14 September 2007

Beauty & Photographs of Suffering (Once More, This Time with a Pinch of Presumptuousness)

It has been some time since I have posted on the seemingly vexed topic of beauty and photography, especially the use of beauty in photography of suffering and the varieties of cruelty and mayhem that give rise to it. I return to the topic today because I just read an essay at openDemocracy by Mai Ghoussoub. The essay, entitled "Beirut and Contradiction: Reading the World Press Photo Award" focuses on this now well-known image by Spencer Platt which won the WPF Award for 2006. The essay was first published in oD shortly after the award was announced last February and was republished last month.

World Press Photo of the Year 2006 ~ Young Lebanese drive through
a devastated neighborhood of South Beirut, 15 August
© Spencer Platt, Getty Images

While Ghoussoub concedes that the prize was "well-deserved," she also finds the photograph quite thoroughly disturbing. Here is what she says about this "beautiful" photograph of "beautiful" young people surveying the rubble left behind by Israeli attacks last summer.

"I am certain that Spencer Platt's picture which won
the World Press Photo prize for 2006 looked disturbing
and even repellent to most viewers at first glance. I
admit that it bothered me when I first saw it on my
screen. But I also admit that I kept on looking at it.
What was it that intrigued me in this picture despite
my unexplained revulsion? Why did I feel that I had
to write about what I saw in the picture? ...

I believe that the photo is stunning in the metaphor
it creates about war photography. It tells us about
the voyeurism of the photographer, of the act of
taking photos in tragic situations: if there is a
contradiction, it is in the encounter between
art, beauty and tragedy. ...

Here is an image, a mirror of the self, an inverted
gaze shot impulsively or in "cold blood" by the
photographer/artist. The act of taking a picture ...
is mirrored and seen through the woman whose face
is strained and body tilted while taking a picture of the
same devastation from the seat of the red car. Did
the photographer question his own behavior by showing
the voyeurism of another person, a non-professional?
Is he saying that the voyeur's need to witness human
misery and affliction, and to let others see it
through their eyes, is in all of us?"

I have to say that I find this all too common line of criticism perplexing. Of course, having been born in Beirut, Ghoussoub has a much closer identification with the city and its residents than do I and very nearly all Americans. But I do not see why the beauty that Platt captures even in such a dire situation is objectionable. And I surely do not find the criticism of the young man and women in the car persuasive at all. Imagine the young woman capturing the devastation with a cell phone camera. Perhaps there are others - her family or friends, nearby or in some far-away place like London - who might not quite believe the damage, or who could not imagine it or who, even though locals, could not, from fear or otherwise, bring themselves to travel the city so openly. Might she not be snapping pictures to share with those others? The charge of voyeurism is, I think, remarkably presumptuous and uncharitable. Can Ghoussoub presume to know what these young people are doing or why they had come to witness the post-bombing mayhem and carnage?

That leaves the worries about beautifying tragedy and hardship and suffering. This afternoon I happened to be reading an interview with Alfredo Jaar who addressed similar sorts of criticisms that have been leveled at his own work, especially his Rwanda projects. Jaar responds to the sorts of criticism that Ghoussoub articulates in this way:

"In a way, the question is: are we allowed as artists
to create art out of suffering? Or should we let these
tragedies sink into invisibility? Why can't I resist
their invisibility in the media and offer my own
reading, my own image, my own outrage, my own
accusations about this tragic situation? To create
these works is not only to put Rwanda on the map,
but is also in a modest way to express solidarity, to
create, as I did, a memorial to the victims of genocide
in Rwanda. Now, how many gestures of solidarity have
you seen? How many memorials to Rwanda have you
seen? This is a memorial to one million people.
What is this worth?"

