Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 26, 2016
Wendy Kozol Distant Wars Visible: The Ambivalence of Witnessing Minnapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. 280 pp.; 39 b/w ills. Paper $22.50 (9780816681303)
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The involvement of photography in helping to contest as well as legitimize war as a means to resolve conflict has been studied by a large number of scholars in recent years. Often motivated by their belief in humanitarianism, scholars commonly aim to salvage photography from its absorption into overt belligerent politics, highlighting instead the role it plays in communicating war atrocities. While as a consequence photography has been seen and defended in academia mainly as a medium that triggers moral responses to warfare, the fact that photographs may also affect their viewers to support war—or, indeed, to call for war against war—has normally remained in the background of scholarly studies. In Distant Wars Visible: The Ambivalence of Witnessing, Wendy Kozol does not shy away from this fluctuation of visual witnessing. Embracing the problem along with the social, political, and intellectual complexities it entails, Kozol employs feminist-related and critical-race theoretical frameworks to examine the efficacy of the photographic practices commonly used to advocate humanitarian approaches to the suffering that wars effect. A professor in comparative American studies, she focuses on conflict-associated photographs made in the interrelated contexts of contemporary U.S. overseas warfare and national security politics. This is significant because since the late twentieth century the United States has rationalized its distant wars as humanitarian interventions, allegedly made in the name of repressed local populations. Hence, Kozol argues, even conflict photographs of human suffering might reinforce the U.S. national security logic of humanitarian militarism rather than fortify calls to end all hostilities.

In the book’s five chapters Kozol unpacks warfare-related images from World War II, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, examining the viewing practices that their production and dissemination influence. Aiming to find techniques to witness images of violence and injustice that could escape the imperial logic of benevolent war, Kozol exercises an analytic of ambivalent witnessing; she investigates the multiplicity of possible conflicting meanings that viewers might give to specific images about war, endeavoring to subvert their hegemonic interpretation. In line with critical traditions in visual culture studies, she attends to a wide range of imagery, such as photojournalism, documentary photography, private and domestic snapshots, films, graphic narratives, as well as art and fine art photography, considering them almost concurrently through comparison. This rich variety of images also leads Kozol to explore how their understanding may be affected by the sociocultural meanings commonly associated with different display platforms and visual repositories, such as newsmagazines, websites, domestic photograph collections, photography exhibitions, and art installations. On the one hand, Kozol examines forms of representational strategies that might make the meanings of warfare images seem unstable and contradictory. On the other, she investigates how discursive and viewing contexts facilitate the emergence of ambivalent responses to conflict photographs. However, all readers must bear in mind that the book’s dense writing style renders Kozol’s analysis difficult to follow without knowledge of the subject and some of the theories that inform her approach to visual materials.

Although certain points in Distant Wars Visible may apply to any conflict photographs, Kozol does not claim that her argument can remain sustainable beyond the sociopolitical conditions prevalent in U.S. culture. Drawing on recent debates in visual culture studies that take issue with the national security state’s visual regimes, she perceives images of conflict as integral actors in U.S. practices of warfare. Kozol argues, for example, that photographs from 9/11 have enabled U.S. viewers to witness images of their nation’s victimization that helped to cement in the U.S. public both patriotism and denial of the impacts of national policies in the Middle East. Yet, conflict photographs, she clarifies, can also open up visual spaces through which U.S. viewers may “look elsewhere,” that is, learn about their state’s vested interest in foreign politics and witness the social impacts of its military actions on civilian populations overseas.

Nicolas Mirzoeff has contributed to the development of this subversive conceptual framework mainly in his book The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), where he argues that the visualization of state violence helps to contest hegemonic representational stratagems as well as to weaken assumed sociocultural power relations and authoritative ideologies of selfhood. Similarly, in the book Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011), W. J. T. Mitchell maintains that the visualization of U.S. state violence compels especially American viewers to admit what they have become following the atrocities committed in their name by their nation-state. Whereas Kozol also endorses the critical logic underpinning this political project, she significantly differs from the majority of other critics of the national security state by her sharp observation that any distinction between hegemonic and counterhegemonic conflict photographs can only ever be provisional. The relationality embedded in acts of visual witnessing, she explains, renders them into “contested sites that as readily destabilize as secure hegemonic ways of seeing and knowing” (12). Thus, even representations that “look elsewhere” may duplicate hegemonic forms of identification and structures of gender, sexual, and racial difference in which those who fall outside the boundaries of U.S. national identity may appear in need of external protection. Acknowledging, then, the challenge that photographs pose to ethical witnessing of war, violence, and suffering, Kozol suggests, after Sharon Sliwinski (Human Rights in Camera, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011) (click here for review), that “visual encounters that stage a confrontation with moral failure can themselves foster an ethics of recognition of the humanness of others while contending with the spectator’s own gaze” (19).

