The Cruel Radiance – Susie Linfield

mickyates Cambodia, Documentary, Falmouth, MA, Masters, Photo Book, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized Leave a Comment

I just read The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political violence, by Susie Linfield (University of Chicago Press, 2010), and found it totally fascinating. Essentially, Linfield challenges the idea that photography of political violence exploits the subject and panders to the viewer’s voyeuristic tendencies. Instead she argues passionately that looking at such images, and learning how to see people in them, is both ethically and politically necessary – a view with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Linfield notes that the book

.. is written, in large part, against the photography criticism of Susan Sontag. This is not because Sontag was wrong about most things, on the contrary, many of her insights remain sharp and true. But is is Sontag, more than anyone else, 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. 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 these critics I believe we need to respond to and learn from photographs rather than simply disassemble them; unlike these critics, I believe we need to look at, and into, what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is”’. (pg XV)

Polemics: Chapter 1

… through criticism, [Baudelaire] sought to transform [his] pleasure into knowledge.’. (pg 3)

Modernist Baudelaire and Margaret Fuller suggested that the critic’s emotional connection to an artist or work of art … is the sine qua non … of criticism (pg 3) whilst post Modernist Sontag sees photography as grandiose, voyeuristic, predatory, addictive. (Sontag, On Photography, 1970) Roland Barthes noted that photograph’s punctum is that accident that ‘pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)‘. (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1980). Barthes also describes photographs as ‘agents of death‘. (pg 6)

John Berger, unlike Sontag, respects the prosaic yet meaningful ways in which people throughout the world use photographs. But he was especially critical of photographs that document political violence. (pg 6) Sontag also wrote that ‘The shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings‘ (pg 7). And Allan Sekula: ‘photography is … primitive, infantile, aggressive.‘ (pg 7)

Yet McCullin’s or Ut’s war images didn’t foster feelings of moral inadequacy or were ignored – on the contrary they mobilized political opposition to the Vietnam War (pg 7)

‘The assault on photography was, in short, a servant to the larger postmodern project of deconstruction in which art is distanced and separated from itself.’ (pg 8)

For the post-moderns, photographs were not just an integral part of capitalism but its obedient slave. John Tagg described photography as ultimately a function of the state (pg 9), whilst Martha Rosler wrote that photographs are the ultimate imperialism (pg 9) and Sekula assailed the photographer Paul Strand’s belief in human values, social ideas, decency and truth as ‘the enemy’ (pg 10)

In short, the postmodern critics viewed photography as a generally nasty business – the photograph is a prison, the act of looking a crime – which may Be why reading their work often feels like trudging through mud.’ (pg 11)

Yet photography was a great democratic medium from the beginning, which Flaubert thought will ‘dethrone painting’ (from Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet). (pg 14)

Sontag, Berger, Barthes and the postmodernist’s were heavily influenced by the melancholy school of the Frankfurt writers, especially Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin and Bertold Brecht. This school didn’t write just about photography, and they are treated by contemporary critics with fitting intellectual respect, but also with a kind of fundamentalist reverence, which (Linfield writes) is inappropriate. (pg 17) For Benjamin though, photography was a part of painful but necessary task of modernity. The photographer Eugėne Atget, who ‘set about removing the makeup from reality’, inspired in Benjamin some of his most appreciative and beautiful writing (pg 17)

  • Benjamin distrusted photography’s ability to beautify (pg 18)
  • Kracauer believed that in a photograph, a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow.’ (pg 19)
  • Brecht really did loathe photographs ‘The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about the conditions in this world.’ (pg 20)
  • Benjamin quotes Brecht ‘less than ever does the mere reflection of reality [a photograph] [tell us] anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp world’s tells us next to nothing about these institutions’ (pg 20)

And on one level Brecht was right – photographs don’t explain the way the world works

