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On Witnessing Atrocity: Prof. Susie Linfield on Photography and Political Violence

What inspired your book on photography and political violence, The Cruel Radiance?

It grew out of a couple of different trajectories of my work.  First, I teach criticism, and one thing that became increasingly apparent to me was how the tone and approach of photography criticism tends to be so different from that of other forms of criticism, especially with [Susan] Sontag.  She approaches photographs, as many photography critics do, with a tremendous amount of suspicion—not just skepticism, but even dislike.  Whereas if you read the film criticism of someone like Pauline Kael or James Agee, they loved movies. 

I became interested in this tone of hostility toward photography.  As I researched it, I went back to some of the Frankfurt School critics [from the 1920s and ‘30s], and to their antipathy to popular culture and the new forms of mass culture, including photography.  So one trajectory of my thought was trying to figure out what is so peculiar about photography criticism, and to locating it historically.

The other trajectory was the horrifying rise in a new kind of violence in the post–Cold War era:  the genocide in Rwanda, the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, the mass rapes in the Congo.  As I began to try to understand this upsurge in violence, I often found myself looking at photographs in newspapers and magazines, and sometimes in galleries, by various photographers who were documenting this violence.  I began thinking about what those photographs could tell me or conjure in me, and all the things they couldn’t tell me.  And I became increasingly intrigued—and bewildered—by the ways that this violence could be depicted but not explained through photography.

The book is about both of those things, and about their connection to each other.  It attempts to analyze the peculiarities of photography criticism and to look at photographs that document violence and atrocity.

Can you talk about the title The Cruel Radiance that you took from a James Agee quote?

“Cruel radiance” is somewhat of an oxymoron.  It’s startling to see those two words together.  Agee was writing at a time when he, and many other people, had tremendous hopes for photography—hopes that have now been tempered a lot.  But he believed that photography could document the world with a kind of factuality and irrefutability and clarity that nothing else could match.

In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he writes about the camera as the instrument of the twentieth century; he’s almost envious that Walker Evans’s camera can show all sorts of things that his words are incapable of depicting.  He’s writing at a time of great optimism about photography—a belief that if unjust things were documented, the world would awaken and react in certain ways.

“Radiance” is a word that is often misunderstood.  It has a positive connotation, but its literal meaning is a kind of illumination.  But illumination is not necessarily a happy thing.  That’s what I was trying to get at—an illumination of the cruelties of the world.  But of course now there is less faith in the objectivity and irrefutability of the camera.  I wanted to revive a lost belief in the photograph, even if now that belief is much more complicated than it was for Agee.

You posit that there’s much to learn from photographs, while Sontag is dismissive and also voiced a concern that viewers would become desensitized.  Can you talk about instances in history where photographs have prompted social change or affected opinion?

Photographs can convey an emotional truth about suffering.  Emotional truth is not the be all and end all of politics.  You also need history and analytic thinking:  on this, I am in agreement with Sontag.  Nonetheless, there is an important role for that emotional connection.  Without that, any politics of human rights becomes very abstract.

One of the earliest uses of photographs to promote human rights, which I discuss in the book, was in the movement that developed in England and the U.S. in the 1890s and early twentieth century [to expose] King Leopold’s colonization and brutalization of the Congo.  Photographs became a powerful weapon.  Photographs of black Africans—often mutilated, with their hands and feet hacked off—circulated in the West in the context of this anti-colonial organizing.  Of course, that movement wasn’t perfect; it had elements of condescension and racism.  But nonetheless, those photographs were important in establishing a human connection between whites in the U.S. and Britain and the colonized Congolese, and in asserting that a thread of common humanity unites us.  That may be a kind of sentimentality, but it’s not only sentimentality.   A universal impulse has to be behind any politics of human rights, and the denial of that kind of universal humanity is at the heart of the worst violence of the twentieth century.

