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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

You don't look like a victim

Jonathan Jones writes on the meaning of Thomas Hoepker's 911 picture of people sitting in the sun here.

This article is partially in response to what Frank Rich wrote about it in the New York Times. "He saw in this undeniably troubling picture an allegory of America's failure to learn any deep lessons from that tragic day, to change or reform as a nation: "The young people in Mr Hoepker's photo aren't necessarily callous. They're just American."

The idea is that one should look a certain way in the face of tragedy, part of the simplistic narrative that is expected of people when they are part of a photograph - a simplistic narrative that does not have an equivalence in writing. Here it is easy to explain the contrast between the glorious sky and the casual dress, the trappings of the picnic and the relaxed poses. These are all allowed to happen, but when it comes to a photograph, God forbid if anybody is caught doing anything that lies outside a very narrow band of expected responses.

Walter Sipser is the guy on the right - he comments here. 

"We were in a profound state of shock and disbelief, like everyone else we encountered that day. Thomas Hoepker did not ask permission to photograph us nor did he make any attempt to ascertain our state of mind before concluding five years later that, "It's possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it." Had Hoepker walked fifty feet over to introduce himself he would have discovered a bunch of New Yorkers in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened. He instead chose to publish the photograph that allowed him to draw the conclusions he wished to draw, conclusions that also led Frank Rich to write, "The young people in Mr. Hoepker's photo aren't necessarily callous. They're just American." A more honest conclusion might start by acknowledging just how easily a photograph can be manipulated, especially in the advancement of one's own biases or in the service of one's own career. Still, it was nice being described as a young person. I was forty at the time the photograph was taken."

I think the same inability to cope with something beyond the simplest of narratives happened with this 2006 World Press Photo Winner of a Beirut neighbourhood after it had been bombed by the Israeli Air Force.

It's all about looking and one view has it that the voyeur is Spencer Platt, the photographer. He's the middle man in the chain of looking. The girls look, the photographer looks and then we look. Of course, the real crime is that these people don't look like people living in a Hezbollah neighbourhood are supposed to look. They look secular and westernised and really a little too fit for orientalist labels to apply. And they're driving a mini (which has a story of its own). I think that is the real problem. And it was a problem for some of the people who saw them driving by as well.And it was also a problem for the people in the car. This is a great article from the BBC website in 2007..

"Four of the young people in the group are actually residents of the area and had to flee during the shelling.
This was the first time they returned to the suburbs and they were eager to check on their apartment and their belongings.
The driver was Jad Maroun, his sister Tamara, is the blond girl sitting in the front, in the winning picture.

Picture by Kim Ghattas
The friends in the car got to know each during the summer's conflict
She isn't in this group picture. She couldn't make it to the interview because she was getting ready for her engagement party. 

 Bissan, Jad's other sister, pictured here second from the right, was sitting in the back of the car in the winning picture, taking pictures with her mobile phone.
She recorded a short video of their drive. On it you can hear people commenting on their appearance and the girls screaming back: "We live here!" 

Although Christians, the Marouns actually live in the dominantly Shia southern suburbs and their apartment block is now surrounded by flattened buildings.
Liliane Nacouzi, on the left, is a friend. A Christian, she's the only one who had never been to the area before. 

She held a tissue to her face in the winning picture because of the fumes from the fires still burning in the rubble. 

Nour Nasser, the only Shia in the group, is wearing a pistachio green top here but was hidden behind Liliane in the car. She also lives in the southern suburbs of Beirut. 

All the people in the picture, except Lana Khalil (second from left), were displaced by the war and were put up by their employers in the same hotel in the centre of Beirut, where they became friends"

Sally Mann said something about all photographs being at the expense of somebody. I think that is more the way that we see them. We are still not very sophisticated in our visual way of experiencing the world and want to reduce things to black and white and right and wrong dualities.

But that's not the way that we experience the world. Walter Lipser might have been in shock in the Hoepker 911 picture, but even if he had been laughing, so what? Maybe it would have been inappropriate, but then isn't so much of what we do inappropriate. Why must our behaviour be policed so much all the time, why can't any leeway be given for our nervous tics? Just as we should be allowed to wear what we want so we should be allowed to express ourselves how we want. 

1 comment:

Nikhil Ramkarran said...

This is always the danger of making assumptions and judgments based on the content of a photo, so much of what is revealed depends on the photographer. I've often found that the photo can say as much or more about the photographer than the subject(s).