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What does it mean to picture atrocity, to take photographs of death, destruction, and suffering, to hold those iconic images in our minds? Nearly forty years ago, Susan Sontag took up such questions in her essay “In Plato’s Cave” (in On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), questions that would haunt her writing to the very end, be it in her last collection of meditations on the medium of photography, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), or in its addendum, the 2004 essay “Regarding the Torture of Others” published in the New York Times Magazine in the aftermath of the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs. An ongoing inquiry into the impact and afterlife of images, into the responsibilities of bearing witness, Sontag’s writing is filled with passages that press us to consider and reconsider the implications of picturing horror. As she writes in “In Plato’s Cave”:
One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany. For me, it was photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July 1945. Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after, though it was several years before I understood fully what they were about. What good was served by seeing them. They were only photographs—of an event I had scarcely heard of and could do nothing to affect, of suffering I could hardly imagine and could do nothing to relieve. When I looked at those photographs, something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying. (20)
In the years since Sontag first penned these moving words, there has been no shortage of critical, theoretical, and scholarly writing devoted to the picturing of atrocity, to the ethical implications of creating and consuming images of events and experiences that may be said simultaneously to defy yet demand representation. Retroactively constituting those fields (e.g., post-Holocaust Studies, Trauma Studies) that had yet to coalesce in the decades when Sontag was first publishing in the New York Review of Books, such work urged us to think about the forms and frames that mediate our belated encounters not just with the past, but with the present.
For all the monographic studies and collected volumes, however, even those devoted specifically to photography, none has explored the terrain as expansively or assiduously as Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis. A collaborative endeavor on the part of an interdisciplinary team of editors—Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, and Jay Prosser—Picturing Atrocity brings together artists and activists, art historians and curators, journalists and documentary photographers, historians, literary theorists, and others to produce a remarkable collection of twenty-four essays, each devoted to the traces of historical trauma, be they explicit or oblique.
Picturing Atrocity is an ambitious and important book, each essay offering an illuminating encounter with a fragment of the photographic archive of injustice and suffering. If to list some of the sites and subjects of the photographs that drive the essays conveys something of the volume’s global reach and historical purview—looters in the aftermath of earthquake in Haiti, the native dead at Wounded Knee, the mutilated in the Belgian Congo, the tortured at Abu Ghraib, the victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust, those deprived of civil rights in the American South, South Africa, Bangladesh, and Israel, those awaiting execution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, the starving in Africa and China, the after-effects of the atomic bomb, famine in Africa and China, the gravely wounded child in Vietnam, the dead revolutionary in Nicaragua, the Falling Man—such an accounting does little to capture the careful readings and subtle claims structuring the individual essays.
To give ourselves over to the images and essays of Picturing Atrocity is to open ourselves to the world we have inherited, the world we live in, the world we might still change. Arranged neither by chronology nor region, the book instead takes shape thematically and theoretically. Broken into seven sections—“Response and Responsibility,” “Becoming Iconic,” “Photographing Atrocity,” “Circulation and Public Culture,” “Ordinary Atrocities,” “Atrocity Askance,” and “The Afterlife of Photographs”—the collection immerses us in the evidentiary traces and visual elisions of atrocity, as they may be registered in photographic form. Principally a book about documentary photography, the essays take us from the journalistic to the artistic, addressing practices that range from photography of the state to photography of the street. As much an encounter with the history of modernity as it is with the medium of photography, Picturing Atrocity is a deeply ethical study of images. Even as it considers the immediate, but more often belated, efficacy, or even failure, of such photographs, it is also a call for their enduring historical, social, and political relevance. Each of the essays in this collection—by Elizabeth Abel, Shahidul Alam, Ariella Azoulay, David Campbell, D. J. Clark, Robert Hariman and John Lucaites, Marianne Hirsh and Leo Spitzer, Tom Junod, Paul Lowe, Susan Meiselas, Darren Newbury, Lorie Novak, Peggy Phelan, Griselda Pollock, Fred Ritchen, Hilary Roberts, Rebecca Solnit, Christina Twomey, and Barbie Zelizer—warrants more attention than I can give them here. I shall briefly examine three exemplary essays, dictated largely by my own constellation of interests.
To read Abel’s “History at a Standstill: Agency and Gender in the Image of Civil Rights” is not only to confront the history and inheritance of race in the United States. Nor is it simply to follow, with rapt attention, her reading of a photograph taken at a Woolworth lunch-counter demonstration in Jackson, Mississippi, on May 28, 1963. It is to take on historical practice itself, offering as Abel’s essay does a feminist counter to Walter Benjamin’s historical materialism. It is, in the words of the author, to “disrupt the aura of inevitability that emanates from a stable image of the past” (106). It is to replace a messianic logic of redemption with an all too real account of historical repetition and an ethics of mutual recognition.