As the twentieth century progressed, photographs became increasingly important in forging a human rights consciousness.  It’s very hard to imagine organizations like Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders and Human Rights Watch in the pre-photographic age.  In much of their literature, photographs are essential:  they present readers, onlookers, with the reality of human suffering—which, I believe, has to be the basis for formulating coherent and resilient ideas of human rights.

The whole argument about “desensitization” is one that I don’t really understand.  Sontag developed it in On Photography but sort of disowned it in her last book.  It’s become the conventional wisdom:  we’re desensitized by too many images of violence.  But that implies that before the emergence of photography, people were more sensitized to violence than we moderns.  I just find absolutely zero evidence for that.  I don’t think people were more sensitized to violence in the eighteenth century or the twelfth century or the fifth century.  I certainly don’t think they were more sensitized to violence against people in strange, faraway places than we are today.

We may think of the pre-television age of the 1930s or the 1940s as more “sensitive.”  But again, where is the evidence?  Photographs of Nazi atrocities—taken sometimes by Nazis themselves and then smuggled out, other times by Soviet or partisan photographers—were continuously sent to newspapers in the West in the hopes they’d be published.  But very few were.  They were often viewed as Soviet or Jewish propaganda.  And when they were published, they did not elicit the outrage, the demand for intervention, that was hoped for.

It seems that now the mainstream media shields its audience from the human reality of war and violence.

Yes and no.  First, there are a lot of places that people can find photographs now, whether or not The New York Times publishes them.  I get frustrated when people complain that The New York Times or the Washington Post didn’t publish this or that photograph, and I ask, “How did you know about the photograph?”  They saw it on the Internet. 

There’s actually a tremendous amount of photography that has come out of the war in Afghanistan and the Iraq War.  It’s not hard to find those photographs on the web, and some have also been published in a number of full-length books.  If people are really interested, it’s easy to find documentation of war right now—probably easier than ever before.

What’s changed, I think, is not the availability of photographs, but the political context in which photographs are shown.  You need a certain context and a political awareness for photographs to have an effect.  The situation now is very different than it was during the Vietnam War.  There isn’t the same kind of anti-war movement; Iraq and Afghanistan are different wars than Vietnam (and different from each other).  Photographs are circulated—more so than ever before—but the ways in which people understand them and react to them has more to do with the very complicated politics surrounding those wars than with the photographs themselves. 

There are a lot of people from Magnum, from James Nachtwey’s photo collective VII, and from other places who have been doing a tremendous amount of work for the last decade in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and in all sorts of places where violence—including terrorist violence—is at a height.  These photographs can be easily found, but the real question is what people make of them.

You include a photograph of a bereft man in Pakistan standing amid the carnage immediately after suicide bombing.  That photograph seems to encapsulate your view of photographs of war since the 1990s.

That’s a photograph by John Moore.  The Pakistani man is standing amid the rubble of a suicide bombing.  If you look closely, you see that a lot of the “rubble” on the street is actually the remains of human bodies, which now look like garbage.

I wrote about that photograph because most of the victims of terrorist violence are other Muslims in Muslim countries.  That is not to deny the trauma of 9/11.  But often when people talk about terrorism, it’s terrorism against the U.S. or England or Spain.  Yet the victims of most terrorist bombings are in Pakistan and Somalia and Iraq and Afghanistan and so on.  These are horrific attacks against civilians—indeed, against the idea that anyone could even be a civilian.  I wanted to get people to focus on that violence.  It would behoove us to care about the violence even when the victims aren’t “us.”

The war in Afghanistan is not a traditional war in any sense.  It includes different kinds of violence:  the violence of actual fighting between NATO forces and the Taliban and other groups; the violence of drone attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan; the violence directed at civilians by the Taliban and Al Qaeda and various warlord groups.  There’s no one picture that could capture all that.  But there are photographers, such as Nachtwey, who are doing good work to document and convey what’s going on there.

