Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics 2002110816

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Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics

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David Levi Strauss

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Copy1ight ~ 2003 Aperture Foundation, Inc.;Essays copyright© Introduction copyright (Q 2003 John Berger.


David Levi Strauss:

Unless otherwise noted all photographs are courtesy and copyright ~ the Jrtists; pp. 4 and 43, photographs by Sebastiao Salgado, courtesy the artist and Contact Press Images: p. 40, photographs by John Hoagland, courtesy the family ofJohn Hoagland; p. 52 , photograph by Joel-Peter Witkin, courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; pp. I07 and 193, photographs by Miguel Rio Branco, courtesy the artist and D'Amelio Terras, New York; p. 125, photograph by Francesca Woodman, courtesy and copy1ight © the Francesca Woodman Estate; p. 135, photograph by Hannah Villiger, courtesy and copy1ight © the Estate of Hannah Villiger. All tights reserved under International and Pan-Ame1ican Copy1ight Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form whatsoever without w1itten pennission from the publisher. Library of Congress Control Number: 2002110816 Hardcover ISBN: 1-931788-I0-3

Editor: Diana C. Stoll; Dcs(1!_11cr: Wendy Byrne: Prod11ctio11: Li'ia A. Farmer; .tlssista11t Editor: J\llichael Famighetti The staff for Bct11 1cc11 the Eyes: Essays 011 PhMolraphy and A)/itics at Aperture Found,1tion includes:Janice B. Stanton, Dcp11ty Excwtil'c Director, Robert Morton, Editor-i11-chi~/: Books; Melissa Hanis, Sc11ior Editt)r, Daniel Buckley, JJt>rk-scholar Aperture Foundation publishes a magazine, books, and portfolios of fine photography and presents photographic exhibitions. A complete catalog is available upon request. Aperture Foundation, including the Book Center and Burden Gallery: 20 East 23rd Street, New York, New York IOOJO. Phone: (212) 505-5555, ext. 300. Fax: (212) 979-7759. E-mail: [email protected] rg Visit Aperture 's website: www.aperture.o rg P1inted ,rnd bound by Tien Wah Press. Singapore First Edition

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This brilliant book by David Levi Strauss is subtitled Essays 011 Photography and Politics.Yet \vhen the eighteen essays are placed together, it's clear that they're about son1ething else too: they are about pain, the pain of the \vorld. Often the \vay they are \vritten, their style, is like the breathing of son1eone in pain. Mea1nvhile there is not a trace of self-pity and there is nothing 111audlin in this deeply in1pressive and troubling book. Strauss, \vho is a poet and storyteller as \Vell as being a reno\vned con1n1entator on photography (I reject the designation critic) looks at in1ages very hard. That's to say he studies then1 for a long \vhile before allo\ving \Vords to co111e into his 111ind. As Paul Valery once said, and Strauss quotes else\vhere: "The eyes are organs of asking." The first ans\vers to such asking are visual not verbal, precise yet inexplicable, fa1niliar yet strange. Appearances contain 1nore 111essages than we ever allo\v then1 to tell us-except perhaps when \Ve are in love. Strauss looks very hard at the photographs he writes about and con1es face-to-face \vith the unexplained. Again and again. The unexplained that he encounters has only little to do vvith the 111ystery of art and everything to do \Vith the 111ystery of countless lives being lived. This is how he arrives at the pain existing in the \vorld today.

