Images from left: Steve McCurry, Magnum & Jodi Bieber, Institute
It's probably a little late to chime in on the debate surrounding the recent Time magazine cover featuring 'Bibi Aisha', a young Afghan girl whose nose was severed, apparently by the Taliban, but the cover is interesting on so many levels that it deserves a second look.
As carefully constructed as an election campaign and timed so meticulously to counter the release of the Wikileaks 'Afghan Papers' that it has left many with a sour taste in the mouth over Time's approach to how the magazine represents it's editorial content.
The controversy has centred mostly on Time's use of Aisha as some kind of portent of the future of Afghanistan without the continuing presence of the American 'occupation' there. It has been read, quite obviously as an endorsement of the need for the US to continue it's fight there and to quote the great George W. Bush, to stay in country until the Americans can 'get the job done'.
The general public and champions of the American campaign in Afghanistan will no doubt heed the rallying call, shocked by the brutal image of an otherwise beautiful young woman mutilated almost beyond recognition by a radical, unseen enemy whose value system is barbaric and less than human and re-ignite their waning support for the war effort.
The detractors of America's campaign in Central Asia may however, read it as a wry image; perversely representing America's futile engagement after nine years fighting an unwinnable war. As futile a pursuit as cutting off your nose to spite your face perhaps.
What struck me most about the cover however was it's similarity to what many term the most memorable image in history, Steve McCurry's 'Afghan Girl' and Time magazine's obvious nod to this particular image in it's portrayal of Aisha.
The current incantation of the 'Afghan Girl' has been variously described as 'emotional blackmail' and 'war porn' and one is forced to wonder whether it is the cultural legacy of McCurry's photograph rather than the shocking image of Aisha itself that makes us feel so strongly opposed to Time's photographic gambit.
It was this thinking that led me to revisit Roland Barthes and his seminal look at the emotional draw of the photographic process in his book 'Camera Lucida'. In this work, Barthes draws a line between the types of images that we can engage on a base level with, those he terms Punctum and other images that rely on the technical proficiency of the photographer to seduce us: those he refers to as Studium.
Of the Punctum he states:
"Your eyes attach themselves to the surface of the photo, examining every film grain and rouge hair. Despite your efforts to pay attention to the entire photo, your mind returns again and again to the women’s ring. Something indescribable… maybe it’s the light playing off of it’s edge…or maybe it reminds you of your grandmother’s…whatever it is, something has happened. The people begin to feel alive, you become interested in their lives and their fate. This is the punctum."
In contrast, the Studium in Barthes eyes, is an image that relies on it's technical execution, in essence it's polished surface to entice the viewer. The Studium is less an emotional proposition as it seeks to seduce the viewer and their relationship to lifestyle, personal interest or simply just the technical content of the image to draw us in.
"Barthes makes the suggestion that when a photograph tries too hard to be political, it fails. It’s when it is subtle it has a tendency to haunt, therefore permeating the subconscious and achieving its goal in a much less radical but much more lasting manner. “Hence the photograph whose meaning (I am not saying its effect, but its meaning) is too impressive is quickly deflated; we consume it aesthetically, not politically.”
In the original 'Afghan Girl' it is clear that McCurry had not intended to capture the imagination of the world with his photograph, that the young girl, Sharbat Gula, that he found in a refugee camp near Peshawar would likely be ooohed and aaahed over at dinner parties twenty years later in civilized corners of the world with the epithet "...and those amazing eyes"..."simply haunting".
Barthes' distinction is one that helps us maybe understand the subtle differences in the nature of image making for the mass market and why McCurry's image will continue to stay with us while Beiber's, although shrouded in controversy just now, may remain just a little bit too media-managed, too gratuitous and ultimately too political to become such a potent symbol of this latest chapter western perceptions of Afghanistan's tumultuous history.
Sharbat Gula 17 years on: Still got it.
Quotation: Speaking of Art