It was common in the 19th century to photograph “post mortem” and often this would be the only photo of that person. One of the reasons for this was the very high level of infant / child mortality.
Today this trend is starting to return with free access to smartphones, to take photographs of the body or to take selfies before, after and during funerals. Also there are many pictures of parents taken with their child (perhaps in hospital) to help the grieving process.
There are also many more gruesome pictures published on the internet than ever before of car crash victims, beheading by terrorist groups or whatever. There seems to be an increasing demand for such pictures.
This brings on the debate of whether it is good that the internet allows one to see the extent of state – inflicted violence (or any other violence for that matter). This shows the real effect of war and violence rather than the sanitised version. However, this sort of imagery can also help to incite fear and elicit sympathy as with terrorist organisations since the turn of the century.
WJ Mitchell wrote extensively on this subject as did Mary Warner Marion. It is not only terrorists who are guilty of inciting fear and eliciting sympathy but governments as in the case of George Bush’s carefully designed photo ops, designed to lead the public astray in order to demonstrate themselves as the victor. Also when the Abu Ghraib photographs of torture were released in 2004, it showed how governments today cover up the atrocities which they create themselves.
Atrocity and action: The performative force of the Abu Ghraib Photographs: Peggy Phelan
Atrocity photographs ask questions: What do the photographs do? What actions do they prompt? What actions do they prohibit?
They pose questions about action: What has been done? What still has to be done?
They push the viewer into considering: What can I do?
For a digital photograph there is a double: When the photograph was taken and when the photograph was viewed.
Atrocity photos are even more powerful than that in that they expose the “given to be seen” and the “blind spot”. both are central to seeing the photograph.
In relation to the present tense, a photograph (freezing of the model’s action) is akin to death. To look at a photographic portrait, one intermingles the past moment of the shutter’s click with the moment of reception and exposes the “this will have been” , the action conveyed by the future anterior. To Barthes the reception of portrait photography activates a mourning process, reheasing for the final stillness. Implicit in Barthes’ argument is a linear notion of temporal intervals: the photograph was taken in the past, seen in the present and projected into the futurity of the subject’s death. If the subject has already died, when the reception of the photograph takes place, the energy of anticipating death is reversed and sends the viewer into a contemplation of the subject’s past, in particular a deep mourning. This grief constitutes “punctum” as defined by Barthes in “Camera Lucida”.
Atrocity photographs, however often bypass this grieving process and generate an urgency in the present tense. They are performative, not constative.
The Abu Ghraib photographs of 2004, and their disquieting revelations, haunt diverse political landscapes today. These hauntings are dissipated in different ways around the world: they have been used as legal evidence, shown in art exhibitions, triggered acts of violence, used as the subject of performances, films and critical essays.
Death is a void, or condition of imagelessness. The pivot between the subject without image and the body as nothing but image constitutes the ongoing atrocity performed via the Abu Ghraib photographs. Looking at a prisoner in a hood with his fists cuffed to the bars is to obviate the notion of the distinction between living and dead.
The Abu Ghraib photographs dramatize the fact that we don’t know what the image conveys. They not only document atrocity but they create it.
Gilligan on a box is the most well known image. A man standing on a box, in a cloak in theatrical style, wired up, presumably to be executed by electric shock. It is what we don’t know as well as what we know which is important in interpreting this picture. The image limits its own opacity. We see the limit of our capacity to see it.
The photographs show the brutality involved in covering it up.
By looking at the blind spot the limit of sight produces a rejection of the idea that one can know what and who one sees when looking at atrocity (punctum).
Link 2 – Art Under Fire – The Guardian – Article by Ghaith Abdul Ahad
The dilemma of Iraqi Art started long before Saddam when artists became official state functionaries paid by the government.
Under Saddam, artists were forced to produce works that glorified the leader and put him at the centre of everything. Now they are less constrained and the subject they most want to depict is the violence around them.
In the middle of all the chaos after Saddam, artist Karim Khalil produced his best work, a series of a dozen 20 to 30 cm high marble and bronze figurines depicting a man from Abu Ghraib with a sack (marble) over his head.
This is one of the marble statuettes. The most significant bronze model is based on the photograph of the man standing on a box with electrical wires connected to him ready for execution. Many artists have attempted to replicate this in their own style.
Before the war art did not sell well, there was not much money. After the war it sold well but now, people are nervous about their art for different reasons. They are in fear of attacks from religious extremists, being intimidated by people like the Mahdi army. Iraq is now filled with negative stories. Everything is bad: the health system is bad, electricity is scarce, water is polluted, the police are corrupt and these things have brought on the satirist, somebody who did not exist in the Saddam regime. They have freedom to make jokes (but not about the American regime or to criticise the occupation.
Wow that was a disturbing subject, I’m glad that’s over.
Exercise 3.2 will follow.