Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 21, 2016
Liam Kennedy and Caitlin Patrick, eds. The Violence of the Image: Photography and International Conflict London: I.B. Tauris, 2014. 255 pp.; 12 color ills.; 37 b/w ills. Paper $28.00 (9781780767895)
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Time and again it is declared that photojournalism is in crisis—that neither its truth claims nor its purported humanitarianism carry much currency in today’s hyper-mediatized, post-indexical world. Critics commonly hold that our era’s wholesale mistrust in photography’s veracity and its ability to straightforwardly incite “empathy and compassion” has rendered photojournalism “fatally compromised or exhausted” (2). Indeed, in a climate where claims such as, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality” (Karl Rove), become prescriptive, and what passes for news is driven by political and market forces, conventional photojournalistic images have little purchase in terms of believability or effectiveness.

Against this view, The Violence of the Image, edited by Liam Kennedy and Caitlin Patrick, contends that photojournalism is not dead. It not only remains the principal visual genre for imaging violence in news media, but also plays a decisive role in shaping political and social perceptions that mediate both national and international relations. The book’s essays, treating topics that arise in photojournalistic coverage of armed conflicts, confirm that “new technologies of seeing” (2) have extended photojournalism’s earlier potential to “bear witness” (3), giving the photojournalistic image an afterlife. At the same time, these new visual technologies have profoundly altered distinctions between image producers and consumers, redefined the nature of spectatorship, and compressed our temporal-spatial experience of world events. In an age when the production and circulation of digital images are transforming photojournalism at breakneck speed, and the pressure on photography to make sense of and shape an increasingly inchoate world is enormous, the challenge taken on by Kennedy and Patrick is an extraordinarily urgent one.

A principle aim of the book’s editors, therefore, is to reclaim what they assume is photojournalism’s humanitarian mandate. Historically, one facet of photography’s role in visualizing violence in news media leaned toward asserting a universalizing vision of human solidarity anchored in Enlightenment concepts of secular humanism. Photojournalism routinely purported to give visual form to that moral economy by playing more to the affective sensibilities of spectators faced with images of suffering than to soliciting what media theorists call their cognitive capacities. Striving to generate empathy and compassion, photojournalists developed visual strategies that imaged suffering as “spectacle” (in Luc Boltanski’s sense), aimed at evoking emotion and pity at the expense of elucidating analytical frameworks for understanding deeper systemic causes.

Photojournalism today, Kennedy and Patrick argue in their introduction, has sought to maintain its earlier objective of bearing witness and promoting social change, while at the same time responding to the massive shifts in modes of production and circulation that have prompted a crisis in the very epistemological framework through which images of violence are invested with meaning. A powerful argument running throughout the book thus concerns the symbiotic relationship between photography and warfare. Both share technologies and ways of seeing, such that advances in warfare have prompted a new, deeper imbrication between image and conflict—from “embedded” photojournalists, to advanced image technologies in “virtual war,” to new forms of image circulation, to the blurring of boundaries between warfare and entertainment—that plays a decisive role in international relations and foreign policy decisions. Managing this field of vision has thus become an indispensable aspect of contemporary geopolitical strategies. And image management goes hand in hand with managed violence. The book thus traces the internal tensions within photojournalism’s longstanding yet troubled humanitarian project as it faces these sweeping changes.

The Violence of the Image moves from purportedly humanitarian visualizations of human suffering (the Congo Campaign, the Vietnam War, Bloody Sunday) to current forms in which the global uses of digital photography, camera phones, and photo-blogging have rendered the meanings of images so unstable that they can simultaneously “support and challenge the state’s geopolitical visions” (3). The resulting image “promiscuity”—its continual crossovers between news and entertainment, professional and amateur practices, modes and genres of representation—is “enhanced by the disintegration of discrete categories and genres of visual information in the digital age” (3).

Several essays offer two broad approaches to thinking about the book’s main premise, “the violence of the image.” The first concerns photographs that replace picturing atrocities with visual testimony of their long-term aftermath. Notable here are Christina Twomey’s study of photographs of Congolese villagers mutilated under King Leopold’s brutal reign (1903) and Kennedy’s essay on Philip Jones Griffiths’s chronicles of Vietnamese villagers who survived U.S. attacks during the Vietnam War. Both authors extend the temporal and spatial scope of violence to consider its ramifications on, for example, representations of Africans in European discourses or Vietnamese women caught in mass migrations, the destruction of villages, and cultural genocide. Twomey and Kennedy attribute the effectiveness of the documentary form to partisan practices of witnessing and to “revealing” dimensions of suffering that remained hidden or outside dominant discourses. Twomey rigorously historicizes the uses to which atrocity photographs were put in early twentieth-century Britain, demonstrating how they shaped the agendas of various colonial projects. Against recent ahistorical scholarship on such photographs that simply projects today’s human rights paradigms back in time, she shows how images of suffering inflected and were inflected by racial stereotypes that underpinned British imperial ambitions. Kennedy, by contrast, questionably sees in Griffiths the quintessential humanist auteur—photographing war from the victim’s point of view, disclosing the U.S.’s “destructive military and cultural presence” in Vietnam, and visualizing his personal “critical perspective on the workings of colonial and imperial powers” (35). Griffiths’s photojournalism is, for Kennedy, simply a project of ideology critique—a quest for “reporting truth and illuminating justice” (34) in pursuit of some ideal of universal solidarity and social change.

