Left: Cover of Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (2010). Right: James Nachtwey, Afghanistan, 1996 - Mourning a brother killed by a Taliban rocket, 1996, black-and-white photograph.


Susie Linfield, director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University, is a journalist and critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Review, Bookforum, The Nation, and other publications. Her new book, which she will discuss on November 11 at Book Culture in New York City, is The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. It is available from the University of Chicago Press this month.

IT TOOK ME A LONG TIME—several years—to figure out how the different subjects I was writing about, and the different arguments I was making, were connected to each other. My magazine editors were saying, “You should be writing a book,” but it took an internal push to write it; I had to find the intellectual thread to connect and develop these disparate arguments. Ironically, I am a very squeamish person when it comes to violence. I don’t even watch the beginning of Law and Order: SVU; I don’t want to see bloody bodies, even though they’re fake, as entertainment. Looking at images of the Holocaust, and of children deliberately mutilated during the recent civil wars in Africa––which are definitely not fake––was emotionally grueling. I went through periods of great desolation while I was writing, which is probably reflected in the book.

But it seemed necessary to look closely at such images in part because of what I view as the weakness of much photography criticism. I teach criticism and read a lot of it, and some years ago I realized how different photography criticism can be in tone and approach from criticism of film, or music, or other cultural forms. Pauline Kael, Greil Marcus, and others are very immersed in their subjects; they write analytically and critically but with love. By contrast, Susan Sontag and her postmodern heirs in the realm of photography criticism were very removed from, even hostile to, the subjects they discuss. That observation, in concert with lessons derived from reading Brecht at the same time (albeit for different purposes), highlighted for me the antipathy to subject matter and the antipathy to emotion in books like On Photography.

It is precisely an attention to subject matter that propelled several of the book’s arguments. On the one hand, the depiction of atrocities and of physical suffering is today much, much more explicit than it was seventy-five years ago. I use James Nachtwey’s images from the past few decades as an example. If you compare his photographs to those of say, Robert Capa or David “Chim” Seymour, you can see how photography today is far more graphic; it gets much closer to physical agony than it once did. There are several reasons for that. But one of the things that makes looking at such images especially difficult today is that we no longer have the same kind of moral and political framework to help us understand the violence. Capa’s photos of the Spanish Civil War, or of China after the Japanese invasion, were very clear on political context. You knew what to do with your anger and your horror. Today, looking at images from Sierra Leone or the Congo, one can feel horror, disgust, and great sadness—but what to do in response is much less apparent. Which of the twelve militias now fighting in the Congo do you support? Visual atrocity is much clearer today, but we no longer have the political clarity to accompany it.

At the same time, a lot of what passes for “visual literacy” today is merely visual cynicism. People, especially young people, are very used to saying “photographs lie,” to pointing out how images are manipulated by Photoshop or other means. Such suspicion and skepticism aren’t entirely bad, but I don’t think of that as visual literacy. I don’t urge either naive acceptance or cynical rejection of photos of political violence; the book makes a plea for us to use photographs of atrocity as starting points to engage with very complicated histories and very specific political crises. If we want to construct a politics of human rights that isn’t merely an abstraction, we need to look at these photographs of suffering, degradation, and defeat. We need to think clearly not only about the relationships among these images, how they function and what they communicate in aggregate, but about the specific conditions each one depicts, no matter how disturbing, shaming, and bewildering an experience that may be.

Click here for Parul Sehgal’s review of The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence on bookforum.com.

— As told to Brian Sholis