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Susan Sontag

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Why do we like haunted houses? Wars, terror, drones, pandemics, rising sea levels, killer bees, fungi in pain meds—isn’t the world scary enough? Yet we line up for what the industry calls HHA’s—haunted house attractions (as opposed, presumably, to actual haunted houses)—hoping to be freaked out. And if we believe the current web meme Scared Bros in a Haunted House, it works. Totally freaky, dude.

In fact, scaring people is a growing industry, rapidly gaining on Hollywood in revenues. Forty years ago, haunted houses were limited to scary carnival sideshows. Now there are magazines, websites, and trade shows for operators of haunted attractions, providing info on the latest trends: zombie runs, animatronics, 3-D, screamparks. In fact, Haunted House magazine boasts: “The haunted house industry is an American export.” We have no trade deficit in fear.

On one level, this is easy to understand. It’s all about death—that undiscovered country our culture keeps off the thought-map. Death, death, death, coming at us in the form of ghosts, monsters, maggots, snakes, killer clowns, necromancers, headless horsemen, slime crawlers, banshees, and all manner of rotting flesh and decay, aiming to infect us with its fate. The haunted house takes us to death’s door: sewers, graveyards, mortuaries, abattoirs, bottomless pits and of course, hell itself, yawning wide to receive us. Abandon all hope and enter at your own risk!

But of course, there is no risk: the journey allows us to brave death and make it out alive, the very thing we wish—oh man, do we wish—we could do for real. Every scream, every start, every time we nearly pee our pants is a shot of Red Bull to our love of life, a reminder that we hate to leave it.

Once, while on assignment together at Niagara Falls, Lisa Kereszi and I went to Ghostblasters, a haunted house crossed with a laser tag game. It was around the time that Lisa started shooting haunted houses, and secretly she was afraid every time she went to one. She thought she might get killed and end up as a haunted house display, but she didn’t tell me this. We climbed into a jerky little cart and got yanked through a maze of semi-scary dioramas. When the ghosts popped up, I shot them with a pistol and Lisa shot them with a Mamiya.

You don’t need to be Susan Sontag to understand that photographing something reduces its fear factor. Lisa’s pictures show us the haunted house as a fail: the paint peeling off plywood, the boom box strapped to the wall, the dust in the corners of the makeshift Bates Motel. “I challenged my fears,” she told me, “but it didn’t totally work.”

That’s because the pictures are somehow scary all over again—and sadder than the haunted house itself. Reality is seeping into these pictures like maggots squirming into a leaky coffin. Walls are cracking open, curtains gape onto the next room, all those plugs and wires takes us right into the mortal hands of the folks we’re paying for this illusion of an illusion, this brief moment of terror we can conquer, unlike the real dread lurking behind it. These fearful fragments we have shored against our real ruins. They’re no match for what really frightens us: blood, as the sign in one picture says, guts, gore. Meat sacs, long pigs, wetware, bags of bones, bleeders. Our horrors, ourselves.

Lisa Kereszi is a photographer based in New Haven, Conn.

Ginger Strand is the author of Flight, Inventing Niagara and Killer on the Road, which traces how violence followed construction of the interstate highway system.

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War/Photography, on view from Nov. 11 to Feb. 3, is a magnificent, wide-ranging exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. As chief curator Anne Wilkes Tucker explains in the sumptuous catalogue, that slash in the title is important: this is not a show simply of photographs of war. It’s a demonstration and examination of the relationship between the two and how that relationship has changed over time. There are plenty of images of combat, but the catchment area extends way beyond the battlefield–both in space and in time–to include preparations for war, refugees fleeing its consequences, damage to property and the physical and psychological aftermath of conflict. Taken by some of the most famous photographers—more than 280 are showcased—in the history of the medium, by aerial reconnaissance units and unknown combatants and civilians, the pictures are drawn from the archives of photo agencies such as Magnum, military archives and personal family albums. It’s a stunning show, full of well-known pictures, surprising new ones and—if one consults the catalogue—surprises about well-known pictures.

More than a few of the featured pictures have been either faked or staged. That is to put it too simply, for the slipperiness of the distinction between “real” and “arranged”, or “genuine” and “fake”, turns out to be one of the themes of the show. The problem crops up right from the get-go, with Roger Fenton’s famous pair of pictures of the Valley of Death (1856) from the Crimean war—one of which shows cannonballs strewn more abundantly than the other. (slide #1) The scholarly war over which picture was taken first continues to rage. I thought this question had been definitively settled by Errol Morris in his book Believing is Seeing but John Stauffer argues in the catalogue for precisely the opposite conclusion. The “Dead Rebel Sharp Shooter” in Alexander Gardner’s famous image from the Civil War (slide #2) was dragged to the place where he is seen to have died and arranged in such a way that the rifle — not his own but a prop carried by the photographer — added extra pathos.

