31 August 2008

There is an Interview with John Berger . . .

. . . here in The Sunday Times. I take exception to it being exiled to the "entertainment" section as though it might well report a chat with Pamela Anderson. I do not take exception to the author/interviewer's ambivalence (he decries Berger's politics while recognizing his incredible talents), even if I am considerably more sympathetic to left wing politics than is he. That said, I find the sort of conservative blindness to the depredations of capitalism that the author exhibits to be reprehensible.

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29 August 2008

Teaching Qualifications: A Teaching Certificate and a Carry Permit

HARROLD, Tex. — [. . . ] The school board in this impoverished rural hamlet in North Texas has drawn national attention with its decision to let some teachers carry concealed weapons, a track no other school in the country has followed. The idea is to ward off a massacre along the lines of what happened at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. . . . David Thweatt, the schools superintendent and driving force behind the policy . . . maintains that having teachers carry guns is a rational response to a real threat."
I saw this story in The New York Times this morning and was dumbfounded. Here are the obvious questions. What is the probability of some attack at this school relative to the probability of an accident? What faith do we have in the French teacher's judgment and training? What the hell is Texas Governor Rick Perry thinking when he endorsed this idiocy? What the hell is The Times doing relying on Republican talking points by describing those who find this policy nuts
as "wringing their hands." I am just speaking out and saying this policy is idiotic.

So, what do we have here. We have a "not exactly paranoid" fellow implementing a paranoid policy. Premises? (i) Standard government agencies (read: the county sheriff) cannot protect kids at school. (ii) Despite the fact that there is no prior experience with school violence we are going to plan for every contingency. (What about an asteroid crashing down onto the school in the middle of social studies?). (iii) And contentious policies like this ought to be decided without public comment or participation (the republicans in Monroe County New York pull this sort of thing all the time).

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28 August 2008

Best Shots (40) ~ Thomas Joshua Cooper

(66) Thomas Joshua Cooper ~ Magical Moment,
Dakar Senegal (2004)~ (28 August '08)


More on the Convention

Last night I drove from Rochester to Boston for the convention. No, not the convention, the one everyone is talking about. Once again this Labor Day weekend I am attending the annual convention of the American Political Science Association. I did get the chance to listen to most of what the Democrats were up to in Denver, though. My basic assessment has not changed since yesterday.

That said, I think Hilary has done the right thing. Whether she is sincere or not really doesn't matter. This is politics. What matters at this point is that the Democrats get their shit together. Bill did his typically narcissistic thing, but he too seems to understand the task at hand. And I did like the analogy he drew between what the Republicans said about him when he first ran - "too young and inexperienced" - and what they are saying about Obama now. So far, so good.

What I do not get at all is the adolescent response of most of the Clinton supporters in the face of having lost an electoral process. Yes, Hilary would've been the first woman President. Yes, that is long over due. But three things are crucial.

First, democracy works better than all the other available options for organizing politics because it creates losers. It offers those folks the impetus to work harder, to look over the existing rules to see whether they are fair, to call their opponents on things like, in this instance, being sexist. and to then pursue their best option. If you discontented Clinton-ites think a McCain victory in two months is your best option in two months, knock yourself out. That will simply confirm my view - expressed here many times before - that Hilary is basically a moderate Republican. If you think the rules worked against her propose changes (remembering, of course, that her centrist cronies basically established in the rules in the first place.)

Second, comparative victim-o-logy is just not a useful exercise. This is an historic election even though Clinton lost the primary. It is crucial to recognize that fact without the immediate caveat "but Hilary lost and I'm unhappy!" In terms of sheer political symbolism it seems extremely difficult to me to adopt anything other than a celebratory stance about Obama's success. That said, African-Americans have been more loyal to the Democratic party and arguably less well served by it historically than any other component of its "base." A question: If Clinton had edged out Obama in the primaries, would his African-American supporters being threatening to stay home? Would they be threatening to work for McCain?

Finally, the Clinton supporters need to get a grip. Hilary has never been a feminist. (If that involves a modicum of solidarity and an abiding concern for women's issues.) Nor is she terribly liberal. She has been a political opportunist. Her votes on the war and foreign policy are evidence enough of that. And I speak as the father of a 19 year old son. So when you look at Hilary and see a symbol of women's success, you are making a bit of a stretch. She is not Margaret Thatcher, but she is no better than a centrist Republican.

Here are two opinion pieces I've read recently about the Democrats current predicaments. The first addresses the Clinon-ites and I agree with virtually everything in it. The second one addresses the Democrat's unspoken problem: How to persuade Older white Americans to vote for a Black man.

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26 August 2008

Watching the Convention (Thus far ...)

I have watched portions of the first two night of the Democratic convention (via a free feed from MSNBC). Nearly all of the speakers come across a stilted. Since they have no rhythm (and since those subjected to the dreariness of contemporary American speech-i-fying seem to have gotten use to that) the audience seems to respond in the wrong places. There is no cadence. But what passes for "substance" is even worse. The persistent theme of family and religion are insipid. There are way too many victims - "widows and orphans," wounded veterans," "single mothers," ... the whole litany. None are seen as capable in any plausible way. And the closing prayer is, quite frankly, nauseating.

We don't need prayers and 'compassion' for the pathetic, the abandoned and the decrepit; what we need some plausible policies and the willingness to play political hardball necessary to get them implemented. we need that just not for the pitiable, but for the great majority of Americans who've been screwed by Republicans peddling deeply flawed policies and but who are willing to play the sort of political hardball needed to implement them. Unfortunately, the Democrats just don't seem up to the challenge.

I ave a very bad feeling that the Republicans will tear this lot to shreds.

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August 26, 2008

This appeared in The New York Times today. Two things. First, I agree with the point. It cannot be stated forcefully enough. Second, I find the "genre" question raised by this offering an intriguing one. An Op-Ed is a short, punchy essay on some topic, whether private or public. It is meant to provoke thought. The medium is text; words, carefully chosen (in principle) under constraints of length. Op-Art, apparently, has the same aim. It too operates within relatively strict constraints - in this instance, ink & paper, two dimensions, and so on. But the medium is an image.

