Recently I experienced three episodes in seeing that have had a long lasting negative impact on my psyche. Of these events, two were depicted in photography and one in film.
While watching William Klein’s wonderful film Messiah, which is Handel’s opera put to images and sung by professionals and non-professionals alike, I was struck viscerally by one scene that was to serve metaphorically for the torture and suffering of Christ. The film source was reportage footage from what looked like the war in
The second experience I will mention is from almost a year ago when I photographed a man living in Staten Island who had done two tours of duty in
What had disturbed me was that while I spent a few hours with him, he showed me some photographs on his laptop from his tours of duty. Although it is against the policy of the military to take such digital images, he showed me several that were of dead people. Although I have seen much gruesome stuff in my life, these were of people who looked as if their bodies had been deflated. I do not know how else to describe it, they were not so much turned inside out, as, simply deflated. After three or four pictures, I told him that I wasn’t strong enough to look any longer. He told me he frequently looked at these photos and missed being in combat. When I described to my wife what I had seen, I found myself uncontrollably shaking and getting extremely upset. These photos have been seared into my memory even though I only glimpsed at them briefly on that laptop screen.
The last incident that has deeply disturbed me happened while browsing the ICP bookshop and picking up Christoph Bangert’s new book on
What disturbs beyond the loss of life is the violence upon which he was subjected. Furthermore, it is the thought that human beings are capable of inflicting, willingly, that kind of violence. Surely there is a long line of precedent of carnage that would render this one act as relatively insignificant but what makes this a particularly disturbing example for me is the avoidance of the ‘exoticization’ of the death. As Susan Sontag has written and with which I agree to some degree, the more ‘exotic’ the person depicted in death, the more ‘acceptable’ it is to see. In Bangert’s photo, this man looked like any other person with which I might share a ride on the F-train.
I think this is an important point that fuels our perceptions when looking at images of war and carnage. As Americans we may be shocked by the dead from
The examples from Klein and Bangert are linked but are ultimately different due to the nature of the ‘capture.’ In the first, it was the camera’s presence that may have exacerbated the situation for the victim. In the second, Bangert had come upon the scene after the fact and recorded what he saw.
Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain published by the
For anyone interested in reading essays that parse the subject of violence and suffering in images, this is for you. The essays unlock many facets of the subject and do so through very clear-headed and intelligent texts. The photographic illustrations range from the obvious to the intriguing and more thoughtful.
This is book should be required reading for any photojournalism student. One must first learn what photography does before one lends their talents towards this very misunderstood and complicated area of the medium.Book Available Here (Beautiful Suffering)