Sometimes, though, there is too much emphasis on photography and on the new media technologies such as social media.  With the Green Movement in Iran a couple years of ago, which was crushed, you kept hearing about the “Twitter Revolution” and the “Facebook Revolution” and the cell phone camera revolution.  That was premature and quite silly.  I don’t think revolutions are caused by Facebook, although that may get people to a demonstration. 

I did a search for the “Twitter Revolution in Iran” on Google, and there are 29 million references.  Then I did a search of “executions in Iran 2010,” and there are less than two million.  The Western media tends to focus on technology:  it’s sexy, it’s something we can “relate” to, it’s something we can feel proud of—after all, it’s we who are creating the technology!  And so the circulation of new technological forms of communication is, apparently, more important than the fact that the state is murdering dissidents.  Social media and photographs are part of the mix right now, but their importance has been vastly overstated.

Can you talk about the photographs of 9/11?

Photographically speaking, 9/11 was a strange event.  There were few wounded survivors, and few corpses, because most of the bodies were incinerated.  So most of the photographs depict the planes hitting the towers and the resulting rubble, the horrified reactions of bystanders, and the work of the emergency rescue workers.

And then there were the people who jumped from the towers. I’ve written about how taboo those photographs have become.  

There’s a famous photograph of a lone man plummeting head first to his death.

That’s the Richard Drew photograph that was printed on September 12 by the Times and some other papers.  But, after that, they never printed any image like that again, although there are many.

But what 9/11 did produce was a lot of citizen documentation in the days following the attacks.  These were not photographs of the attacks themselves, but depictions of how we as New Yorkers tried not only to survive, but also to help each other and to come together to understand what was happening.

Some of these photographs were collected in a show, called “Here Is New York,” that opened a couple of weeks after the attacks.  It was organized by Gilles Peress and a few of his colleagues.  A call for photographs was sent out, and hundreds of people, from famous professional photographers to total amateurs, responded.  The images were displayed in a democratic way:  you didn’t know which ones were professional and which ones weren’t.  They were all displayed in a downtown storefront, hanging from the ceiling, and later collected in an 800-plus-page book.

That show was an example of how photography can forge a connective tissue between citizens.  What made it important wasn’t just the photographs, but the people coming to the show.  Everyone talked to each other: about the attacks, about their meaning, about their aftermath, about the future.  It was mournful, but it was beautiful; it was an attempt by New Yorkers to try to understand this trauma within a kind of collectivity.  The attacks themselves were of course hideous, but the ways that New Yorkers bonded in the days following, and tried to process the trauma, was very moving.  And I think photography played a role. 

So photography can help people try to understand the history we are living through with their fellow citizens.

And the photographs of abuse of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq by American military personnel may have united people in another way.

The Abu Ghraib photographs are an example of the ways in which photographs can assault people.  They can be used to wound and humiliate people.  There are unfortunately many examples of that:  lynching photographs, Nazi photographs, and the Abu Ghraib photographs, to name just a few. 

When the Abu Ghraib photographs were first published, they caused an outcry.  But the fact that these photographs had been circulating among the soldiers—as entertainment? as what?—and not causing that kind of outcry is a horrible stain on us as Americans.  Those photographs have been reproduced all over the world, and I assume they continue to circulate and outrage people.  They can easily be found on the web.

The haunting image of the hooded man who seems about to be electrocuted became iconic.

Yes.  Philip Gourevitch provided the back story for that one [in Standard Operating Procedure], and it actually turns out to be somewhat less horrific than a lot of the others.  Apparently the man was never in danger of being electrocuted, and he apparently knew that, at least at some point.  I think it has become an iconic photograph in part because it evokes Christian symbolism:  his arms are spread out as though he’s on a cross.  But some of the Abu Ghraib photographs are much worse: you see people in acute pain and in horrible degradation.

It seems these photographs are extremely valuable in terms of recording history and documenting behavior.  War photographer Gilles Peress commented to the effect that you have to look at the world if you want to change it.