Indeed, despite her commendable attempt to demonstrate how an analytic of ambivalence may nurture ethical witnessing practices, Kozol seems to struggle to delineate how it can be put into practice away from her own writing. Instead, the series of case studies featured in the book recognizes that images of U.S. distant wars can rarely avoid their absorption into the logic of humanitarian militarism. In the first chapter, for example, Kozol takes issue with news coverage of the U.S-led NATO bombing in Serbia and Kosovo carried out in 1999 following the failure of Euro-American diplomacy to stop the Serbian regime’s systematic killing of Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims. Analyzing specifically how photojournalists contributed to the visualization of the bombing campaign, Kozol turns her attention to reports published by the popular American news magazines Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. “American news media,” her theoretical analysis leads her to conclude, “made the case for NATO intervention through compelling pictures of Albanian Kosovars fleeing in mountainous landscapes and huddled together in crowded refugee camps” (24). According to Kozol, two complementing visualization practices elicited this effect. One was the circulation of photographs whose representational vocabularies repeated visual tropes of civilian susceptibility, such as maternal and child vulnerability. The other was their focus on light-skinned subjects, dressed in what U.S. viewers would have recognized as contemporary clothing. Together, the proliferation of these visual elements obstructed the refugees’ racial and ethnic difference, and thereby inculcated in U.S. viewers the belief that Slobodan Milošević’s Serbian regime constituted a threat to their own dominant sociocultural ideals. However, practicing her analytic of ambivalence, Kozol explains that these kinds of photographs also helped in concealing the historical causes of the war, “including the integral role of American and European economic and political interests in the persistent instabilities in this region” (24).

Whereas discussions in the book’s first few chapters may sound familiar to scholars well-rehearsed in debates about the participation of photographic practices in warfare, Kozol’s argument becomes even more sophisticated as her study develops. In the book’s fourth chapter, for example, Kozol applies her analytic of ambivalence to the now well-known private snapshots of U.S. soldiers torturing and abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. She argues that since the photographs began circulating in public, they have forced their viewers (in particular U.S. citizens) into subjective positions of complicity or recoil. On the one hand, the prison guards’ smiles and the thumbs-up they present at the camera were intended for their fellow guards, as declarations of complicity in the act of torture. Therefore, “such framings presume that the intended viewer will appreciate the images for their supposedly shared meanings, just as tourists send photos to friends and family to share in the pleasure of their travel experiences” (154). On the other hand, the photographs “convey information transparently about victims and perpetrators of atrocities” (132). Kozol, therefore, suggests that those who do not identify with the Iraqi prisoners but equally refuse to reciprocate the guards’ hailing might end up reinforcing the ideology of Western ethics. This is because U.S. citizens’ ability to publically voice criticism about their soldiers’ actions helps frame the guards’ abuse of the power given to them by the state as an atypical “fall from grace,” which safeguards and assists in reinstating belief in the U.S. logic of humanitarian militarism. And yet, looking at pictures of this kind is necessary in Kozol’s view. “To look away,” she reasons, “would give credibility to the claim that these pictures are so exceptional, beyond the standards of representational decency, that we cannot study or critique them” (158).

Thoroughly researched and packed with rich and timely case studies, Distant Wars Visible will be of great interest to any scholar interested in the security state’s visual regimes and in the entanglement of warfare with the affects that conflict photographs may trigger more broadly. Making valuable contributions to theoretical thought in those fields, it is also an essential read for photographers, artists, and political activists who will find in Kozol’s argument many awakening calls to reconsider what the images they make and utilize when contesting conflict might actually serve. To be sure, Distant Wars Visible’s main strength lies in Kozol’s successful ability to demonstrate that the visual forms of witnessing that conflict photographs enable are unstable, inevitably positioning the looking subject in directly ambivalent relations to nation-state ideologies, policies, racial logic, and organized violence. In doing so, she often shows how visual witnessing of the U.S. distant wars influences otherwise peace-seeking individuals to support unjust aggression—even if involuntarily. As a consequence, however, neither of Kozol’s case studies nor the book’s conclusion clarify just how an analytic of ambivalence may nurture ethical witnessing of violence, suffering, and injustice beyond intellectual circles. But this assessment must not be understood as criticism. Already in the book’s introduction, Kozol acknowledges the limits of photographic efficacy, partly imposed by the fact that “images operate within conditions overdetermined by broader structural forces and discursive formations” (19). In addition, readers must remember that Kozol has taken up a truly challenging project. Fighting the humanitarian visual logic of the national security state that has productively served it for so many years cannot be an easy task, and Kozol deserves much praise for exposing this logic and convincingly analyzing its operations.

Gil Pasternak
Senior Research Fellow Photographic History, Photographic History Research Centre, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.