Regarding the Pain of Others (3 page)

BOOK: Regarding the Pain of Others
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The era of shock—for Europe—began three decades earlier, in 1914. Within a year of the start of the Great War, as it was known for a while, much that had been taken for granted came to seem fragile, even undefendable. The nightmare of suicidally lethal military engagement from which the warring countries were unable to extricate themselves—above all, the daily slaughter in the trenches on the Western Front—seemed to many to have exceeded the capacity of words to describe.
1
In 1915, none other than the august master of the intricate cocooning of reality in words, the magician of the verbose, Henry James, declared to
The New York Times:
“One finds it in the midst of all this as hard to apply one’s words as to endure one’s thoughts. The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated…” And Walter Lippmann wrote in 1922: “Photographs have the kind of authority over imagination today, which the printed word had yesterday, and the spoken word before that. They seem utterly real.”

Photographs had the advantage of uniting two contradictory features. Their credentials of objectivity were inbuilt. Yet they always had, necessarily, a point of view. They were a record of the real—incontrovertible, as no verbal account, however impartial, could be—since a machine was doing the recording. And they bore witness to the real—since a person had been there to take them.

Photographs, Woolf claims, “are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye.” The truth is they are not “simply” anything, and certainly not regarded just as facts, by Woolf or anyone else. For, as she immediately adds, “the eye is connected with the brain; the brain with the nervous system. That system sends its messages in a flash through every past memory and present feeling.” This sleight of hand allows photographs to be both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality—a feat literature has long aspired to, but could never attain in this literal sense.

Those who stress the evidentiary punch of image-making by cameras have to finesse the question of the subjectivity of the image-maker. For the photography of atrocity, people want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance. Pictures of hellish events seem more authentic when they don’t have the look that comes from being “properly” lighted and composed, because the photographer either is an amateur or—just as serviceable—has adopted one of several familiar anti-art styles. By flying low, artistically speaking, such pictures are thought to be less manipulative—all widely distributed images of suffering now stand under that suspicion—and less likely to arouse facile compassion or identification.

The less polished pictures are not only welcomed as possessing a special kind of authenticity. Some may compete with the best, so permissive are the standards for a memorable, eloquent picture. This was illustrated by an exemplary show of photographs documenting the destruction of the World Trade Center that opened in storefront space in Manhattan’s SoHo in late September 2001. The organizers of
Here Is New York,
as the show was resonantly titled, had sent out a call inviting everyone—amateur and professional—who had images of the attack and its aftermath to bring them in. There were more than a thousand responses in the first weeks, and from everyone who submitted photographs, at least one picture was accepted for exhibit. Unattributed and uncaptioned, they were all on display, hanging in two narrow rooms or included in a slide show on one of the computer monitors (and on the exhibit’s website), and for sale, in the form of a high-quality ink-jet print, for the same small sum, twenty-five dollars (proceeds to a fund benefiting the children of those killed on September 11). After the purchase was completed, the buyer could learn whether she had perhaps bought a Gilles Peress (who was one of the organizers of the show) or a James Nachtwey or a picture by a retired schoolteacher who, leaning out the bedroom window of her rent-controlled Village apartment with her point-and-shoot, had caught the north tower as it fell. “A Democracy of Photographs,” the subtitle of the exhibit, suggested that there was work by amateurs as good as the work of the seasoned professionals who participated. And indeed there was—which proves something about photography, if not necessarily something about cultural democracy. Photography is the only major art in which professional training and years of experience do not confer an insuperable advantage over the untrained and inexperienced—this for many reasons, among them the large role that chance (or luck) plays in the taking of pictures, and the bias toward the spontaneous, the rough, the imperfect. (There is no comparable level playing field in literature, where virtually nothing owes to chance or luck and where refinement of language usually incurs no penalty; or in the performing arts, where genuine achievement is unattainable without exhaustive training and daily practice; or in film-making, which is not guided to any significant degree by the anti-art prejudices of much of contemporary art photography.)