25 August 2008

Arundhati Roy on Kashmir

"At a crucial time like this, few things are more important than
dreams. A lazy utopia and a flawed sense of justice will have
consequences that do not bear thinking about. This is not the
time for intellectual sloth or a reluctance to assess a situation
clearly and honestly.' ~ Arundhati Roy

Late last week The Guardian published this essay by Arundhati Roy on the percolating political conflict in Kashmir. This is a religiously based conflict bequeathed to the region by British colonialism six plus decades ago. It is not clear how it might be resolved. But Roy poses a provocative (surely incomplete) litany of questions that arise, or ought to, in the minds of those sympathetic to the circumstances of Kashmiri Muslims. She is clear that it is hard to imagine how this situation can end in anything other than disaster for India; but she rightly has qualms, quite plausible ones, about independence too.

PS: Virtually all of the press I can find on this suggests Roy is acting "irresponsibly." That is not surprising, I suppose. It also seems like a good reason to take her questions and concerns seriously.

PS2: You can find a useful set of perspectives on the current state of affairs in Kashmir here in Tehelka.

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Josef Koudelka

"For a long time no one here was interested in remembering, ... but now I think they start to remember again. If this book helps the remembering I am happy. We Czechs are not like you Irish or the Poles. We do not behave bravely many times against the odds, but in this one week, as my book shows, we should be very proud of how we behave.

[. . .]

Originally, I did not want to make the book or the exhibition, ... I knew already I had selected the 10 best. And, to be truthful, when I was working on this book, I did not discover one that I would have added to these 10. They are the ones that have a universal value. In them it is not so important who is Russian and who is Czech. It is more important that one man has a gun and one man has not." ~ Josef Koudelka
This is a follow-up on a post from late last week. Josef Koudelka is now 70, he became anonymously famous as a thirty year old for a couple of handfulls of pictures he took during the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia that were smuggled out of the country and published pseudonymously. Now there is a book and an exhibition (opening at Aperture Gallery in NYC this week). You can find a long interview-based essay on Koudelka from The Guardian here. And today, in The New York Times there was yet another thoughtful remembrance/reassessment of the 'Prague Spring' and its implications.

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Roy Stryker / FSA Documentary

Just the other day I noted one made-for-tv documentary that seems well worth watching. And now I've come across this story on another current offering - “Documenting the Face of America: Roy Stryker and the F.S.A./O.W.I. Photographers” - that also seems promising. This might be a good time to own a television.


24 August 2008

On "... music as politics ...": Arguing by Analogy

Two Russian flags and a South Ossetian one fly at a patriotic concert
in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. A Russian
led by renowned Ossetian Russian conductor Valery
performed. “We are here today to express our
admiration for you,
to tell the whole world that we want it to
know the truth about
the horrible events in Tskhinvali,” Gergiyev
Photograph © Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times
(21 August 2008)


It seems to me that there are more than enough bad guys in the recent war in Georgia-South Ossetia (e.g., [0] [1] [2] [3] ...). It is clear that the Russians have been tacitly fueling this conflict for years. It also is clear that, at least in this latest open conflict, the Georgians 'started it.' They rose to the bait and have paid a big price for doing so. It is clear that the Russian response was disproportionate. And it is furthermore clear that "the West" has been encouraging the Georgians and (in various ways) no-so-tacitly antagonizing the Russians. The result is that there are scores of dead and wounded, along with ruined towns and cities. All for not very much. Senseless is what I call it.

Here are a pair of stories from The Guardian about the role of music in the aftermath. On Thursday night, Valery Gergiev conducted a concert in memory of the dead on the Ossetian side. According to The Guardian, "no other conductor in recent years has made so naked a political gesture, in the middle of an ongoing conflict, as Gergiev did last night." He did so by conducting Shostakovich's Seventh "Leningrad" Symphony amidst the ruins of the parliament building in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia.

So here is a concert of classical music that has attracted incredible media coverage (see this especially helpful report in The Washington Post). The analogy is obvious, Shostokovitch wrote this symphony during the German siege of Leningrad during WWII. Gergiev is seeking to make the current conflict into a set piece - suffering victims best by unambiguous villains, liberated by equally unambiguous heroes.

It is ironic, then, that the concert took place on 21 August, a date whose significance I recently noted. For many in Prague, it seems, the current conflict between Russia and Georgia brings to mind a quite different analogy [*] replete with the same actors differently cast in the roles of victim and villain. (Playwright and, now, private citizen Vaclav Havel has denounced the Russian military response, insisting that it reveals "imperial ambitions.") The point is not the simple one that this is the proper analogy - in fact neither is especially useful - but that it has force. Even those who contest it are obliged to address it.

Those pushing analogies - to the siege of Leningrad or to the Prague Spring - are seeking to shape public discourse. And their analogies are unlikely to be of much use in any efforts to resolve the conflict in a productive way.

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Lumix Fesitval Lectures

I discovered the site for the Lumix Festival for Young Photojournalism yesterday. The festival took place in Hanover, Germany last June. Somewhat surprisingly, the festival web page is pretty unwieldy. You can find a brief description of each of the 60 young-ish photographers whose work was exhibited here. I've lifted just one sample below.

But you can also find videos of a set of seven lectures (four in English, the remainder in German) hosted as part of the festival here. The speakers are pretty impressive lot: Thomas Höpker, Steve McCurry, Antonin Kratochvil, Vanessa Winship, Thomas Dworzak, Heidi und Hans-Jürgen Koch, and Kai Wiedenhöfer.

From G8. Photograph © Daniel Rosenthal.


23 August 2008

Photography at the Conventions: Something to Watch

Here is a post by a reporter at the Minnesota Public Radio blog. He notes what appears to be a pattern of harassment of photographers by security guards and police in Minneapolis-St. Paul which, of course, is where the Republican National Convention will be held shortly.

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The Political Use of Dead Bodies

Will photographs of dead bodies - casualties - undermine or enhance domestic support for foreign war? This, of course, is a variation on a theme from Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others, one that she mishandles by insisting on discussing photographs as objects with certain capabilities rather than as instruments we use for various often contested purposes. It also is a current issue given the lengths the U.S. administration and military are going to prevent any depiction of dead American military personnel in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This recent essay at The Guardian rightly suggest that the answer to the opening question is 'it depends.' If there is existing or incipient support for the war, photographs of casualties may well provide a tool for efforts to bolster that support. If there is deep opposition or even doubt about the war, they may prove useful for campaigns aiming to subvert support for it. It will, surely, depend on how the photographs are used and by whom. (With apologies to Katherine Verdery.)

