Photography as Multiplier of Atrocity

Photo by Maria Baranova

Photo by Maria Baranova

There’s a moment toward the end of Shattered Glass, the 2003 dramatization of Stephen Glass’s fall at The New Republic, that encapsulates several of the film’s core ideas. Peter Sarsgaard—as Charles Lane, the editor who unveiled Glass’s fabrications—has just faced down a near mutiny among the editorial staff who’d rallied around Glass, when he’s stopped by the receptionist, who wryly points out that, “You know what could have prevented this, don’t you? Pictures.”

Wrapped up in that comment (and leaving aside a couple topical issues in the film, such as the old media’s attention to tradition versus the rising digital media, who first unmasked Glass’s deceptions) is the broader theme the film hopes to convey: that journalism is not only a matter of pursuit of truth, but that truth will win out in the end. It’s a hopelessly naïve ideal (who in the post-Cold War era would believe that pictures never lie?), but as a sentiment it feels valid. Who wouldn’t trust a photograph over an individual’s recollection and word? People are fallible; but despite our ability to manipulate and transform images to suit our needs, there remains the notion that somehow the mechanical and scientific process that produces an image is somehow closer to the truth than any words filtered through mere human subjectivity.

I recalled that film moment last week while sitting next to the playwright and director Sibyl Kempson at a lunch counter across the street from Abrons Arts Center, where her latest play (and the debut production from her new company 7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co.), Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag, is playing through May 17. Asked to explain the link between Sontag and James Agee (the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), she brings up not Agee so much as Walker Evans, whose photographs of Depression-era tenant farmers, featured in the book, rank among the most famous in Modern photography, and who figures prominently into Sontag’s collections of essays On Photography, one of her most influential works.

“She’s taking photojournalism, and photography in general, to task,” Kempson explained. “Particularly these photographs that are supposed to depict human suffering in such a manner as to inspire us to take action against what’s causing human suffering. Her argument is that when the photos are really beautiful, our aesthetic response sort of takes over and the pleasure of looking at the photograph cancels out any inspiration we might have to take action.”

In person, Kempson is a ball of energy, capable of speaking at length, following a series of tangents to their logical conclusion, and coming back around to initial points-of-departure that is remarkable. Like many experimental playwrights I’ve met, for her, theater is a matter of ideas more than images or characters or dialogue, and these ideas thread together in nebulous fashion to produce her texts. “Always in the research,” she told me, “I find that one thing comes back and connects to another. That’s how I do the research, and the play starts to materialize and emerge from these underlying patterns in the research.”

Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag, which centers on a fictionalized and generic version of Evans’ and Agee’s project, wraps up all manner of ideas into itself. There’s Sontag’s critique of the aesthetics of photography; the lost tradition of self-sufficiency and the ability to service and maintain the tools upon which we rely; the torture photos from Abu Ghraib; museum inscriptions regarding ancient untranslateable artifacts; French Symbolism; and the relationship between political activism and concentration of wealth.

Explaining the play’s genesis, Kempson jumps from Sontag to Stephen Einsenman’s The Abu Ghraib Effect, which argues that the production of the images of prisoner abuse during the Iraq War is directly tied to an ancient tradition of representing conquest and subjugation of an Other as erotic domination of a willing partner.

“This theory is that those soldiers were unconsciously arranging the bodies of these people they were torturing in forms that mirrored classical Greek and Roman sculpture,” as Kempson put it. “And even more specifically these sculptural reliefs that would depict the people of the culture they were crushing in ways that were physically and aesthetically very beautiful. The Dying Gaul. This guy’s dying, he’s been stabbed by a Roman soldier and he’s bleeding to death, but he looks super hot. We could kind of say that about the Christ image. Something that’s been drilled into our brains—this image of suffering that’s also sexual.”

