Politics of images in the pandemic



How can we introduce into our everyday imagery of the pandemic a desire and a pain that go beyond any obvious meaning?

In the current scenario of the pandemic, it would perhaps be important to question the effectiveness (ethical and political) of the images that occupy our screens and, consequently, our imagination. It seems inevitable to try to understand the attitudes linked to the current situation from the appeal to the pathos (to emotion) provided by an involuntary bodily staging that occupies the media stage every day. This is because Brazilian current affairs have orchestrated a violent visual antithesis of bodies: those who, dressed in national colors, gather in extemporaneous demonstrations in favor of the executive power, opposing those who, sick, simply pile up in hospital spaces. Between bodies in agitation and bodies in pain, the moment is propitious to observe, together with the images, those true eyes of history, where our tacit intolerances, our unconscious desires, our latent fears are located.

It would be worth recalling here, immediately, Jacques Rancière's lesson: when analyzing the official information system, we must attack the rules of the game rather than impose a script that presupposes that we are inert in the face of images. “We are not in front of the images, we are among them, just as they are among us”. The question, therefore, is not one of raging once again against the torrent of images that submerges us every day, but of knowing “how we move among them, how we make them circulate”[I].

In times of suffocation in all senses, it is possible to evoke images of photojournalism that show us how the look also has a particular breathing regime. Something like a dialectical effort constantly enlivened by a measured rhythm or an alternating beat.

In this sense, two photographs recently published by Folha de São Paulo constitute testimonies of a rhythmic advance and retreat of the gaze.

On March 28, the São Paulo newspaper publishes an image of President Bolsonaro in one of his public appearances in front of the Alvorada Palace. A caption accompanied it: “While speaking in front of Alvorada, Jair Bolsonaro sprays spit, a primary reason for social distancing”. Splutter, an unusual word, made by circumstance, synonymous with a prosaic splash of saliva, then held the photographer's attention and gained 2/3 of the photograph's surface.

The image of the presidential splinters, thus focused in photographic enlargement, has an extraordinary metonymic efficacy. If the part is worth the whole, there is the precise visual record of our fears: the representative's verbal impropriety, his very harmfulness (made of intemperance and inconvenience), in glorious whitish stains sweeping the space, against the background of a blurred face , perfect representative, therefore, of the anonymous on which salivary spatters will surely come to be deposited in the various forms of counterproductive and indecorous verbiage in times of national collective tragedy.

There is an image with extraordinary designative power. She make see without needing the words to make see. In its muteness, it replaces the informational torrent that assails us. In this sense, it perhaps distinguishes itself by emblematizing the ideological tensions that are experienced. And it does so by inviting the gaze to fine-tune its apprehension of the real, to settle on tiny pestilent droplets suspended in the air.

A second image, published with variations in different information vehicles, chooses to stay away. It is an aerial view of the graves opened in almost geometric alignment in the immense cemetery of Vila Formosa, in São Paulo. The volumes ostensibly waiting for their contents, a sequence that the aerial view intensifies, somehow transfigure the singular bodies. The image, eager to align the collective in the face of the catastrophe, perhaps discourages an individualized look. The cemetery, whose dimensions are proportional to the urban misery it serves, is not a casual object for photographing the facts. The image would seek to demonstrate that there is a great community in the face of destiny, and the singular is subsumed in the universality of death that invades everyday life. Distancing seems to predispose to disturbing imagery.

I would recall, here, the lesson of Georges Didi-Huberman: an image, however innocuous or neutral it may be, becomes inescapable “when a loss bears it”[ii]. It is when, then, this image begins to look at us, concern us, pursue us. This is what makes a simple optical plan “a visual power that looks at us”. Potential for restlessness, somatization, imagination, endowed with devilish, and irreducible, rhythmic flow and reflux, advance and retreat, appearance and disappearance.

In this sense, the two evoked photographs seem to respond precisely to this double dimension of the image, to its perpetually coming and going rhythm: systole or contraction of seeing (inquiring and focused register of seeing), diastole or dilation of seeing (dispersed, imaginative regime of the to look).

