4-1 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.scandal.4-1.1 | Siemens PDF

Ele­na Siemens | Uni­ver­si­ty of Alberta

Blue Door Havana

It is a rainy morn­ing in Havana. My fel­low tourists dis­si­pate, each in search of their own trea­sure. The set­ting is the com­plete oppo­site of our pris­tine sea-side resort in Varadero. An old cathe­dral is under recon­struc­tion with scaf­fold­ing and var­i­ous con­struc­tion equip­ment. I pho­to­graph a pret­ty square just out­side the cathe­dral, cap­tur­ing the wet trees and the wet pave­ment. Three old men in straw hats are play­ing folk songs. The build­ing next to them has a set of tall bright-blue doors. In On Pho­tog­ra­phy, Susan Son­tag writes about “the beau­ty of the cracked peel­ing door” and how it appeals to the West­ern view­er, who appre­ci­ates “the pic­turesque­ness of dis­or­der” (362). Son­tag con­trasts this sen­si­bil­i­ty with that of Com­mu­nist Chi­na, where pho­tog­ra­phy was required to embell­ish reality.

I take no side in this divide, or rather, as a native Russ­ian, I can relate to both. The blue doors in Havana attract me for a dif­fer­ent rea­son. They remind me of a remark­able show staged in a door­way that I once saw in Moscow. Cuba, it appears, fol­lows its own path, entire­ly dif­fer­ent from either Chi­na or Rus­sia. Cap­tur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion in Cuba, Alber­to Kor­da employed “the same ideas and tech­niques as in fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy,” Jaime Sarusky writes in his intro­duc­tion to Korda’s book of pho­tographs (12). Korda’s hero was the pho­tog­ra­ph­er Raul Cor­rales, who as a teenag­er devoured glossy for­eign mag­a­zines, “whose pho­tos made his imag­i­na­tion soar” (5). At the Havana air­port, wait­ing for my flight back to Cana­da, I leaf through pic­tures by Kor­da and Cor­rales, in which Cuba’s cap­i­tal resem­bles a glam­orous movie set: trop­i­cal nature, the sea, and hand­some rebels in black berets march­ing on the old regime. In the 1930s Moscow, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary direc­tor Vsevolod Mey­er­hold hoped to con­struct a new the­atre with a stage shaped like a cat­walk. He was not able to real­ize his dream; palm trees do not grow in Russia.

In his essay “Shock-Pho­tos” – the inspi­ra­tion behind this col­lec­tion of texts and images – Roland Barthes observes that “it is not enough for the pho­tog­ra­ph­er to sig­ni­fy the hor­ri­ble for us to expe­ri­ence it” (71). Dis­cussing the Shock-Pho­tos exhib­it at the Galerie d’Orsay in Paris, Barthes writes that most of the exhib­it­ed pic­tures failed to pro­duce the desired effect. The pho­tog­ra­ph­er, he explains, “almost always over­con­struct­ed the hor­ror he is propos­ing, adding to the fact, by con­trasts and par­al­lels, the inten­tion­al lan­guage of hor­ror” (Barthes 71). Barthes cites sev­er­al exam­ples of this, includ­ing a pic­ture which “places side by side a crowd of sol­diers and a field of skulls” (Barthes 71). Anoth­er pho­to­graph depicts “a col­umn of pris­on­ers pass­ing a flock of sheep” (Barthes 71). These “all too skill­ful” pho­tographs, Barthes argues, take away an oppor­tu­ni­ty to reflect and judge, leav­ing the view­er with noth­ing but “a sim­ple right of intel­lec­tu­al acqui­es­cence” (71).

Barthes sin­gles out a selec­tion of news-agency pho­tos, also dis­played at the exhib­it, in which “the fact, sur­prised, explodes in all of its stub­born­ness, its lit­er­al­i­ty, in the very obvi­ous­ness of its obtuse nature” (73). These news-agency shots depict­ing “the exe­cut­ed Guatemalans,” or “the policeman’s raised trun­cheon,” Barthes points out, are “visu­al­ly dimin­ished, dis­pos­sessed of that numen which the painters would not have failed to add to them” (73). The “nat­u­ral­ness of these images,” Barthes con­tin­ues, “com­pels the spec­ta­tor to a vio­lent inter­ro­ga­tion” (73). The view­ers must them­selves elab­o­rate on the pic­ture and place their own judg­ment – “with­out being encum­bered by the demi­ur­gic pres­ence of the pho­tog­ra­ph­er” (Barthes 73). Accord­ing to Barthes, these “vis­i­bly dimin­ished” news-agency shots exhib­it “that crit­i­cal cathar­sis Brecht demands,” rather than “an emo­tive pur­ga­tion,” char­ac­ter­is­tic of paint­ing (73). “The lit­er­al pho­to­graph,” Barthes con­cludes his essay, “intro­duces us to the scan­dal of hor­ror, not to hor­ror itself” (73). In what fol­lows, the read­er will find a selec­tion of provoca­tive essays deal­ing with both the “over­con­struct­ed” and “lit­er­al” rep­re­sen­ta­tion of dis­turb­ing events. Allud­ing to Barthes and oth­er influ­en­tial thinkers, the essays explore diverse exam­ples of “scan­dals of hor­ror” – shock­ing images in film and pho­tog­ra­phy drawn from a vari­ety of his­tor­i­cal eras and geo­graph­i­cal loca­tions from Bom­bay to Moscow to Rwanda.

Works Cited

Barthes, Rol­land.  “Shock-Pho­tos.”  The Eif­fel Tow­er and Oth­er Mytholo­gies.  New York: Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

Sarusky, Jamie.  “Raul Corales.”  Ed. Car­los Tor­res Cairo, Raul Corales: La Ima­gen Y La His­to­ria, Flo­rence: Aedi­ciones Aure­lia, 1996.

Sarusky, Jamie.  “Kor­da.”  Ed. Car­los Tor­res Cairo, Alber­to Kor­da: Diario de una Rev­olu­cion, Flo­rence: Aedi­ciones Aure­lia, 1996.

Son­tag, Susan.  “Image-World.”  A Susan Son­tag Read­er.  New York: Vin­tage Books, 1983.

This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.