30 July 2010

ADL Takes Idiotic Stance (Again)

Today The New York Times is running this report on the stance taken by the Anti-Defamation League in opposition to plans for a "planned mosque and Islamic community center near ground zero" in NYC. And here is the blunt and entirely justified retort from the folks at The Economist. Abe Foxman and the ADL are becoming a caricature.

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Conservatives with Guns and their Fantasies of Revolution

"When American men talk like this, they are usually giving voice to fantasy. Only in fantasy, after all, are governments overthrown by men trained to do nothing more than shoot long-distance targets in a controlled environment. Some of these men seek out unlikely battlefields, where they can be warriors of the future, warriors of the imagination or reluctant warriors in waiting who are passing their time on the Internet. The power of a gun to take a life is not so much a threat as a talisman connecting these fantasies to the real world."
In The New York Times you can find this article on the 'Appleseed Project' which is (despite the preposterous disavowals) a right wing project meant to prepare 'regular Americans' to take up guns in defense of liberty. I find the impulse to own guns pretty inscrutable, sort of like liking Lima Beans. As I've said here several times, I just don't get it. I also have said before that I find the conservative mind pretty much misguided. These folks are not just gun owners, they're paid up subscribers to the rigid, paranoid conservative style [1] [2] [3]. Combine that style with guns and things start to get worrying - even though the reporter from The Times has done his best to persuade us that it's all just magical thinking. Fantasies can be dangerous too.

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29 July 2010

Best Shots (124) ~ Rena Effendi

(151) Rena Effendi ~ "She was dying," Baku, Azerbaijan (29 July 2010).


28 July 2010

Reading Around

"If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have." ~ Tony Judt

That is an ironic observation for someone like me who is committed to the importance of photographic images as tools of communication. You can find the NYRB essay where Judt issues it here. And, for two examples of smart women masterfully using words to probe and decipher our political predicaments, you can find essays by Rebecca Solnit on Louisiana post-Deepwater Horizon here at the London Review of Books, and by Suzie Linfield on genocide and the agony of 'reconciliation' here in Guernica.

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27 July 2010

Changing Conventions in War Photography (2)

So, I thought perhaps I was being too hasty in talking about the emergence of a new convention in war photography, one that places a premium on the 'human interest' aspect of American troops. You know, shots of the military personnel being just guys. So I had a quick, admittedly unsystematic look. The top two images below made it into the pictures of the day at the Lens blog at The New York Times last week. The top one, though, I lifted from The Washington Post who had also published it. The rest were easy enough to find on-line. Note - three different agencies, a half dozen different photographers. And we end up with the soldier in tee shirt and shorts, again.

Life in a war zone can mean improvising, including for exercise,
as illustrated by a U.S. soldier from the 1st Squadron, 71st Cavalry
at a forward operating base in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan.
The number of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan is expected to
peak at 150,000 in coming weeks. July 19th, 2010
(Manpreet Romana/agence France-presse Via Getty Images).

A U.S. soldier watches an Afghan movie on TV while relaxing at
Combat Outpost Nolen, an outlying base for the 2nd Brigade of the
101st Airborne Division, in the volatile Arghandab Valley, in Kandahar,
Afghanistan, Wednesday, July 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd).

A United States Marine from Bravo Company of the 1st
Battalion of the 2nd Marines eats watermelon as he rests
following a gunbattle as part of an operation to clear the
area of insurgents near Musa Qaleh, in northern Helmand
Province, southern Afghanistan, Friday, July 23, 2010.
(AP Photo/Kevin Frayer).

U.S Army First Lieutenant Sean Snook from Concord,
Massachusetts, and Alpha Company, 4th Brigade combat
team,1-508, 82nd parachute infantry regiment tees off
at FOB Bullard in Zabul province, southern Afghanistan,
February 12, 2010. (REUTERS/Baz Ratner ).

A U.S. Marine throws a football at Delaram base in
Nimroz province, southern Afghanistan January 24,
2010. (REUTERS/Marko Djurica) January 24, 2010

Spc. James Lollis, right, who was on his way to the gym, and an unidentified
soldier from the 2nd Battalion 12th
Infantry take cover as incoming fire
hits inside Command
Outpost Michigan at the Pech River Valley
in Kunar
Province, Afghanistan, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2009.
(AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills).

There are, of course, many, many pictures of American troops, mostly in full combat gear, on patrol - sometimes they are engaged in firefights, sometimes they are menacing Afghans of various descriptions, sometimes they are talking to groups of kids or even kicking a soccer ball with them. These images are familiar enough. So the sorts of images I've lifted here are not exactly crowding out those more 'standard' images. However, with the exception of the occasional photograph of marines mourning the death of a colleague, images of death and destruction - the actual consequences of war for Afghans and the U.S. military - are exceedingly rare. In fact, other than the image of Joshua Bernard that generated so much controversy last fall, I don't recall seeing any. That may not be intended by the photographers who are covering the war, but it surely is politically convenient.

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New Book: Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?"

