“Looking at War” by Susan Sontag Reflection

In Sontag’s article “Looking at War,” she raises the point of what is the purpose of explicit war photography? While this question was originally raised after a gallery in New York in 2000 displayed pictures of African American lynching victims, this question is also relevant to war photography. Some may argue that the purpose of these images is to expose the “truth” of what is really happening during war. However, as observed in the famous photograph of the Vietnam War where a police chief is shooting a man in a plaid shirt in broad daily on the streets, this photograph does not necessarily display the “truth”. While the viewer does know that a man is shooting another man, we do not know what provoked this situation, who is in the right (if anyone), or even if the trigger was actually pulled. I would disagree with the notion that the purpose of these photographs is to show the truth of the war. Instead, I would say that the purpose of these photographs is to create an emotional bridge between the viewer and the situation. What I mean by this statement is that in order for a photograph to be effective, the viewer needs to relate emotionally to the picture.

Sontag does point out that there is a difference between pity and empathy when relating to a photograph. It is easy to pity the people in these images if the viewer has never experienced or come close to experiencing the situation that is being shown. Yet, this emotional response is still valuable because it draws attention to the situation in which people can further investigate their curiosity about the image. For example, although this photograph was not mentioned in the article, there is a famous image of a man standing in front of a row of Chinese tanks who were invading Tiananmen Square as a form of protest in 1989. Perhaps if a westerner viewed this image they would feel scared, sad, and pity the man in the photo. These feelings are still valuable because in recent Black Lives Matter protests, a photograph of a young girl standing in front of armed police men was similar to the “tank man” photograph in that they both showed a civilian standing up to the powerful forces in front of them. Western viewers who see the similarity in the photo happening in the USA to the photo in China can now empathize with the other situation. Therefore, I would argue that one purpose of these war photographs is to draw connections between different places so we can empathize with each other.

Thoughts on “The Crossing”

The article, “The Crossing”, produced a variety of different responses from me over the time I considered its content. I want to split my train of thought into several different pieces, levels – if you will, that I can explore within this response.

My initial reaction, my first level of response, was one of an emotional origin. As I read the piece, I grew attached to the story of Beni. I grew concerned for the well-being of Dikembe. These young men seemed like the ideal protagonists: young, able-bodied, selfless (by my standards), and deserving. If anyone should make the crossing, shouldn’t it be them? These young men remain hopeful about a future they have barely glimpsed. At one point, Beni says, “Once I have a good job in Europe…I will buy my brother and sister plane tickets, so they won’t have to do the crossing like me. Someday, I will tell them my stories, and they won’t believe them all, but they will be so thankful for me.” It is slightly uncomfortable to be on this end of the story, to know about the restrictions surrounding the ability for a boy like Beni to make it into the EU – much less fly his family over to meet him. However, I think that discomfort is necessary for real awareness. This article made me sad; it made me pity the lives these boys have; it made aware of how lucky I am. But most importantly, it made me uncomfortable. Earlier, I described Beni as a character because initially his story seems almost fictional. The idea that a boy, the same age as my brother, can be living a life of constant movement and covertness seems absurdly dystopian. But that is the defining point of the article, that is what imparts so much emotion, so much discomfort: Beni’s story is not a fictional one; he is a very real boy representing the struggle of many other very real people.

The second line of thinking is tied with the prior one: this story of the Moroccan immigration crisis is certainly real, but how has it been so silent? What circumstances have created the erasure of this event from media? Is the lack of attention tied to the race of these people? Sub-saharan african men and women represent a minority, especially in the eyes of the American public. Further more, does the apparent rise in anti-immigration sentiments contribute to silence? Or is the attention of the media too fleeting to create real change?

My third line of thought deals in a much broader sense with the work that Professor Alexander is doing. In one of the opening days of class, we touched upon the fairly elitist nature of academic anthropology and the way that research is judged. However, if anything is is proven by “The Crossing”, it is that the presentation of modern anthropological research does not belong inside of a classroom. The importance of these discoveries is tied to their ability to be transmitted.

If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

If a boy is beaten to death outside of one of Spain’s borders, but no one is around to see it, did his death really matter? If he doesn’t have any identification papers did his death really happen? Was he ever really alive?

 

 

Immigration Crisis in a World I Don’t Know

My whole life I have been trying to understand the immigration crisis from Latin America to The United States. The origin, the end, and the journey. It was only in the last couple of years that I found out about the equally and, perhaps, more urgent crisis somewhere else in the world. A year ago, I watched a documentary about the ways in which African immigrants cross to Spanish soil and I was particularly amazed at those who decided to hide in cars in the risk of dying in the heat that was produced – somehow, probably due to the images from Syrian refugees, immigrants in overcrowded boats didn’t seem as disastrous. However, in comparison to my American-focused mindset, I had embarrassingly never considered the hearts and the thoughts of those people during the journey in Africa, nor had I given a thought to how the diversity in culture and language influence even the immigration culture that is found in that world I never knew existed.

