The Public Image: Photography and Civic Spectatorship

The Public Image: Photography and Civic Spectatorship

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The Public Image: Photography and Civic Spectatorship by Robert Hariman, John Louis Lucaites

Even as the media environment has changed dramatically in recent years, one thing at least remains true: photographs are everywhere. From professional news photos to smartphone selfies, images have become part of the fabric of modern life. And that may be the problem. Even as photography bears witness, it provokes anxieties about fraudulent representation; even as it evokes compassion, it prompts anxieties about excessive exposure. Parents and pundits alike worry about the unprecedented media saturation that transforms society into an image world. And yet a great news photo can still stop us in our tracks, and the ever-expanding photographic archive documents an era of continuous change.

By confronting these conflicted reactions to photography, Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites make the case for a fundamental shift in understanding photography and public culture. In place of suspicions about the medium’s capacity for distraction, deception, and manipulation, they suggest how it can provide resources for democratic communication and thoughtful reflection about contemporary social problems.

The key to living well in the image world is to unlock photography from viewing habits that inhibit robust civic spectatorship. Through insightful interpretations of dozens of news images, The Public Image reveals how the artistry of the still image can inform, challenge, and guide reflection regarding endemic violence, environmental degradation, income inequity, and other chronic problems that will define the twenty-first century.

By shifting from conventional suspicions to a renewed encounter with the image, we are challenged to see more deeply on behalf of a richer life for all, and to acknowledge our obligations as spectators who are, crucially, also citizens.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226343099
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/07/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 15 MB
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About the Author

Robert Hariman is professor of rhetoric and public culture in the department of communication studies at Northwestern University. John Louis Lucaites is provost professor of rhetoric and public culture in the department of English at Indiana University. Together they are the authors of No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy.

Read an Excerpt

The Public Image

Photography and Civic Spectatorship

By Robert Hariman, John Louis Lucaites

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-34309-9


Climbing out of Plato's CavE

While children fear monsters lurking in the dark, adults are told to beware of phantoms of light. Images are deceptive, we are reminded again and again — and photographic images are especially beguiling because they conform so closely to reality. They stand in for reality, but they are not real.

So what are they, and what do they do? The answers, it seems, bring more bad news. Photographs are inchoate fragments of the events they purport to record, essentially meaningless without verbal contextualization. They depict only the surface features of the world, its sheer particularity, rather than structure, complexity, or depth. They activate merely emotional reactions that short-circuit deliberative thought, and even the better emotions such as compassion soon are exhausted by excessive exposure. Most tellingly, they "aestheticize reality," putting a smile on anything to evoke reactions of pleasure, including guilty pleasures such as voyeurism, nostalgia, and other fantasies. Such tendencies are easily put to worse use, as photographs become means of mass manipulation and political domination: the result is a society of spectacles and scopic regimes where citizens are converted into both passive spectators and objects of surveillance. The large-scale consequences are already before us: celebrity culture metastasizes across all media, advertising images cover every nook and cranny of the life world, the press publishes ever more images of the same abject bodies to elicit only token responses, and the planet veers toward environmental catastrophe driven by forces that elude visualization.

Susan Sontag's 1977 pronouncement seems prophetic: "Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato's cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth." We are not so modern after all; or, more to the point, modern technologies such as photography have only made our benighted habits more dangerous. And it may be too late to change. We can climb out of the cave today only to step into "the world as picture," as human consciousness, our inherent capacity for knowing the world, has already been transformed by media technologies to make knowledge itself compromised by its entanglement with the image. If enlightenment is possible, it seems that it will have to include a resolute critique of how visual media are instruments of distraction, deception, and dependency. In modern societies, both individual and collective freedoms require breaking the thralldom of the image world.

