09 December 2006

Cameo Appearance

Among the conventions of "documentary" photography, whether used in an effort to convey suffering or dignity or beauty or calamity or whatever, is a more or less relentless focus on some individual. My own sense is that that convention is, for various reasons, politically dis-abling. I will not rehearse the reasons here. (If you are interested see the link in the sidebar to my paper "The Arithmetic of Comapssion.") But I read this poem tonight that pushes me to worry about whether violating that convention might not render individual suffering or beauty or dignity or calamity or whatever invisible or ineffable.

Cameo Appearance
by Charles Simic

I had a small, nonspeaking part
In a bloody epic. I was one of the
Bombed and fleeing humanity.
In the distance our great leader
Crowed like a rooster from a balcony,
Or was it a great actor
Impersonating our great leader?

That’s me there, I said to the kiddies.
I’m squeezed between the man
With two bandaged hands raised
And the old woman with her mouth open
As if she were showing us a tooth

That hurts badly. The hundred times
I rewound the tape, not once
Could they catch sight of me
In that huge gray crowd,
That was like any other gray crowd.

Trot off to bed, I said finally.
I know I was there. One take
Is all they had time for.
We ran, and the planes grazed our hair,
And then they were no more
As we stood dazed in the burning city,
But, of course, they didn’t film that.

© Charles Simic. From The Voice at 3:00 A.M.
(Harcourt, 2003), page 97.
PS: My worry is compounded by Simic's review of Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others for the NYRB ["Archives of Horror" Volume 50, #7 (1 May 2003)] which I recalled after writing this post. In his conclusion, Simic (who himself was born in Belgrade) remarks that:

"Sontag is a moralist, as anyone who thinks about violence against the innocent is liable to become. The time she spent in Sarajevo under fire gives her the authority. Most of us don't understand what people go through, she writes. True, we only have photographs. Even if they are only tokens, they still perform a vital function, Sontag insists. They certainly do for me. Like the one by Gilles Peress I saw some years ago ... where we see a man in a morgue approach three stretchers with bodies lying on them and cover his face as he recognizes a friend or a relative. The morgue attendant is expressionless as he stands watching.

Men and women who find themselves in such circumstances, one says to oneself, do not have the luxury of patronizing reality. Such photographs preserve, however tenuously, the mark of some person's suffering in the great mass of faceless and anonymous victims. We ought to be grateful to Susan Sontag for reminding us of this. If photography is a form of knowledge, writing about it with critical discernment and passion, as she does, is bound to make trouble for every variety of intellectual and moral smugness."

Peress is indeed an unflinching witness (as you will see if you track down his work on the unhelpful Magnum site.) You can find the morgue pictures to which (I suspect) Simic is referring here and here. (I'd have uploaded them directly but Blogger is being characteristically dysfunctional tonight.) They indeed depict heart-wrenching anguish and pain. But they render either the dead or the living less anonymous. Perhaps there is a caption accompanying these images in Farewell to Bosnia, but I am willing to bet it names neither casualties nor survivors. Sontag, in fact, was highly, sometimes quite unfairly, critical of photographers whom she felt rendered suffering anonymous or abstract. And her criticisms evidence a species of quite distasteful moralism that, I think, was not just unwarrented, but counter-productive. For Sontag wields the alleged "authority" that Simic attributes to her in ways that are hardly more attractive or admirable or politically useful than the smugness of those who would turn a blind eye to large scale, humanly created suffering and pain. In the end, then, while Simic's poem gives me pause (precisely because it eschews Sontag's moralism), he doesn't quite persuade me.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not sure, but I think your last two posts are somehow related. The picture of the firing squad is especially disturbing because one of the men remains standing - he is the focus. Yet the picture would not be as horrifying without the other men and their killers being in the frame. Perhaps truly great photography succesfully straddles the relationship of individuals and their place in larger groups or role in events - I think that is one of the arguments you make elsewhere.

09 December, 2006 23:38  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Actually, I think thata the very best documentary tacks back and forth between individuals (often quite literally protraits a la Lange or Evans) to smaller groups, to what might be called populated landscapes (e.g. many of Salgado's images of refugee camps in Zaire). And in addition there are photographers like Peress who often make images of inanimate objects (e.g., in his Rwanda work there are photographs of huge piles of machetes - the weapon of choice for the genocide there) that are perhaps more powerful than the many images of corpses. SO I think we are on the same page here. Thanks for commenting.

10 December, 2006 10:01  

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