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photography politics

Vietnam, Afghanistan and the sphere of legitimate aesthetics: developing a critical photographic practice

What would a critical photographic response to the war in Afghanistan involve?

The is no single answer to that question, but having both contributed to and learnt from a workshop on the Burke + Norfolk show at the Tate Gallery in London this past week, it is one we have to pursue.

To begin to answer that question requires that the frames – the cultural, political and aesthetic frames that produce what Judith Butler calls “perceptible reality” – be exposed. First up is the fact that a set of myths about the Vietnam war and the role of the media in that conflict continue to shape how both the US military and its critics approach the imaging of war.

The conventional wisdom is that Vietnam was a “living room” war in which a highly critical media subjected its audience to a stream of graphic images depicting combat and its casualties. These pictures – including the iconic black and white photo photographs we can all easily recall – are said to have shocked viewers and mobilised public opinion against the war.

What is striking about these claims is that they are shared by both the military and it’s critics. The military think the coverage of Vietnam was unpatriotic and contributed to America’s defeat, while their critics endorse half that view and promote the idea that making the cost of war visible is a necessary step in ending it.

For the military the lesson learnt was that they need a better way of regulating the media, which resulted in a series of schemes culminating in the system of embedding implemented for the invasion of Iraq. For the critics, the conclusion was that showing an unsanitised view of war is the basis for any critical response. As a result, much of the debate around the imaging of Afghanistan has been locked into a stand off about the pros and cons of embedding.

The problem with this framing of the options is that what happened in Vietnam does not accord with the myth. The best analysis of American coverage – Daniel Hallin’s ‘The Uncensored War’ – shows that far from being unpatriotic, newspapers, magazines and television continued to support official government perspectives even as the peace movement grew. Far from showing an incessant diet of gory visuals, the US media shied away from graphic images. Overall, journalists filed reports that were easily woven into a narrative that fitted the national frame.

This is significant for photojournalism’s understanding of it’s historical role and potential power. The visual icons we now associate with the war – the photographs of Larry Burrows, Philip Jones-Griffiths, Don McCullin and others – were either rejected by the media, published after the event, or were simply unrepresentative of the majority coverage.

Much photojournalism exists within and reproduces an ‘eternal present’ obscuring the frames that narrow its perspective. Embedding is one such frame, but it is located within frames too, especially the frame of historical memory that has mythologized aspects of Vietnam. There is also the general journalistic frame that means, in the absence of any radical divisions amongst the governing political elite, the mainstream media presents what Hallin calls a “sphere of legitimate consensus” through which debate is prescribed and critical alternatives are marginalised.

Burke + Norfolk embodies one critical response to Afghanistan – bringing the historical frame into view by putting contemporary images about the allied war machine (some of them produced while embedded) into a relationship with nineteenth century imperial portrayals (reviewed here by Russell Watson). At the Tate symposium, Mishka Henner offered another strategy.

Although a documentary photographer, Henner is now working with “photography from the world” (images produced by others) as much as “photography of the world” (his own practice). He has produced a series of creative works from Google Earth and Google Street View databases. Using the latter, No Man’s Land is an insightful project that both reveals the marginal existence of sex workers and comments on the aesthetics of landscape photography. It is, he says, part of an effort to critique visual discourses through editing and curation that re-purposes their meaning.

 

Henner is now mining the US Department of Defense photographic collection looking for categories of images produced by particular stylistic frames. In a form of ‘coding’ that is categorising pictures throughout the identification of repeated styles, he is exposing what I think could be called the “sphere of legitimate aesthetics” through which Afghanistan is being made perceptible. Henner has uncovered hundreds of images that show, for example, men and machines silhouetted against golden sunsets (what he calls “Empire Sunset” and what Beierle and Keijser called “Sunset Soldiers“), soldiers extending hands to children (“The Friend”), and military doctors treating sick civilians (“The Healer”).

Simon Norfolk’s exposure of the historical frame, and Mishka Henner’s and Beierle and Keijser’s delineation of the stylistic frame, are new critical responses, though of course they are not the only ones. They won’t end the war, because no picture has the power to do so. The cliche that certain photographs can by themselves change the world is another of the myths that needs to be dispensed with. But photographs do force us to think hard about what is happening and why. And as Barthes observed in Camera Lucida “ultimately, Photography is subversive, not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.”

First photo: Life, April 16, 1965

Second photo: Sunset soldiers, February 24, 2011

Categories
photography politics

Wikileaks: from the personal to the political

The global controversy surrounding Wikileaks release of US diplomatic cables is a moment in which media, politics, visual culture and war intersect in complex ways. There has been no shortage of good commentary on the story, as evidenced in the range of views curated by Alex Madrigal’s post “how to think about Wikileaks”. What I want to do is contrast the visualization of the story with some the main elements, some of them somewhat buried, in the current coverage.

Coverage of the Wikileaks this week has been a classic case where a political story is personalized to the detriment of its context and complexity. As Michael Shaw noted, Julian Assange has been demonized as ‘public enemy #1’ via an oft-repeated screen shot from Interpol’s most wanted web page, and then criminalized through ‘perp walk’ photos from his court appearance in London. One Reuters photographer was open about how his portraits of Wikileaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson were designed to capture the supposedly covert nature of the organisation.

