Art and Architecture, Books for the News, Commentary, Politics and Current Events

A Little History of The Cruel Radiance

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Susie Linfield is the director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University, where she’s an associate professor of journalism. Like many in her field, Linfield approaches the topic of her most recent University of Chicago Press book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence head-on, arguing that learning to see the people in politically violent photographs is an ethically necessary act in today’s visually proliferated world. Surveying the work of photographers as varied as James Nachtwey, Gilles Peress, and Jack Birns, and ranging in scope from China’s cultural revolution and the events surrounding 9/11 to the Nigerian-Biafran and Bosnian wars, The Cruel Radiance adroitly considers how photography has—and should—respond to the increasingly nihilistic trajectory of modern warfare.
It should be unsurprising, to say the least, that the book has picked up steam in the weeks surrounding today’s elections. You can check out several excerpts—this one at the UCP site on the history of photography, from Benjamin to Sontag; another at Guernica entitled “September 11th and the Democracy of Images”; and yet another at Tablet, which questions the right and wrong ways of looking at Holocaust-era photography.
Just yesterday, Artforum posted a 500 Words piece by Linfield, which included some important words on the book’s immediate context:

[Robert] 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.

From there, it’s a hop, skip, and jump over to the New York Times’ story on Hilary Clinton’s visit to Cambodia, where Clinton advocated for the nation to proceed with trials of the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, to understand the vital importance of the photojournalism Linfield discusses.
If you live in the NYC area, please consider attending Linfield’s talk on Thursday, November 11th, at Book Culture. And, as ever, for more information about the book, be sure to check it out its University of Chicago Press page here.