Society of the Spectacle and War Photography
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Published: Thu, 03 May 2018
Discuss contemporary war photography in relation to Debord’s work on the Society of the Spectacle.
Society of the Spectacle written by Guy Debord and published in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam war argues that the world has been overtaken by the notion of spectacle. Debord describes what the spectacle comprises of (in several numbered paragraphs); he says that, “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” (#1) Debord is stating that life in the modern age has become fixated on reality as representation (i.e. by the media) real life experiences have been substituted for experiences that are digitally lived. Debord goes on to say that “the spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society, itself as part of society, and as means of unification. As part of society, it is the focal point of all vision and all consciousness. But due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is in reality the domain of delusion and false consciousness: the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation…the spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people mediated by images.” (#3-4) With the rise of new media and the explosion of 24-hour news and reality television, it would seem that the existence of the spectacle becomes self-evident. Mass amounts of human beings are directed to gaze at what has become a global common culture, news and entertainment.
For Debord, the spectacle is a tool of pacification and depoliticization; it is a “permanent Opium war designed to force people to equate goods with commodities and to equate satisfaction with a survival that expands according to its own laws…” the spectacle distracts from the most urgent task of real life. (#44) Debord argues, our sense of reality is nothing more than an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once lived becomes mere representation . Debord’s theory of the sectacle is similar to that of Baudrillards theories which concentrate on the ideas of a hyperreality. He considered a photograph to be a replacement for the real object. The lines of reality and non-reality have become so blurred in our society that a photograph can replace the real. Like Debord Baudrillards believed we live in a mediated reality, which prefers the symbol of reality rather than the thing itself.
We are constantly bombarded with images form mass media that our own lives are own reality becomes entwined with the images we see. The boundary that should exist between reality and fantasy is erased. A consequence of the age we live in. Images depicting the gruesome nature of war are constantly available on television and in newspapers and magazines; every page turned reveals a new atrocity. We have been flooded with these images for so long that they no longer have an affect on us, instead on inspiring empathy and sympathy we are more passive to them a feeling of indifference. In the mass media if there is a story about celebrities or lifestyle it would surpass gruesome photographs of war.
As a society we’ve almost grown accustomed to these types of images, seeing them everyday. In an essay entitled Photographs of Agony John Berger also argues that society has become immune to images depicting suffering saying that … “In the last year or so, it has become normal for certain mass circulation newspapers to publish war photographs which earlier would have been suppressed as being too shocking. One might explain this development by arguing that these newspapers have to come to realise that a large section of their readers are now aware of the horrors of war and want to be shown the truth. Alternatively, one might argue that these newspapers believe that their readers have become inured to violent images and so now compete in terms of ever more violent sensationalism.” (ed Wells L, The Phtotgraphy Reader, chapter 27)
Berger is questioning the effectiveness of the violent or shocking war photograph arguing that maybe the public have become immune to images of horror and the newspapers are competing to show ever more horrific images in order to gain pubic attention. We look around us and see a world beyond our control. Relying on advanced technologies to conduct war and to replicate it on film and TV has diminished our ability to distinguish between reality and entertainment, turning our experience of war into a mere spectacle.
In regarding the Pain of others Susan Sontag Describes societies attraction to violent images…” Everyone knows that what slows down highway traffic going past a horrendous car crash is not only curiosity. It is also for many, the wish to see something gruesome”… there does seem to be a modern need fro the consumption of images of suffering. And this abundant supply of imagery has dulled our senses and created a new syndrome of communal inaction, we look around us and see a world beyond our control, which is what Debord was describing in society of the spectacle. In her early book On Photography Susan Sontag writes that “ War and photography now seen insperable…” (pg167) and as war evolves and continues so has the photographers response to the effects of conflict.
The Bulky large-format cameras of the 19th century prevented the first war photographers such as roger Fenton from capturing the action of combat instead their photographs concentrated on the aftermath of the battlefields. With the technological advancement of cameras and not needing to haul darkroom equipment with them the first world war photographer could get closer to combat and then during the 2nd world war the introduction of the 35mm camera increased the intimacy of the cameras eye, enabling photographers to become part of the action, in a way the first exponents in the 19 century could never have dreamed. During the Vietnam war photographs could now been seen within days of them being taken, the immediacy making the images relevant and challenging the inevitability of war the viewer was now looking at something which is part of the present, and which carries over to the future. For a century and a half the camera has been witness to events that have shaped and shocked the world, capturing these images forever. We might now live in a world of multi channel television, 24-hour news coverage and instant his on the Internet, but it is the still image that provides the most powerful record of our history, good and bad. The still image seems to hold so much power over us, they last, television is passing and goes by quickly, photography lasts, imprinted on paper and in the mind.
