pursue gallery operations. Issa seems skeptical - as he says "time will show every thing." Plans for the gallery include an exhibition (running from April to August) of six photographers including one of work by Niek Biegman (some of whose work can be found here and here).

Currently, however, Issa's "big project" is organizing what seems like an ambitious culture and arts series - including dance, art and photography exhibitions, lectures, music - with contributions from Muslims, Christians and Jews. Issa calls this project "Meeting with the Middle East" and indicates that it will begin April 206 and run through the end of 2007.

One of the primary reasons why the Syrian authorities find Issa Touma so "troublesome" is that he has run a series of photography festivals in Aleppo. He explaned to me that given the events of the past year he is pushing back the next iteration from Spring to September 2006. He seems to have many strong contributors. This installment of the festival will be incorporated into the "Meeting with the Middle East" series.

I think Issa Touma is a remarkable figure. He is stalwart in his activities and, while acknowledging how difficult his experience with the authorities has been, he insists that his tribulations have initiated a "positive movement inside Syria, its for the first time open conversation about the cultural problem in Syria." It turns out that his activities have brought this struggle to international attention. He tells me that in one week recently he had 23 visitors from abroad - including diplomats, journalists and artists from Austria, the Netherlands, the US and the UK - and admits that this entourage has kept him so busy that he sometimes is up all night working on the projects I mentioned above. Issa promises future updates. I will keep you posted as he sends them.

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18 February 2006

Abu Ghraib again? (Part 2)

Well, over at Salon.com Walter Shapiro nicely articulates what is at issue with this new batch of photos of torture at Abu Ghraib. In addition to Shapiro's brief essay (pasted in below) I reccommend the accompanying story by Mark Benjamin which concludes: "Meanwhile, military trials of the soldiers who served at Abu Ghraib continue. Next month, two more enlisted men, both dog handlers, will face a military court at Fort Meade in Maryland. No high-ranking officer or official has yet been charged in the abuse scandal that blackened America's reputation across the world."

Why we're publishing the new Abu Ghraib photos
America -- and the world -- has the right to know what was done in our name.
By Walter Shapiro

"Feb. 16, 2006. The horrors carried out during the last three months of 2003 by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison are shockingly familiar and, at the same time, oddly remote. The torture photographs that were published when the prisoner-abuse scandal first exploded have lost their power to shock. We have all seen the pictures repeatedly: a pyramid of unclothed prisoners; a naked detainee cowering in front of snarling dogs; captives wearing punitive hoods that seem borrowed from a medieval inquisition; American soldiers grinning over Iraqi dead bodies and, always, that chillingly ironic thumbs-up sign.

Eventually this visual repetition numbs the senses. All these ghastly images have been viewed so often that they seem to belong to a different war conducted by a different superpower in a different century. Yet the photographs that news organizations have so far published represent only a partial sample of the government's chilling documentary record from Abu Ghraib.

When Salon's national correspondent Mark Benjamin obtained the never-before-released photographs that accompany this essay, we had to both establish their authenticity and to answer the basic question of our justification for publishing. The images themselves partly answered the why-publish question for us. Speaking for myself, I remain haunted by one of the more seemingly banal pictures in this new collection from the dark side. Taken on Dec. 6, 2003, the photograph shows a uniformed and seemingly untroubled Army sergeant leaning against a corridor wall completing his paperwork. All routine, except standing next to the sergeant is a hooded and naked Iraqi prisoner. Just another day of methodical record-keeping at Abu Ghraib.

The other compelling reason for publishing these pictures is that the system itself broke down over Abu Ghraib. Beyond the collapse of military discipline and adherence to the basic rules of civilized behavior, Abu Ghraib also symbolized the failure of a democratic society to investigate well-documented abuses by its soldiers. After an initial flurry of outrage, the Republican-controlled Congress lost interest in investigating whether senior military officers -- and even Pentagon officials -- created a climate in which torture (yes, torture) flourished. In similar fashion, the Army still seems intent on ending this shameful story by jailing the likes of Lynndie England and Charles Graner. At least after the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, Lt. Calley was convicted.

Abu Ghraib cannot be allowed to fade away like some half-forgotten domestic political controversy, which may have prompted newsmagazine covers at the time, but now seems as irrelevant as the 2002 elections. Abu Ghraib is not an issue of partisan sound bites or refighting the decision to invade Iraq. Grotesque violations of every value that America proclaims occurred within the walls of that prison. These abuses were carried out by soldiers who wore our flag on their uniforms and apparently believed that Americans here at home would approve of their conduct. Rather than hiding what they did out of shame, they commemorated their sadism with a visual record.

That is why Salon is willing to publish these troubling photographs, even as we are ashamed to live in a country that somehow came to accept that torture and prisoner abuse were simply business as usual -- something that occurs while a sergeant catches up on his paperwork."

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17 February 2006

What's in a Title? Perpetuating (More) Confusion

Well, when you stop to notice, the recapitulation of confusion turns out to be rampant. So here is another example - The Photograph in the 'Oxford History of Art' series.

Actually, you can't really SEARCH INSIDE! But you can ask how we are to formulate questions about the uses of photography if we begin (in the title) by reifying the object and thereby set up a dualism of spectator and image. That makes the task much more difficult and so is, in my view, simply getting off on the wrong foot. This is a continuing rant on my part. For earlier versions see the posts on 31 January and 6 November.

Abu Ghraib again?

