A gallery of visual storytelling, highlighting exemplary work that advances the conversation about how to witness, interpret and represent violence and suffering.
I accepted the invitation to become curator for Dart Media with trepidation and humility. The question of how to represent violence and suffering is exceedingly complex. What works in one historical moment or cultural context may become clichéd or unintelligible in another. We are so bombarded by images of violence both real and fictional. Successfully balancing our roles of witnessing, establishing trust with people we photograph and thinking through narrative structures or conceptual strategies that will actively engage audiences—who may feel overwhelmed, cynical or disinterested—sometimes seems beyond reach.
Contemplating the recesses of the psyche or the spectrum of the human heart may stretch us to the limits of our own humanity. What drives people to cruelty or to the passive accommodation of the most extreme abuses of power? What makes the soul resilient or capable of forgiveness? What makes transcendence possible?
Images alone cannot hope to answer such questions. Yet in the century and a half since the invention of cameras, when photographers, cinematographers and videographers began creating a visual taxonomy of human suffering, we have been compelled to try. Images may be ephemeral. Paradoxically they are also material. They evidence that most human quest—to “make sense” of what appears to be senseless.
At the Dart Center we often refer to the three acts of the trauma narrative, a set of terms coined by psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, one of Dart’s founders. If Act One is the primary act of witness, Act Two is the aftermath.
The opening act—the moment of conflict, the crime scene, the anguished reaction, the struggle for survival in an unfolding natural disaster—is first-response image making. Such images convey commotion with potent dramatic content. Simply looking may raise our stress level, although not necessarily our understanding or empathy. And yet these images are primary material evidence, vital historical records of witness, both factual and interpretive. They may also become iconic.
Act Two is subtler. It is the attempt to draw out meaning in the aftermath, sometimes years after a traumatic event, and to document a process—grieving, a search for justice, a process of healing. How does one make absence present in an image? Clearly photographers documenting this dimension of a trauma narrative must use conceptual strategies to help us visualize reflective thoughts and feelings as well as material remnants.
Perhaps most difficult to describe is Act Three—that realm of ambiguity most successfully explored in long form works of art. The final act of the trauma narrative reserves its most penetrating focus for moral anguish and mental disintegration of the kind Dostoevsky contemplates in "Crime and Punishment," or the damp and drizzly November of the soul described by Ishmael at the opening of Melville’s great novel "Moby Dick." This is the realm of human experience for which answers are elusive, where victimizers may also be victims, where complex motivations resist any definitive taxonomy, yet archetypal meaning continues to be sought.
Dart Media will explore many ways that visual storytellers represent trauma. We begin our "Act One" highlighting work by past Dart Award winners and by Ochberg Fellows, and by colleagues who have received assignment support from the Dart Center. As our website develops and grows, we also will be incorporating work by still and moving image makers new to Dart but who in their working practice are advancing the conversation about witness and interpretation at each stage of the trauma narrative.
March 7, 2009