Sunday, April 08, 2007

Land Mines : Photography and Advocacy

What kind of an image moves you?

Over on Today's Pictures, I've been trying to answer that question while browsing through photographs about land mines. My visceral reactions surprise me. A picture of mourners at a funeral did not do much for me. I recognize and understand the emotions, but I do not feel them. On the other hand, this photograph of an elephant's mangled foot horrified me. Why should I feel more for an elephant than a person? And what might my answer say about photography and art?

I suppose one answer would be that the elephant is clearly innocent by virtue of its species. War is a mostly human habit, and when I see pictures of humans injured in land mines I might wonder how they were connected to the conflict. Sure, landmines kill bystanders (and their particular tragedy is that, like radiation in Nagasaki, they continue to kill after the end of hostilities), but any given person portrayed might easily be a combatant. Elephants do not require further explanation.

I think there is another, more important reason, one that has me questioning a certain amount of what I thought I knew about art. I'm remembering a lecture given by Ira Glass, who began completely in the dark. He was making a point about radio, and voice. So many of our cues are visual, he argued, that by concentrating on sound, radio allows us to identify with people at a much more visceral level. A picture of a wounded person is not as effective as hearing the person describe what she experienced, an article about poverty and violence not (generally) as direct as listening to kids who live in the projects talk about guns.

Cartoons are a visual equivalent to radio. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud suggests that comics allow us to put ourselves into the story. Precisely because Snoopy is a simplified representation, we can shape Snoopy in our own image. In emotional terms, less can be more. I've seen similar arguments made for the power of books over movies.

But consider the case of photography. Creating the same effect might mean leaving out detail, depicting people in silhouette, or blocked from view. The problem, it seems to me, is that one then gets photographs without specificity, and the lack of detail makes a duller picture. Yes, I reacted to the elephant's foot, but I did not look at it for long, and if I did I suspect the effect would be to desensitize me rather than making me more politically engaged. Photography can be abstract, sure, but it can't be vague. Otherwise, what's the point?

Which brings me to this amazing picture, the final frame ever shot by this photographer (Robert Capa), one that must have been similar to the last image of thousands of others who were killed in Vietnam. Here, it is easy to insert myself into the action, but not as a character in the frame but as the person looking through the lens. It's a shattering photograph, a tragedy in a rectangle.

I'm obviously not suggesting that photojournalists embark on suicidal missions to prove my obscure aesthetic point. I am saying that making a political argument with pictures is very difficult. Capa's final picture also changes the way I think about pictures. They are records, first, of the experiences of photographers, men and women we do not see, and thus can imagine ourselves being.


Dawn Coyote said...

A cartoon in a photograph.

gypsy does a lot of abstract stuff. I look at it and listen for the emotional resonance. It doesn't matter if we hear the same thing.

I have this painting - a giant charcoal sketch with a blue wash over it, actually - in my bedroom of a woman in side-view, with head slightly inclined. I had a strong reaction to the picture the first time I saw it. It affected me. I had to have it. A friend later pointed out that the women seems to have a white cat superimposed over her face.

Recently my mom, an observant Catholic, pointed out to me that it's really a classically-styled drawing of the Virgin Mary — with veil and all — and the giant red strawberry in the lower part of the picture is the Sacred Heart.

I agree that impressions can create more of an empathetic echo in the viewer than explicit and expository images. And you're right - it's all about our ability to identify with the subject.

I, too, find I respond more to animals' suffering than to humans'.

"Virgin and Cat"? Hmmm. Following Catholic convention, my first name really is Mary...

Anonymous said...

"War is a mostly human habit"

- depends on how you define war.

If we give it some breadth, it is mostly a non-human habit.

If we give it a lot of breadth, most species, including insects, engage in group fighting - and we can even see fighting between species.

Surprise - humans are such animals.

It's not surprising you are impacted, emotionally, by pictures of animals suffering. But as a point, is there anything of interest in this? Do you find your actions echo these sentiments? Doubt it. (just guessing...)

twiffer said...

what strikes me as notable and, yes, horrific, in regards to the elephant foot vs. photos of human injuries is the nature of the wound. it is open, ragged and ignored. with the human injuries, we see bandages, healed wounds, mourning of loss. with the elephant, we see a chained creature forced to continue working with an untreated, grievious injury. that is telling.

war is not the sole domain of humans. no more than any other type of animal behavior. it's territorial fighting, or a battle for social dominance. all creatures, large and small (and in particular, social creatures) do this. we just have the best tools.

august said...

twif, anon:

The "war is mostly a human habit" was perhaps overstated, but the point remains that the elephant is clearly not culpable for the land mine.

