Exposing the Fine Lines
By Chris Herlinger
Image 1: Well before the 2010 Haiti earthquake, I am in the Dominican Republic, on an assignment for a U.S.-based humanitarian agency. I am interviewing Haitians who live along the Haitian-Dominican border about flooding that has uprooted them. I am also there to photograph a small distribution of food for their community, coordinated by a North American colleague.
The photo assignment is easy—perhaps too much so. But then a small challenge arises. One of the women being handed food knows she is being used as a kind of humanitarian prop for my picture taking. She knows her role—grateful recipient of aid—and does not require any prompting from me. But her tired, weary glares are proof that she is not happy with me, her assigned role, or her life’s situation. I don’t blame her, and I take note of my own reaction as I snap away: I am simultaneously taking photographs and, in my head, critiquing what I am doing. This is theater, and everyone knows it, I think to myself.
Image 2: I am in Indonesia nearly a year after the 2004 tsunami, gathering material for first-year retrospective photos, stories, and video material for the same humanitarian agency. The assignment is not that much different from the one in the Dominican Republic, except in the specifics. Today, I am assisting another colleague who is trying to maneuver an Indonesian man into place so he can be handed a blanket—again, a recipient of American largesse—and have the moment captured by an Indonesian video crew.
The man is a proud, quiet, shy Indonesian who we have talked to during several days of work. He grasps the dynamics and looks awfully hurt. My colleague instantly understands this and becomes embarrassed. I am embarrassed, too. But I also know that part of my colleague is not ashamed—we have a job to do, after all—and that she is probably thinking what I am thinking: Get the shot. Get the shot.
Image 3: At a meeting of Church World Service colleagues who do not deal regularly with the ways a church-based humanitarian agency tries to communicate its work through photography and images, I show a startling, sharp-edged, brutal photograph of a severely malnourished child at a feeding center in eastern Kenya. It is an image that is going to be used for an advertisement—something of a risky venture for a humanitarian agency that is nothing if not careful.
For years, Church World Service has steadfastly refused to use such photos, adhering to a policy that “while we do want to convey the need of hungry and hurting people around the world, we do not want to reinforce popular stereotypes of poor people and people of color—that they are somehow lacking in capacity,” as one veteran colleague told me. “We want to avoid compounding the dehumanizing aspects of poverty with dehumanizing images of those suffering. In general, then, we’ve tried to match images of need with images that suggest strength, creativity, agency.”
I agree with that outlook, and I know the arguments against tougher photographs—what some call “humanitarian pornography,” depictions of people in the most extreme of circumstances, like starvation. But I argue that there are times when a dire situation, like the 2011 East African drought, justifies the use of riskier images—to tell a more complete story, to witness in a more truthful way, and, if we can do it, to prompt action. (In contrast to how easy it was to raise money for the Asian tsunamis of 2005 and 2011, fundraising for this long-term African emergency proved far, far more difficult.)
I realize this discussion is full of ambiguities. Paul Jeffrey, the photographer who took the photo, and himself a strong advocate of photography that affirms “strength, creativity and agency,” wrote of his experience in Kenya: “[W]hile it’s easy to cynically chastise the media for chasing the most visually dramatic story, in my experience most journalists do so because they believe that’s what will most readily move hearts and liberate credit cards back home. Unfortunately, this reinforces the well-founded belief that misery sells.”1
Misery may indeed sell, but I point out that the photo shows the actual work of humanitarian response—the child is being fed. It is not an isolated, “decontextualized” photo. Indeed, this is the reason the photo is ultimately used. As another person in on the decision recalled: “The reason we felt like we could use that specific image was the feeding tube, that there was a humanitarian intervention being applied. If the tube hadn’t been there, I don’t think I would have pushed it.”
However, another colleague, shaken by the image, disagreed passionately over its use. She later recalls the discussion and says this: “It has always been hard for me to see photographs of children in crisis—another life hanging in the balance due to circumstances that are completely preventable,” she said. “Just looking at the photograph commits violence on the observer.”
From my own experiences in places like Haiti, Sudan, and Pakistan, I argue that photographs that try only to convey a sense of hope can themselves be distortions. To take an example from a displacement or refugee camp in Africa: It is not that there aren’t smiling children in such a place. But there is a legitimate question to be asked about the dissemination of such an image: Does a photograph of a smiling child convey the reality—the terror and horror—of, say, a Darfur? Is it, in effect, truthful?
