Portraits of Force

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or, the Poem of Force.”

It’s an essay on the role of force (i.e., coercive violence) in the Iliad — but Weil wrote it in 1939, so she wasn’t just writing about the Iliad. In the essay, she describes the centrality of coercion (in the form of violence, destruction, and enslavement) both to that story and to a recurring historical predicament of human beings in time of war: that the dead and the subjugated exist as things, deprived of the status and condition of human persons.

She wrote:

To define force — it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all.

and later:

From the power to transform him into a thing by killing him there proceeds another power, and much more prodigious, that which makes a thing of him while he still lives. He is living, he has a soul, yet he is a thing.

These passages are often on my mind, because I think they have a lot of relevance for contemporary culture, both literally and figuratively. I think they are disturbingly relevant to reality television, for example. (Reality television is a forum for people who wish to reduce themselves to things as a spectacle for the audience.)

But what I’ve been thinking about lately is the relevance of Weil’s observations to photography in particular — and more specifically, to portraiture, which is the genre of photography most intimately connected to the human person. I wonder: is the portraitist’s camera a case of an “x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing”?

Of course, literally speaking, that is the camera’s very purpose. You point the device at a person, activate it, and receive a thing (the photograph) in return. But does that process, the technical ritual of camera operation, doom the portrait to acting as an objectifying force, each release of the shutter a minor recapitulation of violence? Does it always and necessarily do so, or only sometimes? And can it serve an opposite function?

I don’t have a systematic answer to these questions, but a few examples have occurred to me. I’m not presenting these as a typology, or even a part of one, just engaging in a little free association:

Gardner’s "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter" is a photograph of a corpse, of a person who has been made into a thing. So, war had already done as much to him as it could, hadn’t it? Or perhaps it had not. The photograph is now generally understood to have been staged — a common practice at the time. If a scene was not sufficiently dramatic, did not tell enough of a story, did not tell the right story, then the scene, including the corpse, could be adjusted as necessary. (Of course, this sort of technique was more often applied to the bodies of those on the other side of a given conflict than to those on ones own.)

The corpse is simply a prop — a significant prop, perhaps, but one as malleable and manipulable as any other. In other words, this is a photograph which not only records the result of violence as content, but which is made in a fashion predicated upon violence and benefiting from it. (Which is so even if the photograph also has the intended or unintended result of eliciting sympathy for the dead.) While the practice of moving bodies around is no longer so prominent in the war photographer’s toolkit, I do not think you would have to look far to find related strategies in use throughout the history of photojournalism, up to today.

In some cases, the process of making or displaying a photograph can in itself be intrinsically and literally harmful or detrimental. An obvious, perfect case would be Marc Garanger’s “Femme Algerienne” photographs — ID photographs made during the Algerian War, for which women were forced to sit with their faces uncovered.

In this case, the camera is being employed as a tool of war, and photography is an application of force against a people, as well as a process producing documents that are records and emblems of subjugation.

These same photographs have acquired new meanings and uses since then, being pressed into service as documentation of the brutality of the regime which required them to be made. They are also displayed as fine art, which I find more than a little creepy, because both their intellectual significance and their very real beauty are still owed directly to the violation that created them.

I’m not sure whether Tyler Shields’s "Bruised Barbie" photographs of Heather Morris are only superficially relevant to this post, or whether they are hyper-relevant to it. No one was harmed in their creation, and they have no direct connection to any specific violent event or deed. But still, there is something about them which prevents me from partitioning them off in the way I might other works of entertainment or art which happened to include some fictionalization of violence.

They depict a woman taking on the role of a plastic doll (i.e., turning herself into a thing), while also depicting a weirdly light, playful, inconsequential idea of violence and subjugation.

Whether that depiction is in itself actually harmful is an interesting question. The kneejerk, commonsense reaction to these photos is that they glamorize domestic violence. I don’t really get that, because I don’t see any actual glamor in the photographs.

But as portraits — as photographs of a person — I find them baffling and off-putting. They are technically photographs of a person, but what I see in them is not a person — not even a person pretending to be a plastic toy. What I see in them is, “nobody is here at all.”

Fazal Sheikh’s portraiture is also hyper-relevant to this post, although in a different way. It seems to be more or less a direct response to the sort of effects of violence that Weil describes. Eduardo Cadava’s essay on Sheikh explains it this way:

In presenting us the traces of violence, deprivation, oppression, and effacement in relation to which his subjects exist — in relation to which they live and die, and even live as if they already were dead — Sheikh’s photographs seek to bestow a kind of life and dignity on these men, women, and children, to attest to the necessity and responsibility of producing photographs that might facilitate this life and dignity, that may even speak and be heard. (p. 9)

In describing this (possible) function of photography, Cadava emphasizes the importance of context — of the way the portrait, and especially the photographic series, can document and/or connote relationship between the subject and their environment.

Each portrait, in other words, opens onto a world: it tells us that, if we wish to see this or that refugee, to understand his or her plight, we can only begin to “see” him or her by understanding his or her relation to an entire network of intensely mediated relations. We could even say that photography names the process whereby something stops being what it “is” in order to transform itself into “something else.” This transformation therefore implies a kind of death — since what existed before the transformation is no longer present — and it is no accident that Sheikh intersperses, among his images of Somali refugees, a series of photographs of graves…each of which could be said to be a “portrait,” but a portrait that tells us what is true of all portraits: a portrait is always less “the immortalization of a person than the presentation of (immortal) death in (a) person.” (pp. 20-21)

I find this interesting because it returns me to another passage in Weil’s essay:

But for those upon whom it has fallen, so brutal a destiny wipes out damnations, revolts, comparisons, meditations upon the future and the past, almost memory itself. It does not belong to the slave to be faithful to his city or to his dead.

Weil identifies this decontextualizing capacity of violence as central to the experience of the subjugated victim. The dead are not only taken away, but in a sense erased. And while a photographic record has no power to resuscitate the dead, perhaps it has (or may have) the power to frustrate this kind of erasure.

In other words, the photograph cannot remove or reverse death, it cannot add life — but it can act as a sort of “death plus,” contributing an additional virtual death that happens to confer a kind of immortality. Cadava indicates that this function is connected to the subject’s community — so perhaps the measure of the worth of a photograph in relation to violence is the extent to which it enables the viewer to place the results/evidence of that violence into context, to perceive it as it relates the subject to other people and to the subject’s past and place.

Of course, enabling the viewer to relate to the subject historically and in context does not necessarily differentiate Sheikh’s portraits from Gardner’s rebel sharpshooter. After all, what we may believe Sheikh achieves in enabling subjects to “speak and be heard,” cannot always be differentiated from what enables another sort of photographer to use the subject to lie.

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