Consun1erist ideology, \vhich has beco111e the n1ost po\verful and invasive on the planet, sets out to persuade us that pain is an acci-


dent, so111ething that \Ve can insure against.This is the logical basis for the ideology's pitilessness. Everyone kno\vs, of course, that pain is ende111ic to life, and \van ts to forget this or relativize it. All the variants of the 111yth of a Fall fro111 the Golden Age, before pain existed, are an atte111pt to relativize the pain suffered on earth. So too is the invention of Hell, the adjacent kingdon1 of pain-as-puni shn1ent. Likewise the discovery of Sacrifice. And later, 111uch later, the principal of Forgiveness. One could argue that philosophy began vvith the question: Why pain? Yet, when all this has been said, the present pain of living in the vvorld is perhaps in son1e vvays unprecedent ed and the essays that follow either address this question or en1erge fron1 it. I write in the night, although it is daytin1e. A day in early October, 2002. For aln1ost a vveek the sky above Paris has been blue. Each day the sunset is a little earlier and each day gloriously beautiful. Many fear that before long, U.S. 1nilitary forces will be launching the "preventive" \Var against Iraq so that the U.S. oil corporations can lay their hands on further and supposedly safer oil supplies. Others hope that this can be avoided. Bet\veen the announced decisions and the secret calculations, everything is kept unclear, since lies prepare the ,vay for 111issiles. I ,v1-ite in a night of sha1ne. By slza111c I do not n1ean individual guilt. Shan1e, as l'111 con1ing to understand it, is a species feeling, ,vhich, in the long run, corrodes the capacity for hope and prevents us looking far ahead. We look do\vn at our feet, thinking only of the next s1nall step. People everY'vhere -under very different conditions- are asking the111selves: Where are \ve? The question is histo1-ical not geographical. What are \Ve living through? Where are ,ve being taken? What have ,ve lost? How to continue ,vithout a plausible vision of the future?Why have \Ve lost any vie,v of vvhat is beyond a lifeti1ne?


The ,veil-heeled experts ans,ver: Globalization. Post111odernis111. Co111111unications !~evolution. Econo111ic Liberalis111. The tenns are tautological and evasive. To the anguished question ofWhere are ,ve? the experts 111un11ur: No,vhere! Might it not be better to see and declare that ,ve are living through the 111ost tyrannical-because the 111ost pervasive-chaos that has ever existed? It's not easy to grasp the nature of the tyranny, for its po,ver structure (ranging fron1 the t\vo hundred largest 111ultinational corporations to the Pentagon) is interlocking yet diffuse, dictatorial yet anony111ous, ubiquitous yet placeless. It tyrannizes fro111 offshore-not only in tern1s of Fiscal La,v, but in tenns of any political control beyond its o,vn. Its ai111 is to delocalize the entire ,vorld. Its ideological strategy-beside ,vhich Bin Laden's is a fairy tale-is to undennine the existent so that everything collapses into its special version of the virtual, fro111 the reahn of ,vhichand this is the tyranny's credo-there ,vill be a never-ending source of profit. It sounds stupid. Tyrannies arc stupid. This one is destroying at every level the life of the planet on ,vhich it operates. Ideology apart, its po,ver is based on t,vo threats. The first is intervention fro111 the sky by the 111ost heavily anned state in the ,vorld. One could call it Threat B-52. The second is of ruthless indebtinent, bankruptcy, and hence, given the present productive relations in the ,vorld, one could call it Threat Zero. The sha111e begins ,vith the contestation (,vhich ,ve all ackno,vledge son1e,vhere but, out of po,verlessness, dis111iss) that n1uch of the present suffering could be alleviated or avoided if certain realistic and relatively si111ple decisions ,vere 111ade. There is a very direct relation today bet\veen the 111inutes of 111eetings and 111inu tes of agony. l)oes anyone deserve to be conde111ned to certain death si111ply because they don't have access to treatinent that ,vould cost less than t,vo dollars a day? This ,vas a question posed by the Director of the World Health Organization last July. She ,vas talking about IX

