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In all our terrible humanness. We saw ourselves just shine.


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It is more common to suggest that it is the photographer who operates in a safe zone offered by the camera which protects him or her from the surrounding environment. It is more common to argue that the photographer, exploiting the subject depicted, attracts the spotlight. This element of photographic representation is often overlooked in critical assessments focusing on the violence of the photographic act, just as is the fact that nowadays many subjects ask photographers to take their pictures so as not to become invisible in a world where what cannot be seen does not exist.

The violence inherent in the act of photographing a person committing a murder is different from the violence inherent in the act of actually killing a person. The violence inherent in the act of looking at a photograph of a person committing a murder is different from the violence inherent in the act of photographing a person committing a murder.

Photographs of acts of violence are different from—and represent a different degree of violence than—photographs of acts of violence that have specifically been committed for the purpose of the production of images. But even photographers acknowledge the inherent violence of their work. The photographic act is an act of choice and discrimination, assigning importance to something or someone at the expense of something or someone else, which or who remains unphotographed.

Photography is an intricate, sensitive and ethically problematic balancing act, and different interests, not all of which are compatible, have to be considered carefully. Surely it matters also whether or not a subject agrees with her or his picture being taken and whether or not a subject knows what this means in a time of social media, online dissemination in real time, and numerous forms of manipulation, appropriation, and alteration.

Surely, too, the relationship between a photographer and his or her subject, especially in wars and violent conflicts, is not always a mutual one but a one-directional one—one person taking a photograph of another person without offering much in return except vague promises to raise political awareness—and as such includes, reflects, and reproduces unequal power relations, equaling those prevailing in the social world, as Abigail Solomon-Godeau has observed with regard to documentary photography:.

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We must ask, in other words, whether the documentary act does not involve a double act of subjugation: first, in the social world that has produced its victims; and second, in the regime of the image produced within and for the same system that engenders the conditions it then re-presents. Both the social world and its photographic representation involve acts of subjugation. The act of photographic violence exerted on the subject depicted cannot be separated from the violence of looking at the resulting photograph; the violence of photographic representation is inseparable from the violence of witnessing through photographic representation.

Beauty—undermining authenticity—is said to be inappropriate and ethically problematic with regard to representations of human suffering. Furthermore, beautiful photographs are alleged to direct attention away from the conditions depicted in a given image toward the technical brilliance and sophistication of the photographer, thus effectively depoliticizing the conditions depicted.

Bal specifies:. Beauty distracts, and worse, it gives pleasure—a pleasure that is parasitical on the pain of others. But also apart from terminology, the critique is not entirely convincing. Beauty, thus, is not an end in itself but a means to an end—engaging vision. But even if we agree that the photographic act necessarily includes an element of violence, how could this be otherwise in a world characterized by physical and structural violence in abundance? It is for this reason that some authors, while acknowledging that photography is violent, insist that this violence is not only inevitable but necessary.

John Roberts explains why human suffering has to be represented all the same, despite the above critique.

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Thus, both the photographic act and the act of witnessing through photographs may be violent, but both acts of violence are necessary in the interest of truth. But what kind of truth? He asks:. This is why many photographers who had access to the Rwanda war zones and the aftermath of the violence took the other route and excluded images of direct violence altogether.

Recent interest in questions pertaining to invisibility acknowledges the invisibility of many forms of violence. Indeed, many trends in current military and security policies are neither supposed to be seen nor easily accessible due to geographical remoteness. However, since Leonardo da Vinci, authors have also emphasized the merits of the invisible. Mitchell, for example, notes that the invisible affects the imagination more strongly than the visible. Politically, the invisible has also gained in importance.

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There can be no doubt that these are important political developments, shaping both the wars to come and future domestic conditions, but why are they important in connection with politics and art? After all, the images drones and CCTV cameras produce hardly qualify as art. Trends in current security policies, including military technologies relying on multiple forms of obscurity, remoteness, inaccessibility, and invisibility, can be understood neither from a conventional political science point of view nor by focusing entirely on technological developments.

Current wars are to a large extent invisible; they cannot be visually documented by means of traditional photojournalistic approaches, either.

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Rather, in order for them to be visualized, sophisticated visual approaches are required, political analysis of which helps us understand the artistic projects and their underlying politics but also the politics these projects reference and critically engage with. If they want to visualize that which cannot be seen, artists such as Norfolk, James Bridle, and Trevor Paglen have to visualize their subject matter in a way that affects viewers and tricks them into engagement. Otherwise their work being as much about politics as it is about aesthetics would be utterly pointless.

What is required is a certain type of visibility linked to and derived from the invisibility of the represented. That a part of the horror drones exert on people stems from the sound of the propeller necessarily escapes photographic representation, however. That the photographs are tranquil and aesthetically appealing makes the viewing experience at least my viewing experience profoundly unsettling when compared with the devastation that drones are capable of wreaking—and regularly do wreak—on people. Aftermath photography is a form of war photography; war is the condition of possibility for both war photography and aftermath photography.

Aesthetically, aftermath photography is closer to art photography than it is to photojournalism. It would be misleading, however, to understand it as art. Its main purpose is not to be aesthetically appealing although very often it is. There are always more interpretations of a given image than the hegemonic one. Emphasis on ambivalence and openness implies that captions, specifying what a given image shows and aiming to rescue this image from irrelevance, are problematic with regard to this photography.

