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photo-eye Book Reviews: Picturing Atrocity

Picturing Atrocity. Edited by Geoffrey Batchen, Mike Gidley,
Nancy K. Miller & Jay Prosser. Published by Reaktion Books, 2011.

Picturing Atrocity
Reviewed by Kate Sampsell-Willmann

Picturing Atrocity
Edited by Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, & Jay Prosser
Reaktion Books, 2011. Softcover. 256 pp., 15 color and 58 halftone illustrations, 6-1/2x9".

Framed within a flexible definition of "atrocity," this edited volume of short essays commenting on a mixture of immediately recognizable images and less overtly traumatic photographs presents to the reader an opportunity to visually engage the remarkably blood-soaked record of the long twentieth century (without any visible blood). Although idiosyncratic, this volume would be equally at home on the bookshelf of the amateur scholar of photography or the syllabus of a visual studies course. The strength of the book lies in its diversity of authors: historians, essayists, cultural studies types, and photographers themselves. Thankfully, most of the essays are not jargon-laden, thus making the book interesting for the lay reader and exemplary for those who wish to write about photography. The flaws in the book, however, lie in missed opportunities and regrettably imprecise language. The only unified conclusion to be drawn comes from the one chapter without images: public understanding of atrocity is somehow intertwined with pictures. Thinking of history conceptually rather than as a timeline of events, this collection indirectly (and unintentionally) reframes the twentieth century and bookends it between visualizing public and private atrocity. One wishes that had been the editors' thesis.

In the introductory essay, historian Jay Prosser writes in solid, accessible prose about the symbiotic nature of photography and atrocity throughout the medium's history. However, Prosser points to photography's "iconic function," when "photograph as document allows a symbol to stand for the whole" (8). A definition of iconography is necessary, but this one is incomplete in its context, especially since nearly every (non-photographer) author uses the word, and all but one who use it do so incorrectly. Icons are easily recognizable signs, reproduced to stand in for widely understood notions (Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" as an icon of the Great Depression, for example); they are not then surprising and exceptional images that reveal previously unknown details. This thread of iconography is explicitly examined in section two, "Becoming Iconic," but except for David Campbell's excellent "The Iconography of Famine," the authors are confronting pictures that are famous for their individual greatness or rarity, not for their familiarity, universal symbolic value, or repetition of trope. Humans have considered atrocity as the exception rather than the rule; the only way to make sense of atrocity iconography is to admit that atrocity is the norm in human society. If considered within this framework—that human history is a bath of blood—then treating atrocity photography as iconography makes sense.

Picturing Atrocity, by Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, & Jay Prosser. Published by Reaktion Books, 2011.
For example, potentially the most interesting section of the book, "Ordinary Atrocities," fails in its attempt to categorize atrocity as banal; it never answers its provocative and central question: whether atrocity itself is a product of extreme—and therefore abnormal—cruelty (177). Instead, the three authors rely on viewers' awareness of context to read the un-sensational images, documents recorded on the periphery of otherwise well-recognized events: the Holocaust and South African apartheid. Outside of context, the images might seem pedestrian (bar the immediately recognizable, and thus iconic, photograph of SS officers in their Nazi uniforms in Paul Lowe's "Picturing the Perpetrator"). Aside from the chilling and rarely seen stop action photograph in "War Trophy Photographs: Proof or Pornography?" captioned "A German Einsatz-kommando executes a group of Jewish women in a prepared mass grave on the Eastern Front, 1941," the pictures represent backstory to horror, normalcy despite unfathomable events, not atrocity itself. Ordinary, routine, banal: do these adjectives lose their meanings when paired with such an overtly wrong image, in which a group of soldiers fire on a group of civilians? The issue not addressed here is the very fact that atrocity is actually the norm, albeit (until recently) mostly unseen.

Picturing Atrocity, by Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, & Jay Prosser. Published by Reaktion Books, 2011.
The second part of the title, "Photography in Crisis," introduces a tantalizing but undeveloped idea. Although photography as a medium has always been controversial—and thankfully, no, the text does not devolve into a discussion of the real—it is especially so in its power to reveal the horrific acts of one person upon another. The issue raised explicitly or implicitly by many if not all of the images is whether making the photograph was in itself an act of atrocity. Nick Ut, who made the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a naked and crying Kim Phuc running away from a napalm attack, has been criticized over the years for making the image rather than helping the girl. Yet, there are others in the image, notably South Vietnamese or American soldiers, who did not help Ms. Phuc either. It is far less known that Ut was one of a small group who put down their cameras and saved Ms. Phuc's life by finding medical attention. Certainly, those who made (or choreographed) Pol Pot's execution archive have some moral culpability, as do the photographers of Wounded Knee, Abu Ghraib, and the Aktion at the Eastern Front in 1941. Kevin Carter killed himself, probably with the horrors he had recorded echoing in his brain. Is this photography in crisis?

Picturing Atrocity, by Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, & Jay Prosser. Published by Reaktion Books, 2011.
Photography itself was a product of the industrial revolution, as was the notion of atrocity as crime against humanity, especially industrial killing, either by machines or on an industrial scale. As such, this collection of short essays about photographs related to the theme atrocity missed an opportunity to define a period of time exceptional in history for the sheer number of lives taken and blood spilled, the conceptualized twentieth century (c.1890–2003, Wounded Knee to Abu Ghraib?). Easily the best essay in the book, editor Mick Gidley's "Visible and Invisible Scars of Wounded Knee," acknowledges that something changed in human history with that event and the cold disregard for one's fellow human represented in the aftermath images. The death of innocents is a mainstay of human history, which begs the question of whether atrocity as witnessed event is a sound basis on which to build an argument, but the celebratory and prurient way in which the photographs at Wounded Knee were framed tangibly conveys the status of sub-human ascribed to Native Americans. This feature is absent in previous war photography, in the U.S. Civil War and Boer War. This theme of sub-humanity continues throughout the picture selection under discussion and in the industrial twentieth century.

Picturing Atrocity, by Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, & Jay Prosser. Published by Reaktion Books, 2011.
Digital photography, moreover, has redirected the twentieth-century point of view of atrocity as public event. Fierceness and cruelty are part of everyday human interaction, and the proliferation of cameras into the hands of nearly every cell phone user has exposed the private, truly "ordinary" nature of atrocity. One is tempted to compare images of frozen Indians dumped in an open grave with the Abu Ghraib performance; however, the "photographers" who documented their despicable treatment of subjugated Iraqi prisoners, enemies rendered powerless, recorded a most private interaction. A prison by nature is closed, confined, removed from the public gaze. That the images became public was accidental. This is the legacy of digital photography that Jay Prosser addresses in passing when attempting to explain "photography in crisis;" atrocity itself is not unusual. With digital photography, the recording of atrocity is now, most likely, widespread. Rather than a war or other event, a paradigm shift in imagining the horrible makes a reasonable yardstick to measure the twentieth century. Photography itself—from the inception of fast film to the advent of high quality digital images spread freely on the Internet—is the appropriate formula for calculating the bookends of the long, horrific twentieth century. In that sense, perhaps any scene of violence, death, or suffering truly is an iconographic sign referent to a species that is capable of perpetrating such horrors and a century when dehumanizing one's enemy became industrial policy, implemented on a global scale.—KATE SAMPSELL-WILLMANN

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KATE SAMPSELL-WILLMANN is Associate Professor of History, American University of Central Asia, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Dr. Sampsell-Willmann is the author of Lewis Hine as Social Critic. She is a photographer and an intellectual historian of visual communication.