In this post, I would like to focus on the sense of community that the immigrants have formed and how the article has led me to understand some more about immigration on our side of Earth:

“Each “brotherhood,” as they call them, is formed along lines of nationality — the Senegalese in one camp, the Malians, the Cote D’Ivoirians, the Nigerians, and the Congolese in others.”

In comparison to Latin Americans, African countries might not or barely share the same language. What does this mean? First that transitioning from country to country and being able to survive in them is probably one of the biggest challenges that immigrants fight during the journey to Morocco. Imagine, in the loneliness that these immigrants find themselves in, it is optimized by the lack of culture and language (the two elements that makes us the humans we are even at 12 years old). Therefore, it is expected that after reaching Morocco, the brotherhoods are brought together by their nationality. In a way, I am glad that it happens to be that way but, at the same time, it hurts to know that the divisions show that many countries are suffering push factors towards completely different societies.

In terms of American immigration, I remember finding out in the Stewart Detention Center (2h away from Atlanta) that they had detained African immigrants. I was told by an NGO that they come down in boats to Panama and then they would take the same journey as various Latinx individuals towards the US. So this article makes me wonder: are these people who might know about how hard it is to get into Spanish territory and, therefore, decide that it is ‘better’ to take the journey towards an almost equally impossible border? Is all of this the reason why they’d be willing to get further away from their cultures?

I am not sure but it could be a possibility. It would be something to find out through the stories of the African Immigrants in the US.

The Crossing: Hope and The Telling of Stories

The Crossing tells a remarkable story, one most people are not familiar with. The story humanizes the refugee condition and defines Morocco as an “in between space”, as it represents a unique geographic and socio-political context. Europe has come to represent a utopia, free from the suffering and poverty that drove many of the refugees from their homelands. Glorification of the western world is common as it grants those attempting to cross into Europe a sense of hope and purpose. Thus exists a duality of reality and dreams, acceptance and faith, for a better tomorrow. 

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The Crossing raises crucial social, economic, and political questions about what it means to be a citizen. What is a nation? What does being human mean and what are our rights? Are these being enforced? What and where is human dignity and how can we display it even in the most dire of circumstances? The complexity of these issues is boundless. Political power, economics, and law define some of these questions, but the real issue lies in exposing the atrocities of the Moroccan refugee condition, granting outsiders access into the crises to hopefully enact change.

Herein highlights the inherent need for anthropologists and social activists to uncover the untold stories of our human brethren and bring to light their suffering so we as a collective can learn, grow, and change our world for the better.

I was moved to tears reading the story of Beni and Dikembe and the horrid living conditions that brought them to Morocco. These men seek a new life for themselves and family, as their past is filled with suffering and devastation. The description of the poverty and misfortune that struck these men was beyond my comprehension. I transcended from my place in the world into their shoes for a brief moment. I was washed with grief and disgust and reminded of my privilege.

Beni promises that he and his brothers will “make it to Europe or we will die trying.” Tragic political conditions prevent most men who make it to the receiving center from achieving asylum. Ambiguous international laws on when refugees should be granted such status limits the possibilities for the majority of refugees. A successful crossing does not even mean a guaranteed asylum. Even worse, the illicit activity of the Guardia Civil and the common act of repatriation is atrocious. Often men, women, and children are left to die.

I was taken aback by the idea and pervasiveness of hope that is described throughout The Crossing, that men like Beni hold on to. In the face of such atrocity and suffering, hope is what keeps these men afloat. Heroes, or token success stories, are likened to biblical truth. If someone has crossed, it means it’s possible.

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It is grim to compare the Moroccan refugee crisis to the Holocaust, but human suffering and restrictions on freedom is something that can be linked across time, place, and culture. Seeing Spain from their forest camp, freedom so in reach yet so unattainable, I was reminded of this image, which reads ‘Work for Freedom’.

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I am deeply saddened by the impossibility and implausibility of achieving freedom through a crossing. I hope that there is another more civilized way for those seeking aid to be granted asylum.

Another fascinating aspect of Alexander’s The Crossing was the efficacy of its storytelling method. I believe it is important to analyze both the content and its presentation to understand how and why something can be shared effectively. A sympathetic not intrusive narration allows the story to tell itself. The use of Beni and Dikembe’s stories humanize the experience of the viewer.

I was reminded of the article That’s Enough About Ethnography! as it occurred to me that there was an important interplay between the engagement of participation and the detachment of observation of the anthropologist. Although present, it is clear a process and development of relationship between subject and observer has taken place and that the anthropologist is welcomed to tell their story. I now understand that in practice a simply ethnographic writing could be “devalued by its reduction to ‘data’” and that the goal of education could perhaps not be reached through this methodology (Ingold, 391).

Ultimately, there is an ethic responsibility of those who can, to share with the world the silent suffering of others. There are now, with the advent of new technology, effective measures of sharing untold stories. The first step to change is being aware of what’s going on in the world. So whose duty is it to expose what is going on? I think this matters tremendously and is the key to a better tomorrow for us all.