Ironic and Uncanny Photojournalism

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Last week, I set the World Photo Press’ ‘Winners Gallery’ as my gchat status. This status generated several conversations (via chat). Here are my reactions, sprinkled with my friend’s comments. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Maybe this is the wrong word, but my experience when viewing these images is Irony. I feel two things at once: My heart breaks but cannot look away, I am unnerved but somehow I still see beauty, I am impressed by the strength of the subjects if only because their frailties (for some tragedy) are left exposed for my visual consumption.

Specifically this photo story of divers, and this photo story of Obama’s campaign. WhileI find the divers more frightening, they are stories of struggle, strength, and even frailty. I love this image of Obama doing a pull up. I will fess up: I have a very big crush on my President but that is not the only appeal of this image. I love it because of its Irony. He is strong and athletic, but he is comparatively small within the frame of the photograph. His suit makes him look awkward and thin. Not unlike a kid grasping to avoid falling, resenting being put up so high. (surely I’m not the only one with similar gym class memories) This is not an image of a body builder or super-hero.

After g-chatting about several images, Margarita and I osculated between several reactions. Eventually we began talking about the images as representations of ‘the human condition.’ (Whatever that may mean, pain and frailty are surely an important part. Right?). She eventually offered this quote from the Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorcagreat art depends upon a vivid awareness of death, connection with a nation’s soil, and an acknowledgment of the limitations of reason. This leads me to a second, similar reaction to these images.

Another word that may not be perfect for these images but happens to come to mind: the Uncanny. Freud defines the uncanny as, “class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar”. These images are frightening and foreign; at the same time, often, they bring us back to the familiar.

Frightening yet long familiar: Either by resonating with common emotion in the “human condition” or by referencing our culture’s stock images. The dead body immediately reminded me of one of Goya’s Christ. CCT and Gnovis alumna Dora was struck “theodora: Wow! this image has an ODD confluence with the scenes of murder/attempted murder in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu and Tell-Tale Heart!!”

I think uncanny describes my reaction quite succinctly. The context and situation is distant and frightening but the emotions ‘lead back to what is… long familiar’.

Consider this image as an example.

The photo story that left me with the strongest sense of the uncanny is this one of the war in Georgia. From the caption, I know this is a story of war. I see traces of war, but mostly I see people, isolated, afraid, and broken. This image in particular. How familiar and moving is the experience of waving goodbye as the car drives away from a loved one? We can all relate. Yet, we know that a war is making this lover’s farewell frighteningly tragic. Will her lover survive, un-maimed, and emotionally un-scared? The final image in the story is the only image that directly depicts existence of a large-scale armed conflict.

Although distant, I feel like I share something with all of the subjects. As Ishmael, the narrator of Moby Dick, declared, “Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterian and Pagan alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly needing mending”.

This sense of uncanny, the reminder of a shared human affect, has productive potential. This brings me full circle back to gnovis and Sara Upton’s blog (also an ongoing research project) on a unique set of photographs used by grass roots activist seeking justice for the Femicide in Sarah’s home town, El Paso and its sister city in Mexico – Ciudad Juarez.

I realize that this blog has pulled together a diverse array of associations. But maybe that is why I find these images so moving. What is more, I am certain that each viewer will come to new and different associates based on his or her personal and cultural experiences.