War and the effects of warfare have always been explored throughout history in literature, poetry, art, film and photography. Before the first world war the depiction of battles by artists were often of soldiers and generals depicted as heroes, in their uniforms adorned with medals but during the first world war when artists were sent to the front line to record the scene, what they saw there defied their imagination. It soon became clear that the traditional painting couldn’t capture the full horror of warfare. The modernist painters began to look at the universal grimness of war, the harsh reality of the world and painted not what they saw but what they felt. For example the artists Paul Nash who served as a solider, portrayed the battlefield in a painting titked Menin Road in 1919, what he depicted was the aftermath of war, a barren scene of an almost alien world the surreal colours a purple blue sky the mutilated bare trees, bursts of smoke rising from the debris strewn ground and blue light filtering through the clouds completely empty apart from four lonely figures in the background. Nash wanted rob warfare of its last shred of glory and its last shine of glamour.
Francisco Goya’s series of etchings Disasters of War depicts the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808 during which French soldiers brutally tortured the Spanish peasants and the Spanish responded with their own acts of cruelty. The works were withdrawn and withheld from publication during Goya’s lifetime because of their controversial and disturbing qualities. Susan Sontag writes of Goyas’ etchings in Regarding the Pain of others, “…Goya’s art seems a turning point in the history of moral feelings and of sorrow-as deep, as original, as demanding. With Goya a new standard for responsiveness to suffering enters art…” Goya was witness to these events during the war, but the etchings depict imagined scenes of the atrocities of violence where the lines between real events and imagined ones blur creating a unique reality that is complimentary yet distinct from the historical realities of war. As the viewer is not lead to believe the images are exact reproduction of actual events the effect is one of a sincere meditation on the terrifying potential that resides in all humans. The images don’t specify who the people are-the soldiers could be French or Spanish, the dead tortured bodies could be those of civilians or soldiers giving the viewer a more open interpretation bringing images to life in a way that relate to personal experience. Goyas images are constantly being revisited looking at Francis Bacon triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion 1944 the twisted screaming distorted creatures depict mans inhumanity to man and capture the fear of the future mood after the second world war and still our mood today, bacon like Goya still has a hold over our imagination, for example the Chapman brothers reconstructed the Disasters of war in 1991 using miniature plastic figurines. Painting and sculpture are clearly viewed as interpretations of the effect and consequences of war, with photography the assumptions is that images are seen as a document they appear real, even when we know photographs can be faked and subject to the photographers view of events.
In On Photography Susan Sontag wrote… “War and photography now seem inseparable.” In On Photography Sontag explains what she saw as the sad state of a society that lived at a more and more voyeuristic distance to the first hand experience of reality. In accordance with this Sontag describes the photographers whose personal concern was apparently with finding out and understanding, were doing no more than satisfying the human thirst for sensation and driving this to extremes by ever more sensational images, until ultimately all feeling was lost.
In the book The photograph as contemporary art……describes the contemporary war photographer… “The use of medium-and large-format cameras (as opposed to 35mm format), not normally seen at the sites of war and human disaster-not at least, since the mid-nineteenth century-has become a sign that a new breed of photographer is framing the social world in a measured and contemplative manner…” She goes on to say…”The subject matter has been different, too; rather than being caught up in the midst of an event, or at close quarters to individual pain and suffering, photogrphers choose to represent what is left behind in the wake of such tradegies, often doing so with style that propses aqualifying pperspective.” It is clear to …Contemporary war photographers have in the main taken anti-reportage stance; slowing down image making, remaining out of the hub of action, and arriving after the decisive moment to allow the viewer a more contemplative look at war and the effects of war.
Using Photomontage Martha Rosler infiltrates our comfort zones and reveals the dangers involved in an illusionary distance often created by the mass media between war and ourselves. By using images from magazines of advertisements combined with military images of soldiers and weaponry she transforms the notion of the safety of a home into one under assault. Her intent is to project the terror and atrocity of war into the comfortable place in which we live. She employs devices that work against the seduction of advertising and consumer imagery, the process of photomontage allows her to expose the gaps between image and reality, and ultimately make the viewer aware of an out of place presence. She addresses the impact of the mass media who according to Debord make the images of horror seem mundane and remote by pointing out the implicit presence of militarism in our daily lives, by juxtaposing popular lifestyle magazine images with stark images of war.
