The Cruel Radiance – Susie Linfield

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I just read The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political violence, by Susie Linfield (University of Chicago Press, 2010), and found it totally fascinating. Essentially, Linfield challenges the idea that photography of political violence exploits the subject and panders to the viewer’s voyeuristic tendencies.

The book could be the most important that I read during my recent Masters program in helping me to develop an intellectually robust view on the ethics of documentary photography, and particularly images of conflict, trauma and atrocity. Linfield challenges the idea that photography of political violence exploits the subject and panders to the viewer’s voyeuristic tendencies. Instead she argues passionately that looking at such images, and learning how to see people in them, is both ethically and politically necessary.

Linfield notes that the book

.. is written, in large part, against the photography criticism of Susan Sontag. This is not because Sontag was wrong about most things, on the contrary, many of her insights remain sharp and true. But it is Sontag, more than anyone else, was responsible for establishing a tone of suspicion and distrust in photography criticism, and for teaching us that to be smart about photographs means to disparage them. I am writing, even more, against the work of Sontag’s postmodern and poststructuralist heirs, and their sour, arrogant disdain for the traditions, the practice and the ideals of documentary photography. Unlike these critics I believe we need to respond to and learn from photographs rather than simply disassemble them; unlike these critics, I believe we need to look at, and into, what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is”’. (pg XV)

Polemics: Chapter 1

… through criticism, [Baudelaire] sought to transform [his] pleasure into knowledge.’. (pg 3)

Modernist Baudelaire and Margaret Fuller suggested that the critic’s emotional connection to an artist or work of art … is the sine qua non … of criticism (pg 3) whilst post Modernist Sontag sees photography as grandiose, voyeuristic, predatory, addictive. (Sontag, On Photography, 1970) Roland Barthes noted that photograph’s punctum is that accident that ‘pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)‘. (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1980). Barthes also describes photographs as ‘agents of death‘. (pg 6)

John Berger, unlike Sontag, respects the prosaic yet meaningful ways in which people throughout the world use photographs. But he was especially critical of photographs that document political violence. (pg 6) Sontag also wrote that ‘The shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings‘ (pg 7). And Allan Sekula: ‘photography is … primitive, infantile, aggressive.‘ (pg 7)

Yet McCullin’s or Ut’s war images didn’t foster feelings of moral inadequacy or were ignored – on the contrary they mobilized political opposition to the Vietnam War (pg 7)

‘The assault on photography was, in short, a servant to the larger postmodern project of deconstruction in which art is distanced and separated from itself.’ (pg 8)

For the post-moderns, photographs were not just an integral part of capitalism but its obedient slave. John Tagg described photography as ultimately a function of the state (pg 9), whilst Martha Rosler wrote that photographs are the ultimate imperialism (pg 9) and Sekula assailed the photographer Paul Strand’s belief in human values, social ideas, decency and truth as ‘the enemy’ (pg 10)

In short, the postmodern critics viewed photography as a generally nasty business – the photograph is a prison, the act of looking a crime – which may be why reading their work often feels like trudging through mud.’ (pg 11)

Yet photography was a great democratic medium from the beginning, which Flaubert thought will ‘dethrone painting’ (from Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet). (pg 14)

Sontag, Berger, Barthes and the postmodernist’s were heavily influenced by the melancholy school of the Frankfurt writers, especially Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin and Bertold Brecht. This school didn’t write just about photography, and they are treated by contemporary critics with fitting intellectual respect, but also with a kind of fundamentalist reverence, which (Linfield writes) is unhelpful. (pg 17) For Benjamin though, photography was a part of painful but necessary task of modernity. The photographer Eugėne Atget, who ‘set about removing the makeup from reality’, inspired in Benjamin some of his most appreciative and beautiful writing (pg 17)

  • Benjamin distrusted photography’s ability to beautify (pg 18)
  • Kracauer believed that in a photograph, a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow.’ (pg 19)
  • Brecht really did loathe photographs ‘The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about the conditions in this world.’ (pg 20)
  • Benjamin quotes Brecht ‘less than ever does the mere reflection of reality [a photograph] [tell us] anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp world’s tells us next to nothing about these institutions’ (pg 20)

And on one level Brecht was right – photographs don’t explain the way the world works

‘… when you’ve seen one bombed out building, you’ve seen them all’ … yet ‘only a vulgar reductionist – or an absolute pacifist – would say that these five cities [wars] represent the same circumstances, histories, causes’ (pg 21). ‘… the problem with photographs is not only what they fail to do. … a greater problem for Brecht [and co] is what they succeed in doing. Photographs excel, more than any other form of art or journalism, in offering an immediate, viscerally emotional connection with the world’ (pg 22)