To read, as another example, Miller’s “The Girl in the Photograph: The Visual Legacies of War” is to see and be touched, again and anew, by a photograph that came not only to define the horror of the Vietnam War, but may well have helped to bring about its end. It is to spend time with Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of children running, fleeing, burning, with Kim Phuc, the so-called Napalm Girl, at its focal point. And if we might say that all photography collapses the then and the now, introducing a fragment of the past into our present, Miller’s essay dramatizes and extends that time-traveling trajectory, tracing the postwar fortunes and subsequent photographs of Phuc, an icon of suffering innocence who survived and matured into an embodiment of postwar reconciliation.
To read, as one final example, Batchen’s “Looking Askance,” an essay that could well serve as a second introduction to the theoretical concerns percolating through the volume, is to tackle the very idea of documentary photography. And if it begins with the historically resonant landscapes captured by Anne Ferran in Australia, the kinds of haunted landscapes that have come to preoccupy contemporary photographs ranging from Sally Mann, in the American South, to Ori Gersht, in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, it concludes by inviting us to consider not “authentic” documentary photographs, as cleansed of the traces of historical atrocity as some may now be, but the “truths” that may emerge from photographic fabrications, be it those fictive archives of the civil wars in Lebanon created by Walid Raad and the Atlas Group or the still shots of the cinematic restaging of the Democratic Uprising of May 1980 in Gwangju, South Korea, as captured by Hein-kuhn Oh, both exemplary of a larger body of contemporary art structured by practices of “re-enactment.”
As one reads this collection, questions pile up. Why is looting considered a crime and not a resourceful act of salvaging, of sustaining life, in the aftermath of catastrophe? What historical truths are hidden in plain view in photographs of atrocity, or, for that matter, in photographs of the everyday? Where does trauma leaves its mark? Why and how do certain photographic images become iconic? What is the afterlife of photography, its performative force? How can photographs of atrocity be deployed to end reigns of terror? How do photographs contain, i.e., control and manage, their historical subjects? How do photographs implicate us? What if they come to us too late? Why do so many of the iconic images of atrocity feature women and children? Where might we locate the imprint of resistance? Is authenticity a prerequisite of truth? Is there a place for beauty? Is there a time for no images at all?
The book’s front cover would suggest that this was a volume that had thoroughly absorbed and adopted the language of quasi-biblical prohibition on images of atrocity that comes to us, rightly or wrongly, from the postwar writings of Theodor Adorno. Above the stark sans serif title looms not an iconic image of atrocity but a monochromatic abstraction. It is an image by one of the volume’s contributors, Alfredo Jaar, whose work is also the pivotal subject of an excellent essay by Pollock that, among other goals (principally historical and feminist), directly challenges, by way of invoking Georges Didi-Huberman’s Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) (click here for review), the orthodoxy of Claude Lanzmann and all those who believe “that the Shoah is unimaginable and has, and should have, no image” (67). And while Jaar’s collaborative contribution, “Lament of the Images,” couples similarly monochromatic images, here, pure black, with captions by David Levi Strauss, implying that we know such images of death and destruction from the war in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) well enough that we can conjure them in our minds, no such caption fixes the image on the front cover. A rectangular frame filled by a luminous field of crimson (or, dare one say, blood red?), even if the image does not bespeak an Adornian Bilderverbot—for this is a volume that believes deeply in the necessity not just of seeing and showing, but of studying, with careful attention, the photographic archive of atrocity—it does bespeak a generalization and abstraction that runs counter to the belief in the utter specificity of images that drives almost every essay in the volume.
But this is ultimately a minor quibble, all the more so when one flips the book over to discover that the royalties from the book will be donated to Amnesty International. Were that the only reason to buy this book, it would be enough. But it is not. This is a carefully realized, deeply ethical study of images, one that brings together the work of some of the most recognized practitioners, writers, and scholars in the field and organizes that work into a ranging yet coherent whole. Its coherence comes not only from its selection and organization of essays, but from the ways in which a number of them make reference to the claims of others, amplifying the concerns and conclusions of the book.
Michael Fried may have made a case for why “photography matters as art as never before.” But this volume, with its concise yet purposeful introduction by Jay Prosser and its consistently persuasive and engaging essays by the other editors and contributors, makes a case for why photography, whatever its forms, mattered then, matters now, and will continue to matter in the years to come.
Professor, Department of History of Art, Bryn Mawr College