The Exchange: Susie Linfield on Photography and Violence
November 22, 2010
Do photographs provide our most immediate connection to truth, or do they confuse, mislead, or tell outright lies? In “ The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence ,” out now from the University of Chicago Press, Susie Linfield examines what photographers and the images they capture can tell us about the human catastrophes of the modern age—from the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz, to China during the Cultural Revolution, to more contemporary locations of violence and oppression: Sierra Leone, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Abu Ghraib. Linfield , an associate professor of journalism and director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University (of which, to note, I am a graduate), takes on the questions: “Can photography itself make the world more livable? Can it justify its claims to give a voice to the silent and expose the plight of the powerless?…can it illuminate the dark?”
You write that for many critics “photography is a powerful, duplicitous force to defang rather that an experience to embrace and engage.”
Photographs start becoming a mass form, and start being written about as a mass form, in the Weimar Republic, which of course was the most crisis-ridden moment of modernity—and a prelude to utter catastrophe. For some very good reasons, photographs were seen by some of the Weimar writers—and especially by some of the Frankfurt School critics—as a kind of opiate of the people: as a form that couldn’t really explain the political contradictions, a form that appealed only to sentiment and not to the intellect. Siegfried Kracauer, for instance, warned that “the image-idea drives away the idea.” And Brecht, who I think of as a kind of father-figure, or superego, of the Frankfurt critics, loathed photographs; he regarded them as a form of sentimentality, as a barrier to political knowledge.