Brecht lived through the crisis of modernity that was the Weimar Republic, and which led to the Nazis. His genius was to understand the role of unexamined emotion in this fatal process (pg 23) And photographs were a major part of that hysterically political scene. However Brecht was wrong to say that photography was in the hands of the bourgeoisie – the practice of documentary photography [in the 30s] was dominated by liberals and leftists (pg 24)

Open ended photographs don’t tell us what to feel, but encourage us to dig … a photograph’s ambiguities are a starting point for discovery (pg 29)

Unlike Brecht, we don’t need to view photographs as carriers of a fatal emotional germ; unlike the postmodern, we don’t need to avoid emotion the way the Victorians avoided sex. Nor do we need to regard photographs simply as henchman of capitalism or tools of oppression [Sekula] … critics have crippled our capacity to grasp what John Berger called “The there was of the world”. And it is just that – the texture, the fullness of the wound outside ourselves – into which we need to delve’ (pg 30)

Polemics: Chapter 2

Linfield argues strongly for both the right to view and the right to critique … but not the right to censor. She makes it an issue of rights.

The establishment of human rights is a life and death project to build a “species solidarity” that is deeper and stronger than culture, nation, religion, race, class, gender or politics.’ (pg 35)

Photographs can show us what the abscence of those rights looks like (pg 37) And ‘The best photographic portraits, like the best painted portraits, present us not with biographical information but with soul.’ (pg 40)

Linfield notes a 1978 essay on documentary photography by Allan Sekula, which discusses ‘The pornography of the direct representation of misery’ (pg 40) And on the other hand, considers Sebastiao Salgado, who work some critics dismiss because of the ‘prettiness’ of his images. (pg 43)

Whilst photography has globalized awareness and our consciences, beyond the control of nation states, it has still not stopped the suffering. Journalist Martha Gellhorn wrote in the 1939s of photography being no stronger than a glow worm – a widely held view today amongst humanitarian organisations and documentary photographers. (pg 47) However International NGOs are hardly possible without photography.

Linfield discusses the image of Nsala, from the Belgium Congo, who is looking at hand and foot of his five year old daughter, who had been killed and eaten in attack on village for failing to meet its rubber quota. Nsala’s wife had also been killed and eaten in the attack. (pg 49). She notes that we now look at such images in the full knowledge that what they depict really happened, and in some small way that makes them less terrible as photographs.

Don McCullin’s pictures in Biafra (1967-70) helped jumpstart global consciousness of the issues, and led to the formation of Doctors Without Borders (1972). But images didn’t address the underlying cause of the famine, which occurred because Biafran Leader Ojukwu put his political aims above the fate of his own people. (pg 50)

Nazis, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Khmer Rouge and others used photography to document/legitimize their actions – but whilst they are taken by the perpetrators, the images speak for the victims (pg 52)

Linfield criticizes David Chandler’s afterword in the 1996 book of photographs from Tuol Sleng, The Killing Fields, edited by Chris Riley & Douglas Niven when he notes ‘… we are inside S21’.

‘We are not inside their prison, they were. Our hells are almost certainly not theirs. Nor should the difference between looking at a photograph and torturing a child be so easily elided. … We cannot be the prisoners of S21 and more than we can save them. … That is not an argument for not looking, not seeing, or not knowing, nor for throwing up one’s hands or shielding one’s eyes. Looking at these doomed people is not a form of exploitation; forgetting them is not a firm of respect. … The demands of justice will never be met, and the suffering of the victims never redeemed’. (pg 59)

The MoMa exhibition around this book, held in 1997, did get some criticism.

This exhibition has provoked a small storm of protest, and it is certainly fair to ask what these sensational photographs are doing in an art museum. Does this imply that the killers who took them are artists? Can genocide be art? And does the book from Twin Palms, so glossily produced, estheticize and exploit the dead?’.

Michael Kimmelman, New York Times Art Review, June 1997

In a memorable phrase, she suggests:

‘Photojournalists are responsible for the ethics of showing, but we are responsible for the ethics of seeing’ (pg 60).

Every photograph involves a triangle – the photographer, the subject and the audience. All must be considered, not just in the act of creating the image, but in the act of viewing it. And all must be part of the ethical conversation enabled by photographs. Linfield’s book is well researched, thoughtfully argued, and brave.

