Susie Linfield on witnessing atrocity and political violence through photography
Photographs have the power to inspire or repulse or provoke. I still vividly recall opening a new May 1968 “Look” magazine to a striking photo essay on the Vietnam War by the innovative French photographer Catherine Leroy. Several searing, double-page images belied the rhetoric of the war: an extreme close-up of a wounded American soldier spilling a puddle of bright blood onto a gray floor; a dead North Vietnamese soldier lying among leaves; a blurred image of a distraught woman cradling an injured toddler with a ragged bandage around his head, blood dripping down his face.
For me, Leroy’s gut-wrenching photos said more about the human cost of modern war than dozens of editorials or the usual news photographs or even television reports. Leroy’s unsentimental and haunting photography presaged the contemporary work of James Nachtwey, Gilles Peress, Susan Meiselas, Peter van Agtmael and other photographers who have documented the trauma and waste of violence from Nicaragua and Iran and Bosnia to Rwanda and Sudan and to our wars now in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In her recent book, “The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence” (University of Chicago Press, $20), Susie Linfield challenges readers to view images of atrocity and brutality, and then go beyond the photographs to explore the context and conditions that give rise to the disturbing depictions. She also questions a trend in photography criticism of treating photographs with suspicion and viewing images of violence as exploitative, deceitful and voyeuristic.
In “The Cruel Radiance,” Linfield discusses photography from the Holocaust and Stalinist purges, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge and Rwandan genocides, Bosnia, the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She asks how modern photography should respond to increasingly nihilistic modern conflict.
Linfield is an associate professor in journalism and director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University. She writes about culture and politics for publications including “The Boston Review,” “Dissent,” “The Nation” and “The New Republic.” She was formerly the arts editor of “The Washington Post,” the deputy editor of “The Village Voice” and the editor-in-chief of “American Film.”
She recently spoke at length about her current book and her research from her home in Brooklyn, New York.
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.
I became interested in this tone of hostility toward photography. So one trajectory of my thought was trying to figure out what is so peculiar about photography criticism and 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 by various photographers who were documenting this violence. I became increasingly intrigued—and bewildered—by the ways that this violence could be depicted but not explained through photography.
You posit that there’s much to learn from photographs, while some critics are dismissive. Have photographs prompted social change or affected opinion?
Photographs can convey an emotional truth about suffering, [but] 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 was in the movement that developed in England and the U.S. in the 1890s and early 20th century [to expose] King Leopold’s colonization and brutalization of the Congo. Photographs of black Africans—often mutilated, with their hands and feet hacked off—circulated in the West in the context of this anticolonial 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.
As the 20th 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 prephotographic 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 photograph you include of a bereft man standing amid the carnage immediately after suicide bombing 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 when people in the West talk about terrorism, often 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. 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-Qaida 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 of years ago, which was crushed, you kept hearing about the “Twitter Revolution” and the “Facebook 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. Social media and photographs are part of the mix right now, but their importance has been vastly overstated—and continues to be overstated in discussions of the so-called Arab Spring, which is no longer looking very spring-like, especially if you live in Syria or, even, Egypt.
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, 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 Sept. 12 by “The [New York] 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 [depicting] 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. That [is] an example of how photography can forge a connective tissue between citizens [and] help people try to understand the history we are living through with their fellow citizens.
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, wound and humiliate people. There are unfortunately many examples: 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 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.
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 a person is in Auschwitz or the Lodz ghetto, her major problem is not that she’s being “disrespected” by a photographer. Her problem is that she’s 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. Again and again they write that their fellow inmates of the ghettos begged them to take their photos—to show their degradation, to show the world what was happening.
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.
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 perestroika 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 officially by Nazi photographers working for the state. They were taken as “mementos” or—like the jihadist beheading videos—as proud propaganda to celebrate their program of starvation, torture and extermination.
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.
Your description of the young Cambodian girl on the book’s cover is very touching. You stress that it’s not just a photograph of a child but a child who died 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, and that’s not too long ago. Even more accusatory are the photographs by 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, but they didn’t have the kind of effect the photographers hoped for. There’s a whole history of journalists and photographers confronting their despair about how little impact their work has.
With Rwanda in 1994 we have photographs mainly from the aftermath of the genocide.
Most of the photographers and journalists were there at the very end of the genocide, or even later. But you had U.N. people on the ground who warned in advance about the oncoming catastrophe, and that too fell on deaf ears. Peress’ 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.
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.
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.