Regarding the Pain of Others

Tastefulness Be Damned
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 25 2003 4:28 PM

Regarding the Pain of Others

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Dear Luc,

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I'm glad we agree about Salgado; it suggests that we may be close enough here to split the difference.

I should begin by pointing out that I'm not, of course, asking that all war photography be inept, only that it not be … lovely. Yes, any AP stringer or CNN cameraman can get the exposure right and frame the scene properly, but I suspect few of them bother to mimic, say, a Pietà—as some photographers have done with the living and the dead. By the same token, any AP reporter can presumably write a solid English sentence, but I wouldn't want my war dispatches coming to me every morning in heroic couplets, even if Pope himself were writing them.

When I first looked at Nachtwey's work, it struck me as yet another example of deluxe, gift-wrapped horror-mongering (though I trust his sincerity and admire his bravery). In your essay for Nachtwey's book, you convinced me that his work was more than that by suggestingthat he took beautiful pictures more or less automatically because he didn't know how to take bad ones. A good argument: I buy it. But just barely. In general, I look at Time's Pictures of the Week, and they are, almost without exception and however gruesome the subject matter, oh-so-tasteful in the most tasteless way: the photographic equivalent of putting plastic slipcovers on living-room furniture or saying "between you and I."

In any case, I don't think the question is one of authenticity: Realism, as we all know, is a special effect like any other, and authenticity is a bullshit concern. Nor am I particularly concerned with appropriateness. My point was more subtle, I hope. It's that photojournalism has a function—a different function than art photography—and that it's important to keep that function in mind. I think Sontag is dead-on about this when she says that war photography should strip us of our innocence because, as she puts it, "No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia." And beauty, after all, is a kind of innocence. A kind of knowledge, maybe, but a kind of innocence, too—or perhaps the better word is "transcendence." And what we want (what I want, anyway) from a news photograph is precisely that it not be transcendent, that it insist on the specific circumstances of a specific event.

To cite a few examples: One of the most fearsome photographic documents I've seen in recent years is Without Sanctuary, a book of postcards of lynchings in the South, most of them taken a century or more ago. The pictures, as such, were perfectly competent, but no more than that, and it's almost disgraceful even to bother asking how good they were. I found the whole book so difficult to look at that I had to thumb through it in a bookstore: I couldn't imagine taking it home and shelving it—right after Winogrand? And Hilton Als' essay in that book should be part of every photography curriculum: Reading it is like drinking paint stripper.

On the news one night, two decades ago, I saw a second-long clip of a man being beaten by South African riot police that shook me so deeply I can hardly bring myself to watch it again, though I have it on videotape on my shelf. (By a very strange coincidence, my father used it in a documentary he made some years later.) On Sept. 12, the New York Times ran a photo of a man falling from the World Trade Center that upset me so much I burst into tears in a room full of strangers. I knew people had jumped or fallen; what was so terrible about that particular image, I think, was just that the man was upside-down, falling head first. The event would have been as terrible, but the picture less disturbing, if he'd been right-side-up.

None of these are especially good pictures, though none of them are especially bad, either. It doesn't matter: Photographs are talismans, and this is another reason why I think that photographers of atrocity who aim for more than minimal quality are barking up the wrong tree. It's like trying to make a voodoo doll more effective by making it more lifelike: The thing just doesn't work that way. It works by being a vessel into which we pour our love and fear, and anger and disgust, and …

In other words, most ofthe real action of aphotograph takes place elsewhere, away from the optical or pictorial—more in the realm of burnt offerings or rosary beads, African fetishes, horseshoes, scapegoats, totems, pennies in a fountain. And it's a consequence of this that you can't take a great picture, of this particular kind, by trying. You can't will it into existence. Which is not to say that you can only take one accidentally; you just have to be ready, competent, and open to a level of black magic. Does this sound superstitious or romantic or willfully obscure to you?

And while I'm at it, a few more questions: Did the FALN book change your mind about anything? Do you find black-and-white at all problematic?If you were photo editor at Time, how much blood and guts would you show? Is all war photography, these days at least, necessarily anti-war photography? If we do indeed invade Iraq, what kinds of photographs would you want to see come out of it? And, finally, is there anything more damning than a comparison to poor Steichen's "Family of Man"?

All best,
Jim

Jim Lewis is the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead.

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