This dynamic character of the images also corresponds to a double implication of knowledge. Nor a pure immersion, in the “in itself” of a fact, in the terrain of “too close”. Neither a pure abstraction, a haughty transcendence, in the sky of “too far away”, as Didi-Huberman points out[iii]. For the historian and philosopher of images, it is necessary to take a stand in order to know, to assume responsibility for moving. “This movement is both 'approach' and 'distance', approach with reserve, withdrawal with desire”. That's why Didi-Huberman is so fond of the imaginative montages that she sees in Bertold Brecht's war photo album. There, he notes, in particular, a paradoxical approximation between the “war of invisible microbes” and the aerial view of the disemboweled soil of Hamburg after aerial bombings.[iv]. A way of showing that, for Brecht, it is possible to compose with the intoxication of images, to verify the closest and the most distant, “and never one without the other”, knowledge without imagination; finally, the intimate and secret relationships of things. It is remarkable to observe how the same systole of seeing and the same diastole of imagination now seem to be relaunched in images of our current photojournalism. As a re-edition of the same demand for knowledge through images, a knowledge accustomed to the pathos, to the (necessarily imaginative) empathy of the tragic.

It so happens that empathy for the tragic should be followed, according to Brecht, by moving away from the critical view, by demystifying the behavior represented by the characters (from the theater and from life) and the way in which this behavior is represented. It is to be asked, therefore, whether the contemporary spectator of the imagery of the pandemic is invited to take a critical position, to an acuity of vision.

It so happens that there is a predominance of visual signs in our media that aim for perfect legibility, the transmission of an irreducible obviousness, of what, in an image, can reach us, move us and deliver, finally, a truth. This is the exemplary case of a photo by award-winning photographer Lalo de Almeida published in Folha de São Paulo on the 5th of April. In an impoverished interior, in semi-darkness, a woman with her child in her arms allows herself to be photographed next to the open, sparsely equipped refrigerator. This image delivers us to the unappealable record of full indexicality: a mere illustration of matter, the image as obviousness. So much so that it illustrates a report with the following title: “Quarantine in SP reduces the diet of children in the periphery to rice”. The reader is urged to check the reliability of the report in the image. The image opens wide, like the fridge, what it asks of its viewer: a premeditated feeling of indignation towards the “good souls”. The image “wishes”, so to speak, that gazes unequivocally identify what it points to. Mercantile law of equivalence of senses and feelings.

Examples of this indexical truism now proliferate in the daily media. In the May 28 issue of Folha de São Paulo, a photograph successfully registers a social incongruity: standing, amidst the dirt, a child from the periphery poses for the photographer wearing a mask to protect against the coronavirus. The image feeds the indignation, it is certain. But it persists in the tacit confirmation of a device of visibility that points to the victim, regulates the status of their represented body and confirms the state of society to the aware spectator.

But would there be a way to guarantee for the image of the catastrophe some resistance to the mere function of transitivity? Would there be a way to propose images of horror without falling back into the scandal of literality? “Literal photography”, Barthes reminds us, “presents us with the scandal of horror, not horror itself”[v]. After all, is it possible to identify in our imagery of the pandemic a power to affect that escapes the calculations of the moment, whether by the media or politics?

It is known how Roland Barthes' critique of contemporary “mythologies” helped in the recognition of ideological registers invested by images. Barthes rejected myth as a decoy that prevents an effective understanding of historical praxis. However, and in the same way, he rejected the pathos as an aesthetic decoy belonging to the effects of “shock”. His criticism, it is true, introduced a legitimate suspicion regarding media images of pain, the extortion of feelings by journalistic images. mythologies, let us remember, is a book that starts from a “feeling of impatience in the face of the 'natural' with which the press, [...], common sense continually mask a reality that, due to the fact that it is the one in which we live, does not cease to be this perfectly historic”[vi]. Barthes thus offers us a model for dismantling the formal manifestations of ideology in the instrumental use of language and image.

In this dismantling operation, the semiologist attacks the mythographer – the photographer – given over to a representation of pain for shock effect. “In front of [these photos]”, estimates Barthes, “we are deprived of our ability to judge: someone trembled for us, reflected for us, judged for us, the photographer left us nothing – except the possibility of an intellectual approval [ …]”[vii]. In his perspective, the tragedy of the image only incites an “emotional purge”, unlike the epic construction of history, which would make a “critical catharsis” possible.

The expression, in reference to Brecht, is misleading: a “critical catharsis” remains on the order of an emotional experience. Now, how can we give a positive, political value to the pathos, emotion, commonly associated with passivity? Faced with the horror photographed or filmed, are we left with the exclusive situation of the spectator comfortably facing the image? Remember: “the horror comes from the fact that we are looking from within our freedom”, to recall Barthes' words once again.