‘… when you’ve seen one bombed out building, you’ve seen them all’ … yet ‘only a vulgar reductionist – or an absolute pacifist – would say that these five cities [wars] represent the same circumstances, histories, causes’ (pg 21). ‘… the problem with photographs is not only what they fail to do. … a greater problem for Brecht [and co] is what they succeed in doing. Photographs excel, more than any other form of art or journalism, in offering an immediate, viscerally emotional connection with the world’ (pg 22)

Brecht lived through the crisis of modernity that was the Weimar Republic, and which led to the Nazis. His genius was to understand the role of unexamined emotion in this fatal process (pg 23) And photographs were a major part of that hysterically political scene. However Brecht was wrong to say that photography was in the hands of the bourgeoisie – the practice of documentary photography [in the 30s] was dominated by liberals and leftists (pg 24)

Open ended photographs don’t tell us what to feel, but encourage us to dig … a photograph’s ambiguities are a starting point for discovery (pg 29)

Unlike Brecht, we don’t need to view photographs as carriers of a fatal emotional germ; unlike the postmodern, we don’t need to avoid emotion the way the Victorians avoided sex. Nor do we need to regard photographs simply as henchman of capitalism or tools of oppression [Sekula] … critics have crippled our capacity to grasp what John Berger called “The there was of the world”. And it is just that – the texture, the fullness of the wound outside ourselves – into which we need to delve’ (pg 30)

Polemics: Chapter 2

The establishment of human rights is a life and death project to build a “species solidarity” that is deeper and stronger than culture, nation, religion, race, class, gender or politics.’ (pg 35)

Photographs can show us what the abscence of those rights looks like (pg 37) And ‘The best photographic portraits, like the best painted portraits, present us not with biographical information but with soul.’ (pg 40)

Linfield notes a 1978 essay on documentary photography by Allan Sekula, which discusses ‘The pornography of the direct representation of misery’ (pg 40) And on the other hand, considers Sebastiao Salgado, who work some critics dismiss because of the ‘prettiness’ of his images. (pg 43)

Whilst photography has globalized awareness and our consciences, beyond the control of nation states, it has still not stopped the suffering. Journalist Martha Gellhorn wrote in the 1939s of photography being no stronger than a glow worm – a widely held view today amongst humanitarian organisations and documentary photographers. (pg 47) However International NGOs are hardly possible without photography.

Linfield discusses the image of Nsala, from the Belgium Congo, who is looking at hand and foot of his five year old daughter, who had been killed and eaten in attack on village for failing to meet its rubber quota. Nsala’s wife had also been killed and eaten in the attack. (pg 49). She notes that we now look at such images in the full knowledge that what they depict really happened, and in some small way that makes them less terrible as photographs.

Don McCullin’s pictures in Biafra (1967-70) helped jumpstart global consciousness of the issues, and led to the formation of Doctors Without Borders (1972). But images didn’t address the underlying cause of the famine, which occurred because Biafran Leader Ojukwu put his political aims above the fate of his own people. (pg 50)

Nazis, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Khmer Rouge and others used photography to document/legitimize their actions – but whilst they are taken by the perpetrators, the images speak for the victims (pg 52)

Linfield criticizes David Chandler’s afterword in the 1996 book of photographs from Tuol Sleng, The Killing Fields, edited by Chris Riley & Douglas Niven when he notes ‘… we are inside S21’.

‘We are not inside their prison, they were. Our hells are almost certainly not theirs. Nor should the difference between looking at a photograph and torturing a child be so easily elided. … We cannot be the prisoners of S21 and more than we can save them. … That is not an argument for not looking, not seeing, or not knowing, nor for throwing up one’s hands or shielding one’s eyes. Looking at these doomed people is not a form of exploitation; forgetting them is not a firm of respect. … The demands of justice will never be met, and the suffering of the victims never redeemed’. (pg 59)

The MoMa exhibition around this book, held in 1997, did get some criticism.

This exhibition has provoked a small storm of protest, and it is certainly fair to ask what these sensational photographs are doing in an art museum. Does this imply that the killers who took them are artists? Can genocide be art? And does the book from Twin Palms, so glossily produced, estheticize and exploit the dead?’.

