The Cruel Radiance:
Photography and Political Violence, by Susie Linfield University of Chicago Press, 344 pages, $30
In an era when photography has become an inseparable part of our lives, and accessible to all, it is important to contemplate its moral and political significance. The huge quantity of photographic images that bombard us daily obscures boundaries between different types of photography and shunts aside the most important category of all: professional documentary photography, or photojournalism.
We must draw a distinction between documentary and every other type of photography. If in the past (before the rise of digital photography ) the photograph served as proof of the existence of reality at a particular instant, that is no longer the case, mostly because of the ease with which digital technologies can be used to create virtual representations of reality.
But we aren't the first to cast doubt upon the power and reliability of documentary photography. In "The Cruel Radiance," New York University journalism professor Susie Linfield engages with postmodern critics of photography who, as early as the 1930s, raised doubts about the importance of photography, and particularly of photojournalism. Their criticism, she argues, had political motivations.
Linfield points an accusing finger at intellectuals such as the late Susan Sontag, who attempted (in the author's opinion ) to belittle the importance of newspaper photography. Motivated by a political or moral agenda, these critics, Linfield charges, wrote out of overweening rationalism and a fundamental dislike of photography.
In her well-known and influential 1977 volume "On Photography," Sontag used the words "grandiose," "treacherous," "imperial," "voyeuristic," "predatory" and "addictive" to characterize photography and its effects. Sontag declared further that, the camera "may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate - all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment."
Sontag fired the opening shots, and other intellectuals, including John Berger and Roland Barthes, continued and "poisoned," says Linfield, critical discourse about photography. Barthes branded photographers of disasters "agents of Death," and referred to their products as a "catastrophe," "without culture," "flat" and "stupid."
Linfield justifiably claims that intellectuals from the time of the Weimar Republic, such as Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, who stridently attacked photography made arguments that had a coherent intellectual quality but were completely lacking in sensitivity toward the field. In his struggle against Germany's media barons of the time, Brecht made the sweeping accusation that "photojournalism has become a terrible weapon against the truth." These intellectuals based their criticism on a common foundation: the assumption that each individual photograph lacks meaning since it is severed from the linear sequence of historical reality.
The influence exerted by these pre-World War II commentators on future generations of critics was considerable. Linfield quotes the American artist Allan Sekula, who opined that documentary photography has "contributed much to spectacle, to retinal excitation, to voyeurism, to terror, envy and nostalgia, and only a little to the critical understanding of the social world."
As a veteran photographer, I have trouble identifying with such a cold, detached analysis of the effort, thought, feeling and empathy for the other that I have put into my work - for photographs that, each in its own way, succeeded in conveying to the observer the suffering of others. Yet the influence of such postmodern criticism remains widespread today among art critics. Such critics reject photojournalism as an inferior medium, compared to what they regard as fine-art photography, in which artists use the camera with the intention of conferring a quasi-realistic legitimacy to their creative works. The fabricated aesthetic photograph appeals to the mind of the fine-art photographer precisely because it does not aspire to document reality, even as it appears to do just that.
Linfield castigates such liberal-radical critics who are not prepared to embrace reality as is, and as depicted by troubling photographs that can cause viewers to recoil and confront a range of emotions. She has accusatory barbs for such critics: "The humanist loathing of atrocity images colludes with the desire of the perpetrators to erase their crimes." Her book probes at length the ethical, existential question that plagues each and every photographer: "Can photography itself make the world more livable?"
The book's second part discusses photographic testimonials of the cruelty of various political regimes around the world. Linfield examines the violent abuse wrought by the Belgians in Congo under King Leopold II, presenting photographs from that period of black Africans whose limbs were severed as punishment for insignificant misdemeanors. Another example discussed at length by Linfield is the official photographs taken by the Khmer Rouge of Cambodian prisoners before their execution in the 1970s. At first glance, these appear to be simple, passport-like photographs; but it is impossible not to be shocked when looking at the picture, which appears on the cover of Linfield's book, of a 7-year-old, angel-faced girl who was condemned to execution on charges of treason. How can anyone degrade such photographic testimonials by portraying them as a kind of intellectual problem?
Linfield quotes Walter Benjamin's well-known dictum, "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism," and then asks: "What, then, is photography's role in revealing injustice, fighting exploitation, and furthering human rights?... What, if anything, is there to show for this century-long spectacle of grim images? And why is there, especially in the present moment, such a backlash against these photographs?"
The professional and moral duty of documentary photography is to call attention not to people's human rights, but to their lack of rights. Photography, more than any other medium, has the power of raising consciousness in this basic respect. Linfield writes: "Why are photographs so good at making us see cruelty? Partly, I think, because photographs bring home to us the reality of physical suffering with a literalness and irrefutability that neither literature nor painting can claim." The journalistic photograph has important moral value precisely because it is based entirely on reality, and therefore has historical validity.
As an Israeli who was born toward the end of World War II, I found the book's section on photography and the Holocaust - which focuses on images from the Lodz Ghetto, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Auschwitz death camp - to be of particular interest. A number of well-known accusations have been leveled at Holocaust photographs. Like many before her, Linfield wonders, "What does it mean to look at such a photograph? Should we? Why? And, if so, how?"
Some critics claim that looking at these photographs places people in the position of the Nazi photographers, both in a physical and a moral sense. By that view, suggests Linfield, we become vicarious murderers: "Once we look at such photographs, we too wear coats and ties and fedoras while others are stripped of their clothes, their dignity, their lives; we, too, have neither pity nor decency; we too watch in smug safety while others crumple in fear." As the author sees it, this viewpoint is too narrow: "When I look at the quivering, naked figures in the death pit ... or at the filthy dead-eyed inhabitants of the ghettos, I do not see - or see only - images of despicable Jewish weakness, which is what the Nazis intended: I see Nazi barbarism."
Linfield acknowledges that different people will find different things in Holocaust atrocity photographs. Some people raise objections about what they call the "pornographic" aspect. As a Jew, I have always found this particular claim to be absurd - yet I recently read in the paper that the director general of the country's Shas-run schools had asked the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum in the Galilee to remove its photographs of naked Jewish women being led to their death, because he didn't want students at the schools to see those images on a visit to the museum. Unfortunately, the museum assented to the request.
Anyone who still doubts the historical value of photography as documentary testimony of past reality should consider the story recounted by the late British historian Tony Judt (in his 2005 book "Postwar" ) about the behavior of Germans who were compelled, as part of the rehabilitation program enforced by the Allies, to view films shot in concentration camps. Nearly all turned their backs to the screen.
After years of intellectual stagnation in the field of photography criticism, "The Cruel Radiance" offers a stimulating, lively discussion and successfully repositions documentary photography in its rightful place, highlighting its decisive impact on how we come to understand the world. For restoring documentary photography's lost dignity, Susie Linfield deserves the thanks of photographers who still believe in the power of their craft.
Alex Levac, a 2005 winner of the Israel Prize in Photography, has been a photographer for Haaretz for nearly two decades.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now