The question stems from age-old queries of what constitutes truth—I have always been stopped short when reading that declarative question posed by Pontius Pilate in the Gospel of John—and also from the valuable and legitimate urge for analysis, drilled into anyone who has studied any branch of the humanities at an American college or graduate school during the last thirty years: Whose truth? To what ends? And for whose purposes?
I doubt any of these “image scenarios” I have painted would much surprise Susie Linfield, who has written a small masterpiece of a book about the strange, elusive nature and contradictions of photography and images in our broken world. In fact, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (2010) contains an “image scenario” far more dramatic than anything in my experience.
Linfield recounts the experience of South African photographer Greg Marinovich, who, during a cycle of hideous violence in the last years of the apartheid era, found himself witnessing the lynching of an African National Congress activist by supporters of the Zulu party Inkatha. Shockingly, even with a photographer present, the “murder proceeds,” and Marinovich, out of survival and, no doubt, experiencing the rush of adrenaline, continues his work.
Linfield quotes the photographer: “I was one of the circle of killers, shooting with a wide-angle lens just an arm’s length away, much too close. I was horrified, screaming inside my head that this could not be happening. But I steadily checked light readings … I was as aware of what I was doing as a photographer as I was of the rich scent of fresh blood” (221–222).
Marinovich later discovers an infant mutilated by a “gash in his head where a blade had been driven deep into his soft little skull.” He writes: “I knew that of all the gory and heart-wrenching scenes I had already photographed that morning, this dead baby was the image that would show the insane cruelty of the attack … But the light sucked” (222).
It is a credit to Linfield that she understands Marinovich and the cultural milieu of photographers. (Who among them would not instantly recognize the frustrating reality that “the light sucked”?) At the same time, Linfield is fully conversant with those who write about photography—critique it—and would be repelled by what Marinovich did.
That Linfield can “read” both worldviews, that of the photographer and that of the critic, is hardly a surprise, as she is a writer who straddles the worlds of journalism and academia. Linfield heads the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University, where she teaches journalism. She also has worked as an editor at American Film, the Village Voice, and The Washington Post.
If read slowly, deeply, and deliberately, The Cruel Radiance can be a moving experience that pierces a person’s view of images. But then, I find Linfield’s argument absolutely winning: that an oversaturation of critique has clouded contemporary perceptions of photography and has prevented us from embracing a more empathetic and humanely worldly approach toward photojournalism, particularly when it is grounded in tough, difficult, and violent situations.
In strong, clear and sometimes poetic prose, Linfield makes clear her intent, saying she has written “a book of criticism, not theory” that seeks “to claim for photography criticism the same freedom of response championed by film critics like James Agee and Pauline Kael, dance critics like Edwin Denby and Arlene Croce, theater critics like Kenneth Tynan, and music critics like Greil Marcus.” She also is writing to counter some of the photography criticism by Susan Sontag—a writer both Linfield and I admire. In On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag was among our most trenchant critics of photography, noting the often irremediable gap between the reality of war and photographic images of violence. As Linfield notes, it was not that “Sontag was wrong about most things; on the contrary, many of her insights remain sharp and true.” Yet, as Linfield argues, it was “Sontag, more than anyone else, who was responsible for establishing a tone of suspicion and distrust in photography criticism, and for teaching us that to be smart about photographs means to disparage them.” She further explains:
I am writing, even more, against the work of Sontag’s postmodern and poststructuralist heirs and their sour, arrogant disdain for the traditions, the practice, and the ideals of documentary photography. Unlike those critics, I believe that we need to respond to and learn from photographs rather than simply disassemble them; unlike those critics, I believe that we need to look at, and look into, what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is.” Photographs help us do that; so would the kind of criticism that believed in their worth. (xiv–xv)
A humanistic reclaiming of the value and worth of documentary photography is exciting enough: Linfield loves photography as much as Pauline Kael loved movies. So let me dispense, quickly, with a few minor criticisms of Linfield’s book. For a study that offers some fine textual analysis—”close readings”—of photographs, there are, to my mind, not nearly enough photographs to accompany some of the excellent descriptions of images. I suspect, though, that this probably had to do with issues of cost and copyright. And indeed, in the case of at least one well-known photojournalist cited in the book, the photographer’s studio denied Linfield’s publisher the rights to reproduce some of his images.
I also wished the book had ended better: it ends far too abruptly. To my mind, an epilogue or conclusion would have felt most appropriate, though, to be fair, Linfield’s ending—an examination of photojournalist Gilles Peress—restates some of Linfield’s key themes, and I found they lingered in my mind.