Exactly.  There have been several decades of theoreticians who posit that photographs are subjective and don’t depict reality, but the Abu Ghraib photographs directly refute that.  No one, not even George W. Bush, could dispute their realness.  They whizzed around the world in a couple of days, and they had an impact that a written description of torture simply would not have had.  The photographs had a kind of irrefutability.  No one could “spin” those photographs into harmless, much less happy or humane, pictures.

There are some critics who argue that people shouldn’t have to view violent images or that they should be censored.

I think everyone has a breaking point.  I’m not someone who says, “You have to look at this!”   There are things I do not look at.  As I write in the book, I do not look at the jihadist beheading videos—the Daniel Pearl video, and others.  But I don’t think they should be destroyed, or censored—which would, in any case, be impossible.  And obviously, different people have extremely disparate reactions to them.  Those videos are made by the groups carrying out the executions:  they are recruiting tools.  To them this is a great advisement for jihad.  Other people look at these videos and see them not as an advertisement but as barbarism. 

The idea that we all have the same, “natural” reactions to photographs of violence is just not true.  In the lynching photographs, white people are dressed in their Sunday best; they’re with their children, and they’re smiling and laughing.  And right above them are the swaying bodies of black men who have been tortured to death.

Or look at Nazi photographs.  Some were taken by Nazi soldiers in the ghettos and, whether they were meant to be or not, can be very empathetic.  And some are absolutely hideous, where smiling, healthy German soldiers are doing horrendous things to their victims.  They are cruelty incarnate.

We can’t control the way people view things.  All we can do is create a political context, and a human context, where the number of people outraged by suffering will be far, far greater and far, far more powerful than the number of people who celebrate suffering.

And again you stress the historical value of photographs in situations such as refuting Holocaust deniers.  Yet some argue that it’s disrespectful to view these photos.

Once you’re in Auschwitz or the Lodz ghetto, your major problem is not that you’re being “disrespected” by a photographer.  Your problem is that you’re being starved, tortured and exterminated.  It’s very odd to me when people don’t understand that. 

In the ghettos, underground photographs were taken illegally by Jewish photographers.  When you read their testimonies, again and again they write that their fellow inmates of the ghettos were begging them to take their
photos—to show their degradation, to show the world what was happening. 

A more recent example is a series of four photographs taken last year by a Somali photographer.  They’re very controversial.  They show, in graphic detail, the stoning to death of a man by one of the Islamic militias, and they could only have been taken with the approval of the perpetrators.  They are absolutely horrendous.  You might say this is disrespectful to the victim.  I don’t know if the victim gave his permission for the picture. But I’m pretty sure he didn’t give his permission to be stoned to death.  It’s not the photograph that’s the source of violence.  And again, the perpetrators of this atrocity wanted it to be shown.  They think this is a great advertisement for Sharia law.  But the photographer, and the outlets that showed the photos [such as World Press Photo], [used] them for obviously very different purposes.

Where people are in the zones of violence—where they are starved or tortured or marked for execution—the idea that the photograph is the source of their degradation is mistaken.  Do I think it’s better that the execution of the Somali man was photographed and has been publicized and circulated in the world, regardless of what his own feelings, if any, about being photographed may have been?  Yes, I do.  It’s necessary that the hideousness of that violence and that ideology get out to the world.

Less dire situations may conjure all sorts of ethical questions. But sometimes when people speak of “disrespecting the victims,” what they’re really saying is that they don’t want to look at this stuff.  And if you don’t want to look at it, don’t.  But don’t pretend that you’re protecting or “respecting” others.

You discuss the photographs by victimizers, like the Germans who aimed to show dehumanized, feral Jews.

To me, the worst photographs ever made are the photographs by victimizers.  But we should look at them.  They include the Nazi photographs, the photographs taken in Stalin’s notorious Lubyanka Prison of prisoners before their execution, and the Khmer Rouge photographs of people, including children, before their torture and execution.  These are terrible photographs.

