BENNINGTON -- The Bennington branch of the American Association of University Women invited Dr. Holly Edwards, senior lecturer of art history at Williams College, to the Bennington Free Library on Monday for a presentation on the role images play in our day-to-day lives.
The lecture, entitled "One image at a time...," focused primarily on a single image, a photograph by Ashley Gilbertson that originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2004, edition of the New York Times, under the headline "U.S. armed forces make final push to take last rebel stronghold in Falluja." The photo shows a captured insurgent, head covered, hands tied with plastic manacles, duct tape covering a wound in his side, with a small pool of blood on the ground where he is sitting. The shadow of an American soldier falls over the hunched prisoner, and looms on the wall above him.
Edwards attempted to take her audience on a journey, showing all the different meanings that image had taken on over time, as well as asking them to consider how images, especially traumatic ones, often can have very strong effects on the way people view the world around them.
The lecture was the latest in a series of talks put on by the Bennington AAUW over the course of the last nine years. "We are so blessed to live in a community that has such a high amount, per capita, of really brilliant scholars," said chapter president Julie Mackaman. Describing the role her organization plays in the community, Mackaman said, "Basically, what we do is try to kick down doors and create opportunities.
"I'm warning you," said Edwards to the assembled audience of about 40 people, "This lecture isn't going to be entertaining. It's meant to be provocative. I won't hold it against you if at any point you need to use the door."
We process thousands of images every day, said Edwards, on TV, in the newspaper, on Facebook. "We're overwhelmed by them at times, and I think it's really important to learn how to deal with them," she said, "There are so many images coming at us, we don't even have the time to look at what's going on."
Edwards said the audience should ask themselves three questions when viewing an image, "What work does this image do, how does it do it, and who benefits?" The picture in its original form, she said, accompanied by a headline that she said, "verges on celebratory," is designed to convey to the reader the New York Times' depiction of that day's events.
"Reality has been reduced to news. This is the news according to the New York Times," said Edwards.
Later that year, the photo served as the cover of a collection of the year's best photos from the Times. Now, said Edwards, instead of representing the events of the day, it is being used to represent the events of an entire year. "It serves to institutionalize these events into history. This picture is like a synopsis. It's very dense, it shows us a lot," she said, "You get shadows, you get blood, you get manacles, you get no face. You can extract or fill in so much information."
The image was later used as the cover photo for a 2006 edition of The Nation. The article the picture accompanied criticized the Bush administration for its handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In just two years, the photo had gone from a representation of the success of the United States military, to a symbol of its failure. "The timeline is rewritten around a new storyline," said Edwards.
The photograph next appeared in Gilbertson's 2007 collection of photographs and essays from his time in Iraq, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer's Chronicle of the Iraq War." This time, rather than a newspaper caption or a magazine article, the photo is accompanied by Gilbertson's own experiences, in his own words. Edwards read an excerpt from the book describing the events leading up to the photo, including Gilbertson wetting his pants during a particularly intense firefight not long earlier, and his comparing the drying stain on the front of his pants to the drying blood of the prisoner on the ground. The photograph itself does not appear for several more pages, said Edwards. The first words on the next page, after the photo, she said, are "Yes, I had post-traumatic stress syndrome."
"This iteration specifies the past as pain," said Edwards, who described how Gilbertson uses the photo to represent his struggle with PTSD, which was itself later chronicled in a 2012 article in The Atlantic, "Overexposed: A Photographer's War with PTSD." For the first time, the suffering of the subject is being personally related to, this time by Gilbertson, and through him, his audience. He is no longer simply an insurgent captured during the successful campaign in Fallujah, but a representation of the suffering of Gilbertson, who saw a soldier killed when the soldiers he was with were ambushed while guarding Gilbertson. "A 22-year old kid was killed because Ashley needed a photograph," said Dexter Filkins, Gilbertson's partner, who was with him that day, in the Atlantic article, "He's tormented by that."
Edwards herself was part of a group of Williams College professors who displayed the photograph in yet another light: As part of the Williams College Museum of Art exhibit, "Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain," which ran until April 2006. Several art history students who saw the photo likened the suffering of the prisoner to the suffering of Jesus, as depicted in many famous paintings. Framed thus, said Edwards, the image represents iconic suffering, relatable pain.
Finally, Edwards pointed to Gilbertson's website, where he is selling signed, framed prints of the photo for $250. "This is intended for a different audience," said Edwards, "The intended audience has gone from consumers of the news to owners of a commodity."
Edwards closed the lecture by saying that she hoped her insights had been thought provoking, and thanked the AAUW for inviting her to speak, "I just want to applaud the AAUW, it's such a wonderful thing that you do."
"I like to think," said Edwards, "that making and viewing pictures helps us move toward peace and social justice."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB