The 'Potential Mobilities' of Photography

Debbie Lisle


In the summer of 1944, American Sergeant Paul Dorsey was hired by the Naval Aviation Photography Unit (NAPU) to capture “the Marines’ bitter struggle against their determined foe” in the Pacific islands (Philips 43). Dorsey had been a photographer and photojournalist before enlisting in the Marines, and was thus well placed to fulfil the NAPU’s remit of creating positive images of American forces in the Pacific. Under the editorial and professional guidance of Edward Steichen, NAPU photographers like Dorsey provided epic images of battle (especially from the air and sea), and also showed American forces at ease – sunbathing, swimming, drinking and relaxing together (Bachner At Ease; Bachner Men of WWII). Steichen – by now a lieutenant commander – oversaw the entire NAPU project by developing, choosing and editing the images, and also providing captions for their reproduction in popular newspapers and magazines such as LIFE. Under his guidance, selected NAPU images were displayed at the famous Power in the Pacific exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York at the end of the war, and distributed in the popular U.S. Navy War Photographs memorial book which sold over 6 million copies in 1945.

While the original NAPU photographers (Steichen himself, Charles Kerlee, Horace Bristol, Wayne Miller, Charles Fenno Jacobs, Victor Jorgensen and Dwight Long) had been at work in the Pacific since the summer of 1942, Dorsey was hired specifically to document the advance of American Marines through the Marianas and Volcano Islands. In line with the NAPU’s remit, Dorsey provided a number of famous rear view shots of combat action on Guam, Saipan and Iwo Jima. However, there are a number of his photographs that do not fit easily within that vision of war – images of wounded Marines and dead Japanese soldiers, as well as shots of abject Japanese POWs with their heads bowed and faces averted. It is this last group of enemy images that proves the most interesting, for not only do they trouble NAPU’s explicit propaganda framework, they also challenge our traditional assumption that photography is an inert form of representation.

It is not hard to imagine that photographs of abject Japanese POWs reinforced feelings of triumph, conquest and justice that circulated in America’s post-war victory culture. Indeed, images of emaciated and incarcerated Japanese soldiers provided the perfect contrast to the hyper-masculine, hard-bodied, beefcake figures that populated the NAPU photographs and symbolized American power in the Pacific. However, once Japan was rehabilitated into a powerful American ally, and the decision to drop the atomic bomb was questioned once again in America’s Culture Wars of the 1980s and 90s, it was no longer acceptable to feel triumphant in the face of Japanese abjection and suffering. Instead, these images helped foster a new kind of belated patriotism – and a new global disposition – in which Americans generated their own magnanimity by expressing pity, compassion and sympathy for victims of their previous foreign policy decisions (Lisle).

While that patriotic interpretive framework tells us much about how dominant formations of American identity are secured by the production – especially the visual production – of enemy others, it cannot account for images or viewer interpretations that exceed, unwork, or disrupt war’s foundational logics of friend/enemy and perpetrator/victim. I focus on Dorsey because he offers one such ‘deviant’ image:


This photograph was taken by Dorsey on Guam in July 1944, and its caption tells us that the Japanese prisoner “waits to be questioned by intelligence officers” (Philips 189). As the POW looks into Dorsey’s camera lens (and therefore at us, the viewers), he is subject to the collective gaze of the American marines situated behind him, and presumably others that lay out of the frame, behind Dorsey. What is fascinating about this particular image is the prisoner’s refusal to obey the trope of abjection so readily assumed by other Japanese POWs documented in the NAPU archive and in other popular war-time imagery. Indeed, when I first encountered this image I immediately framed the POW’s return gaze as defiant – a challenging, bold, and forceful reply to American aggression in the Pacific. The problem, of course, was that this resistant gaze soon became reductive; that is, by replicating war’s foundational logics of difference it effaced a number of other dispositions at work in the photograph. What I find compelling about the POW’s return gaze is its refusal to be contained within the available subject positions of either ‘abject POW’ or ‘defiant resistor’. Indeed, this unruliness is what keeps me coming back to Dorsey’s image, for it teaches us that photography itself always exceeds the conventional assumption that it is a static form of visual representation.