In the case of the Lubyanka and Khmer Rouge photographs, I have no idea why they were taken, especially since they were then hidden.  The Lubyanka photographs did not come out until the Gorbachev era.  The Khmer Rouge photos weren’t discovered until that regime was overthrown.  The victimizers had some need to document what they were doing.  Did they document it because they were proud of it?  I have no idea. 

The Nazi photographs are a bit different.  Some were taken by German soldiers themselves and some were taken officially by Nazi photographers working for the army or the state.  They were taken as “mementos,” or—like the jihadist beheading videos—as proud propaganda to celebrate their crimes.  But there were some things that even the Germans didn’t photograph:  to my knowledge, they never took pictures of the ovens in the camps.  Still, they were proudly documenting their program of starvation, torture, and extermination:  in some of the camps, in some of the ghettos, and on the Eastern Front.

But the amazing thing about all these photographs—from Russia, from Cambodia, from the Nazis—is that even though they were taken by perpetrators or by people working for them, often they conjure, in us, tremendous empathy and grief for the victims.  That speaks to how complex and deep photographs can be. 

The intention of the photographer is one element, but what the photograph shows and its effects on the viewer can be something very different.  Sometimes too much emphasis is placed on who took the photograph and what they intended.  But what they intended is not necessarily what shows up in the prints.  And what shows up in the prints at the time, or years later, may [elicit] reactions that the makers of the photographs would never in a million years have imagined or wanted. 

Your description of the young Cambodian girl that was used on the book’s cover is very touching.   You stress that it’s not just a photograph of a child, but a child who will die soon after the photograph.

Yes, she was killed.  And in some ways, I feel that the more recent a photograph is, the more it accuses us.  Those Khmer Rouge photographs are from the late 1970s:  that’s not too long ago.  Even more accusatory are the photographs by Gilles Peress and Nachtwey and others from Bosnia during the war there [in the 1990s].  Those photographs were taken while the war was still going on, when something could have been done; there were even photographs of the Serb concentration camps.  But they didn’t have the kind of effect the photographers hoped for.  A tremendous number of journalists and photographers covered that war in real time. 

We can react to the Holocaust, but we cannot stop it now. But the pictures from Yugoslavia were coming out as the country was disintegrating, and they simply didn’t have the effect that the photographers intended, or the journalists.  Peter Maass, author Love Thy Neighbor, wrote of his despair that his dispatches in the Washington Post, [which were] certainly read by people in the Clinton administration, didn’t have the effect he hoped for. 

There’s a whole history of journalists writing [unheeded warnings] like this.  Martha Gellhorn wrote a very bitter essay about covering the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism; she concluded that it was as if her dispatches were written in “invisible ink.”  Once Hitler was in power and invading his neighbors and exterminating the Jews, it was way too late—but only then did the Western democracies begin to awaken.  Gellhorn calls her fellow journalists of the 1930s “the Federation of Cassandras.”  So there’s a history of journalists and photographers confronting their despair about how little impact their work has.

With Rwanda in 1994 it seems we have mainly photographs of the aftermath of the genocide.

Most of the photographers and journalists, including Gilles Peress, were there at the very end of the genocide, or even later.  But you had UN people on the ground who warned in advance about the oncoming catastrophe, and that too fell on deaf ears. 

Gilles Peress’s book, The Silence, [depicts] the immediate aftermath of the violence.  It is beyond despair.  You feel like you’ve come to the end of the world when you look at it. 

Your book closes with essays on war photographers Robert Capa, James Nachtwey and Gilles Peress.  Can you talk about the contrasts between Capa who covered war in the 1930s and 1940s and Nachtwey and Peress who are covering war now?

Obviously I have great admiration and affection for Capa.  He and Martha Gellhorn were friends.  He begins photographing in Weimar Germany, and has to leave—like so many other journalists and editors and photographers—when Hitler comes to power, because he was both Jewish and left-wing.  Then he goes to Paris and documents the rise of the Popular Front, a moment of great optimism.  He also goes to China after the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, and photographs that phase of the anti-fascist struggle.

