30 November 2008

I don't own a television . . .

but this is the sort of thing that makes me wish I did - actually not just a tv but one of those huge ozone producing, electricity sucking home entertainment systems. Unfortunately, my sponsor in my 12-step program reminds me that it is a slippery slope from watching Elvis to watching the University of Akron versus Cal-Poly San Luis Obisbo at midnight EST ... and, as I've already acknowledged here, I'm susceptible.

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29 November 2008

Bill Kristol is Still an Idiot

It has been quite some time since I have commented on Bill Kristol - the pathetic excuse for an "intellectual" who still is peddling bullshit as an opinion page columnist at The New York Times. In any case, here is Kristol's latest insult to his readers' intelligence. And here is a response from Dani Rodrik - who is way smarter and way, way more polite than me. The bottom line? Bill Kristol has little if any grasp on the real world.

One might add (and so, I will) that, quoting Lincoln, Bill (not "Mr.") Kristol urges us to "think anew" and then recommends that we rely on ideologues like Hayek and Schumpeter, whose slogans mask much of what we might really need to know. He would more appropriately have recommended Dani Rodrik [1] [2]; but, that, of course, would not comport with the ideological posture that prevents Bill from acting on his own advice.

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28 November 2008


My friend Susan sent me this link to a slide show at The Guardian today ~ basically a set of photographs cataloging the haircuts of David Cameron, leader of the conservative parliamentary opposition. I don't know how I missed it when it first came out last summer, but it is a nice chuckle.

27 November 2008

Passings (2)

Two photographers whose work, again, I know next to nothing about have died recently. Both were involved in politics: Stoughton as White House photographer in the Kennedy administration, Bissinger, having given up photography, as a peace activist.

Karl Bissinger (1914-2008) The notice in The New York Times is here.

Cecil Stoughton (1920 -2008) The notice from The Guardian is here and from The Times here.


Tanaquil LeClercq, Donald Windham, a server named Virginia Reed,
Buffie Johnson, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal
, 1949 ~
Photograph © Karl Bissinger.

Gore Vidal recently published a pointed essay about the way Bissinger captured fleeting - indeed squandered - possibility in this image :
So there we sat one day in the Manhattan garden of the Café Nicholson: Tanaquil Le Clercq of Balanchine's ballet company; Buffie Johnson, a painter; writers Donald Windham, Tennessee Williams and me. For me, Karl Bissinger's picture is literally historic, so evocative of a golden moment when we were neither at war—our usual condition, it now appears—nor in a depression. Look at the civilization we could have created! . . .
Vidal characteristically and rightly criticizes our leaders (what of ourselves?) for the various wars that followed and the possibilities he laments. Here, arguably, is Stoughton's most famous image of LBJ assuming the presidency and who, of course, was consumed by war.

Lyndon Johnson takes the presidential oath of office as Jacqueline
Kennedy looks on aboard Air Force One on November 22, 1963 ~
Photograph © Cecil Stoughton/The White House.


On the Edge of Clear Meaning

Doublet [Self-Portrait], 1974. Photo-collage © John Wood.

David Levi-Strauss has an essay in the Winter '08 Aperture which takes its title ~ "On the Edge of Clear Meaning" ~ from a large-scale retrospective on John Wood (1922-). The exhibition is local, although I've not yet seen it. The Aperture essay is a version of the introductory text that Levi Strauss contributes to the exhibition catalogue. The retrospective is hosted by the Visual Studies Workshop, the Memorial Art Gallery and George Eastman House with each venue housing works in distinct media.* It is scheduled to travel extensively after it closes here in January.

Levi Strauss insists that in formal, artistic terms the innovative aspect of Wood's use of photography actually consisted in a too often unrecognized or suppressed continuity.
"In Wood's work, the photograph often represents the given thing, what is received from the world. The work then is to put that given and received thing into play, to activate it conceptually, aesthetically, and kinesthetically. For Wood that means transforming it haptically, through the hand. is drawing and collaging and intricate manipulations of images are a way of understanding and informing photographs. In the conflicted history of 'art photography,' this has been considered in some quarters at some times, a heresy. But it is a heresy that preceded the orthodoxy, and will certainly outlive it. The 'pure' photograph was a temporary, though powerful, fiction. Photography was born out of a desire to write and draw differently, to write or draw with light, and was always integrate with other arts."
I have to say that I find this observation extremely congenial because I find the aversion to text and altering images among lots and lots of photographers wholly mystifying. I think those aversions are debilitating in terms of the uses to which we might put photography. And now, assuming the account Levi Strauss sketches is plausible, they hardly can be justified in terms of adherence to some supposed tradition.

Martin Luther King, Wellesville, New York, 1969.
Photograph © John Wood.

Levi Strauss insists on the politics that informs Wood's work throughout. He notes too that the politics is radically democratic both in the sense of eschewing didacticism and in posing questions of accountability and complicity.
"Wood has always been careful to leave some leeway for viewers to find meaning in his work, thus implicating us in its making. He also implicates us, as citizens, in the problems he addresses. It is not enough to point a finger at politicians or corporations, or the army, he insists: in a putative democracy, we are all responsible for what happens."

Eagle Pelt, 1985. Photograph © John Wood.

This is so even when, as in this image, what has happened seems especially dire.


Nathan Lyons Left to Right and Right to left, 1974.
Photograph © John Wood.

Wood has geographical links to the Rochester area, having spent a portion of his youth here and having taught for three-plus decades at Alfred University, which is south of town. However, intellectual and creative genealogy is important in all this as well ~ the retrospective is curated by Nathan Lyons who was both a student of Wood and a teacher of Levi Strauss.
* "Eastman House’s portion, “Quiet Protest,” contains work dealing with social and ecological issues. VSW will exhibit Wood’s serial investigations including selected book works, collages, and montages as well as his sand and rock drawings. MAG will present selected works on paper, including watercolors, blue prints, cyanotypes, wax drawings, mixed media, and some 'whirligigs.'"