Personally I think a more apt criticism can be made of the book’s editors, Riley and Niven. They painstakingly restored the Tuol Sleng images, and these serve even today as serious, legally important reference materials. But in creating a for-profit ‘art’ book and exhibition, did things go too far? The book is still for sale today, at $150


The Cruel Radiance examines a great many examples of photographs of violence, atrocity and war, as well as placing images into the historic contexts of the Holocaust, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Cambodian Genocide, Abu Ghraib and more. She also discusses specific photographers, including Don McCullin, Robert Capa and James Nachtwey.


The Holocaust … 

I am not going to cover this in any detail, other than to note this image by Heinrich Jöst, taken in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941.

The woman has become a peddler of the grotesque, selling the armbands that Jews in the ghetto were forced to wear (and to buy) ‘She looked as though she was about to topple over and die the next moment‘ Jöst would recount decades later.

Photo: Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel.

Hotel owner Jöst was a sergeant in the German army, stationed near Warsaw, who became curious about the corpses he had seen lying along the ghetto walls. So on his birthday he made use of his free time and went into the ghetto with his camera. He had no idea what was awaiting him there. He shot several rolls of film in September 1941 and kept them for decades without showing them to anyone. In 1982, he gave the photographs to Sternmagazine reporter Gnther Schwarberg.

The Jerusalem Documentation Center Yad Vashem pronounced them a ”unique find’ – Jöst’s pictures belong to the scant number of existing photographs of the Warsaw ghetto, and are a critically important document of its history.

Gunther SchwarbergIn the Ghetto of Warsaw’ (2001) documents these photographs along with Jöst’s own recollections


Chinese Cultural Revolution

Lindfield notes that revolutions have often pursued purity, including the French Revolution. (pg 109)

She quotes Andre Malraux, in Man’s Fate … about the machine gunners pausing while people sneezed, until the [moment of] humanity passed and they fired (pg 113)

Walter Benjamin describes those ‘intensely human sneezes’ as the ‘tiny spark of contingency – those uncontrollable, unpredictable expressions of vitality that totalitarian movements seek to deny’. (pg 109)

Linfield suggests that Li Zhensheng’s photographs of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) capture these sneezes.

Top Party officials are denounced during an afternoon-long rally in Red Guard Square: provincial Party secretary, Chen Lei, is denounced at Provincial People’s Stadium. Harbin, 29, August 1966.  © LI Zhensheng. Contact Press Images

Jack Birnes images of Mao’s revolutionary Nationalist-Communist war in China in late 1940’s – unpublished by Life Magazine as Henry Luce was an anti Communist who naturally sided with the Nationalists and Chiang Kai-Sheck (pg 129)

Photo: Jack Birnes / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Sierra Leone:

Mutliated Memuna Mansarah (pg 125), published in Vanity Fair, August 2000

‘When I first saw Memuna’s photograph, I felt shocked, revolted, and angry (I still feel these things). The shock and revulsion were almost physical responses, but the anger was more complicated and unfolded in stages. It was directed, first, at the faux revolutionaries who had cripple Memuna, and who I knew had done the same to thousands of others. But I was angry also at Teun Voeten [the photographer of VFs article], and at Sebastian Junger [the writer of VFs article] and at the editors of Vanity Fair; for my rage against Memuna’s tormentors turned into pity fo4 her, and my pity made me feel manipulated and trapped’. … And then my dislike of my pity – which was now, alas, self pity – became the focus of my reaction to the photograph; Memuna herself began to recede’ (pg 127)

Linfield then writes:

‘I was acting out, almost precisely, John Berger’s claim that when looking at an image of political violence, the viewer’s ‘sense of shock is dispersed: his own moral inadequacy may now shock him as much as the crimes being committed’ (pg 127)

And goes on to discuss the role of solidarity in such images.

‘Above both pity and compassion, Arendt placed solidarity, which she rightly noted is not a feeling but a principle through which men and women create ‘a community of interest with the oppressed and the exploited (pg 129)

She notes:

Solidarity is a frayed idea but it continues to inspire – to sweep away divisions of nation, race, class, and to posit brotherhood against loneliness. What would it mean to create solidarity with Memuna, and can Teun Voeten’s photographs help?

Anger is often directed at the photograph or the photographer (think Salgado) or even the victims themselves. Critics like Rosler & Sekula admonish us for looking at such photographs as voyeurs. Yet others like Sontag & Berger argue that the photographs lack meaning, especially politically, as they show too little.

