KETR

Princeton's Jeremy Adelman Points Lens At Global Interdependence

Oct 5, 2016

Dr. Jeremy Adelman is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History and the director of the Global History Lab at Princeton University, and on October 3rd, he visited the Texas A&M University-Commerce campus to give a presentation to students and other attendees on the subject of photography and humanitarianism. In the presentation, Adelman argues that throughout the history of the camera, photography has played a vital role both in society's understanding of the world at home and far away, and in its reaction to global humanitarian crises as they arise.

On this October edition of The President's Perspective, A&M-Commerce interim president Dr. Ray Keck sits down with his friend Adelman to discuss the topics of historical photography as art and record, photojournalism, global interdependence and empathy, and why we should always carry a camera. 

Due to time constraints, an edited version of the program aired on 88.9 KETR. The full recording of the conversation with Adelman is offered here.

For reference: Discussed in the program is this 1971 Saigon Execution photograph, the work of photographer Roger Fenton (including his Valley of the Shadow of Death image,) and the works of Francisco Goya.

The President's Perspective is a monthly half-hour chat with the president and CEO of A&M-Commerce, and is recorded and produced at 88.9 KETR's studio facility in historic Binnion Hall on the university campus. The program airs on the first Wednesday of each month at noon and again at 5:00 p.m. Support comes from listeners like you who appreciate KETR's role in informing and educating Northeast Texans.

Transcript will follow.
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Jerrod Knight:

Hello, and welcome to the President's Perspective, a monthly half-hour chat with the interim president and CEO of Texas A&M University Commerce, Dr. Ray Keck. I'm Jerrod Knight. On today's program, Dr. Keck introduces a guest who holds the title of Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton University, where he's also the director of the Global History Lab. He's been the director of the Council for International Teaching and Research, the director of the Program in Latin American Studies, and the Chair of the History Department at Princeton. Our guest has taught at Oxford University, the University of Essex in England, and at the Instituto Torcuato di Tella in Argentina, among others. He's been awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and the Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship of the American Council for Learned Societies. Dr. Keck, if you would.

Ray Keck:

Jerrod, thank you for having us today and welcome, Professor Adelman, to Commerce, to east Texas. I've known this man for a number of years and observed him as a scholar, a teacher, a thinker, a friend to teachers and to students. He was here to share with us a chapter from a book, forthcoming book, about the power of imagery, photography, and moral consciousness. Perhaps we start with that, Jeremy. Talk to us a little bit about what it is that the camera brings to our moral sensibilities.

Jeremy Adelman:

Thanks, Ray. It's been a wonderful couple of days here, getting to know colleagues and students at Commerce. I actually got into this project through the back door. Most times when we think of books that we're working on, there's an idea in our mind and that idea gets chewed over and developed by reading other books and going into libraries and archives and talking to colleagues. In this particular case, I was working on a book and slowly realized how important photography was. Actually, it started with a realization that many of my students were more visually attuned to the world than I was. I come from a generation that read texts, that still looks at something on a screen, on a computer, or sometimes even my phone as a text and I read it that way. I watched my students looking at material in a different way. They were visual rather than literate, or visually literate rather than textually literate. I started to wonder how much of our imagination thought that way. I went back into the history of photography, realizing that there's been a discussion, a debate about how images create the people that we are, not the text, the newspapers, the pamphlets that we happen to read along the way.

It was actually really thanks to conversations with students and thinking about sources that they could then read and think about in classes. I began to, for those of us who are textually inclined, this was sometimes a difficult decision, to let the texts go to make room for importing visual imagery, and told the stories about those images, and had the students think aloud between themselves about what they saw in photographs and the stories behind photographs. It was largely through students.

The other was, as I working on this, was very struck by how public opinion more generally was getting walloped by very strong arresting, disturbing images, much more than the news stories themselves. Or rather, the news stories were the packing and the really precious part of it was the photograph around which the story was wrapped. The famous images of Syrian children, a bombing, and then of course I went back, Vietnam photography, atomic testing photography, thinking about the ways in which we image the world and our interconnections through these images, and realizing how much there's been a debate behind the stories about the use and danger and possibility of photographic imagery. Then I realized, actually my students are just elevating this conversation to a new level and I just was completely unaware of it as a 19th century historian who read texts in a different way.

It wasn't a very linear decision.  I didn't come start it out with this idea and wanted to pursue it as more; it was more a discovery in the course of watching other people think about how they related to the materials around them.

Ray Keck:

One of the many insights, as you shared with us last night, was the challenge you gave our students, and that is to carry a camera to enable you to see differently. Talk a little bit about what that means.

Jeremy Adelman:

Most of us now, our cameras now are our phones, for most of us. We take casual photographs like Polaroids, only we can keep them digitally, of random encounters, and we don't think of the taking of the photograph as a special moment. There are various technological features to that. One of the absence of something called the viewfinder. I'll come back to the viewfinder in a minute. I came late also to cell phones, for a variety of reasons. When I was younger and an undergraduate like the undergraduates I was meeting yesterday, I always had a camera. I traveled around the world with a camera. I wanted to be a photojournalist. I wanted to chronicle images, chronicle the world's history through images of it. I then just became a boring historian, but the idea of the photograph, of capturing world historical moments through everyday lives of people, landscapes, historical processes, was always there.

What the camera had done for me when I was traveling to work in refugee camps or other kinds of things that I was doing, thinking about being a recorder of the world, was make me look at my environment differently. When you look through the camera, you're not, as we now do through our cell phones, looking at a unbounded landscape in front of us. You're looking through this thing called a viewfinder, so it's framed from the beginning. You have to think about the composition of the photographic image itself. As soon as you start to think compositionally, you start to see the depth of field, you start to ... I'm looking out the window in this studio, and I can already see the layers and the different stories inside each layer that the existence of the viewfinder, and looking through the camera and the lens ... Now we look through lenses, they're optical. The viewfinders, there are different kind of viewfinders, but either way, you're looking through a box, which was the original 19th century incarnation of the camera. Now we don't. Our cell phones are not like boxes.

That's what made me realize that a lot of framing goes into the art of photograph. When we tell stories, write narratives, we are also framing. It's not such a different act to signify the meaning of something through the way in which we frame it. I spend a lot of time when I'm teaching helping students think about what's the frame of the story you're trying to tell or what's the framework of the image, what's the context, what are you leaving out, what are you putting in, why are you making these decisions about what to put in and how does that change the nature of the story.

Ray Keck:

What you're describing sounds much closer to painting than is often admitted. You remember, when the camera first was invented, will this put painting out of business? No, because the painting requires the sort of composition on the part of the painter, the creation of the reality and the layers he wishes. The camera was thought to simply reproduce what was prosaically there. You're suggesting something very different.

Jeremy Adelman:

To a point. There has been a debate, as you noted, about how much photogrpahy is like painting. At the very beginning, many photographers, I talked about a few of them last night, like Roger Fenton and [inaudible 00:08:41], the very first photographers of war, thought of themselves as painters. They would arrange the landscapes and the scenes of battles, often times without any soldiers there. In the famous "Valley of the Shadow of Death" by Roger Fenton, he's taking skulls and boulders and moving them around in the valley after the light brigade has gone through, to create a dramatic stage.

Ray Keck:

Right.

Jeremy Adelman:

To try to get the viewer to imagine what must have happened here as a battle unfolded. They were constantly arranging and framing what was going on, in the same way you'd imagined, they imagined a painter adding a branch or some clouds or embellishing in a portrait. They didn't think of themselves as practicing such a different artwork. It's really not until there emerged, after around 1900, a movement of what we call photographic objectivity, the idea that the photograph that the cameraman could take, could "shoot" an image and take, as it were, a snapshot of a reality that was not constructed by the photographer. The art of the photographer was to capture the moment and it's realism, and that the photographer was an objective recorder of the global moment.

Then, you get a rupture. It partly had to do with the change in the nature of the camera itself. It was now more portable. You didn't have to have a tripod. Eventually they put in canisters of film instead of glass plates. In the old days, in the 19th century, it was a long process to set up one of these cameras, and it did look a lot like an easel. You had to spend a lot of time arranging people, getting them to pose, it looked like portraiture. Once the camera became more mobile and you take serial photographs, it began to change. By the 1930s we get really, with a whole set of landmark photographers, the move to photojournalism. Also, I say, is a career a part, is vocation a part? Where, the heroic photojournalists, and this is what I thought I was doing when I was a kid, I was going out into the world and snapshotting the world as it was, not as I created it.

Even in the debates about photography, there's been some controversy about what it really is.

Ray Keck:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Does it capture a moment? Is it truth-telling for that instance? Or is it reaching toward a wider truth about a theme, an event, a point in history?

Jeremy Adelman:

Right, and how much the photographer is constructing it, rather than just representing it. There's a very famous photograph, as you know, the Robert Capa photo. Capa would become one of the great photographers of the 20th century, the pioneer of modern photojournalism, would take the famous photographers of D Day in 1944. A very controversial photograph taken during the Spanish Civil War of the Republican soldier being shot from behind, he's falling down what appears to be onto the photographer himself. At the time, the photograph was a sensation. Nobody had seen, on such a widespread scale, the photograph of someone being shot. It was very dramatic, and the very movement of the body itself was very disturbing at the time, when there was a big debate going on about who to side with in the Spanish Civil War.

This idea of Capa himself being among the fighters, the idea that the photojournalist was "shooting," while the soldiers were shooting was part of the allure of the capturing of the moment of the drama. Of course, there's been a convent there ensued, a controversy about that photograph. Was it staged? Was the soldier really killed, or did he play act so Capa could capture? Which surely must have been going on at the time. The issue of the authenticity of the image, which we still continue to have nowadays, in the age of the selfie and PhotoShopping. It turns out that this issue goes back to the charge of the light brigade. There's been this debate about photos, and how objective it is really, from the very beginning.

Ray Keck:

You talked, when we began, about your own shift and many in our generation from textualist to followers of imagery, readers of images. You talked last night at some length about the relationship between the explanation of the picture, the text that goes with the pictures, and the picture itself. Thinking about a famous example to sort of test that idea, one remembers from our history the tremendous inventory of photographs taken by Matthew Brady, particularly of Abraham Lincoln. When we look at them now, Lincoln seems an almost Olympian calm, but we know that's completely at odds with what was happening inside him and around him. If we didn't know that, how would we respond to that picture? Would we be able to look at those photographs and see as much as we do, or are we dependent upon the text to tell us what was really behind it?

Jeremy Adelman:

Those are great questions. Portraiture like that, portraiture of Queen Victoria, really in the beginnings of early, early photography. The landscape and the portrait were the two dominant genres. Again, they did not think of themselves as that different from painting. Posing the subject like Abraham Lincoln or Queen Victoria or the last Mughal in India, these were all photographs taken in the 1850s and 1860s. Just moving out what's called daguerreotype was enormously important. In part, the photographs were taken for a public function, to convey a story, an image of authority, wisdom, justice. They were hired to take photographs with this purpose in mind.

The difference between the painting and the photograph that they all recognized in the very beginning was the photograph was more easily reproduced onto print. You could start to take the images and the portraits and put them into circulation. That, they figured out relatively early on. By the 1850s, you began to have newspapers and magazines that include not just text; they start to include images, drawings, and, increasingly, photographs. By 1900, they had figured out how to print black and white photography with some fidelity onto cheap newsprint; of course, right at the time, wars of 1898, the fallout of what was happening around the world, right on the eve of the first World War, that newspapers could suddenly now put black and white prints into them.

Photographers were aware that the images had circulatory possibilities that paintings didn't have, but so did the subjects, so they used these images to convey certain properties and powers. For the case of Victoria, we know, also was to circulate this image of imperial majesty. She was also the emperor of India, and so it was very important to convey the sense of authority and morality and the part of rulers. It was much more easily managed. Iconography in those days, that not so, with the revolution that's happened in imagery now, anybody can take a snapshot. It can circulate instantly. It's been, in this sense, democratized. It was much easier to curate in those days, and to control and to manage; now, much harder. That's the big shift that's happened from the 19th century.

The concepts are still the same, that we manage the images and we embed them in stories and the images are meant to illustrate a story.

Ray Keck:

Talk a little bit about that, appending stories to images. How does that happen? Can't the same image, then, be re-purposed by a new story?

