Knee-Jerk: A Few Wonderings

“Whether the photograph is understood as a naïve object or the work of an experienced artificer, its meaning–and the viewer’s response–depends on how the picture is identified or misidentified; that is, on words….But one day captions will be needed, of course. And the misreadings and the misrememberings, and the new ideological uses for the pictures, will make their difference.

“Central to modern expectations, and modern ethical feelings, is the conviction that war is an aberration, if an unstoppable one. That peace is the norm, if an unattainable one. This, of course, is not the way war has been regarded throughout history. War has been the norm and peace the exception.”

–Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

I have been working my way through this essay for the past year. I’ll pick it up at random and catch a paragraph or two, and if I’m lucky, these moments will coincide with the phases in my life when I’m angry at particular aspects of the world. War photography and photojournalism that captures human suffering: How do viewers react to/experience it? (How) Do their feelings change as this form of expression evolves? What effects does the photographer intend? In what ways do s/he and the audience share a conscience?

“God does not demand that we give up our personal dignity, that we throw in our lot with random people, that we lose ourselves and turn from all that is not him. God needs nothing, asks nothing, and demands nothing, like the stars. It is a life with God which demands these things.

“Experience has taught the race that if knowledge of God is the end, then these habits of life are not the means but the condition in which the means operates. You do not have to do these things; not at all. God does not, I regret to report, give a hoot. You do not have to do these things–unless you want to know God. They work on you, not on him.

“You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”

–Annie Dillard, Teaching A Stone to Talk

I wonder about God as a photographer, if what I see in the world requires anything of my conscience. I wonder whether captions are necessary, or if the experience itself provides sufficient commentary. I wonder how much of the experience I am in control of.

A little discussion.

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