Manifestly present in ancient sculpture but seemingly hidden in modern photographic methods is the presence of the artist. We’re all vaguely aware that The Dying Gaul, for instance, was made for a clear purpose by an individual (possibly by someone who never witnessed the violence the piece celebrates and eroticizes), but photography is different in how it seeks to hide the agency of the photographer. The subject of the photojournalist’s presence has led to countless journalistic controversies, ranging from Kevin Carter (who notoriously won international acclaim for a photo of a starving child threatened by vultures), or the more recent and relatively benign case of Narciso Contreras, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war photographer who was fired for editing his own camera out of a photo (since, ironically, the camera—which demonstrated his presence in the scene—would have prevented the photo’s distribution on its own).

“The horror of what happened can’t be separated from the horror that someone stepped back and take a photograph of what was happening,” Kempson noted of the Abu Ghraib photos. “You can’t separate those. It multiplies the horror of the atrocity.”

Added into the mix are a couple other bits, most particularly a series of ancient cuneiform seals from Mesopotamia and the Near East, on display at the Morgan Library. Produced between 5,000 B.C.E. and 300 B.C.E., the seals present complex symbolic designs the meaning of which can only be guessed out. This disconnect between signifier and signified becomes a power dynamic in play (the library’s descriptions of the tablets themselves form portions of the text), suggesting a more complex and less literal relationship between image and content that’s also reflected through avant-garde visual arts, such as the French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon, who also is referenced.

In short, it’s a complex, multilayered text that reflects Kempson’s complex, multilayered approach to writing theater. That was part of the reason she’s somewhat gladly returning to directing and producing her own work.

“I feel like only like half the writing happens at the writing desk, and the other half has to happen on our feet, with the people I’m working with,” she told me. “So directing my own work is a way of removing the middle-man, I guess. It’s a short-cut to getting through this stuff that happens when I’m writing and I have to explain or defend what I’m doing before it’s done.”

Self-producing isn’t new to Kempson, who, like many playwrights, produced and directed her own work for years (until around 2009), but the process and the burden “burned me out,” she recalled, and for the past several years, she’s welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with out artists and directors to see her work realized. Big Dance Theater staged Ich Kurbusgeist, her bizarre dystopian narrative in an invented argot a couple years back; this fall, Elevator Repair Service are staging a new play by Kempson.

In fact, Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag began life as a commission by the New York City Players, and when Richard Maxwell & co. were unable to realize the production as intended due to practical limitations, Kempson was ready “to ditch it” as she wryly put it, until Abrons’ director Jay Wegman encouraged her to pursue self-production. Thus 7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co. was born. (Not that it’s too much easier than back in the day; you should feel free to help support their efforts by contributing to their IndieGogo.)

Featuring a live band and original songs by Ashley Turba, costumes by artist Suzanne Bocanegra (who previously collaborated with Kempson on Big Dance’s Ich Kurbisgeist), choreography by David Neumann, and featuring performances by Becca Blackwell, Eleanor Hutchinson and others, the production is an ambitious new step for the author.

And of course, it’s just one of the projects Kempson is weaving together. Asked what was up following the ERS show, she recalled something I’d mentioned earlier.

“You’re from Seattle?” she asked. “Have you ever seen Bigfoot?”

“In the wild?” I stammered, surprised. “No.”

“I’ve always been obsessed with Bigfoot since I was a kid,” she explained. “I started heavily researching it for the Austin project. And it got a little out of hand and I haven’t been able to stop reading about it and thinking about it and writing about it. And I kind involved in the research and expeditions with people who devote large part of their life and energy to making contact with this elusive that may or may not exist inside our own minds or out in the wilderness or both.”

The result, she explained, was an intended diptych of performances exploring the truth of something that may only exist in our imaginations (therefore real, if potentially misidentified) to be presented in a fashion for both human and Bigfoot consumption. And so our conversation meandered (with references to cryptozoology, Werner Herzog, and psychoanalytic theory) until Kempson had to rush back to theater for rehearsal.

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