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Best Shots (52) ~ Nadav Kander

(78) Nadav Kander ~ "one of the happiest pictures I've taken"
(27 November 08).


26 November 2008

Harvey Milk (May 22, 1930 – November 27, 1978)

Harvey Milk at the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade.
Photograph © Terry Schmitt/ San Francisco Chronicle

Three decades ago tomorrow conservative politician Dan White snuck into San Francisco City Hall where he shot and killed Harvey Milk and George Moscone who, respectively, were a member of the Board of Supervisors and Mayor of the city. Milk commonly is characterized as the first openly gay person elected to public office in the United States. Here are some of the good bits from a 1999 piece in (of all places) TIME Magazine:
"There was a time when it was impossible for people — straight or gay — even to imagine a Harvey Milk. The funny thing about Milk is that he didn't seem to care that he lived in such a time. After he defied the governing class of San Francisco in 1977 to become a member of its board of supervisors, many people — straight and gay — had to adjust to a new reality he embodied: that a gay person could live an honest life and succeed. [. . .]

When he began public life, though, Milk was a preposterous figure — an "avowed homosexual," in the embarrassed language of the time, who was running for office. In the 1970s, many psychiatrists still called homosexuality a mental illness. In one entirely routine case, the Supreme Court refused in 1978 to overturn the prison sentence of a man convicted solely of having sex with another consenting man. A year before, it had let stand the firing of a stellar Tacoma, Wash., teacher who made the mistake of telling the truth when his principal asked if he was homosexual. No real national gay organization existed, and Vice President Walter Mondale haughtily left a 1977 speech after someone asked him when the Carter Administration would speak in favor of gay equality. To be young and realize you were gay in the 1970s was to await an adulthood encumbered with dim career prospects, fake wedding rings and darkened bar windows. [. . .]

Relentless in pursuit of attention, Milk was often dismissed as a publicity whore. "Never take an elevator in city hall," he told his last boyfriend in a typical observation. The marble staircase afforded a grander entrance.

But there was method to the megalomania. Milk knew that the root cause of the gay predicament was invisibility [. . .] That made the election of an openly gay person, not a straight ally, symbolically crucial. "You gotta give them hope," Milk always said. [. . .]

The few gays who had scratched their way into the city's establishment blanched when Milk announced his first run for supervisor in 1973, but Milk had a powerful idea: he would reach downward, not upward, for support. He convinced the growing gay masses of "Sodom by the Sea" that they could have a role in city leadership, and they turned out to form "human billboards" for him along major thoroughfares. In doing so, they outed themselves in a way once unthinkable. It was invigorating."
At a time when virtually all Americans would've cheered dissidents in Eastern Europe who were "living in truth," Milk showed the importance of pursuing that strategy here too. He trafficked in, imagination and visibility and hope. And he did so, as John Cloud, the author of this piece suggests, by reaching downward not upward, that is, by building democracy.
We've had the award winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk for a while. Now, of course, we have a major motion picture to remind us that imagination and visibility and hope remain very imperfect and precarious achievements. You can read The New York Times review here ... and I'll post more as they appear.

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25 November 2008

Berger on Meiselas

"When I recently watched Pictures from a Revolution, the film about her returning to Nicaragua ten years after she took the photographs, I kept asking myself who Meiselas, with all her reticence and discretion, reminded me of?

I couldn't find the answer, and anyway, like each one of us, she's unique. The next morning it came to me. She reminded me not of another person, but of a sculpture: the only existing sculpture by the Italian Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna. I looked again at the reproduction I have of it. Yes. It is not a question of a look-alike (although their physical stances are similar) but of that mysterious attitude which is a presence. A presence is a source of energy offered to others. Yes." ~ John Berger*

There is a danger, I think, in exalting photographers - any photographer. And Berger is quick to insist that Susan Meisleas is "not a saint." Instead he suggests nonetheless that, like Mantegna's St. Eufemia**, Meiselas's work in Nicaragua (and elsewhere) presents us with "an example given and a wager made."
* From "Susan Meisleas Nicaragua" Aperture (Winter 2008) page 24.
Statue of "St. Eufemia" (circa 1454) by Andrea Mantegna.

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24 November 2008

Thinking About Power

"So far as photographs with the most solemn or heartrending subject matter are art - and this is what they become when they hang on walls, whatever the disclaimers - they partake of the fate of all wall-hung or floor supported art displayed in public places. That is, they are stations along a - usually accompanied - stroll. A museum or a gallery visit is a social situation, riddled with distractions, in the course of which art is seen and commented upon. Up to a point, the weight and seriousness of such photographs survive better in a book, where one can look privately, linger over the pictures, without talking. Still, at some moment the book will be closed. The strong emotion will become a transient one. Eventually the specificity of the photograph's accusations will fade; the denunciation of a particular conflict and attribution of specific crimes will become denunciation of human cruelty, human savagery as such. The photographer's intentions are irrelevant to this larger process." ~ Susan Sontag

Among the several disadvantages of residing in Western New York, is that I do not get to see a lot of the exhibitions that turn up even in places that are relatively close by. At the moment in DC, this exhibition "Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power" is up at the Corcoran Gallery. It seems like it would be fascinating. Yesterday, though, while I was killing a bit of time, I looked through the accompanying book and it is pretty astounding. Here are a handful of the photographs that stood out right off the bat:

The Chicago 7 (1969) ~ Photograph © Richard Avedon.