Jeremy Adelman:

Absolutely, and that is also what they discovered fairly early on in the process, and is now what goes on in an image that we find very disturbing, is itself a battleground for rival narratives. People know that the significance of the image depends very much on the story that you wrap around it. Let's just take a famous image that I'm sure many of your listeners will know about, and many of my students know. They've seen it in textbooks. It's the image taken in 1971 of the execution of what looks to be a civilian in Saigon by a general, a South Vietnamese general. The New York Times, and all major newspapers, plastered the photograph on the front page of newspapers around the world, and it was a horrific sight, the idea that the United States was in cahoots with this band of murderous rulers who were taking out civilians in the streets.

I won't go into the history of the photograph itself except to say that the public, and even the New York Times to some extent, allowed that image to be wrapped around a story of the United States being dragged in an alliance with a depraved regime in South Vietnam. It was a very important photograph for tilting American public opinion against the war, which had been shifting in any event. In fact, that story, what was going on in the photograph was much more complicated than that. It turns out that the "civilian" who was being shot, executed in the street in Saigon was, himself, an assassin working for the Viet Cong, that the man who did the shooting was a general whose troops had captured the subject at a mass grave site where the assassin had gone to make sure that the policemen and the families of the policemen that he'd been shooting were being buried, and he's captured there. Many observers objected to the photograph, found it horrific, because they felt it was also staged.

The photographer himself argued later on that he hadn't staged it at all. This was another case of the Capa phenomenon, that he was snapping photographers of an unfolding story. What the New York Times chose was just that one moment of the execution, not what happened to the cadaver afterwards, not images of the man being captured and the discussions in the street beforehand, nor even of the other people who were in the mix. It's just a pure image of the killer and the victim. The story about the Vietnam War was getting re-cast in this way, when you could have told a very different story about what was happening in that moment.

The dominant view was this one: a murderous regime, an innocent civilian shot in the street. That's the story to which this image was going to be purposed. The editors of newspapers had chosen to frame it this way.

Ray Keck:

Don't we live with that same phenomenon now? Last year, the repeated examples of young, particularly African American, men shot in what appears to be a completely defenseless posture. As we explore the reality, it's far more complex. Repugnant and revolting as it seems, it's never quite as clear.

Jeremy Adelman:

That's right. Fast forwarding, as I think about my own increasing visual literacy and what's going on behind photographs, the stories of photographs, thinking that we have to develop some capacity in an increasingly visualized and digitized world of being able to think critically about images. With the same kind of facility that many of our wonderful colleagues can do in the world of art history, for painting and for sculpture and so on, we need to find strategies and way s of doing this in a digital world. I think as an educators this is something we have to do. Working on this book, one of the intentions is to have a reader, my students, think about the news that they digest in a more critical way.

Yes, these horrific images of shootings in the street, to have a viewer or a reader, a viewer-reader, let's hyphenate them, look at those kinds of images and think critically. "What's the story behind the image?" The victim has a story. The shooter has a story. How do we conjugate these stories together? That's the job of the historian, to produce a sense of what happened, why it happened, and what it means to us morally and politically. Anyway, that's one of the ambitions of this book, to think then about these global images. Yes, nowadays, we're having this problem right now.

Ray Keck:

We come around, then. When we began, you were contrasting textuality and imagery, reading words, reading images. Point of view really becomes a crucial issue. We used to talk about that in literature and now, certainly point of view. Talk a little bit about the power of point of view now as it informs how we look at these things. You're eluding to it when you talk about the shooter, the victim, each has a story. How do these points of view somehow reach their level of public policy, popular opinion, moral decisions? How do we harness this new wonderful tool, this new way of perceiving, to inform our deeper need for justice, for mercy, for a fair society?

Jeremy Adelman:

Understanding, yeah. There are different points of view. There's the point of view of the photographer. Try to imagine what the photographer's seeing when he or she takes the shot. There's the point of view of the subjects of the photograph and how the photograph, in a sense, pulls them all together, unites them. We don't think of them that way; it's a snapshot, but it's conjoined the stories and literally the points of view, because you're looking through the viewfinder, in the case of the photographer, what's going on. Then, there's of course the one that concerns me almost the most in all of this, is the point of view of the viewer, or our readers, or our students who are looking at these. How do you make the connection there?

