Disaster photos

by Rob Horning

6 September 2005


Because of the disaster on the Gulf Coast, Americans have been treated to a great deal of disaster photography, and many platitudes about “unforgettable images” have been trotted out to try to rationalize the extremely disturbing experience of wiitnessing something so awful at such a comfortable distance. Most photos require captions to instruct us how to feel; in fact, many photos are mere pretenses for the captions, which supply the all important context that allows us to actually see something. The captions cue us to what is supposed to be visible, what we are supposed to see in this frozen, inert moment, this dead, empty image. Because meaning in general is in the way things progress and interact, the way things collide and change and evolve, a frozen image is inherently meaningless. For it to have meaning it must be supplied with a context, which itself is slippery, shifting, enmeshed in various dialectics—editors would like to help you to derive context with the caption they supply, but often the context is a matter of your own habitus, or what literally surrounds a photo, or what photo you just saw a minute ago, or some personal experience, or whatever. But the image can’t mean independently of whatever frames you bring to it. Every interaction with an image affords an opportunity for those ideological frames we bring to modified or reinforced. This is probably pretty self-evident, but photos present a temptation to ignore context, ignore the fluid nature of reality and attempt to see into the essence of things in an isolated frame. The immediacy of an image lends itself to the foreshortenings of reality by common sense, which limits us to the narrow ideological perspective with which we’re most comfortable. What is so shocking about the disaster photos is that they don’t seem to permit the common sense perspective, we can’t read them intuitively and find reassurance in the immediate and soothing interpretation that usually results.

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