Labor lawyer, activist, and (sadly unsuccessful) Congressional candidate, and all around smart guy Thomas Geoghegan has written a new book* in which he basically seeks to convince Americans that everything they think they know about European Social Democracies is mistaken. The point seems to be that we ought not to prefer the social democratic polities for this or that high-minded moral reason but because, in the first instance at least, we'd all generally be better off ourselves. You can find an brief excerpt/essay that serves as something of an advert for the book here at In These Times.
* Thomas Geohegan. 2010. Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? New Press.

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26 July 2010

How Not to Argue Against the Boycott of Israel

A Jewish settler (right) and a Palestinian demonstrator shout at
each other during a protest against an illegal outpost near the
Israeli settlement of Kharsina in the West Bank city of Hebron
on May 22, 2009. (HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images)

In the most recent Newsweek you can find this diatribe by Jacob Weisberg against the ongoing cultural and academic boycott of Israel. At times Weisberg describes the thinking behind the boycott as merely "wrong" and "unacceptable," but he also rises to the bait, using terms like "repellent" to describe the campaign, accusing those advocating the boycott of "bad faith." He claims that the campaign is "not only intrinsically vile but actively counterproductive." And, eventually, he comes around to asserting that "this kind of existential challenge is hard to disassociate from anti-Semitism." As far as I can tell Weisberg barely makes the effort.

I do not support the boycott for reasons I have laid down here repeatedly. Having said that, Weisberg's screed is more or less wholly incoherent. Here are some problems with the case he presents:

(1) Weisberg categorizes Israel among "democratic societies, where other means of peaceful protest exist," contrasting it explicitly with "authoritarian societies" such as Cuba or the former East Germany or "China or Syria or Zimbabwe—or other genuinely illegitimate regimes that systematically violate human rights." Where has Mr. Weisberg been? He seems to have missed the past decade or so of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. That policy can be fruitfully summarized as one that systematically violates their human rights. Those in the west - including many Jews - support the boycott precisely because they see Israel as adopting authoritarian policies. And I would remind Weisberg that that is not simply the view from abroad - there are Israelis (e,g., Neve Gordon, David Shulman) who make the very same case. Does Weisberg have something like a response to such criticisms? Moreover, did he raise his voice - even in private - when American donors threatened to withhold financial support from Ben Gurion University where Neve Gordon teaches because of his outspoken criticisms of the regime and its policies? I suspect not.

(2) I think the boycott will be counterproductive in ways that Mr. Weisberg suggests; it may well simply reinforce a bunker mentality among Israelis. That said, Weisberg claims that "cultural sanctions on their own are more inconvenience than lethal weapon." How then, does the boycott rise to the level of an "existential threat" - how, that is, does it constitute "a weapon designed not to bring peace but to undermine the country" - and so provide evidence of "antisemitism"? Among the reasons I think that public argument is the most useful reply to the Israeli repression of the Palestinians is that it treats the Jewish population just like everyone else. It thereby subverts kneejerk complaints of antisemitism. Mr. Weisberg is an advertisement for that approach. Here is my challenge to him: stop hiding behind charges of antisemitism and provide a coherent argument to justify the systematic, ongoing mistreatment of the Palestinian population, including not just official repression by security forces, but the ongoing harassment by Jewish "settlers" in Palestinian territories. Those are the issues that give rise to the boycott campaign. You do not so much as mention them in your essay.

(3) Israel is indeed. as Weisberg insists, "a refuge for Jews persecuted everywhere else." In part that is why those who many of those who support the boycott are so disappointed in the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. The policies of the regime and the actions of many (not all) Israelis run counter to the putative ideals of the nation itself. That is the problem here. This is not simply about posturing celebrities. It is about real politics. Weisberg mocks the "sort of sheeplike, liberal opinion [that] once reflexively favored Israel." He is right to do so but perhaps not for his reasons. No country aspiring to be democratic - here we can include both Israel and the U.S. - should rest content with unthinking support. Weisberg insists that the "case against a cultural boycott of Israel is based on consistency, proportionality, and history." He overlooks the policies that lead advocates of the boycott to see their campaign as wholly consistent and proportionate. And he neglects to see that it is precisely the history that Israel is meant to embody that make its repression of Palestinian populations appear especially damning.

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25 July 2010

Changing Conventions in War Photography & the Disaster in Afghanistan

U.S. Army soldiers of the 1-320th Alpha Battery, 2nd Brigade of
the 101st Airborne Division, look towards insurgent positions
during a firefight at COP Nolen, in the volatile Arghandab Valley,
Kandahar, Afghanistan, Saturday, July 24, 2010.
(Photograph © AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Over the course of the afternoon I had an interesting and helpful exchange of comments on this earlier post. My interlocutor, photographer Tim Hetherington, has taken exception to the post, interpreting my comments as questioning his integrity. I certainly did not intend the post in any such way and indeed stated as much at the outset. I apologize to Tim if I created that impression.

Having said all that, I thought it might help to depersonalize the disagreement. Let's not talk about Tim's work. My concerns are two. The first is directly political in the pedestrian sense; it centers on whether whether our troops in Afghanistan are serving our national interest. I stand by my judgment that they are not. They are there enacting a misguided policy. We can argue the question, but I am pretty confident about where the preponderance of evidence will fall.

