Photography and Political Violence

Susie Linfield's The Cruel Radiance has won acclaim for its defense of the moral value of photojournalism. Scott McLemee talks to the author.

March 16, 2011

In Mark Twain’s bitter satire King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905), the Belgian monarch recalls how much easier it was to control public opinion in the old days. Now all that anyone talks about are the atrocities in the Congo -- where the rubber and ivory trade have been very profitable for the king and his cronies, thanks to the absolute enslavement of the Congolese. “I have spent millions to keep the press of two hemispheres quiet,” he rants, “and still these leaks keep on occurring.”

His most vexing problem, it turns out, is a new and highly mobile bit of technology: “The Kodak has been a sore calamity to us. The most powerful enemy indeed…. The only witness I have encountered in my long experience I couldn’t bribe.” Photographs of mutilated Africans -- their hands cut off for the least infraction, and sometimes just for the hell of it -- were ruining Leopold’s good name as a humanitarian.

Trust that photojournalism gives reliable and virtually unmediated access to the truth has taken some hits over the intervening century. But in The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (University of Chicago Press), Susie Linfield, director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University, holds fast to Twain’s optimism about the power of images of suffering to create enormous moral and political effects. It was named a finalist in criticism for the National Book Critics Circle awards; my short essay on it appeared at the NBCC blog Critical Mass, which announced the winners in all categories last week.

We met briefly at the awards ceremony, and over the weekend Linfield responded to a series of questions. The following interview is drawn from that exchange.

Q: People used to write defenses of poetry. Your book opens with a defense of photography, and of photojournalism in particular -- particularly against certain strains of photography criticism. Is that really so urgent? Have polemics against photography ever had any effect on anyone? Susan Sontag's critique in On Photography may have been harsh, for example, but she collected photos, and kept on sitting for portraits.

A: Well, there are different kinds of urgency. I wouldn't say my defense of photojournalism -- and of photographic truth -- is as urgent as, say, stopping mass rape in the Congo, or as protecting Libyans from the madness of Qaddafi. But yes, I think that the attack on photojournalism -- Sontag was most prominent exponent of this, but the critique goes back to the Frankfurt School critics and forward to the postmodernists -- has given us too many alibis, too many excuses. It's very, very easy to simply not look at certain kinds of photographs, and therefore to not consider the phenomenological experience of certain kinds of violence. And, moreover, to feel virtuous in not-looking, since we've been told over and over that photographs exploit, manipulate, seduce, mislead, oppress, commodify... Even a teenager now can glibly tell you, "All photographs lie" or "There is no such thing as truth." But neither of those statements is accurate.

Q: You define your approach, not just against certain currents in photography criticism, but in continuity with other work -- James Agee's and Pauline Kael's writing on movies, for one, and Kenneth Tynan's on theater. Would you say more about that? And is there really no "usable past" in photography criticism itself you can draw on?

A: Yes, there is a wonderful "usable past" in photography criticism: including, certainly, Sontag, John Berger, Roland Barthes, Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Brecht. The fact that I have criticisms of all these writers doesn't mean that I don't also think they've done invaluable, indeed brilliant, work. But what most photography critics lack (though Benjamin is actually an exception to this) is a passion for the form itself. And it is this passion for -- this cathection to -- the form that animates critics like Agee and Kael vis à vis the movies, and Tynan for the theater. It was also the animating force for the young critics who came of age in the mid-1960s and began writing about rock music: Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, James Miller. Those music critics had read a lot of theory and history and criticism, and they were all highly analytic. But they also considered themselves part of the mass audience -- and of the larger counterculture -- in ways that many photography critics simply haven't. They weren't populists, but they were democrats, and -- like Kael -- they were highly invested in the question of what a democratic culture of excellence might look like.

In his book The Company of Critics, Michael Walzer argues for the importance of the organic critic: the critic who considers herself a part of the society that she critiques. He cites a wide range of examples, from the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament to George Orwell and Antonio Gramsci. It is this kind of organic criticism that many photography critics scorn, or at least avoid. They start from a position of suspicion toward, not love for, photography -- and, sometimes, from a position of contempt for the general audience.

This is in part why the language of photography criticism -- I am thinking of the postmoderns now -- is often so clunky, even ugly. But to read Kael or Agee is a joy. They weren't writing about "the enemy," which is, alas, the stance of some photography critics. Look at Agee's reviews of Preston Sturges's "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," or of Olivier's version of "Henry V," and you'll see what I mean.

Q: Can a photojournalistic image of atrocity have aesthetic interest? Should it? It would be one thing if Stuart Freedman's photo on page 146 -- showing a child in Sierra Leone sitting in an otherwise empty room, looking at his father's detached prosthetic limbs -- were the work of a surrealist artist. But to find it beautiful, as I did until reading the caption, seems pretty horrifying.

A: Yes, such pictures can -- and do -- have aesthetic interest, I think. There's no getting around that: photographs are aesthetic objects. They are a documentation of something; they are not the thing-in-itself. What makes photographs so bewildering, and so bothersome, and so discomfiting, is that they record something that actually happened, and at the time it actually happened (unlike other aesthetic objects, such as paintings and sculptures).

Lots of people hate the idea that photographs of violence and suffering can be beautiful -- and by beauty I mean aesthetically compelling. But of course they can be. So, for that matter, can literature, including nonfiction literature, that documents violence and cruelty (think of Primo Levi, though one can easily come up with many other examples). Is Paul Celan's "Deathfugue" a beautiful poem? It is, although the beauty is quite terrible.

