Troubled Icons, Critical Idolatry: 
Eyewitness Photography and Contemporary Art

Auteur / Author: 
Claudette LAUZON (Cornell University, États-Unis)
Jeudi 25 Août 2011 - 15:15


The role that documentary photographs play in responding to traumatic events has become a hotly debated topic in recent years, raising a series of questions that are crucial to understanding how visual culture legitimates, neutralizes, or contests our models for bearing witness to the pain of others. Do eyewitness photographs of suffering and atrocity spur us to action, offering irrefutable proof of events and circumstances that would otherwise remain buried or disputed? Or does the production and arguably over-saturated circulation of atrocity images instead constitute an aestheticized and anaesthetizing spectacle of pain that leads to compassion fatigue at best and prurient consumption at worst?
In this paper, I examine a recent trend in contemporary art practices to appropriate iconic documentary photographs of suffering in order to reactivate their capacity for meaningful resonance. These artist, I suggest, offer a way to subvert or even alter the terms of the contemporary “iconoclash” (Latour and Weibel) between opponents of documentary photography’s presumed banalization of suffering, and proponents of documentary photography as a viable medium for bearing witness to traumatic experience. By “troubling” already troubled icons of atrocity, I argue, contemporary practices of appropriation and remediation have the capacity to transform them into dynamic sites of subversion and contestation. 
I focus in particular on the 1993 Pulitzer-prize winning photograph by South African photojournalist Kevin Carter of a starving Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture, which quickly became one of the most reproduced — and most controversial — images in the realm of human rights and refugee aid. Attending to the issues raised by the photograph’s proliferation in mainstream culture, I introduce Alfredo Jaar’s 2006 art installation The Sound of Silence as a work that proposes a way to rethink the stakes and strategies of representing suffering. A time-based large-scale installation that presents a written account of the photograph’s troubled genealogy on a screen in a darkened room, The Sound of Silence concludes by revealing the contentious photograph in a flash of light for a brief and blinding split second. Jaar’s project is neither to suppress nor to indulge in the visual representation of trauma, but rather to insist on engaging with the ethics of representation itself. Acknowledging what W.J.T. Mitchell terms the “obdurate indestructibility” of icons, Jaar practices a “critical idolatry” that endeavours to make them speak and resonate differently. Treating iconic documentary photographs as palimpsests on which meaning can be both inscribed and contested, Jaar’s metareferential practice enables critical insights into how cultures employ and circulate images as witnesses to traumatic experience.