Monday, May 25, 2009

Words uber alles

Phillip Gourevitch's recent op-ed in the NY Times, attempting to justify the Obama administration's flip-flop decision to prohibit the release of more photographs depicting torture and other misdeeds by Americans at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, reminds me of Susan Sontag's "On Photography." Not with respect to content, of course, but with respect to attitude: Both embody the "writerly" stance toward visual imagery.  A writer -- a professional communicator whose choice of medium is the word and not the picture -- denigrating the visual image and denying its unique power to communicate is nothing new.

Gourevitch's essential argument is that we have no need to see any more of the photographs, because (1) the pictures don't tell the "true" story of American torture (which is not about a few idiotic soldiers, but about an "Administration policy") and (2) we can get the true story only through words -- through listening to the the torturers, through reading written analysis (especially Gourevitch's own) regarding where the decision to torture originated.  Indeed, Gourevitch offers the familiar complaint against photography:  The pictures not only fail to tell the truth, they lie.

Why can't we all just get along?  (By the way, does anyone need reminding who originated that phrase?  Hint: visual imagery played a small role in that event ...)

How many more times does it need to be said, that photographs communicate differently than words, that visual imagery and language appeal to us in distinct but (hopefully) complementary ways?  Words are essential to understanding the world; no one can deny that.  They sometimes mislead and obfuscate, of course, but that is no reason for censorship.  The same is true of pictures.  Writers, unfortunately, fail to see this.

Gourevitch shares a writerly paternalism with Sontag:  Don't trust photographers if you want to learn "the truth" -- trust writers!  As if there is a single "truth" to be learned; as if "truth" is grasped through the mind only and not through the eye and heart.  (The abstract over the specific, the theoretical over the particular.)

Gourevitch claims astoundingly, for instance, that Obama is actually "not suppressing information when he opposes the release of more photographs.  After all, he just made public a series of Bush Administration torture policy memos" that authorize the torture depicted in the photographs.

Only a writer could be so myopic.  "Information" derived from legal memos is all we need?  Photographs of particular acts, of undeniable events that occurred in the world, add nothing to our understanding that could not be derived from reading legal memos?  Surely the writer jests!  Is there nothing to be gained by looking at undeniable evidence of real acts committed by real people -- unique and identifiable human beings very much like us?  

Gourevitch's paternalism is most evident when he claims that he's actually seen most of the unpublished photos (while doing research for his forthcoming book), and that having seen them, he can assure us that seeing more will just confuse us and distract us from the "real" issue (i.e., that torture was an Administration-level decision, not the plaything of enlisted personnel).  Indeed, he has decided not to publish any of the photographs in his book, because they lie.  The truth, heroic Gourevitch claims, can be grasped only through reading his interviews with the participants, and his analysis of Administration policy.

What foolishness.  A writer is by nature prejudiced in favor of the word; he can't be blamed for that.  But to be so blind as to not see that pictures can tell a story as well, that they need not be antithetical to words, to the truth (whatever that is)?

If the visual illiterate is the village idiot of the modern world, to paraphrase Moholy-Nagy, what is Gourevitch?  May I suggest a candidate -- the blind-folded subject of the most famous of the Abu Ghraib photographs.  You know the one I'm talking about; no picture needed.


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