My second concern has more to do with the politics of photography. Here is the nub of the issue: why is it acceptable to depict our military adventures in Afghanistan with images like the one I discuss here, whereas images like the one I discuss here generate an uproar? My concern is that we are witnessing not just the sort of censorship (and accompanying official rationalizations)* of images of war that prevents the media from showing even flag draped coffins being unloaded at military bases, but also the emergence of a parallel convention wherein we will get sanitized views of war dressed up in tee-shirts and boxers as though the soldiers just happened to be camped out there and came under attack totally by surprise. That is what I meant by visual euphemism.

As if on cue, I just found the image above festooned across the top of the home page at Huffington Post accompanying a story on the publication of classified records of the Afghanistan debacle (here and here too). Given the information that was released today, the confidence I noted above is growing.
* For examples of censorship see, e.g. [1] [2] [3] ...

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24 July 2010

Best Shots (123) ~ Jason Bell

(150) Jason Bell ~ Stephen Fry (21 July 2010).


23 July 2010

More on Euphemisms and Photographers Embedded With NGOs

Attack plan, Chad-Sudan Border, 2008. Photograph © Stanley Greene.

Yesterday, the Lens blog at The New York Times ran this interview with photojournalist Stanley Greene. Here is an excerpt in which Greene confirms my own sense that a photographer working for this or that humanitarian outfit means she is "embedded" in just the same sense - producing the same sorts of predicaments - as if she were embedded with the military or some corporation.
Q. But do you think that somebody, a young person, could look at your book — there are a lot of beautiful women and a lot of death in your book — and get the wrong idea? Or feel like this is some romantic view of what my life will be like if I follow Stanley Greene?

A. No, I try to deflate that image. When you realize that you have been with these women and you have left them and broken their hearts — and look, let’s be real here. I don’t own an apartment. I don’t own a house. I don’t own a car. I don’t have any stocks and bonds. All I own are my cameras. That’s it. And some cowboy boots.

If you want to be a success financially, please don’t follow this path.

A lot of the stories I did, I financed. I am not a good business person. I didn’t know how to negotiate with a magazine. I just simply said, “Please give me this story, and give me the go-ahead to go do it.” Or in some cases, “If I do it, and I get the pictures and I send it to you, send me money.” And that is the generation I come out of.

I live from hand to mouth. I am one of the founders of Noor. There are three agencies today: there is Magnum, there is Noor and there is VII. I have a lot of respect for VII, but I really think we are the second agency, and we did it in three years. When you say you are a founder and owner of Noor, people expect you to be rich, but we’re not. Because we are really committed to doing what we are doing and we have made sacrifices to make that happen.

And we are going to continue to make sacrifices to allow that to happen. In the end, it isn’t about money. You want to have enough money so that you can go and eat a nice meal, and you can take your family on a fairly reasonable vacation. But then you have another level, where you don’t even think about that — where you just think about the next story. How do we get the money to go do the next story?

Q. Right. But partially because of this, photographers are doing workshops and are doing N.G.O. work. They are finding different ways. They are not out trying to do fresh photo essays that they can sell to magazines. They are putting their energies into other things to make money.

A. I’m glad you brought up N.G.O.’s, because that has become a real game. Like we work for these N.G.O.’s, right? It’s advertising, so that they can raise money and they can continue to do the good that they do. We get all upset if a photographer shoots for Shell or BP. But when we think in terms of photographing for certain nonprofit organizations who have a lot of money, and we become their spokesperson, we start to lose our objectivity.

Q. Right, but what should our role be as photojournalists working for them?

A. We have to be objective; we have to accept that. For example, when I worked for Human Rights Watch, they would take my pictures and sell them to raise money. What I always admired about Corinne Dufka is that she was a great photographer. And she quit and has literally become an investigator for Human Rights Watch. I think we have to be investigators.

Q. So you’re saying that when we are working for N.G.O.’s, we may try and please the people we are working for instead of acting as true journalists?

A. A magazine editor who hires me better understand that I am going to try and show you the truth. Some of my photos were just too hard to look at. But the truth of the matter was the picture of dead Americans in Falluja was going to run against an advertisement and the advertising people said: “No, no, no. Dead American bodies? Uh oh. No, no, no. Burnt lines? No, not like that.” And in the end, Time magazine ran it in Pictures of the Year, you know? It was made for Newsweek, but it ran in Time.

Q. Because it was causing a problem with the editors? Or advertisers?

A. Yeah, but I shot the picture. I certainly didn’t say: “Would the advertisers be upset if I show dead Americans — burnt, being beaten and tossed down the street? And then hung under a bridge and cut down?”

Q. Do we need to see images like that as Americans? There have been almost no images of dead Americans published.

A. We need to see it because it’s reality. We go to the movies, and we look at violence splashed across the screen like spaghetti sauce. If we can’t stomach watching our men and women being killed in these situations, then we shouldn’t send them there to be killed in such gruesome ways. We can’t have it both ways.

You want to sit there comfortably with your newspaper and blueberry muffin, and you don’t want to see pictures that are going to upset your morning. That is the job of a journalist, to upset your morning. The problem with newspapers and magazines folding is that the investigative journalism is going to disappear. And these criminals doing these nasty and dirty things in the world are going to get away with it.

