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With the world becoming an increasingly visual one through the means of technology, photographs and visual imagery have the capacity to inform mass media of current affairs all around the world. The visual causes one to consider how to perceive and respond to content like this while question the value of that image and wonder why the scene was captured in that particular moment in time. In this critical analysis, close attention will be payed towards a photograph and a series of paintings by Fernando Botero and a brief description of the film ‘Nightcrawler’ to triangulate this analysis. The essay will most certainly depict the use of space and time in quite concrete terms; an area, a context and a physical parameter. This is especially prevalent in the depictions of violence which will be the theme of this essay with discussions on these subjects alongside the assistance from writers such as Judith Butler, Ariella Azoulay and a few more inferences. As we unravel the ethics of the different mediums selected for analysis, it becomes evermore apparent that there is a hidden structure behind an image, particularly if it is of interest to political standpoints. There are regulations behind what can become public to the masses and it is this distinction between what is known but is not shown that this essay shall supplement alongside identifying how the artworks treat time and space. For all three of the mediums that will be looked at, visual photographic evidence is vital in determining the morals behind these artworks. The photograph bears the seal of the event itself and reconstructing that event requires more than just identifying what is occurring in the photograph. One needs to stop looking at the photograph and instead start watching it, analysing it, appreciating the details and context behind it which is what this essay shall reveal within the works of each of these artists. The artists and scholars that will be discussed are doing exciting things that link the image to political and social struggles, often in unexpected ways. Their work is interesting in its own right, and for the deeper questions it often raises about the fundamental concepts of photojournalism. What are evidence, access, coverage, reporting, bearing witness, and how are these practices depicted in relation to space and time?
When looking at the paintings of artists Fernando Botero, he successfully depicted the ordeal of existence in the Abu Ghraib prison with the intent to criticise the conflict. Botero got his inspiration for the paintings in this exhibit from reading official reports of the terror and torture that has been going on in Iraq. In some of his paintings, the Iraqi prisoners are tied up by ropes with blood smeared across their bodies and through their tops. They are blind folded, ironically suggesting the US soldiers fearing being seen, whilst also excreting or vomiting as they encounter the physical beatings by the guards. Having been inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, Botero felt necessary to exploit these problems amongst the US military and aggravate a response from the public – he had successfully done so. In an interview with Botero, journalist Kenneth Baker states that when his work was displayed in the New York gallery for the first time, he received some hate mail stating that the works were anti-American.
Arguably, for an artist, going through the labour of painting, drawing or sculpting evokes a closer relationship to their creations. There tends to be a clearer interpretation placed by the artist with no restrictions from a higher authority because the work is their own. Here, Fernando Botero displays this power he has as a solo artist to provoke reactions in order to inform people of, not only what occurs around the world, but what it is like working for a country that is torturing a minority elsewhere. Botero’s interpretation of space is determined by the depictions of war. The torturers are absent from most of the works in which the protagonists are the victims so Botero makes full use of filling in the space on these canvases with the full bodies of the victims in the prison cells. The background is minimal and rather blank to suggest the harrowing nature of seclusion and isolation, with no means of interaction with the surrounding environment. Furthermore, he is transposing space and time within a photograph to a different kind of space and time as he takes the images that he had seen and was outraged by, and created these paintings as a result.
