Thursday, October 25, 2007

Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain

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 Sierra Leone. In the footage, a man appears laying mortally wounded in the street while other combatants abuse his body with kicks to the head and displays of celebratory posturing over his fallen body. One man moves in to repeatedly stab the man with a knife and another, like in imagery from the crucifixion, drives a metal spear deep into the dying man’s side. All of this played out in front of and ultimately for, the camera. Had the camera not been present and trained on the victim, the result of death would probably have been the same, but the offenses directed towards his body in his last moments may not have transpired as gruesomely and as horrifically as they had if the cameraman had dropped the lens towards the ground and simply walked away. The presence of the camera effected and in essence, silently condoned the violence that was transpiring.

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 Iraq. I was photographing him because the government, due to an ‘accounting error,’ had revoked his severance pay. The severance pay is what most returning vets depend to pay the bills while re-establishing their lives back home. This particular man had a family that had almost been rendered homeless if it weren’t for a NGO that helped find him an apartment and subsidize his rent and living expenses while he sought employment in law enforcement.

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 Iraq called The Space Between. Now I do not own the book or have spent much time with it but from my immediate impressions, Bangert seems to be a competent photographer (and former ICP student) who has risked his life to witness the events within a landscape and war that has become fatally violent towards western journalists. One image within his book dealt such a blow to my sensibilities that I literally became light-headed from his description of the violence. The image is of a body that was disposed into a local garbage dump. The man, whose eyes are open, has a wound that has almost decapitated him. It does not appear to be a wound from a knife although that is probably the cause; it looks as if an attempt was made to literally rip his head from his shoulders.

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 Bohpal, India or the masses of Kurds that were gassed by Saddam Hussein but we are removed by culture and the vastness of the earth to feel the full brunt of what happened to these ‘other’ people. Large numbers of dead also become too abstract to fully consider. Take for instance the events of 9/11. The entire world held still for a moment of silence for our three thousand dead. If that same moment of silence was applied to the dead of Rwanda, in proportion, the world would have held still for over four hours. Without meaning any disrespect for the victims, how is our dead more ‘meaningful’ as to merit such a world-wide observation when the deaths ¾ of a million Rwandans took place without the entire world making any event for that tragedy? (Former President Clinton finally acknowledged and memorialized the genocide in Rwanda but did so without stepping foot outside of the Rwandan airport) Again I use this example to stand by Sontag’s thesis of ‘exoticization.’

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 University of Chicago Press and the Williams College of Art addresses the nature and ethics of such photographs that depict violence or suffering. The book is a catalog with additional essays that stemmed from an exhibition that was on view at the Williams College of Art from January 28th to April 30th of 2006.

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)