It seems, as well, that Greene grasps quite clearly the usefulness of photography in efforts to help make visible events and things that many would prefer remain out of sight and to hold perpetrators to account. Some might find much of his work stereotypical 'war photography' and consider him an anachronism of sorts. If the alternative is euphemism I know where my sympathies lie.

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22 July 2010

War Photography as Visual Euphemism?

On a pretty regular basis I receive emails announcing exhibition openings, new books, and so forth. Sometimes I post about the event or appearance, sometimes I don't. Today I received the following from HOST Gallery (London):

"HOST gallery is pleased to announce the exhibition and book launch of Tim Hetherington’s Infidel. 20 September - 15 October 2010. More information below:

Infidel is an intimate portrait of a close band of warriors – a small battalion of US soldiers, posted to an outpost in the remote and dangerous Korengal Valley in North Eastern Afghanistan. Shot over the course of a year, Hetherington’s photographs prove surprisingly tender – arguably the strongest among them a series of the men asleep. This is a body of work as much about camaraderie, love and male vulnerability as it is about the horrors of war. The book’s title ‘Infidel’ is taken from a tattoo the men adopted as a mark of their comradeship. Hetherington’s photographs are sharp, moving and full of humour; they stand as a tribute to a group of men risking their lives in the interest of their own nation, and a provocative contribution the documentation of war in our time.

Please see attached press release and for more information please contact Harry on harry@foto8.com 0207 253 2770."
Let's be clear, Tim Hetherington is a very good photographer. He is no doubt a decent, sincere fellow as well. And the men he has photographed for this project are indeed risking their lives in the name of a national policy. I am not calling into question their motivations - and here I mean both the photographer and the soldiers - for doing what they are doing. I am asking about the consequences of the policy in which they (and we) all are caught up.

Having said those things, it is a considerable stretch - indeed, a stretch that I think cannot be sustained - to claim that these men are "risking their lives in the interest of their own nation." The war in Afghanistan is an ongoing disaster, in large measure because the Bush administration wasted resources and attention in Iraq. But, having inherited a mess, Obama is now prosecuting what is, despite his vigorous denial, a "war of choice." The current administration is asking these young men to risk their lives in the name of a policy that is demonstrably wrongheaded and, in all likelihood, doomed to failure. Neither the fraternity of the soldiers nor Tim Hetherington's images of it do anything to alter that basic reality.

So here is my question: If we can decry the way politicians and the print media consistently trade in (verbal) euphemisms (as I have done here repeatedly) isn't it possible to see the 'human interest' approach to war photography as a form of visual euphemism?

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21 July 2010

BP & the Photoshop Business

An attentive blogger, has called out BP for using photo-shopped photos of its 'crisis response center' in an effort to make themselves look . . . what? minimally responsive to the crisis? I've lifted the detail above from the initial post, but it comes from BP's we page. The observation was picked up by The Washington Post here. Wouldn't a more effective PR policy on BP's part be to actually repair the leaking (oh, sorry, the splurging, gushing) well and then get on with the task of trying to remedy the disaster they've created? This makes one wonder how such a half-assed outfit avoided some similar disaster for so long. (According to news reports, of course, they haven't - they've just ignored problems or covered them up.) Whenever I see this sort of bumbling I think . . . 'You couldn't make this stuff up!'

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O'Hagan on Szarkowski

Photograph © Richard Avedon.

John Szarkowski died just over three years ago. I noted his passing here. Today The Guardian has run this appropriately appreciative essay by Sean O'Hagan on the late photographer/curator/advocate. As often as not, I find O'Hagan's offerings at The Guardian to be wildly off the mark, verging sometimes on being literally incomprehensible. Not this time. I think his basic point - that Szarkowski may well have been the most influential figure in 20th century photography - is plausible. Even if that claim is not entirely persuasive, it nonetheless points us in useful directions - away from photographs and toward photography and how different people use it for different purposes. (One obvious, ironic implication is that we need to be less pre-occupied with photographers.) In the 1960s Szarkowski integrated the art world, making photography a respectable medium in that domain. Now, I wish he had been less successful, because photography is too important to be placed in the hands of museums and galleries and curators and art historians. But the tale of how photography became an art form is worth recalling just insofar as it was an 'achievement', an artifact of a concerted campaign.

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19 July 2010

David Taylor ~ Working the Line

Detention Cell 3 (with Serape), NM, 2007.
Photograph © David Taylor.

Border Monument # 184, 2010. Photograph © David Taylor.

US/Mexico Border Near El Paso/Juarez, 2007.
Photograph © David Taylor.

Borders are simultaneously historical, geographical, political, cultural in complex and arbitrary ways. That much is a truism. These three images are from a new book Working the Line by photographer David Taylor. The border monument is one among nearly 300, erected in the late 19th Century, that Taylor has photographed. Taylor lives and teaches in Las Cruces, New Mexico but has photographed the border from Texas through California. This is good work.

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18 July 2010

Recording Climate Change (2)

Photographs of East Rongbuk Glacier, 1921 (left) versus 2008.
Images © Major E.O. Wheeler, Royal Geographic Society and
David Breashears respectively.

