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.
Sunday, April 08, 2007
What kind of an image moves you?