Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The World in Pieces

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The World in Pieces

Article excerpt

In the blink of a shutter, photography has the power to document our fragmented world and capture its elusiveness.

Photography compresses complex moments of suffering and injustice--which have long and ambiguous histories--into necessarily simplified and abstracted visual icons. We always think photography tells us more than it does. We always think we understand more than we do when we look at a photograph. The reality is that we do not know the people in the photographs; the photographers themselves often do not even know the names of the people whose suffering or elation or terror they are recording. Their photography documents the distance between strangers, between the scream being uttered and going unheard, between the hand reaching out for help and failing to receive any.

But because of photography, our moral imagination is extended to situations we have never been in ourselves. Ignorance is no longer a plausible alibi in a world made transparent by imagery. If we have not done what we should with our knowledge, if we have not acted as we might have done and made our leaders act as they should, we cannot blame our messengers.

Despite the coming of television and the demise of the photoweeklies, photography has retained its ability to define the essential iconography of key historical experiences. Television only seems to tell us everything we need to know. It drains reality of mystery by suggesting that what we see is all there is. Good photography restores the mystery of the world by stopping time so that we can both see and reflect upon what is there. Hence the unending strangeness of photography: that it documents the world, establishes what is essentially there, while at the same time showing to us what we cannot see with our eyes alone. If photography has a redeeming or cleansing effect on our vision, it is because it seems to restore both the reality of the world and its essential elusiveness.

In 1954, the photographer Edward Steichen assembled the Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The hydrogen bomb, just then tested by both America and the Soviet Union, gave frantic urgency to the exhibition's affirmation of human universality. Few photographers today would lay claim to the ideal of trying to show that human beings are the same underneath the skin. They seem intent chiefly on representing the modern world in all its fragmented, perplexed confusion. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.