A little over a year ago I put up this post on the transformation of glaciers in the Himalayas under the assault of climate change. At the photo blog at The New York Times you can find this announcement for an exhibition of similar work by David Breashears.

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15 July 2010

Best Shots (122) ~ Ron Haviv

(149) Ron Haviv ~ Capturing a Coup, Panama 1989 (14 July 2010).

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14 July 2010

L.A. Billboards

This is a post I have thought of doing for a while. Over the past six or so months the MAK Center for Art & Architecture (Los Angeles) has sponsored an exhibition called How Many Billboards? I don't really know anything about the Center; they basically commissioned twenty plus artists to create billboards that were dispersed around Los Angeles. the curators explain: "The philosophical proposition of the exhibition is simple: art should occupy a visible position in the cacophony of mediated images in the city, and it should do so without merely adding to the visual noise. How Many Billboards? Art In Stead proposes that art periodically displace advertisement in the urban environment." I think it is important to displace commercial uses for aesthetic and political ones in public spaces and so find this project appealing.

The Center now has photos* of the whole lot on line, accompanied by sometimes useful, sometimes not-so-useful (because thoroughly written in 'art speak') curatorial blurbs. Here are my three favorites in no particular order:

This first one is by Kerry Tribe, with whom I am unfamiliar. The curators write: "Tribe's billboard reflects the artist's interest in the problems associated with perception. Her abstraction of a darkening sky takes advantage of the proclivity to look up at billboards. Blending the site of the message with its airy backdrop, Tribe's image engages in a formal push and pull with perspective. Tribe's billboard transforms a space that typically directs one's attention outward (aiming the thoughts and desires of viewers toward a specific product) into a space of mental suspension, a hazy zone to lose one's thoughts within. . . . Tribe's billboard gives the viewer a mental break from the onslaught of visual imagery to simply ponder what the image might be, and what purpose it may serve."

Maybe so. To me it seems more like some sort of rip in the fabric of the sunny southern California skies, revealing the roiling troubles (social?, political?, economic?, environmental?) they disguise. Not clear sky hidden by clouds, but the reverse.

Since my tastes sometimes run to agit-prop, I also like this one by Allan Sekula. Indeed, I have posted on Sekula and the ways he has used this particular image here before. Once again, here are the curators: "Sekula deploys an image previously exhibited at Documenta 12. A welder at a construction site holding a lit acetylene torch and crouching over his work takes a moment to look directly at the viewer. The words "The rich destroy the planet" are superimposed in Spanish over the photograph. The lettering, which looks as if it were cut letter by letter from old magazines, is slightly disjunctive in scale but chromatically balanced and ultimately aesthetically appealing. The message, however, is blunt and accusatory, and it functions succinctly for both English and Spanish speakers, since these words appear similar in both languages."

Yeah, yeah. The rich are destroying the planet. And, by the way, they are working hard to shift blame onto the poor.

Finally (and hardly least) this one is by Ken Gonzales Day. And here are the curators, doing their best to obfuscate: "Ken Gonzales-Day . . . investigates, among other things, the role of photography in its relationship to the discourse of race and the dire consequences of racism Gonzales-Day's billboard project brings these histories into the present, reflecting upon how residues of oppression linger in varying forms, despite the many changes that society continues to undergo. His subjects, Bust of a Young Man (bronze with silver inlay eyes, by the Italian artist Antico) and Bust of a Man (black stone-pietra da paragone, Florence 1758, by the Englishman Francis Harwood), are owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum. Gonzales-Day photographed them as part of his Profile Series during a residency as a Getty Research Institute Scholar. The historical sculptures refer to the artistic styles and philosophies of the Renaissance and the Neoclassical period, both of which in their turn revived the achievements of Greek and Roman culture. The imaged sculptures serve as a reminder that despite the manifold social advancements we have witnessed, it is still with the vocabulary of the past that we speak today. The figures in profile also allude to the dawn of photography and the earliest technologies used to mechanically reproduce human likeness. In the third image, a Photoshop composite of the figures facing each other ignites an erotic charge as they stare into one another's eyes. As photographs of sculptures engaged in a virtual erotic dynamic, these profiles are thrice removed from their human referents, a fact which is emphasized by the brilliant highlights that bounce off the material-objects' surfaces."

As I have noted here a couple of times before, Gonzales Day produces very provocative, insightful, creative work. If I had not read the other two blurbs, I'd say this is one of the especially not-so-useful instances of art speak. Here we get lots of high-falutin' words (presented in irritatingly passive voice) to remind us that, despite our advanced technological accomplishments and embellishments, our racist past has not faded away; it still pervades our lives.
* Please note: I've lifted all three of these images from the MAK Center web page; Photographs © Gerard Smulevich.

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13 July 2010

Some Slick Photographs

Crude Awakening: Marissa. Photograph © Jane Fulton Alt.

I discovered this image among those in this slide show at The Guardian. I'd say the message is blunt, but not crude.


12 July 2010

The Right to Take Pictures (5)

Photo © Jonathan Warren
"The right to take photographs in the United States is being challenged more than ever. People are being stopped, harassed, and even intimidated into handing over their personal property simply because they were taking photographs of subjects that made other people uncomfortable. Recent examples have included photographing industrial plants, bridges, buildings, trains, and bus stations. For the most part, attempts to restrict photography are based on misguided fears about the supposed dangers that unrestricted photography presents to society.