Michael Kimmelman, New York Times Art Review, June 1997

Still, as Linfield later notes ‘Photojournalists are responsible for the ethics of showing, but we are responsible for the ethics of seeing’ (pg 60).

Personally I think a more apt criticism can be made of the book’s editors, Riley and Niven. They painstakingly restored the Tuol Sleng images, and these serve even today as serious, legally important reference materials. But in creating a for-profit ‘art’ book and exhibition, did things go too far? The book is still for sale today, at $150.

The Camera as Judge and Executioner

mickyates Book, Cambodia, Documentary, Falmouth, MA, Masters, Photography Leave a Comment

As I develop the Cambodia Project for my Falmouth MA in Photography, the need to research is clear. Archiving the Unspeakable, by Michelle Caswell, is a fascinating read. It deals with the role of photographic archives in the activities of the Khmer Rouge at the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, now the Genocide Museum, in Phnom Penh. Every visitor to the prison is immediately struck by the walls of mug shots, and the painstaking record keeping of torture.

Michelle Caswell is an assistant professor of archival studies in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is also an affiliated faculty member with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

In the early pages, Caswell notes the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, in his book ‘Silencing the Past‘. Trouillot states that a record (a picture) moves through four silences – it is captured, it is organised and archived, it takes on a narrative, and it becomes history.

She then goes on to mention Eric Ketelaar, who said that ‘.. records are dynamic objects, continually shifting with each new use and contextualisation.‘ (pg 50)

Not a bad way to think about pictures.

However, more seriously, John Tagg noted that ‘ Like the state, the camera is never neutral ‘ (pg 50). And Caswell wrote ‘The camera, as a truth apparatus of the totalitarian Khmer Rouge state, was invested with the power to produce the truth it recorded’ (pg 51)

Thus, in taking the mug shots, the chief of 6 photographers at Tuol Sleng, Nhem En (born 1961), essentially also took away the rights and the humanity of the accused – leading to interrogation and execution. Nhem En later stepped forward as a witness in the Khmer rouge trails. From a 2007 NYT interview ‘His career in the Khmer Rouge began in 1970 at age 9 when he was recruited as a village boy to be a drummer in a touring revolutionary band. When he was 16, he said, he was sent to China for a seven-month course in photography”

Caswell again: ‘The taking of mug shots at Tuol Sleng and the photograph’s ability to transform suspects into criminal enemies of the state were part and parcel of this larger Khmer Rouge obsession with classifying the population in an effort to create a purely Cambodian agrarian society’ (pg 52).

And ‘There are no archives without politics; the process of transforming the Tuol Sleng mug shots into archives is inherently and inescapably political’ (pg 95)

Stephanie BenzaquenWhile one focuses on the 17,000 victims of Tuol Sleng one forgets about the other two million dead who left no trace’ (pg 134) … the vast majority of the dead remain silent … As Trouillot writes ‘the production of traces is always the production of silences’ (pg 135)

On a 2011/12 visit to Tuol Sleng, Caswell saw Bou Meng and Chum Mey, Tuol Sleng survivors, selling books and posing for photographs. She at first struggled with this, but gradually realised what was happening.

Whilst she acknowledged that ‘The disproportionate rate with which certain Tuol Sleng mug shots – Chan Kim Srun’s is a prime example – gets reproduced on book covers, in publications, and on DVDs, misrepresents Khmer Rouge victims as women and children and as elites, silencing the other victims of Tuol Sleng and the Khmer Rouge’ (pg 134), she also noted that ‘Like almost everything else in Cambodia, the suffering of the Tuol Sleng survivors has a price’ (pg 136). And ‘Although the [UN- Cambodian Government ECCC] Tribunal’s predominant narrative is that without justice for the past, Cambodia can’t move forward, it is the survivors who quite literally can’t move beyond Tuol Sleng without material reparations’ (pg 144)

