I was reading a review in a recent London Review of Books (Vol 29, No 23) of a book called No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy, by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lacaites. The book, as you’ve probably guessed from the title, talks of the process by which photographs come to represent not only the specific moment at which they are taken but something much larger; become icons, in other words. The review, by David Simpson, cites the famous photograph of the Vietnamese chief of police shooting a Vietcong suspect in the head, and the way it subsequently came to stand for everything that was wrong with that war. Later in the article, it mentions the photograph of the napalmed girl, which no one who has seen is likely to forget.

But it also makes an interesting comment about the way the image that is selected to act as this kind of resonant shorthand reflects not only the actual event – a dying man, a burning girl – but also the way we choose to see it. The example the book (and review) providesis that of the single student facing down the tanks in Tienenman Square. As an event, Tienenman Square was a triumph (and remains so, despite its suppression) not of individualism but of collectivism. It was a triumph of numbers. Yet we’ve allowed, or preferred, the single image that represents the event to celebrate an act of single heroism. This is perfectly in line with western ‘liberal’ notions of resistance, but it’s an incongruous and even offensive way of commemorating what went on. It’s foisting our sense of what matters onto people for whom that sense might be inimical.

Most potent images are of individuals. Dorothea Lange’s migrant mother, the Iwo Jima flag, most recently the falling man. Perhaps the only event which seems to have resisted our need to focus on, and celebrate, the particular is the Holocaust. The photographs of the Holocaust that haunt us don’t show individuals, but heaps of bodies that are barely recognisable as human, let alone people with quirks and desires and claims being made and histories. They starved to death, but that isn’t what reduced them to this. It isn’t that starvation can’t be done at an individual level; I’ll never forget the face, or body, of a man photographed in Srebenica.

It must be that we don’t want – or are unequipped – to see the event in those terms, in terms of the single emblematic life. We see them en masse. And I don’t know if this is a good thing – because the Holocaust can never finally be understood and to see it in terms of individuals would be, in some terrible sense, a sort of trivialisation – or a bad thing – because we think in numbers and the weight of numbers, and numbers are an avoidance strategy.

This entry was posted in holocaust, perec, photography, sebald, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Icons

  1. SAB says:

    Interesting stuff. It’s an oblique take on the Holocaust of course but when one plunges into Anne Franks’s diary, one gets a potently personal and individuated take on the events. Raw and breathtakingly candid as well.It will always be a controversial film but Spielberg tried to touch on both poles in Schindler’s List, moving from the massed bodies and belongings to that very risky moment of the single girl in the red coat running through the black and white background of more traditional, non-individuated versions of events.

  2. Yes, I think books are quite different and actually removed a final paragraph from this post, in which I spoke of a number of texts, including Anne Frank’s, because I realised I was getting into deeper water than I’d planned and needed to think about it. As you say, Frank’s diary is an oblique take and I think that’s significant. With the obvious exception of Primo Levi, it seems to me that the most telling texts on the Holocaust are those that use evasion to approach it, as though it couldn’t be looked at full on. I’m thinking of Sebald’s The Emigrants and, in particular, Perec’s W or Memories of Childhood, which has left a deeper impression on me than any other book I’ve read ‘on’ the subject.

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