Photography, Animation, Movement

The connections between movement, stillness and photography have two important starting points. The first, and more general, is Walter Benjamin’s concept of the dialectic image in which the past and the present come together “in a flash” and constitute what he calls “dialectics at a standstill” (N3.1; 463). Unlike Theodore Adorno, who lamented Benjamin’s Medusa-like tendency to turn the world to stone, I read Benjamin’s concept of standstill – of stillness in general – as something fizzing and pulsating with “political electricity”  (Adorno 227-42; Buck-Morss 219). This is to deny our most basic assumption about photography: that it is an inert visual form that freezes and captures discrete moments in time and space. My central argument is that photography’s assumed stillness is always constituted by a number of potential and actual mobilities that continually suture and re-suture viewing subjects and images into one another.

Developing Benjamin’s idea of a the past and present coming together “in a flash”, Roland Barthes provides the second starting point with his notion of the punctum of photography: “this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me” (25). Conventional understandings of the punctum frame it as a static moment – so powerful that it freezes the viewer, stops them in their tracks, and captures their attention. My point is that the affective punch of the photograph is not a frozen moment at all; rather, the punctum – like the dialectic image – is fizzing with political electricity. Therefore, to suggest that a viewing subject is arrested in the moment of perception – that they are somehow captured by a photograph’s meaning – is to mistakenly understand the act of looking as a static behaviour.

I want to use Dorsey’s image of the POW to push these theoretical starting points and explore the mobile dispositions that are generated when a viewing subject encounters a photograph. What most interests me about Dorsey’s photograph is the level of animation it produces. The POW’s return gaze is actually rather blank: it is unclear whether he is angry, weary, bored, insane or none of the above. But it is the viewing subject’s anxiety at such ambivalence – such unknowability – that provokes a powerful desire to name it. The visceral sensations and emotional responses provoked in viewers (are we taken aback? Do we sympathize with the POW? Are we equally blank?) very quickly become settled interpretations, for example, “his defiant gaze resists American power.” What I want to do is explore the pre-interpretive moment when images like Dorsey’s reach out and grab us – for it is in that moment that photography’s “political electricity” reveals itself most clearly.

Production, Signification, Interpretation

The mobility inherent in the photograph has an important antecedent at the level of production. Since the Brownie camera was introduced in WWI, photographers have carried their mode of representation with them – in Dorsey’s case, his portable camera was carried with him as he travelled with the Marines through the Pacific (Philips 29). It is the photographer’s itinerary – his or her movement prior to clicking the camera’s shutter – that shapes and determines a photograph’s content. More to the point, the action of clicking the camera’s shutter is never an isolated moment; rather, it is punctured by all of the previous clicks and moments leading up to it – especially on a long photographic assignment like Dorsey’s – and contains within it all of the subsequent clicks and moments that potentially come after it. In this sense, the photographer’s click recalls Benjamin: it is a “charged force field of past and present” (Buck-Morss 219). That complicated temporality is also manifested in the photographer’s contact sheet (or, more recently, computer file) which operates as a visual travelogue of discrete moments that bleed into one another.

The mobility inherent in photography extends itself into the level of signification; that is, the arrangements of signs depicted within the frame of each discrete image. Critic Gilberto Perez gives us a clue to this mobility in his comments about Eugène Atget’s famous ‘painterly’ photographs of Paris:

A photograph begins with the mobility, or at least potential mobility, of the world’s materials, of the things reproduced from reality, and turns that into a still image. More readily than in a painting, we see things in a photograph, even statues, as being on the point of movement, for these things belong to the world of flux from which the image has been extracted (328).