So, an Australian network has aired more photographs, like the one at left, of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. This allows US networks like CNN to cover that story and, in the process timidly hint at the fact that while the enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers who were involved are sitting in jail, the officers in charge have merely been demoted, fined and so forth, and the politicians who set policy walk around free.

Three things seem pertinent here. First, even the Australian network did not display all of the newly available images. They deemed some of the images "too graphic" for viewing. So the alternaitve is? Let's leave all this to the imagination. Or let's allow citizens whose government is reponsible for this (and other) condemnable behavior to spend their evenings worrying about more crucial matters like who will progress on "American Idol." We surely do not want to offend their sensibilities!

Second, the military is, of course, continuing to shirk responsibility. As the CNN report notes: "Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, said he thought the timing of the new report was "unnecessarily provocative" and "irresponsible." He said any photos from that time period "do not reflect what is happening at Abu Ghraib now."" Well, who paid any real price for these abuses? And what precisely is happening at Abu Ghraib (and the other off-shore US facilities) now? No word on such matters from Col. Johnson. Just spin. Just charges of irresponsiblity. If there is no torture, there will be no pictures of it. If there are no pictures, this whole discussion is moot. But notice that the problem originates with those who engage in illegal activities not with those who disclose the activities. And here let's be clear that I mean individuals all the way up the chain of command. The easiest way to figure out just how far up the irresponsiblity goes is to have an open, subpoena-wielding, unified inquiry into this fiasco.

I anticipate that someone will comment here that being demoted is a "huge" penalty for the military higher ups. Please, spare me.! Jail time is "huge" too. Which would you choose? Demotion or a decade in the brig? Answer that before you write me. Also tell me how confident you are that there are no "abuses" occurring "now" in US facilities or those where individuals we have captured have been sent under rendition policies. Are these "abuses" committed by "bad apples" or the predictable result of policies sanctioned by elected officials and implimented by military and intelligence personnel? If they are the latter, we can discuss what sorts of policies ought to govern the way we treat prisoners (or whatever euphenmism the Bush administration hopes to foist upon us this week).

Finally, the CNN report makes clear that neither the ACLU spokesman - Amrit Singh - whom they quote, nor Col. Johnson has actually seen the pictures at issue. We know they exist. We will talk about them and use to them to attack those with whom we disagree. But we won't actually look at them. That is very, very odd indeed.

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16 February 2006

Free Expression? Dissenting Views? Who Needs Them!

Here is a report form the Wall Street Journal about the travails of Louis Fischer a political scientist who works as an analyst at the Congressional Research Service (which, in turn, operates under the auspices of the Library of Congress). The only thing surprising here is the feigned surprises. The WSJ seems to think there is some "debate over whether analysts throughout the government are being muzzled to prevent criticism of Bush administration policies." Are you kidding? This is the most controlling, secretive and dissembling administration in recent memory (and the Nixon and Reagan crowds set a high threshold on that dimension) so why should we be surprised? My understanding is that CRS policy allows analysts to express their own views publicly so long as it is clear that they speak for themselves and not the Service.

10 February 2006

Seminar on Progressive Democratic Economies

It is difficult to say where this iniative might go or even if the group is actually active. But attempts like this aimed at articulating a progressive alternative to neo-lliberalism in the developed and developing countries as sketeched here is an essential task. The organizers hope to:

"advance four sets of goals that stand at the center of our concerns: strategies of sustained and sustainable growth that place the needs and the opportunities of the real economy above the need to win and maintain the confidence of financial markets; innovations that give marginalized people the economic and educational equipment for effective participation in economic and civic life; the deepening of the potential links between markets and democracies; and the creation of the space to experiment with distinct national development strategies, suited to the circumstances, traditions, and aspirations of each country.

To address these concerns, we believe, it is not enough to compensate through social policy for the unequalizing and exclusionary effects of established arrangements. Nor is it possible to enhance long-term economic growth solely through Keynesian demand management and controls on capital flows. We can and should reshape these policies through gradual, but cumulative innovation in the institutions that organize democracies, market economies, and free civil societies."

07 February 2006

plugging Daylight

Here is a cool little photo magazine:

"Daylight Magazine is the printed publication of Daylight Community Arts Foundation, Inc. – a non-profit organization that strives to establish community-based documentary partnerships in various locations throughout the world. These initiatives aim to provide necessary resources and education for effective documentation of specific communities. It is our belief that the distribution of documentary imagery and text addressing issues of social importance can empower individuals and communities to affect long-lasting change.Daylight Magazine serves as the primary platform on which such documentary efforts are shared with a broad spectrum of viewers."

Subscriptions and single issue sales are available
online or make checks payable to:

Daylight Community Arts Foundation, Inc.
P.O. Box 2241
Chapel Hill, NC 27515

Four issue subscription: $35 US/Canada and $55 International.


02 February 2006


Well I came across this picture by Earl Dotter and it seemed appropriate to post it in honor of the miners who have died on the job lately. They are only the latest casualties. It also seems appropriate as a sort of lament for the unions that are struggling these days. It seems like no one I know supports unions as anything but a necessary evil. One of my favorite bumper stickers - it always makes me smile - says "UNIONS: The folks who brought you the weekend!" True enough. and that ought to get people to re-think the "necessary evil" posiiton. Unions are necessary, period. We stand - or rather, rest - on the shoulders of those like this women who stick by the union. And mostly we don't know or don't care.