‘Pictures of atrocity’ and ‘Pornographic imagery’, a conversation with Alfredo Jaar

Still regarding the fires in Portugal and the choices made by the media, a well known Portuguese historian, Pacheco Pereira, said overall the journalists had entered into a sort of “pain masturbation”. In cases of tragedy, where human drama in incommensurable, is not unusual to use or hear expressions that relate to sex or to the pornographic industry. But what is it that connects these two arenas? That was one of the questions we wanted to explore in Propeller‘s first edition, dedicated to ‘the pornographic’. To discuss it, we invited the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, who was kind enough to venture into this field with us and raise questions.

Here’s the conversation (click image for further reading). For more on Alfredo Jaar, please visit www.alfredojaar.net. For more on Propeller, please go to www.propeller.pt.

© Propeller #0, pp. 117-119. A conversation with Alfredo Jaar.

Photojournalism under fire

I don’t doubt the need for photojournalism and I’m aware that what I’m about to do is, in a lot of senses, offensive, particularly to the experiences photojournalists go through in order to document situations that are horrible, unimaginable, experiences one really has to go thorough in order to understand what they’re about. 

Having said that, that personal experience should not justify what a photojournalist then goes on to do and the sort of imagery he/she creates. Maybe the ethics that rule a person’s actions are not the same that rule the making of a body of images. I said maybe, but I firmly believe this. Photography is a very complicated machine. It is imprisoned in several codes and a photojournalist knows that. In the aftermath of the fires that have been eating up our forest, since last Saturday, I came across two different works, from two very different photographers and I want to try and look through them and discuss the questions they arise.

Again, I’m aware this is not the smartest thing to do, but both these body of images have stuck with me for the last few days, so I’ll try and lay a couple of arguments. One the one hand there’s Adriano Miranda‘s photographs, for Público; on the other hand there’s Ricardo Graça‘s photographs for Jornal de Leiria. Adriano is a well-known photojournalist. He has done is all and he works for one of the biggest newspapers in Portugal. The quality of his work has been recognized by his peers and this particular gallery of images has been praised by many. Ricardo’s work is new to me. He is a lot younger and works for a regional newspaper. Below are their two galleries, which I saw in the respective newspapers:


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I want to try and stick to what the images tell me and, for starters, I would say that Ricardo is closer to that reality than Adriano. Maybe he knows the region well, maybe not, but although both keep their distance, Ricardo seems to know his way into the small villages and his portraits are closer (the images above are just a selection from a larger body of work). On the other hand, it’s pretty evident that Adriano has a lot more experience and one sees his perspective, his subjectivity. His photography has matured and the references are all there. Adriano’s images also have a coherence, that Ricardo’s lack. While the dark, bluish, lynchian tone that is present in Adriano’s photographs gives us a sense of narrative, of a continuity that sort of legitimates his role as a participant, Ricardo’s style seems a bit all over the place and yet to mature.

In Ricardo’s images I see an empathy for the living thing; in Adriano’s I do not. In fact, I see a pit between him and that living thing. It’s harsh of me to say this, I know, but Adriano’s pictures of the burnt cow and the death deer are just gruesome, shot from above (I’ve mentioned this already, so am not going into it again). While talking to a friend about Adriano’s images, he mentioned they were beautiful and they reminded him of Gregory Crewdson’s photographs. Isn’t this indicative of the problem? Should one feel, while looking at this sort of images, where one should find informative value, that they aim at beautifying the reality they document? Or is it that beauty, that magnitude, that succeeds in giving us an idea of how overwhelming this tragedy is?

I crossed paths with Ricardo’s work because one of this photographs depicts my sister-in-law, on the roof of her house. Because I listened to her account of the events, among many others that have surfaced for the past few days, I feel Ricardo’s images are a more truthful document of what happened, how people had to organized, escape, fight the fire, wait for a road to reach their loved ones or get away. On the other hand, when I look at Adriano’s images, what I think is that he can go on to win an award with this. See the difference? I understand their value, they’re cinematographic, they aim at the sublime, but they sort of loose their referent, as if they could be a document of any other fire, in another part of the world. In fact, the way they’re composed and the references they evoke, immediately give me a sense of an american reality, in between Lynch, Crewdson and Gus van Sant. Is this what makes a good photojournalism, meaning that he/she has to be able to construct a fiction with the events he/she is forced to document? 


It’s a dark day in Portugal. A huge fire hit a central region of the country and the worst happened. Because a part of my family was caught in the fire, my objectivity to talk about this situation is absolutely compromised. They are all alive, and that is what matters today. 

