This ol’ world has an immense capacity for inflicting and taking pain. The last century has a body count that numbs the mind’s capacity to take in the extent of suffering and sorrow that is our common inheritance and guilt. A former lecturer of mine, Martin Croghan, told a story about how he found himself at a conference of anthropologists, and was jammed between two “experts” on terrorism. Both the American and German scholars agreed that when it came to dishing it out, the Irish were just the worst – it was innate, part of their DNA. My lecturer responded with a simple equation: “You’re German, and you’re American, and I’m Irish, right? OK, let’s count corpses.”
Now, it is easy to treat such remarks as flip, or even offensive, but there is a point being made by Professor Croghan that is too often overlooked, especially in books like My Brother’s Keeper. And it isn’t just the position of the apostrophe. Twenty photographers of world status are featured here, short collections that will be well-known to readers of magazines such as this one, from Jacob Riis in the slums of New York to the chaos of the Chinese Cultural Revolution by Li Zhensheng to Ulrik’s Jantzen’s strangely dignifying portraits of acid-scorched women in Bangladesh.
The problem is the presentation, and the randomness, that these things just happen to unfortunate people. There is little context beyond the plight of victims, there is too much aftermath and all we are left with is the consequences, the pieces that cannot be picked up. There is little sense of agency, in other words. This book and its mealy-mouthed introduction by Susie Linfield tries to have its cake and eat it, right in front of the starving.
It is a totally sincere exercise in trying to see horror without making a friend of horror. Yet it falls into the same trap that so many good people and organisations have fallen into in recent years. It is the moral swamp exemplified by this quote from Walter Benjamin: “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Is that deep shit, or weasel words? I think the latter, but I don’t blame Benjy. Lovers of Heine and Strauss had forced him into exile, flight and eventually a state of such terror of his fellow Germans that he killed himself rather than face capture.
The sub-theme of that quotation and its use among a plethora of on-the-other-hand quotes by Linfield is that everyone suffers, that all are victims. What is absent, largely, is the sense that something is responsible for the carnage that spills across the beautifully laid-out pages of this book. The same narrative void is at the heart of the Amnestys and Human Rights Watches spiel these days. Look at the pain. Don’t point fingers at who causes the pain, because things get really messy then.
There are exceptions in the selection. Philip Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc is a finger-pointing exercise, one that unflinchingly faces unpleasant facts and makes a clear judgment. Or Josef Koudelka’s raw imprints of the Soviet crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring. These photographs are not a dialectic; They are a rant and all the better for it. The Russian and East German tankies are portrayed as soulless thugs. The citizens of Prague are angry and defiant and possessed of a power that is beyond the reach of an AK-47 or a T-72. The image of one young man confronting a soldier, opening his jacket to bare his chest and rage at a Russian with a gun pointed at him is one of the purest images of good versus evil ever captured. It is messy and foul-mouthed. It says, like little else since Martin Luther: “Here I stand. Fuck you.”