Linfield finds in Peress a soul mate of sorts. Peress, who has photographed from Northern Ireland during “the Troubles,” revolutionary Iran, war-torn Bosnia, and New York City following the September 11 attacks, makes a simple argument: that the photograph is “still a space to reorganize our thoughts about reality and our place in the world. How do you disentangle the surface of reality?”
One way you do not disentangle “the surface of reality” is by pretending you fully can, and both Peress and Linfield know that the critique of photography is messy, contested terrain. Peress, Linfield writes, “has assailed photography’s inward turn, which he calls ‘the postmodernist incapacity for dealing with the world, which is [based on the belief] that there is no accurate description of the world, so there is no point in going out to look at the world. And if you’re not going to look at the world then certainly you’re not going to change it’ ” (236).
Here, Linfield (through Peress) intuitively grasps photography’s power—and the fact that photography in some ways remains a modernist project and cannot be straightjacketed into categories favored by postmodernists.
It is true, of course, that some earlier “modernist” figures were naïve in what they took to be “photography’s objectivity.” Linfield cites James Agee, for instance, as someone who once described the camera itself as wholly “incapable of recording anything but absolute, dry truth.” On the other extreme, critics from Walter Benjamin down to Sontag have, Linfield notes, “not only assailed photography’s ability to truthfully depict reality; some denied that there was any reality to depict” (237). One such critic and theorist, Jean Baudrillard, opined that “truth, reference and objective causes have ceased to exist.” From another perspective, Allan Sekula criticized photography as “primitive, infantile, aggressive” (7).
For many of the postmodern critics “a relentless hostility to modernist photography . . . was an ethical stance,” Linfield writes (7). Yet an “exaggerated view of photography’s subjectivity” has done real harm, Linfield argues, because the critics could not grasp an essential point: “that a photograph is objective and subjective, found and made, dead and alive, withholding and revealing. They could not see that although a photograph—like a novel, a poem, a work of journalism, or a painting—is often created by a person of relative privilege, it might nevertheless foster ideas of human connection and a vision of a less unjust world” (237).
Linfield holds up Peress as an example of a photographer whose work could foster such connections but also do what the postmodern critics could not: “incorporate a critique of photography’s objectivity into that obstinate bit of bourgeois folklore formerly known as truth. He embraces postmodern skepticism, but uses it to enlarge photographic possibilities” (237–238).
Peress does this partly because, as Linfield notes, he understands something the critics do not: “Every image, Peress has said, has four authors: the photographer, the camera, the viewer, and reality. But it is reality, he insists, that ‘has a way of speaking the loudest’: that speaks, in fact, ‘with a vengeance’ ” (238).
Ah, reality! The stuff of family “pictures,” of newspaper accounts of murders and city council meetings. Of funerals and weddings. The lived graininess of life. And perhaps one reason why journalists make such lousy postmodernists. Imagine telling George Orwell or Martha Gellhorn (or Dorothy Day during her youthful days as an apprentice reporter) that their reporting was “open to different interpretations.” These distinctly modernist figures—who subscribed to the modernist idea of a unified narrative of life—had things to say and said them sharply, without ambiguity. (Who could have told Gellhorn or Day, two women who did not suffer fools gladly, that “truth, reference and objective causes have ceased to exist”?)
I have experienced some of these frustrations and tensions myself. Postmodern theory was just beginning to show its influence during my years as an undergraduate in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I recall how Ronald Ross, a dear and late mentor from Macalester College who had covered the Vietnam War for the Minneapolis Tribune, spoke knowingly about how, in reference to that war, the historian’s critique and the wire service reporter’s work covering a firefight may be wholly different. Still, each serves an equally valid purpose. Both use different lenses, but both are, in a sense, true.
In that spirit, when I was a student at Union Theological Seminary in the early 1990s, and just getting my bearings in the Bible, I examined sacred texts and interpretative works from a multitude of prisms (feminist, African American, Latina, queer), and I found this work moving and exciting. And in the intervening years, as a journalist who writes about religion, such experience has also proven valuable because it fit nicely into the journalist’s paradigm of examining evidence from all sides. (My experience as a humanitarian worker and journalist working on assignments in Africa, as only one example, has only further reinforced my opinion that more “readings of the world” rooted in the experiences of those who are not men and who are not white are sorely needed.)