The French Photographer Sophie Ristelhuber Photographs depicts the aftermath of war they are usually un peopled with no survivors and no dead, concentrating on the spaces of war rather than its participants, the scars and burns are found on buildings and landscapes rather then the people. Her photographs of the Kuwaiti desert, entitled Fait were made shortly after the end of the first Gulf War. Many of the photographs from this series were taken from a ariel viewpoint This elevated angle creates a distorted abstract view of trenches, tank tracts, bomb craters, blazing oil wells and battlefield detritus. You have to look carefully and closely at the photographs to discover that the lines and tracts objects engulfed by the sand are the results of war scarring the landscape emphasising how vast and sprawling the effects of war can be. Sophie Ristelhueber describes the effects of scale and perspective in her work:
….”The constant shift between the infinitely big and the infinitely small may disorientate the spectator. But it’s a good illustration of our relationship with the world: We have at our disposal modern techniques for seeing everything, apprehending everything, yet in fact we see nothing.” Ristelhueber recently won the Deutsch Borse Photography prize 2010, which included set of images titled eleven blowups, a series of images of huge craters made by bombs In Beirut and Iraq, again the y describes the devastation war leaves behind both on the earth and the body.
Paul Seawright photographs the traces of destruction that war leaves behind in a place The solitary places in Seawright’s photographs seem to be concealing something they require the viewer to look beneath the surface of the image the isolated barren areas reveal hollows where mines have been cleared or left unexploded, or the subtle rubble of military debris strewn across the desert landscape. The quiet subtlety and blankness of the desert distances them from the spectacle associated with the medias representation of war, there is an unknown tension in the images Seawright generates a view of the futility of war. One of his photographs is almost identical to that of Fenton’s photograph of the Crimean war depicting empty cannon balls in a valley illustrating the fact that despite its technological advancements war is fundamentally always the same. In his book Hidden Seawright says that he has… “always been fascinated by the invisible, the unseen, the subject that doesn’t easily present itself to the camera.”
Landlands And Bell were commissioned in 2002 by the imperial war museum to make an artwork in response to a two-week visit to Afghanistan and what they experienced there. Landlands and bell’s work characteristically focuses on the interconnected relationships linking people and architecture. They say: ‘we’re totally surrounded by architecture. It is the most tangible record of the way we live because it describes how we relate to socially, culturally and politically. It is the most persistent of the way we live-our aspirations and beliefs.”
The result was among other video based works The House of Bin Laden. Presented as an interactive piece similar to a video game the viewer is in control via a joystick to explore a reconstruction of Osama Bin Laden’s barren hilltop bunker. The viewer can virtually travel through a bleak set of derelict houses, surrounded by burnt-out cars and debris. Langland’s and Bell took thousands of photographs of the house near Jalalabad, The eerie interactive digital exploration of Osama bin Laden’s house offers an unsettling experience, and engages with the viewer in a totally new way regarding war photography. The houses surprisingly small and basic. Piles of blankets and clothes are strewn in the rooms elsewhere a single string bed is isolated in a dark corner. Outside there is a series of strangely constructed bunkers and a small mosque. Being in control of looking at the work almost feels like observing a crime scene. The buildings and grounds are absent of any human presence thought signs of people who were once there are constant, although the elusive bin Laden is nowhere to be seen, his presence can still be felt in this mesmerizing and ancient environment. It brings us disturbingly close to him, even as it emphasizes his continuing ability to evade capture. The House of Bin Laden becomes a metaphor for the elusive presence Bin Laden maintains by the very fact of his disappearance.
By presenting this piece as an interactive game like simulation Langland’s and Bell are actively engaging in the idea of the spectacle by using what is essentially and entertainment based media and allowing the viewer to control their viewer using a joystick, it could be argued that by combing entertainment and unreality with real life situations speaks more to a generation obsessed with mass media. They do not attempt to make the 3d environments look realistic like the photographs they took instead it looks constructed exactly as a computer game would look, angular and flat. I personally experienced this work when I saw the Turner Prize in 2004, and it is clear that their intention was for this piece to be viewed and experienced like a computer game. Violent warfare is sold as entertainment in the form of computer games whose manufactures claim to make them as realistic as possible. Thus reflecting modern societies engagement with entertainment as opposed to real life issues.
There seems to be a move in contemporary war photography to a more contemplative and abstract approach, maybe this is as Debord describes because we are use to the violence and horrors the ‘spectacle’ of war presented in the media, and have become almost immune and unmoved by these images. we can never experience the true horrors of war unless from first hand experience but photographers seem now to be taking the stance of the modernist painters of the first world war who painted what they felt rather than what they saw. Contemporary photographers are interpreting these events rather than documenting them, in a way that enables the viewer a more contemplative approach to the contemporary war photograph.
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