Donald Rumsfeld (1976) ~ Photograph © Richard Avedon.

Jerome Smith & Isaac Reynolds (1963) ~ Photograph © Richard Avedon.

Karl Rove (2004) ~ Photograph © Richard Avedon.

I find it it pretty astonishing how consistently wrong Sontag is about photography. Why presume from the outset that what is at stake in viewing images is "strong emotion"? What, if we use photography to think with? And what if we think with words, so that actually talking about images is useful and productive? What if the matters, the problems, that photographers can get us to think about are not restricted to the "specific" or the "particular," but are general - or at least, while perhaps visible only in one or another particular instance or incarnation, are not tied to any single one of them?

Avedon, it seems to me, is extremely instructive in this regard. His portraits prompt us to ask broad questions. He hardly is alone in this respect; for a much different sort of prompting see Richard Ross on "The Architecture of Authority." I've commented on Ross here. But the images I've lifted above all, in one or another way, ask us to think n more general terms about power, its availability and its uses.

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This post is going to meander around a little bit, tying together a set of comments and concerns about using captions to name the subjects in photographs. In part, I want to make some notes to myself. But since that is what I do a lot of the time here, I'll prompt some remarks from readers too.


Let's start with some pictures & captions, each from the "24 Hours in Pictures" for 20 November 2008 at The Guardian:

Democratic Republic of the Congo: Furah carries wood and
her 18-month-old daughter, Shukyru, down the road from
Rupango to Sake
. Photograph © Jerome Delay/AP.

Soemmerda, Germany: Roberto Chudzinski checks solar modules
on the roof of Soemtron AG, a sustainable energy company.
Photograph © Jens Meyer/AP

Doma, Zimbabwe: Vhukani Sibanda snaps the neck of a bird he
caught to eat. Photograph © Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP.

It struck me that in each instance the caption names the person depicted. It may just be me, but it seems like this is a relatively new practice. I thought at first that maybe is was because all the photographers are from AP. But there are other photographs in the same slide show that are from AP photographers but do not name their subjects. A quick browse of the offerings for several other days suggests that this practice is hit or miss. So, have I simply been missing this all along?


Among the absurd things Susan Sontag does in her Regarding the Pain of Others is draw a direct parallel between Sebastião Salgado's Migrations project and the photographs Nhem Ein took documenting the victims that the Khmer Rouge tortured and murdered at Tuol Sleng prison. How does Sontag justify such a thought-defying leap? Neither photographer names his subjects. Hence they remain an anonymous aggregate or mere bearers of some role. There are reasons behind this complaint -namely Sontag's tacit assumption that compassion affords the nexus around which politics and photography revolve. But, nevertheless her comparison strains credulity.

Rawalpindi, Pakistan: A barber shaves a customer.
Photograph © Emilio Morenatti/AP.

So, does the anonymity of the men in this photo (also from The Guardian "24 Hours" slide show) differentiate it from any of those I've lifted above? How about the anonymity of the man and children in this photograph that prompted an earlier post? For Sontag (and those who find her complaint persuasive) there must be a qualitative difference. What might it be?


Lydia Chen (1987). Photograph © Robert Mapplethorpe.

All of the preceding made me take notice of this discussion, by Luc Sante, of Robert Mapplethorpe and the way he named the subjects in some of his most notorious photographs. In particular, Sante is addressing the way critic Arthur Danto interpreted such naming in his Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe (University of California Press, 1995).
[. . .] Pleasure and sacrifice are of course entwined in Mapplethorpe's conception. Arthur Danto rightly notes that while numerous critics have referred to Mapplethorpe's "Catholic" aesthetic with regard to his love of symmetry (and he himself often talked of "making altars"), such construction is merely generally sacerdotal. "What is finally Catholic is the abiding mystery of spirit and flesh," Danto writes, not putting too fine a point on it. What he means is that the most profoundly Catholic images are those of sadomasochistic ritual.

The infamous "X Portfolio" is represented in Mapplethorpe by a selection marked off by red pages of light card stock (so that, perhaps, cautious parents can tape them shut). "Jim and Tom, Sausalito, 1977," which was famously characterized at the Cincinnati trial as a "figure study," and shows a leather-hooded man urinating into the open mouth of another man, evokes for Danto the classical theme of "Roman charity" (the daughter offering her breast to her shackled and starving father). It might more simply be said to refer to holy communion: the standing donor, half-extending his arm, stands over the supplicant, who kneels and presents his upturned face, eyes reverently closed. The two are surrounded by darkness but streaked with a light that comes from above. Whatever one's visceral or acculturated reaction to the act depicted, there is no denying that the picture conveys a hush, a powerfully concentrated peace that overrides the menace of the leather hood and the sordidness of the grimy bunker.

Other pictures are less comforting. Some bristle with the hardware of chains and straps and ropes and pulleys, and refer the viewer to a thousand gruesome fifteenth-and sixteenth-century panels of saints' martyrdoms as well as, in their head-on and deliberately ugly lighting, to the artless brutality of photographs in true-crime magazines. "Helmut and Brooks, N.Y.C., 1978," the "fisting" picture that prompted an expert witness in Cincinnati to natter about "the centrality of the forearm," is a sculptural enigma that entirely excludes the viewer, any viewer. After you have figured out what is going on, you are immediately expelled by the monstrous arm and buttocks that devour all space. It is not a privileged display, not a window onto anything; it is an aggressive, even hostile declaration of limits. They are breaching theirs; you are confined to your bubble.

Sharing a spread with this picture is "Richard, N.Y.C., 1978," which is likewise calculated to shred all the niceties of critical palaver. It shows a penis and testicles lashed cruciform to a board, no more and no less. The viewer here is simultaneously pushed into outer darkness and forced to experience vicarious pain, a palliative middle distance being only marginally achievable by dryly considering the relative textures of wood, metal, cord, pubic hair, and stretched, blood-engorged, capillary-striated skin. Good luck.

