Picture Suffering

Ernst Friedrich, from "War Against War!" date

These images from WWI were meant to shock the viewer into opposition; to inflame anger and intolerance against violent conflict. Here we have a war veteran whose face has been profoundly mutilated and his eyes destroyed. I chose this photo from among many because of the man's expression. His casualness contrasts with his state and informs me that he must live with the war's aftermath like we live with college debt. War is not an event that passes and this man in particular has to find normalcy with it. And so his dead pan attitude very much asserts Sontag's notion of acceptance, that we should remember "what human beings are capable of doing." War is a part of daily life.

Sontag brings this work up to illustrate the ineffectiveness of this shock treatment against war. But war can not be ended, not by pictures or policy or anything short of miracles. What we can ask for is mitigation. I got this picture from a anti-Iraq War site, that featured this quote above Friedrich's text:

"And because cruelty has always been man’s most awesome weapon— capable of shocking entire nations, entire peoples, into submission—the spoils of victory went to those who showed mercy the least, who knew cruelty the best."

— TRIAGE, novel by Scott Anderson

If war photography is a "war" against war, then cruelty is also it's weapon, which well situates Friedrich's work.

Jeff Wall, "Dead Troops Talk," 1986

This image never took place. Sontag explains that it is a fabrication depicting the fictional aftermath of an ambush during the Russian-Afgahn War. She interprets the soldier's refusal to acknowledge the living as suggesting that war is an experience beyond the comprehension of the living. But the fiction gives it's subjects an opportunity to act human in a way usually unattainable in photojournalism. The way these subjects interact with one another, their informality and playfulness, humanizes them and somehow makes their experience relatable, as if dealing with such a circumstance is a kin to our experiences. In reality our similarities are few, but that relatability is still precious, even if built on such fictitious grounds. War could happen to anybody.

Nhem Ein, taken in Tuol Sleng, 1975 - 79

The only thing I can infer from this woman's expression is anger. She is about to be executed and her last human communication is not of pleading fear but one of frustration and rage. There were so many photos from this prison, taken just before the subject is killed, and they each have an incredibly personal quality, but I could not find another representing this much bravado. Once again, my connection with the subject is much imagined but nonetheless precious. In this way I see that massive suffering is real, approachable, perhaps even mitigable. Sontag describes these subjects as "anonymous victims" to whom we will never truly relate, unlike with an American soldier whose closeness makes his death face taboo. This is certainly true of dead Americans, that we unfairly detest their suffering more, but our human ability to empathize can connect us with the face of a foreigner, if we can be provoked to imagine the mind behind their eyes.

Walker Evans, "The Fields Family," 1936

Margaret Bourke-White, "Russian Women's Brigade," 1941

Walker Evans is brought up in one of Sontag's footnotes as a historic example of disdain for beautification in photojournalism. Apparently Evans hated Bourke-White's work, whose images have become icons. Comparing these two images shows what Evans point might be. His take on impoverished farmers does not hold any punches, revealing much destitution, but he does not sacrifice the individuality of his subjects. I can tell myself a story about each family member by their expressions, postures, and most especially their feet.

Bourke-White's image depicts farming life as something communal and joyous, even if laborious. With each of their tools held in the air they become uniform through aestheticization, their personalities suppressed under a visual gimmick. One wouldn't exclaim "What a spectacle!" but one might at least chuckle. I don't think it's wrong to laugh at people, but this image would benefit from a contrasting darkness, as Evans tragic depiction relies on the naked child's laughter. It is through that complexity that we can imagine a personality.

Sebasiao Salgado, "Serra Pelada Gold Mine," 1986

In contrast to my other selections, this photo depicts a gold mine full of laborious suffering as if it were an epic film. As artwork it is truly incredible, but I find it impossible to place myself in it's setting. Perhaps this feeling of distance is more true, that the situation of these workers are beyond my experience and I should believe that what they deal with on a daily basis is simply incredible. But I do not think this distance serves the subject. By staging the scene so beyond the viewer we can not imagine a way to involve ourselves in it's mitigation. It is happening in a world beyond our experience; "too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local political intervention." I do not think Salgado is exploiting his subjects by making them religious-esque, but great art is not always great activism. An epic character is nothing like a real person, and so the viewer can not as well empathize.


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