[this was posted to the wrong place; I’m reposting it here]
A photograph places its audience in a unique position to choose either to indulge in the photograph or disregard it. When analyzing photographs of war, I found myself conflicted in this position with almost every photograph. When I wanted to indulge, I was thrown onto a brief emotional rollercoaster that started with fascination, peaked at horror, and ended in sorrow. However, after many rounds of this vicious cycle, the extent to which I was emotionally affected by the photographs began to dull. At a certain point, I was no longer able to allow myself to experience the photographs as I had been doing before; I would simply make a preliminary judgment on the photograph’s severity and then decide whether or not it was worth the emotional aftershock. In other words, I began to disregard many photographs that, had I originally seen, would have astonished me.
In retrospect, I can now see the necessity for a “line” to be drawn, separating the audience from the photograph. In the case of traumatic photographs of war especially, one must not allow oneself to truly empathize with the images. In doing so, the audience can preserve his or her unique perspective as a viewer, rather than allowing oneself to be placed in the position of the subject of the photograph.
Through my experience at the exhibit, I learned to question my prior tactics of analyzing historical photographs. Rather than completely indulging in an image for the selfish motive of taking on a new perspective like that of the subject in the photograph, I must first define the photographer’s intent. Acknowledging whether the photographer is attempting to exemplify emotions or illustrate a different perspective for his or her audience will enable the viewer to draw the necessary line that must be obeyed to effectively utilize the position as a third-party viewer.
Through reading Sontag’s essay and viewing the exhibit, problems arise when trying to analyze historical photographs. For one, in older photographs, the scenes were often posed to create a picture the photographer wanted to present to his audience. The problem arises when war is depicted to the audience as the artist wants it to be shown, not as the events have actually occurred. Also, long shutter times made it difficult for any photos to be taken during action so the pictures were always either posed or of landscapes after carnage has taken place. This problem has been solved to an extent by the invent of faster shutter times which have allowed photographers to take photos is real time. Through this improvement of technology, a new perspective of war is given to the audience, and in Sontag’s opinion, one of the most shocking moments of war, the moment of death, is captured. As viewers, we are shown a disturbing picture that often shakes people’s reality and inspires action through the shock of death and loss of life.
The images I saw at the museum took an emotional toll on me. Although, I personally have never experienced war, but the images allowed the viewers to visually experience war. As Sontag said, photographs stay with us longer, they are evidence of true events. There were some images in which I had to look away. The photographs sparked sorrow, fear, and heartbreak. Personally I felt as if the photographs that were not taken in combat, but either before or after war were the most emotionally powerful. The images of the soldiers either on their way or waiting for battle were powerful because the photographs embodied the anxiety and fear so vividly that I, as an outside viewer, felt it too.
However, the images that were the most heart wrenching for me, were those of families and innocent children that were brutally effected by war. The kind of exposure children had to war in their daily lives was difficult to see. Seeing how the destruction of war goes beyond the battlefield and into the homes of civilians upset me because I am opposed to one of the realities of war, which is how innocent people witness, and sometimes unfortunately endure such atrocities.
I agree with prior posts in the fact that by either simply looking or not looking, you make the decision to be a spectator, by looking, or a coward, by turning away, but I still hold onto the idea that you can be a participant. By participant I mean that you can feel some sort of connection and/or emotion. I agree that with the older images, I was more of a spectator because even though I know the context behind the images, I didn’t seem to feel as much as I did when I looked at the more recent images. One of the photographs that really got to me was the one with the plane full of soldiers just sitting, It was the waiting that got to me, and I just wondered what THEY think about right before battle. I became a participant, in my opinion, when I teared up at the homecoming photograph as the daughter ran to her returning dad. I think the moment you can somehow connect to any single aspect of an image, be it a relationship or the environment, then you have the ability to move away from just being a spectator, even if you are only a participant to a small degree. At the end of the exhibit I had been all three: a spectator, a small participant, and unfortunately even a coward because the gore and rare pain was at times too much for me.
I loved this exhibit. I completely agree with “Mittsboro” in that I had much more of a connection and reacted more to the photographs from this century. The photographs that really killed me were the ones that captured people in a really vulnerable state, such as one by David Turnley titled Iraq which showed a soldier crying over the loss of a friend and fellow soldier. It truly shows you the destructive capabilities of war. It makes you wonder if these soldiers could ever return to normal life. I was also strangely drawn towards photographs showing death and complete destruction. Some of the ones that stood out and actually made me emotional were one by Richard Peter of ruined Dresden, one by Christine Spengler of Cambodia, one by Don McCullin of a dead North Vietnamese soldier, one by Kenneth Jarecke of an incinerated Iraqi, and one by Mark Redkin of two children being hung. The photograph by McCullin showed the dead man’s keepsakes strewn across the ground, one of them being a photograph of a girl. I couldn’t help but wonder who this girl was and whether she had ever seen McCullin’s image.
Another question that arose while I viewed some photographs was “What happened next?” This was especially true while viewing an image by James Frank Hurley of the silhouettes of soldiers walking along the water. In some cases, I believe that photographers do this on purpose. They want questions such as this one to be pondered. They capture these images to make their audiences think.
Jarecke’s photograph was accompanied by this quote, “If I don’t make pictures like this, people like my mother will think what they see in war is what they see in the movies.” I also think that it is very important to be a spectator to these images, as Sontag wrote. We are meant to see these photographs; that is what the photographers intended. They are important connections to our past, meant to help as grow as a race.
Visiting the exhibit was a sobering experience for me; some of the photographs really struck a chord with me and opened my eyes to the destructive nature of war. Besides being an emotional experience, it also made me think about analyzing historical photographs. I agree with Sontag on her point that we are doomed to be spectators, but only when applied to images of events that were before our time. I felt this first hand while at the exhibit. For example, when I viewed an image from WWI, I felt very detached from the event I was looking at, in this case it was a group of soldiers loading a cannon. I tried to immerse myself in the work and gain a better understanding, but I couldn’t escape my role as a spectator. However, when I saw the sequence of 4 photos of a soldier fighting in Iraq, I was very engaged in the images and found it difficult to stop looking at them. I definitely had a different experience looking at the more recent photos than the older images, and wouldn’t classify myself a spectator by any means when I looked at the newer photos.
But why was I feeling like this? Was it because I felt more connected to the newer images because I understand the context in which the conflicts are happening? Thinking back to what Burke wrote in Eyewitnessing, that seems like a very likely case…I’m grasping the intrinsic meaning of the photos. If I read more about WWI and gained a better understanding of the events surrounding that conflict, would I feel the same way about images of that time? Or am I doomed to be a spectator? I think Sontag’s claim applies to images of events that occurred before our time, but that isn’t to say we still aren’t able to analyze and learn the intrinsic value of a historical image. However, I think it is fair to say that an analysis of an image that occurred during our time would be much more detailed than an analysis of an image from the deep past.
We might have to take this photo with a grain of salt. Wilson has identified it as Douglass, but if you compare it to another photo identified (again, perhaps circumstantially) as Douglass, the look fairly different. But then again FD looked different in quite a number of portraits. So take this for what it is worth. The book is on reserve in Eckles, if you’d like to peruse other images of African Americans from the era.