But Linfield believes that ‘these photographs simultaneously show us too much and too little‘. (pg 130) Children are often the subject of such photographs, as the most innocent – yet they carry no more meaning or explanation than other photographs. ‘Looking at Memuna is especially confounding as it is hard to understand why the war was being fought, or what to do about it – but also because it’s quite likely her attackers were also children‘. (pg 133)

And: ‘To call child fighters of Africa ‘child soldiers’ is like calling Auschwitz a ‘detention centre’ – factually true but misses the essence’. (pg 138)


Abu Ghraib and The Jihad

People like Sontag blamed the vast reportory of pornagraphic imagery available on the Internet. And even Slavoj Žižek noted the obscene underside of US popular culture. (pg 154).  Rouzbeh Pirouz observed that Muslim extremists depict Western culture as degenerate and subversive … a blend of perversity, wickedness and sadism. Sounds like Sontag and Žižek …

Sontag’s comments irritated Linfield partly because she agreed with her.

But Linfield’s main point is the Jihadists and the West are engaged in a macabre game of one upmanship with such imagery – witness the Jihad snuff movies and suicide bombings. There is use of photography as violent propaganda (pg 164) on both sides. Yet whilst Western / Israeli media largely refrains from printing the worst imagery, Arab media seems to have death images on loop. (pg 170)

Linfield argues that every American has a responsibility to look and think about the Abu Ghraib images, and what they mean. But she also argues that the beheading video of Daniel Pearl is something she does not want to watch. It’s not a matter of complex morality or political principle, just the point at which she finds herself saying no just ‘enough’, but ‘too much’ (pg 171)


People (notes)

Robert Capa – The Optimist

Would never take pictures that showed people humiliated. He took no images at concentration camps, for example. More interested in real people’s lives

Capa gave us scenes from a broken world, but he never suggested destruction is our natural state. He knew that men and women could unite on the basis of camaraderie, hope and intelligence rather than hate, fear and stupidity’ (pg 202)

Capa has learned that change, especially the good kind of change, is made from the bottom up – democracy really is in the streets, and he wanted to show what thi# kind of democracy, and the free people that made it, look like’ (pg 202)

James Nachtwey – The Catastrophist

In Capa’s photographs, violence is framed within a context that is both political and moral (pg 205). In effect, Capa was working within a centuries old tradition representing the ideals of purity, bravery, heroism.

However in Nachtwey’s photographs, we see what happens when the agony of the body is ruptured from such ideals

Nachtwey’s photographs show us how images have become more extreme as political clarity has disappeared’. (pg 206)

He presents us with unforgivable crimes that we not not wish to see but which we should; and yet the firm in which he presents them often undermines his stated intent’ … ‘He is indispensable, and a paradox that cannot be solved‘. (pg 207)

Nachtwey cannot take pictures like Capa because the world has changed, to one with wars without causes, and barbarism without honour.

Capa brought his viewers to the world they wanted to know; Nachtwey is the despised messenger knocking on a slammed door. He presents us with a family of man we are desperate to disown’. (pg 217)

Gilles Peress – The Skeptic

Peress’ images are exercises in mind, and often hard to decipher.

For Peress, to take pictures is to enter into what he calls ‘a methodology of self doubt’ (pg 234)

Postmodernists ‘could not understand that a photograph is objective and subjective, found and made, dead and alive, withholding and revealing’ (pg 237)

Consider Peress’ Telex Iran (1983)


Susie Linfield has been an editor for American Film, the Village Voice, and the WashingtonPost and has written for a wide range of publications including the Los AngelesTimes Book Review,the New York Times, Bookforum, the Village Voice, Aperture, Dissent, and the Nation. She is Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University, where she directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.


BARTHES, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.

BERGER, John. 1967. Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin.

LINFIELD, Susie. 2010. The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

RILEY, Chris & NIVEN, Douglas. 1996. The Killing Fields. Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers.

SCHWARBERG, Gunther. 2001. In the Ghetto of Warsaw. Göttingen: Steidl.

SEKULA, Allan, 1995. Fish Story. 2018 Edition. London: Mack. Also: Witte de With, Centre for Contemporary Art. Rotterdam. Available at: (accessed 16/03/2018).

SONTAG, Susan. 1970. On Photography. New York: Anchor Books.

SONTAG, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux.

SONTAG, Susan. 2004. Regarding the Torture of Others. New York Times Magazine. Available at: (accessed 9/4/2018).

TAGG, John. 1988. The Burden of Representation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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