You can have a good academic career doing just that. And you can get a lot of points at the bar or the coffee shop or the blog. And you can do a lot of good: let's not forget for a minute that there are staggering amounts of delusion, denial, and dangerous nonsense sloshing around in any modern society. Even if we have passed through the looking glass into a culture of "enlightened false consciousness" that makes irony ubiquitous while disabling critique, justice still can depend on drawing a line between truth and illusion, image and reality. If the alarm has been sounded from Plato to Sontag and beyond, surely the danger is ever present.

And so it is, but ... compared to what? Is photography really that one-sided? Is politics really that simple? Has nothing really changed? In this book we don't deny that human beings are easily misled by images of their own making, but we do insist that credulity is only part of the story. We recognize that photography has been adopted for every kind of human viciousness, but we also believe that it is a boon for human understanding and solidarity. We grant that photography often is conventional, sentimental, and otherwise compromised, but we also believe that it is a vital technology of democratic citizenship. And we believe that the critique of photography suffers from a number of errors — errors due to mistaken assumptions, biased comparisons, and failure to observe significant changes in society and politics. Although these errors were recognized along the way, dissenting arguments are only now accumulating to the point that, along with many other changes in communication technologies, institutions, and practices, a paradigm shift is becoming possible.

We are not interested merely in setting the record straight. At the least, that would be simplistic, as some of these disputes are perennial controversies about essentially contested concepts or structural tensions: "reality" is thinkable, in part, through the contrast with "illusion," while visual meaning, like all meaning, exceeds any one standpoint or perspective. Other differences are due to imbalances in power that may or may not change but in every case require thoughtful and courageous response: human rights may be advancing in one area through acts of social recognition and declining in another due to willful blindness. Philosophical debates must go on, just as stupidity and exploitation must be resisted again and again. What can be overlooked across the board, however, are the possibilities for a more transformative conception of photography as a mode of experience, a medium for social thought, and a public art.

The purpose of this book is to demonstrate how photography and particularly photojournalism provide vital resources for thinking about the problems of collective living. As will be clear, "thinking" here includes feeling, talking, and acting in response to those problems. Even so, we are not interested in determining when and how specific photographs or photographic techniques are influential. Despite the incessant demand for such knowledge, it is exceedingly hard to come by — and not just for photographs. Words, it should be widely acknowledged, have the same problem: speeches, news reports, editorial commentary, government reports, histories, novels, and all other texts typically have only minuscule effects on collective behavior; in almost every case, continual repetition and other forms of social investment are required to effect real change. What remains underappreciated is how words and images alike are used all along the way as "equipment for living" — that is, as means for continually making sense of the world and for adjusting one's place in it in relation to others. As C. Wright Mills observed, thinking involves the selection and manipulation of available symbolic materials. The phrasing reflects the instrumental tone of his social scientific context, but the point remains sound: we think with many "things," including words, numbers, sounds, objects — and images. Photography has provided modern societies with an enormous and continually expanding archive of images, and many of them were created for the purpose of communicating with other people in order to live together more richly.

What has been lacking is an adequate discourse for public discussion of those images seen in common. Sontag observed that "the language in which photographs are generally evaluated is extremely meager," and she found the fault to be "something inherent in photography itself, whenever it is viewed as an art." Unfortunately, that is right where Sontag's aesthetic judgments kept it. As she became the central author of a twentieth-century discourse on photography, the misrecognition continued — that is, photography was systematically interpreted in a manner to maintain privileged conceptions of the fine arts and the critic's own medium of well-wrought prose. As Susie Linfield has documented, the only variation, also following Sontag, was to supplement the aesthetic disregard with scathing critique of its social functions and political effects: spectators could be bourgeois "tourists" or dupes of the ruling class but hardly citizens.