the AIDS epiden1ic in Africa and elsewh ere, fro111 which an esti1na ted 68 nlillion people \vill die within the next eighte en years. I an1 talking about the pain of living in the presen t world. Most analyses and progno ses about what is happe ning are unders tandab ly presen ted and studie d within the framew ork of their separa te disciplines: econon1ics, politics, 1nedia studies, public health , ecology, nation al defense, crimin ology, educat ion, etc. In reality each of these separa te fields is joined to anothe r to n1ake up the real terrain of what is being lived. It happen s that in their lives, people sutler fron1 wrong s that are classified in separate categories, and sutler the1n simult aneous ly and inseparably. A curren t exan1ple: son1e Kurds, who fled last \Veek to Cherbourg and have been refused asylun1 by the French govern n1ent and risk to be repatri ated to Turkey, are poor, politically undesi rable, landless, exhaus ted, illegal, and the clients of nobody. And they suffer each of these condit ions at one and the san1e second! An interdi sciplin ary vision is necessary in order to take in \Vhat is happe ning, to conne ct the "fields " that are institu tionall y kept separate. And any such vision is bound to be (in the origina l sense of the word) politic al. The precon dition for thinki ng politic ally on a global scale is to see the unity of the unnece ssary sufferi ng taking place. This is the startin g point. I write in the night, but I see not only the tyranny. If that \,Vere all I sa"v, I would probab ly not have the courag e to contin ue. I see people sleepin g, stirrin g, gettin g up to drink water, \vhisp ering their projec ts or their fears, 1nakin g love, prayin g, cookin g son1ething while the rest of the fanlily is asleep, in Baghd ad and Chicago. (I see too the ever invinc ible Kurds, four thousa nd of vvhon1 were gasse d-wit h U.S. co111 plianc e-by Sadda1n Hussei n.) I see pastry cooks worki ng in Tehran , and the shephe rds, thoug ht of as bandit s, sleepin g beside their sheep in Sardin ia, I see a n1an in the Friedr ichsha in quarte r of Berlin sitting in his pajan1as \Vith a bottle of beer readin g Heide gger and he has the hands of a prolet arX

ian, I see a s111all boat of illegal i111111igrants off the Spanish coast near Alicante, I see a n1other in Mali-her na111e is Aya, \Vhich 111eans Born 011 Friday-s\vaying her baby to sleep, I see the ruins of Kabul and a n1an going ho111e, and I kno\v that, despite the pain, the ingenuity of the survivors is undi111inishcd, an ingenuity that scavenges and collects energy, and in the ceaseless cunning of this ingenuity, there is a spiritual value, son1ething like the Holy Ghost. I a111 convinced of this in the night, although I don't kno\v \vhy. The next step is to reject all the tyranny's discourse. Its tenns are crap. In the intenninably repetitive speeches, announce111ents, press conferences, and threats, the recurrent tern1s are: De111ocracy, Justice, Hu111an Ilights, Terroris111. Each \Vord in the context signifies the opposite of what it \Vas once 111eant to. Each has been trafficked, each has beco111e a gang's code-\vord, stolen fi-0111 hu111anity. De111ocracy is a proposal (rarely realized) about decision 111aking; it has little to do \Vith election ca111paigns. Its pro1nise is that political decisions be n1ade after, and in the light of, consultation \vith the governed. This process is dependent upon the governed being adequately infonned about the issues in question, and upon the decision 111akers having the capacity and \vill to listen and take account of \vhat they have heard. De111ocracy should not be confused \Vith the "'freedo111" ofbinary choices, the publication of opinion polls, or the cro\vding of people into statistics. These are its pretenses. Today the funda111ental decisions, which effect the unnecessary pain increasingly suffered across the planet, have been and are 111ade unilaterally \Vithout any open consultation or participation. For instance, ho\v 111any U.S. citizens, if consulted, \vould have said specifically Yes to Bush's \Vithdra\val fron1 the Kyoto Agree111ent about the carbon dioxide greenhouse effect that is already provoking disastrous floods in 111any places, and threatens, \Vithin XI

the next t\venty -five years, far worse disaste rs? Despi te all the "111edia-n1anagers of consen t," I suspec t it \vould be a 1ninority.

