01 February 2007

Beautiful Suffering

Today I received from the friendly folks at the Seminary Coop Bookstore this new retrospective on an exhibition held last winter-spring at Williams College which is close to where I grew up. The volume Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain is edited by Mark Reinhardt, Holly Edwards and Erina Duganne and jointly published by University of Chicago Press & the WIlliams College Museum of Art.

The book is about equally divided between text and images, with roughly the first half taken up by essays from each of the editors as well as by curator John Stomberg and cultural theorist Mieke Bal. The remainder of the book reproduces images and commentary from the exhibition. It looks to be a provocative volume.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

This looks absolutely disgusting. It's abhor able. This exhibit (and this particular picture)is not only finding an artistic celebration within the context of torture, but it robs the individual in this picture of the dignity and privacy of his own suffering and this particular experience. Who cares what Susan Sontag quotes they throw in as justification. Better just slap it on a fucking Benetton ad- it has the same purpose.

09 February, 2007 02:35  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Well, I disagree almost completely.

Do you really see no difference between this and a Benetton advertisement? How about this and Amnesty International campaigns that use the same images? How about between the AI campaigns and Benetton?

Those respsonsible for robbing this man of his dignity are not the ones who are using images to try to call a halt to such practices. And just maybe those of us residing in countries making up the 'coalition of the willing' have an obligation to confront the actual consequences of our government policies instead of blithely acting as though this is a war of liberation? Shall we ignore such things?

Moreover, the exibition is not limited to Iraq, but to hardship and suffering more generally. It aims to pose questions about our complicity in humanly created suffering and about how to communicate that complicity.(Note that the cover image relies on the ambiguities of the shadow to raise just that issue.) It also raises the question of what sorts of uses of images are appropriate, for what purposes and so forth. Should we not address such issues and simply hide theimages away, refusing to face them?

I think your reaction is totally simplistic and, in its moralism, self-serving. It spares you from actually addressing these sorts of questions by banishing them. In fact, your inability to discriminate varying uses of photography places you in the same camp as Sontag whose own moralism prevented her from doing so too.

10 February, 2007 12:06  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm sorry- but I'm not against this because of some self-serving, moralistic argument. Nor am I against promoting awareness of human rights abuses. I find this abhor able because of the title- or specifically the 'Beauty' found in this suffering. I find that the marketing of human rights issues is a very delicate endeavour. One that demands that individuals be quite careful as to how they choose to represent and expose suffering, while also creating powerful images that provoke advocacy within communities that wouldn't normally care. I find the 'beautification' of suffering (as suggested in the title) to be insulting, and insular in regards to more of a surface- fashion conscious sort of market.

I work for a nonprofit which aides in the mental health of torture-survivors in the process of obtaining political asylum. When I shared this headline with some of my colleagues- there were more than a few looks of concern, and even a few full-out gasps. I don't think aesthetic judgements such as 'beauty' or 'unattractiveness' are even relevant to torture victims, or their images. At least the Amnesty campaigns approach these issues without concentrating on the artistic merit of a photo in their headlines.

I don't doubt that the photographs in this exhibition will create awareness and even touch those individuals who aren't normally drawn to these types of issues. However- the marketing of this kind of exhibition, which is inherent in the title, leads me to think that the approach resembles the kind of thing you would see in a Benetton Ad, or in Colours Magazine.

12 February, 2007 23:32  

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