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Screams, smiles and selfies

Events in Gaza over the last few weeks have appalled me. By any standards what has been perpetrated there is unacceptable. Both side’s hands bloodied, and in the middle, too many innocent civilians with nowhere to hide.

Amongst the many many images that I waded through recently, some tearfully, several caught my attention, and of them, a particular pair of ‘selfies’, one directly related to events in Gaza, the other more indirectly related (and which popped up in a google search for ‘selfie’) simply because of its location, Auschwitz, and it’s significance to the history of Israel.

They grabbed my attention because I’d been mulling over an excellent and thought-provoking post by John Edwin Mason, one of a series of three linked posts John is working on: “What makes a photo iconic? Four dead boys on a Gaza beach.”  And as I considered John’s observations whilst looking at photos from recent events I realized that I was seeing images that were about recording individual’s participation in them, marking their presence there, and ‘broadcast’ via social media in a manner not previously possible. And it made me curious about the ways social media enabled individuals to make such ‘visual comment’, and to wonder also whether such images could become ‘iconic’.

All else aside, what these two, apparently unrelated, and certainly unremarkable images shared was the ability to elicit a torrent of comment, mostly abuse, on social media, each individual being condemned for their ‘thoughtlessness’.  But more than that, they underlined for me the power of photography. Its ability to communicate, and motivate; and also its abject failure, but more of that failure later.

The first was on AL-Monitor, and showing (quote):

“An Israeli teen takes a selfie with the Gaza Strip as his background on a hill near Sderot, opposite the northern Gaza Strip, July 13, 2014. (photo by REUTERS/Nir Elias)”

An Israeli teen takes a selfie, with the Gaza Strip in the background @ Nir Elias

An Israeli teen takes a selfie, with the Gaza Strip in the background @ Nir Elias

An image from the now infamous Sderot Cinema, a nightly spectacle for (some) Israelis, who have come to watch Gaza being pounded by all manner of Israeli weaponry. Of necessity it anonymises the individual, because to include the ‘action’ it requires that their back be towards the spectacle, and also to the photographer. But of course this raises the question of whether what is said to be there ‘in the background’  is actually there. We must trust the observer. The only person who knows for sure has taken the selfie. You can read some of the comment about Sderot here. And some opposing comment here.

Not so ambiguous with the other image. It is full on, with no hint of anonymity, quite the opposite. It was taken by an 18 year old Alabama teen on a visit to Auschwitz and attracted a huge amount of criticism. It spawned a rash of news articles, some showing smiling and sneering teens in various ‘sensitive’ locations such as here. And a google search will unearth plenty more comments, some supportive, many against.

 

Auschwitz © Breanna Mitchell

Auschwitz © Breanna Mitchell

But beneath the surface, there is more than at first meets the eye. The backstory to the Auschwitz image is more complicated, and is, according to Breanna, being misrepresented.

“Breanna Mitchell, an 18-year-old from Roanoke, Ala., said just before her senior year, she and her father planned a trip to Poland. However, unexpectedly Mitchell’s father died of a heart attack right before she started her last year at Handley High School.

Mitchell continued to go on the trip with her grandmother in memory of her dad, and visited Poland last month.

“I expected it to be really sad because I knew he wasn’t there, but when I got there I could feel him with me,” Mitchell told AL.com Thursday.

She said she had been taking pictures throughout the camp. “Me, being a teenager, decided to take a selfie.”

She said she has always been interested in the Holocaust and it was a topic she often discussed with her dad.

“I’m not a history person but that’s the only part of history I’ll actually sit there and talk about. I guess it’s so weird all that could happen and nobody could do anything about it,” Mitchell explained.

She said in the ninth grade a teacher set up a web cam interview with a Holocaust survivor living in Atlanta and that experience had a big impact on her.”

All may not be so obvious as it seems. And rather than a sneering mockery of Auschwitz and all it represents, it is at best a record of an ambition fulfilled, or at worst a crudely scrawled ‘Kilroy was here’ moment, on the toilet wall that is Facebook/Twitter/Instagram. And the image at top may or may not represent a gloating Israeli delighting in the death and mayhem visited on his Palestinian neighbours. Only the selfie-author knows for sure.

Which brings me full circle and to photography’s “abject failure” I mentioned earlier. Truth is, photography’s strength is also its greatest weakness. A photograph can tell you where someone was, it can tell you when they were there, it may reveal what they did, it may show their face (or it may not). But although it – a ‘selfie’ – may appear to make comment, in truth it tells us absolutely nothing about the motives of the person who took it. And perversely these images and our responses to them, actually reveal more about us, and our prejudices, than they do about the taker.