As with the Civil War, so in the First World War: it was impossible to take pictures of actual combat. One of the reasons why the famous footage of soldiers going over the top at the Battle of the Somme is faked is because it is on film. Filmed at a training ground, it shows a soldier who is shot, falls down, looks at the camera — and folds his arm before dying. Among the most spectacular images of the war, James Frank Hurley’s “An Episode after the Battle of Zonnebeke” (c.1918) (slide #3) seems like a composite expression of our idea of the Western Front — because, it turns out, it is a composite print made from multiple negatives. As Siegfried Sassoon wrote in his poem “Cinema Hero”: “It’s the truth/That somehow never happened.”

The complexity of Hurley’s image is in stark contrast to Wesley David Archer’s photograph of a pilot who has bailed out of his burning plane (c.1933) (slide #4). It is a picture full of suspense because we don’t know whether the parachute is going to open. What we do now know, courtesy of his widow, is that it was done with a model airplane. Armed with this knowledge you go back to the original and… it still looks amazing! You don’t feel cheated so much as admiring of someone who could create such a truth after (or independent of ) the fact.

Everyone is familiar with the doubts that continue to swirl around Robert Capa’s picture of the “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman” (1936) (slide #5) in the Spanish Civil War. No one can agree on exactly the circumstances in which it was made. And so, ironically, while photography is generally assumed to be strong as evidence but weak in meaning, Capa’s photograph has come to resemble painting, of which the contrary is held to be true. Joe Rosenthal’s image of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima in 1945 is an especially complicated case in that it was widely assumed to have been staged, faked, rigged or something like that, even if we can’t remember exactly what is supposed to have gone on because it’s all a bit muddled up with memories of the Clint Eastwood film about what happened.

The full story, as narrated in the catalogue, is that the flag was raised twice — not for Rosenthal’s benefit but, in the words of the Lieutenant Colonel who ordered it to be done, “so that every son-of-a-bitch on this whole cruddy island (could) see it.” (slide #6) How do we know this is accurate? Because there are photographs – i.e. photographs of the sequence of events that led to Rosenthal taking his photograph – to prove it. (see below) In any case, the success of Rosenthal’s image was due to the way that it not only recorded a moment and event but, in doing so, expressed a truth of enduring – even mythic – proportions about the Marine Corps. The same could be said of Len Chetwyn’s iconic picture from the North Africa (1942) campaign: a photograph which proves, at the most basic level, that this was indeed a battle waged by men in shorts! (not shown). The fact that a detail from it is used on the cover of a beautiful Australian edition of Alan Moorhead’s African Trilogy highlights the way that documentary veracity and imaginative truth are mutually supporting. The surprising thing – which turns out not to be so surprising if we consider how perfectly the picture is composed and lit — is that it’s the photograph that provides the imaginative half of that equation. Smoke grenades had indeed been deployed, but for pictorial effect rather than combat effectiveness.

Louis R. Lowery / Bob Campbell / Bill Genaust — The Museum of Fine Arts Houston

Three examples of photographs that documented the sequence of events leading to Rosenthal's iconic photograph of the flag raising on Iwo Jima.

So there is a delicious irony, in a show that is so scrupulous and judicious in its investigation of the relationship between real and doctored pictures that the catalogue seems, in one instance, to have fallen victim to a booby-trap in its midst. John Filo’s photograph of the killings at Kent State in 1970 shows a distraught woman kneeling over the body of a dead student. Unfortunately it so happened that a pole in the background looked like it was coming out of her head. Since this pole was aesthetically unpleasing, it was removed from the picture as published in Life magazine and elsewhere. Amazingly this clumsily doctored version – you can see quite clearly how the pole has been erased – is the one printed in the War/Photography catalogue! (slide #7)

Courtesy of Jeff Wall

Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near
Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986), 1992

As we move into the contemporary the distinction between art and documentary becomes increasingly hard to sustain—or to put it the other way around, the No-Man’s Land between the two grows ever larger—as shown in works by color photographer Luc Delahaye (slide #8) and photojournalist Damon Winter’s Gurskey-esque view of a plane-load of troops “Flying Military Class” (slide #9). In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag argued that Jeff Wall’s “fictional” image “Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan)” was among the most successful war photographs of recent times. (note: Wall’s image is not part of the War/Photography exhibition) So perhaps Peter van Agtmael’s well-known shot of a line of U.S. troops sheltering from the downdraft of a helicopter in a rocky grey landscape in Nuristan, Afghanistan, in 2007, works on us powerfully for two reasons. (note: van Agtmael’s image is not part of the War/Photography exhibition) First because a compositional similarity to W. Eugene Smith’s shot of Marines sheltering from an explosion on Iwo Jima in 1945 (slide #10) establishes its place in the heroic and noble tradition of documentary photography. Second, because an uncanny resemblance to Wall’s image tacitly acknowledges that the fictive now sets a standard of authenticity to which the real is obliged to aspire.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum

An American Blackhawk helicopter lands at the Ranch House, an isolated U.S. outpost in the Waigul Valley of Nuristan Province, near Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan, 2007.