I have no view one way or the other on the sex crimes Swedish prosecutors allege, other than to make the obvious point that we should regard someone as innocent until proven guilty after due process. What is telling, though, is the way Assange’s private issues have become the focal point over and above the larger public questions of diplomacy and war. In part that is because of the way his London court appearance intersected with the extraordinary and escalating rhetoric from America that he be charged with espionage or treason, dealt with as an enemy combatant or terrorist, or even assassinated. The effect has been to make the story a media event driven by a personality rather than an account of the larger issues at stake.

Although it too centres on the person of Assange, Peter Macdiarmid’s July 2010 photo of the Wikileaks founder at the Frontline Club in London (featured above) places him in a relationship with three elements that direct us to the context of the overall issue. Assange is holding up a copy of The Guardian displaying a front-page story on the earlier release of the Afghan war logs. He is standing with his laptop. In the background is Don McCullin’s famous 1968 photograph of a shell-shocked marine from Hue in Vietnam. Signifying, first, the relationship between Wikileaks and its media partners, second, the role of the Internet, and third, the historical memory of the Vietnam War that hangs over current American military operations, this picture provides the basis for reflecting on some crucial elements in the Wikileaks story. I would emphasis six points:

  • The leak of the war logs and diplomatic cables came from within the US military, with an army intelligence officer, Bradley Manning, the suspect. Manning was one of 3 million people cleared to access the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRN) used by US military personnel, civilian employees and private contractors to distribute classified material. In July this year The Washington Post published a remarkable investigation, “Top Secret America,” on the rise of the clandestine arm of the security state in the wake of 9/11. It revealed that more than 850,000 Americans have “Top Secret” security clearance, which is a level above the diplomatic traffic Manning could allegedly access. Given the number of people involved, the only question is why there has not been a leak like the war logs or diplomatic cables earlier.
  • Wikileaks is a web publisher and not an espionage or hacking organisation, making calls for Assange’s prosecution for spying or treason ludicrous. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, the US Supreme Court held that while it was a crime to leak classified material it was not a crime to publish that material once leaked. In the current story, Wikileaks occupies the position held by The New York Times in 1972, so that all journalists should be chilled by the threat to free speech that US politicians are now making. Shutting down Wikileaks is on a par with shutting down a major media company. The next time the same politicians demand that countries like China cease Internet censorship and back a free press, what do we think the response from those countries is going to be? Journalists involved in “shameful attacks” on Assange should think very hard about this.
  • For both the war logs and diplomatic cables story, Wikileaks has partnered with major news organisations like Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde, The Guardian and The New York Times. If Assange is in the sights of the US politicians riled by the most recent leaks, what about these organisations? Senator Joe Lieberman has already called the New York Times publication of some of the leaked material “an act of bad citizenship.” What does that say about the state of the free press in his eyes? Where does that leave American moral capital the next time they want to press for international press freedom?
  • While many have claimed Wikileaks is ‘indiscriminately dumping’ all 250,000 cables on the internet without review, one of the least recognised parts of this story is that Wikileaks is publishing the cables only after its media partners have reviewed them and written about them. Moreover, when Wikileaks does publish the cables it does so with the redactions made by those media partners. (The Guardian explains how it does this here). So at the time of writing, Wikileaks (as the picture above from its site makes clear) has released only 1,203 of the 251,287 cables contained in the leak. This makes the coverage of the cables a prime example of networked journalism from which all partners, including the public, win. (Though note how even this positive commentary perpetuates the myth of the document dump).
  • Efforts to shut Wikileaks down – apart from failing to understand its role as publisher rather than spy – are failing because of the willingness of many to establish mirror sites on the Internet where the material can be accessed. At last count, there were 1,368 mirrors. Here, then, is a good lesson in the open structure of the Internet. You can close a domain, but you cannot remove material from the system if others a willing to host it. The more domains you close the more mirrors will appear. There are also many other organisations and sites similar to Wikileaks, such as cryptome.org, that don’t have the same public profile but can host leaked documents.
  • The structural impossibility of running someone off the Internet means that state authorities will try and find new ways of exercising power. This is where the pressure on companies to end commercial relationships with Wikileakes comes from. US authorities and politicians have pressured Amazon, EveryDNS, Mastercard, PayPal, and Visa, among others, to cease trading with Wikileaks and these companies have all to readily complied. This is a form of indirect power in which private actors become “points of control” for state policy. This also means that so long as “cloud computing” is a commercial operation there are going to be potential limits to openness in this system.

In 2009, Wikileaks and Julian Assange won the prestigious Amnesty International New Media Award for exposing hundreds of alleged murders by the Kenyan police, an act which led to a United Nations investigation.

Other releases have included a list of websites banned by the Australian government, copies of the Scientology “bible”, and emails from inside the Hugo Chávez regime in Venezuela. When Wikileaks focused on foreign regimes it was a beacon of freedom. After its releases this year, it has become an entity ‘at war’ with the United States and its allies. In moments like these we need to understand the context, retain a critical perspective, and avoid the personification of the issue.