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Howard & Colin Bossen: Witness and Memory

“Photography is a weapon against forgetting.”
—Czech photographer Markéta Luskacov

In today's world speed is important. The innovations in communications and transportation technologies have created a rapid-fire environment where for the vast majority immediacy trumps contemplation. This is reflected in politics, economics, and culture. Information that a mere 200 years ago would have taken months to move from one part of the world to another, can be seen today in real time almost anywhere on the globe. The speed with which information is transmitted and the amount of information received today couldn't have been imagined even 50 years ago. At times, the amount of information, especially visual information, reaches a saturation point. This is evident in events such as the coverage of September 11, the dash to Baghdad, and Hurricane Katrina. Yet, while the amount of information received has vastly increased, critical questions about the information are not often asked. Headlines and sound bites substitute for insight. In most media, the visual record of events takes precedence over the visualization of complex issues.

Located within the tradition of social documentary photography, Thy Brothers' Keeper seeks to explore and uncover the depth of social and political conflicts in a way that the media usually does not. The exhibition is less about news and more about the human experience. Most of the photographs aren't about the big events of battle nor the large sweeping view of history as it unfolds. These images are about the little moments of life lived in difficult places, during tough times and frequently under horrible circumstances.

The photographers featured in Thy Brothers' Keeper understand the difference between recording an event and examining an issue. Their photographs stand in sharp contrast to the dramatic attention-grabbing imagery that frequently appears in the evening news or the morning newspaper. These are not the still images of burned bodies dangling from a bridge in Fallujah nor the videotape of American soldiers being blown up by a roadside bomb as shown on television. Instead, they tell the story of what happens after much of the media goes home or moves on to cover other events. Some capture the horror of war, revealing how long the consequences linger after the conflict ends. Nina Berman's photo-essay of returned Iraqi war veterans shows who pays the price for political decisions to go to war. The mutilated face of a veteran sitting in solitude reminds us that those who fight a war must live with its physical and emotional scars, while the generals and politicians who send them to battle retire in relative comfort.

Berman's photographs juxtapose neatly with Carol Guzy's of memorials for New York City firemen killed on September 11, 2001. These two series are ultimately about who makes the sacrifices to keep civilization running. They contain images of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations and what happened to them. Both the Iraqi veterans and the New York City firefighters paid high prices trying to do what they understood to be their duties.

Alexandra Boulat's and Ilan Mizrahi's work shows moments of quiet dignity amid desperate poverty. Boulat's photographs of Afghanistan depict people living in a centuries-old tribal culture where many are trying to cling to their traditions; but the people of Afghanistan have been caught in the crosshairs of global politics. In Boulat's photographs the ancient dominates although small elements of modernity, such as a child's tiny red rubber boots demand our attention. Life is defined not just by poverty, but also the violence of war. A desolate land where fundamentalist interpretations of Islam require women to be fully cloaked is presented. Almost paradoxically there is a sensual lyricism seen in the way the wind catches the fabric. Her photography seems to belie the symbolism inherent in traditional Muslim female dress. The strength of the burka-clad women is apparent despite their veils.

Ilan Mizrahi's series on the Falashmura, Ethiopian Jews, presents people who don't conform to the stereotypical view of being Jewish and who are largely invisible to the rest of the world. In one piece, a family huddles closely together in a small, squalid room while the photographer takes their picture. Looking at this image, one almost senses the love that the family members feel for each other. It suggests that the family bond is something that transcends material conditions as well as national and ethnic boundaries.

The work of Cuban photographers Raul Canibano and Humberto Mayol focus on the Cuban countryside. In the context of Thy Brothers' Keeper the photographs become politically charged. They subvert the popular conception of Cuba by revealing that human happiness can be found there and that happiness is much the same as happiness found anywhere. The boys who Canibano depicts playing in a river might as well be boys in rural Iowa, South Dakota, or Mississippi. These images remind us of the diversity of human experience and culture. They cause us to ask the question: Is the highly consumer-oriented industrialized way of life the best way or only way to find happiness? This is an important question for those of us who live in an increasingly market-driven culture.

Much of the work in Thy Brothers' Keeper explores what life is like when the larger society isn't interested in the well-being of all, and through neglect—and as part of the structural system itself—its citizens are stripped of hope, dignity, and a chance for a better life. Yet even with all the misery these photographs depict, glimmers of hope are seen, the strength of the human spirit is present, and the message that human beings are not reducible to their material conditions is revealed. They remind us that no matter what our conditions, by merely being human we have more in common with each other than not.
The format in which we experience an image changes our relationship to it and may alter our understanding of what we see. In the newspaper and magazine, photographs are surrounded by words and usually appear as single images rather than as a visual essay. We read our newspapers and magazines while drinking our morning coffee, often surrounded by the competing sounds of television, radio, or family. Newspapers and magazines provide information, but do not invite contemplation. By moving these photographs into the museum context—an environment where one goes for both contemplation and inspiration—the relationship between the photographer, the image, and the viewer is altered. With the newspaper or magazine, the experience is quick. In the museum, one studies and reflects. In the quietude of a museum, reflection may lessen the desensitization that often accompanies the constant assault of violent imagery in the day-to-day media environment. The manner of presentation creates an intimacy between the object viewed and the viewer.