That's where we come back to the story and the ability for an image to connect to the moral values that the viewer has. I'm very concerned about, as you know, the humanitarian crisis that's unfolding in Syria right now, and have been very struck by why some images have such catalytic effects and other images do not. What is a viewer of the image ... Most often, the ones that are most disturbing are of the children, dead children or bombed out children, children who have lost their parents in this horrible war. How do we develop, or not, a moral attachment to that humanitarian catastrophe.

I try to think, then, also about the point of view of the reader or the viewer themselves, as well as the photographer, to try to connect up ... Alan Kurdi, that was the most famous image, of that young boy, three year old boy, yes he was a three year old boy washed up onto the shores of a Turkish beach that was just horrific.

Ray Keck:

Horrific.

Jeremy Adelman:

... so horrific, to somebody in East Texas who sees that image on the front page of the newspaper or on their screen when they open up their Facebook. That thing went viral. What's going on for them? What's going on for the viewer, and their ability to have a story that connects them, their world, and their self-interest to the other halfway around the world who's suffering? That is the test of our global consciousness. It's a complicated story, but I think that's the ground on which we are now wrestling, and how much we see what's happening in a place like Syria as a threat or as an opportunity for moral connection. It has many capacities simultaneously, and that's where the story comes in. Whether you can see it as a moral connection or as a threat to my security depends very much on the story that you coat around the image.

Ray Keck:

There's a famous Spanish proverb, "[foreign language 00:27:12]. Eyes that don't see, a heart that doesn't feel. These are eyes that do see. These are hearts that do feel. How do we avoid the defensive mechanism that we often fall into of finally turning away ...

Jeremy Adelman:

Yes.

Ray Keck:

... and tuning out? It's so horrible and what can we do, what capacity have we to change this?

Jeremy Adelman:

Great question. I think that one of the things we're recognizing now is that these kinds of images can anesthetize us and make us feel as tuned out as we are tuned in. "It's overwhelming; how could I possibly do anything to fix that situation? It seems so intractable and far away and the Russians are there and the Germans are worried about it and Turkey and all these places I don't know anything about. I'm just going to shut it out. I'm aware of it, the image is on my screen and on my newspaper front page." Some images have actually the capacity to make you feel though aware, make you feel more distant from what's happening.

Ray Keck:

If you have an advice to our listeners, might it be that we all purchase a camera?

Jeremy Adelman:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ray Keck:

That we begin to learn to look with the eyes of the camera. Is this the first step toward developing that kind of sensitivity to what's happening around us and then the moral conscience that might go with it?

Jeremy Adelman:

Yes. I think that it's visualizing, and being sensitive to what we're doing when we're visualizing. That's what the camera helps us do, even with your iPhone. As son as you're taking the picture, that's what you're doing. You're thinking about the framing, the meaning, and you start to look at that's on the other side of your camera very differently. Then when you look at an image of a child washed up on a beach, think about the young Turkish photographer who's semi-employed and she's trying to make a living, and she's living in the middle of this horrible catastrophe where bodies are washing up every morning onto the beach where she lives, and she happens to stumble out there. Her self goes through a dilemma: "Do I approach the child? Do I pick the child up? What's my responsibility here? I'm a professional photographer." She's gone on our record now, the one who took the photograph of Alan Kurdi, as being very upset about what she did and what she saw and having to live with herself that her first inclination was to take the photograph and not to see if the child was live. She was immediately accused of this.

Photographers are also on the front line of all of this debate. When we look at the images, that we think about what's going on. What's the story here? What's the backdrop? What's the foredrop? What's happening here? What's happening in my life? When I'm taking photographs of my kids or my landscape, and how we're all developing this repertoire about our places in the world and what connects them. I think in this particular instance, it allows u to then start to recompose a sense of, what are the stories? What are the processes that connect the stories of my life here to somebody else's story far away, and what interest do I share with those people? That's where the ability to move from an image that anesthetizes us, that makes us feel distant from the subject, to one that draws out our compassion and makes us feel much more connected, that we actually have some agency and can do something about it, kicks in. We start to see that we have shared interests, that the fate of families in Syria is not completely severed from our own fates here.