Here as elsewhere, it is difficult to assess just how Mapplethorpe intends his title to be taken. Danto founds his case for Mapplethorpe on the principle of consent—that Mapplethorpe was not a voyeur like Gary Winogrand or a stalker (his word) like Cartier-Bresson or a betrayer of confidences like Diane Arbus. This is true enough; all his published pictures feature fully informed models who signed releases, and all that they depict was carefully staged (they are not photographs of sex, but of sexual displays). But Danto cites Winogrand's kamikaze shots of nameless women on the street as products of a predatory tactic that is tantamount to rape-by-lens (neglecting to mention that Winogrand operated identically when photographing society people, ranchers, politicians, writers, cars, lampposts, parking lots), and contrasts their heartless anonymity with Mapplethorpe's respect for his subjects as demonstrated by his titles:

Even when all we are shown is a nude torso, cropped, like that of Lydia Cheng, at the knee and neck, so that the body looks altogether impersonal, it is given an identity and an owner: it is the body of a particular woman who consented to be shown nude.
Perhaps this is so, although it is disconcerting that of all the many pictures he took of Lydia Cheng, not one shows her face [. . .]. When it comes to his pictures of individual precincts of male anatomy, the message seems more deliberately mixed. A penis can be simply "Cock," or it can be "Lou" (according credit to its namesake for the hair-raising feat of inserting his little finger past the first knuckle into his urethra), or it can be "Mark Stevens" (a celebrity phallus). Or it can be "Richard," which seems to mean (besides any considerations of the fact that Richard might not want his face and his tortured member to appear in the same shot, although he is proud of it) that Richard is equivalent to his trussed penis, that his spirit resides within it, that he is thereby exceptional among the endless parade of nameless meat in the back room. [. . .]

I read this passage a while back in Sante's recent collection of essays but you can find the original essay here too. A couple of obvious questions: (1) Does naming actually imply consent, as Danto (according to Sante) would have it? and (2) What is the difference between using a proper name as opposed to a label or a title to identify a picture?

Finally, should we expect naming to carry the same weight and perform the same function across the various genres of photography ~ photojournalism, propaganda (bookkeeping), documentary, art.

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The War of Images ~ Interview with Julian Stallabrass

1.53 am Oct 20, 2003. Detainee is handcuffed in the nude to a bed
and has a pair of panties covering his face, the Abu Ghraib prison,
Baghdad, Iraq. Photo taken using cameras owned by Cp. Charles
A. Graner Jr. and Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick II.

I lifted this image from this interview in FOTO8 with Julian Stallabrass, an incisive art critic and historian who curated the Brighton Photo Biennial this fall. I recommend the interview and want to call your attention to this exchange between Stallabrass and Guy Lane, his interlocutor. Lane starts, articulating views that, while commonplace, I suspect are not his own:
On a related point, in considering material for the exhibition did you come across photographs which you considered, on moral grounds, to be unsuitable to display? I’m thinking of Abu Ghraib

We are displaying Abu Ghraib pictures. We’ve chosen to do it in a particular way: they will be seen in a gallery along with others as part of a grid printed on vinyl, so I guess we’re trying to discourage the view of these things as artworks.

What do you say to the argument that re-publishing them perpetuates the abuse, in a way, on the grounds that initially the photography was part of that abuse and torture?

I don’t really go along with that. Rather, my feeling is that they haven’t been seen enough, or remembered enough. They seem to have almost dropped out of public memory, in the West anyway, as if they were some kind of aberration rather than a photographic outcrop of standard US military policy. We’re juxtaposing them with other material – images from Iraqi resistance websites, and also official pictures taken by US Army photographers. So I think to re-present them in these circumstances, to use them against the US Army’s own propaganda, can have an instructive effect.

It's true that photography was used as a “force multiplier” in Abu Ghraib: the taking of pictures, the presence of women, the dogs in the jail – all functioned to terrify and humiliate prisoners. I think it’s one thing to say the act of taking a photograph in those circumstances serves that purpose; but it does not follow that to show the photograph in other circumstances re-enacts that abuse.
The general question raised here, of course, concerns the uses of photography. Surely, the U.S. Military Personnel at Abu Ghraib photographed prisoners for their own purposes, some of which were to "terrify and humiliate" their captives. But republishing them - especially under the circumstances Stallabrass sketches and especially given that in the U.S. they have fallen wholly off the public's radar screen even as Obama commits to not conducting even a legal inquiry (let alone prosecutions) into the use of torture as official policy - seems like a necessity, an ethical and political imperative. It seems to me that not keeping these images in the public eye perpetuates the abuse, allowing our torturers to evade notice and consequences and ourselves to avoid seeing our complicity.

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23 November 2008

". . . try to embrace the boredom"

I discovered this really quite interesting article from The Minnesota Independent addressing the travails of photographers trying to make election recounts well, if not visually arresting, at least not tedious. The reporter, Paul Schmelzer, provides a whole set of examples of images made by photographers covering the recount now underway in the Minnesota U.S. Senate election. He also solicited thoughts from a couple of accomplished local photographers. Paul Shambroom
offers the sage advice I quote in the post title. He also agrees with Alec Soth that focusing on the contested ballots like the one I show here might afford the best angle. I have to admit, the problem with voting for Lizard People is that it makes it hard to distinguish one politician from another. One more predicament for those who try to see politics clearly.

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Back Talk: Toni Morrison

You've talked about how official languages can stifle identity. Do you have any thoughts about the ways that technologies like e-mail and texting are changing how people speak and write?