Framing is important when creating a specific scene. The spacial aspect of the frame informs viewers of a specific space within which something takes place – this can be misleading or can reveal more than it initially wants to. (This is particularly appreciated by Judith Butler but her work shall be touched upon later.) Also, by de-contextualising from a specific space, framing allows for a transposition into a different space and different time as the artist imagines it. Particular artists such as Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin showcase this notion of framing, but in particular, violence in a such a way that is unexpected to the viewers. They were working as a photographer duo which is typically unusual but nonetheless interesting as the ideas that are presented are collaborative. In 2008 the duo visited Afghanistan as embedded photographic journalists, not artists during the peak of the war, bearing witness to an endless montage of death and destruction – except for the fifth day, when nobody died. It was a profound pause to the chaos, which the artists compare to the calm moment of a storm. They chose to document this cathartic pause of a non-event, unravelling a six-meter roll of film to expose to the sun for 20 seconds on site. Notice how timing is very specific here. It was then stowed away and shipped from one military base to another, transported by helicopters, jeeps, and tanks, the information blank of its contents blissfully unknown. In an interview with writer Mariko Finch, the photographers mention that if they had said they were artists, they would have never received permission to go to Afghanistan. The Day Nobody Died offers a total eclipse of the standard shock imagery of warfare, instead offering a sublime abstraction of a non-moment in which the paper is rolled out on site where nothing happens, a “no mans land” if you will . The viewer has no opportunity to witness, and subsequently forget about, harrowing documentation of the artists’ trip. Instead, they are haunted by its absence. In such a typical space of violence, the viewers expect some kind of explicit,vulgar and gruesome imagery to return from the brutality of the war at hand. However, Broomberg and Chanarin go to such lengths as to retaliate to the rules and regulations of what should or should not be framed as violent after their experiences as embedded journalists. In contrast to photographs or visual imagery that vividly capture atrocities, they really challenge ones understanding of space, time, location and what we are seeing and particularly force readers to question what is it one expects to see from war. The artwork suggests this imaginary of a war; a kind of far away, unreachable space in which most viewers have never witnessed. However, when these artists come back from such a space with something to show for it, why is one outraged when presented with photographic paper? If one cannot bring back the literal and the reality of war through photographs due to the filtered process before they are revealed, will the interpretation of this alternative framing of violence be as valuable?
The Day Nobody Died, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, February 23, 2015
In an interview with writer, Rachel Somerstein, Adam Broomberg discusses the anxiety a viewer may feel surrounding images. He states that “it takes work to be troubled by words”, and since images are “aligned to nobody, and don’t pronounce their political allegiances so easily, means that they’re dangerous in a way that words are not”. They capture a moment of time by using the space, quite literally, to serve as an indicator as to the context of their situation. The silky seductive ombré of the film’s light leak nonetheless serves as a memorial tomb to the trauma of its context – and not just in its dimensions, which mirror a standard grave. Broomberg & Chanrin’s reflect and abstract a moment – and a miracle – lost to time. Somerstein continues the discussion and goes on to ask Oliver Chanarin about the failures within this particular project. He admits to failure being built into it from the start; “we failed to represent the news in any figurative sense”. They failed the viewer who had a whole range of expectation about what Chanarin and Broomberg, as the viewers proxy, might deliver from the front lines. To reiterate, it is these failures that force one to question how this work treats the categories of space and time. Why is there dissatisfaction when such a space and horrific moment in time is framed in such a way? In a moment of terror and warfare, what does one call for? Even as an artist there seems to be limitations as to how one should interpret a traumatic event so who do these frames truly belong to? Author and theorist of photography, Ariella Azoulay, discusses these kinds of questions in further detail.
In her book The Civil Contract of Photography, she covers several ares of photography and looks, in great depth, at the relations between photography and citizenship in disaster contexts. Whilst a lot of her work may not directly correlate with the themes in this essay, we can extract elements that reinforce the point about how viewers perceive warfare and how depictions of violence are framed within a given space and time. Azoulay asks this question: under what political, legal or cultural conditions does it become possible to see and show disaster that befalls those who can claim only incomplete or nonexistent citizenship? The Civil Contract of Photography is an attempt to anchor spectatorship in civic duty toward the photographed persons who haven’t stopped being “there,” in that particular moment in time. She clarifies the point that photography is no ones property. Photography in which photographs are taken on the verge of catastrophe, also is a form of relations of individuals to the power that governs them. Azoulay mentions this notion of capturing a memory of this leadership, this power as a soldier to keep. She says “they are posing for a photo being taken by another soldier, preparing a souvenir to take back home. Their action is irreversible – it is inscribed in the photograph forever.” This photograph can now travel with them into their hometown, a safe space, and remember such an event from that time in their lives. Furthermore, she previously states that “citizens are, first and foremost, governed. An emphasis on the dimension of being governed allows a rethinking of the political sphere as a space of relations between the governed, whose political duty is first and foremost or at least also a duty toward one another, rather than toward the ruling power.” This statement can be interpreted in the works of Fernando Botero and the duo, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. In regards to depictions of violence, everything seems to have strict rules and regulations about what can be revealed, despite the truth remaining. Another quite profound statement made by Azoulay: “The world filled up with images of horrors, and they loudly proclaimed that viewers’ eyes had grown unseeing, proceeding to unburden themselves of the responsibility to hold onto the elementary gesture of looking at what is presented to one’s gaze.” This echoes what Michael Taussig briefly writes about in his book, Zoology, Magic, and Surrealism in the War on Terror. He comments on how certain roles can cause one to behave a certain way, simply because they are transfixed by the unknown, by what is foreign to them: “…understand why the Abu Ghraib prison guards were so foolish as to photograph their actions. They were compelled to. Fascination of the abomination means you can’t stop looking precisely because it is so abhorrent, as if what you are looking at is looking back at you and has you locked in its gaze like a deer in the headlights.” In some ways, one could argue that Fernando Botero was fascinated by the graphic images he had seen from the Abu Ghraib detention centre and so he, too, was transfixed by these scenes. He was “locked in its gaze” and hence produced a series of drawings and paintings that questioned what occurs in these locations that are so physically distant from us.
