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Story pick: Arresting images

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In her National Book Critics' Circle award-winning book, On Photography, author Susan Sontag argued that the explosion of photographic images around the mid-century and beyond - and this was in the days before digital cameras - changed people's connection to the world around them into a "chronic voyeuristic relation." As a result, she said, the meaning of all events, from the earth-shattering to the inconsequential, would become flattened, our response to them dulled.

But I dare anyone to take a look at the photographic feast of images in the Spring Slideshow that the Nieman Foundation's Nieman Reports has just put together and not be jarred, moved or completely taken in.

David Burnett's photos of the crowds maddened with adoration for the newly returned Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iranian Revolution of the 1970s; Justin Mott's haunting images of Vietnamese orphans, the third generation of Agent Orange; Melissa Lyttle's quiet and probing portraits of an adoptive family trying to reach into the closed interior world of a little girl raised as a feral child, and the Associated Press' amazing photo gallery, "Killer Blue: Baptized by Fire," of photos both at home and abroad capturing the modern American experience of war.

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Marcus Bleasdale's stark images of war, mines and diamonds in Congo stay with you. As does Edward Burtynsky's work documenting the impact of oil throughout the globe, from sweeping landscapes of oil fields in Azerbaijan, Bakersfield, Canada to trucker jamborees, aerial views of gnarled freeway over and underpasses and smoldering shipbreaking in Bangladesh.

Each photographer describes his or her work. Here's Burtynsky:



Still images are used as the iconographic representations of issues we need to grapple with in our times. In our consciousness, they function differently than film does. Images lock on. If we think of the Vietnam War, there was TV coverage of it, but it’s the still images—the girl running from the napalm, the photograph of the man being shot in the street. Four or five iconographic images define that war; they are what speak to us about the problems with that war.

Still photographs allow that kind of fragment to become embedded into our memory. If we think of our own lives, photographs work that way too. Try to remember yourself at five and you might have some vague memories. But if somebody took a photograph of you at five, then you probably can even remember the clothes that you were wearing and the house and the layout and the kind of tile floors and your favorite food when you were five. That photograph allows you to do that. Without it, it would be very hard to get back to that place in your mind.

So photographs become part of our history and part of our way of remembering what has passed by. They are interesting and powerful tools to remind us where we come from, the things we do and values we uphold.

No more words. Look at the photographs. Voyueristic? Deadening your responses as Sontag argues? Or do they open a window both to the world outside and the soul within?

By Brigid Schulte  | May 12, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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