An image that appears in a museum has the status of art object conferred upon it and thus is given greater cultural value and a more lasting place in the collective memory than the ephemeral images that are found on the television or in the print media. Their social location inside the institutions that determine what the elite culture holds of lasting value means they frequently receive closer attention than images that appear elsewhere.

These photographs serve as the evidence and the collective memory that will help people remember what we did to each other, at a moment in time, in a specific place. By presenting us with their view of the issues that they've captured in both descriptive and empathetic terms, these photographers are creating the historical record to judge the behavior of governments, movements and the people who lead them, fuel them, and are a part of them. While they are reflections of a moment, they cannot show us what preceded that moment nor what moves past the moment toward possible solutions. They can, and do, enable us to bear witness. To bear witness means to be present with the suffering of others. It is to preserve them and their suffering in our collective and individual memories and make sure that their cries of pain are not completely unknown. This act of witnessing is a small one but sometimes it can cross cultural and social barriers and force people to pay attention to things they'd rather ignore.

Stephen Shames' photograph of a teenage girl whose face was mutilated for refusing sex with a soldier of the Lords Resistance Army in Congo is an example of how photography can serve as an act of witness. His work is a portrait of unimaginable brutality visited upon the innocent. Some photographs, like this haunting portrait, are so horrific that once seen can't be forgotten. It is quiet and dignified. And yet, as with Nina Berman's portraits of maimed American soldiers, it is nightmarish because it is confined within the conventional boundaries of the portrait where the expectation is to see the body beautiful. In this image while we are presented with the ghastly wounds to the body we are also shown the soul, the strength of the human spirit, hurt, betrayed, but not destroyed. This image is just one of the many small voices in Thy Brothers' Keeper that doesn't let the viewer forget. It is one thread in our collective memory that is woven into our collective history and shows how complicated the human experience can be by showing that beautiful art can sometimes be drawn out of pain.
It is a strange assumption that the complexities of human life should be examined in a bifurcated manner. Both sides aren't always equal. Sometimes there aren't even two sides. Many issues have multiple points of view and are highly nuanced. Event-centered journalism doesn't capture that complexity; only in-depth issue-centered journalism that isn't afraid to challenge the idea that all sides are equal and deserve equal space and consideration is capable of dealing with the complexity of life and responsibility of speaking truth to power. As Edward R. Murrow knew, it is the responsibility of the journalist to expose what is unfair, unjust, and injurious to the fabric of civilized life.

The power of the images in Thy Brothers' Keeper is a function of the union of both form and content. While the content of a large percentage of the images is without question disturbing, many of these images are also beautiful to look at. Some like Peter Essick's series on nuclear waste present a beauty that is surreal. The quality of light and color in these images suggest a nightmarish dream, while his photograph of an alligator being tested for Cesium-137, grounds the dream in sobering and disturbing reality.

While the general public frequently views photographs as objective records of reality, they are in fact personal interpretations influenced by the photographers' choices. These choices are philosophical, political, and cultural as well as technical. To argue that one is purely objective and apolitical is in itself a philosophical and political position that requires a critical examination of the premises that form each photographer's worldview.

Whether they acknowledge it or not, photographers and journalists work from specific points of view. They, along with their news organizations, decide what is worth documenting and what is not. The perspective of a correspondent embedded with U.S. troops is different than that of a colleague who covers the same conflict without a military escort, if for no other reason than the sources the two correspondents will have access to. The embedded correspondent will go where the troops go and mostly see what they see. The point of view is limited. The need to provide additional viewpoints is great if multidimensional understanding rather than propaganda is the journalist's or photographer's goal.

Social documentary photography has a long tradition. In America it goes back to the work of photographers such as Jacob Riis who photographed the slums of New York at the end of the 19th century and Lewis Hine who spent more than a decade making pictures of child labor at the beginning of the 20th century. Both saw documentary photography as a catalyst for change. They viewed their job as one of persuading through the presentation of fact, of using the photographic record and the words linked to them to build the case for social transformation. In the 1930s, in the United States, photographers associated with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) carried on this tradition. The Roosevelt administration created the FSA to document the plight of those hurt by the Great Depression. It was to serve as a tool to help enact social policy to alleviate poverty and deprivation. While the images of the FSA and Hine were often published in newspapers and magazines, they were not news photographs. They were an earlier incarnation of the kind of work presented in Thy Brothers' Keeper. They attempted to examine issues, not events, provoke debate and through the presentation of the social problems they focused on, to move people to act.