I think that people often feel guilty looking at visually powerful, formally accomplished photographs of war and atrocity; hence the vitriolic critiques of Gilles Peress, James Nachtwey, and others. But the formal power of their photographs is, precisely, part of what allows them to convey the experience of suffering; and to convey it in ways that make me, at least, think harder and deeper about what they are showing. The guilt that some viewers feel when looking at these photographs is, I think, misplaced -- and rather narcissistic to boot.

And the truth of the matter is that even in the world's worst situations, beauty -- that is, visual power, grace, dignity, formal coherence -- exists. In 1944 -- a very bad year -- Czeslaw Milosz wrote a poem in which he said that the scent of a flowering tree "is like an insult/To suffering humanity..." And so it is. But I think we just have to live with this contradiction. The alternative -- to make messy, visually incoherent photographs -- makes no sense, and would do absolutely nothing for the victims.

Q: Sometimes photography does not simply document political violence but participates in it. The Cruel Radiance discusses several examples of this -- pictures of atrocity taken by Nazis, mug shots of Khmer Rouge prisoners taken at a torture center, and the digital snapshots from Abu Ghraib, among others. At one point you contrast the photojournalist's "ethics of showing" with the "ethics of seeing" incumbent upon viewers of images of political violence. But what are the terms of such an ethics of seeing when the act of taking a photo is meant to degrade and dehumanize?

A: I think these are the most difficult photographs to contemplate -- or to know how to contemplate. There is no doubt that there is there are times and circumstances when photography itself becomes as an act of cruelty: we see this with thousands of Nazi photographs, the Abu Ghraib photos, and many others. Among the most egregious contemporary examples are the many torture/beheading videos made by Islamic terrorist groups (the video of Daniel Pearl's murder is most famous, but there are, alas, many others).

There is no good way, or pure way, to look at such photos or videos or films. And I think everyone has their breaking point: for some it might be some of the Nazi photos, for others the beheading films. (I myself have never looked at the latter.) On the other hand, even the most horrific photos can be, and have been, used in ways their makers never intended. During World War II, for instance, the Polish Underground, Jewish partisans, and the Soviets flooded the Western media with photographs of Nazi atrocities that had been taken by Nazi soldiers; the anti-fascists wanted the world to know what was happening, and most of the documentation of Nazi barbarism came from the Nazis themselves. Alas, few of these photos were printed by Western newspapers at the time -- they were regarded as Jewish or Soviet "propaganda," and therefore as untrustworthy. But the point is that photographs can be used in ways their makers never intended. We can subvert the intent of the perpetrators.

A recent example of this is a series of four photographs taken last year by a Somali photographer for the AP named Farah Abdi Warsameh. They show, in gruesome detail, the stoning to death -- for the crime of adultery -- of a Somali man, by the Islamist militia Hizbul Islam. The photographs are very controversial: among other things, they could not possibly have been taken without the permission of Hizbul Islam. And I have no doubt that Hizbul Islam is circulating these photos -- which are truly disgusting -- with pride: they are propaganda of the deed. But I also have no doubt that Warsameh took them with other motives in mind (I've seen other examples of his work). And I think we should look at them, hard as that may be: they show what Shariah law looks like in practice. I should add that Shariah is now legal in Somalia -- which means that what we are looking at, up close, is "justice," Islamist-style.

Q: I have to question your formulation here. Treating Shariah law as some kind of homogeneously vicious thing is simply wrong -- there are reactionary forms of Shariah, and modernizing forms. Saying this is one way to get both Islamicists and Islamophobes mad at you, of course.

A: It's possible to have Shariah law that doesn't condone, or legalize, stonings. But I don't think there is such a thing as a truly modernized Shariah, because I don't believe the rule of law can be based in religious texts. (Ask women in Iran about this.) And the point is that, in the places where the introduction, or reintroduction, of Shariah is being debated (such as in Afghanistan, as part of a possible deal with the Taliban), the form that will be instituted won't be too modern, or permissive, or tolerant. Nor have I ever seen any form of Shariah that, in practice, does not discriminate against women.

My point about the Somali photos, though, is that: this is what Shariah looks like in practice -- or at least in too many practices -- and we should look at it. Debates about this are often rather theoretical, or based on "could be's" (as in, "Shariah could be modernized"). What we see here is not theoretical at all, nor is it a rare exception.

Q: Is there a particular image of political violence that you've found impossible to come to terms with -- to recover from viewing?

A: I'm not sure I've "come to terms" with any of the photographs in my book; I don't think they can be "mastered" (in much the way that Adorno wrote that Germans could not possibly "master" the reality of Auschwitz). For me, the hardest photographs are not those that actually depict violence, but those that depict its preview or aftermath: that show the victims before they were victims, or at least before they were dead victims.

There's a photograph in my book taken by Mendel Grossman, a Jewish photographer who was imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto (he died on a death march at the very end of the war). It's an "underground" photo, i.e., taken surreptitiously. It shows two women kissing on the mouth -- their lips pressed together through a mesh fence -- before one of them is deported to a death camp. I have a lot of trouble recovering from that. Similarly, the photograph of the girl on the cover of my book -- a Cambodian child, photographed before execution (and probably torture) in a Khmer Rouge "prison" -- is very hard for me to look at, and very hard for me to look away from.

I feel that I owe her -- what? life, safety, salvation -- yet I am acutely aware that I can do exactly nothing. We look at her as she looks at us: but we are way too late. Even worse: when we were not too late, we did nothing. This is a very calm, serene, sober photograph -- with no overt violence whatsoever -- but it is a very powerful J'accuse.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top