A quote from Susie Linfield in ‘The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence’  reveals all is pretty much as it has always been (regarding the history of photography and its adoption by the masses):

“But such newness and egalitarian newness, could stir intense anxieties – even in a great modernist like Baudelaire. He hated photography for many reasons, including its general availability and its great popularity . “In these deplorable times” he warned in 1859, “a new industry has developed,” one supported by the ignorant mob. Like an Old Testament prophet, he railed:

“Our loathsome society rushed, like Narcissus, to contemplate its trivial image on the metallic plate. A form of lunacy, an extraordinary fanaticism, took hold of these new sun-worshippers. Strange abominations manifested themselves.” ”

For the image taker, it may simply have been, ‘I was here, this is what it was like’. And any further interpretation, or presumption of motive and intent on our part, is merely guesswork.

So, to answer my own question, what do these images and my response to them betray about me? To my mind one is an image that simply marks the presence of death in a place of life, the other, celebrating life in a place of death. And neither, I think, can become truly iconic, they may be memorable but do not have that ‘something’ extra that makes them unique.

But what of iconic images? Of all the photographs that I’ve seen recently two stand out. Will they become iconic? Who knows, such things are the gift of many others, but as images that sum up the futility and desperate situation in the Middle East, they’ll stick in my mind.

The first shows a small child at the centre of many gloved hands. It symbolizes the suffering of the innocent, the pulling to and fro by many factions, gloved hands gentle but ‘distant’ – their touch dulled by latex, it speaks to me of confusion, uncertainty, but at the heart of it all the precarious promise of a young Palestinian’s life, twisted limbs uncertain of the direction this individual will be able to go in her future.

Palestinian medical personnel treat a wounded girl at the emergency room of the Shifa hospital in Gaza City on July 18, 2014. © (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Palestinian medical personnel treat a wounded girl at the emergency room of the Shifa hospital in Gaza City on July 18, 2014. © (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

And then this one, which struck me with its similarity of composition and line. But an image suffused with grief and longing, expressed by many hands, some making farewell touches, others fingertip reverence for the flag of their state, and, deeply significant, other hands clutching ropes, tying those in the present to a past Israel should not ever forget.

he mother of Israeli soldier Tal Yifrah mourns over his flag-covered coffin during his funeral in Rishon Lezion near Tel Aviv © REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

The mother of Israeli soldier Tal Yifrah mourns over his flag-covered coffin during his funeral in Rishon Lezion near Tel Aviv © REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

 

Will these images make a difference? Will they become symbols of a past we all regret and have moved on beyond? I’ll leave the last words to John Edwin Mason:

“Time had to catch up with the photographs.  More correctly, attitudes had to change, and change they did.  But they didn’t change without struggle.”

 

 

 

 

More articles from John Macpherson

  • Mikal W. Grass

    Great article.

    • http://www.john-macpherson-photography.com John Macpherson

      Thanks Mikal.

  • http://johnedwinmason.typepad.com/ John

    John, I once wrote a blog post called “How Photography Lies, Even When It’s Telling the Truth.” This makes many of the same points — and it’s a lot better.

    I think what I like most about your writing is the compassion that informs all of it. I might say that’s its great strength. Because even when we’re talking about photographs, we’re almost always actually talking about the people who made them and the people who see them. Your compassion allows you to see beyond yourself and to understand people and the photos that they make in all their complexity.

    • http://www.john-macpherson-photography.com John Macpherson

      Thank you John. I need to look back through your site and find that post of yours.

      I have to confess I got very angry reading the comments about the Auschwitz photo – I wondered – did none of these people actually look at the image? That did not strike me as the face of a neo-nazi holocaust denier – and god knows there are enough of them around that most of the critics could vent their spleen at. But an 18 year old girl who actually made the journey from Alabama to Poland and bore witness, makes a much easier target.

      It’s easy too for the Sderot cinema critics to ascribe all sorts of emotions and intent to a young man taking a selfie on a hilltop, and just as not all Palestinians support Hamas, not all Israelis support Netanyahu and his grim agenda.

      The middle ground is the majority and their voices are often hard to hear. This young man’s selfie on a hilltop may turn out to be the iconic image of the future and used in a way we can’t imagine. Time, as you rightly point out, has an effect we must be patient to witness.

      Thanks again for your encouragement though, I do feel that reading your posts, and considered observations, is leading me into areas of thinking about photography that are worth visiting.

  • http://rearcurtain.com Ray K

    Brief thought this morning about the iconic or misinterpretation of images
    Perhaps the reliance on a single photograph for the whole story is the issue. Bite sized piece with no context.