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The Black List

“What you tend not to see are films on black people radiating
in the pleasure of their success and telling their stories,” [. . .].
“You come to the point whenever you see a black person on
television, it’s either a comedy or some tragic issue being spoken
to. You wouldn’t think that black people could get through a
competently managed day, let alone being successful at it.”
~ Elvis Mitchell

Both npr and The New York Times have recently offered promos pieces on "The Black List," a coordinated documentary/portrait/interview project. This is an intriguing joint undertaking undertaking by photographer Timothy Greenfield Sanders and writer Elvis Mitchell. According to the stories they are planning follow ups.

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22 August 2008

Making Exceptions

Her Majesty's Fleet
by Tomasz Różycki

I played alone against the computer. I was
king of a poor country in Central Europe
that became a superpower thanks to my sound
politics and trade, and also thanks to the strength

of the army and the economy. If I fought
any wars, it was in order to preempt enemy
aggression, or against the weak, since there
were countries that were utterly helpless.

I relied on the administration, well-run courts,
execution of the law, the navy, and the colonies.
I was held in high esteem in the world of diplomacy
and among my own subjects. I never sentenced anyone

without reason, except for public enemies:
deserters, poets, profiteers, traitors.

From: Tomasz Różycki. The Forgotten Keys. Zephyr Press, (Translated by MIra Rosenthal), 2007, page 91.

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William Kentridge (2)

" I. The Dead

A heap of forensic photographs, almost impossible to look through. A man half tumbled out of bed, pyjamas pock-marked with bullet holes, blood on the floor below. A close-up of a man's head in a pool of blood, one cheek swollen - his jaw shattered. Someone - Man? Woman? - under newspapers, one hand sticking out. As specific photographs, it was extremely difficult to look at any of them. In the act of drawing from these images, the photos change. It is not simply that they become a series of greys, and tonal gradations and contours; but rather, the horror of their origin is put on hold."

~ William Kentridge, (2006). From
"Two Thoughts on Drawing Beauty."
Sontag, among many others, worries about photographic depictions of human pain and suffering. In particular, such critics worry about what happens when such depictions project what has been called "beautiful suffering." How does the move from photographic depiction to drawings change things? Why are our assessments different? Is the horror, as Kentridge suggests, really "put on hold"? If so, how?

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21 August 2008

Prague, August 21, 1968

"That week in August is a historical experience that cannot
be wiped out of the awareness of our nations, though we
can't say yet what it really meant, or what marks it has left
on the genetic material of society, and how and when these
will manifest themselves." ~ Vaclav Havel (1987)

Prague, August 1968. Photograph © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos.

I have never been to Prague. Some day, with luck. This evening, of course, is the 40th anniversary of the 1968 Soviet invasion of the then Czechoslovakia ~ an indefensible act of violence. I call your attention to this slide show of photos (including the one I've lifted above) of the invasion and resistance by Josef Koudelka over at the Magnum blog. And I call your attention too, to this essay by Adam Michnik (neither a Czech not a Slovak, but a Pole) on the unanticipated implications of the suppression of "the Prague Spring." His remarks, like the passage from Havel above, remind me of a theme Rebecca Solnit raises repeatedly on the unexpected and unforeseen ways of political change. I've posted on this theme several times before ~ for example, here and here and here.
P.S.: I've resisted posting on "1968" in part because there is probably too much being written about it. But for some reflections and re-assessments see Dissent, Democracy Now! (here and again), openDemocracy (many times), In These Times (here & here) ...

PS2: (Updated 24 August) I just came across this story which, among other things, reports:
"a recent poll . . . found that 70 percent of Czechs younger than 20 have "no opinion" on the events of 1968."

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Revised Policy ~ No More Anonymous Comments

Please note the revised comments policy in the sidebar. Why have I revised it? This afternoon, I received this sputtering anonymous comment:
"I question your credibility because you talk shit, and you lack the intellectual integrity to acknowledge what you must presumably know are reasonable points since you are paid to read, think, and lecture.

Don't sneer you arrogant US Lefty fuck-head, on the basis of intellectual ZERO and you fucking KNOW IT.

Go fuck yourself, go fuck your wife (oh wait she got sick of you too), and go fuck yourself with your poor me son posts. Thats right fella: you post sneering SHIT and you will get it BACK.

Oh and BTW I have a record of all posts and might publish them referencing your BS replies."
This cowardly asshole has repeatedly taken it upon himself to comment on my sons and my relationship to them. So, from this point on it is unlikely that I will read and close to certain that I will not post any more anonymous comments.


Best Shots (39) ~ Edward Burtynsky

(65) Edward Burtynsky ~ Tailing Pond (oil), Northern Alberta ~
(21 August '08).

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For the Islam-o-Phobes ~ Oooops, You're a Bigoted Idiot!

Read this report in The Guardian on a study by M15, the British Security Agency. It may disabuse you of your ignorant, prejudicial ways. Note the red bits.
MI5 Report Challenges Views on Terrorism in Britain

Alan Travis, home affairs editor
guardian.co.uk ~ Wednesday August 20 2008 19:01 BST

MI5 has concluded that there is no easy way to identify those who become involved in terrorism in Britain, according to a classified internal research document on radicalisation seen by the Guardian.

The sophisticated analysis, based on hundreds of case studies by the security service, says there is no single pathway to violent extremism.

It concludes that it is not possible to draw up a typical profile of the "British terrorist" as most are "demographically unremarkable" and simply reflect the communities in which they live.

The "restricted" MI5 report takes apart many of the common stereotypes about those involved in British terrorism.

They are mostly British nationals, not illegal immigrants and, far from being Islamist fundamentalists, most are religious novices. Nor, the analysis says, are they "mad and bad".

Those over 30 are just as likely to have a wife and children as to be loners with no ties, the research shows.

The security service also plays down the importance of radical extremist clerics, saying their influence in radicalising British terrorists has moved into the background in recent years.

The research, carried out by MI5's behavioural science unit, is based on in-depth case studies on "several hundred individuals known to be involved in, or closely associated with, violent extremist activity" ranging from fundraising to planning suicide bombings in Britain.

