so my own words were gnawing at me …

In a new post for Reading the Pictures, Wendy Kozol and I reflected on the in/visibility of gendered and racialized trauma that structures the surveillance footage of Diamond Reynolds and her daughter in the back of a police car.   As we were exchanging drafts, Wendy and I noted that we were both feeling somewhat uneasy about the image archive on which we were relying.

I’ve long been concerned with questions of ethics in scholarship on visual culture, and tried a number of times to write  my way through them.  In particular, I’ve written about the ethics of reproducing and analyzing wartime atrocity or casualty photos, and argued against the perceived “right” or “duty” of academics to utilize such images in any way they see fit.  Such claims of ownership, I contend, instrumentalize the images and objectify the people within them.  I’ve never suggested that scholars shouldn’t research or publish about them (though I do think about how my own career, doing that very thing, depends in a remote but ineluctable way, on the misery of others).  But I’ve questioned the methods and assumptions underpinning those actions, and especially criticized the tendency to reproduce photos of people taken on (what I imagine to be) the worst days of their lives, without their consent.

So my own words were gnawing at me, then, as I worked through the video of Diamond Reynolds and her daughter, squinting at surveillance video of them on what was very likely the worst day of their lives.  Going second by second, artificially freezing the image, then reproducing single frames as grainy black-and-white stills … all these actions seemed to me like a kind of violence that could not be readily reduced to the categories of ‘epistemic’ or ‘representational.’  There was something deeply unsettling about the process of detaching the a single image from its accompanying audio, and from the moments that preceded and followed it.

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This situation different from that of the wartime atrocity photos that I’ve written about elsewhere, in that Reynolds herself apparently welcomed spectatorship of the video; her lawyer indicated that she felt strongly about enabling the public to witness this trauma. But I find myself conflicted, still, wondering about the role of the academic in that witnessing.  Wendy and I worked hard to historicize the video, and to consider the complexities that might attend its reception.  We wrote, in short, about all the factors–cultural, political, and visual–that might keep it from speaking for itself.  In the process, of course, of revealing the work that the image could have done or was kept from doing, we added another layer of mediation, in the paradoxical hope that it might somehow make the image appear more clearly.

the answer suggested by this photo is: nothing.

Almost immediately, it became clear that the September 11th attackers undertook their plans with an eye toward commanding global attention.  Their targets were obvious icons of U.S. cultural, political, and economic dominance, immediately legible as such. By contrast, recent targets of ISIS-inspired attacks – Christmas markets, night clubs or fireworks displays – do not have such clear significance.  They could be anywhere, everywhere, as ISIS sees a world full of enemies.

If the attacks, as the conventional wisdom would have it, of September 11th looked like a disaster movie, what did the attack in Berlin on December 19 resemble?


The answer suggested by this photo is: nothing.  With the exception of other, similar strikes by ISIS operatives and devotees, there is no obvious analog.  Rather than gesturing to modes of violence (and hence, of retribution) made commonplace on screens, such attacks are profoundly self-referential.  The only points of reference are those generated by ISIS itself, in the form of its other attacks.  The resultant collapse of meaning is different from that precipitated by the attacks of September 11th, which targeted places with overdetermined meanings that had previously seemed unassailable.  By contrast, in its orchestration of scenes like the one captured above, ISIS declares its intention to establish a different sense-making system patterned almost exclusively in accordance with its own logic.  For those of us who experience events like this primarily as mediated phenomena, this singular quality compounds their indecipherability.

Even the larger story of September 11th followed a cinematic arc.  Because it was coordinated by an identifiable and elusive villain, the aftermath of the attack unfolded as a protracted manhunt that ended decisively (if invisibly).  Documents like The 9/11 Report  and movies like Zero Dark Thirtyamong now-countless others, further assimilated the attacks into familiar narrative progressions.  (I talk more about this kind of emplotting in my book.)   Attacks like the one in Berlin, however, resist such organization; they are launched with little or no warning by largely unknown actors with ill-defined motives and murky or purely virtual connections to the networks that they purport to represent.

Beyond their recognizable similarity to big-budget action movies, spectacular acts of violence also beget images that echo, in their scale and intensity, the affective magnitude of the event, while providing clear cognitive and emotional cues on how to interpret it.  Photos like this one, however, provide little guidance on either front. Because the photo was shot after the removal of the truck, the damage appears as the consequence of an unseen force.  Excepting the Christmas trees (one toppled, the other partly obscured by debris), the snowflake decal on the blue building, and the high-visibility clothing worn by the authorities, the image offers almost no details on which to gain any interpretive purchase.  It suggests nothing about how to feel other than disoriented.


Consequently, images like this are multiply unsettling.  Of course, they document the insinuation of militarized violence into everyday spaces.  But they also suggest the possibility of a violence that exceeds our capacity to visualize it: not by overwhelming and overloading our senses, but instead by doing much the opposite.




empathy and the “even worse” in another photo from syria

Just over a month ago, it happened again.  Another picture of a suffering Syrian child and another chorus of certainty that this picture would be the one to awaken the global consciousness, heretofore lacking, necessary to end this intractable, sprawling conflict.

