The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2011

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SEPT 2011 Issue

Death Agents

Barbie Zelizer
About To Die: How News Images Move the Public
(Oxford University Press, 2010)

Susie Linfield
The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence
(University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Looking into the public’s fraught, ambivalent relationship with news footage of people facing death, About To Die: How News Images Move the Public is a keenly argued volume on the power of images to stir debate over truth and decency.

A professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and a former journalist, Barbie Zelizer examines news images from the last three centuries and asks why the public readily confronts death in fiction and art but recoils from it in journalism. Her detailed response to this question, among many posed in the book, is worth the unnerving subject. Teasing out the story behind a photograph, Zelizer combines historical account, academic scholarship, and close reading. Sheshows us how news agencies shape the magnitude of certain events by using representative images of suffering to advance a dominant narrative, in turn establishing tropes that live on in news photos years after. These images often depict impending death, or what Zelizer calls the “about-to-die” images. By centering around the possibility instead of the finality of death, the images provide an escape hatch for journalism, countering the public’s squeamishness over graphic images. “While words are valued for the evidentiary qualities,” Zelizer writes, “images offer instead implicative relays, suggestive slices of action that people need to complete by interpreting and imagining what unfolds beyond the camera’s frame.”

A central argument in About to Die is Zelizer’s binary of the “as is” and “as if” in photographic images. These concepts are developed carefully in the opening chapter and applied throughout the book, drawing much focus on the “as if,” or what Zelizer calls the “subjunctive voice of the visual.” Tapping into the public’s emotion and imagination, “about-to-die” pictures offer a leap into the suggestive. Images of impending death travel across contexts, recycled for specific agendas by different sectors—news agencies, journalists, artists, political figures, the public—who elevate pictures to their iconic status.

About-to-die images—organized across the three motifs of possible, presumed, and certain death—can retell a different story (a photo of a man dying of AIDS later featured in a Benetton ad), rally sentiments for an unpopular war (the American media’s use of images of a living Daniel Pearl weeks after the journalist’s death was confirmed), and mobilize the public for a political cause (the still frames of Neda Agha-Soltan taken from cellphone video footage of her shooting in Iran).

The book’s collection of 55 images spans various wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, assassinations, abductions, executions, and suicides. What perhaps is intriguing in Zelizer’s volume is seeing these photographs again, ironically, out of the context of journalism. One certainly feels the collective strain of having seen, even though these pictures are far from gruesome. These images retain their arresting suggestive power, starkly framed by Zelizer’s theoretical exposition, leaving us with a disquieting survey of photojournalism in America.

Contrasting Zelizer’s cool, analytical approach, Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence is compellingly polemical. While Zelizer warily reveals how news images engage and shape viewers’ psyches, Linfield tells us why it is important to look at them. The book certainly doesn’t shy away from difficult emotion, from the “guaranteed failure” after looking at mug shots of prisoners from the former Soviet Union and the Khmer Rouge, to the bluntness of seeing preteen soldiers in Sierra Leone.

The director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University, Linfield begins with a sober defense of photography against its most acerbic critics. In “Polemics,” the book’s first section, she reviews the history of photography criticism and asks why so many of its critics, from Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin to the postmoderns, developed an antipathy for their subject. Contending with Susan Sontag’s depiction of photography as a “predatory” instrument that simultaneously seduces and assaults, Linfield calls for a compassionate and equally penetrating photography criticism. She concedes that violent images desensitize and are highly divisive, often blurring political and historical distinctions. But the issue is how viewers use pictures of atrocity.

In a chapter on the Abu Ghraib photos, Linfield answers critics who believe that photographs, as opposed to language, can never convey what is real. The images of torture from Abu Ghraib prison shocked and revolted the public “precisely because they were photographs.” A written account could not have produced the same impact.

The most absorbing aspect of The Cruel Radiance is Linfield’s candidness in parsing the moral implications of seeing. Linfield frankly addresses what is suggested in Barbie Zelizer’s own discussion of the same photos: she calls the images of people leaping from the World Trade Center towers “wrongfully despised” and “wrongfully hidden.” Glancing at Jerome Delay’s photograph of a group of women mourning in Baghdad, Linfield recognizes sorrow, and yet she confesses to feeling impatience and anger instead of sympathy, as the image recalls “countless other photographs of black-draped women as they wail over their sons—and often celebrate them as martyrs.”

Early in the book, Linfield calls for the “ethics of seeing,” a phrase borrowed from Sontag. But in response to both Sontag and Roland Barthes, Linfield contends that the “agents of death” are not photographers but the violators behind the atrocities. Photographers like the Hungarian Robert Capa, whose viewfinder Linfield describes to be “blurred with tears,” offer images of a “broken world,” but they never suggest that human beings are innately destructive. The book’s last three chapters are profiles of renowned photojournalists—Gilles Peress, James Nachtwey, and Capa—whose works Linfield believes “raise crucial political questions about war and aesthetic questions about photography.”

But what if the violators are the photographers? The images of Jews taken by SS soldiers were meant to celebrate the cruelty inflicted upon the photographs’ subjects. Looking at these pictures, as some critics have contended, may reproduce the ideology of the violators. But “atrocity photographs,” Linfield argues, are portraits not only of cruelty but also of human vulnerability. Suffering, she writes, is “the pillar of political and moral identity.” Viewers bear the responsibility to transform their engagement with these images from “one of passivity and complaint to one of creativity and collaboration.”

Linfield contemplates the case of two Germans who took pictures of the Holocaust, Heinrich Jöst and Joe J. Heydecker. The “better man” may be Heydecker—though Linfield is quick to point out his inability to interfere—who expressed deep sympathy for the Jewish prisoners. But in his attempt to dignify his subjects, Heydecker, Linfield comments brilliantly, failed to produce photos as searing as those of Jöst.

“Their cruelty is their truth,” writes Linfield. In their aim to shame their victims, the Nazis produced the most enduring proof of their brutality. The phrase “cruel radiance,” which comes from the critic James Agee, describes this paradox of photography.

Showing a muscular and graceful synthesis of cultural commentary and art criticism, The Cruel Radiance wrestles with harrowing depictions of political unrest and doesn’t cower from the questions it poses. Like the child gazing firmly from the cover jacket, the book dares us to stare back, even if looking entails a failure to comprehend, and even if, as Linfield would say, we are simply too late.


John Bengan


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2011

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