Twif -- yes, there is the untreated injury, and perhaps one would have a similar reaction to a man or a child with such a wound. I'm just sceptical because there are so many child soldiers, and so many manipulative photographs of children. Fewer, perhaps, of elephants?

Anon -- what was suprising to me was the question of craft. Normally, specificity improves art. If you want to write a good poem, you try to make the images as concrete as possible. "That time of year thou mayst in me behold/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,/
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang" (Shakespeare) beats "Like the fall, I'm getting old" in part because it is more specific.

The Ira Glass, cartoon, and elephant examples suggest a different tendency -- one toward the vague or the general. In the Shakespeare, another reason it works is that most of us can feel ourselves aging, and thus put ourselves in the position of the narrator.

What interested me about the last photograph in the series was the way the viewer's identification worked. Instead of trying to put myself in the frame of the picture -- to identify with the experience or state of the subject of the photograph (as with the elephant), I identified with the photographer. And it occured to me that this must be true of good photography -- that it must be convincing as a view of the world, that I must feel that if I were there, I would have seen what the photographer saw.

Photography is interesting to me in part because it straddles journalism and art. Issues of craft are thus closely related to politics.

Feel free to top post about the war thing if you are interested. I could quibble (the use of tools strikes me as defining - otherwise you have a brawl).

Gregor Samsa said...

This is so disorienting. Hard to know sometimes where to place a post. Anyway, I replied on BOTF. Bottomline: even when it comes to ghastly things, I am an aesthete, baby. Give me a dead horse, but make it beautiful.

Anonymous said...

auggie: we really disagree on "specificty". Sometimes there is art in what is left unsaid.

twiffer said...

august: have to disagree. i think the elephant photo, at least, is very specific. it shows not only the damage we can inflict on other denziens of our world, but the callousness with which we treat it. what is most telling is not the injury, nor even that it is left untreated. no, it is that the beast is still being used for labor. it says that this creature is no more than a machine, and one not worth the cost to fix. one wonders if a truck or tractor would be treated with the same indifference.

for a lack of precision, think of the funeral photo you mentioned. why is it not as affecting? because it is vague. sure, we know someone is dead, and those who loved that person are mourning the loss. but we don't know why. could be anything, anywhere. grandpa dead of old age. a drowned child. suicide. heart attack. we don't know without something for context.

this brings up a question regarding capa's last photo. would it have the same effect if you weren't informed of the context? from the photo, you have no way of knowing the man is about to die. but, taken solely as the photo, without knowledge of the events following it, it's not particularly impressive. the photograph doesn't convey the horror of war. the after-knowledge that this seemingly inconsequential scene was the last thing someone saw does. but without that knowledge, it holds far less power.

Catnapping said...

You do realize that the first word in catholic is cat.

...i realize that other animals are territorial, but they seldom actually kill each other over resources. (btw...what elephant photo? when i clicked on DC's link, i didn't see an elephant.)

august said...

Gregor, I'll see what you write wherever you put it. I want beautiful pictures as well. I've just been noticing my different reactions to things, and posted a lot about them on Today's Pictures. This was one of the few times the issue seemed to be of wider interest, so I spread it around.

cat -- the elephant photo is linked in the top post.

twif -- probably we're in a semantic trap. I've hit a couple already today, so I'm sure this is my fault. Weirdly, I misremembered the elephant picture -- I only remembered the leg, not the incredible play of light on the wet pavement. And yes, all the photos require some piece of additional knowledge -- (in this case, that the elephant was injured by a land mine).

Did you ever read "Maus"? In it, German's are cats, Jews mice, Americans dogs. It's one of the most incredible depictions of the Holocaust I know -- and it's a comic book. Now, comic books have all kinds of specific details -- carefully drawn lines, dialog, structure, and so forth. But Scott McCloud's argument is that they also rely on an identification with the characters, one made easier by their very cartoonishness. In the case of the elephant, it's an animal. We can't see its face (is it working? The caption says it's waiting for an operation) -- all these things invite me to fill in details, and the photograph is indeed specific enough to guide me in my choices. But I think part of the key is the invitation -- the room it allows the viewer to fill in.

Or think of a good fray post. Plenty of posts (most of mine) are written well, but don't really shine because they don't really invite response. Part of the pleasure of the fray is the way that the readers become writers, and the shaping of the thread is a collective enterprise. There's a whole school of theater (Brecht being an important advocate) that talks about the ways audiences help create a production.

It seems to me that this is the key in Gregor's example of the Blitz (linked at his BOTF post). What you see are not bombers, but people looking at bombers, and so the work of the viewer is to imagine the bombers -- there, just out of the frame, coming this way.