Ironically, unrestricted photography by private citizens has played an integral role in protecting the freedom, security, and well-being of all Americans. Photography in the United States has an established history of contributing to improvements in civil rights, curbing abusive child labor practices, and providing important information to crime investigators. Photography has not contributed to a decline in public safety or economic vitality in the United States. When people think back on the acts of domestic terrorism that have occurred over the last twenty years, none have depended on or even involved photography. Restrictions on photography would not have prevented any of these acts. Furthermore, the increase in people carrying small digital and cell phone cameras has resulted in the prevention of crimes and the apprehension of criminals.

As the flyer states, there are not very many legal restrictions on what can be photographed when in public view. Most attempts at restricting photography are done by lower-level security and law enforcement officials acting way beyond their authority. Note that neither the Patriot Act nor the Homeland Security Act have any provisions that restrict photography. Similarly, some businesses have a history of abusing the rights of photographers under the guise of protecting their trade secrets. These claims are almost always meritless because entities are required to keep trade secrets from public view if they want to protect them."

I lifted these paragraphs from this web page maintained by attorney Bert Krages. I have linked to his valuable page a number of times. In light of my last post, it seemed appropriate to do so yet again. Krages has a one page pdf detailing your rights when confronted by law enforcement and/or security personnel. He also has written a book entitled Legal Handbook for Photographers that covers a broader range of topics (e.g., intellectual property issues).

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BP, the Oil Gusher, and the Constitution

This morning npr ran this story about the harassment of journalists and photojournalists seeking to investigate the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico by law enforcement officials - local, state, and federal - often working in coordination with the U.S. Coast Guard and members of BP's security squad. The hook for the npr story is the encounter between ProPublica photographer Lance Rosenfield with a phalanx of law enforcement and BP security in Texas City, Texas. You can read his own report here. His experience is not unique - see this report and this one too. In each instance the officials - law enforcement or military - claim that they are acting at the behest of the corporation. Apparently the emergency means the Constitution has been suspended.

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11 July 2010

Will Israel Tolerate or Suppress Political Dissent?

"In a sense, the need for a boycott is a sign of weakness following the polarisation and marginalisation of the left in Israel. We are witnessing the development of a proto-fascist mindset. I am, for example, extremely anxious about the extent that the space for public debate in Israel is shrinking.
One of the ways of silencing dissent is through the demand for loyalty, so that a slogan you hear a lot now is "no citizenship without loyalty". This reflects the inversion of the republican idea that the state should be loyal to the citizen and is accountable for inequities and injustices." ~ Neve Gordon
I posted about Gordon here almost a year ago. Gordon is a Political Scientist at Ben-Gurion University. He is once again being threatened by the Israeli regime - this time as one among many Israeli citizens who either actively advocate or quietly sympathize with calls for a boycott of the country due to its ongoing repression of Palestinians. According to this story in The Guardian, the government has introduced legislation aimed at silencing those citizens (as well as non-Israeli's who support the boycott). I have not yet changed my mind on the usefulness of the proposed boycott; I do not think it is the right approach for reasons I have stated here numerous times. But, once again, I think it is crucially important to speak out in defense of those, like Gordon and others, who are under attack by the Israeli government for their dissenting activities. Gordon wrote this Op-Ed for The Guardian and in 2008 published Israel's Occupation (University of California Press) - you can find the supporting web page here.

All of that said, the political situation in Israel and Palestine is dire and, as The Guardian report makes clear, arguably degenerating. I recommend these reflections on recent events (including the despicable Israeli attack, in late May, on the 'Gaza Freedom Flotilla' which has provided new impetus for calls for a boycott) in the NYRB by David Shulman. While the Israeli government has agreed to relax their blockade of Gaza, that is a very small step and it hardly is the only point of ongoing, serious contention. It is only the most noticeable one - the insidious, very, very regular attacks by "settlers" on Palestinians in the West Bank are equally despicable, just less visible.

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09 July 2010

Section 44 Tossed

Extremely good news on the civil liberties front in the UK following a decision from the European Court of Human Rights. The much and rightly maligned Section 44 of the Terrorism Act of 2000 has been nullified. Every once in a while common sense prevails.

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Best Shots (121) ~ van Lamsweerde & Matadin

(148) Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin
~ Me Kissing Vinoodh (Passionately) (8 July 2010).


08 July 2010

More Unfortunate Facts for the Right

The right wing likes to blame our financial crisis in large part on the irresponsibility of the poor - those who allegedly took mortgages they knew they could not afford - and on government policies animated by the notion that home ownership is a good thing and that sought to extend it to those undeserving poor folk. As Paul Krugman has pointed out, this analysis overlooks the crash in the commercial real estate markets. How many poor and working people have been dabbling in financing malls and office buildings? But even putting that inconvenient question to one side, it turns out that in the residential real estate market it is the rich folks who are walking away from insupportable mortgages in disproportionate numbers. Now, I don't necessarily think we should be condemning the rich for doing what is in their economic interest. What I do think, though, is that the right wingers should update their assessment of who has been, and continues to be, "irresponsible" in all this. Fat chance of that happening!


