The Cruel Radiance – Susie Linfield

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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.