There is [clearly] an enormous potential for re-traumatisation when these survivors return on a daily basis to the site of their own horrific torture and captivity – as well as the murder of their loved ones – to earn a living’ (pg 144). But, as DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang said ‘When BM and CM are together now, they are no longer survivors. They become authors, booksellers and competitors. They become free from traumatised. Like all of us [Cambodians] they compete for success. They are free people now’ (pg 145)

So these survivors ‘… become free agents whose ongoing survival is secured despite the failure of the state and the international community to provide financial reparations to the victims’ (pg 145). Thus ‘Instead of bristling at the commercialisation of the Tuol Sleng experience, we should shift … towards the larger global and domestic climate in which hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on on a tribunal …’ (pg 145) ‘The Tribunal offers a narrow legal justice, but the survivors demand a pervasive restorative justice‘ (pg 147)

Rachel Hughes ethnographically studied on tourists at Tuol Sleng, and found that they are not solely ‘dark tourists’ (as per J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley) but instead visit out of a sense of duty (pg 146). As Caswell comments, they bear witness to the genocide, as they pose for photographs with the survivors.

Caswell studied the blogs of tourists who had visited Tuol Sleng, and mentioned two in particular.

Nancy Kuy

Joel & Whitney LaBahn

She concludes that ‘Underlying the photographs with the survivors are two competing conceptions of human rights: that which is defined in opposition to genocide, and that which is defined in opposition to economic injustice’ (pg 152) Yet ‘… the tourists in the pictures also perform injustice by recording how Bou Meng and Chum Mey must sell their publications to tourists to guarantee their financial well-being … The tourists in these photographs become witnesses to the commodification of the survivor’s memory’ (pg 152)

In the Tuol Sleng courtyard, the survivors themselves carefully construct the object of the tourist gaze, repeatedly staging near identical scenarios’ (pg 153). So, the survivors are transformed from symbols of past injustice into symbols of contemporary injustice.

To see the Tuol Sleng survivors as victimised by tourist cameras oversimplifies the complexities of how these records are constructed and circulated, and denies the survivors agency in creating them’ (pg 155) Thus ‘... the records of Tuol Sleng are never finalised, their meaning never resolved; they are always in the process of becoming’ (pg 156)

The mug shot images were originally the instrument of depersonalisation of the victim, and effectively their death warrant within the closed-loop of the totalitarian Khmer Rouge bureaucracy. They became instruments of justification for the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, and the beginnings of an historical archive for scholars. Archivists and photographers attempted to repurpose them as Art, with insufficient context.

DC-Cam uses them effectively and politically to prosecute justice against the leaders of the KR, at the ECCC Tribunal.  The few remaining survivors of Tuol Sleng use them to create some financial security, despite their double traumas as torture victims and then victims of institutional failure to provide reparation. And tourists, in photographing these survivors and survivors the records themselves, bear witness to the genocide.

Yet, In all cases, the mug shots leave silent the millions of other victims of the Khmer Rouge.

I will leave the last words to Caswell: ‘As scholars, archivists and humans, it is our responsibility to respectfully activate these records in the present, acknowledge the silences encoded within them, and bring them forth from the past into the future, ensuring they will not be erased’ (pg 165)

Comments from the University of Wisconsin book page:

“An important book that will reward re-reading for years to come. Using an archival frame of reference, Caswell describes the reasons for the creation and subsequent uses of the familiar yet tragic mug shots of Tuol Sleng prison victims, demonstrating the many silences these records encode and illustrating how they can be employed to transform narratives of victimhood into narratives of agency and witness.”
Andrew Flinn,
University College London

“Caswell pays homage to the subjects of the heart-breaking mug shots taken at a Khmer Rouge prison and examines the impact that the photographs have had over the years on different viewers. Her humane, sophisticated, and unblinking book sharpens and enhances our understanding of the so-called Pol Pot era.”
David Chandler,
Monash University

Michelle CaswellArchiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia. Univ Wisconsin, 2014.

Michel-Ralph Trouillot, Silencing the Past, Beacon Press 1995

John TaggThe Burden of Representation Amherst: Univ of Massachusetts, 1988