Whether the photograph is understood as a naïve object or the work of an experienced artificer, its meaning—and the viewer’s response—depends on how the picture is identified or misidentified; that is, on words. The organizing idea, the moment, the place, and the devoted public made this exhibit something of an exception. The crowds of solemn New Yorkers who stood in line for hours on Prince Street every day throughout the fall of 2001 to see
Here Is New York
had no need of captions. They had, if anything, a surfeit of understanding of what they were looking at, building by building, street by street—the fires, the detritus, the fear, the exhaustion, the grief. But one day captions will be needed, of course. And the misreadings and the misrememberings, and new ideological uses for the pictures, will make their difference.

Normally, if there is any distance from the subject, what a photograph “says” can be read in several ways. Eventually, one reads into the photograph what it
should
be saying. Splice into a long take of a perfectly deadpan face the shots of such disparate material as a bowl of steaming soup, a woman in a coffin, a child playing with a toy bear, and the viewers—as the first theorist of film, Lev Kuleshov, famously demonstrated in his workshop in Moscow in the 1920s—will marvel at the subtlety and range of the actor’s expressions. In the case of still photographs, we use what we know of the drama of which the picture’s subject is a part. “Land Distribution Meeting, Extremadura, Spain, 1936,” the much-reproduced photograph by David Seymour (“Chim”) of a gaunt woman standing with a baby at her breast looking upward (intently? apprehensively?), is often recalled as showing someone fearfully scanning the sky for attacking planes. The expressions on her face and the faces around her seem charged with apprehensiveness. Memory has altered the image, according to memory’s needs, conferring emblematic status on Chim’s picture not for what it is described as showing (an outdoor political meeting, which took place four months before the war started) but for what was soon to happen in Spain that would have such enormous resonance: air attacks on cities and villages, for the sole purpose of destroying them completely, being used as a weapon of war for the first time in Europe.
2
Before long the sky did harbor planes that were dropping bombs on landless peasants like those in the photograph. (Look again at the nursing mother, at her furrowed brow, her squint, her half-open mouth. Does she still seem as apprehensive? Doesn’t it now seem as if she is squinting because the sun is in her eyes?)

The photographs Woolf received are treated as a window on the war: transparent views of their subject. It was of no interest to her that each had an “author”—that photographs represent the view of
someone
—although it was precisely in the late 1930s that the profession of bearing individual witness to war and war’s atrocities with a camera was forged. Once, war photography mostly appeared in daily and weekly newspapers. (Newspapers had been printing photographs since 1880.) Then, in addition to the older popular magazines from the late nineteenth century such as
National Geographic
and
Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung
that used photographs as illustrations, large-circulation weekly magazines arrived, notably the French
Vu
(in 1929), the American
Life
(in 1936), and the British
Picture Post
(in 1938), that were entirely devoted to pictures (accompanied by brief texts keyed to the photos) and “picture stories”—at least four or five pictures by the same photographer trailed by a story that further dramatized the images. In a newspaper, it was the picture—and there was only one—that accompanied the story.

Further, when published in a newspaper, the war photograph was surrounded by words (the article it illustrated and other articles), while in a magazine, it was more likely to be adjacent to a competing image that was peddling something. When Capa’s at-the-moment-of-death picture of the Republican soldier appeared in
Life
on July 12, 1937, it occupied the whole of the right page; facing it on the left was a full-page advertisement for Vitalis, a men’s hair cream, with a small picture of someone exerting himself at tennis and a large portrait of the same man in a white dinner jacket sporting a head of neatly parted, slicked-down, lustrous hair.
3
The double spread—with each use of the camera implying the invisibility of the other—seems not just bizarre but curiously dated now.

