The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence

Paul Lowe applauds a trenchant defence of photojournalism and the challenges it raises

December 2, 2010

Looking at the images made by many of the world's leading photojournalists, as Susie Linfield does in her new book, The Cruel Radiance, can often make for uncomfortable viewing. Photographs of suffering and human rights abuse show, as she notes, a "world unfit for habitation" and a "family of man that we are desperate to disown".

Photography, she argues, has become the main conduit for demonstrating to the audience the ills of the world, and illustrating how easily the "human body can be maimed, starved, splintered, beaten, burnt, torn, and crushed".

But just because they make for uncomfortable viewing, such desperate images should not be ignored or dismissed as mere "war pornography".

Linfield rightly points out that centring much of the critique of photojournalism on the presence and actions of the photographers themselves, rather than the suffering and atrocities they are witnesses to, is to confuse messenger with message. As she notes, the problem is to be found in the "forces that make people suffer, not in the documentation of their injuries and despair".

As such, her book makes an important contribution not just to the arguments about the ethics of photojournalism, but also to the wider debate around how to motivate the world to take action in the face of atrocity.

Linfield's work is thus the latest in a series of books by leading academics that have engaged with the legacy of Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag and their followers in arguing for a new view of the role of photojournalistic images and the work they perform in social and political discourse. Following on from recent works including Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites' No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, Ariella Azoulay's The Civil Contract of Photography and Georges Didi-Huberman's Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz, Linfield argues persuasively that photojournalism has a vital role to play in the process of engaging the audience in facing up to abuse.

For Linfield, "photographs excel, more than any other form of either art or journalism, in offering an immediate, viscerally emotional connection to the world".

It is this emotional connection with the image that is at the heart of her book, what she identifies as the "connective tissue of concern" for others that the photograph engenders, as she calls for the need to "integrate emotion into the experience of looking".

She asks some tough questions of the critics, and therefore of the viewer, too. In response to the claims that to give a formal shape to images of violence is somehow aesthetically inappropriate, she asks whether there is an "unproblematic way to show the degradation of a there an inoffensive way to document unforgivable violence?"

She maintains that the critiques of photography centred around Walter Benjamin and Bertholt Brecht must be seen in the light of the political turmoil of the 1930s in Germany, and to dissociate them from the political context in which they were operating is to do them and their ideas a great disservice.

Many of their postmodernist followers, she argues, have been unable to maintain their dialectic approach to the image, failing to appreciate that a "photograph is objective and subjective, found and made, dead and alive, withholding and revealing".

It is precisely the photograph's lack of certainty yet connection with reality that gives it its power; it becomes a tool for thinking with and imagining rather than simply describing or documenting.

She calls on the viewer to "use the photograph's ambiguities as a starting point of discovery: by connecting these photographs to the world outside their frames, they begin to live and breathe more fully". In doing so, they become "part of a process - the beginning of a dialogue, the start of an investigation - into which we thoughtfully and consciously enter".

Linfield grounds her observations about how to work with photography in generating such a dialogue in a series of detailed case studies of countries and photographers that ranges from the Holocaust and revolutionary China to Sierra Leone. These are excellent, although they perhaps could have been amplified by a concluding chapter drawing together the themes of the book; by finishing instead on a case study one is left waiting for a more focused conclusion.

Her close reading of the hauntingly disturbing image of Memuna, a young girl from Sierra Leone who was mutilated by rebel forces, is especially powerful.

She weaves into it an argument that the viewer must go beyond the frame of a shocking image to work hard at relating the content of the photograph to the broader context in which the suffering victim it represents is enmeshed.

She maintains that: "To look at her photograph, at least with any insight or clarity, requires looking at what it does not show: at the choices and histories that preceded, yet created, the particular image of her that has caught our attention. To look at Memuna means to look at how she came to be."

By using the photograph to force the viewer into questioning what the image does not show, it can act as a motivation to take action.

In doing so, she critiques the idea of "compassion fatigue" both by questioning when, if ever, society was sufficiently compassionate in the first place to be able to be fatigued by viewing violence, and by encouraging a process of engagement with the world outside the frame.

As Linfield demonstrates when discussing the images of victims of the colonial conflicts in West Africa: "We look at Congo pictures with the full knowledge of the atrocities that would follow, which makes them more rather than less terrible to behold."

Her reassessment of the celebrated war photographer Robert Capa is as welcome as it is long overdue. She locates him firmly as a product of the left-wing political milieu he inhabited as a Hungarian Jewish emigre living first in Berlin and then Paris in the 1930s. His early work documenting the demonstrations and activism of the Popular Front in France served as the perfect training ground for his abilities, and when he went to Spain in 1936 to cover the early days of the Spanish Civil War, he was going there as much to participate in the anti-fascist cause as to document it. Linfield's focus on the emotional and political core of his work is excellent, and acts as a foil to the more popular view of Capa as a photographic "gun for hire", gambling and womanising his way across the battlefields of Europe in search of the next adrenalin rush.

Her final chapter on Gilles Peress firmly positions him as one of the most important photographers working today, and argues for his status as "the thinking person's photographer" by celebrating the intelligent uncertainty that is at the heart of his work.

The complexity of his extended bodies of work that interrogate both the medium of photography and the journalistic story that he is involved in serve as a paradigm of how to approach the difficult task of documenting the horrors of the world around us.

Her closing question, as posed by Peress, leaves us with the central paradox of the photography of human rights: "How do you make the unseen seen?"


Between the ages of eight and 15, Susie Linfield studied at George Balanchine's School of American Ballet. She danced in Don Quixote, A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Royal Ballet's New York production of The Nutcracker under the directorship of Rudolf Nureyev, who she says terrified her.

Linfield developed a passion for history and politics at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City, choosing to pursue those interests instead of joining the New York City Ballet.

After taking a bachelor's degree in American history at Oberlin College, Ohio, she moved to Boston where she ran the feminist newspaper Wages for Housework. She studied journalism and documentary film-making at New York University, where she has been a professor in the journalism department since 1995 and director of the cultural reporting and criticism programme.

She has served as editor-in-chief of American Film, deputy editor of The Village Voice and arts editor of The Washington Post.

Chloe Darracott-Cankovic

The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence

By Susie Linfield

University of Chicago Press

344pp, £19.50

ISBN 9780226482507

Published 1 November 2010

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