APRIL 24, 2003
Perhaps no one still believes that photographs exhibit unadulterated reality. Photos, we know, are subject to any number of editorial, compositional, and other strategic effects that might be used not to display reality, but to convey ideology under the guise of factual appearance. That said, photographs nonetheless exhibit a kind of evidential quality. As Susan Sontag claims, photographs often "[pass] for incontrovertible proof that a given thing has happened."
The cover photo of a recent Newsweek (April 7) testifies to this dual character. The caption reads, "Wounded U.S. Marine in An Nasiriya, Iraq." The soldier -- patently agonized, bleeding, and garbed in torn cammies -- is supported by a fellow marine. The bloody gash prominent on the soldier's face runs from temple to cheek, recalling the injuries of Christ crowned with thorns. The pose of the soldiers, with the injured man supported by his friend, resembles the positioning of bodies in well-known, mass-produced renderings of the "pieta" ("pity" for the dead Christ).
Elaborating the notion that images, such as press photos, can signify through a "traditional stock of signs," Roland Barthes writes, "Take a bunch of roses: I use it to signify my passion." These roses, "weighted with passion," might be called "'passionified' roses." Similarly, the soldier in this photo, weighted with the injurious passion of his military mission, is analogically aligned with the Christ who has suffered his own passion -- thus a "passionified" soldier who, through this "association of ideas," participates in a divine mission.
A second photo, on the contents page, presents an image of a U.S. soldier sharply outfitted in military accoutrements and cradling an obviously frightened, presumably Iraqi, little boy who lacks both shoes and pants. In this case, the photo conjures associations with that staple of Christian imagery, the smiling Jesus carrying a lost sheep. This is the soldier as Good Shepherd. In the previous photo, blood evidenced an enemy aggressor; here the "enemy" takes the form of the helpless and pitiful other, in need of saving. That the boy's half-naked body is borne up by a hand prominently displaying a wedding ring underscores the message that this is a battle waged on the side of grace, and fought in good faith.
In his book, Camera Lucida, Barthes claims that "in the love stirred by Photography ... music is heard, its name oddly old-fashioned: Pity." Pity is portrayed in, and manufactured by, this photo, in which the soldier is rendered an apotheosis of compassion -- a "compassionified" soldier.
Taken together, these images call upon familiar Christian iconography in order to arouse the pity of the audience while heralding the righteousness of the American mission. Barthes writes that "photography has something to do with resurrection." Indeed, in this sequence of images the American Soldier undergoes a resurrection in the form of transfiguration: from pitiful to pitying -- from humiliated, though noble, victim to triumphant, but kind, savior.
Bruce Lincoln, echoing Barthes's notion that certain rhetoric "masks" constructed meanings through evidential reportage, claims that often religious discourse "propagates an ideology that furthers the sociopolitical and material interests," while justifying the actions, of the class it represents by "claiming for this ideology the status of sacred and eternal truth." The transcendent claims of religious discourse suppress the material, situated, interested dimensions that in fact motivate these very claims. Might not Lincoln's insights apply to these photos?
When the rhetoric of religious images appears in press photography, the true pity may come not in the portrayal of a dubious resurrection, but in the suppression of the fact that the military messiah thus heralded brings not peace but a sword.
Jeremy Biles is a PhD candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He curated the recent "Zounds" exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center, and is co-curator of the upcoming "Lacking/Nothing" exhibition at the Divinity School.