Still, it was my experience as a journalist, not as a seminary student, that taught me “the hermeneutic of suspicion,” a much cherished (and much overused) phrase from my days at Union, which simply meant to be on the lookout for cant and falsity. But a worldview that prized critique above all would, whatever its merits, be an uncomfortable, even immobilizing, straightjacket to any working journalist. Why? Because in the end, while often “a person of relative privilege,” a journalist (writer or photographer) committed to “human connection and a vision of a less unjust world” still has to write the copy and take the photographs. To do that involves taking risks: to find what you find unencumbered and to represent what you find in a way that might give others pleasure or, perhaps, cause them pain.
Linfield understands that basic tenet of what I would call “narrative capture,” and it runs up against what she faults the postmoderns for most grievously: a “rigid negativity” that denies freedom. “They insisted that even a scintilla of autonomy, for either photographer or viewer, was impossible,” Linfield argues. “Insisted, that is, that the photographer could never offer, and the viewer could never find, a moment of surprise, originality, or insight when looking at a photograph” (11).
Why is this so? Linfield believes that the postmodern critics “fear not just the obedient, automatic reactions of the viewer but her disobedient, politically incorrect ones. They worry that our unfiltered gaze—our intuitive reactions—will reveal things about us that may not be good, and that our pesky, potentially uncontrollable emotions will burst out of the armor of ideology they have tried to construct around us” (25).
This armored, closed, hermetic culture of critique would surprise someone like Robert Capa, that well-known photographer whose hearty and open (some would say dated or quaint) humanism Linfield finds attractive, because Capa understood, and practiced so magnificently, this act of freedom-in-creation. And he did so in ways that might strike some of us today as dangerously, if charmingly, naïve (pace James Agee): “The pictures are there, and you just take them,” Capa said, denying any “style” in his photographs from the Spanish Civil War.
There is great wisdom in that statement, and Capa’s observation buttresses Linfield’s argument about what photographs do not, or cannot, do: they do not “explain the way the world works; they don’t offer reasons or causes; they don’t tell us stories with a coherent, or even discernible, beginning, middle, and end.” Put another way: “Photographs can’t burrow within to reveal the inner dynamics of historic events” (21).
But they are immediately arresting in a way text is not. As someone who has written two books in collaboration with photographer Paul Jeffrey, I have seen people thumbing through our books, admiring the photographs and giving scant attention to the text. I know that, in the battle between images and text, the text will have a hard go of it. Why? Because photographs are harder to tame. We experience them far more emotionally than we do text. Photographs, Linfield argues, offer “an immediate, viscerally emotional connection to the world”:
People don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of global capitalism, or the reasons for the genocide in Rwanda, or the solution to the conflicts in the Middle East. They—we—turn to photographs for other things: for a glimpse of what cruelty, or strangeness, or beauty, or agony, or love, or disease, or natural wonder, or artistic creation, or depraved violence, looks like. And we turn to photographs to discover what our intuitive reactions to such otherness—and to such others—might be. There is no doubt that we approach photographs, first and foremost, through emotions. (22)
Even so, another thread of Linfield’s book has to do with how the world has become smart to photographs. Everyone knows, of course, the ways images can be, with the click of a computer mouse, baldly manipulated (“every teenager knows how to manipulate them, tear them apart, dismiss them as lies”). So, while we continue to respond to photographs emotionally, in this digital age we are also simultaneously experts at distancing ourselves from our emotions as we observe images. “What we have lost is the capacity to respond to photographs, especially those of political violence, as citizens who seek to learn something useful from them and connect to others through them,” Linfield argues (24).
Even before the ubiquity of smart phones and the like, Sontag, among others, held that the “cumulative effect” of photographs depicting crises was creating a “society of moral dullards,” in which it is no longer shocking to see photographic images of atrocities. She further argued: “In these last decades, ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it” (7).
Yet the reaction of my Church World Service colleague to that photograph of the child in the feeding center is proof that emotions are never really far from our reaction to particularly extreme images; not everyone is a “moral dullard.” Moreover, we still, and should, bring our humanity to the images we see, particularly those that come from a place of violence and seeming hopelessness. My colleague might add: viewers of images, like readers, have choices, and we can simply choose to say “enough” to a horrific image of a starving child. To that, I would say, “of course.” And, in return, you would be within your right to argue that the image of a child used for humanitarian purposes—and, let’s be honest, fundraising—is an example of a particular and even odious kind of danger.
“The depiction of powerless, vulnerable people is a fraught enterprise that can easily veer into condescension” (10), Linfield writes, and that is particularly the case in photographing children, which can too “easily weaken the viewer’s capacity to form considered judgments.” The result? Images becoming “the perfect vehicle for nurturing simple-minded solutions and thoughtless vengeance rather than political wisdom.” The paradox of photos of vulnerable children is that “precisely by appealing to our noblest—our most altruistic and protective—selves, such images are perfect conduits for manipulation, vulgar simplification, and propaganda,” Linfield argues (131). She quotes author David Rieff, who once declared that “the one thing tyrants and aid workers have in common is their liking for being posed next to children.”