Europeans are much more aware of this, because of the proximity of the Middle East to what's happening in Europe and the threat of terror and ISIS in the big cities of Europe. They're aware of worlds far away are not so far away anymore. I think Americans could develop a little bit more of this awareness, of a dependent world, so that the stories of Alan Kurdi and the atrocities that are now happening in East Aleppo are connected to the kinds of debates that we're having right now in the United States about our own collective future.

Ray Keck:

If we go back a little bit to your comments about the person who takes the photograph, the point of view of the photographer, the person who captures it, an interesting example of that phenomenon, before photography, it seems to me, might be Goya and the Napoleonic Wars. Here's a man who had no camera, but he had his eyes and he had his sensitivity and he chronicled those disasters, which he called that the Black Paintings. In the end, he finished his life in despair, in horror, almost mad by the power of the image as he perceived it and then communicated it. What would you say to a listener who wants to avoid Goya's heightened sensitivity and therefore almost despairing response?

Jeremy Adelman:

First of all, to listeners, check out Francisco Goya. He's really one of the great all-time painters of history and ...

Ray Keck:

... and war, and disaster, and pain, and suffering, and demons.

Jeremy Adelman:

That's right, and the demons inside us. They're outside us and they're inside us and, in part, some of those paintings represent the ways in which they get turned inside out. We could go on and on about the controversial paintings and how he himself felt about them and their display. How do we avoid despair? We could look around and see these atrocities and shrug our shoulders and just think, "I'm going to [foreign language 00:33:28]. I'm going to defend what I can right here, put up the barricades, keep the threats outside my world." First of all, is a recognition that that doesn't work anymore, that the nature of global interdependence means you can't do that. You just can't. The idea, "I'm sorry, but I'm building a wall and shutting out the world," in an interdependent globalized system is ludicrous, so you can't.

Actually, the realism is accepting the interdependence, rather than the realism saying, "It's a nasty world out there and I'm just going to build walls." Let's be realistic. It's an interdependent world, but at the same time, understand that there are things that you can do. Let's just jump right to how to do things. I do a lot of work now for Syrian refugees in the area of education. One of things I realized is how much, for instance, just to take the refugee crisis in Syria, how overwhelmed the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the Red Cross is. Our international organizations that we created to handle humanitarian crises like this are just, right now, staggered. Almost five million refugees, pushed out of one country alone, in the past few years, and they just don't have the capacity to handle it.

One of the dilemmas they have, and I contribute to the problem myself as I teach my course in refugee camps in Jordan, is they have very limited capacity. They have people of very good will, like me, showing up and saying, "I can do something. Help me be a good person in this refugee camp." Hang on here, we've only got a staff and half, and we've got to put out food. Money. Actually, helping organizations like the Red Cross, churches, secular organizations invest in the capacity to do something is quite easy to do and you can do it. It does make a difference. Small example was that I bought boxes of a textbook that I wrote in world history, sent them off to the camps to help the students read a book while they're taking the course.

There are small things we can do with some material support. It's very clear that, and one of the things we've learned from previous incidents like this, that we have to think about, and as we hope for a post-war Syria, about the capacity to rebuild Syrian society. Providing good health and good education for when people return to Syria in good shape, with skills, with connections to the rest of the world, will make it much easier to rebuild that shattered society. There are things we can do. It's not so impossible. As you know, Ray, I'm a possibilist, and part of the stories that we have to tell are the stories that yield to the spaces where we think we can do things, and to open those up, rather than to close them down, it's futile, it's impossible, these problems are intractable, and let's just turn in words. I just don't think that's feasible.

Ray Keck:

Thank you, Jeremy, for coming to east Texas, for sharing with us your research and your thinking, which in the end, opens our moral sensibilities in ways we didn't imagine, our ability to understand the world we're in and the dilemmas that we face. This is the highest calling, I think we would all agree, of an education, certainly higher education, certainly the mission of the university, to expand the minds of students and all who come near. You've certainly done it for us. Thank you for coming.

Jeremy Adelman:

Thank you so much, Ray. Thanks everybody.

Jerrod Knight:

Dr. Keck, thanks a lot. The President's Perspective is produced at 88.9 KETR's studio facility in historic Binnion Hall on the campus of Texas A&M University Commerce. This program and others are archived online at ketr.org. Support comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and from the listeners who support this station. I'm Jerrod Knight. Thanks for listening.