[lit-ideas] Re: On digital cameras

  • From: John Wager <johnwager@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 23 May 2004 12:48:23 -0500

Andreas Ramos wrote:

>Regarding the Torture of Others
>May 23, 2004
>By SUSAN SONTAG, New York Times Magazine
>. . . .
>So, then, is the real issue not the photographs themselves
>but what the photographs reveal to have happened to
>''suspects'' in American custody? No: the horror of what is
>shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the
>horror that the photographs were taken -- with the
>perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless
In Vietnam, I took hundreds of photos. I was trying to think through for 
myself how my photos were different than those I just saw.

For one thing, I took photos so people would think twice about what they 
were doing; my sense of a photo was that it would act as a brake on 
actions that might otherwise get out of hand. There was always a 
"photographer" there who knew the people in the pictures and had already 
said he didn't approve of lots of things going on.

But the Iraqi photos don't seem to have been taken for this reason; the 
American subjects in the photos seem oblivious to any "moral judgment" 
implied in the taking of a photo.

What happened between my photos and these? How has the meaning changed?

I think a large part of it is "reality TV." My students all watch 
"Jackass" and Cops and Real TV. Because they do, I do. These shows are 
incredible, literally: How could someone being arrested for the 
stupidest crime give their permission for their image to be used on 
nationwide TV?  How could people WANT to be photographed doing the most 
self-destructive, stupid things?  I still don't know the answer, but 
apparently this is the new "norm" for photos: They show a volunteer 
doing the most stupid, dumb things, just to share how dumb and stupid 
the person is with their friends.  Further, the stupid things being 
photographed are not punished or evaluated; they are just shown, and 
then the program moves on to another similar incident without comment 
and without consequence.  Maybe it's the old Greek comic world coming 
back to haunt us: Comedy shows us at our worst.  Maybe it's just 
thoughtless following of TV trends. But it seems to me that "Real TV" is 
partly the explanation of why those prison photos were taken in the 
first place.

I don't fully agree with Sontag's point about photography being  used 
"more" now to record daily life; I think it is also fundamentally 
"different" than when I was photographing a war.  This is what's 
disturbing; we no longer judge the things we see through a camera, we 
just "see" them and move on. We used to see things differently through a 
camera because we thought about camera images differently; they carried 
with them a plea, a request, for judgment and comment and reflection.  
Anyone who looks at the prison photos would see that whoever took those 
photos did NOT have any of this in mind.

>German soldiers in the Second World War took
>photographs of the atrocities they were committing in
>Poland and Russia, but snapshots in which the executioners
>placed themselves among their victims are exceedingly rare,
>as may be seen in a book just published, ''Photographing
>the Holocaust,'' by Janina Struk. If there is something
>comparable to what these pictures show it would be some of
>the photographs of black victims of lynching taken between
>the 1880's and 1930's, which show Americans grinning
>beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman
>hanging behind them from a tree. The lynching photographs
>were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants
>felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the
>pictures from Abu Ghraib.
>The lynching pictures were in the nature of photographs as
>trophies -- taken by a photographer in order to be
>collected, stored in albums, displayed. The pictures taken
>by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, however, reflect a
>shift in the use made of pictures -- less objects to be
>saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated. A
>digital camera is a common possession among soldiers. Where
>once photographing war was the province of
>photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all
>photographers -- recording their war, their fun, their
>observations of what they find picturesque, their
>atrocities -- and swapping images among themselves and
>e-mailing them around the globe.

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