Susie Linfield – The Cruel Radiance

Susie Linfield – The Cruel Radiance

Linfield, S. (2012) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. (Reprint Edition) (s.l.): University of Chicago Press.

I came across references to this book in the OCA blog post ‘The Ethics of Aesthetics’. Susie Linfield’s aim is to challenge the idea that looking at images of conflict cannot tell us much about the nature of war, and that spending too much time viewing such images will lead to indifference. She sets out to show that there is not necessarily a single right answer here, and that different images can provide nuanced viewpoints on our own reactions.

The book is structured into three main sections. In the first, ‘Polemics’, she discusses some off the ideas on the subject of images of conflict that have come about throughout the history of photographic theory. Here she rather lays into several critics who have put forward unequivocal ideas that discourage any emotional response to images of suffering and war. This is where she lays down her basic premise that many of these ideas are at times just wrong, and that much of post-modern thought on the subject of violence is designed to prevent any empathic understanding. She mentions Susan Sontag as one of the primary purveyors of this viewpoint, along with a whole host of other writers on photography. Although she does refer to Sontag’s book ‘On Photography’ as one of the major sources of this view, Sontag herself did later on revisit her thoughts on this rather unequivocal reading and modify her thoughts in ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’.

In the second part, ‘Places’, she discusses images from four different conflicts; Poland during WWII, China during the cultural revolution, Sierra Leone in late 1990s, and US involvement in Iraq. In each she shows a remarkable ability to empathise with the subjects and to provide a reading of these images that may not be immediately obvious.  To a certain extent her discussions do rather work against some of her criticisms in part one of other writers’ thoughts on the subject in that she recognises that images alone are not enough. We need a much wider understanding of the context to be able to understand the images under examination. These chapters are very good at showing how we can sometimes empathise with the subjects, many of whom are about to be murdered, and at others be at a loss to find any common ground with those depicted. The conflicts she discusses here are specifically intended to highlight how her reactions vary according to what can be seen, and also by ow and by whom the photographs were taken. It is not a random selection of locations and is very good at demonstrating that there is no universal right or wrong when it comes to reading and responding to these images.

In the third part, ‘People’, she discusses the bodies of work of three photographers; Robert Capa, James Nachtwey and Gilles Peress. I found this section to be very interesting but also perhaps the least satisfying, in that her interpretations seem the most subjective part of the whole book. Nothing wrong with this in itself but her earlier chapters did a better job at showing how we can find different meanings if we look close enough. Here she seems to go too far in trying to find a unifying theme around each photographer. Having said that I am not familiar enough with any of these three photographers to says that she is wrong about them, just that it all felt as though she wanted to summarise their relative approaches rather too much.

One point about this book I found very interesting is that there are relatively few photographs printed here compared with the large number under discussion. This is obviously deliberate but it is a shame she does not set out her reasons for this. Cost of production is one aspect, as it the problem of getting permission, but if the main reason is not wanting to put people off the book by showing too many harrowing images, it would very much negate the whole point of the book. Apart from that minor criticism this is a very good book indeed and I shall return to it again.

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