The main findings include:

• The majority are British nationals and the remainder, with a few exceptions, are here legally.

Around half were born in the UK, with others migrating here later in life. Some of these fled traumatic experiences and oppressive regimes and claimed UK asylum, but more came to Britain to study or for family or economic reasons and became radicalised many years after arriving.

Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices.

Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households, and there is a higher than average proportion of converts. Some are involved in drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes.

MI5 says there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.

• The "mad and bad" theory to explain why people turn to terrorism does not stand up, with no more evidence of mental illness or pathological personality traits found among British terrorists than is found in the general population.

British-based terrorists are as ethnically diverse as the UK Muslim population, with individuals from Pakistani, Middle Eastern and Caucasian backgrounds.

MI5 says assumptions cannot be made about suspects based on skin colour, ethnic heritage or nationality.

• Most UK terrorists are male, but women also play an important role. Sometimes they are aware of their husbands', brothers' or sons' activities, but do not object or try to stop them.

• While the majority are in their early to mid-20s when they become radicalised, a small but not insignificant minority first become involved in violent extremism at over the age of 30.

• Far from being lone individuals with no ties, the majority of those over 30 have steady relationships, and most have children.

MI5 says this challenges the idea that terrorists are young men driven by sexual frustration and lured to "martyrdom" by the promise of beautiful virgins waiting for them in paradise. It is wrong to assume that someone with a wife and children is less likely to commit acts of terrorism.

• Those involved in British terrorism are not unintelligent or gullible, and nor are they more likely to be well-educated; their educational achievement ranges from total lack of qualifications to degree-level education. However, they are almost all employed in low-grade jobs.

The researchers conclude that the results of their work "challenge many of the stereotypes that are held about who becomes a terrorist and why".

Crucially, the research has revealed that those who become terrorists "are a diverse collection of individuals, fitting no single demographic profile, nor do they all follow a typical pathway to violent extremism".

The security service believes the terrorist groups operating in Britain today are different in many important respects both from Islamist extremist activity in other parts of the world and from historical terrorist movements such as the IRA or the Red Army Faction.

The "UK restricted" MI5 "operational briefing note", circulated within the security services in June, warns that, unless they understand the varied backgrounds of those drawn to terrorism in Britain, the security services will fail to counter their activities in the short term and fail to prevent violent radicalisation continuing in the long term.

It also concludes that the research results have important lessons for the government's programme to tackle the spread of violent extremism, underlining the need for "attractive alternatives" to terrorist involvement but also warning that traditional law enforcement tactics could backfire if handled badly or used against people who are not seen as legitimate targets.

The MI5 authors stress that the most pressing current threat is from Islamist extremist groups who justify the use of violence "in defence of Islam", but that there are also violent extremists involved in non-Islamist movements.

They say that they are concerned with those who use violence or actively support the use of violence and not those who simply hold politically extreme views."

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20 August 2008

Seeing August in August

My youngest son August was here for an extended visit earlier in the month. I've resisted posting about the visit thus far. We had a wonderful visit despite the lengths to which his mother went in her effort to make everyone miserable. By everyone I mean everyone ~ August, his brother Doug, various friends and acquaintances here in Rochester, my parents, me, and probably herself. August is sweet and smart and surely doesn't deserve her antics; nor do any of the other bystanders. Call the impact on them the collateral damage of her narcissism. Perhaps I'll bore you with the details at some point. Probably not. For now, here are just a couple of pictures of me and August. As you can see, he is a busy little boy and we had a great time together. I miss him every day.
PS: What did we do? Went swimming and kayaking, played with Susan and Vincent, visited Nanny & Gramps, watched big brother Doug play lacrosse, ate hot dogs and ice cream and chips and pasta, drove the truck, went to the play ground, went to Papa's work, rode in the wagon, kicked one ball, threw another one, watched Herbie and Lightening McQueen movies, slept in a big boy's bed, used the Elmo potty, took baths, read books ... what else is there?

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What Were Your Concerns While in Beijing? Human Rights in Tibet? Genocide in Darfur? Massive Environmental Threats in China? ... No. Wearing Fur!

There they go again! I have posted on "animal rights" generally and the antics of PETA several times before [1] [2] [3] [4]. Somehow, until today I'd managed to miss this story on U.S. Olympian Amanda Beard's self-promotion in Beijing. The news release from PETA is here.

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On the Ethics of Representation III: "Women Are Heroes"

Yes, indeed, they are. And the large concept here is an interesting one. This is a follow up on the immediately prior post. With suggestions from a couple very helpful comments I discovered that the photo from The Guardian is showing part of a project by a young French photographer JR (he uses this pseudonym because his projects are sometimes "unauthorized") which he calls Women Are Heroes, at least part of which is being carried out in conjunction with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières. See this story and interview at lensculture.

I am interested in ways of photographers use their images, in particular the ways they display and circulate them (e.g., [0], [1], [2], [3]). And this project resonates in an interesting way with Alfredo Jaar's The Eyes of Gutete Emerita which was one component of his Rwanda Projects through which he sought to convey the trauma of the genocide and express solidarity with its victims.

I have discussed Jaar's work elsewhere numerous times ~ [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] ~ and will not do so again here. But he relies on this image and displays or withholds it in a variety of mostly personal, indeed intimate ways none of which have the communal aspect toward which JR apparently is striving. I return to that in a moment. First consider JR's focus on the eyes of his subjects.

The first of these three images (all from JR's website and © the artist) depicts part of the project in Providencia (Rio de Janeiro) that sparked my curiosity on the first place. The next two are from earlier installations in Liberia and Sierra Leone, respectively. Each pair of eyes is a detail from the portrait of a particular woman. I think this (apparently increasing, if you watch the video trailer on the Women are Heroes web site) preoccupation is quite powerful. And the scale at which he is working amplifies the impact considerably. Whereas Jaar often worked in miniature (piles of individual slides) or brief flashes (in light boxes), JR is working in what is a characteristically expansive mode.