The documentary work of Riis, Hine, and the FSA photographers made the public as well as policymakers more aware of the problems they depicted. Most important, they demonstrated that photography could play a significant role as a catalyst for change. Although Hine's moving photographs spurred public policy that lessened the abusive practices of child labor, those practices have not been eliminated. Today child labor still exists in many parts of the world, and many multinational companies use it to produce their products. One hopes that photographs of child laborers around the world like those of Fernando Moleres and Guy Tillim's of child soldiers in the Congo will have an effect similar to Hine's and bring about an increased global awareness of the exploitation of children. At the very least, they show that humanity is still wrestling with the same issues it was almost 100 years ago and that photographers still try to make us aware of what we would otherwise ignore.

Point of view is explicit in documentary photography. In the daily newspaper or news show, there is a point of view, but we're led to believe that what we see and hear is objective, without bias—a simple record of what's happening in our world. But it is never that simple. All news organizations have finite resources and exist within larger political and social structures. It simply is impossible for the media to cover every war, conflict, disaster, social wrong, and injustice. So decisions must be made. How those decisions are made, how those resources are allocated, how the news agenda is set determines what images are made and which ones receive space to be seen. Time, resources, and the primarily event-centered approach to news means that only rarely does the media allow a photographer the time to examine beneath the surface of events, to explore the spaces of existence that may move us from acknowledging that bad things happen to understanding what they mean and what the viewer might do in constructive response.

David Perlmutter, in his book Photojournalism and Foreign Policy: Icons of Outrage in International Crises, argues that the foreign policy decisions of the U.S. government drive the decisions of news organizations about what does and doesn't get covered. For example, writing about the coverage of Somalia, he said, “It was not until late November, 1992, in response to policy balloons of the Bush administration [the first President Bush], that Newsweek began to focus on the Horn of Africa. This is significant: policy formation spurred visual focus.” This observation highlights just how interdependent are the press and the government. For a time we saw many photographs of Somalia because it was part of the government's foreign policy concerns. Yet, just a couple of years later, we didn't see the horrendous atrocities being committed in Rwanda as they unfolded because Rwanda was not yet a foreign policy imperative. It was up to the courageous documentary photographers working largely outside the confines of regular media channels to make the pictures that allowed us to bear witness, to understand through historical hindsight the violence and the depravity that caused over 800,000 deaths and left 95,000 children orphaned in a three-month period of time.

“It is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude,” wrote the late author and essayist Susan Sontag in her book Regarding the Pain of Others. This simple statement contains a powerful observation that leads to a critical question all viewers need to ask to fully understand what they are looking at in any photograph. One needs to ask what is not seen, what is outside the frame, and to come to an understanding of why one isn't seeing something. With much of the work in Thy Brothers' Keeper, one needs to know not just what isn't pictured but why. It isn't sufficient to know that we aren't shown compassionate treatment of the mentally ill in John Stanmeyer's study of mental institutions throughout Asia or of prisoners in Andrew Lichtenstein's photo-essay on prisons and inmates in the United States. The photographs demand an answer to the question of why people are treated that way. What are the competing values in a particular society, culture, or government that finds stripping people of all dignity and hope acceptable? These images not only show us what was recorded in a tiny slice of time, but also challenge us at a moral and philosophical level to come to grips with what is outside the frame. It is often what we don't see that links the image depicted and the true reality of circumstance. It is what photographs provoke, and not what they contain, that sometimes enables us to question and to understand.

Each photo-essay in Thy Brothers' Keeper presents a specific point of view and tells a unique story about the consequences of conflict, neglect, ignorance, prejudice, poverty, and greed. In doing so, one photo-essay builds upon another. Collectively the vision of these photographers and the power of these photographs give voice to the voiceless, make visible what most don't want to see, and allow us to bear witness to the suffering of the defenseless, the downtrodden, and the repressed.
But above all, the photographs in Thy Brothers' Keeper call us to remember. They want us to remember the consequences of the systems we live in, of the decisions of world leaders, and of our own choices. They remind us that in the early 21st century we still live in a world where the exploitation of children is common, where civilians are the primary victims of wars, and forced migration is ever present. And at the same time, they call us to understand that, despite all of our flaws, much of the human experience is beautiful. If we can remember that, then we might be called to action and do something to stop the horrors that surround us.

Colin Bossen and Howard Bossen
—January 2006.

Colin Bossen is the Intern Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach, Long Beach, California; cofounder of the Chiapas Peace House Project, Chiapas, Mexico; and Managing Editor, Journal of Liberal Religion. Howard Bossen is a professor of journalism, and the adjunct Curator of Photography, Kresge Art Museum at Michigan State University, East Lansing.