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"The Tears of Photography"

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Herta WolfEdit

Herta Wolf is a Professor of the history and theory of photography at the Institute for Art and Design (Designwissenschaften).

"The Tears of Photography" [2007]Edit

In this Grey Room article, Wolf discusses the media specific nature of photographs of dead bodies and on the verge of death. Because images such as these (like photos of Saddam Hussein's dead sons) are often take as pure iconic evidence of an event, Wolf offers her essay as a reflection on "the role of picture in the way acts of violence committed against human beings are depicted, made present, uncovered, and made public" (68).

Photograhy, Wolf notes, is understood as "making present again" the object before its lens--something of that present moment that was resides in the photograph: "in both ontological and semiological theories of photography the chemico-physical genesis of photographic images is used to explain their impact on the viewer" (69). This impact, however, should not be understood as a merely implication in which we view the dead or near dying. Rather, via Plato's Republic, Wolf suggests that looking at the dead involves scopophilia, they bodies in fact producing the "voyeurism of the viewer (i.e., his eager ness and desire to look) and are thus themselves to blame for being looked at. [...] Thanks to their alleged power of interpellation (in the Althusserian sense) they are excellently suited for dissemination via politico-ideological channels" (71). Indeed, when we consider the specificity and context of images, we encounter them more fully. For example, when Donald Rumsfeld defended the release of the Hussein sons photos, he did so in the belief that it was good for the Iraqi people. Wolf considers, "the publication of the photographs served not only political information, but also dubious military strategies" (74).

In the course of her essay, Wolf recollects particularly on Bataille's The Tears of Eros (and in doing so takes up Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others as well). Wolf uses a photograph of a Chinese man being tortured by Lingchi (an image the profoundly affected Bataille) to negotiate this discussion of photography.

Near the end, Wolf concludes that "when dealing with chemo-technical representations that capiture actions were pain is inflicted on others and which show torture or killing being carried out, it is necessary to first analyze the discursive anchoring of the images and the conditions under which they were made. Only then can the context of production and usage be examined for the specifics of the photographs in question" (80). Thus, while there are many pictures with similar content (death or torture) each is unique inasmuch as we understand its "discursive anchoring". Images are "only ever being able to represent one singular space-time cut, thus only ever showing what was inflicted on one singular individual at a singular moment" (81). These pictures are what Wolf considers "pure evidence" (83), which assert what they show but forbide us further insight into the experience of the photo. We rely on a discursive outside to contextualize and give the photo meaning. The photographic evidence is "unintelligible" (83): "Consequently, the actual referents of photographic images are to be found not in the images themselves but in the discourses that influence the way they are read" (83).

This media induced "revealing of pure evidence" is what Wolf considers the tears of photography. These tears are like the tears of Eros, who cried witnessing the dead body of Adonis, but didn't see it happen and cannot comprehend why. "To an unspecified evidence inherent in photography, one that always refers to a singular moment, discursive explanations specifying this singular moment must be added in order that pictures showing the suffering of others, showing cruel killings and executions, not only have an emotional impact but alsob ecome intelligible" (83).

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