Final example -- Bob Newhart. He was famous for his routines talking into the telephone. You only heard one side of the conversation. When he played a security guard at the Empire State Building: "I can't just catch the thing, sir, it's kind of big" -- the humor is that we fill in King Kong climbing up the outside, the sound of gunfire, and the sleepy and grumpy boss at the other end of the line barking at his subordinate.

What to reveal, and what not to reveal. This question strikes me as essential to photography, and this particular feature brought that question to light for me in a way that I had not previously considered.

Catnapping said...

oy. somehow i thought dawn's comment was the top post. doy. sorry.

having read your post, finally...i'm kinda thinking that it's the photograph and not the subjects that failed to make your chest hurt just to look at it.

I'm kinda do these photos hit you?

child grieving
troop grieving
another troop grieving
women grieving to visual cues, I remember reading a while back that men have greater difficulty reading facial expressions than do women...

august said...

The second one ("troop grieving") was the one that registered. A friend once told me that photography is all about backgrounds. In that picture, it's the soldier reading that sets the pain next to him into relief.

I feel like I've mentioned this poem a dozen times in various places, but Rilke's "Requiem for a Friend" talks about how many people close to him die, and he feels nothing, but then one of his friends dies and he's shattered. A portion of the poem is devoted to trying to figure out what it is about this particular death that is so devastating. Point being -- reactions are idiosyncratic. But I do think there's enough shared visual cues that we can mostly agree on what makes one picture better than another.

twiffer said...

cat: we'd like to think that, because we tend to idolize nature. lions will kill hyenas if they get the chance. chimps sometimes form war bands, patrol their borders (or skirmish across them) and beat members of other troops to death. wolves will kill coyotes, if given a chance. nature is not idylic, nor are we seperate from it. human behavior is natural behavior, enhanced by our penchant for complicating matters.

august: didn't read the caption. just noted the chain about its neck and assumed it was still being used as a beast of burden. which gets back to my point. how does the picture affect one without the caption?

Catnapping said...

twif: wow. i had no idea chimpanzees killed their own. i thought humans were the only species to kill their own kind. and knowing how much dna we share with chimps, it's enough to make me wonder if murder is genetic. ... and yet....wouldn't it be something if chimps learned to murder...from watching us do it? killing them, killing each other?

(i'd be thinking wolves don't look on coyotes as self.)

we humans war over the stupidest shit. i could understand fighting over resources...but killing to control how another culture thinks? wtf is that?

august: i picked those 4 cuz they all got me...body language...facial expressions. in the last one though, it's the woman on the left who gets me...not the one on the right.

i think you're so right about what a photograph includes/excludes.

...I've just come back from reading Requiem. His grief got to me. He was in love in with her. I'm going to read that one over and over. Thank you. There are parts in it that speak to me. I've lost family members, and been content. I missed them, but felt certain that this was the way of things, cycle of life, etc...

But when Tom died...even though a major part of me was happy for him...I just couldn't imagine the planet without him. And today, I'm still not sure who haunts whom.

Anonymous said...

August - you are now making my point - what is left unsaid - that is what makes for great art.

Catperson - come on now really. Surely you've seen an animal show or two - lions killing other lions; elephants killing other elephants; dogs killing other dogs; cats killing other cats; bears killing other bears (even babies!); fish killing other fish (including their own children!); pigs killing their own runts; spiders killing other spiders; etc. etc. Whether it is fighting over food or fighting over who rules, your claim that you thought only humans killed each other is amazing.

It's revealing of you that you think so poorly of humans (in such an obviously false way).

TenaciousK said...

Catnapping - you know what destroyed the idea of animals as "noble beasts" for me?

Groups of unattached male ducks sometimes gang-rape females.

So much for humans having the corner on gender-specific victimization...

august said...

Anon -- I was recently at an exhibition of an empty room (in MOMA). By your definition -- great art!

No, there's some combination of detail and invitation. If I really got it, I'd be off doing it.

Anonymous said...

auggie - do you know the difference between a necessary condition and a sufficient condition?

Better yet, I wasn't even claiming it was a necessary condition either.

I was and continue to dispute your original claim that the lack of detail necessarily makes art duller. I'm claiming on the contrary, great art very often leaves things "unsaid" (unpainted? unphotographed? etc..)

twiffer said...

cat: wars over belief systems are naught but complex battles for dominance within the social group. we just have a better flair for drama on the grand scale than most other creatures.

humans are neither more nor less noble than other creatures. lest we forget, we are a part of nature. our attempts to convince ourselves that we aren't don't change that. every construct we come up with to distance ourselves falls when we discover other creatures do it too.

august said...