Within two weeks of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he goes there.  Originally, everyone thought Franco would be defeated quickly; then it became a three-year [conflict] of increasing despair.  Later, he’s traveling with the Allies in a devastated and deranged Europe [during the Second World War].   He then goes to Israel several times to document the war of independence and the early days of the state.

He documented defeat—especially in Spain—yet he was working at a moment of political optimism.  He was a very partisan photographer.  He considered himself a supporter of a certain side in every war he documented—except, ironically, the war in Indochina, which is where he was killed.

With Nachtwey you have something very different:  the documentation of a kind of violence that often seems removed from any political content, at least as traditionally understood.  The wars he documents have little connection to something like the Spanish Civil War, where you had two sides that were clear ideological foes.  Much of the violence Nachtwey documents, such as the famines in Somalia and Sudan, are politically motivated, but these are not the kind of “wars” that Capa documented.   Nachtwey says he’s on the side of the victims, so it’s clear who he’s against:  those who torment innocent, unarmed civilians.  Less clear is who he is for.  For instance, the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia were horrendous— but they certainly couldn’t conjure the ideological and political clarity of the Spanish Civil War.  The same is true of the ongoing war in the Congo, with its epidemic of mass rape.

Peress takes this state of affairs to a whole different level.  He too documents a breakdown after the Cold War and the emergence of a new kind of violence.  But Peress, more so than Nachtwey, has struggled to find a new aesthetic that can convey this new anti-politics. 

Nachtwey is still a classical modernist in his aesthetic approach. But the pictures by Peress convey his own confusions about the history that he’s witnessing.  You see this clearly in his first book [Telex Iran], which documented Iran right after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.  It’s a very different book than Capa could have created.  Instead of lauding this great revolution, you see Peress’s great unease and confusion with the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism and the ayatollah.

I chose those three photographers because their work engages me personally, and also because they represent the ways in which war itself, and therefore the depictions of war, have really changed.  People are nostalgic for Capa, and they criticize photographers like Nachtwey, complaining, “Why isn’t he more like Capa?”  It’s simple:  he’s not more like Capa because his world, our world, is not Capa’s world.

You describe Nachtwey as a modernist whereas Peress is altogether different.

There’s a kind of didactic nature to Nachtwey’s photographs which makes them powerful, though that’s also something he’s been criticized for.  They’re very clearly composed, and it seems that he’s always telling you, “Here’s what you need to look at.”

Peress’s photographs are completely different.  They’re often busy and filled with small, weird details; it’s not at all clear where you should look or even what you’re looking at.  You get the sense that he’s saying, “What the hell is going on here? What kind of history is being made?  What am I seeing?”  To me, his photographs are about questioning and doubting and trying to understand.  I wouldn’t call them postmodern, because they’re not suggesting there is no reality or that reality is only subjective and we can make of it what we want.  But there’s a tremendous amount of skepticism and confusion in his photographs—though I should say that quality has lessened, especially since Rwanda.

You don’t get the sense that Nachtwey is ever confused.  The viewers are his students and he is the teacher, and he will show us what is what.  With Peress, you have a sense that he’s there and you’re there with him and you’re trying to figure it out with him, but you can’t really be sure. 

What do you hope readers will take from your book?

I hope people will become more interested in looking at photographs carefully and thoughtfully, and that they will allow themselves a free range of emotions when they do look—including emotions that may be politically incorrect or uncomfortable or shameful or embarrassing.  Those emotional reactions are the first stop in a process of trying to understand this violence, and trying to figure out what if anything you can or should do about it.  They should not be disowned.

But emotions are only a first, and highly incomplete, step.  After that I hope that readers will go to the history books and the testimonies and the newspapers and magazines, and that they will delve more deeply into the complicated realities that photographs can only suggest.  Which is to say:  I hope that we will all become historians—at least sometimes—and, equally important, citizens.