Despite knowing better, I wondered if the teary-eyed optimists were right.  But at the time, busy busy, all I could do was affix a little sticky note to the inside of my planner, as a reminder to post something soonimg_1794.

Of course, many other observers beat me to it, including the newsmedia itself, which shifted into meta-commentary almost immediately, attending far more to the viral circulation of the video and extracted stills of Omran than the story of the airstrike in which he was injured and his home destroyed.  Deviating from the conventional wisdom that graphic images of casualties (especially children) elicit more sympathy from viewers, an article in the New York Times surmises instead that “it may be the relatively familiar look of Omran’s distress that allows a broader public to relate to it.”  Accordingly, it published an curated collection of readers’ responses to the photos.  And it also provided an excursus on its decision to feature this particular photo so prominently, given the steady stream of ostensibly similar images begotten by this conflict.  Ultimately, its explanation of the image’s power is essentially tautological:

One reason the photo of Omran has tugged at so many heartstrings around the world is that the boy — with his innocent stare, just to the side of the camera’s lens — triggers in many a sometimes hard-to-come-by emotion in today’s world: empathy.

The author goes on to explain that this image is ideal for social media: gritty enough to be moving but not so much as to be off-putting.

Other news outlets make a comparison that would have been unthinkable a year ago, intimating that this photo might be more powerful than those of Alan Kurdi.  A commentary published in The Independent describes this new image as “even worse” than the photos of Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach.  But of course, when Kurdi’s photo went viral last fall, observers endowed it with a similar comparative advantage.  At the time, it seemed that this photo would succeed where previous representations of the migrant crisis – like the truck abandoned on the side of an Austrian highway with the bodies of 58 migrants decomposing inside – had failed to elicit widespread compassion.

Daqneesh became the new affective frontrunner, for as long as it lasted.

Even if viewers were legitimately, verifiably moved by the site of Daqneesh’s body, feelings are fickle, and already, there is competition.  Not from any of the countless, and largely unnamed, children featured in the grim litany of new photos from Syria, Aleppo in particular, but instead from a 6-year-old American boy named Alex, who wrote President Obama a letter in which he offered Daqneesh a place in his New York home.  Now, the top results from a Google News search for “Omran Daqneesh” belong to this quixotic show of hospitality. (I’ll write more about this, and its connection to affective criteria for American exceptionalism, soon.)

Since then, the ceasefire has collapsed and the Syrian government, backed by its Russian allies, has reintensified its aerial bombardments of rebel-held territories.  According to one estimate, 192 Syrian children died in September.

Meanwhile, spectators continued to refine their emotional appetites, while the organizations that feed them insisted that any image powerful enough to gratify them would surely work geopolitical magic at the same time.



… which is not to say that opacity is better …

Just published a short piece in The Conversation about transparency, spectatorship, and the detainee photos released by the DoD two weeks ago.

It’s a little uncomfortable to critique transparency, especially because I think the argument is so easily misread as a defense of secrecy or tacit endorsement of the conduct being pictured.  But part of the problem with the discourse of transparency is that it equates the act of exposure with the work of protest, so that arguments against exposure start to look like advocacy for what is being exposed.  From my perspective, the most urgent task is to find an alternate path toward accountability, one that detours widely around the question of what is happening ‘in our names.’  The difficulty of thinking about accountability in the absence of transparency reveals the extent to which the framework of transparency has itself become hegemonic.

please don’t do this in my name, either

My name, apparently, has been besmirched again.   And so has yours, if you’re an American citizen.  198 more times, at least, once for each of the abuse photos released yesterday by the Department of Defense.  This is part of the logic underpinning the ACLU’s long struggle for the release of a large cache of photos documenting the mistreatment of prisoners by U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The common refrain is that Americans are entitled to know what kinds of harms have been perpetrated in our common name.  In turn, this implies that the photos have been released on my behalf.

And I don’t want that.  I have been arguing fowarningr years, in various ways, that Americans do not own these photographs, have no substantive entitlement to see them, no matter how incensed they might be by the content.  If anyone has a claim over these images, it is the people who are pictured within them.  Absent any indication that those people authorized the online release of these images, I don’t feel I have a right to see them.

This places me in a predicament.  I don’t have a right to see them, but I do feel an ethical (and intellectual) urgency to make a claim against this form of transparency, and in order to know what I’m talking about, I need to look.  And I have, and so exercised the same sort of sovereign authority – howsoever remotely – to exercise my interests, and felt obligations, over the rights of the detainees.  The choice not to look might be a principled one, but it doesn’t do anything to redress the harm either of the abuse itself or of the release of the photos.  In this way, by establishing looking and not-looking as functionally equivalent, the release of the photos nullifies them at the site of their reception, short-circuiting any politics of spectatorship.


apparently even the pentagon needs a snow day

There should have been a story today about new photos of prisoner abuse by the U.S. military.  This should have been the denouement – albeit partial, as apparently there were over 2000 photos in question – to a legal fight between the ACLU and the Department of Defense that started in 2004.  Today should have been the day that the Department of Defense finished ‘processing’ the photos and released them.