The second approach is found in Justin Carville’s probing essay regarding the interpretive battles surrounding the Bloody Sunday massacres. Mobilizing Roland Barthes’s concept of the violence of the photograph, he demonstrates how photography tends to enforce a certain consensus about what can and cannot be said about the images. Carville’s discussion might have best been used as the book’s first essay, as it compellingly unpacks the intrinsic relationship between violent subject matter and the aesthetic violence imposed by photography’s peculiar indexical status and formal procedures. He argues that the photograph’s violence lies in its capacity to impose itself in its fullness and immediacy with such force that it becomes totalizing, delimiting any excess of meaning that threatens the purported certainty of the photographic message. This aesthetic characteristic, embedded in the medium’s appeal to realism, imposes an equally violent interpretive consensus (in Jacques Rancière’s sense) as to the terms and limits within which journalistic debate unfolds. The upshot is that “the photograph itself is denied any agency,” and simply endorses a meaning “that already frames it rather than to pictorially reveal new and hidden realities” (62).

Ariella Azoulay advances this argument in examining photojournalistic images of the destruction of Palestinian cities to make way for Israeli settlements. Such images, she argues, are routinely framed within a hegemonic paradigm that defines disaster as “a spectacular event that befalls a city from the outside” which necessitates the state’s aid to contain and rectify it (125). Disaster here is “an orchestrated object of mourning and memory” (126). Against this, Azoulay posits another form: “regime-made disaster.” This, as Robert Hariman notes in the book, is constituted by forms of systemic violence and deprivation which, generally mistaken by Western media as the “ordinary vicissitudes of a hard life,” operate to maintain a subject population just above the threshold of humanitarian disaster (150). Here, photojournalism plays a crucial yet paradoxical role, at once exposing in full view these conditions as a catastrophe, yet simultaneously concealing (i.e., misrepresenting) their real political character. Regime-made disaster is constant and ongoing, Azoulay argues, and “differentiates groups of citizens and non-citizens” whose status as such is largely determined “by the degree of their exposure to disaster” (126). Citizens are protected by the state, while non-citizens are abandoned by the ruling power, which refrains from intervening to prevent disaster. Visualizing this differential structure of citizenship requires, Azoulay contends, a radically distinct temporal and spatial mode of reading photographs, one capable of reinterpreting “the time and space of the disaster” (128) in order to move beyond the immediate violence imaged in the photographs. Such a reading aims to register the experience of conflict in its plurality, to see it from the perspectives of “all those affected by it—both its perpetrators and their accomplices, as well as those who are its direct victims” (128), thereby providing a means to rethink the body politic of the state itself.

David Campbell offers a critique of “compassion fatigue,” a timeworn notion that, he contends, is neither empirically nor conceptually convincing but continues to hold sway in studies of the media. Campbell claims that compassion is produced, but often fails to generate the move from individual expression to collective political action. Hariman develops a comprehensive overview of changing technologies that have broadened the visual field of war into what is commonly called “conflict” photography. Hariman powerfully argues that photography’s entanglement in war—as both reportage and as the central visual technology of modern militarism—is such that any theory of photography must be set into a theory of violence in which photography today is complicit. Its power to aestheticize, distribute, and sanction violence, and its instrumentality in bio-political regimes of surveillance, optical coding, and as the weapon of choice in acts of war—robotic warfare, torture, made-for-YouTube terrorism—make clear the urgency of rethinking theories of politics and aesthetics.

The remaining essays address current conflicts and the challenges faced by both professional and citizen photojournalists today. Stuart Allan’s chapter on Libya’s 2011 uprising tracks the ethical and journalistic dilemmas for photojournalists who, “cover[ing] a conflict they could not witness first-hand” (178), relied on non-professional eyewitnesses for mobile phone footage of events. Wendy Kozol examines images of Afghani women and girls within the context of human rights discourse and the performance of agency that aims to destabilize power relations inherent in photojournalistic witnessing. Paul Lowe discusses photographic approaches to atrocity that aim to mitigate the risks of re-victimizing the sufferer. Adopting forensic procedures, such photographs replace the picturing of victims themselves with documentary images of the locations where violence occurred and of physical evidence of those disappeared.

Caitlin Patrick sketches the entanglements of different spheres of consumption as photojournalistic images ascend into the rarified realm of Art. Her essay, more descriptive than analytical, explains this shift primarily as an alternative means of commodifying visual “outputs” (240) that enable “professional photographers to create a brand and following” (242). Yet, failing to acknowledge the network of aesthetic and conceptual interests that underwrite this move, Patrick is hard-pressed to interpret it within post-indexical photography’s questioning of such categories as “the real,” “representation,” and “memory” central to media practices. Ethical questions also arise concerning the spectacularization of death (e.g., Luc Delahaye’s Taliban (2001)), which Patrick overlooks, effectively undermining a cogent investigation of precisely what the “violence of the image” is all about.

Lastly, there is a marked absence of sustained discussion of the photographs’ formal visual strategies. Patrick notes, for example, that “given the significant technological, economic and cultural changes currently taking place, the uneasy genre of ‘documentary photography’ struggles to span many deviating understandings of its functions. . . . Photojournalism is also far from immune to these questions though it continues . . . to maintain a descriptive language of truth, objectivity and realism” (252). It is hard to justify such a claim when the photographs’ formal structures, through which the purported “language of truth” is articulated and legitimated, are never analyzed. This inability to address images and account for the work of visual aesthetics in producing meanings is all too common in the areas of media and visual culture studies. Unfortunately, this volume does little to reverse this tendency.

Nevertheless, The Violence of the Image expansively and thoughtfully engages with extremely pertinent issues that in human rights and media discourses are too often left unquestioned. The book offers complex ways of thinking about photojournalism that one rarely finds brought together in one source, and which productively challenge the assumptions about how photographs operate held by many current scholars of human rights, communications, and the media.

Michael Orwicz
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Connecticut

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