A richer understanding of photography requires a different attitude. Photography has been from the start a democratic medium — one addressed to, used by, and even constitutionally chartered for the public. News and documentary photography have been developed to serve this public trust most directly. The question of what a public art is, however, has been vexing since the first attempt at definition, which was when oratory became an object of philosophical and practical discussion in Greek antiquity. Many of the issues remain the same: Is the speech/photograph a matter of truth or opinion? Is it rational or emotional? Authentic or crafted? Beautiful or effective? As judged by the audience or an expert? Many other questions reflect the complications of our current media environment, including the different forms of news, advocacy, advertising, art, and entertainment and their continual intertwining; the ongoing transformations wrought by digitization, a technological innovation comparable to the printing press or photography itself; the economic, political, and cultural forces testing democratic institutions and complicating democratization; and the fraught relationship between progress and catastrophe exposed by global modernization. Obviously, neither the perennial nor the more pressing questions can be answered once and for all, but perhaps they can be brought together to develop a new discourse on photography as a public art for the twenty-first century.

By focusing on photography's capacity as public art, we are concerned primarily with photojournalism — news photography, documentary photography, and similar practices of production and circulation. Whatever the label, these are the photographs that are presented in the news media — and also in related sites for advocacy, commentary, and education — about the events, conflicts, customs, and other subjects that are of common concern or interest. To do justice to these images, however, one has to take up questions about both the relatively narrow (but still capacious) ambit of the news and photography in general. One reason for this double focus is that the critical discourse on photography has been characterized by frequent conflations of the wider and narrower practices, and usually to the detriment of both. More recently, there is no doubt that whatever lines existed in the past have become increasingly blurred by technological and cultural change. In this environment, "photography" is too broad and "photojournalism" is too narrow a label for the public image, but no better terms are yet widely recognized. Thus some of the time this book discusses the medium of photography as a whole, but always on behalf of understanding those images that are found regularly in the news media and in other sites oriented toward public discussion. This perspective is neither a definitional exercise nor an attempt to deflect attention away from the astonishing range of photography; it is an argument for more robust forms of civic spectatorship.

What is crucial is that the public image not be seen as a poor substitute for a work of art, verbal statement, or reality. It is a work of public art, not a fine art; an image, not a text; a real artifact, not a fabricated reality. Thus one task is to consider what it can do on its own terms, that is, as a means for communicating with others about common concerns. And ironically, by giving up on the higher functions of language, art, and culture, we can discern how the photograph can be capable of speaking, and of disturbing perception toward profundity, and of becoming a worthwhile second nature.

Changing Paradigms in the Digital Stream

We are not alone in attempting to see photography anew. Photography theory today is in a state of flux; we could say that it is tending in the direction we are taking, but time will have to tell. What can be said is that a shift in the interpretive community is beginning to emerge. The older paradigm was defined on several sides by the Frankfurt School media theorists (e.g., Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer); by Sontag and others channeling an iconoclastic critical attitude (e.g., Roland Barthes, Guy Debord, Allan Sekula, John Berger, John Tagg, Victor Burgin, Rosalind Krauss, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Martha Rosler, Carol Squiers, and the thousands of scholars who extended the work of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies); and, indirectly, by the scholars and practitioners maintaining the professional norms of photojournalism, who too often limit the legitimate function of the news image to the transfer of information. There were, of course, considerable differences among these writers, just as there are within the loosely defined interpretive community that is emerging today. The more recent community, which itself will continue to evolve, includes historians, critics, and theorists such as Dora Apel, Ariella Azoulay, Geoffrey Batchen, Susan Buck-Morss, David Campbell, Lilie Chouliaraki, Geoff Dyer, Jae Emerling, Cara Finnegan, Liam Kennedy, Wendy Kozol, Susie Linfield, Nicholas Mirzoeff, W. J. T. Mitchell, Margaret Olin, Griselda Pollock, Jacques Rancière, Mark Reinhardt, Fred Ritchin, John Roberts, Vanessa Schwartz, Sharon Sliwinski, Shawn Michelle Smith, David Levi Strauss, Barbie Zelizer, and ourselves, among many others. We do not claim to speak for any of these other writers, and we have learned a great deal from all of those listed on each side. We do hope to suggest how photographs can be analyzed and valued as resources for thinking seriously about the public world of society, politics, and culture.