This is a blog about photography and that’s what I want to focus on here. It also helps pass the time, as the fire is far from being over and people are still trying to escape this hell hole, with so many roads blocked. Yesterday, while it was all happening, the media was giving little information about the real tragedy of the situation and what could be done. At one point during the night, while my young nieces and nephew were hidden in a mill, protected by my sister-in-law, the three Portuguese news channel were talking about football. That is unacceptable! When there’s an attack in France, in England, in Belgium, they can’t talk about anything else, so why did they take so long to start doing their jobs yesterday, when the fire started in the beginning of the afternoon?

But today is the aftermath and all the news channel and newspapers are now flooded with videos, photographs and comments. Last week, when all those lives were lost in the Grenfell Tower fire, I was once again shocked by the way the media was dealing with the event. I was particularly shocked by the way a certain photograph of the burning tower was being showed. As I see it, this is the spectacularization of death. Behind those orange glass-less windows there are lives being lost. That smoke is not only the sign of a burnt out building…

© Evening Standard/eyevine

The same is now happening in Portugal. The media keeps showing the same image of a road filled with burnt cars, where more than 20 lives were lost, while people were trying to escape the fire. Inside those carcasses, lives were lost, burnt to death. The tragedy of that reality seems to me to be, again, made pointless, when one shows and repeats this sort of imagery. The reporters, not satisfied with showing the outside of the cars, try to picture inside, to show the car seats, the remains. What is the point of this, I wonder? They create slogans, they call it the “estrada da morte” (death road) as if this summary made things more abstract and more bearable. 

The following photographs are from a well-known Portuguese photographer, Adriano Miranda, for a newspaper, Público. As I can understand them, today, they are a good example of this pointless “need” to give a visual dimension to something that should not be reduce to “an image”. This tragedy, as so many others all over the world, doesn’t fit into a series of images. Why this recurrent “need” to do this, I can understand… I particularly reject these images of the burnt animal bodies. Is as if he’s photographing them from above, because he can’t do the same to human victims. Is as if they’re objects, occupying the place of something else (those human victims). It’s so obscene… There’s no informative value in them. If you write that lives were lost, and do not illustrate that news with the images of the cadavers, why do that with animals. Have words been deprived of their informative value?


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As I’m writing this, I’m once again forced to cut this short. The fire is rekindling and lives are once again at risk. In one of the news channel, I hear a sign of hope as one young journalist states that the worst account they’ve heard so far, of this tragedy, was not recorded in images, as a sign of respect for the lives that were lost… 

When is a picture of atrocity “needed”?

This past March, a painting by white american author Dana Schutz triggered an interesting discussion that ultimately lead to a debate about freedom of expression. The painting in question (featured below) is titled Open Casket and was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, sparking protests (in front of the artwork) and a particular letter, who a particular black artist, named Hannah Black addressed to the curators of the Biennial (and co-signed by other artists), in which she stated the following:

I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.
In brief: the painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.

© Dana Schutz, ‘Open Casket’, 2016. Oil on canvas.
Parker Bright protesting Dana Schutz’s ‘Open Casket’. © Scott W. H. Young (@HEISCOTT)/VIA TWITTER

Dana’s painting, in her tarnished geometric style, evokes Emmett Till‘s disfigured face in his coffin. I won’t pretend to know Emmett’s story, but it was the original photograph of his mutilated body and the story of his mother’s insistence on having an open casket – “she wanted the world to see what those men had done to her son” -, that brought me to this post. Emmett was fourteen-years-old when he was tortured and murdered by white Mississippi racists, back in 1955. But that’s not the full story, for Emmett was lynched because of a white woman’s lies (years latter she admitted that her claims about he sexually assaulting her were false). For what I understood, Emmett’s killers were never punished.

The New Yorker‘s Calvin Tomkins wrote a long article profiling Dana Schutz, where he shares some conversations he had with the artist regarding this particular artwork. According to him, Dana had been interested in Emmett Till’s story for quite some time and she kept questioning herself:

“How do you make a painting about this and not have it just be about the grotesque? I was interested because it’s something that keeps on happening. I feel somehow that it’s an American image.”

Calvin Tomkins describes the painting, after his first contact with it:

Measuring thirty-nine by fifty-three inches, it is smaller than most of her recent paintings, and more abstract. The buildup of paint on the face is a couple of inches thick in the area where Till’s mouth would be. Although there are no recognizable features, a deep trough carved into the heavy impasto conveys a sense of savage disfigurement, which is heightened by the whiteness of the boy’s smoothly ironed dress shirt. His head rests on an ochre-yellow fabric, and deftly brushed colors at the top suggest banked flowers.

to which he added:

Emmett Till’s murder was implacably real. Trying to deal with this atrocity in visual terms had seemed almost beyond imagining, and “Open Casket” is a very dark picture—but it’s not grotesque. The horror is conveyed in painterly ways that, to me, make it seem more tragic than the photograph, because the viewer is drawn in, not repelled. “There was so much uncertainty with this painting,” Schutz said, quietly. “You think maybe it’s off limits, and then extra off limits. But I really feel any subject is O.K., it’s just how it’s done. You never know how something is going to be until it’s done.”