The relationship between Wall’s large works and the scale and ambition of history paintings has often been remarked on. But Gary Knight’s picture from Dyala Bridge, Iraq, 2003 (slide #11) achieves an even more remarkable relationship with the art of the past. A photograph taken in the immediate aftermath of fighting, it combines the documentary immediacy and evidential power of the best photojournalism with the epic grandeur of history painting.

Geoff Dyer is an award-winning writer and journalist. See more of his work here.

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath will open at the Museum of Fine Art Houston on Nov. 11, 2012.  The exhibit will then travel to Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and Brooklyn Museum through February 2014.

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The photographer André Liohn, who got an early start on covering the civil war in Libya and stayed in the country through the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, was recently asked not to use that term—civil war—to describe the conflict. Liohn had returned to Libya to introduce a project that he started with seven other photographers who covered the war-torn African nation last year. They call the project Almost Dawn in Libya, and through it they plan to exhibit their photographs of the war in the Libyan cities of Tripoli, Misurata, Benghazi and Zintan. But as Liohn was telling a young lawyer who had been active in promoting the revolution on the internet about their work, the photographer was confronted about his choice of words.

He responded that what he had seen seemed to fit his own conception of a civil war, but she told him that, to her, the conflict didn’t fit that category. “That you can come to us and challenge this concept that we have of it—that’s exactly what the project is for,” Liohn says.

The photographers behind Almost Dawn in Libya—also known as ADIL, an acronym that sounds like the Arabic word for justice—aim to use their work to help Libyans come to grips with what happened there in the past year, to turn galleries into spaces for public debate. They are not the first to think about what would happen if those who might appear in war photography got to see those pictures. Susan Sontag described in On Photography the way that a photographer can seize control of a narrative and Susan Meiselas’ In History examined the ethics of conflict photography in Central America in the 1970s and ‘80s. But, says Liohn, there’s a new factor in play these days.

“The Libyan revolution or the Arab spring, it’s probably the first time where victims of a violence were able to document their own suffering. Mobile phones, videos, graphic design have been extremely important to unify people. They did it through images,” he says. “But today the images that they created have lost the context of the violence.” Liohn says that, without that context, the images that were once a rallying cry have become a source of fragmentation: each city has its own images of how brave its people were or how much they suffered. By showing the same exhibit of 100 pictures, not sorted geographically or chronologically, in four different places at the exact same time, the ADIL team hopes that Libyans will be able to start a dialogue that is not divided by city.

And Liohn says that, through ADIL, the photographers involved will cede their control of the images. “We are not showing it to a public that never saw Libya,” he says. “We are actually exposing ourselves to the public.” Part of the project involves bringing the photographers back to speak to that public and hold workshops, though, so Liohn says that hearing dissent about the way Libya is portrayed is part of the point. The larger point, however, is that the people who see the exhibits may then be inspired to discuss the country’s direction.

“The people there are waking up from this kind of dream-nightmare situation,” says Liohn, “and no one actually knows how the day is going to be.”

Learn more about Almost Dawn in Libya—and the photographers involved (André Liohn, Lynsey Addario, Eric Bouvet, Bryan Denton, Christopher Morris, Jehad Nga, Finbarr O’Reilly and Paolo Pellegrin) at their emphas.is fundraising page here

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Baptiste Giroudon

Working with Democracy

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This project is a photographic research of the concept of Democracy. As a photo reporter I try to work on contemporary issues implying a wider angle rather than just the next morning front page. As an artist I work with the single image process, which comes from a personal wish to show the world with a sharp and thoughtful point of view.

In every story I work on, I find myself facing a different situation that almost constantly brings up democracy. This isn’t advocacy for, or a critic of democracy, but the intention is to show where and how in different aspects of our globalized world, this concept can be understood, reclaimed and put forward. I have chosen democracy as a common factor not only to describe a blurry concept, but also to raise a question that everyone shares: what has democracy become today?

Art and photojournalism exist in what Susan Sontag has termed ‘febrile rivalry’ and my intentions equal those of a tightrope walker trying to express himself without falling to one side or another. My approach stands in the news media and I look for raw material in countries that make the headlines. The thread of the project is Lincoln’s famous quote: “the power to the people, by the people, for the people”, elections, demonstrations, public maters and revolutions are examples for me to draw sketches of pictorial symbols of Democracy.

I am aware of the effectiveness of both my experience and my naivety, I use them both as much as I can into the research, the act of photographing, the editing, and are my only weapons I can use to fight.

 

Bio

With my father’s old camera I left to Argentina when I was 17 years old. This is where I started photojournalism. In 2001 the country fell into a terrible economic crash. I understood that today Photojournalism should avoid the cynical perception; it should be used as a positive tool, not to mention the need to find new ways of assimilating and representing the real. After my first exhibition of the Argentina’s pictures, I worked on a long term project that focused on the backstage of the politic, fashion and cinema industries. It was exhibited as a personal show in Paris (AAA gallery) and Brussels (Jonas Gallery). After a few collective exhibition on my new project “Working with Democracy”, I just finished a story in Egypt: Life after the revolution. Today I keep working for magazines, newspaper and personal projects.

 

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Baptiste Giroudon

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