In “Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere” (1997), Mark Seltzer approaches our “wound culture” in terms of the collapse of private and public (subject and world), claiming (as Susan Sontag later would) that there is a “public fascination with torn and open bodies and torn and open persons,” calling it a “collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound.” Using examples from literature and film, Seltzer examines this element of spectacle, what he refers to as the “pathological public sphere,” concluding that “sociality and the wound have become inseparable,” an intriguing commentary on the collective response to images of trauma.1
In Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Sontag offers a historical survey of representations of atrocity, focusing on images of war using examples ranging from Goya’s early nineteenth-century “Disasters of War” to one of the many exhibitions of 9/11 photographs, “Here is New York.” She begins to get at the politics of meaning-making when she notes that such photographs elicit varied and opposing reactions, ranging from calls for peace to cries for revenge as well as “bemused awareness . . . that terrible things happen.” She points out (rightly so when one considers the speed of image capture, dissemination, and simultaneous access) that this witnessing of atrocities is an inevitable condition of modernity and that the knowledge of war gained by those who have not experienced it firsthand is informed exclusively by such images, which are considered as “real.” She writes of the shame and shock of looking at horror and questions who should have the right to experience these images—suggesting it is only those with the ability to alleviate the suffering, and claiming those without that agency to be voyeurs.2
Art critic and cultural theorist Abigail Solomon- Godeau, in “Remote Control: Abigail Solomon- Godeau’s Dispatches from the Image Wars” (2004), argues that the image is “always considered more volatile, dangerous, and uncontrollable than written or verbal descriptions, even detailed ones.” She discusses the issue of transgressive imagery as it transcends the control of the entities that produce it. Solomon-Godeau contends that images take on a “second active life” when those who view the images make their own meaning from them.3 It is this active and resistant response—by artists and citizens—that the contributors to this issue explore.
As technology allows greater access to images emanating from around the world (and from increasingly diverse sources) and as war, famine, natural disaster, and political and social strife continue to plague numerous regions of the globe, the images of these conditions are also readily available to consumers, often without full contextual information. How viewers receive and perceive these images informs their behavior and by extension our social realities. This special issue of Afterimage works to provide a greater understanding of these media effects on a cultural level through both the production of artistic responses and analyses of imagery found in mainstream media, contributing to the field of atrocity studies and to ongoing conversations about the aestheticization of images of violence.
Engaging topics and events ranging across centuries—from Renaissance painting and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, to 9/11 and the current wars in the Middle East—the critics, scholars, and artists presented here transcend received notions of the political to engage in a dialogue that, we hope, extends beyond these pages.
Henry Giroux writes about the imposed forgetting and militarized pleasure found in the infamous “Kill Team” photographs, viewing them as emblematic of a new register of aesthetics as much as a failed sociality—a widespread “depravity of aesthetics” that results in the transformation of “spectacles of violence and brutality” into collective pleasure. Francis Frascina discusses the kill team photographs as consistent with processes of disavowal at work in state censorship, embedded reportage, and numbing media saturation that dehumanize the Other, as well as the work of artists attempting to counter these processes by placing viewers in a “face to face” relation with the Other. Continuing the examination of othering, Philip Kennicott analyzes the images that emerged in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, asking why a news media constrained by internalized military and government concerns about the volatility of images of bodily suffering suddenly allowed graphic images of dead, wounded, and suffering Haitian citizens. Joscelyn Jurich considers the effects of “overused” icons of atrocity through a provocative analysis of how Western media circulation of images from the Bosnian War constructed narratives about both Balkan history and Western responsibility and responsiveness to the genocide.
Carolyn L. Kane and Jason Middleton each discuss the effect of widely available graphic images of death and war online. Kane argues that unlike postmodern theories of the spectacle that reinforce a distance from reality, war remix videos are a response to the excess of reality generated by the constant presence of war imagery in mainstream media. Middleton examines the contrasting ways in which mondo videos and experimental documentaries containing “war on terror” footage negotiate cultural taboos over representations of death, as well as the ontological crisis inherent in such representations.
In an analysis of two widely circulated videos of women’s deaths from Iran and Afghanistan, Nina Seja suggests that attention to the videos’ sensory qualities is necessary to a critical understanding of such images. Marta Zarzycka continues the examination of women as signifiers of suffering through readings of several World Press Photographs, proposing that acknowledging the sounds and silences absent from images of atrocity can help close the gap between the images and the viewer.