Two things interest me in this case: 1) the absolutist moral stance taken by sooooooo many artists, who wanted ‘Open Casket’ to be destroyed or burnt (a very distressful idea); 2) and the original event of the death of this young boy (who I knew little about) and that lead to a magazine publishing very violent photographs of his mutilated face. This event and the reproduction of these images fueled the Civil Rights Movement, so there is no doubt that if there was a “purpose” for the publication of the images of this atrocity, namely to let the world know what had been done to Emmett Till, such a decision was able to create its own legacy.

Edition of ‘Jet magazine’, which featured photographs of the murdered Emmett Till.

This is such a difficult subject… but is there anything more important than ethics? Is there ever a moment when pictures of atrocity are “needed”? I would say yes, and I would say the original publishing of Emmett Till’s photographs of his open casket fit that category. My thinking, regarding those, is that their exposure was made with the intentions to expose racism (that was his mother’s intention in exposing the body of her mutilated son, wasn’t it?). But, on the other hand, are we exploiting his existence when we turn this into an icon? Is there ever a ‘need’ for that? Maybe so. Because racism and whitewashing are still a reality, these photographs seem to still carry their powerful message and that’s why I show them here. Still, I have my reserves.

Regarding Dana Schutz’s Open Casket the story is very different. Is there a “need” for her to address the issue in that manner? Maybe not. Is she exploiting Emmett Till’s tragic story for her profit? I don’t think that’s the case. Is her artwork a ‘picture of atrocity’? I wouldn’t say so. So why were so many artists outraged about this? Performance artist Coco Fusco, @ Hyperallergic, addressed the issue, condemning that sort of censorship:

On many occasions I have had to contend with self-righteous people — of all of ethnic backgrounds — who have declared with conviction that this or that can’t be art or shouldn’t be seen. There is a deeply puritanical and anti-intellectual strain in American culture that expresses itself by putting moral judgment before aesthetic understanding.  […] I find it alarming and entirely wrongheaded to call for the censorship and destruction of an artwork, no matter what its content is or who made it. As artists and as human beings, we may encounter works we do not like and find offensive. We may understand artworks to be indicators of racial, gender, and class privilege — I do, often. But presuming that calls for censorship and destruction constitute a legitimate response to perceived injustice leads us down a very dark path. Hannah Black and company are placing themselves on the wrong side of history, together with Phalangists who burned books, authoritarian regimes that censor culture and imprison artists, and religious fundamentalists who ban artworks in the name of their god.

One thing that is clear for me is that in our representation of other people’s suffering we often presume to understand what that pain feels like and that may be problematic, for we might end up giving the wrong message: either telling the viewer that looking at a given image equates with empathizing with the events depicted; either because this sort of exposure may well potentiate people’s passiveness towards the harm we do to each other, for often when people look at ‘pictures of atrocity’ they are addressing their own guilt and they may get the sense that by looking at the events they “know about them” and then “knowing about something” is easily equated with “acting on it”.

Fusco keeps addressing the outrage against Schultz artwork and he makes excellent points, so I’ll finish with his own words:

[Hannah] Black makes claims that are not based in fact; she relies on problematic notions of cultural property and imputes malicious intent in a totalizing manner to cultural producers and consumers on the basis of race. She presumes an ability to speak for all black people that smacks of a cultural nationalism that has rarely served black women, and that once upon a time was levied to keep black British artists out of conversations about black culture in America. Her argument is laced with an economically reductionist view of artistic practice and completely avoids consideration of the visual strategies employed by Schutz. Some of her supporters assert (without explanation) that abstraction in and of itself is illegitimate for representing a traumatic figure, a claim that ignores key 20th-century aesthetic debates about the problems with realistic depictions of extreme violence.


In citing these examples, I do not mean to suggest that all artistic representations of black oppression by white artists and all curatorial efforts to address race are well intentioned, or that they are all good. However, the argument that any attempt by a white cultural producer to engage with racism via the expression of black pain is inherently unacceptable forecloses the effort to achieve interracial cooperation, mutual understanding, or universal anti-racist consciousness. There are better ways to arrive at cultural equity than policing art production and resorting to moralistic pieties in order to intimidate individuals into silence.