The Cruel Radiance, 2012, Susie Linfield, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 978-0-226-48251-4.
This is a very interesting book and I found it to be a good read. Linfield writes in defence of photography against what she describes as a popular and institutional attack on the medium by critics and even other photographers. She argues that since photographies invention the photograph has been treated with suspicion and prejudice, this attitude has become a popular attitude to take by intellectuals such as Baudelaire, Benjamin, Barthes, Berger, Sontage, Sekula, etc. who all have had profound influence on intellectual thought regarding photography.
I have read essays by the above mentioned intellectuals and I have to admit, I have not given their writing much thought; but Linfield does appear to have a point. I also fully agree with her concerns as to the attacks on photographs of human conflict and misery. In my my own opinion, who or why the photograph was taken is not important, it is simply important enough that it was and exists for us to see. I have never heard of these types of images referred to as pornographic and I find this both shocking and repulsive that anyone should categories them as such. This type of critic is in my opinion, members of the current trendy intellectual pop-culture of the apologists. Without the freedom and encouragement to gaze upon these images we play into the villains hands by helping to hide their crimes and forgetting them. The argument that by looking at these pictures is to take part in the cruelty to humiliate the victims for a second time around is rubbish. I am sure these victims would have wanted their experiences shouted out to the world, “Look!, see!, This was me! This is what happened to me! Don’t forget me! Don’t let them hide their crimes!” A photograph is a visual document and it is true that as a photograph it holds very little information. but what it does hold is still powerful and important. What people choose to do with a picture, or how they consume its information, is less important than making the image available along with any additional information known about its original source and context. To censor these images as a form of pornography makes no sense, we may as well censor portraits of the Queen of England, because it was suggested that mental health patients can use it for masturbating in public. On one last point, it has been suggested that photos taken by the villains themselves should not be used or seen, despite that these are often the most important and damning. I wonder how far these critics would take their misguided sense of morality? If for example these critics had a daughter that fell through the ice whilst iceskating on a frozen lake, would they refuse to allow the paramedics to use methods of recovery from hyperthermia because such methods were developed by Nazis using Jews as human guinea pigs? We have choices with what we do with the end product of evil actions. We can not change the past, but if we put that product to the use for good, then the victims of those products have at least a living and lasting memorial to their illegal sacrifices. They are beyond caring, what we do or don’t do with these photographs, really only matters to the living. This book finishes with there very interesting biographies on three world class photographers who have built their reputations covering human conflict and suffering: Robert Capa, James Nachtwey and Gilles Peress.
Notes & Quotes.
Photographs excel, more than any other form of either art or journalism, in offering an immediate, viscerally emotional connection to the world. People don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of global capitalism, or the reasons for the genocide in Rwanda, or the solution to the conflicts in the Middle East. They-we-turn to photographs for other things: for a glimpse of what cruelty, or strangeness, or beauty, or agony, or love, or disease, or natural wonder, or artistic creation, or depraved violence, looks like. And we turn to photographs to discover what our intuitive reactions to such otherness – and to such others -might be. There is no doubt that we approach photographs, first and foremost, through emotions. (p.22).
Errol Morris “Zoom” (New York Times blog) The issue of the truth or falsity of a photograph is only meaningful with respect to statements about the photograph. Truth or falsity “adheres” not to the photograph itself but to the statements we make about a photograph…All alone – shorn of context, without captions – a photograph is neither true nor false…For truth, properly considered, is about the relationship between language and the world, not about photographs and the world. (p.160).
Photographs are in a sense, a fantasy: though they record time, they also stop it. This is a fantasy that we need – in order to contemplate, to think, to engage; this is especially true of photographs of violence. Photographs can, undeniably, draw us into their worlds, but their stillness creates a space between image and viewer. And this is a space that the viewer can use: to separate herself from, and if necessary resist, the image and its maker. Photographs offer us the possibility of alienation in the best sense of the word. (p.164).
What photographs offer us – and this is true of no other form of either art or journalism – is a unique, and uniquely powerful, dialectic between immediate appearances and the longer-standing, sometimes unconscious associations, subtexts, and bodies of knowledge that we bring to them. It’s not what’s in the frame or what’s outside the frame that matters most: it’s in the relation between the two that the meaning and strength of documentary photographs can be found. (p.201).
The viewer must work to complete the photography by digging into what it suggests and endowing it with deeper insights: the photograph is the “moment where my language finishes and yours starts.” Every image, Peress has said, has four authors: the photographer, the camera, the viewer, and reality. But it is reality, he insists that “has a way of speaking the loudest’: that speaks, in fact, “with a vengeance.” (P.238).
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