Colette Copeland, as well as Tina Margolis, Karen Keller, and Julie Rones, draw our attention to the frequently contested production of collective memories of atrocity. Copeland considers the ways in which the paradoxical imperatives of education and economics trigger struggles over ethics, historical representation, and collective memorialization surrounding genocide tourism sites in Cambodia and Rwanda. On the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Margolis, Keller, and Rones demonstrate the constructed nature of one of its iconic images, discussing the ramifications of staging a documentary photograph in terms of national memory and mythmaking, class and gender inequities, and the paradox of empathy. Thomas Stubblefield studies the widespread use of photography among witnesses of 9/11 in relation to theories of trauma and deferral, and the inescapable tensions between action and observation at the heart of photographic practice.
Taking as his case study Susan Meiselas’s “Reframing History,” Jay Prosser argues that the multiple layers of embodied experience granted by installations can recontextualize iconic images and reinstate a dimensionality lost in the flattening effects of media, enabling a more critically self-reflexive responsiveness. Jillian St. Jacques extends the examination of installation and video art through a reading of the nuanced humor in Iraqi artist Adel Abidin’s multimedia work, arguing that it foregrounds the underlying melancholy and abjection at the heart of the issues he explores. Stephanie Bailey interviews Greek artist Stefanos Tsivopoulos, who uses a combination of found footage and recreations to reveal the underlying narrative structures and the construction of national identity in popular media. Caroline Bagenal contemplates Grace Ndiritu’s video Desert Storm, which addresses the use of rape as a tool of war in relation to art historical representations of women and rape. Clayton Campbell discusses his decision to work with what he terms “toxic images,” in an artist statement about his photographic series “After Abu Ghraib.”
Bob Gaunt examines the postmemory work of Argentine photographer Lucila Quieto, who creates composite images of those “disappeared” during Argentina’s Dirty War together with their surviving sons and daughters, working through the vernacular aesthetic of the family photo album in order to challenge the official imagery of the last dictatorship and heal the trauma of political disappearance. Øyvind Vågnes discusses two reportage comics by Joe Sacco that combine images with the testimony of torture victims, highlighting the tension between the inexpressibility of physical pain and the need to speak, and revealing the crisis of witnessing embedded in the structure of torture itself. Sabrina DeTurk explores the highly individualized portraits created by artist Daniel Heyman while listening to the testimony of former detainees of Abu Ghraib.
Anne Burke examines the performance of photographs in Colombian protests against state violence and torture, arguing that they serve as testimonial evidence to the social relations that undergird systemic violence and its strategic production of fear, while visualizing resistance to this system. Sanjay Asthana discusses the role of embodiment and affect in three Palestinian youth media initiatives, examining the ways in which Palestinian and Arab Israeli youth develop media forms and narratives to address everyday life, recuperate individual and collective memories and identities, and forge active citizenship amid extreme violence. Marshall Battani questions whether images of atrocity require a body at all, and argues that non-human images of atrocity may be more effective because they enable the social and political responses of solidarity rather than the personalized responses of compassion and pity.
This extended issue also provides the opportunity to share four artists’ portfolios. In Passage on the Underground Railroad and Recent Works, Stephen Marc photographed routes along the Underground Railroad, creating composite digital images that address the sites both individually and within the larger history of American slavery. In Atrocity Landscapes, Sandra Peron juxtaposes history with the present by pairing excerpts from soldiers’ journals and nationalist war songs with modern landscapes of sites described in the writings. Robert Heller revisits a site of unimaginable trauma in his project Photographing Auschwitz, turning his camera on contemporary visitors photographing the concentration camp. David Brunetti’s photo essay The Face of Uganda pairs photographs of victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army with their personal narratives, bringing to light a type of violence far removed from the experience of many readers.
In his critical study History and Memory After Auschwitz (1998), Dominick LaCapra asks, “Do some events present moral and representational issues even for groups not directly involved in them?”4 We would reverse the question to ask whether the moral crises presented by certain events compel and even require artists, scholars, and citizens—those “not directly involved” in the atrocity—to find representational strategies for addressing those concerns. Perhaps it is our ethical and cultural obligation to use aesthetics to grapple with the complexities and horrors of the human condition. Perhaps this special issue of Afterimage is one step toward a greater understanding.
Karen vanMeenan is the editor of Afterimage.
NOTES 1. Mark Seltzer, “Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere,” October (1997): 3–26. 2. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux). 3. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Remote Control: Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s Dispatches from the Image Wars,” Artforum 62, no. 10 (2004): 61–64. 4. Dominick LaCapra, History and Memory After Auschwitz (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 199