Language changes--and should--because it is as alive as its speakers and writers. It is stifling or bad only when unclear, mediocre, false or wholly devoid of creative imagination. That may apply to some texting and e-mail, but not all.

And you can find the rest of the interview here.

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Burma Eats Its Young

In a just world, the names Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi would be as well known as Steve Biko and Adam Michnik. These two leaders of Burma’s 88 Generation students, now in their forties, have spent almost their entire adult lives in prison for organizing pro-democracy demonstrations. After a short period of freedom, between 2005 and 2007, they and their colleagues were jailed again for staging a long walk around Rangoon, in August of 2007, in protest of soaring transportation prices—a gesture that sparked the so-called Saffron Revolution, the largest demonstrations in Burma since 1988, both times put down in blood. [. . .]
That is the opening paragraph of this brief notice George Packer posted at The New Yorker on Friday. As he points out, this new 'trial' and the 65 years in prison that the regime has imposed on Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, and their compatriots amount to an unambiguous 'F#*K YOU!!' from the Burmese Junta to anyone and everyone urging them to 'reform.' Of course, Packer starts out on the wrong foot. In a just world we would not have regimes that imprisoned and killed dissidents

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21 November 2008


I know nothing about musician Justin Dillon except that he's made a film on the pervasive problem of human trafficking - slavery. No big budget, no massive advert campaign. So here is the self-description and the link to his web page.

CALL+RESPONSE is a first of its kind feature documentary film that reveals the world’s 27 million dirtiest secrets: there are more slaves today than ever before in human history. CALL+RESPONSE goes deep undercover where slavery
is thriving from the child brothels of Cambodia to the slave brick kilns of rural India to reveal that in 2007, Slave Traders made more money than Google, Nike and Starbucks combined.

Luminaries on the issue such as Cornell West, Madeleine Albright, Daryl Hannah, Julia Ormond, Ashley Judd, Nicholas Kristof, and many other prominent political and cultural figures offer first hand account of this 21st century trade. Performances from Grammy-winning and critically acclaimed artists including Moby, Natasha Bedingfield, Cold War Kids, Matisyahu, Imogen Heap, Talib Kweli, Five For Fighting, Switchfoot, members of Nickel Creek and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Rocco Deluca move this chilling information into inspiration for stopping it.

Music is part of the movement against human slavery. Dr. Cornell West connects the music of the American slave fields to the popular music we listen to today, and offers this connection as a rallying cry for the modern abolitionist movement currently brewing

There is a sea of change happening in human rights activism. The world’s issues cannot be solved alone by governments and non-profits, but require community-based participation. As a feature film, CALL+RESPONSE has the unique position of being not only a ground-breaking genre-bending film, but due to the fact that this project was funded completely through donations, it operates as a powerful movement with 100% of profits going to fund global field projects on the front lines of this issue.

CALL+RESPONSE is creating interactive field projects for each aspect of human slavery: sex slavery, labor slavery, child soldiers and child slavery. All profits from the use of the film, dvd, soundtrack, itunes downloads will be directed, by the viewers, to these projects with clear start and finish points (ie a landrover for a child soldier rehab camp, sewing machines for a after-care training facility). Our goal is to fund and celebrate completed projects together in community. We are closing the loop by allowing viewers to become participants in the solution.

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20 November 2008

Best Shots (51) ~ Bruce Gilden

(77) Bruce Gilden ~ Two Yakuza, Tokyo, 1998 ~ (20 November 08)


19 November 2008

Hossein Derakhshan

This from The Guardian: "A prominent Iranian blogger has been arrested in Tehran and accused of spying for Israel after visiting the country with the aim of being 'a bridge between Iranian and Israeli people.'" The blogger, Hossein Derakhshan, who is now a Canadian citizen traveling on a Canadian passport, has allegedly confessed to espionage. Maybe. But I have severe doubts that he did so without the persuasive assistance of the Iranian authorities. You can read the entire Guardian report here.

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18 November 2008

There is an Interview with Philosopher Boris Groys here . . .

. . . at ArtInfo. Groys has published a recent book Art Power (MIT Press, 2008) that I've been tempted to buy a couple of times. But, like this interview, I find much of what he writes more or less incomprehensible. For example, consider this exchange from the interview:

AI ~ So you would say that design precedes art?

BG ~ Yes, historically, design precedes art.

AI ~ And then art arises to criticize or undo design?

BG ~ Art is first of all a part of design — it is a part of the design of the new life, the new society, the new aesthetic dream. But art is also capable of demonstrating the ambiguity of design. If we seek to build a new society, a new religion, even a new product, then we have a new vision. We have a perspective and a future. But in the moment, the future gets lost; what remains is art. If you look at Malevich or Russian constructivism or Bauhaus, their paintings and objects are all parts of wonderful projects of a better world; but at the same time they are only combinations of quadrangles and triangles. And that means that the project already failed, before being realized. Art is about success and failure at the same time. Design needs to be successful. But art — that is, 20th-century art, modern art — accepts failure. The main topic of modern art, and postmodern and contemporary art, is failure. It’s the impossibility of doing art, in fact, and art constantly demonstrates this impossibility, this failure of its own project. Art is the other side of design, the other side of utopia.

I simply have no idea what Groys is talking about. And that leads me to suspect that he doesn't either.

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HEADLINE: Senate Democrats Draw Their Pistol, Take Aim and ... Shoot Selves Foot

The Senate Democrats imposed incredibly mild sanctions on Joe Lieberman this afternoon. You can find the New York Times report here. He has been told essentially "You can do what you please and you can do so with impunity." Listening to the reports on npr I recall two themes that seem especially pathetic to me.

(1) Joe Lieberman was mad that many of his colleagues had not supported him after he lost the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont in 2006.