I think this challenge places the burden back on Ghoussoub and those whom she echoes. Perhaps it is too much to say that Platt might've been expressing solidarity with the young people of Beirut. But his image raises a question that, as the father of teenage sons, I automatically asked myself when I saw this picture. Why do these young people have to live through this? Shouldn't their youth (and that of their contemporaries elsewhere, including Israel) be without this sort of fear and care and anxiety? Perhaps that is naive. The clean clothes and shiny car that capture Ghoussoub's attention are hardly compensation for living in a war zone. And, as it turns out, the kids in the car actually lived in the neighborhood and had returned to survey the damage to their home.

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Blogger tim atherton said...

It's a bit hard to take seriously an article in which a large part of it is based on a mistaken assumption:

I believe that the photo is stunning in the metaphor
it creates about war photography. It tells us about
the voyeurism of the photographer, of the act of
taking photos in tragic situations: if there is a
contradiction, it is in the encounter between
art, beauty and tragedy. ...br/>>

Ghoussoub would perhaps like to "believe" this to be the case, but really it isn't. The young people came back to see what had happened to their own neighbourhood. Which to me seems like the least voyueristic of responses.

It's like calling a family returned to the smoldering ruins of their burned suburban house voyeurs. They simply aren't - in fact they are pretty much the opposite.

So to be able to talk of this photo of as a "stunning metaphor" because the voyeurism of the photographer reflects the apparent voyeurism of another, ordinary, non-photographer is based on a foundation made of sand. After which a big chunk of what she says simply crumbles away.

It is however a stunning example of the inerrant ambiguity in photographs in which so much of their power and mystique lies...

14 September, 2007 22:42  
Blogger tim atherton said...

sorry - messed up the italics...

14 September, 2007 22:43  
Blogger Stan B. said...

This photograph remains one of the most potent visual metaphors in recent "art history," even if the very basis of its existence has been completely misconstrued. We will continue to see what we want to see.

Michael Kenna has frequently caught shit for making things look "too beautiful," things like concentration camps. One of the proven consistencies concerning
photography throughout its history is that things aren't always what they seem.

The evil of Nazism was in its banality.

15 September, 2007 00:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Completely agree Jim.

I live in an extrenely poor area, although it is also coastal and very v=beautifil. On more than one occasion one summer visitor or other hasn't taken their camera with them on a walk, for fear of being accused of "class tourism".

Fear of being accosted, camera stolen, fear of the poor in general have both emerged as concerns in further discussion. There are definitely circumstances when taking the photograph, instead perhaps of taking a decision to do something else instead, is something to consider, especially for amateur photographers.

But if the photograph isn't taken, the discussion cannot be had.

If the relative wealth of the photographer was a factor preventing a photograph being taken, not only would the greatest photographs not be made, but /most/ photographs wouldn't be made.

(Thanks for posting this: I'm enjoying your blog.)

15 September, 2007 04:18  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The photo is made even more interesting for the fact that the people in it are middle class Christians who are typically pro-Israel. It wouldn't at all surprise me that the people in the picture, while having their neighborhood demolished, were not pro-Hezbollah and likely secretly rooting, as many Lebanese did, for Israel to finish Hezbollah once and for all. Hezbollah, as I'm sure you know, Jim, is well known for their pronounced hatred and crimes against Lebanese Christians who are staunchly anti-Syrian. Thus, this picture is indeed more complicated than it seems on many levels. That said, I am also opposed to the simplistic idea that this image captures a "tragedy" and is meant as some sort of "anti-war" message when considering that these Christians, and Lebanese in general, were going to greatly benefit from Hezbollah's demise (except for the pro-Syrian Shia). In fact, for the kids in the picture the real tragedy was that Israel didn't succeed.

15 September, 2007 20:27  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the photograph is interesting because it shows something unexpected, ie the juxtaposition of affluence and war, and even more to Westerners, the juxtaposing of Western-style affluence with a Middle-Eastern war.

What I find interesting as well is the detail about the lives of the photo's subjects that your link provides. If the photo at first glance invites suspicion and revulsion in some viewers, then context and wider story ought to encourage identification and yes, perhaps solidarity too.

18 September, 2007 03:39  

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