To be sure, photographs that abstract from the conditions they reference without specifying these conditions with nonphotographic means are problematic. Photography, then, produces knowledge not only about the event it references but also about the wider social, economic, and political configurations within which it operates. In the course of the project, the subject moves from being a subject to being a co-artist, exerting much more influence on the way he or she gets represented than can normally be observed in photojournalism. I revisit this idea in the section on peace and participation.

But what prevents us from defining peace as the main event? Visual representations of peace in journalism and the visual arts most often reference peace negatively: by depicting its absence; by showing war, violence, and destruction realistically within the limits of visual representation in order to trigger opposition to war; and by intervening photographically in violent situations so that others can intervene in the conditions depicted with other, nonphotographic, and supposedly more effective means.

Positive approaches to the visualization of peace are not the rule; the question of what a photography of peace would have to look like is not often asked. Peace photography as a concept depends for its emergence and establishment on the linguistic designation of meaning: a specific body of photographic work has to be defined and subsequently understood as peace photography by a significant number of people in order for peace photography to come into existence.

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Thus, what are the conditions for a specific body of photographic work meaningfully to be referred to as peace photography? Meaningfully , because in principle, every photographic work can discursively be constructed as peace photography. Furthermore, based on a narrow, negative understanding of peace—peace as absence of organized, large-scale physical force—the vast majority of photographs produced at any given point in time, including the most trivial ones, would qualify as peace photographs; every photograph of a conflict that is dealt with nonviolently would be a photograph of peace.

Such a wide understanding of peace photography reflecting a narrow, negative understanding of peace would be misleading. Many photographs collected in family albums or their electronic equivalents are, due to the absence of depictions of physical force, photographs of at least negative peace. Such photographs tend to hide power relationships and forms of domination and exploitation that would undermine the seeming peacefulness of both the photographs and the relationships depicted; other portraits may fail to communicate patterns of love and amity prevailing among those depicted.

Thus, a wide understanding of peace photography would offer little satisfaction, devaluing and trivializing the whole idea of peace photography by endlessly expanding it. One path toward a narrow concept of peace photography is a wider understanding of peace; the more ambitious the understanding of peace is, the fewer pictures qualify as peace photographs.

What some viewers, based on their individual and collective socializations, may regard as a photograph of peace may be seen by others as a photograph of violence. Seemingly peaceful photographs may show conditions that, for some at least, are not peaceful at all. It is for this reason that no attempt is made here to identify a given image as a universal peace photograph. Perceptional discrepancy, interpretive openness, and cultural contextualization make the search for generalizable laws governing the operation of peace photography and its perception difficult and perhaps even pointless.

What is not pointless, however, is exploring the general conditions of possibility for peace photography. However, any conceptualization of peace photography is derivative of the underlying concept of peace, and this dependence limits the applicability of any conceptual approach to peace photography. Given the absence of a universal understanding of, and the impossibility of a neutral, unpolitical approach to, peace, any conceptual approach to peace photography reflects the culture within which it is being developed and can claim validity only within this culture. In the absence of universal agreement on the meaning of peace, there can be no universal agreement on peace photography, either.

Any conceptual approach to peace photography is limited, but different approaches to peace photography can be discussed and compared with one another. Furthermore, it is also difficult to establish a causal connection between photography and peace.

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Even in the absence of a causal connection, however, things may be connected with one another. For example, they may be connected episodically. A good starting point for reflections on peace photography—or peace photographies—is aftermath photography see above.


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After all, aftermath photography visualizes the end of the use of physical force. Without visualizing paths to peace, then, aftermath photography does not qualify as peace photography. One possible approach to peace photography would be to focus on the visualization of the evolution from aftermath of war to prelude to peace. Without ignoring history, such an approach would have to go beyond constantly referring back to what was and instead point forward to what will be or to what might be, to peace or to peace as a potentiality.


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Such photography would at the same time be linked with and decoupled from preceding violence, the existence of which it nevertheless acknowledges. Focusing on peace as a potentiality makes peace photography possible even in the absence of peace and this would be the answer to the question of how that which does not exist could possibly be visualized. Photography can also look back, in times of, or following, war and violence, at photographs taken at a point in time when peace still prevailed.

Regarding such photographs may seem to be looking at photographs of peace at least in comparison to what came later. Rather than being only an expression of nostalgia which probably is part of the viewing experience , showing that some form of peace had been possible before violence gained the upper hand may also indicate that peace might be possible again should violence stop.

Photography can also visualize postconflict cooperation between former perpetrators and victims. If such cooperation emerges authentically from the community bottom-up rather than being imposed by policymakers top-down , then photographic documentation, as one element among many others, can contribute to the normalization of cooperation and perhaps to reconciliation.

Peace photography may also reference a point in time when the preceding violence stops being the single most important reference point for individuals and groups of people formerly exposed to violence. It may visualize the replacement of experiences of violent change with expectations of peaceful change while simultaneously acknowledging that this is not a linear process, but rather one characterized by ups and downs, progression and regression.

None of these visual approaches, however, will create peace photography without assistance to be provided by linguistic designations of meaning shared by a significant number of people. Artivism is a term used by the visual artist JR to describe his double subject position as an artist and a political activist acting on behalf of and together with the subjects depicted in his work.

To assess his work, it is insufficient to analyze audience response, either. Ideally, the artist takes exactly the pictures that the subjects depicted would have taken had they themselves taken the pictures.