I agree that the origin point of a photograph is potential mobility, but that mobility is never completely vanquished when it is turned into a still image. For me, photographs – no matter what they depict – are always saturated with the “potential mobility of the world’s materials”, and in this sense they are never still. Indeed, the world of flux out of which the image is extracted includes the image itself, and in that sense, an image can never be isolated from the world it is derived from. If we follow Perez and characterize the world as one of flux, but then insist that the photograph can never be extracted from that world, it follows that the photograph, too, is characterized by fluctuation and change – in short, by mobility. The point, here, is to read a photograph counter intuitively – not as an arrest of movement or a freezing of time, but as a collection of signs that is always potentially mobile. This is what Roland Barthes was hinting at when he suggested that a photograph is “a mad image, chafed by reality”: any photograph is haunted by absence because the depicted object is no longer present, but it is also full of certainty that the depicted object did exist at a previous time and place (113-15). This is precisely Benjamin’s point as well, that “what has been comes together with the now” (N3.1; 463). Following on from Barthes and Benjamin, I want to argue that photographs don’t freeze a moment in time, but instead set in motion a continual journey between feelings of absence in the present (i.e. “it is not there”) and present imaginings of the past (i.e. “but it has indeed been”).

As Barthes’ notion of the punctum reveals, the most powerful register at which photography’s inherent mobility operates is in the sensations, responses and feelings provoked in viewers. This is why we say that a photograph has the capacity to move us: the best images take us from one emotional state (e.g. passive, curious, bored) and carry us into another (e.g. shocked, sad, amused). It is this emotional terrain of our responses to photography that both Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag have explored in depth. Why are we moved by some images and not others? Are documentary or artistic photographs more likely to reach out and prick us? What is the most appropriate or ethical response to pictures of another’s suffering?

Sontag suggests a different connection between photography and mobility in that it enables a particular touristification of the world; that is, cameras help “convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted to an item for aesthetic appreciation” (On Photography 110). While Sontag’s political economy of photography (with its Frankfurt School echo) continues to be explored by anthropologists and scholars in Tourism Studies, I want to argue that it offers a particularly reductive account of photography’s potential mobilities. While Sontag does address photography’s constitutive and rather complex relationship with reality, she still conceives of photographs themselves as static and inert representations. Indeed, what she wrestled with in On Photography was the “insolent, poignant stasis of each photograph”, and the photograph’s capacity to make reality “stand still” (111-12; 163). The problem with such a view is that it limits our account of interpretation; in short, it suggests that viewers either accept a photograph’s static message (and are thus moved), or reject it (and remain unmoved). But the moving, here, is the sole prerogative of the viewer: there is no sense in which the photograph and its contents are themselves mobile. I want to argue that the relationships established in the act of looking between viewing subjects and the objects contained within an image are much more complex and varied than Sontag’s framework suggests. 

Photography’s Affective Mobility

To reveal the mobilities underscoring photography’s affective punch, we must redistribute its more familiar power relations through W.J.T. Mitchell’s important question: what do pictures want? Such a question subverts our usual approach to photographs (i.e. what do we want from photographs?) by redeploying the privileged agency of the viewer into the image itself. In other words, it is the image that demands something of the viewer rather than the other way around. What it demands, of course, is a response. Certainly this is an emotional response, for even being bored by a photograph is a response of sorts. But an emotional response is also an affective response, which means that the punch carried by a photograph is as physical as it is metaphorical or visual. Indeed, it is precisely in the act of perception, where the emotional and the affective fuse, that photography’s assumed stillness is powerfully subverted.

If Mitchell animates the picture by affording it some of the viewer’s agency, then Gilles Deleuze goes one step further by exploring what happens to agency in the act of perception. For Deleuze, a work of art – for our purposes, a photograph – is not an inert or still document, but rather a “block of sensations” (Deleuze; Deleuze & Guattari; Bogue). It is not a finished object produced by an autonomous artist or beheld in its entirety by an autonomous viewer; rather, it is a combination of precepts (initial perceptions) and affects (physical intensities) that passes through all subjects at the point of visual perception. This kind of relational encounter with an image not only deconstructs Modernity’s foundational distinction between the subject and the object, it also opens up an affective connection between all subjects engaged in the act of looking; in this case, the photographer, the subjects and objects within the photograph and the viewer.

