Monday, January 16, 2017

Crit on Crit

Hopefully I won't spend too much time talking about other people who are talking about pictures, but we shall see.

Today I'm going to dissect, a little, a recent essay on Conscientious Photo Magazine.

Let me begin by noting the irony of a man who said, recently:

How or why her [Susan Sontag's] On Photography came to be seen as so revelatory has always escaped me.

laboriously recapitulating so much of Sontag's material. Admittedly, he's largely repeating material from Regarding the Pain of Others here, but not entirely.

Onwards. Colberg begins with a bit of background, reminds us of a couple relatively recent pictures of Suffering with a capital S. Then he makes the remarkable statement that by arguing that a photograph, because it was exploitative, ought not to have been made, that we are in fact pretending that if we don't have to see a problem then it is as if they problem does not exist. This is a planted axiom. He's is, specifically, planting this axiom:

If you argue that a photograph is exploitation, you are secretly motivated by a desire to ignore the problem.

This is right up there with "if you're opposed to homosexuality, you're probably a closeted fag yourself" as far as rhetoric goes.

In fact, if you argue that a photograph of a suffering child is exploitation, you are quite likely motivated by the inarguable fact that converting someone else's suffering into career advancement, into money, is a pretty grotesque thing to do. It seems to be unavoidable and ultimately I don't think people ought not do it, but it is grotesque. In the end, we want people taking these pictures. These pictures are hard to take, in a bunch of ways, and therefore we need to compensate people to take them. Like much that is grotesque, we're stuck with it.

Colberg waves a vague hand in this general direction, but then declares that his original, absurd, thesis is the main thing and simply dismisses everything else.

Colberg spends a little time going on about the artifact of the photograph itself, versus the depicted thing, the distance/separation this creates, and so on. Pure unadulterated Sontag. Perhaps Colberg should go back and skim On Photography again to see what the big deal it.

Then he spends the remainder of the essay claiming that we are all complicit in these terrible things depicted, that we're helpless to do anything about it, and that we ought to do something about it. Which I have to say, if a fairly puzzling collection of assertions.

There is clearly an element of Judeo-Christian Western White Guilt here, the stuff that the Catholic Church weaponized. As the Israeli foreign minister once jested, "There's no business like shoah business" which I interpret as "you can always persuade those Americans that they are, somehow, personally at fault and ought to pay up."

Look. Either there is something you can do about the conflict in Syria, or there is not. If there is something you can do and you're not doing it, well, sure, it's partly your fault, you jerk. If like most of us there is literally nothing you can do, well, it's not your fault, stop beating yourself up. Colberg does, somewhat half-heartedly, argue that we're benefiting from the fruits of all these global wars and oppression and are thereby complicit even though we're individually helpless to actually change the situation.

Frankly, that's a tenuous argument. You can argue that without the crushing burden of endless proxy wars between Russia and the USA, I would be able to buy even nicer shirts for an even smaller percentage of my income, so perhaps the global oppression is actually harming me as well. Not that I necessarily buy that line of argument, the point is, it's complicated. The paths of blame are not obvious.

On the other hand, if you can do something about it, then you probably ought to. There's a whole spectrum of "well, I could, but the personal cost would be enormous, so, uh, what then" and it gets complicated, I guess. I give you permission to not travel to Syria and take up arms against whichever side you most oppose.

I've made a personal commitment to be more politically active. I'm writing letters on a regular basis to elected officials, because I am informed that This Actually Works (at least, when it's performed as a collective action -- but I can only do it for myself). I'm going to shoot a protest march this coming weekend, and if there's anything at all to be had photographically I'm going to publish it. I don't expect to change the world with a tiny publishing effort. No single soldier ever won a war, but put a whole batch of them together and they can blow up a hell of a lot of real estate. Kaboom.

The odds are that you're pretty irritated, upset, worried about some damn thing or another that your government is up to. Do something about it. Write grouchy letters, if nothing else. It turns out that politicians listen to whoever talks to them, and in the west the biggest problem is that the only people who talk to politicians are moneyed interests. Because of the money and the interest.


  1. Interesting post, Andrew.
    I had a quick read of the essay in question.

    I must confess that I take issue with essays such as that where the writer attempts to lay collective guilt, blame, complicity at the feet of everyone who isn't part of an exploited group.
    It seems to be an almost ritualistic fervour among certain affluent, yes, mainly western folk, to wring their hands in grief and claim to be sorry for all past or current wrongs visited upon innocents elsewhere.

    A few years back in this country there was a huge movement to apologise for the past wrongs of previous generations. So many folk seemed to be burdened with the gravity of "their' wrongdoing and were fulsome in the their apologies for things over which they had no control.
    Don't get me wrong, things that happened aforetime were indeed horrendous, and no doubt left a great mark upon those who suffered and those who followed.
    But to clamber over each other to profess to be the most sorry, for things committed generations ago? I don't know about that.
    I think there was little too much piety in it all. Same with the essay that you reference. Kick the can of complicity down the street. HE may be complicit, but I'm sure as heck that the average person is not, no matter what the bleeding hearts may say.
    Live a good life, try to do no harm to anyone else. It's not a bad motto. If you can do something, do it. If you can't, then make sure you don't add to the problem.
    It's complicated, perhaps, but you have to answer ultimately for yourself.

  2. I think it was Don McCullin who said something like this: There are some extreme situations where you MUST help, because you are a human being. In those situations you have to stop taking pictures and do something for the victims. 'If you're not there to help, you shouldn't be there at all.'
    His book 'Unreasonable Behaviour' says more about his and is a better source for this topic than most others. Everybody read this book. Crazy stuff.

  3. That last paragraph is a peach. Thanks.

  4. I thought this article on Aljazeera was somewhat relevant:

    1. Awesome link, thank you!

      I will be following up on this in the next, um, while! There's some fantastic work out a click or two past that link.