In the African countries JR has been working with women in "post conflict" contexts, in Brazil he is working with women who've lost loved ones in the drug wars. His stated aim is to provoke questions and to prompt viewers to interpret the images for themselves. The obvious question here is ~ to what end? (For example, Amos Oz thinks that Israelis and Palestinians "understand" one another just fine and simply need to work out an agreement in what is essentially a real estate dispute.*) Questions arise, too, about his relationship to his subjects. For instance, in "post conflict" situations where societies remain unsettled, are his subjects placing themselves at risk by participating? And questions arise too about the extent to which communities are involved in the implementation of the projects. Are these installations planned and underwritten by local organizations and artists or by NGOs? (The anonymous commenter on my last post prompted these questions. in light of JR's professed aim to take his Women are Heroes project on to several sites in South and Southeast Asia. )

I do not know enough about JR or his projects to offer answers to those questions. So, for now at least, it seems like time to suspend judgment.
*For a look at one of JR's earlier projects in Israel/Palestine see FACE 2 FACE.

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19 August 2008

Making a Point

From "24 Hours in Pictures" today at The Guardian:

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: The facades of houses in Providencia.
The pictures show inhabitants who have lost relatives in the
drug trafficking conflict
. Photograph © Antonio Lacerda/EPA.

So, someone ~ there is no story accompanying the photo as far as I can tell ~ is trying to make the favela and what happens to people there less anonymous, less invisible. I'd appreciate any information or context readers might supply about this.
Update: Much thanks to Eric Etheridge (see comments) for providing this link to a story on this project and an interview with its creator over at lensculture.

Thanks too, to an anonymous commenter (see thread) for even more links and information.

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Propaganda ~ U.S. Corporate Taxes

The ideologues at The Wall Street Journal editorial page were whining last week about the high (combined Federal & State) corporate tax rates in the U.S.; this was in response to a Government Accounting Office report showing that large numbers of U.S. corporations paid zero taxes in the period 1998-2005. You can read about that in The New York Times here and here. Never mind the discrepancy between nominal rates and actual payments!

Of course, the WSJ crowd point out that lots of companies simply didn't make any money during that period. Well,, I would ask ~ If that is so, how many of the corporate execs who are paid astronomical compensation packages actually lost a job in that period? If they did lose their job for poor performance, did they get the big severance deal? Why the need for the astronomical packages in the first place if the execs are so incompetent at what they do? And what about the teams of expensive accountants and lawyers that the corporations deploy to try to avoid taxes or the union-busters they hire, or the PR firms to spin their (whether actual or perceived) questionable practices of various sorts?

The WSJ folks are not fools, they are ideologues. They recognize that our nominal tax rates generate "huge compliance costs as businesses scramble to exploit the loopholes, with the result of less revenue for the government." But they don't want to talk much about the costs of exploiting loopholes by such means as the transfer pricing that The Times points to and they surely have nothing really to say about the exorbitant compensation levels for corporate execs relative to the workers in their own firms or their peers abroad.* Like all good propagandists, the WSJ folk do not actually lie, they simply don't bother with the truth.
* E.g., "American CEOs earned 411 times as much as average workers in 2005, up from 107 times in 1990. ... Top executives in the U.S. now make about twice the pay of their counterparts in France, Germany and the U.K., and about four times that of Japanese and Korean corporate chieftains." (Source)


18 August 2008

Amy Alkon is a Dim Bulb (Installment 2.5 in an Irregular Series)

I promised myself not to get carried away with the dippy Ms. Alkon. But she has now begun to denounce those who question her various racist pronouncements as "fascist thugs." This, of course, is a now common charge, leveled by those on the right against virtually anyone they disagree with or whom, god forbid, has the gall to speak out against them. See this earlier post, which, given her virulent Islam-o-phobia, probably applies to Ms. Amy too. Life is too short to work through all of her ridiculous blog posts.

In any case, there is a broader point to this post ~ "fascism" is a term, like most other words, with an actual meaning. It does not help to just make shit up. So, at the risk of suggesting something she likely will find wholly inconceivable, I will recommend a book to Ms. Alkon. Unfortunately, it is one not published by her preferred right-wing vanity presses (e.g., Encounter Books) and so will be beyond her standard repertoire.* The book I have in mind is Kevin Passmore's Fascism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2002) which is generally quite good. (Don't panic Amy dearest, it is "very short" and so should neither tax your cognitive abilities nor distract you from scurrying about feverishly ferreting out the IP addresses of those who dare voice any dissent in the comment thread of your blog. Indeed, you could probably get away with reading just the second chapter!) Passmore offers a useful, reasonably simple definition:
"Fascism is a set of ideologies and practices that seeks to place the nation, defined in exclusive biological, cultural, and/or historical terms, above all other sources of loyalty, and to create a mobilized national community. Fascist nationalism is reactionary in that it entails implacable hostility to socialism and feminism, for they are seen as prioritizing class or gender rather than nation. This is why fascism is a movement of the extreme right. Fascism is also a movement of the radical right because the defeat of socialism and feminism and the creation of the mobilized nation are held to depend upon the advent to power of a new elite acting in the name of the people, headed by a charismatic leader, and embodied in a mass, militarized party. Fascists are pushed towards conservatism by common hatred of socialism and feminism, but are prepared to override conservative interests - family, property, religion, the universities, the civil service - where the interests of the nation are considered to require it. Fascist radicalism also derives from a desire to assuage discontent by accepting specific demands of the labour and women's movements, so long as these demands accord with the national priority. Fascists seek to ensure the harmonization of workers' and women's interests with those of the nation by mobilizing them within special sections of the party and/or within a corporate system. Access to these organizations and to the benefits they confer upon members depends on the individual's national, political, and/or racial characteristics. All aspects of fascist policy are suffused with ultranationalism." (page 31)
If the dippy Ms. Alkon is interested in civil dialogue (her claim, not my expectation), she might stop throwing around terms like "fascism" (which, as Passmore also notes, "has become and all-purpose term of abuse"). This would have the added virtue of making her look less ignorant, since I suspect none of the folks who've made her so furious is a nationalist in the required sense.
Tossing around the "F-word" just degrades language.

Now, Ms. Alkon might protest that she is concerned more with the thuggishness of her adversaries - even though she admits that no one has actually accosted her or her property, they've only posted comments on her blog and posts like this one elsewhere. And indeed she insists that "progressives" are egregiously and aggressively violating her personal cognitive space. This too, of course, is a common right wing response to criticism: paint those who disagree with you in terms of psycho-pathology. After all, one cannot deal with crazy people, one has no choice but to ban them from one's precious blog. This is why Amy relies so heavily on pop-psychology.

