Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain edited by Mark Reinhardt, Holly Edwards, Erina Duganne
|Reviewed By:||James Johnson|
|Reviewed in:||The Journal of Politics|
|Date accepted online:||02/11/2007|
|Published in print:||Volume 69, Issue 03, Pages 876-895|
War, famine, forced displacement, epidemic, genocide, and other large-scale humanly generated catastrophes by definition generate widespread mayhem and suffering, both individual and collective. Such aggregate phenomena typically have complex political causes and induce equally complex political consequences that demand complex political remedies. How, indeed if, "we"-whether directly effected or not-understand these causes, consequences, and remedies and how that understanding enters into our sense of our selves and the world we inhabit, depends on whether and how we
The next two essays are by Art Historians. Erina Duganne takes up the broad matter of distributional strategy, specifically questions of how images are appropriated and displayed in various media and in various venues. Holly Edwards traces the vicissitudes of a single image (a very familiar photograph from the mid-1980s by Steve McCurry of a young girl displaced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) as it was used and reprinted and recirculated in various ways over the course of nearly two decades. In combination, Duganne and Edwards alert us to the importance of focusing less on photographs as objects than on photography as an activity, one in which differentially situated actors seek to use images, more or less successfully, for distinct purposes-journalism, advertising, fundraising by humanitarian organizations, art, and so forth.
The final essay, by cultural theorist Mieke Bal, while in many ways insightful, also is in some ways the least compelling in the volume. That is understandable because, unlike the other authors, she was not directly involved in coordinating the exhibition and so had less intimate and sustained interaction with the various images, their context, and their history. Her essay is more a comment on the exhibition than an active, constituent component of it. Bal takes the exhibition and the themes raised in the other essays in the volume as an opportunity to address the more general topic of "political art" and, while she raises a set of significant issues, loses me (and I fear will lose other readers) in a tour of Adorno, a detour into Deleuze, and a flurry of references to other less well-recognized literary and cultural theorists. Bal's essay suggests why it is important to keep discussions of the ways politics intersects with art generally, and photography in particular, grounded.
The second half of the book, subtitled "Exhibition in Retrospect," reproduces the images (59 plates, some color, some black and white) and accompanying text from the exhibition in roughly the sequence that visitors to the museum would have encountered them. It provides essential ballast for the theoretical ruminations offered in the preceding essays, each of which refers more or less extensively to the images and texts from the exhibition. Every image, in turn, is indexed back the pages in the various essays that refer to it. So, depending on one's predilections, readers might start at either end of the book and tack back and forth between theoretical reflections and images or vice versa. Indeed, the innovative design of the volume invites readers to do just that. I will note too that the design of the volume is provocative in other ways. This starts with the cover where a strategically placed thumb creates the discrepant impressions that the reader herself is holding a copy of an image from
For a discipline like ours, where many practitioners proclaim their commitment to intellectual pluralism,