Book review – The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence


The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence by Susie Linfield (available on Amazon USA and UK.)

Publisher University of Chicago Press writes: Since the early days of photography, critics have told us that photos of political violence–of torture, mutilation, and death–are exploitative, deceitful, even pornographic. To look at these images is voyeuristic; to turn away is a gesture of respect.

With The Cruel Radiance, Susie Linfield attacks those ideas head-on, arguing passionately that viewing such photographs–and learning to see the people in them–is an ethically and politically necessary act that connects us to our modern history of violence and probes our capacity for cruelty. Contending with critics from Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht to Susan Sontag and the postmoderns–and analyzing photographs from such events as the Holocaust, China’s Cultural Revolution, and recent terrorist acts–Linfield explores the complex connection between photojournalism and the rise of human rights ideals. In the book’s concluding section, she examines the indispensable work of Robert Capa, James Nachtwey, and Gilles Peress, and asks how photography has–and should–respond to the increasingly nihilistic trajectory of modern warfare.

A bracing and unsettling book, The Cruel Radiance convincingly demonstrates that if we hope to alleviate political violence, we must first truly understand it–and to do that, we must begin to look.


Mola and Yoka, victims of atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo circa 1905. © Anti-Slavery International

There could have been more cheerful ways to close this year of book reviews but i’ve covered so many documentary photo exhibitions over the past few months that i needed a moment to pause and ponder. That’s exactly what The Cruel Radiance gave me: a dignified, captivating, if slightly crushing, pause.

The first part of the book charts the history of photo criticism and considers the relationships between historical ideals and photo practice. I had no idea that documentary photography was in need of a knight in shining armour. Contemporary photo criticism has inherited from the likes of Charles Baudelaire and Susan Sontag a distrust and disdain towards documentary photography. Photography, they say, turns us into voyeurs, it often verges on pornography, it exploits victims, glorifies suffering, erodes our capacity to act in solidarity, ‘deadens our conscience’, etc. Susie Linfield’s book attempts to analyse and correct the accusations and ultimately sets forths a convincing plea in the defense of war photography. Well, at least it was most convincing to me who was already a converted.


Grigory Zinoviev from David King’s book Ordinary Citizens: The Victims of Stalin

A second section investigates 4 historical moments and photographers who documented them: the Holocaust, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, civil wars in Sierra Leone and other African countries and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Heinrich Jöst, Vendor of armbands, Warsaw Ghetto, September 19, 1941 (image source)


Photographic report on Dachau concentration camp, from “Illustrierter Beobachter”, page 2014-2015, issue 49, volume 11, printed by Verlag Franz Eher Nachfolger GmbH, Munich, 1936

It might seem disconcerting to some of us but the Nazi regime was intent on documenting its deeds: in 1936, the magazine Illustrierter Beobachter ran an illustrated article on Dachau, Auschwitz had a staff of two official SS photographers and German soldier Heinrich Jöst took dozens of photos the day of his birthday as was strolling around the Warsaw ghetto for his own entertainment. Because Jöst lacked the decency to turn away from pain and horror, his photos give a striking and implacable account of the horror of the ghetto.

The images taken by the Nazi later served as evidence of the atrocities taking place inside the camps but taking these photos was not just an act of documentation, it was also an act of cruelty meant to further degrade the victims.

Susie Linfield realizes that any representation of the Holocaust pales in front of the reality they seek to depict but she also believes that the photos invite us to approach the Holocaust not as a historic fact but as a human experience. By looking at these images, she writes, we can defeat Hitler’s plan to throw the Jews into complete oblivion.


Li Zhensheng, Ren Zhongyi accused of being a ‘capitalist-roader’, Harbin, 26 August 1966


Li Zhensheng, Top Party officials publicly shamed during a rally in Harbin’s Red Guard Square in August 1966

Li Zhensheng worked as a party approved photographer for a newspaper in Harbin during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976.) Along with his official, ‘approved’ snaps documenting the political movements, Li also made thousands of photo which he had to hide for 40 years under the floorboard of his apartment. His secret photos depict the atrocities of the time, and bring us closer to the movement’s victims, especially as they go through rituals of public humiliation.


Per-Anders Pettersson, Esther Yandakwa, 9, smokes a cigarette while her friends help her with her hair on April 30, 2006 in Matonge district in central Kinshasa, Congo, DRC. Esther is homeless and works a prostitute together with four fourteen-year-old friends

The photos taken of child soldiers, child prostitutes, of maimed civilians in Africa explore what happens when violence is drifting away from ideology, ideas and a vision of political change. How should we react? Which kind of solidarity should we summon when we are confronted with images which further widen our conception of what human beings can do to each other but with which we cannot associate any political affinities?


Stuart Freedman, A boy ponders his father’s articicial legs, Makeni, Sierra Leone 2004

The last chapter in the section dedicated to various moments in history investigates the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through images of tortures and executions in both the Muslim and what the author calls the “Western” world.

The gruesome images taken at Abu Ghraib portray cruelty as much as they celebrate it. The images of violent acts distributed by Islamic militants do the same. The footage of suicide bombings, beheadings and other types of execution are performed for the camera. None of these images were taken by professional photographers, they are nonetheless extremely powerful. They are not witnesses of violence anymore, they are new forms of violence. These photos seek to deny, indeed crush, the very idea of solidarity between peoples. Furthermore, they raise a disturbing question: “Does watching these images make us guilty of colluding with the other side?”

The author’s conclusion is that while we need to look at the violence of the world we inhabit, we also need to find a balance between the attempts of a Bush administration to sanitize images from the war and photos and videos of beheading and humiliation that do little to deepen anyone’s political thinking.


©2000 James Nachtwey, Untitled, Romania, 1990


James Nachtwey, Collapse of south tower of World Trade Center, New York, 2001

The third section of the book focuses on three war photographers:

Linfield calls Robert Capa “The Optimist” mostly because of the way he tried to ‘repersonalize’ war through images of solidarity, individuality, brotherhood;

James Nachtwey is “The Catastrophist” because of the extreme brutality of his photos. Nachtwey doesn’t produce photos that people would want to hang on their walls. His images are so harsh, yet visually sophisticated, their violence so explicit that they are the focus of the ongoing dispute over photojournalism and ‘disaster pornography’. They also seem to be divorced from religious, political or historic redemption and make us wonder what happens to documentary photography when it no longer has a politics to support. But is there a right way to depict the implacable scenes the photographer saw? Is it better to turn away?

Gilles Peress is ‘the Skeptic’ for its ever questioning of the media, the subjects he photographs, his own style, his certainties.

copyrightGilles Peress.jpg

Gilles Peress, Clothing and bleached bones were all that remained of this refugee, slain with over 1000 others at the parish church of Nyarubuye. Their bodies were not found until 44 days after the killings. Africa, Rwanda. 1994

The Cruel Radiance is a fantastic book, especially because of the author’s belief that if today we are experts at dissecting and manipulating photos, it does in no way mean that we have lost our capacity to respond to them. I was sometimes taken aback by some of Linfield’s political comments but i admire her faith in documentary photography, in its power to make us react, in its role in developing a conscience and debate about human rights.

Linfield’s narration is elegant, gripping and clear. She does a fantastic job at describing pictures but i often wish she’d have included much more images in her book instead.


Unidentified child prisoner of the Khmer Rouge photographed before execution at the Tuol Sleng torture centre. Photograph: Unknown photographer/Cruel Radiance/The University of Chicago Press

Excerpt from the book.
Related: Manipulating Reality – The Day Nobody Died.
See also James Nachtwey’s TED talk.