Kitchen scene in Donetsk, Ukraine, August 2014. // Sergei Ilnitsky

Kitchen scene in Donetsk, Ukraine, August 2014. // Sergei Ilnitsky

“In her 1977 collection of essays, ‘On Photography,’ Susan Sontag identified a feeling of helpless voyeurism that comes over us as we look at photographs of people in the midst of conflict. She also wrote about how repeatedly seeing such images could anesthetize the vision and deaden the conscience. Sontag understood photographs of conflict to be making a utilitarian argument — that they could bring us into a state of productive shock — and showed that they seldom did what they claimed, or hoped, to do. The more photographs shock, the more difficult it is for them to be pinned to their local context, and the more easily they are indexed to our mental library of generic images. What, then, are we to do with a thrilling photograph that is at the same time an image of pain?

In Ilnitsky’s photograph, taken last August in Donetsk, a major city in the eastern part of Ukraine, a length of white lace is swept to the left side. Like a theatrical curtain, it reveals a table with a teapot, a bowl full of tomatoes, a can, two mugs, and two paring knives on a little cutting board. It is a still life, but it is in utter disarray. Broken glass and dust are everywhere, and one of the mugs is shattered; to the right, across the lace curtain, the shards of glass and the table, is a splatter of red color that could only be one thing. Domestic objects imply use, and Ilnitsky’s photograph pulls our minds toward the now lost tranquillity of the people who owned these items. How many cups of coffee were made in that kitchen? Who bought those tomatoes? Were there children in this household who did their homework on this table? Whose blood is that? The absence of people in the photograph makes room for these questions.”

– from Teju Cole’s essay “Object Lesson” in the New York Times Magazine

A lot to learn here, in writing and reporting too, I think.


2 responses to “juxtaposition

  1. Have you read Open City or any of Sontag’s other works? I like Teju Cole as an essayist but Open City seemed to lack anything emotive to propel the story forward. I do like this new generation of post modern lit, there is a really cool essay about it on The New Republic: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121603/avant-garde-literature-starting-resemble-conceptual-art
    And of course Sontag is giving me life right now, I’m reading her second volume of journals but it’s her essays I can’t wait to get to!

    • Hi Aneesah! I haven’t read Open City, although it’s been on my to-read list for ages. Maybe it’ll stay on there a little while longer. Since I’ve returned to school, I’ve generally been reading news and long-form nonfiction narrative. And now that I’m on break, instead of burning through my to-read list, I’ve apparently decided to re-read my favorite books from the past (not too many new post-post-modernists (or whatever you’d like to call em) there). Not making a lot of progress on new lit, but at least I’m enjoying myself!

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