As a description of fact this is no doubt true. But it says a whole lot about Lieberman and his warped view of politics. After all he lost the primary to Lamont. And almost by definition of the term "party," the Democrats then treated Lamont as their candidate. Stunning! Lieberman seems to mis-understand two things. First, the definition and role of a political party. Second, when you piss off your basic constituency by supporting policies (on, say, foreign affairs) with which they disagree, you invite opposition (like, say, primary challengers). So Lieberman may be angry about 2006, but his anger is ill-founded insofar as he brought the situation on himself.

The upshot: The Senate democrats have just endorsed Lieberman's self-serving view of political parties and the point of primary elections.

(2) As president-elect Obama did not want to send the 'wrong message' by supporting (or appearing to support) sanctions against Lieberman. In particular, he wants to accomplish either of two things (perhaps both): (a) get beyond partisan divisiveness or (b) come closer to a veto-proof majority in the Senate, thereby taking a pragmatic step toward implementing the Obama "agenda."

This raises at least three matters. First, Lieberman's absolution itself sends a message. It says that there is virtually nothing a member of the Democratic caucus can do that merits forfeiting her or his seniority and the perquisites that follow on that seniority. Here, as always, the Democrats have proven themselves to be weenies. At TPM Josh Marshall rightly observes that one might describe the "sanctions" the caucus imposed on Lieberman thusly: "Lieberman expelled from Pilates class in Senate gym."

Second, the two underlying reasons (a) and (b) are in obvious tension. If the point is to keep Lieberman's vote because it will help Obama implement his agenda that seems to be a clear recognition that he anticipates the Republicans will mount significant opposition to his agenda. In other words, it is wishful thinking to believe that partisan divisiveness is a thing of the past. And a veto-proof majority simply means that since we've not moved beyond partisan divisiveness, the Democrats might be able to simply ignore those who opposed their plans. (II say might because they will need to impose unlikely levels of party unity to do so.)

Finally, all that said, let's talk reality. Even with Lieberman's vote the chances of the Democrats having a veto-proof majority in the Senate are epsilon (a very, very, very small number). They still need victories in all three undecided Senate elections - Alaska, Georgia, & Minnesota - and that is highly unlikely. Note too that in any given instance Lieberman's vote is quite unreliable. He has never offered a single bit of evidence that he is anything but opportunist. He will ditch (or worse) the Democrats at the first chance. He has borne no cost for his past bad behavior. And, having now granted him absolution, the caucus has no leverage over him when he behaves badly in the future. My prediction is that he will behave badly pretty damned soon.

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There is (another) Interview with Susan Meiselas

. . . here at FOTO8. The interviewer, Guy Lane, is, I think, much more closely focused and thoughtful than the person who conducted this interview I mentioned about a week ago. In particular, he prompts Meiselas to address the shameful (my word) New York Times review of her current ICP retrospective about which I've also written here.

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17 November 2008

Change We Can Believe In? ~ Obama Prepares to Eliminate Responsibility for Torturers

If you think Barack represents the second coming, read this story from AP, via TPM.


On Torture: Symposium in DC Tomorrow

There are lots of things happening in politics these days - wars and impending economic depression, most obviously. But we in the U.S. have other matters to talk about too. In particular, we face the task of confronting the fact that a series of administrations have promoted or actually engaged in torture as a matter of policy. There are pressing issues on the table and tomorrow, this symposium will afford another venue for addressing them.

The symposium is co-sponsored by George Washington University & the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. You can find details of participants and topics by clicking the poster. The symposium is open to the public.


16 November 2008

The Importance of Our Great-Great-Grandchildren: "Creating a Future World for Future Mortals"

In this short clip of Richard Rorty discusses the source of meaning and justification. He claims that the emergence of the modern world marked a shift from locating that source in the "afterlife" or "natural order" or whatever, to grounding it in the desire to provide a better world for one's great-great-grandchildren. I think Rorty had a remarkable (and sometimes infuriating) facility for identifying prosaic formulae like that. I think too that Rorty is correct that the source of meaning lies just there. But it seems to me, just as clearly, that he is making a normative (or political) statement, not describing the world in which we live. Modernity remains (as Habermas noted long ago) an "incomplete project," something that, insofar as it allows us to escape the need to ground our lives in the beyond - however defined - needs to be pursued and defended. It is also the case that giving up on the notion of a natural order (pragmatists from Peirce on stress the contingency and indeterminacy of the natural and social worlds) does not mean that there is no natural world whose exigencies are independent of us and our interests and that we need to discover how to navigate successfully. Rorty claims that there is no "end" of inquiry, that the best we can hope for (or make any sense of) is an exchange of justifications of our beliefs and desires. He would, however, have to acknowledge that a central sort of justification involves pointing to relative success that some set of beliefs or desires afford us in our efforts to navigate the world.


15 November 2008

Making American Music ~ Don Byron

Don Byron, Detroit Jazz Festival, 2007.
Photograph © C. Andrew Hovan.

Composer and clarinetist Don Byron has recently turned 50. He is marking the event with a series of performances at the Jazz Standard in NYC. You can find notices in The New York Times here and at npr here. In one of his interviews with Terry Gross, Byron explains that his attraction to klezmer music reflects his "pro-weirdness" and "pro-fun" impulses. And then he invokes prominent jazz musicians - Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Rahsaan Roland Kirk - as inspirations on that dimension. With all the hot air given to defining a restrictive "jazz" canon, Byron is a refreshing, provocative, and extremely talented antidote. (You can find an earlier post on Byron here.)

Happy Birthday! Thanks.