It would therefore be important to rethink in political terms the issue of the pathic value of every traumatic image.

A few days ago, the funeral of João Pedro, the boy who died inside his house during a police raid on Morro do Salgueiro in Rio de Janeiro, revived the ancestral icon of dolorosa mater. O pathos da compassion reintroduced itself to the Brazilian spectator. The boy's mother, in pain, is supported at the foot of the tomb of her son sacrificed in the name of an order that never comes true. A similar image appeared in Folha de São Paulo, in a photograph by Amanda Perobelli, from the Reuters agency, published on May 23, at the funeral of Raimunda Conceição Souza, another victim of the pandemic. “Emphatic truth of the gesture in the important moments of life”, in the words of Baudelaire quoted by Barthes. One wonders if these images have the strength to postulate that history is not pure transcendence (albeit a palatial one), and that our affective immanences have some effect on the march of truth and facts.

What, after all, is the constitutive role of the pathos in consideration of current pain management? When faith in the politician's words dwindles, perhaps we should ask for compassion as a response to every current narrative that involves effective agents in a paralyzed society. What may seem paradoxical, a breath of passivity. But it would be important to reflect on this at a time when politics ceases to designate the domain of legitimate action[viii]. And when we witness the media irruption of the more traditional forms of funeral gestures, the survival of traditional mourning gestures in the periphery of mourning gestures - Christian gestures, gestures of popular devotion, “collective expressions of emotions that cross the ages”, as Didi-Huberman points out[ix]– , gestures and expressions that the educated citizen learns to appreciate only on the properly scripted walls of their museums.

A few weeks ago, Rede Globo's Jornal Nacional replaced the icon of the Covid-19 virus with portraits of the victims of the pandemic. Once again, the effect sought was that of a pathos – Giorgio Agamben would say, the evidence of a belonging of each one to the species, the appearance/visibility of humanity[X], in the inability (or lack of interest) to single out each individual. But are portraits of the absent enough to make pain present? At a given moment, commercial TV was sensitive to the demand to make them speak about their singularities. It then began broadcasting short vignettes in which the victim's personality was portrayed by professional actors. An attempt, perhaps, to circumvent the image as “a simple redundant illustration of its meaning”. The terms are those of Rancière, who points to the need for a regenerated “politics of metonymy”, capable of reconstructing the figure of the victim as an element of a redistribution of the visible by which there are not, on the one hand, those who hold the power of speech and , on the other hand, those who only look[xi].

After all, in the television gallery of the victims, there is not the word on one side and the image on the other. There is a pain working in the body, which seeks to say, which seeks to understand and which also forces us to respond to the interpellation. In the clumsiness with which the lamentations are expressed in the popular, there is no need to see a diminished presence. We are not before, as legitimate appreciators of a representation. “We are always in between”, stresses Rancière. The portrait does not convey the immediacy of a presence, it must project it into a story, that is, into a certain set of singularized actions/attitudes. Conversely, history does not give the fact (in this case, death) as it is, it is seen only through the bodies that speak about it, suffer with it. The philosopher is perhaps right: on our canvases, there are nothing but bodies that work with their experience of misfortune or with that which other bodies transmit to them.

On the other hand, it is notable to observe images that avoid directly stamping a catastrophe. They communicate them by a glimpse of the face, some minimal indication of the exhaustion of individuals or cities. Or else by static and isolated images of the mourners who leave aside, in their rhythmic appearances, the “classic” images of lamentation and pain. There is in these images the capacity, little or nothing representative, of make see, on an intimate and tangible scale, the disquieting, the horror, even the intolerable. Perhaps they constitute a subtle way of reflecting on the trauma of what cannot be clearly expressed. Let us remember here how for Walter Benjamin the relationship between trauma and history is “without words”. Thus, it sometimes happens that the media proposes an image of what silences words. Only vestiges are shown there, traces of something that goes on, transversal to any “I”, too big for any “I”. - Gilles Deleuze does not claim that “emotion does not say 'I'” […]; that “emotion is not of the order of the I, but of the event”[xii]? It happens, then, that minimal traits of the “I” sometimes carry questions of macropolitics, questions related to the mode of organization of society. Faces that combine the imaginative power of what does not mean anything and the “overwhelming force of testimony that dispenses with words”, to use the terms that Rancière addressed to some victims of the Holocaust[xiii]. They also show how a certain contemporaneity of the look (let's say, less media-motivated) works imagetically with trauma, with the human dimension of political-social and/or natural catastrophe.

