“An Introduction to Visual Culture”

An Introduction To Visual Culture, Nicholas Mirzoeff. Routledge, New York, 1999.

Visual culture can be described as the mix of different modes of media. In today’s world, a person is not left with a choice and is greeted by a bombardment of images. And that onslaught can be in the form of photographs, TV news, film and theater, digital multimedia, internet, or various messages from the advertising industry.

In the age of neo-colonialism, media are conveniently used to convey intentional messages. For example, in Guantanamo Bay certain images of prisoners in orange suits, with a mask on their faces, were allowed to be distributed since the message intended to be spread by the police officials was: “This is what will happen to you.”

Mirzoeff explains that what we “see” is not what we  “perceive.” That is to say that vision is not part of visual culture until it becomes visuality. And visuality is what represents history as visible through the eyes of powerful States. Visual culture is being exploited into being an autocratic system itself, even though the makers of visual culture may feel they are choosing to be  democratic.

In the case of Abu Ghraib, the pictures that were taken were distributed around the world. One wonders about the purpose of such an act? On the one hand, it sends out a message that in the present era of digital media, every event, every move needs to be captured. On the other hand, is it worth capturing the helplessness of humanity? The dehumanization of fellow beings? Is it worth recording through these images that represent the torture as well as the sadistic pleasure experienced by first-hand the torturers and second-hand via the representation itself?

“Visuality visualizes conflict.”

So imitating “the fetishism” of soldiers by displaying the bloody pictures of war is really a way to rationalize their killings.

The message is that once on the field of war, it is only natural to mercilessly inflict pain on the so-called enemies. Another message that is given out is that a soldier fights and protects the country, therefore what he “expects” in return is what he “deserves.” The relationship between porn and a soldier is shown to be legitimate since it is the right of a soldier to have a naked woman for sex as a reward.

However, “the exchange of sexualized looking for modern warfare has now become virtual.” The use of pornography, and the way female interrogators in Guantanamo Bay touched the prisoners in a sexual way to get information, further highlight the use of digital media in the horrific war zone.

The US Government uses visual culture meticulously. They make sure that every person absorbs every bit of information that they deliberately rotate in the media through TV, Cinema, ubiquitous advertisements, and  biased and filtered news channels. A good example would be the license plate of Pat Dollard that read “US WINS” when the Bush administration launched its “global war on terror.” These images instill fear among people and sow the seed of destructive imagination in their minds. The magnitude of what they see is quadrupled and the constant danger to life becomes a major priority.

The US government has been reduced to a strictly military nature and that was evident when hurricane Katrina struck. A lot of assistance was being rejected since it did not meet security standards. However, “national and international media” were allowed to cover the catastrophe.

To the US and European point of view it seems as if the whole world is a spectacle in which there is a compulsion to keep a record of every move that is made. Almost like keeping a record of one’s “accomplishments,” be it the charred body of an Iraqi or a lynching in Colonial times. These events have been flashed with pride in the form of pictures.

We live with the “Banality of images,” and a person in the 21st century is all too used to seeing gory images of dead people, pictures and videos of  people being tortured, raped and killed, so that now the emotional feelings of humans have become immune  to such trauma.

Anisha Dutt is a senior at the Rochester Institute of Technology, NY.