Here I'd recommend another book. (Don't panic Amy, it is short too!) I have in mind Norberto Bobbio's Left & Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction (University of Chicago Press, 1997). Bobbio makes clear that this distinction is not unidimensional. Yes, the left embraces social equality while the right embraces "natural" inequalities and the responsibilities that derive therefrom. But he also insists that that distinction is traversed by a second liberty-authoritarianism dimension mapping relative willingness to impose ones views or policies by force. Newsflash, neither left nor right has a monopoly on bad behavior! Representatives of both historically have opted for authoritarian strategies. And, to state the obvious, both should be condemned for so doing. But even here, Ms. Alkon concedes that no one has tried to force her to do anything. People are just talking back in the face of her inane pronouncements. And Amy doesn't like it when people disagree with her. Disagreement makes her very, very cranky.
* I call these sectarian enterprises vanity presses because they publish only those who know the secret handshake and are compelled to rely on subsidies from various foundations like Scaife and Olin in order to publish their tripe.

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Peter Saul ~ Relentlessly "Answer Averse"

Peter Saul. Bush at Abu Ghraib (2006), acrylic on canvas
78 x 90 inches (198.1 x 228.6 cm); Hall Collection.

Peter Saul. Columbus Discovers America (1992-95), acrylic and oil on
canvas 96 x 120 inches (243.8 x 304.8 cm); Levy Family Collection, Dallas.

In The New York Times last Friday you can find this review and related slide show of a retrospective exhibition of work by Peter Saul. Here are some of the relevant passages:
"Mr. Saul’s art is not pretty, though it has many eye-catching pleasures. Nor is it polite. Indeed, the artist makes zealous efforts to ensure the opposite. In America today, he says in a catalog interview, “there’s a tremendous need to not be seen as racist, not seen as sexist. So I want to make sure I am seen as those things.”

He succeeds. What museum would be the right one for a painting of a knife-wielding O. J. Simpson strapped down for execution as a buxom blond angel points to a blood-stained glove and intones, “This is why you have to die”? Or for a picture of Christopher Columbus slaughtering New World natives who themselves hold platters of chopped human limbs in their arms?

What is the appropriate place for art that stirs together John Wayne Gacy and Angela Davis, Mickey Mouse and Ethel Rosenberg, Stalin and Willem de Kooning, Basil Wolverton and George W. Bush, then spikes the broth with prickly references to capitalism, Communism, homophobia, feminism, Black Power, racism, pedophilia and art-world politics and — last but not least — to the aging, decaying, self-lacerating artist himself?

Depending on who’s looking, Mr. Saul might be seen either to embrace or revile individual ingredients in this stew, though when his art is pressed to declare its loyalties, it gives no unequivocal answers. Indeed, it seems to be answer-averse, a species of painting as agitation, picture-making as button-pushing.

[. . .]

He has kept himself more or less clear of the art world, so owes it nothing. He has also kept clear of fashion — having a longtime supportive dealer was, naturally, an enabling factor in this — and, with scant critical encouragement until recent years, has gone his own masterly realized hideous-hilarious way. And that way has been based on taking a fundamentally facile genre, Surrealism, and loading it with purposeful, critical content.

[. . .]

This is an art of combative moral ambiguity that looks as if it’s coming from some laugh-riot lunatic fringe but is, in fact, a sane and realistic depiction of the world. What’s wrong with this picture? each Saul painting asks. And each one answers: Everything."
Here again, is an artist about whom I know nothing. The most interesting point of the review, I think, is that the heart of the "art world" ~ NYC ~ cannot find any place to host the exhibition. The critic from The Times, unsurprisingly, bends over backwards to make excuses for the principle venues. It is pretty pathetic when the art world is so busy being "polite" - a stunning indictment.


Grzegorz Welnicki

A while back I posted on the Summer 2008 issue of PRIVATE whose theme is resurgent photography "From Poland. " There is a lot of good work on offer in the magazine. I've just come across yet another young Polish photographer Grzegorz Welnicki who works in a variety of genres. I think his portraits are especially telling.

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17 August 2008

Local ~ Eastman Online

I noticed this brief story in the City Newspaper this week about how the George Eastman House has joined a consortium of other photo institutions in sharing digitized images on Flickr in the guise of a project called The Commons. I am sure this is a big step and given the privatization of massive numbers of images, a salutary one. But according to the report, GEH has uploaded 219 images out of their collection of 140K digitized images. The total GEH collection includes 400K images.


"A sane voice in a noisy red-blue echo chamber ..."

Compare this depiction of Jon Stewart in The New York Times today to the recent whitewash they published on Rush Limbaugh. The difference between the two men? Stewart is trying to prompt viewers to think for themselves while Limbaugh is busy trying to transform each listener into a mini-me. Consequently ~ and to be mean ~ Stewart tells jokes, Limbaugh is one.

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Photoshop ~ Another Tool of Self-Deception

"FOUR’S A CROWD After her divorce, Laura Horn,
second from right, decided to have her ex-husband
(guess who?) removed from the picture with Photoshop."

Self-deception is a powerful impulse. We're all tempted at times to construct narratives in which our motives and actions are uniformly admirable and where the 'black' in our black and white vision rests with others. Conversely, we too often seek to construct narratives of our lives in which our relations with others - friends, relatives, co-workers - are so sanitized as to be unrecognizable. This story in The New York Times about people Photoshopping their lives and relations makes my skin crawl. It makes me want to shout 'Be an adult!' ~ recognize that relationships consist in multiple people each of whom is responsible for successes and complicit in failures. Perhaps the measures are unequal, perhaps even markedly so, but rarely are tales of uncontaminated heroism or victim-hood even close to reality.

The people described in this story are using photographs to sanitize their lives and, in the process, apportion blame and responsibility. They seem to me to be like those I know who dump therapist after therapist because the latter tell them things they don't want to hear. They remind me of other people I know who toss down anti-depressants without even consulting a psychologist. They remind me of whole families I know where individual members respond to hurt and stress and conflict by running away, literally. All these folks are evading responsibility, or trying to. The problem is that responsibility and its consequences tend to lurk around corners waiting to pop out uninvited, often in the form of other family members (say, kids) who ask inconvenient questions and expect honest answers.