You continue to mischaracterize my argument. Which may be my fault, but you aren't making more sense than I am.

My original post had examples of both including detail (the foot of the elephant, the soldiers on patrol ) and leaving it out (radio's lack of visual cues). I'm saying there's a tension between providing detail and also giving a reader/viewer/audience a way to engage.

Perhaps you have a more coherent argument than what you have articulated thus far. A suggestion: provide an example of a work of art that you think demonstrates or embodies your assertion that "what is left out -- that is what makes for great art."

For my part, I'm mostly inspired by Italo Calvino's chapter "Exactitude" in Six Memos for the Next Millenium.


Briefly on war - the usual social science definition is "armed conflict between political groups." I don't know if biologists use the term, or how they use it. "Political groups" is vague, but part of its use is to say that conflicts between families and lineages don't qualify as war -- you need some higher-order form of social organization. The "armed" part of the definition means that you need tools.

As I say, perhaps there is a different way of definining war that would make more sense for human/animal comparisons. But this definition suggests that you have to be willing to kill or be killed for the sake of someone who is not related to you. That doesn't really make genetic sense to me (but here again, I'm not well-versed in such matters).

twiffer said...

aug: i'd say that definition is a matter of semantics. sort of like all the hand-wringing about there being a civil war in iraq, or merely an "insurgency" because of uniforms. yet, for all that, we do need definitions to shape our world. the actuality of war, as we define and create it, makes it a peculiarly human trait. but only in the sense that we still seek to seperate ourselves from other creatures. the essence of what war is about (territorial or social control) is present throughout the animal world.

Anonymous said...

auggie - here: (sorry - I don't know how to do linkies).

almost everything is unsaid.

More? Here:

In literature the "left unsaid" move is famous - Hemmingway in For Whom The Bell Tolls, for instance - the fortune teller refuses to tell the fortune - but by her reaction the characters -and you the reader just know what it was.

In the flicks - when it dawns on you, suddenly, what's been going on the whole flick - even though nobody's spelled it out. That moment of realization can be something great.

Why so many Hollywood flicks are so bad is because they make engagement way too easy - all you have to do is sit there and veg. They spell it out to you like you are in kindergarten - the bad guy not only wants to take over the world, he wants to explain it in detail to the superhero and then find some particularly awesome risky way of killing that hero before taking over the world.

-anyway that's my spin on things.

twiffer said...

anon: html for a link is <a href="">your text here</a>

now you know. and knowing is half the battle.

twiffer said...

also, anon (again). i don't think that's what august means. you seem to be talking about the differences between implicit/explicit. whereas august is discussing specific vs. abstract. an image can be very explicit, yet still be an abstraction. likewise, something can be implicit, yet extremely specific (precise, even). the photo of the funeral is a good example. it's very specific. we know what's going on. yet (without a caption at least), it is too abstract to have much impact (for me), because there is no context, no meaning. death and mourning are omnipresent. the only way for us to tie this photo to the theme (landmines) is with the photographer telling us that it is a funeral for a landmine victim.

Anonymous said...

The world is funnnnnnny!

I link to a cubist painting, but I'm told I'm missing the "abstract" stuff. heh heh.

Specific vs. Abstract

I think you mean Concrete (or Real) vs. Abstract.

Too much art has lost it's original context (e.g. guesses about Mona Lisa).

Just because the pic doesn't bring out the same emotions in you as another, doesn't mean it isn't capturing something important relevant to the issue of land mines. Just because there is no neon light shouting "land mine funeral!" doesn't mean it isn't putting the issue into a greater context (the impact on others).

I show you a picture of a young girl. Without something contextual, you wouldn't recognize it as Anne Frank -

Look at that picture, forgetting who it is. Wait a minute.

Now think about who it is. Think about how happy she looks; how healthy she looks. Think about the promising future her parents envisage. If it impacts you like it does me, you'll realize it's up to you to add the context. It's up to you to deal with the abstractions. (point to Picasso here.)

Abstract vs. Concrete is one part of the Specific vs. Inspecific issue.

or so I'm pushing.

catnapping said...

Twiffer, August, and TK: damn, but you brought up excellent points. I need to rethink a few things. I also think I should have put more thought into my responses to you in the first place.

Anon: Take a deep breath.

august said...


As I mentioned before, twif and I are stuck in a language problem. We at least recognize the difficulty and are trying to give each other a little leeway to say what we're trying to say.

I'm not a huge fan of "The Scream," but it seems to me that it works in much the way Scott McCloud argued that cartoons work. I can put myself into its surreal landscape.