But (blame it on Jonas) not.

The American media is apparently not super interested in this latest chapter of the long, long story about torture photos.  I learned about the impending release yesterday on Al Jazeera.  The longest story, and most durable link, I could find was on Russia Today.  There was a quick mention, since disappeared, was on Yahoo! News.  So I’ve been depending on Jameel Jaffer’s Twitter feed for updates.  And the latest is that the DoD needs more time, because of the snow.


I can understand the ACLU’s exasperation.  I get the argument about transparency.  A court order is a court order, and to the extent that we all benefit when the DoD follows the law, there are reasons to demand timely compliance.

For my part, however, I don’t see much reason to be enthused about the release of these new photos, and the victory for the crusading forces of transparency that they seem to represent.  Not because I agree with the President’s contention that the photos should be kept secret because they pose a danger to American military personnel.  I am not in a position to assess the accuracy of that prediction.

I have a different objection: to the veneration of ‘transparency’ and the implication that it serves as a meaningful, and harmless, redress for the people whose abuse will be made public in these photos, and for the fact of the abuse itself.  I’ve argued elsewhere that the mandate of transparency in the Global War on Terror often settles on the bodies of the most vulnerable.  When the government complies, whether begrudgingly or voluntarily, with a call to be more transparent about its detention and interrogation practice, the result is often hypervisibility of the detainees themselves, on terms set once again by the state that holds them captive.

Whether or not the DoD is being ingenuous in its explanation for the cause of this delay, this workweek will end without any new photos for us to gawp at.  It’s a tiny, and not catastrophic, encounter with the recalcitrant temporality of the state, a feeling with which its detainees are presumably quite familiar.

Maybe the interim affords some time to mull over the complex ethics of transparency, the claims of entitlement upon which it rests, its limitations, and its costs.


smog, particulates, i know, i know …

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Another run, another sunrise encounter with someone watching Baltimore, lovingly.  Becky and I stopped to watch the sun come up behind the Domino plant, and a young man pedaled his bike to a stop at the same spot, and took out his actual camera.  He’d just moved to Baltimore, he said, and was riding around, taking pictures of the city to “show how beautiful it is.”

Especially at sunrise.  It took me a long time to love Baltimore (now I do, for sure), and nothing helped more than the sunrises.  Smog, particulates, I know, I know … and then there is the tremendous cliche of it all.  But still.  The sunrises are beautiful because of the light and the colors and everything reflected, but there’s also the effortlessness of it.  No one trying to promote Baltimore’s brand, no one enticing people to relocate to here, no one promising to fix it.  Just Baltimore being Baltimore, the water and the concrete and the remnants of industry: radiant.

up all night, watching it freeze

Baltimore is hard at work on its outdoor ice rink.   I’d run by it at least a dozen times, uncurious, but Wednesday morning I got a notion to stop. Becky (my sunrise-running friend) and I peeked over the elliptic wall surrounding the rink, the surface of which had the furry crystalline texture of a freezer that needs defrosting. Although the rink is clearly meant to attract well-heeled visitors to downtown, one of its earliest fans is, apparently, an undomiciled man among the many who make their homes on the waterfront promenade’s benches and grates.  Almost as soon as our feet stopped moving, he offered us a voluble welcome and an update on the conditions.  Gravely, without ever removing his cigarette from his mouth, he informed us that the progress had been slow.

Warm weather, and things had not been solidifying on schedule.  But in the dark hours just before our arrival, that had started to change.  The middle would be the last part to freeze, and that was beginning to happen.  He had been up, he said, for 24 hours, no sleep at all, watching.  And now he could see it; we nodded to confirm that we could see it too.  He smiled a little (still smoking), and straightened, as if he had done it himself: chilled the air, kept the cooling generator running, selected and mixed whatever soup of chemicals comprised the liquid that would become the rink, arranged the molecules into the invisible structures that would support all those bodies.

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As we began to move away, wishing him a good morning and some rest, he stayed put.  The city left the process to happen largely unsupervised, leaving it to chemistry and machines, but maybe he thought it deserved a witness.

Of course, I can’t know for sure, but I presume that when the rink opens, he will not have the resources to pay for admission, or skate rental.  And I don’t know whether he would have any interest in doing so.  I don’t know, really, what his interest in the rink was at all – if he liked the thought of its future occupants, circling happily, or if it was just the novelty of the thing itself.

Whatever his motivation, I think there is a story here about civic spectatorship.  I’m skeptical, generally, of arguments about the power of such a thing, and there is a lot to be untangled  about power, privation, belonging, access, and justice. After all, the unrelenting cold that would preserve his vicarious masterpiece would almost certainly make his own existence much more precarious.  Another insoluble dilemma of spectatorship, maybe.  But there is something, still, about the way this man’s willingness to watch – patiently and generously – transformed him.

Feeling good about feeling bad about Aylan Kurdi

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Everyone has been talking about the photos of Aylan Kurdi, and I have been wondering why that might be.  Considering the experience of looking at the photos, I suggest that these very difficult images actually make emotional and intellectual work of spectatorship relatively easy.  So I published this piece in Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture to think this through.