When comparing the paintings of Fernando Botero with the artwork of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, it is clear that they each are representing warfare in different spaces at different times. It is evident that the process of how their pieces were created took serious time and consideration. Paintings take a longer time to produce something as opposed to just a click of a camera, so these are different temporalities of a creation of a particular piece. Botero’s painting from a photograph, and so the temporality transfers into the other and then there is a laborious process of creation that goes into it. On the other hand, Broomberg and Chanarin act as though it is a stunt, making soldiers carry a box, in which its content is unknown to them but soon realises they are only carrying paper. There is an outrage in both cases but it is explored in a different way. Firstly, the medium is different and so it creates a tension between the works – one (the works of Botero) is extremely explicit and there is this depiction of the violence in which the victims experience torture. The laborious process of creation for Botero when painting these figures force him to really invest in the experience that comes with transposing a given space and time. As for Broomberg and Chanarin, they do something different, they choose not to take part in providing sanitised images that are vulgar and explicit and instead provide, what seems to be, rolls of paper with nothing to really show for their trip. The irony here, however, is that the result is as good as what would have been chosen after the army filtered through what could and could not be allowed for viewing in the press.
Frames of War by Judith Butler offers compelling arguments on power relations and how they are framed in regards to the critical analysis of visual imagery and visual culture. In particular, the following chapter, ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photograph: Thinking with Sontag’, further considers images through the work of Susan Sontag. Her overriding point among this essay is how viewers perceive and respond to the suffering of others when a given norm restricts our perception and hence determine whose lives are worthy of grief and whose are not. In order for photographs to evoke a “moral response”, they must not only “maintain the capacity to shock, but also appeal to our sense of moral obligation”. She goes on to further state that Susan Sontag’s view of shock and photography has become a kind of cliche and contemporary photography only seeks to “aestheticise suffering”. It is this dilemma that Sontag and Butler attempt to detangle in this chapter that causes viewers and readers to question if an artists or photographers work is based on their intent to reveal these flaws in society through a creative outlet, or simply for a personal gain. It goes a step further by causing people to evaluate how on interprets an interpretation and assess whether this interpretation is a reliable source in discovering what has or has not happened: “we are led to interpret the interpretation that has been imposed upon us, developing our analysis into a social critique of regulatory and censorious power”. Through Butler’s work and Sontag’s writing, these motifs can be extracted and found within the artworks mentioned. How can a photograph, a visual emblem of a moment in history, have such power to cause doubt in the entire process of photography, which then transposes to the medium of paint? The environment at hand here, amongst all sources looked at, deals with violent depictions of war in a specific moment. Photography seems to have served as a foundation to all of the sources and so, as a photographer, ones work is evidential proof of having been somewhere. In On Photography by Susan Sontag, in the essay titled ‘In Plato’s Cave’, she states that whilst photographs “give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.” While Sontag uses this in the context of tourism, the same applies to the context of war and this notion of embedded journalism. As a result, it is this photographic evidence or process of capturing a frame in history, a frame in a given space at a particular time, that serves the creation of art by artists who interpret these photographs.
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