As for Who the Bell Tolls, that seems the equivalent of Gregor's example of people looking at the oncoming (off-camera) airplanes. But note all the details that allow Hemingway to create such effect -- he has to be specific enough about the reactions that the reader can fill in the words of the fortune teller. Or in my example in the top post, it's like seeing the world through the eyes of a photographer, and thus filling in something about the photographer's experience.

I think photography is a tricky medium because it is part art and part journalism. One normally has some context for a picture. Its thus a little different from, say, a poem.

Finally, I didn't mean to be saying that stirring up emotions was the only worthwhile persuit of art or journalism. I was noticing what moved me, thinking about why I felt moved, and inviting others to reflect on "What kind of an image moves you?"

I'm sorry that I couldn't get your Braque link to work. If it's the painting I'm thinking of, we're probably talking past each other. In the orginal post, I tried to distinguish between the "abstract" and the "vague." I can see why it didn't make sense. What I had in mind was that "abstract" meant something like Braque or Picasso or Abstract Expressionism or Walker Evan's photographs of rooftops. The representation is not meant to be an exact replication of what you see. Instead, it is meant to communicate something else, something not wholly pictoral, about the subject. I'd say that you are pointing to a different between realism and abstraction rather than a difference between the vague and the specific.

Twiffer is using different words to communicate a similar idea, but the use of words might be confusing. I think we've agreed all along that leaving stuff out can have important effects, it's just that you have to put stuff in as well. It's a tension, different artists will resolve the tension in different ways, and our responses to such art will be idiosyncratic.

twiffer said...

anon: i was not using the term in the formal artistic sense. you'll note the second definition of the word: expressing a quality or characteristic apart from any specific object or instance. am i going to have to use proper captialization?

anyway, comparisons between photography and painting are invalid. different media. might as well compare painting and poetry.

as for your example, it is illustrative of my point. the viewer supplies emotional content with knowledge of the context the photo was taken in. it is not going to hit you the same way as it does when you possess the knowledge of who this person is. isolated, it could just as easily be a girl who had a blissful childhood and grew up to be a successful doctor. instead of sorrow at loss and the horror of war, it could just as easily inspire joy at the beauty of life. or both, frankly.

i'm not arguing that any work of art will affect everyone equally. that would be foolish. but photography allows the artist less opportunity (less, not none) to manipulate a scene than painting. a photograph lets us look through another pair of eyes; a painting lets us look though another mind.

back to the funeral. the point i was trying to make is not that it needs a neon, blaring sign. the photo has emotional impact. however, it is being used as a part of a photo essay on a very specific theme. because of the nature of that photo, one could reasonably use it in any spread that deals with death. could be the horrors of lead paint, suicide, too much fried food, etc.. to me, that lessens the impact within the essay, because it is too general.

Anonymous said...

ah jeez,

one step forward one step back -

auggie - "I think photography is a tricky medium because it is part art and part journalism. One normally has some context for a picture. Its thus a little different from, say, a poem."

I think that's very, very wrong. All art encompasses journalism. Further - there is no journalism that isn't art (yes - in some sense).

(bottom line: I think you've got a false distinction there.)

(the other bottom line is that you always have to put something in to a photo, painting, poem, book, sculpture - its all in the interpretation, baby, there aint any raw data!)

(the last bottom line - this distinction you/twif keep making between specific/vague and abstract/real, aren't as distinct notions as you'd like them to be!)

twiffle: "anyway, comparisons between photography and painting are invalid. different media. might as well compare painting and poetry."

Baaah - loney. You think you can't compare painting and poetry? Stink about that for a bit.....

On the funeral photograph - if I could convince you of just one thing this is what I'd want it to be:

Every photo - from the heffalump to the funeral could be used in a variety of different ways with a variety of different themes. And those ways and themes would impact how you react to that (those) photo(s).

You point out the viewer supplies the emotional content for the Anne Frank and funeral pics (from the context given), but you think that the elephant pic has emotional content of its own.

That's exactly what I disagree with. In other contexts, that elephant pic wouldn't have that impact - say - in a series of pictures on "realistic looking fake injuries" (being silly yeah); or in a series of real injuries of which this was the least worst; or.... you get the idea.

Being "too general" is always a relative term - always.

twiffer said...

anon: whatever. i'm apparently either unclear, or you're just not reading me well. likely both. sure you can compare a painting to a poem. you can also compare an apple to an orange. doesn't really get you much of anything though.

i never said, nor implied that a photo had no emotional impact outside of caption directed context. what i did say is that some photographs are far more specific than others. for what it's worth, the one most affecting to me was that of the guy caning a chair, with one leg missing. his, not the chairs.

ah, forget it. i'm tired.