Looking at pictures is like looking in the mirror. If you cannot look at the actual pictures and even try to remember the good parts or recognize your own role in whatever unpleasantness was transpiring, maybe that's a signal that you need to face reality instead of erasing it.

End of rant, for now.


16 August 2008

Amy Alkon is a Dim Bulb (Second in an Irregular Series)

Last spring I had the unfortunate experience of crossing virtual paths with the deeply disturbed Amy Alkon (who was accompanied by a phalanx of hangers on, sycophants and lackeys). You can find the fallout from that encounter here, here, and here. I suspected that there was nothing personal in all that because Ms. Alkon was likely a serial harasser. I was right.

Now, it seems, the delightfully dim Ms. Alkon has set her sights on the gang at Sadly, No! because they had the temerity to suggest that some of the rantings on her blog are racist. Basically, Ms. Amy relies on character assassination and guilt by association as she comes to the defense of police officers in Lima, Ohio . The latter shot a 26 year old black woman dead in a drug raid. (Read the report in The New York Times here.) The Sadly, No! folks have rightly ridiculed the delightful Ms. Alkon for her racist ranting [1] [2] [3] and now are subject to her wrath. My condolences.

Ms. Alkon's political views seem to me cold, congealed porridge ~ vague, right-wing libertarianism served up with a generous dollop of extreme self-righteousness and really bad pop-psychology (is that last redundant?) Funny how her libertarianism gets tossed overboard when the police (reminder Amy, they are agents of the state whose actions should make a libertarian very suspicious) are shooting at poor black people.

(Thanks, Brendan!)
P.S.: (Added a bit later) ~ I forgot to mention that in the course of her rant our darling Ms. Amy managed to excoriate the murdered woman for having produced a "litter" of kids. Well, first of all, I suspect the kids were born serially not all in one batch. But beyond that obvious inability to master the English language, Ms. Amy seems not to understand that comparing people to animals is, well, dehumanizing. Maybe that is why people think she is a racist, or at least talks like one. And the fact that Ms. Amy doesn't get the dehumanizing implications of her words suggests that it is not that she just talks like a racist.


There is an interview ...

with Mike Davis - writer and social critic - here in the summer issue of BOMB magazine.

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15 August 2008

"Land of the Free" And All That

This ~ not terribly surprising ~ report appears in The Guardian today:

"Grim warehouse set to process convention arrests

  • AP foreign
  • Friday August 15 2008


Associated Press Writer

DENVER (AP) - Individuals arrested at the Democratic
National Convention will be processed at an industrial
warehouse with chain-link cells topped by razor wire, a
facility some have compared to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo

Groups planning marches, concerts and other events during
the Aug. 25-28 convention dub the center ``Gitmo on the Platte,''
for the nearby South Platte River.

The Denver sheriff's office, which operates city and county
jails, insists anyone taken to the center will be there only a few
hours while they're fingerprinted, issued a court date and released
after posting bail. Others will be transferred to facilities designed
for longer detentions.

``Of course if the numbers are overwhelming, that's all going to
be out the door,'' said Capt. Frank Gale, a sheriff's spokesman.
``If we're inundated with a bunch of civil unrest, it doesn't matter
how well we prepare. If we get severe numbers it's going to take
us forever'' to process those in custody.

Video footage of the north Denver warehouse on Denver's
KCNC-TV showed coils of razor wire topping chain-link cells.
A sign read: ``Electric stun devices used here.''

Gale said each cell will be about 20-by-20 feet. He refused to
say how many people could be processed there.

``It's just ridiculous, the thing looks like a dog pound,'' said
Mark Cohen of the protest group Recreate-68 Alliance.
``Even if you only put dogs in there, people will be complaining
about it. I think you ought to have the Red Cross and Amnesty
International come take a look at this thing.''

Mayor John Hickenlooper's office said police will ask people to
voluntarily comply with their orders before arresting anyone.
``The city does not anticipate the need for widespread arrests,'' the
mayor's office statement said, but it noted ``the intention of some
organizations to deliberately get arrested.''

The American Civil Liberties Union and the People's Law Project
have been talking with the city about giving attorneys access to
detainees. The city said attorneys can meet clients in court, not at
the facility.

ACLU-Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein said city officials
told him detained protesters will be taken by bus to the facility,
about 2 miles northeast of downtown. Those who are unable or
refuse to post bail will be taken to a downtown city jail to await
a court date.

Silverstein said warehouse cells won't have running water,
bathrooms or telephones. Gale said deputies will escort anyone
needing those services."

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Is Experimentalism Possible?

I have just been reading a couple of essays by Raymond Geuss, a wonderfully insightful political theorist at Cambridge. Among the themes of these essays has been relentless assault on the late John Rawls and his work, which Geuss presents as exemplifying a certain sterile (because abstract and ahistorical) approach to political theory. I find Geuss's criticisms telling, even if I am not entirely persuaded that "Rawls is not a major moral and political theorist, whose work self-evidently deserves and repays the most careful scrutiny." There is a Rawls industry in the U.S. and his work surely gets extraordinary attention. But I do think we can learn from Rawls - even if many of the lessons are negative. Enough of that for now.

What I really want to highlight is a passage I've just added to the sidebar, in which Geuss raises a difficult problem. He says:
"Politics depends, to a great extent, on judging what is actual relative to what is possible. [. . .] However, we have an inherently weak grasp of what is 'possible' and most societies are not set up so as naturally to improve this, or to make us aware of possibilities we may have ignored or taken with insufficient seriousness."
And it is in this context that he advocates that political theorists cultivate an historical sensibility. The point is that history can expose us to possibilities we otherwise might not consider, even at the risk of temping us to implement possibilities whose time has, for various reasons, passed. Of course, there are other sources on which we might rely here - say literature or the arts. But that is not what I want to pursue.

Instead I want to ask whether we might "set up"societies in such a way that they do encourage the exploration of possibilities. Geuss is right, I think, that the institutional arrangements characteristic of most current societies are anemic in that respect. But the question remains as to whether it is possible to encourage experimentalism in social, political and economic arrangements.* Most of my writing and thinking these days presupposes that it is.
* An obvious corollary is how we might devise schemes to indemnify, as it were, those who bear the burnt of failed experiments.