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14 November 2008

Threats to Democracy ~ How to Deal With Our War Criminals

Prisoner Jail Cell (Etching ink on paper 38"x50") © David Fox

In the December '08 issue of Harper's Scott Horton has written a very provocative, insightful essay "Justice Post Bush: Prosecuting an Outlaw Administration." (It is available only behind a fire wall.) Here are Horton's premises, each of which seems incontrovertible:
There can be no doubt that torture is illegal. There is no wartime exception for torture, nor is there an exception for prisoners or "enemy combatants," nor is there an exception for "enhanced methods." The authors of the Constitution forbade "cruel and unusual punishment," the details of the prohibition were made explicit in the Geneva Conventions ("No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatsoever.") and that definition has in turn become subject to U.S. enforcement through the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the U.S. Criminal Code, and several acts of Congress.

Nor can there be any doubt that this administration conspired to commit torture [. . .]

Finally, there can be no doubt that the potential criminality of [their] acts.
Horton goes on to insist (rightly) that since all of that is public knowledge, the option of simply doing nothing is unavailable. His basic point is that not holding Bush and his minions accountable is toxic to democracy.
If the people wish to maintain sovereignty, they must also claim responsibility for the actions taken in their name. As of yet, they they have not. Pursuing the Bush Administration for crimes long known to the public may amount to a kind of hypocrisy, but it is a necessary hypocrisy. The alternative, simply doing nothing, not only ratifies torture; it ratifies the failure of the people to control the actions of their government.
Horton then proceeds to examine the costs and benefits, prospects and lack thereof, surrounding various legal means for pursuing Bush et. al. - international tribunals, domestic courts, and an independent commission of inquiry. He argues that the most likely and most productive alternative would be a special investigative commission (he discusses a couple of alternative forms) operating in the shadow of a Presidentially appointed special prosecutor.

I think that Horton is right to push this matter. And I think the consequences he identifies are just right. The American people are complicit in the policy of systematic torture and one way to address that complicity, and to insulate our democratic institutions from it, is to iniitiate public inquiry and prosecutions. Conservatives will no doubt complain that Horton and others who call for sanctions on Bush administration are criminalizing politics and policy. My response? Bush, Cheney, Rice, Ashcroft Rumsfeld, Powell and on down the line are the ones who criminalized U.S. policy. And they did so knowingly. Horton is right about the consequences of not holding them accountable. And conservatives who pledge allegiance to democracy and the rule of law ought to worry more about those consequences than they seem to do.

Gunpoint(Oil wash on canvas 54"x72") © David Fox

On a related note, the Horton essay is accompanied by a powerful series of drawings (including the two I've lifted here) made by David Fox who explains: "Drawing was a release for the outrage, I and many others, felt about the daily accounts of the barbarism and human suffering going on in Iraq. I made a large series of drawings in black and white, hoping they would have the immediacy of a newspaper image or report."

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13 November 2008

Best Shots (50) ~ Platon

(76) Platon ~ Vladimir Putin, December, 2007 (13 November 2008).

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Yesterday I received an e-mail notice (see below) about this version of The New York Times. Since the email looked sketchy I did not click through any of the links but deposited it directly in the spam bin. You can read reports on this clever political parody from the actual New York Times here and here. There is a report in The Guardian here. Apparently, the perpetrators are a diffuse group of co-conspirators, including The Yes Men.

-----Original Message-----
From: send34-proxyantiwar@theyesmen.org [mailto:send34-proxyantiwar@theyesmen.org]
On Behalf Of New York Times Special Edition
Sent: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 6:17 PM
To: JJ's UofR e-mail

November 12, 2008

CONTACT: writers@nytimes-se.com



Thousands of volunteers behind elaborate operation

* PDF: http://www.nytimes-se.com/pdf
* Ongoing video releases: http://www.nytimes-se.com/video
* The New York Times responds: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/12/

Hundreds of independent writers, artists, and activists are claiming credit for an elaborate project, 6 months in the making, in which 1.2 million copies of a "special edition" of the New York Times were distributed in cities across the U.S. by thousands of volunteers.

The papers, dated July 4th of next year, were headlined with long-awaited news: "IRAQ WAR ENDS". The edition, which bears the same look and feel as the real deal, includes stories describing what the future could hold: national health care, the abolition of corporate lobbying, a maximum wage for CEOs, etc. There was also a spoof site, at


"Is this true? I wish it were true!" said one reader. "It can be true, if we demand it."

"We wanted to experience what it would look like, and feel like, to read headlines we really want to read. It's about what's possible, if we think big and act collectively," said Steve Lambert, one of the project's organizers and an editor of the paper.

"This election was a massive referendum on change. There's a lot of hope in the air, but there's a lot of uncertainty too. It's up to all of us now to make these headlines come true," said Beka Economopoulos, one of the project's organizers.

"It doesn't stop here. We gave Obama a mandate, but he'll need mandate after mandate after mandate to do what we elected him to do. He'll need a lot of support, and yes, a lot of pressure," said Andy Bichlbaum, another project organizer and editor of the paper.

The people behind the project are involved in a diverse range of groups, including The Yes Men, the Anti-Advertising Agency, CODEPINK, United for Peace and Justice, Not An Alternative, May First/People Link, Improv Everywhere, Evil Twin, and Cultures of Resistance.

In response to the spoof, the New York Times said only, "We are looking into it." Alex S. Jones, former Times reporter who is an authority on the history of the paper, says: "I would say if you've got one, hold onto it. It will probably be a collector's item."


Call for Papers

Humanising Photography
Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies (DCAPS)
Durham University
25-27 September 2009

In the early twenty-first century, the still photographic image continues to be one of the central visual technologies of humanitarianism: from the all-too familiar images documenting successive waves of famine and disease, through those that bear witness to the action and destruction of war, to the photo ops staged in the arena of struggles for human rights. Disseminated across a range of media and spanning geographical distances and cultural divides, photographic images are presented for everyday consumption, produced by practitioners often working explicitly in the name of ‘humanity’ and testifying to acts of injustice and states of destitution and abjection.

