For the first day of class, I assign, among other texts, a chapter called “Just Looking” from The Object Stares Back by James Elkins. All seeing is heated, Elkins writes. There is a force to looking, and the force works in both directions: light pushes its way into your eyes; the eyes push their way into the world.
Looking is violent, Elkins argues, and to make his point he tells a story.
Hysterics were not the only people kept in the Parisian hospital La Salpetriere, which used to be a gunpowder factory. There were others locked inside – prostitutes, the mentally disabled, the criminally insane, madwomen – and in the 19th and early 20th century, the doctors who worked at the hospital published an academic journal. In it they wrote about their patients’ appearance, which they thought to be an external sign of an internal state. They could understand neurological pathologies by examining their physical expressions, they thought. They had questions – Does hysteria give a person a particular face? What happens to someone who spends her entire life in bed? What does it look like to have a belly so fat it scrapes the floor? – and they used the camera to get the answers they wanted, photographing the patients' gestures, their poses, mannerisms, irritable signs, twitches.
Reading issues of the doctors’ journal, Elkins came across a photograph of a eunuch accompanying one of the articles. He describes the photograph for the reader. The eunuch’s face is impassive or perhaps resigned, he writes. It is a tired face. The eyes are gently shut.
He had once been manic-depressive, the doctors write, but recently had entered into a period of continuous calm.
Elkins does not say how the person became a eunuch, whether it was by choice or force, whether it was by birth or violence. At first, Elkins writes, the body seems posed, as if the eunuch meant to show off some feminine grace.
The person in the photograph is 40 years old – my age now as I write this – and habitually stoned on hashish. Elkins says the person in the photograph declared he was going to marry a princess and raise a family. With the princess, he thought, he would have an orgasm and an ejaculation.
Elkins insists the doctor’s notes are not unsympathetic, but, he writes, there is, in the journal, evidence of a brutal medical assessment.
Rectal examination revealed a normal prostate.
I turn the page.
And there for me to see – for all of my students to see – is the photograph: Figure 1.
I look at the photograph for a long time. I see things Elkins did not describe about the image. The person in the photograph is Black, greying hair cut close to the head, shoulders rotated forward, arms hanging down, fingers lightly touching the side of his legs just above his knees, which are together, almost touching, though his feet are apart. There appears to be a bracelet around his left ankle.
Elkins also neglected to describe the room. The filth of the floor and the darkness spreading up the white wall – Is it mud? Dirt? Blood? – remind me of other rooms in other photographs I sometimes wish I’d never seen.
This is the violent side of seeing, Elkins writes. The mere act of looking . . . turns a human being into a naked, shivering example of a medical condition.
I take notes to prepare for class. The violent side of seeing, I write. I make a list of everything Elkins compares looking to. Looking is like hunting, like loving, searching, possessing, using.
I keep track of what he writes about how seeing works. Seeing controls, objectifies, denigrates. It creates pain.
I keep reading the chapter – which I have copied from a book in the school’s library, which I have scanned for my students and turned into a PDF, which I have asked them to print out and bring to class – and when I am done reading, I don’t think about the photograph or the chapter again until a few days later when I teach it.
Let’s turn to Elkins, I say. It is the start of the semester, the very first meeting of a class called “Art, Society, and Mass Media." I ask students to work in groups of three to identify Elkins’s main argument. I walk around the room. I listen to their conversations. I bring the group back together for a discussion.
Let’s talk about the photograph of the eunuch, I say, and my students turn to the page on which the photograph appears.
But then I see that one of my students has covered the photograph with a green Post It note.
And when I see that she has covered the image, I see that I did not cover the image, that in fact I have done the opposite of covering the image. I have scanned it, asked my students to print it, turned it into an electronic document that can be emailed and reproduced. I think of what Mark Danner writes about how at Abu Ghraib the digital camera and its inescapable flash functioned as part of the torture – how it was a shame multiplier, the ultimate third party letting the prisoner know that his humiliation would not stop when the torture stopped, but would continue every time someone looked at the photographs. Now I am the shame multiplier. Now there are 19 photographs of this person in the classroom. Now there are 19 people who spent time looking at this person, naked, alone, exposed, because I asked them to, because I required it.
But not this one student. She has covered him, her green post-it note a blanket, a veil, a mantle, a burial shroud – protecting the person from her gaze. Protecting the person from me.
She is a veteran. She fought in the first Gulf War. Her hair is pink. Across the first knuckle of each of her fingers is tattooed a letter so if she were to make a fist with each hand and then put them together, her hands would spell a message: B E I N L O V E .
The letters face toward her, not away, designed as a reminder, and they worked.
This is not the first time this particular student has taught me. She has taken classes with me before, and in one of those classes, I projected an image onto the classroom wall that several of the authors I assigned for class had discussed, James Nachtwey’s “Sudan, 1993,” a photograph of a man who is starving to death, skeletal, every rib visible, every bone.
I’d assigned texts by several authors, each of whom thought differently about this image, and I wanted to use the photograph as an opportunity for debate about the ethical questions surrounding taking pictures of people in pain. I had my back to the image as I talked about the questions the authors had raised – questions about objectification, about what it means to name the photograph after a country rather than after the person in the picture, about racism, about whether the photograph aestheticizes suffering.
I had my back to the image while I talked, and I paced back and forth in front of it, the light from the projector mounted on the ceiling washing over me, my body taking on the lightness and the darkness of the photograph, my body taking on the body of the starving man, my face and clothing becoming part of the image, becoming the screen onto which it was projected.
I wasn't looking at the photograph I was talking about. I was looking at my students. And then my student started to cry. She turned away from the screen, and when I saw her tears – just like when I saw her green Post-It note – I realized I was doing exactly what I was criticizing the photographer of doing. I was using the body of a dying man to teach my students something.
What do we ask bodies in pain to do for us? I ask this question in my classroom again and again, and the more I teach about violent images the more I wonder what work they do. Why do I need a photograph of bodies blown apart to understand the damage missiles cause? Why do I need to see melted skin, broken bones, shattered skulls? Why do I need to see this man’s ribs about to break through, to see that he barely has the strength to hold his body up from the earth, from the ground, to reach out his arm to accept a tiny packet of hydration salts, to see that he will die and that his death did not need to happen, that it was avoidable, that there was something that could have been done, that there was something I could have done?
For years now I have been teaching my students about these kinds of images, asking questions about these images, and what has teaching about this material done to me? What has curating slide show after slide show of images of people in pain done to me?
That day, with the image of a dying man projected across my body, I confirmed my own lesson. I added his image to a PowerPoint presentation. I projected it onto my classroom wall. I felt nothing.
But my student cried.
Consider this sentence, Elkins writes: The observer looks at the object. It seems simple, even obvious, a given, but it comes apart right away, because it is built on the very simple but mistaken idea that the observer and the object are two different things.
The beholder looks at the object, but the object changes the beholder, and therefore the beholder does not look at the object.
Or think of this sentence: The soldier kills the enemy. It sounds like a one-way gesture, Elkins writes, but it is not because the act of killing does not only change the person who is killed. The act of killing changes the killer.
In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry puts it differently. Every weapon, she writes, has two ends.
Elkins, James. The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.