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Governing Globalization

"So if globalisation is in danger, who are its real enemies? There was a time when global elites could comfort themselves with the thought that opposition to the world trading regime consisted of violent anarchists, self-serving protectionists, trade unionists, and ignorant, if idealistic youth. Meanwhile, they regarded themselves as the true progressives, because they understood that safeguarding and advancing globalization was the best remedy against poverty and insecurity.

But that self-assured attitude has all but disappeared, replaced by doubts, questions, and scepticism. Gone also are the violent street protests and mass movements against globalisation. What makes news nowadays is the growing list of mainstream economists who are questioning globalisation's supposedly unmitigated virtues.

[. . .]

While these worries hardly amount to [a] full frontal attack ... they still constitute a remarkable turnaround in the intellectual climate. Moreover, even those who have not lost heart often disagree vehemently about the direction in which they would like to see globalisation go.

[. . .]

None of these intellectuals is against globalisation, of course. What they want is not to turn back globalisation, but to create new institutions and compensation mechanisms – at home or internationally – that will render globalisation more effective, fairer, and more sustainable."

These are some of the good bits from this opinion piece by Dani Rodrik. Just think, economists worried about fairness!

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When Color Was New

I just came across this column/advertisement in The New York Times for the exhibition "When Color Was New: Vintage Photographs From Around the 1970s." The show includes work by photographers William Eggleston, Mitch Epstein, William Christenberry, Stephen Shore, Martin Parr, Paul Outerbridge, Terry Wild, Helen Levitt, Joel Sternfeld, Joel Meyerowitz, and David Hockney. The piece in The Times reproduces a sampling of their work.


Simple, Effective

Jörg Colberg called my attention to this very nice clip. The problem, as my friend Susan points out, is that Obama increasingly has been voting with Bush (or at least not against him) over time. The rate is not 100%, but the trajectory is the same.

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14 August 2008

Best Shots (38) ~ Joseph Szabo

(64) Joseph Szabo ~ From: Almost Grown (1971) ~ (14 August 08)*
* Because the image Szabo talks about does not actually appear on The Guardian web page, I am taking a guess that this is the one. Update: Turns out I was right. The image now accompanies the column at The Guardian.


On "Playing for Human Rights"

I had heard about, then forgotten to track down, this statement by Vaclav Havel, Desmond Tutu, et. al.; I came across it just this evening. The authors voice concern that "the Beijing Olympics might simply become a giant spectacle to distract the attention of the international public from the violations of human and civil rights in China and in other countries with the Chinese government’s significant influence." I think they are right to speak out. I think they are right too in calling on the International Olympic Committee to insure that participants in the games are free to speak out. (I've said as much here repeatedly - click the Olympic label for earlier posts.) But I think they are simply mistaken when they attempt to square the circle by rendering this demand a moral duty so that it would not entail any conflict with the putatively apolitical stance established in the Olympic Charter. Here is what they say:

"An interpretation of the Olympic Charter according to which human rights would be a political topic not to be discussed in the Olympic venues is alien to us. Human rights are a universal and inalienable topic, enshrined in international human rights documents that China has also signed onto, transcending international as well as domestic politics, and all cultures, religions and civilizations.

To speak of the conditions of human rights therefore cannot be in violation of the Olympic Charter. To speak of human rights is not politics; only authoritarian and totalitarian regimes try to make it so. To speak of human rights is a duty" (stress added).

Anyone who thinks that human rights are not political, that they inhere in our status as human beings, and do not presuppose monitoring and enforcement by political agencies (states , international organizations, and NGOs) needs to read Hannah Arendt's essay "The Perplexities of the Rights of Man" from her The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Simply put, Arendt rightly claims that we have rights only and as long as there is some state willing and able to enforce them. Absent such a state - an entity against whom claims for protection can be lodged - human rights in the abstract simply evaporate.

Arendt reminds us that speaking out about human rights and the ways they are protected or abrogated, means speaking to states, to government officials. We use rights (and other principles) to make claims on political entities (states) and the agents who occupy them. The sort of moralism to which the authors of this little manifesto resort is simply wrongheaded because it neglects to stay focused on the audience to whom we address claims of "human rights." It neglects, in other words, to stay focused on politics.

Finally, and more broadly, if we follow the lead of Havel and the others here, we are going to cede the terrain of politics to those who depict in purely "realist" terms. That will only further disable us from rising up and using the language of rights or consent or consequences to press claims on the politicians and their lackeys.

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13 August 2008

"You Got a Lotta 'Splain'n To Do!"


Our Mission: To salute the achievements of the world's finest photographers, to discover new and emerging talent and to promote the appreciation of photography."

Among the recently announced winners for 2008 are Misrach, Koudelka, Meiselas ... I love them all. But the award committee is hardly going out on a limb!


The Trajectory of Already Low Expectations Diminishing Even Further Over Time ...

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Meet Me at the IHOP ~ Errol Morris

This is a useful set of conversations at The New York Times. One of Morris' follow up comments runs a follows:
The "term “fauxtography,” of course, suggests that there is something “true” about photography, at least photography that isn’t posed or Photoshopped. And in recent years, the mainstream press has embraced this orthodox view. The principle is straightforward. Zero tolerance. Allow no digital manipulation. No posing. If a photographer uses any one of a variety of Photoshop tools, fire him."
This strikes me as a reasonable characterization of the naive view of photographic "truth." What do I mean by "naive?" ~ No posing? What about Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" or Walker Evans' "Allie Mae Boroughs?" Neither used photo shop, both posed their subjects. And those are just two of the most prominent examples. You can come up with lots of others. The basic problem here has to do with the notion that photography (at least in documentary style) has to do with reporting truth and that truth can be grasped in some correspondence or representational mode. This seems to me an incredibly naive assumption.

But what happens if we move away from this naive view? What if we focus less on "truth" and more on the differential uses for which photographers make images and the perhaps even more diverse uses to which others might put the images photographers make? I have addressed this issue here in various contexts ~ e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]. How do we differentiate legitimate or justified uses from those that are not? Are we driven, by the (to my mind correct) recognition that we do things with photography, that we use it for various purposes, to the cynical view that, as instruments, the images we make are nothing but weapons?

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