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The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence

3.95  ·  Rating Details  ·  102 Ratings  ·  14 Reviews

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

Hardcover, 344 pages
Published November 1st 2010 by University Of Chicago Press
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Dec 01, 2013 Jean-Marie rated it really liked it
Because I was a photographer and most of my work was documentary-based -- homeless women; Puerto Rican migrant workers; and eight years in Guatemala -- I wanted to love this book and to a degree I did. Susie Linfield's examination of photojournalism is an earnest and intelligent effort to explain its role in the search for truth, impact and, often, horror. The author likewise offers an unjaundiced critique of the photojournalists whose exploits propel them to demi-god status among editors, the n ...more
Nov 28, 2015 MG rated it really liked it
Susie Linfield begins her extraordinary work with a quotation from Baudelaire, who wrote that "passion... raises reason to new heights." After reading those words, I sensed quickly that I would find this work not only intellectually stimulating but deeply affecting. And I did. Despite the density and raw intensity of the content, I read the last half of the book in a few hours. I could hardly put it down. It made me think very hard.

Linfield centers her discussion on two fundamental issues which
Sep 26, 2014 Erin rated it really liked it
so i thought after a big run of depressing non fiction about kidnappings in japan, zimbabwe, blood diamonds in sierra leone that this would somehow be a less heavy read. i was very wrong.

it was, however, a great follow-up to all of that reading, considering the focus on sierra leone and other places where violence and by proxy photography of said violence has been made. the language susie linfield uses to discuss the photographs, the photographers, as well as photo criticism, is beautiful and i
Nov 10, 2015 Holly rated it really liked it
Academic and erudite, and yet there is not one graceless sentence in this thought-provoking work of criticism -- this will be one of the finest books I read all year. Linfield interrogates the photos and photographers from the Warsaw Ghetto, China's Cultural Revolution, the wars of Sierra Leone, the Abu Ghraib photographs, Capa's Spanish Civil War images, James Nachtwey's controversial photos, and Gilles Peress's work. She responds to and challenges postmodern photography criticism (esp. Sontag) ...more
May 15, 2012 Vaughn rated it really liked it
A collection of academic essays develop Linfield's idea that violent photography does in fact has utility for modernity. Some chapters are a response to well-known treatises of Sontag and Baudelaire, while others examine topical (the Holocaust) or biographical (Capa, Nachtwey) works.

I value Linfield's book both for its standalone argument AND as a collection/reference-point for theories of contemporary photojournalism. I'm very familiar with Nachtwey's work, but it's nice to hear an academic's
May 02, 2013 Noelle added it
Three art history classes in one semester wasn't smart. This book was for my History of American Photography class which was interesting and enjoyable. The book (which we had to review in a 5page paper) on the other hand was not enjoyable. It touched the sad, terrible, depressing subject histories and I had to put it down and walk away a few times. No don't get me wrong I didn't hate the book. Nor did I love it. I found it interesting and will probably reread it because I feel it had alot of inf ...more
Brian Page
Jan 01, 2016 Brian Page rated it it was amazing
We are the human species: we kill one another for no appreciable reason. It’s what sets us apart from the animals. It is what we do. It is what defines our humanity. Would that it were not so.

Susie Linfield in THE CRUEL RADIANCE: PHOTOGRAPHY AND POLITICAL VIOLENCE wrestles with this question: given that moral progress is a thoroughly discredited fairly tale, are photographers benefiting from, or even party to, exploitation of victims of political violence?

TCR is a deep and important critique t
May 05, 2012 Scotch rated it it was ok
A little reactionary, and felt a wee bit dichotomizing in not fully exploring the two arguments about photographs of violence (her own, against those of Sekula, Sontag, etc). Linfield also focused on one particular use and read of these images: calls to action or empathy for ethical good, regardless of the photographer/photograph's original intent. In a way, this misses something fairly important: the use of photographs of political violence as war propaganda, and the dangers of further polarizi ...more
Margaret Sankey
Jul 28, 2011 Margaret Sankey rated it liked it
Almost as soon as cameras were portable, reformers used them to document Belgian abuses in the Congo, but also just as soon, lynching parties distributed horrific, triumphant images as postcards. Linfield wrestles with the ethics of photographing political violence--is it exploitation, or Arendt's "instants of truth"? Is it collaboration to document actions as an observer, or an obligation? Are images taken for the pleasure of perpetrators always tainted by that purpose, or are they subversive i ...more
Jun 08, 2011 Urmilla rated it really liked it
So far, I'm glad someone is taking on the cynical and powerful establishment. Always thought it was an almost silly idea that this kind of photographs desensitize us - as if human beings were sensitive thoughtful and caring before the scourge of photography. I am enjoying reading a book that isn't railing and ranting and being suspicious about photography. As a one time photographer, I am grateful for this well written, and more importantly, well thought out book. Still reading, slowly and caref ...more
Brandon Wu
Jun 19, 2012 Brandon Wu rated it really liked it
A competent defense of documentary photographs of atrocity and violence. Linfield convincingly rejects arguments that such photos desensitize us to violence or are inherently exploitative or pornographic, while recognizing the limitations of photographs in that they are unable to provide us with context or a broader narrative. Includes fascinating case studies of the Holocaust, Cultural Revolution, civil war in Sierra Leone, and Abu Ghraib, as well as profiles of Robert Capa, James Nachtwey and ...more
Nov 28, 2011 Lambert rated it really liked it
Very interesting book that sort of works the sunnier side of the street in comparison with Susan Sontag. A good book about photography and especially documentary photography. It deals with photographs of very unpleasant things and the issue of "what should we see?" Kind of slow going, but needs to be studied not just read. I see this as a valuable addition to the history and criticism of photography.
Sep 25, 2013 Ken rated it it was amazing
Deeply persuasive. The best book that I have read on contemporary documentary photographic practice, and a compelling argument for the continued centricity of human rights and human experience in that practice.
Jun 02, 2013 Spencer rated it it was ok
Shelves: ocular
i admit, i just got this for the pictures (and there are hardly any)
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