Evacuating our images of the evident signs of an event lends itself to questioning, with due political effectiveness, the official discourses, invariably committed to the closed meanings of an event and its equatable consequences. The Brumadinho catastrophe, for example. It showed a very particular record of documentary images today: when not committed to the transitivity of reactions, with the consensus of the senses, they seek to break with the ethical effect of the mobilization of energies (of public opinion, say), they seek to suspend every direct relationship between the production of form, its effect on an audience, and the general state of the community. Contrary to such representational logic, these images (which, as a matter of fact, are rare in the mainstream press) can well be said paradoxically policies, even if they purge the political agent who, invariably, always “steals the spotlight” from their frameworks.

A few weeks ago, Rancière expressed in the media his difficulty in understanding those who ritually denounce the weight of images on weak spirits. “We are governed by words”, says the philosopher, by a rhetoric that feeds a “permanent pathological reality” that the growing power of the State and the holders of “sciences” only ratify. Rancière also criticizes the anxiety to respond to the “journalistic request to 'decipher' the news in a short period of time, to trivialize the unexpected, involving it in a causal chain that makes it retrospectively predictable, and to provide the formulas by which which the day-to-day management of information is elevated to a view of world history.”[xiv]

In fact, one has the impression of a verbiage proliferation prone to compose a present and presences, so to speak, homologated. Consensuality proliferates even when public opinion is polarized, as is currently the case in Brazil. All the more reason to look for images that retain some capacity for resistance, for a culture of the image that is not restricted to serving as an accompaniment or consolation.

A final question therefore remains: how can we introduce into our everyday imagery of the pandemic a desire and a pain that go beyond any obvious meaning? Images that reject the predictable relationships between visibility and the effect of pathos produced by it. Or rather, less closed ways of understanding the bodily changes of individuals affected by history and as historical changes imposed by politicized individuals. After all, the course of things seems to change only through the action of those who make our society live on a daily basis, who respond to its most vital demands; those who, from time to time, invade our screens with their mourning, their indignation and their perplexity.

Images of pathos they are not necessarily disconnected from political history and praxis. Modern times, when history began to be recorded on photographic paper and celluloid tape, are full of changes in the individual and collective body, from mourning to anger, from anger to political speeches and cries of revolt. In this sense, the expression “pathetic politics”, used by Didi-Huberman regarding the emotionally engaged work of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Glauber Rocha[xv], takes on a less trivial connotation than the one that many Brazilians commonly employ in their everyday political scene.

* Osvaldo Fontes Filho is a professor at the Department of Art History at UNIFESP.


[I]Rancière, Jacques. Work on the image. Trans. Claudia Sachs. Urdimento magazine, nº 15, October 2010, p. 94.

[ii] Didi-Huberman, Georges. What we see, what sees us. Trans. Paul Neves. Sao Paulo: Ed. 34, 1998, p.33.

[iii]Em When images take position. Trans. Cleonice Mourao. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2017, p.16.

[iv] Ibidem, p. 230.

[v] Barthes, Roland. mythologies. Trans. Rita Buongermino, Pedro de Souza and Rejane Janowitzer.Rio de Janeiro: DIFEL, 2009, p.11.

 Idem, ibidem, p.109.

[vi] Idem, ibidem, p.11.

[vii] Idem, ibidem, p.107.

[viii]Acselrad, Henri. The language of anti-politics. the earth is round , 30/05/2020.

[ix]Didi-Huberman, Georges. Quelle emotion! What emotion?Paris: Bayard Editions, 2013, p. 43.

[X]Agamben, Giorgio. desecrations. Trans. SelvinoAssmann. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2007, p. 52.

[xi]Rancière, Jacques. the emancipated spectator. Trans. Ivone C. Benedetti. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2014, p. 94.

[xii] Quoted by Didi-Huberman, Georges. Quelle emotion! What emotion? Ed. cit. , P. 36.

[xiii]Rancière, Jacques. Work on the image. Trans. Claudia Sachs. Urdimento magazine, nº 15, October 2010, p.95.

[xiv] In French and in Italian, on the website https://www.institutfrancais.it/italie/2-jacques-ranciere-andrea-inzerillo.

[xv]Didi-Huberman, Pathos et Praxis: Eisenstein versus Barthes. 1895 Revue d'histoire du cinema, nº 67, 2012, p.20.


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