Sunday, October 4, 2009

Photography as social commentary

(Photograph by Rina Castelnuovo/The New York Times from the website No Caption Needed) .

The photo above is from a piece on the website No Caption Needed. It shows a Jewish settler tossing wine at a Palestinian woman in Hebron. The photo above is from an article headed The Practice of Domination in Everyday Life. Here is an extract from the article on No Caption Needed that accompanied the photo:

I think that there are at least three reasons for the photograph’s impact. One is that it reveals what is rarely shown: the small acts of personal viciousness and humiliation that make up the practice of domination in an occupied land. Second, it is clear that both the boy’s aggression and the woman’s protective reaction are often-practiced, habitual responses. Were he taunting an older woman for the first time, he would be likely to look much more ragged, uncoordinated, and either furtive or overly demonstrative. Instead, he could be a figure out of Whitman: throwing his weight around without breaking stride, a figure of youthful grace on the city street. Likewise, she isn’t being caught by surprise. Her head is already turned, her body hunched against the impending blow. She’s been through this before, and she’s learned that direct confrontation is not an option. This may be her neighborhood, but it’s his street.

The third dimension of the photograph’s power derives from its capacity for analogy. Look at the woman’s coat and hat, and at the Star of David scrawled on the storefront; she could be in the Warsaw ghetto, and all it takes is a change of costume to see him as a German soldier. Or they could be an African-American woman and a young cracker in the Jim Crow South, or any other tableau that depicts the small details of domination. One picture isn’t enough to nail down such comparisons, but it should make you think of them.

The accompanying story is here. Note that the caption at the online slide show is less vague than in the paper edition: “A settler tosses wine at a Palestinian woman on Shuhada Street in Hebron. The approach of some settlers towards neighboring Palestinians, especially around Nablus in the north and Hebron in the south, has often been one of contempt and violence.”

No Caption Needed is is one of my favourite websites. It is a website for anyone who love photographs. No Caption Needed is both a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. Containing photos of great pathos and beauty the site highlights the power of photographs to provide social commentary. The site also provides links to other photographic resources, sites and collections.

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