07 July 2010

David Goldblatt in NYC

"Goldblatt, who never really considered himself a photojournalist, divides his work into two categories: the professional and the personal. The professional was what he did on assignment for some editor or corporation. . . . The personal was what he did out of his own deeply felt need to engage his tumultuous land and its people. It’s an engagement that went far beyond racial conflict and oppression without ever becoming distanced from those unavoidable realities. His way was always to go deeper, to find an oblique angle that went right to the heart of the matter: an image bespeaking loneliness, stunted aspiration, fragile pride on both sides of the racial divide, not infrequently with an intimation of imminent violence, or its result." ~ Joseph Lelyveld

Mofolo South, Soweto, September 1972.
Photograph © David Goldblatt.

I've mentioned South African photographer David Goldblatt here a number of times. Yet another exhibition of his work is running in NYC this summer. You can find an appreciation and slide show here at the NYRB blog. (The Goldblatt show is running in Tandem with an exhibition of films by fellow South African William Kentridge.)

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Philosophical Food Fight

That is the reply that Josh Cohen (Stanford) - advocate of democratic deliberation - Tweeted (of all things!) to this post written by J.M. Bernstein (New School) at The New York Times philosophy blog. In the initial post, Bernstein offered an analysis (inspired by Hegel and Freud) of the anger embodied among members of the "The Party" crowd. He followed up here. Philosopher Brian Leiter (Univ. of Chicago) seconds Cohen here. And there is a rambling commentary here at Mother Jones as well. Now, I hardly put myself out as a model of tolerance and civil exchange, and my own theoretical leanings actually tend to converge with Leiter and Cohen, however their replies to Bernstein are not a great advert for doing philosophy (or political theory, or politics) in public.

I think there is a real and important question about why the radical right has managed to coordinate opposition to Obama around a set of ludicrous claims - like his place of birth or the notion, all evidence to the contrary, that he is a "socialist." Sure, there are lots of media politics at play. And the Mother Jones piece reiterates the findings that (as I suggested here) "the 'tea party' crowd tend to be ... a bunch of old, economically well-off, white guys who are 'angry' and 'pessimistic' because they think the government is paying too much attention to the needs of the poor and minorities and not enough to the rich!" Of course, that is not the only demographic among the members of the tea party 'movement'; it takes all types, I suppose.

Having said all that, what happens when you talk sense to people? What happens when you point out that the sources of political polarization in American politics derive from rising inequality and right-wing political strategy [1]? What happens when you point out that the Bush tax cuts and duplicitous military adventurism combine to underwrite the vast bulk of our current and future budget deficits [2]? What happens when you point out that redistributive spending tends to go primarily to red states [3]? Well ... there is some reason to think that despite the fear, anger and frustration that inform too much of American politics, there is some indication [4] [5] [6] that lots of voters are pretty damned sensible. They prefer to trim the military budget and raise taxes on the wealthy rather than simply slash social spending!

How does this connect to our point of departure? Well, Cohen and Leiter might have simply suggested that matters may not be nearly so bleak as Bernstein suggests, that there is reason to believe that citizens can indeed sort things out pretty reasonably despite emotional vicissitudes. (I actually think that we can dispense with the Freud and Hegel in Bernstein's initial piece and agree nonetheless that part of what has been going on is that individualistic Americans have indeed been forced to confront their interdependence and their vulnerability.) What would've been wrong with that?

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06 July 2010

Michel Foucault Comes to a College Campus Near You

Jeremy Baumann monitored cameras that were trained
on students at the testing center at the University of Central
Florida. Photograph © Steve Johnson for The New York Times.

I found this front page story in The New York Times - about the lengths to which colleges are going in the 'global war on cheating' by establishing surveillance regimes - pretty amazing. If Dean Ellis at UCF hasn't read Foucault, he ought to do so. After all, the lesson of Discipline & Punish, is that even as we proliferate the means of surveillance we push the disciplined (read students, in this instance) to elaborate new and re-newed means of resistance.


New Books ~ Invisible: Covert Operations & Classified Landscapes

This is a book that seems extremely promising. I have mentioned Trevor Paglen glancingly here and here. And with Rebecca Solnit, who writes revealingly about landscapes more generally, as a co-conspirator, this is one I will order post haste.

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05 July 2010

Beach Clean Up at The Economist

An interesting case of airbrushing at The Economist. You can read about it here. I subscribe to the magazine and actually find the rationale they offer pretty plausible.


Andrew McConnell

The Chefferie IDP site, home to some 4,000 people, in the town of
Kitchanga, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2007.
Photographs © Andrew McConnell.

I am not sure just where I came across a link to Andrew McConnell's web page, but I am fortunate to have done so. I have been making periodic, brief visits for a couple of weeks now and have become increasingly impressed by McConnell's work. His Congo project depicts the complexity of the situation by resisting the conventional pressure of documentary to focus solely on individuals among the populations of displaced persons and by incorporating images of the various military groups involved in the ongoing violence. What McConnell offers is a vision of a lethal political and military landscape. In this respect the Congo project is typical of his other work - subtle, insightful, compelling. This is extremely powerful work.