It \Vas a little n1ore than a centur y ago that Anton in Dvoi-ak con1posed his Sy111phony Fro111 the Ne111 World. He \Vrote it vvhile directing a conser vatory of n1usic in Nevv York, and the \vritin g of it inspire d hin1 to co1npose, eighte en n1onths later still in N e\v York, his subli111e Cello Conce rto. In the sy111phony the horizo ns and rolling hills of his native Bohe111ia becon1 e the pron1ises of the Ne\v World . Not grandi loquen t but loud and contin uing, for they corres pond to the longin gs of those witho ut po\ver, of those \vho are \Vrongly called si1nple, of those the U.S. Const itution addressed in 1787. I know of no other \Vork of art that expresses so directl y and yet so toughl y (Dvor ak \vas the son of a peasan t and his father drean1ed of his beco111ing a butche r) the beliefs that inspire d generation after genera tion of in1111igrants \vho beca111e U.S. citizens. For Dvora k the force of these beliefs \vas insepa rable fro111 a kind of tender ness, a respect for life such as can be found inti111ately a111ong the govern ed (as distinc t fro111 govern ors) everyw here.A nd it \Vas in this spirit that the sy1nph ony \Vas public ly receive d \vhen it vvas first perforn 1ed at Carne gie Hall (Dece111ber 16, 1893). Dvora k \Vas asked \Vhat he though t about the future of An1erican 1nusic and he reco111111ended that U.S. co111posers listen to the n1usic of the Indian s and the blacks. The Sy111phony Fro111 tlze Neil' World expressed a hopefu lness \Vitho ut frontie rs, \vhich , parado xically, is vvelconung because center ed on an idea ofho111e. A utopia n parado x. Today the po\ver of the countr y that inspire d such hopes has fallen into the hands of a coterie of fanatical (\van ting to lin1it everything except the po\ver of capital), ignora nt (recog nizing only the reality of their O\vn fire-po \ver), hypocr itical (t\VO 111easures for all ethical judgn1 ents: one for us and anothe r for then1) and ruthles s XII

B-52 plotters. Ho\v did this happen? Ho\V did Bush, Murdoch,

Cheney, Kristal, R. . u111sfeld, et al.-like Brecht's Arturo Ui-get \vhere they did? The question is rhetorical, for there is no single ans\ver; and it is idle, for no ans\ver \vill dent their po\ver yet. But to ask it in this \Vay in the night addresses the enonnity of \Vhat has happened. We are talking about the pain in the \vorld. The political 111echanis111 of the ne\v tyranny, although it needs highly sophisticated technology in order to function, is starkly si111ple. Usurp the \Vords dc111ocmcy,_f,·ccdo111, etc. linpose-\vhatever the disasters-the ne\v profit-n1aking and i111poverishing econo111ic chaos every\vhere. Insure that all frontiers are one-\vay: open to the tyranny, closed to others. And eli111inate every opposition by calling it terrorist. I have not forgotten the couple \vho thre\v the111selves fi-0111 one of the T\vin To\vers instead of being burned to death separately. There is a toylike object that costs about four dollars to 111anufacture and that is also incontestably terro1ist. It is called the antipersonnel 111ine. Once launched, it is in1possible to kno\v \vho111 these 111ines \vill n1u ti late or kill, or \vhen they \vill do so. There are 111ore than 100 111illion lying on, or hidden in, the earth at this n10111ent. The 111ajo1ity of victi111s have been or \vill be civilians. (R. . ead Strauss's fu1ious essay on pages 56-64.) The antipersonnel 111ine is 111eant to n1utilate rather than kill. Its ai111 is to n1ake c1ipples, and it is designed \Vith shrapnel that, it is planned, \vill prolong the victi111's 111edical treat111ent and render it 111ore difficult. Most survivors have to undergo eight or nine surgical operations. Every 111onth, as of no\v, t\vo thousand civilians so111e\vhere are 111ai111ed or killed by these 111ines. The desc1iption a11tipcrso1111cl is linguistically 111urderous. Personnel are anony111ous, na111eless, \Vithout gender or age. Personnel is the opposite of people. As a tenn it ignores blood, li111bs, pain, XIII