From Deleuze, we know that perception is characterized by common physical responses in all subjects: the movement of the optic nerve, the dilation of the pupil, the squint of the eyelid, the craning of the neck to see up close. However small, however imperceptible, these physical sensations are all still movements; indeed, they are movements repeated by all seeing subjects. My point is that these imperceptible modes of attention are consistently engaged in the act of viewing photographs. What this suggests is that taking account of the affective level of perception changes our traditional understandings of interpretation; indeed, even if a photograph fails to move us emotionally, it certainly moves us physically, though we may not be conscious of it.

Drawing from Mitchell and Deleuze, then, we can say that a photograph’s “insolent, poignant stasis” makes no sense. A photograph is constantly animated not just by the potentials inherent in its enframed subjects and objects, but more importantly, in the acts of perception undertaken by viewers. Certainly some photographs move us emotionally – to tears, to laughter, to rage – and indeed, this emotional terrain is where Barthes and Sontag offer important insights. My point is that all photographs, no matter what they depict, move us physically through the act of perception. If we take Mitchell’s question seriously and extend agency to the photograph, then it is in the affective register that we can discern a more relational encounter between subjects and objects because both are in a constant state of mobility.

Ambivalence and Paralysis

How might Mitchell’s question apply to Dorsey’s photograph? What does this image want from us? What does it demand from our acts of looking? The dispersed account of agency put forward by Mitchell suggests that the act of looking can never be contained within the subject; indeed, what is produced in each act of looking is some kind of subject-object-world assemblage in which each component is characterised by its potential and actual mobilities. With respect to Dorsey’s image, then, the multiple lines of sight at work in the photograph indicate multiple – and mobile – relationalities. Primarily, there is the relationship between the viewer – any potential viewer – and the photograph. If we follow Mitchell’s line of questioning, however, we need to ask how the photograph itself shapes the emotive and affective experience of visual interpretation – how the photograph’s demand is transmitted to the viewer.

Firstly, this demand is channelled through Dorsey’s line of sight that extends through his camera’s viewfinder and into the formal elements of the photograph: the focused POW in the foreground, the blurred figures in the background, the light and shade on the subjects’ clothing and skin, the battle scarred terrain, and the position of these elements within the viewfinder’s frame. As viewers we cannot see Dorsey, but his presence fills – and indeed constitutes – the photograph. Secondly, the photograph’s demand is channelled through the POW’s line of sight that extends to Dorsey (who is both photographer and marine Sergeant), and potentially through his camera to imagined viewers. It is precisely the return gaze of the POW that packs such an affective punch – not because of what it means, but rather because of how it makes us feel emotionally and physically. While a conventional account would understand this affective punch as shocking, stopping or capturing the viewer, I want to argue it does the opposite – it suddenly reveals the fizzing, vibrant mobilities that transmit the picture to us, and us to the picture.

There are, I think, important lessons for us in Dorsey’s photograph. It is a powerful antecedent to Judith Butler’s exploration of the Abu Graib images, and her repetition of Sontag’s question of “whether the tortured can and do look back, and what do they see when they look at us” (966). The POW’s gaze provides an answer to the first part of this question – they certainly do look back. But as to what they see when they look back at us, that question can only be answered if we redistribute both agency and mobility into the photograph to empower and mobilize the tortured, the abject, and the objectified.

That leaves us with Sontag’s much more vexing question of what we do after we look at photographs. As Butler explains, Sontag has denounced the photograph “precisely because it enrages without directing the rage, and so excites our moral sentiments at the same time that it confirms our political paralysis” (966). This sets up an important challenge for us: in refusing conventional understandings of photography as a still visual art, how can we use more dispersed accounts of agency and mobility to work through the political paralysis that Sontag identifies. 


Paul Dorsey’s photograph of the Japanese POW is # 80-G-475166 in the NAPU archive, and is reproduced here courtesy of the United States National Archives.


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photography; mobility; agency

Copyright (c) 2009 Debbie Lisle

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