And yet: this humanitarian deployment of photography has been vigorously attacked from a variety of angles. The contemporary moment is plagued by anxieties concerning an oversaturated visual sphere and attendant compassion fatigue, a state of anaesthesia said to blunt the photograph’s political and ethical efficacy. Humanitarian photography is predicated on humanist principles even after more than half a century spent interrogating and deconstructing the discourses of humanism. Within photography theory, not only have there been sustained attempts to dismantle ontological notions of photographic reference, but documentary has been pilloried as a practice that is profoundly implicated in the perpetuation of liberal capitalism. Despite all this, however, the fact that photographic images of human suffering, deprivation and also resilience continue to circulate and be deployed suggests an ongoing belief in their power to affect and ultimately to effect change.

‘Humanising photography’ is a single-track conference that aims to establish a creative forum in which to reflect on the political, ethical, historical, and aesthetic questions thrown up by the persistent presence of such images in the context of humanitarian discourses. It will bring practitioners into dialogue with scholars working in the academic fields of visual culture studies broadly construed and representatives from humanitarian organizations. Whilst we welcome papers exploring salient contemporary issues and case studies, we especially encourage those that examine other contexts and histories that have been occluded in the contemporary geopolitical moment, in addition to theoretically-oriented reflections.

Possible areas for consideration might include, but are not restricted to:

What modes of humanist photography might still be valid in the twenty-first century?
What are the histories of humanist photography?
What are the tropes, figures and other rhetorical devices at play in such photography and what are their effects?
What is the political and emotional work that is done by this mode of photographic display and does it work?
What are the modes of appeal of such images, whom do they address and on what terms?
How do the modes of circulation and display impact on modalities of affect and effectivity?

Instructions for submission of abstracts: Please send 500-word abstracts for 30-minute conference presentations and a brief biographical note (maximum 5 lines), together with affiliation and contact details to: photo.group@dur.ac.uk
Deadline for abstract submission: 19 December 2008.
Notification : by 5 January 2009.

I attended the last conference that the good folks in Durham sponsored. It was a terrific event.


12 November 2008

Political Etymology as Branding: "Genocide"

I typically find efforts to "brand" politics or politicians a dubious enterprise, an invitation to bullshit. Recently, however, I discovered an interesting passage from Samantha Powers, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (Harper Collins, 2002) that caused me to reconsider my blanket view. Powers opens her historical account by describing the efforts of a handful of individuals who, in the wake of Turkish slaughter of Armenians and the face of Nazi holocaust, began to agitate against the as yet unnamed crime of genocide. Among these, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew trained as a linguist and lawyer, had been struck by a BBC broadcast in 1941 in which Churchill had observed of Nazi atrocities, "We are in the presence of a crime without a name." He took it upon himself to rectify that state of affairs, not just by speaking out against the crime, but by labeling it.
Lemkin read widely in linguistic and semantic theory modeling his own process on that of individuals responsible for coinages he admired. Of particular interest to Lemkin were the reflections of George Eastman, who said he had settled upon “Kodak” as the name for a new camera because: “First, It is short. Second. It is not capable of mispronunciation. Third. It does not resemble anything in the art and cannot be associated with anything in the art except the Kodak.”

Lemkin saw he needed a word that could not be used in other contexts (as ‘barbarity’ and ‘vandalism’ could). He self-consciously sought one that could bring with it “a color of freshness and novelty” while describing something “as shortly and poignantly as possible.”

But Lemkin’s coinage had to achieve something Eastman’s did not. Somehow it had to chill listeners and invite immediate condemnation. On an otherwise undecipherable page of one of his surviving notebooks Lemkin scribbled and circled ‘THE WORD’ and drew a line connecting the circle to the phrase, penned firmly, ‘MORAL JUDGMENT.’ His word would do it all. It would be the rare term that carried in it society’s revulsion and indignation. It would be what he called an “index of civilization.”

The word Lemkin settled upon was a hybrid that combined the Greek derivative
geno, meaning “race” or “tribe,” with the Latin derivative cide, from caedere, meaning “killing.” “Genocide” was short, it was novel, and it was not likely to be mispronounced. Because of the word’s lasting association with Hitler’s horrors, it would also send shudders down the spines of those who heard it.
So, perhaps George Eastman, indirectly and unintentionally, played a role in not just bringing photographic technology to the masses, but to the development of political language. Mere words, of course are insufficient, they need to be embedded in practices and institutions. But they are a start insofar as they afford us with the tools to identify and discuss, indeed even think about, aspects of the world - just as well as unjust, inspiring and hopeful as well as cruel, terrifying, oppressive. That, as Powers makes clear, was the nearly insurmountable task that faced Lemkin and the "virtual community" of others who had begun to speak out about genocide in the years before they could actually name it.

All this brought to mind work, some of which I've discussed before, by photographers like Alfredo Jaar, Robert Lyons, Susan Meiselas, and Simon Norfolk. In particular, the importance of Lemkin's neologism reminded me of this collection, the title to which Norfolk takes from the conclusion to Edward R. Murrow's report in 1944 from Buchenwald.

P.S.: I do not know much about Eastman (despite the fact that I live in 'his' town). But this passage from Powers brought to mind a colloquy between Eastman, Walt Whitman and Paul Virilio that David Levi Strauss imagined. See his "A Ferocious Philosophy: The Image of Democracy and the Democracy of Images," in Between the eyes: Essays on Photography & Politics (Aperture, 2003).

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