Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (University of Chicago Press, 2010): pgs. 45 – 65.

Passages like this make Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance indispensable, not just for photographers and photography-enthusiasts like myself but anyone concerned about social justice and the dilemma of representation.

Alfredo Jaar’s remarks about the modern, desensitized viewer are familiar to all of us. I have no idea what current research on this shows. Does a bombardment of violent images truly addle the mind? Does it warp one’s moral center? Does it make Jekylls out of Junior High kids? Maybe someone would be willing to link some peer-reviewed documentation about this in the REPLY section below?

Linfield thinks proof is lacking. Either way, I sympathize with her resistance to any kind of rhetoric that implies some Edenic Golden Age (re: MAGA, etc.) of a morally superior, pre-photography Homo sapiens. And I want to sympathize totally with her sentiment toward the end of the section I’ve highlighted: “Try to imagine, if only for a moment, what your intellectual, political, and ethical world would be like if you had never seen a photograph.” The photograph has “robbed us of the alibi of ignorance.” Wonderfully put. In context. After all, the camera can be as much a public surveilling technology as it can a check on power. No alibi can support ignorance of that fact either, not in the twenty-first century.

I remember reading a section from Bruno Latour’s Pandora’s Hope about the controversy over gun control. You know the argument and its slogans: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and so on. I don’t remember, off the top of my head, what Latour’s conclusions were about that. A “neither/nor” conclusion, I think. Something more collective, more . . . dialectical? Anyway, the camera seems relevant in the same way. But it’s tricky. For instance, I wouldn’t say a nuclear bomb, outside of human interaction, is just an object. A thing built solely to destroy life at apocalyptic scales exceeds justifications of the kind made for cameras.

Linfield’s book has been invaluable to my thinking about journalism and the subject of suffering. This isn’t an area I’m naturally drawn to. I lean toward the artsy stuff, for better or worse: you know, things we use inexplicable words like “beautiful” to describe. And if there’s a rainbow or Care Bear mixed into the work, all the better for this poor sentimental sap. So when critics really go at each other’s throats about whether or not victims of unspeakable violence ought to be photographed, I tend to hide behind a bouquet of roses and and chant Whitmanic bromides under my breath: “This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun and the animals . . .”

But I’m woefully undereducated on this material. Still much to learn. Almost every page I’ve read so far looks like the one I’ve posted above. This is going to take some time.