The censure contends that photographs shouldn’t aestheticize their subjects, because this contaminates the real with visual pleasure.
Could it be that what were in the past necessary and substantive critiques of representation have become, in practical terms, hindrances to actually looking at images?
“Citizenship,” they say, “is transferable from one body to the other, not by legal entitlement or any contractual relationship, but through acts of empathy, affectional identification, and emotional expression on behalf of the other.”
Those are three, widely separated quotes (that will appear, again below, in context) taken from an essay, Nikons and Icons: Is the aestheticization-of-suffering critique still valid? by David Levi Strauss in the June/July/Aug 2007 issue of BookForum.
… In his essay, “Picturing Violence: Aesthetics and the Anxiety of Critique,” Reinhardt cites the aestheticization critiques by Rosler, Solomon-Godeau, and Sekula as definitive but registers doubt about the sufficiency of these critiques. He calls aestheticization “an overly blunt tool for getting at what is most troubling about certain photographs of suffering people” and recognizes the anxiety about such images as “an anxiety . . . of the formal choices and rhetorical conventions, and the resulting transformative work, of representation itself.”
… In a footnote, Reinhardt notes that historian Susan Buck-Morss pressed him on the real sources of anxiety about images of suffering, asking, “Is there not something in images that resists or eludes every effort to fix meaning through language? Might that be the underlying source of anxiety?”
In her essay, “Photography After the Fact,” Duganne addresses the always-contested line between art and documentary by looking at the work of Luc Delahaye, Sally Mann, and Alfredo Jaar and cites Rosler’s brilliant critique of the tradition of “concerned photography” in the 1981 essay “in, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography),” in which Rosler accuses concerned photography of embracing “the weakest possible idea of social engagement, namely compassion.” This theme is taken up by Bal in her contribution as “the problem of sentimentality.” Bal’s “The Pain of Images” makes the strongest case for the enduring value of the aestheticization critique but falls back on reductive views of the aesthetic (and of photography), attacking “the indifference of aesthetics” and calling photography “the medium so troublesomely bound up with reality.” Referring to James Nachtwey’s 1993 image of a starving man in Sudan, she writes, “The photograph is less obviously ‘art,’ although also well made to an almost troubling degree,” concluding that “beauty distracts, and worse, it gives pleasure — a pleasure that is parasitical on the pain of others.”
This censure of beauty in the depiction of suffering is never applied to music, and seldom to literature or painting, but often to photography. The censure contends that photographs shouldn’t aestheticize their subjects, because this contaminates the real with visual pleasure. It is the performance of this contamination, the making of the image, that troublesomely implicates us in its foul mixture, where, as Bal writes, “the questions of empathy, sympathy, or identification — of bottomless but directionless emotion as well as the seemingly opposite question of aesthetics and its required disinterestedness — are bound up with the most obvious problem of what the exhibition’s subtitle pointedly calls ‘the traffic in pain.’” Why is the emotion elicited by such images “bottomless” or (necessarily) “directionless”? Is there a political efficacy to empathy? To say that compassion is only the first step toward social justice is one thing; to say that it is destructive to social engagement is quite another. One needs first to feel the pain of others before one can begin to act to alleviate it. And one of the ways humans recognize the pain of others is by seeing it, in images. This emotional attachment to images is unstable and can be manipulated, certainly, but that doesn’t mean it should be disproportionately censured.
That is, roughly, the current moral dilemma for documentar photographers. The following shifts to a different view of the problem:
… No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy approaches the question of the social effects of public images very differently. The authors, Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, who come from the field of rhetoric (which they call “both a practical art and a theory of public address”), are remarkably free of the basic assumptions of the aestheticization-of-suffering discourse. They announce early on that they “take aesthetics seriously,” that they consider photojournalism to be “a patently artistic form of public address,” and that “the zenith of photojournalistic achievement is the iconic photograph.” Challenging “the presumption that visual media categorically degrade public rationality,” they approach photojournalism as “an important technology of liberal-democratic citizenship.”
Taking iconic press images seriously in aesthetic and political terms, they proceed to examine a number of examples, including Migrant Mother, 1936, by Dorothea Lange; Times Square Kiss, 1945, by Alfred Eisenstaedt; Raising the Flag on Mount Suribachi, 1945, by Joe Rosenthal, with Three Firefighters Raising the American Flag at Ground Zero, 2001, by Thomas Franklin; Kent State University Massacre, 1970, by John Filo; Accidental Napalm, 1972, by Nick Ut; Tiananmen Square, 1989, by Stuart Franklin; and Explosion of the Hindenburg, 1937, by Sam Shere, with Explosion of the Challenger, 1986, by NASA. Their close readings of these iconic images employ multiple strategies and tools to investigate how they create “a public culture that lies somewhere between hegemony and resistance.” Avoiding previous approaches that “produce social theory at the expense of what the images are actually doing,” they look hard at the images themselves and at the way they are used, appropriated, parodied, and celebrated.
… Could it be that what were in the past necessary and substantive critiques of representation have become, in practical terms, hindrances to actually looking at images? And that this has contributed to an effective political passivity in the face of a rapidly changing communications environment? Hariman and Lucaites rightly point to “the larger problem identified by Peter Sloterdijk that modernity has entered into a terminal phase of ‘enlightened selfconsciousness’ whereby all forms of power have been unmasked with no change in behavior [my emphasis]. Irony is too widely dispersed throughout modern consciousness, subjectivity too fragmented, the administration of power too cynical, and critique too disposed to reification for unmasking to be other than a reproduction of the world it would change.” [the ‘my emphasis’ is Levi Strauss’s – J.H.]
Rather than seek to unmask “the traffic in pain,” Hariman and Lucaites address public life as “a trafficking in attitudes,” and they follow Kenneth Burke in defining attitudes as incipient actions. “Decisive action,” they write, “actually is rather rare in stable societies and everyday life, but all of life is in fact defined by one’s potential for action.” The formation of attitudes through the propagation of words and images is a large part of life in a functioning democracy, and we devalue it at our peril. To Hariman and Lucaites, the stakes in this struggle involve the shift “from democratic to liberal norms of representation,” that is, “from democracy and the public demands of collectivity to liberalism and the private needs of the individual.” Iconic public images provide a way for us to negotiate collective needs and desires.
… Hariman and Lucaites go a long way toward explicating a defense of empathy as necessary for collective action. “Citizenship,” they say, “is transferable from one body to the other, not by legal entitlement or any contractual relationship, but through acts of empathy, affectional identification, and emotional expression on behalf of the other.”
I have quoted this essay at such length because I think there is a very interesting point made by Hariman and Lucaites. The full piece is good, though a bit scattered. [ link ]