    • http://www.john-macpherson-photography.com John Macpherson

      Hi Ray – yes I think that’s a part of the problem. The ‘sound-bite’ approach to ‘understanding’ complex issues can only provide a taste. Too few people seem to have the time to digest the full meal (and maybe not the appetite either), and in reality too many sources of information deliver only bite-sized pieces.

  • Christine Lorenz

    A great portion of the vitriol against the “Auschwitz Selfie,” I think, comes from the overloaded words themselves, and the revulsion that is triggered by linking them together. “Selfie” speaks of vanity, self-absorbtion, superficiality, the throwaway nature of social media photographs, a thoughtless way of framing anything and everything as background for a moment of admiring oneself. But what one of these photographs mean to the person taking them can be worlds different. If we are indeed living our lives through the photographs we take of them, how exactly do we expect kids to process the experience of visiting a Holocaust site? What makes us so comfortable passing judgment on this girl’s experience on the basis of a single picture she took there? The photograph itself is worth talking about — I find her expression fascinating — but I think the public conversation seems to be all about the phenomenon, not what we can see in this specific image.

    But that’s the problem of the iconic photograph, isn’t it? Icons condense something powerful and invisible into something concrete. We see in them what they trigger for us, and that’s what we respond to. Consensus rushes in to fill the void of context.

    Maybe the selfie has its own language and we’re still trying to build a consensus about how it works. We’re still dealing with the troubles we talked about with, for example, the “thumbs up” photos at Abu Ghraib. Remember how Sabrina Harman talked about those photographs in _Standard Operating Procedure_? In all these different hellish places where she found herself during the war, the big smiling selfie was a way for her to try to keep a grip on herself and keep going. Do we see emotional turmoil in the pictures? I don’t. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real.

    (On this article, I have to echo John Edwin Mason’s sentiments as well — the empathy that drives your writing is so important for understanding the ongoing evolution of photography. Thank you!)

    • http://www.john-macpherson-photography.com John Macpherson

      Hi Christine – thanks very much for taking the time to read, and then to comment. I think you’re correct that the word ‘selfie’ brings with it unfortunate emotional baggage. But I’m struck by a couple of your comments – first, “The photograph itself is worth talking about” which I’m in total agreement with – what struck me about it, her expression aside, was the composition. And I have to confess it was this that tipped me heavily in favour of solidarity with her – she has placed herself in a most ‘auspicious’ spot, perfectly at the confluence of the buildings, which angle down to her, yet her expression is one of not glee, not mocking, not anything like that, but more of a sense of a journey made. It’s quite an emotional expression. And I love the ‘Mickey Mouse’ ears the trees have given her. There’s a humility there I think.

      And then you said “Maybe the selfie has its own language….etc” and I again I agree. The whole phenomenon of public photo-sharing instead of using words is throwing up all manner of interesting stuff, and the academics and analysts are way way back in their slipstream (with a few notable exceptions who are trying to keep pace with it all as it evolves and mutates).

      Interesting times.

      I’m going to remember this: ” Icons condense something powerful and invisible into something concrete. We see in them what they trigger for us, and that’s what we respond to. Consensus rushes in to fill the void of context. “ That’s a very astute and eloquently phrased observation.

      And thanks for the compliments on my writing. J.E.M. has been the catalyst for many things I’ve wrestled onto paper. He shares the responsibility!

  • http://rearcurtain.com Ray K

    “The whole phenomenon of public photo-sharing instead of using words is throwing up all manner of interesting stuff,…”

    We are seeing the evolution of language not photography. A phone call or letter with all the context and excitement of being there wouldn’t have the lasting or sharing power of this image or the ability to be misinterpreted. I believe a mistake is being made by judging many pictures on social media with the same criteria as we would photographs. I have begun to see them as shorthand or stand-ins for text or phone call.

    I too am going to remember that quote on icons- well said Christine.

    • http://www.john-macpherson-photography.com John Macpherson

      Hello Ray, thanks for adding your voice.

      Yes I think you’re right. The irony is that the ‘writing’ with images is, in a sense, easy – you can pick up an ‘image making tool’ and off you go, and ‘something’ results, but the interpretation of that ‘something’ can vary wildly, and often to polar opposites.

  • Christine Lorenz

    I’m afraid I can’t take credit for the lines on the iconic image … it comes from years of trying to teach Harriman and Lucaites’s _No Caption Needed_. (Kids these days, they like the Powerpoints …)

    • http://www.john-macpherson-photography.com John Macpherson

      No disappointment here! A good line is a good line, whomever uttered it first. I have still to read ‘No Caption Needed’ and in fact you’ve just prompted me to order it this morning. Too many books, not enough time…….