In a system based on the maximal reproduction and diffusion of images, witnessing requires the creation of star witnesses, renowned for their bravery and zeal in procuring important, disturbing photographs. One of the first issues of
Picture Post
(December 3, 1938), which ran a portfolio of Capa’s Spanish Civil War pictures, used as its cover a head shot of the handsome photographer in profile holding a camera to his face: “The Greatest War Photographer in the World: Robert Capa.” War photographers inherited what glamour going to war still had among the anti-bellicose, especially when the war was felt to be one of those rare conflicts in which someone of conscience would be impelled to take sides. (The war in Bosnia, nearly sixty years later, inspired similar partisan feelings among the journalists who lived for a time in besieged Sarajevo.) And, in contrast to the 1914–18 war, which, it was clear to many of the victors, had been a colossal mistake, the second “world war” was unanimously felt by the winning side to have been a necessary war, a war that had to be fought.

Photojournalism came into its own in the early 1940s—wartime. This least controversial of modern wars, whose justness was sealed by the full revelation of Nazi evil as the war ended in 1945, offered photojournalists a new legitimacy, one that had little place for the left-wing dissidence that had informed much of the serious use of photographs in the interwar period, including Friedrich’s
War Against War!
and the early pictures by Capa, the most celebrated figure in a generation of politically engaged photographers whose work centered on war and victimhood. In the wake of the new mainstream liberal consensus about the tractability of acute social problems, issues of the photographer’s own livelihood and independence moved to the foreground. One result was the formation by Capa with a few friends (who included Chim and Henri Cartier-Bresson) of a cooperative, the Magnum Photo Agency, in Paris in 1947. The immediate purpose of Magnum—which quickly became the most influential and prestigious consortium of photojournalists—was a practical one: to represent venturesome freelance photographers to the picture magazines sending them on assignments. At the same time, Magnum’s charter, moralistic in the way of other founding charters of the new international organizations and guilds created in the immediate postwar period, spelled out an enlarged, ethically weighted mission for photojournalists: to chronicle their own time, be it a time of war or a time of peace, as fair-minded witnesses free of chauvinistic prejudices.

In Magnum’s voice, photography declared itself a global enterprise. The photographer’s nationality and national journalistic affiliation were, in principle, irrelevant. The photographer could be from anywhere. And his or her beat was “the world.” The photographer was a rover, with wars of unusual interest (for there were many wars) a favorite destination.

The memory of war, however, like all memory, is mostly local. Armenians, the majority in diaspora, keep alive the memory of the Armenian genocide of 1915; Greeks don’t forget the sanguinary civil war in Greece that raged through the late 1940s. But for a war to break out of its immediate constituency and become a subject of international attention, it must be regarded as something of an exception, as wars go, and represent more than the clashing interests of the belligerents themselves. Most wars do not acquire the requisite fuller meaning. An example: the Chaco War (1932–35), a butchery engaged in by Bolivia (population one million) and Paraguay (three and a half million) that took the lives of one hundred thousand soldiers, and which was covered by a German photojournalist, Willi Ruge, whose superb close-up battle pictures are as forgotten as that war. But the Spanish Civil War in the second half of the 1930s, the Serb and Croat wars against Bosnia in the mid-1990s, the drastic worsening of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that began in 2000—these contests were guaranteed the attention of many cameras because they were invested with the meaning of larger struggles: the Spanish Civil War because it was a stand against the fascist menace, and (in retrospect) a dress rehearsal for the coming European, or “world,” war; the Bosnian war because it was the stand of a small, fledgling southern European country wishing to remain multicultural as well as independent against the dominant power in the region and its neo-fascist program of ethnic cleansing; and the ongoing conflict over the character and governance of territories claimed by both Israeli Jews and Palestinians because of a variety of flashpoints, starting with the inveterate fame or notoriety of the Jewish people, the unique resonance of the Nazi extermination of European Jewry, the crucial support that the United States gives to the state of Israel, and the identification of Israel as an apartheid state maintaining a brutal dominion over the lands captured in 1967. In the meantime, far crueler wars in which civilians are relentlessly slaughtered from the air and massacred on the ground (the decades-long civil war in Sudan, the Iraqi campaigns against the Kurds, the Russian invasions and occupation of Chechnya) have gone relatively underphotographed.

BOOK: Regarding the Pain of Others
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