a111putations, intin1acy, and love. It abstracts totally. This is how its t\vo \vords, \vhen joine d to an explosive, beco1ne terror ist. The new tyrann y, like other recen t ones, depen ds to a large degre e on a systen1atic abuse of langu age.T ogeth er we have to reclain1 our hijack ed \Vords and reject the tyrann y's nefari ous euphen1isn1s; if we do not, we will be left vvith only the word shame. Not a sin1ple task, for 111ost of its official disco urse is pictor ial, associative, evasive, full of innue ndoes . Few things are said in black and white . Both 111ilitary and econo n1ic strate gists now realize that the 111edia play a crucia l role- not so 111uch in defea ting the current enen1y as in forecl osing and preve nting n1utiny, protes ts, or deser tion. Any tyrann y's n1ani pulati on of the n1edia is an index of its fears. The prese nt one lives in fear of the world 's despe ration . A fear so deep that the adjec tive despe rate-e xcept when it 1neans dange rous, and refers to son1e one else- is never used. With out 111oney each daily hun1a n need beco111es a pain. Thos e who have filche d povv er-an d they are not all in office, so they recko n on a contin uity of that po\ve r beyon d presid ential elections -pret end to be savin g the \vorld and offeri ng its popul ation the chanc e to becon 1e their client s. The vvorld consu n1er is sacred. What they don't add is that consun1ers n1atter only becau se they gener ate profit , vvhich is the only thing that is really sacred. This sleigh t of hand leads us to the crux. The clai111 to be saving the vvorld 111asks the plotte rs' assu111ption that a large part of the world -incl uding n1ost of the conti nent of Afric a and a consi derab le part of South An1e rica- is irredee1nable. In fact, every corne r that canno t be part of their center is irrede e1nab le.An d such a concl usion follo\vs inevit ably fron1 the dogn1a that the only salvat ion is 111oney, and the only globa l future is the one their priori ties insist upon, priori ties that, vvith


false na111es given to then1, are in reality nothing 111ore nor less than their benefits . Those \vho have different visions or hopes for the \Vorld, along \Vith those \vho cannot buy and \vho survive fro111 day to day (approxi111ately 800 111illion), are back\vard relics fro111 another age, or, \vhen they resist, either peacefully or \Vith anns, terrorists. They are feared as harbingers of death, carriers of disease or insurrection. When they have been "do\vnsized" (one of their key \vords), the tyranny, in its na·ivete, assu111es the \vorld \vill be unified. It needs its fantasy of a happy ending. A fantasy that in reality \vill be its undoing. Every fonn of contestation against this tyranny is co111prehensible. Dialogue \Vith it is in1possible. For us to live and die properly, things have to be na111ed properly. Let us reclai111 our \Vords. This is \vritten in the night. In the night by the light of his intelligence and co111passion David Levi Strauss talks about \vhat has been forgotten, what is being systen1atically erased, and what we need to re111e111ber for ton1O1TO\V. In \Var, the dark is on nobody's side, in love the dark confinns that \Ve are together.


The most political decision you make is where you direct people's eyes. In other words, what you show people, day in and day out, is political.... And the most politically indoctrinating thing you can do to a human being is to show him, every day, that there can be no change. -Wi m Wenders, The Act of Seeing

THE DOCUMENTARY DEBATE: AESTHETIC OR ANAESTHETIC? Or, What's So Funny About Pea ce, Love, Understanding, and Soci al Documentary Photography?

So, 111hat does a photograph expose? It exposes, says Derrida, the relatio11 to the law. f;fl/,at he 111ea11s is that every photo poses itself as this qHestio11: Are ,ve allo,ved to vie,v ,vhat is being exposed? -Avital R.onell, intervie\ved by Andrea Juno in A11