NYT: Object Lesson – Things have the Longest Memories of All

Things have the longest memories of all; beneath their stillness, they are alive with the terrors they have witnessed


In November 2013, thousands of people gathered in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square in Kiev, to protest their government’s refusal to ratify an agreement with the European Union. The demonstrations went on for months; when brutal attempts were made to stop them, they only became more popular. The crowds were enormous, containing, at times, more than 100,000 people. Many of the photographs from the protests had the organized disorder of medieval battle scenes: spiky barricades, rows of tents, patches of soil and ash, flashes of color where flags were held aloft, sudden brightness from reflections and fires, a great swirl of angry humanity and dark-helmeted riot police massed behind shields, all of it set against backdrops of smoke, fog or falling snow. So epic and cinematic were the photographs from the Maidan that it took some effort to remember that they were first and foremost news images, unstaged depictions of real, ongoing human suffering.

In her 1977 collection of essays, “On Photography,” Susan Sontag identified a feeling of helpless voyeurism that comes over us as we look at photographs of people in the midst of conflict. She also wrote about how repeatedly seeing such images could anesthetize the vision and deaden the conscience. Sontag understood photographs of conflict to be making a utilitarian argument — that they could bring us into a state of productive shock — and showed that they seldom did what they claimed, or hoped, to do. The more photographs shock, the more difficult it is for them to be pinned to their local context, and the more easily they are indexed to our mental library of generic images. What, then, are we to do with a thrilling photograph that is at the same time an image of pain?

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