  • Christine Lorenz

    I can’t keep up with all of the good writing in the field, but I do think _No Caption Needed_ is an important one. Happy to spread the word.

    The debate continues on the Auschwitz Selfie. Apparently an editorial in the Chicago Tribune was published recently that is worth reading but it’s behind a paywall now. While I still think the outrage is provoked by the phenomenon that this photograph represents, and not by the actual photograph, it is strange to find myself defending “Princess Breanna.” Typically I’d be decrying the glib superficiality of American culture, its flattening obliviousness, etc. Even Weird Al Yancovic is reminding us how the “selfies at a funeral” stands for all the tackiness we live with (and it’s great to see him in top form btw). But somehow I feel for the girl. She’s trying to negotiate a couple of very different worlds, did something offensive without understanding why, and she’s being torn apart in public for it. I’m not sure we need to keep rehashing the outrage at the way kids will shoot themselves mugging it up in the middle of anything (and I do think it is in large part a generational issue). I think we are well prepared to move on to a more sustained discussion of how the use of photography has changed — and by we I’m speaking broadly of the kind of people who cut our teeth on Sontag and Berger, who meet up on Duckrabbit, Mason’s blog, BAG news notes, etc.

    About the photograph, I like your reading, John. The framing is clear and direct, and that’s probably part of how this one came to be “the” Auschwitz Selfie (people do them all the time). It’s the facial expression that gets me. I’m seeing a person who is very conflicted inside; her smile looks completely forced to me. She’s performing the rites of her people, isn’t she? Living in social media, putting it all out there? Ray is right that this kind of photograph is more like conversation than document. And any photograph is liable to be taken out of one context and put into another. So, asking for trouble.

    I don’t know if I want to live in a world where taking selfies in the middle of atrocity scenes, or in the middle of actual ongoing atrocities, is just something people do. But I am not sure I get to choose about that. It’s where we are.

    • http://www.john-macpherson-photography.com John Macpherson

      Thanks for continuing the conversation Christine. I’ve just finished Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance and thought it excellent and a good antidote to the all-there-is-to-say-on-photography-was-said-by-Sontag approach. And some of what Linfield has to say I found refreshing and very very insightful, and given where we are today and what prompted my original post, very perspicacious.

      I agree there’s an element of a ‘forced’ expression present, however if the backstory is as is reported, then she may have had conflicted thoughts – instead of her own hand taking the image she may have been thinking about her dad and his absence and inability to take it for her. But, who knows.

      But if as we suspect, and as Ray suggests, this is a ‘conversation’ of sorts, then like all language it has to evolve through use and convention, and importantly the breaking of those conventions. Personally the fact Princess B actually went to Auschwitz in the first place denies all those who would seek to criticize her any space on the moral high ground.

      And in this present age of ubiquitous imagery that is defined by two fundamentals – 1) anyone and everyone can take images and share them, and 2) anyone and everyone can be a critic of them, and in fact call into question the veracity of what they see in them, perhaps viewed in that light a selfie is a fundamental ‘truth’ of sorts – an attempt to prove incontrovertibly that I WAS there. Yes they can be faked of course, but maybe this ‘obsession’ with self-representation is a response to that ‘disbelief’ that is so common. But this whole thing is like trying to pin down mercury, and that for me is what is refreshing and exciting about it, and its evolution as a communicative tool.

      You said:

      I don’t know if I want to live in a world where taking selfies in the middle of atrocity scenes, or in the middle of actual ongoing atrocities, is just something people do. But I am not sure I get to choose about that. It’s where we are.

      I watched a self-to-camera journalist/witness piece that was preceded by a patient face-to-camera pose surrounded by the scene of devastation and carnage, which ended the moment the anchor asked the question that elicited an animated spoken response from the journalist/witness. Up till that point it was a selfie, which, if taken out of that context could be judged crass and tasteless. Context and continuity matters, as you point out, and for me I simply had to imagine Princess B ambling through the Auschwitz experience and trying to comprehend it, with her young years and earbuds playing ‘something’ (maybe a history of Auschwitz recording?), and then being moved to make a memorable moment of her presence. “I was there. This is me.”

      Any deeper reading of it than that on our part is guesswork.

      But perhaps we need to turn the telescope the other way and look at the audience response – maybe that’s where the alchemy is stronger – perhaps we are witnessing – in their dismissal of Princess B’s ‘moment’ or in their questioning of the veracity of it, or perhaps even more fundamentally in their dismissal of the ‘validity’ of that moment – what might be (in this new and evolving visual language) the ultimate insult.

      Interesting times!