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The Supreme Court, Right Wing Politics, and What Your Grandmother Knows

"The American people expect a justice who will impartially apply the law, not one who will be a rubberstamp for the Obama administration or any other administration ... " ~ Mitch McConnell (R Kentucky)

"Qualifications for judicial service include both legal experience and, more importantly, the appropriate judicial philosophy. The law must control the judge; the judge must not control the law. . . . Over nearly 25 years, General Kagan has endorsed, and praised those who endorse, an activist judicial philosophy. " ~ Orin Hatch (R Utah)

"The worst kind of thing you can say of a judge is he or she is results-oriented. It suggests that a judge is kind of picking sides irrespective of what the law requires." ~ Elena Kagan
I am not a fan of Elena Kagan. More precisely, I am not a fan of her nomination to the Supreme Court. I think that Obama ought to have nominated someone who might offset the ridiculously partisan gang of five right-wing justices who already sit on the court, someone who would not just vote against them, but call them out when that needs to be done (with, of course, all of the professional niceties that judicial discourse imposes). Obama would never do that. He nominated Kagan, to solidify the resolutely centrist coalition of justices who pass for "liberals" on the current court.

The problem is that no one involved in the current nomination proceedings seems able to grasp what your grandmother knows without too much thought: Kagan resembles a "progressive" only in the context of right wing judicial politics. You can find yet another example of the consistent right wing "activism" of the current court majority (for earlier ones see [1] [2]) in a recent report from the Constitutional Accountability Center. It documents the remarkable coincidence that the right wing of the court - Alito, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy - vote to support corporate interests in an overwhelming majority of relevant cases. (Alito virtually never votes in any other way!) Here is a summary of the results:
"To test empirically the idea that the five conservatives on the Roberts Court tend to side with corporate interests, at least more than their colleagues do, we have examined, for those cases in which the United States Chamber of Commerce participated as a party or as an amicus curiae, every opinion released by the Roberts Court since Justice Samuel Alito began participating in decisions in early 2006 through May 2010 ‐‐ a universe of 53 cases ‐‐ and we tracked the votes of each Justice in each of the cases. Over that period, a cohesive five‐Justice majority on the Court has produced victories for the Chamber’s side in 64% of cases overall, and 71% of closely divided cases.


The data support the proposition that there is a strong ideological component to the Justices’ rulings in business cases, with the Court’s conservatives tilting more decisively toward the Chamber’s position than the Court’s remaining justices tilt in the other direction. The members of the Court’s conservative majority (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas) were very close together in their overall support for the Chamber’s position. Justice Kennedy does not “swing” much in business cases: he supported the Chamber 67% of the time, close to the voting pattern of Justice Alito, who had the highest percentage support for the Chamber ‐‐ voting for the Chamber’s position in 75% of the cases. This cohesion has produced an overall success rate for the Chamber of 64% (34 victories in 53 cases). The Court’s moderate/liberal “bloc” (including former Justice David Souter, who was on the Court for most of these rulings) was more centrist: collectively, the Court’s conservative “bloc” (Roberts, Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Kennedy) cast only 29% of their votes against the Chamber, while the moderate/liberal bloc cast 41% of its votes in favor of the Chamber.

Cases Decided by a Narrow Majority

Obviously, not all business cases are the same. Some of these cases apparently were not difficult for the Court to decide, at least in terms of the ability of the Justices to reach consensus. Indeed, more than one‐third of the business decisions we examined were decided by a unanimous Court; the Chamber won 11 of those 19 cases (58%). At the other end of the spectrum, about one‐third of the cases in our survey sharply divided the Court, and it is in this subset that ideological voting is most pronounced. These cases include all of the blockbuster rulings decided during the period of this study, including Citizens United v. FEC (2010), Ledbetter v. Goodyear (2007) and Massachusetts v. EPA (2007). Of the 17 cases decided by a five‐Justice majority, 12 (71%) resulted in victories for the Chamber. In these cases, the conservative bloc voted for the Chamber 84% of the time, compared to only 15% for the moderate/liberal bloc. Strikingly, in these close cases, Justice Alito never cast a vote against the Chamber of Commerce’s position."
No doubt our Republican Senators will decry the "rubberstamp" quality of that voting record! And soon-to-be-Justice Kagan will simply sit on her hands while her colleagues continue "picking sides" more or less solely in keeping with their conservative ideology.

This pattern of voting will surprise no one. Not grandma, anyhow. The study documents the pro-business voting pattern of the right leaning justices and it suggests that while their voting is extreme and partisan, the "liberals" tend to be centrist. Once again we can finger the Republicans as the source of political extremism. My point is not to suggest that we should expect the right-wingers to vote any other way. What we should expect is for a putatively "progressive" president to appoint a progressive justice. Everyone else is playing politics; why can't Obama advance a progressive agenda? Hint: Because he is not a progressive.

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04 July 2010

Passings ~ Benny Powell (1930~2010)

Photograph © Jos L. Knaepen.

Trombonist Penny Powell has died. I had the true pleasure of hearing Powell play with Pianist Randy Weston on two occasions in NYC several years ago. You can find a brief obituary here in The New York Times.

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