I’m reading Words not Spent Today buy Smaller Images Tomorrow, by David Levi Strauss. It’s a very good read, touching on a lot of the subjects that are discussed in the course. I found an interview in which he talks more about his book. Here are a few quotes that I found particularly interesting:
There was a critique of documentary photography that happened in the ’70s and ’80s that made it nearly impossible to talk about representations of suffering because it was an “aestheticization of suffering.” At the time, I wondered why the aesthetic was seen to be such a toxic thing. This book is an update of that, where I ask if such critiques are valid any more, and come to the conclusion that they aren’t. The extension of that critique is that you cannot represent other people and their suffering, and I don’t want to live in a world where that is not happening. One of the things that photography has always been able to do is to register a relationship between the person behind and in front of the camera. Even though that is not a straight line to empathy, solidarity, and political change, for a long time in photography it was part of that, and that didn’t just go away.
To tell a story, you have to slow everything down.
There was a part of me that was angry at George for showing them to me and for having made them, so it got inside that question of representing cruelty for me, uncovering again these questions I thought I had answered for myself. Those images are seared into my brain now, and took me all the way back to being a child just old enough to read when I found a file of images from the Nazi death camps—bodies being moved around with bulldozers. I didn’t know what it represented, quite, because I didn’t know that history yet, but I knew they were important documents of human cruelty. It changed me. Something shifted. There is a deep human need to make a connection. I was not in Rwanda, I did not see that, but I need to know about it and there is a way you can only know about it by seeing it, at least seeing images of it. Seeing is believing. There is no shortage of subject matter for looking at human cruelty, it’s going on all over the world and continues, and we’ve lived through some signal examples of it. George was acting as a witness and he takes that job and role very seriously, and so I had to look again at my responses. Again, I don’t want to live in a world where these kinds of images are not being made, as long as these things are happening in the world.
The historical record shows clearly that if you try to suppress images, they will come back to haunt you. This is the history of iconoclasm—it really doesn’t work. There are things that people will not accept and will not believe unless they see an image of it. That is so deeply embedded in the human response to the visible world and the world of appearances and the world inside our heads that this is not going to change. The trouble is that these responses are often unconscious, way below the surface, and beyond what is easily accessed, which is what makes images so powerful and so able to control us.