This may sound harsh to those who work in the humanitarian world. “But we do good,” some will say, sputtering. But others among my colleagues know that in a world where the line between doing good and causing harm is thin indeed, such critique is good for us; it keeps us honest and humbled.
Being humbled does not change my belief that photos of children in tough, horrific situations that need to be exposed and stopped are legitimate and a form of humanitarian and humanistic practice, because they ultimately can do good in prompting action that saves lives. But I do know, as well, that my opinion—and here, speaking, about that particular photograph taken in the Kenyan feeding center—rests in a tradition that well deserves critical scrutiny. In a fine piece in the Boston Review (August 2012), journalist Jina Moore notes that the journalist-cum-humanitarian narrative is based on “a storytelling tradition that hasn’t fundamentally changed since Joseph Conrad slapped Congo with ‘the heart of darkness’ label. Even stories that gesture toward something ‘positive’ can’t escape the dominant narrative: ‘Africa isn’t a lost cause,’ pleads one recent headline.” Moore writes:
The argument about journalism from Africa is often whittled into two camps, Afro-pessimists vs. Afro-optimists. But these binary camps, too, miss that Africa is many complex things, simultaneously. In our news broadcasts and our headlines, though, it’s usually framed by just one static thing: suffering.2
Calling attention to suffering “certainly is crucial work,” she writes. But Moore wisely suggests that such attention “is more about our preoccupation with stories of suffering than it is about Africa.” Novelist Teju Cole has a name for it: the “white savior industrial complex.”
If it is time to be honest about those dynamics, it is also time to be frank about what Linfield calls the “making, and looking at, pictures that portray suffering.” The fact is that it has always been, and always will be, “a highly imperfect and highly impure activity” (44). Those who feel obliged to critique images of difficult circumstances “want the worst things on earth—the most agonizing, unjust things on earth—to be represented in ways that are not incomplete, imperfect, or discomfiting.”
Is there an unproblematic way to show the degradation of a person? Is there an untroubling way to portray the death of a nation? Is there an inoffensive way to document unforgivable violence? Is there a right way to look at any of this? Ultimately, pious denouncements of the “pornographic” photograph reveal something that is, I think, fairly simple: a desire to not look at the world’s cruelest moments and to remain, therefore, unsullied. (45)
None of us are, or can be, unsullied, and Linfield’s fine book is not only a way to reflect on that reality, but is also a reminder that photographs—even the most difficult and wrenching, like those of famed war photographer James Nachtwey, a controversial figure whose work takes up a chapter in Linfield’s book—can in some way help us become more empathetic human beings.
The absence of empathy is perilous; it causes “the politics of human rights [to] devolve into abstraction, romantic foolishness, and cruelty,” Linfield warns, and that reminder is a warm, sturdy, humane undercurrent in The Cruel Radiance. And it is photographs, Linfield argues, “that bring us close to those experiences of suffering in ways that no other form of art or journalism can” (xv). Sadly, and paradoxically, “photographs also illuminate the unbridgeable chasm that separates ordinary life from extraordinary experiences of political trauma,” she writes. “In this sense, photographs teach us about our failure—our necessary failure—to comprehend the human” (xv–xvi).
The writers and artists I admire—the authors of the Gospels, Francisco Goya, Graham Greene, T. S. Eliot, Robert Capa—grasped this essential truth about the “necessary failure” that Linfield articulates so movingly. She calls it “a paradox that haunts” her study. But it is also a tragic penumbra of life itself—a paradox that underlines the way “the cruel radiance of what is” ultimately undergirds what it means to be human, whatever view of life we embrace.
- Paul Jeffrey blog post, “Horn of Africa: Deadly Drought.”
- Jina Moore, “The White Correspondent’s Burden: We Need to Tell the Africa Story Differently,” Boston Review, August 2, 2012.
Chris Herlinger, a freelance journalist and writer with the humanitarian agency Church World Service, was a Resident Fellow at Harvard Divinity School in 2005. His last piece for the Bulletin, “Imagining Greene in Islamabad,” was awarded the Associated Church Press 2011 Award of Excellence in the category of critical reviews. He is the co-author, most recently, of Rubble Nation: Haiti’s Pain, Haiti’s Promise (Seabury Books, 2011).