The change that we see in contemporary photographic theory is akin to the "paradigm shift" ascribed to scientific communities by Thomas Kuhn and subsequently applied to a broad array of professional practices. Any program of collaborative learning depends on a shared conception of the object and method of study, a common set of problems to be solved, and assumptions about what needs to be said and what need not be said. As time passes, however, there arise significant irregularities and incongruities that cannot be accounted for adequately within the standard model. Eventually a shift occurs in the attention space and conceptual vocabulary defining the field: new theories emerge that don't solve earlier problems so much as subsume them under different questions representing a new configuration of ideas, methods, and other factors such as changes in technology and social context. A successful shift will answer some questions, new and old, to advance knowledge and professional practice; as it does so, it solidifies into a "normal science" like the consensus that it had displaced, and thus eventually becomes susceptible to the same fate.

Paradigm shifts do not take place overnight — they are more evolutionary than revolutionary — and it is not uncommon to see advocates for the older way of thinking attempt to adapt even as they are trapped by the language and assumptions engrained in the conventional framework. One example of this dilemma can be seen in watching Sontag struggle to move beyond the strong iconoclasm of On Photography, written in the mid-1970s, in her post-9/11 book Regarding the Pain of Others.

Sontag is not the most nuanced, rigorous, or original of the authors of the late-twentieth-century paradigm, but she almost single-handedly moved photography from the margins to a position of cultural significance. She took photography very seriously, and she remains the leading influence on thinking about photography in the United States and the only American writer on photography to acquire the status of a public intellectual. On Photography "became, almost instantly, a bible": it has been selling briskly since 1977 and has been translated into at least fifteen languages. Regarding the Pain of Others also does well, while being lauded as a powerful reconsideration of photography's ethical and political limitations. Both books are regularly assigned in college courses across a number of disciplines. Most notably, Sontag is a forceful writer. There is no lack of intensity in her relationship with her subject, and she is not shy about stating her opinion.

Unfortunately, Sontag continues to stand in the way of moving beyond the old paradigm. Because she repudiated or modified a few of the more extreme claims of On Photography on behalf of a more considered acceptance of the medium's capacity for moral witness, many readers do not ask if she went far enough to provide a sufficient basis for understanding the public image. Regarding the Pain of Others does offer a partial retraction: Sontag now questions the idea that "our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atrocities." This is progress, as are her acknowledgments that photography lends itself to a range of responses and that aesthetics and morality can work together in the photographic statement. The fact that Susan Sontag came to challenge some of the conventional wisdom is reason enough to assume that a paradigm shift is needed and well under way.

Even so, Regarding the Pain of Others also reaffirms too many of the conventional assumptions about photography that were set out in On Photography and that continue to have considerable influence today. These notions limit understanding of photography, the public, and moral response.

Photographs are "a species of rhetoric" that "simplify," "agitate," and create the "illusion of consensus"; they are "totems" and "tokens" rather than adequate representations, and also like "sound bites" and "postage stamps"; they "objectify" and yet also are a form of "alchemy" that either beautify and thereby can "bleach out a moral response," or uglify and thereby can at most be provocative; they require no artistic training and so have led to "permissive" standards for visual eloquence; they depend on a "sleight of hand" and a "surrealist" aesthetic that with the ascendancy of capitalist values is thought to be realism; they compare unfavorably with or have an unfair advantage over other arts, especially writing; they depend absolutely on written captions for their meaning, and while they can shock, "they are not much help if the task is to understand," something that can only come from narrative exposition.


Excerpted from The Public Image by Robert Hariman, John Louis Lucaites. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1 Climbing out of Plato’s Cave
2 For Interpretation
3 Realism and Imagination
4 This Modern Art
5 Seeing Society
6 Watching War
7 The Abundant Art
Photo Catalog


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