The Vulture Culture: On Kevin Carter’s Sudanese photo
Inspired by Aske’s post, I decided to publish an old text of mine: an analysis of Kevin Carter’s infamous Sudanese girl photography. Just a minor contribution towards the design-art debate. The crucial question for me, off course, is: what remains of art in a fully ‘de-signed’ world?
Barthes defines trauma as a suspension of language, a “blocking of meaning” that disrupts the “natural flow” of representation. We cannot say anything about a traumatic event. And that is its very essence: the ineffability that functions as the limit of interpretation, the void that avoids any attempt of signification. In a sense, the traumatic event resembles the eruption of the Real in Lacanian psychoanalysis. It is that fracture in the Symbolic order that threatens the very “reality” of the event.
Ironically, the traumatic character of a photograph is usually “dependent on the certainty that the scene “really” happened”. Its unsettling power is situated exactly in that “analogical plenitude” traditionally tied with photography. If the photographic message has no code, then it becomes the “perfect analogon” of the “real” object. In a way, “the photo image IS the object itself”. Accordingly, it seems that this denotative perfection that characterizes photography can be inextricably tied with the traumatic. The emptying of the photograph from the layers of signification, somehow, presents the very possibility of the traumatic. The fact that nature itself is “caught” in the picture, recorded directly and without any verbal mediation, is in itself disquieting. In that sense, the assumed absence of a supplementary message would turn every photograph in a potential trauma.
Faced with the disturbing f?rce of Carter’s photograph, one is tempted to ascribe its power to this denotative perfection. But, a careful examination would challenge this initial “feeling”. The magnetic, yet distressing appeal of the photograph is not a result of the flawless “copying” of reality. On the contrary, the “traumatic” character of the photograph is an effect of its compositional perfection, of the linguistic excellence that structures and confines the production of meaning. Paradoxically, the “trauma” does not emerge from the blockage of meaning, but from the perfect functionality of language. It is not the “real” that disturbs us, but the incredible efficiency of the cultural in producing the effect of realization.
In Carter’s photograph, the “scene” is constructed through its systematic emptying. The symbols are isolated perfectly, reducing the polysemy of the photograph to a minimum. The “space” is cleared from any contingent elements that would disrupt the “flow” of meaning by producing a redundancy or an equivocal “reading”. We see the little Sudanese girl, naked, i.e. completely stripped off of any particular codes that would produce alternative readings. The nakedness, used as an indexical sign, somehow transcends the singularity of the girl. It becomes poverty and famine, but, at the same time, it becomes nature, a universality that erases the specificity of the event. In that sense, the perfect communication empties out the photograph from the denoted message. Here, we are not dealing with a particular girl, a singular traumatic event that would shatter the representational systems. The girl “has” no face. She only has a body, reduced to a mere code in the process of communication. We are, therefore, not faced with the agony of the singular experience, with the traumatic character of what has “really” happened, but with agony itself, masterfully invoked through the combination of symbols.
That is even more the case with the vulture. The “historical grammar of iconographic connotation” embeds it within a network of signification that renders the pure non-verbal perception of the vulture impossible. The double metonymy that is in play here (vulture as a representation of death, but, at the same time, as a symbol of the “vulture culture”) confines the message of the photograph, not only by selecting a “preferred reading”, but by a systematical exclusion of every possibility of a different reading. The crystal clarity of the message, the “obvious” link between the signifier and the signified are used as naturalization effects that, at the same time, erase the specificity of the event and produce the traumatic character of the photograph. Accordingly, the unsettling force of the photograph is not in the analogical plenitude, but in the connotative perfection, in the smoothness of the communication. The use of “clear” symbols (the nakedness and the vulture) empties out the composition of any polysemy that would challenge the “disturbing” reading.
Thus, with Carter’s picture, the “photographic paradox” is turned upside down. The compositional perfection produces a naturalization effect which completely envelopes the denoted message. In a way, it simulates the referent, producing an image more real than the real. The flawless isolation of the individual objects, the positioning of their relationship in the focus of attention, the stereotypical pose of the little girl – they are all part of the aesthetical syntax that produces the effect of the ineffable. But, here, the ineffable is not the “suspension of language”, but its perfect functionality. There is no contingent occurrence in Carter’s photograph, no punctum that would destabilize its “reading”. On the contrary, what “pricks us” is the very extermination of the accidental, the fact that everything has become studium. In a sense, the Imaginary and the Real of the Lacanian triad have merged: the aesthetic perfection (and not the traumatic character of the photograph) is the one which fixates the gaze (or makes us look away), therefore becoming a trauma itself.
But, this perfection of the photograph is only a compositional perfection. Ironically, the impossibility of a different reading is the factor that turns the power of the photograph on itself. What we, ultimately, witness looking at Carter’s diabolic masterpiece, is not the singular event conveyed through a “neutral” medium emptied from the subjectivity of style. What we are witnessing is witnessing itself. The magnetic appeal of Carter’s photograph turns us all into accomplices in the “primary intrusion” of the objectif. The basic criterion by which the traumatic is determined: “the photographer had to be there” ; acquires a radically altered meaning. Faced with the connotative perfection which swallows the singular event, we are all becoming prisoners of style, of the desire for aesthetical excellence that, ultimately, produces the “scene”. And, that’s where the real power of Carter’s photograph comes from. While looking at it, we are torn between the “aesthetical dread” (we are appalled by the image, but at the same time we are appealed by it) and the impossibility of an ethical judgment in a completely aestheticized “reality” (the absurdness of the attacks against Carter for not helping the girl reflects the basic misunderstanding: Carter did not photograph the event, he “created” the event). In a sense, the photograph functions like a sort of mirror: what it captures best is not the event, but its meticulous construction reflected in its aesthetical perfection.
And, like every mirror, that’s where its disturbing force dwells!
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