Reiterating a fact: everything is equal before the lens. A burned body of a child, an impressionist painting, a mobile phone, a tropical landscape, a tank, anyone, anything, anywhere, the lens captures it all without discrimination. Looking through the camera, humans see the whole world as subjects, they “see but not touch,” as Benjamin puts it, or have developed a second “cold consciousness” in words of Ernst Jünger, a mode of distant [non]engagement with their surroundings. The human ability to scan the world indiscriminately, to assume the position of a sole observer, the true objective unethical eye of man, is nurtured through the viewfinder and assumed a seemingly camouflaged position, an illusion of a “democratic eye,” while at the heart of democracy lies a notion of agency, a form of commitment that ensues action. Thus the search for an interior image that illustrates the position of the person behind the camera within the image’s coordinates, a desire to challenge the exteriority of the lens.
In a parenthesis on Bob Adelman’s Down Home, Susan Sontag writes about the characteristics of the liberal sympathies that purport to have no point of view at all, “that is, to be an entirely impartial, non-empathic look at its subjects.” One wonders whether that the liberal sympathies that Sontag talks about are themselves in fact the direct effect of the camera and the kind of phenomenological relations that it ensues? Assuming one of the fundamental conditions of the critical position is establishing a distance between the subject of study and the observer, this distance is not unsimilar to that of the eye behind the camera and the photographed subject. It is the difference between being a part of a performance, or stepping outside of it and analyzing it/photographing it. The position that the liberal media wants to assume, to provide the whole picture, form all sides, without passing judgment, letting the audience to take their own position, the desire to look at an event from all possible sides, to capture a panoramic view that represents the whole of the event in its entirely, is the position of the lens.
In an undergraduate seminar in Tehran, late Bahman Jalali recounted his experience of photographing the Zoroastrian Dakhmas, “towers or silence,” where the practitioners of the faith laid their dead on atop of these towers, exposed to the sun and birds of prey. Jalali managed to document these facilities while still in operation, as this tradition has since been abandoned and now Zoroastrians bury their dead in cemeteries. Without permission, the photographer climbs one of these towers in the black of night and stays there until the break of dusk. Suddenly he finds himself surrounded by human remains, from skulls and bones to carcasses mutilated by vultures, horrified to death, Jajali manages to pick up his camera and starts photographing the scenery. He mentioned that gradually he even started arranging the human remains to meet his compositional demands. It was the lens that turned the mutilated bodies into objects and established an optical distance that overcome fear. Ernst Jünger refers to this as a “second cold consciousness,” that humans developed through the camera, which “shows itself in the ever more sharply developed ability to see oneself as an object . . . the second consciousness is focused on the person who stands outside the sphere of pain.” One can say that by looking through the camera, Jalali stood outside of the sphere of death, as he no longer anthropomorphized the dead and did not conceive of them as the final state of the self, while the reverse also could be true and the photographer ceased to looked at the carcasses from the point of view of a human being. Kevin Carter observed the scene of the child being approached by a vulture through a similar optical divide that maintains the practice of photojournalism.
It could be argued that the same divide is in operation when citizen journalists photograph unfolding events in the face of authoritarian onslaught, shelling of houses and massacres, slaughter of friends and families. The same cold consciousness enables citizens to stand by the rubble of what used to be their home and photograph it. But on the other hand, maybe it is this optical divide that postpones the traumatic experience, and it is in fact through this act of documentation that the event is suspended due to “photography’s ability to confront the viewer with a moment that had the potential to be experienced but perhaps was not,” in the words of Ulrich Baer and in “viewing such photographs we are witnessing a mechanically recorded instant that was not necessarily registered by the subject’s own consciousness.” Thus, in taping what remains of his house, the child is registering that which escaped his memory at the moment of traumatic experience, in an attempt to bridge the “rift between [himself] and the experience.” Therefore unlike video advocacy tutorials that offer how to record the human rights violations guides (one wonders if the producers of such tutorial in front of the Atlantic tower in Brooklyn can really take themselves seriously), the citizen journalists’ documentation of the event is not responding to a mere desire to be reduced to evidence as WITNESS seems to suggest.
Already today there is hardly an event of human significance toward which the artificial eye of civilization, the photographic lens is not directed. Ernst Junger
In a video posted on June 4, 2011 on youtube from the ongoing violence in Syria, a man films his own death. The video shows jittery P.O.V footage, shot from a balcony looking at the opposite buildings, overlooking what appears to be a back alley. The camera jumps rapidly, scans the surfaces of the buildings, the parapet, the sky, satellite dishes etc. We can hear the man panting through the microphone and describes what he is win. A translation of his commentary is provided on the youtube by netspanner: “The armed services are shooting at my country men for no reason on 1/7/2011, there is no protest or anything.” At 0:37 we see the boots of a soldier behind a wall, his head not visible. A few second later we see the soldier as he lifts his gun, points and shoots. At 0:47 the camera man is shot and he falls, we hear the camera drop and the picture goes blank. Later we hear a voice saying: “the bullet entered your head?… what you were filming?”
Ernst Junger notes that among the most obvious characteristics of the type of human evolving in our times is the possession of a second consciousness. “This second, colder consciousness” Ernst writes, “shows itself in the ever more sharply developed ability to see oneself as an object . . . the second consciousness is focused on the person who stands outside the sphere of pain.” Junger wrote about the increasing incursion on danger into everyday life triggered by technological advancements of weaponry, and cameras. Is this video the absolute instance of Junger’s second consciousness? While the camera man is obviously feeling the threat, documenting the soldier’s movements capturing him on gun point, what prevents him from dropping the camera and running for his life. Does he find the image the only remaining possibility for life? Is the direct encounter with danger normalized through the camera eye in such way that one becomes the object of the situation that ultimately results in one’s annihilation?
Here the camera/body entity becomes the subject of the event in a kind of phenomenological displacement. The moment of death is captured through the spatial relations defined by the camera and not the representation of the deceased subject captured on the image. The picture of one’s own death is empty from the representational drive of the image of the death of the other. As opposed to similar videos capturing the death of others in similar situations, this video is devoid of the kind of sadomasochistic aspect of disaster spectatorship that Foster writes about. The subject is split in relation to the disaster Foster writes, “even as he or she may mourn the victims, even identify with them masochistically, he or she may also be thrilled sadistically by the victims of whom he or she is not one.” The thrill in this video, is not of witnessing the death of the other, but is the thrill of witnessing one’s own death through the camera viewfinder.