David Levi-Strauss – Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics

My second weeks reading task was David Levi-Strauss’ “Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics. I had to read two sections of this text which included pages 3-11 in the chapter ” The Documentary Debate: Aesthetic or Anaesthetic?” and pages 42-50 in the chapter Epiphany of the Other”. Below are the notes that I took whilst reading this text, including definitions that I had to look, my favourite quotes, and names of photographers or writers that I wish to look up:

Words I need to look up:

  • Aesthetic – beauty or the appreciation of beauty
  • Anaesthetic – opposite of beauty or the appreciation of beauty
  • Apodictic – clearly established or beyond dispute
  • Invective – insulting, abusive, or highly critical language
  • Veracity – conformity to facts; accuracy
  • Subversive – seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution
  • Upbraids – find fault with (someone); scold
  • Self-aggrandizing – enhance the reputation of (someone) beyond what is justified by the facts
  • Substantive – having a firm basis in reality and so important, meaningful, or considerable
  • Modish – conforming to or following what is currently popular and fashionable
  • Expressionism – a style of painting, music, or drama in which the artist or writer seeks to express the inner world of emotion rather than external reality
  • Eloquently – fluent or persuasive in speaking or writing
  • Ideological – a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy
  • Transgression – an act that goes against a law, rule, or code of conduct; an offence
  • Metaphysicians – the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time, and space
  • Fascism – an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization
  • Transcendence – existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level
  • Phenomenology – the science of phenomena as distinct from that of the nature of being
  • Epiphenomenon – a secondary effect or by-product
  • Ontology – the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being
  • Eschewing – deliberately avoid using; abstain from


The Documentary Debate: Aesthetic or Anaesthetic?


  • Robert Mapplethorpe
  • Andres Serrano
  • David Wojnarowicz
  • Hal Foster
  • Martha Rosler – writer
  • Allan Sekula – writer
  • Abigail Solomon-Godeau – writer
  • John Tagg – writer
  • One of the most trenchant and persistent critiques arising from this tendency was that of ‘social documentary’ photography, focusing especially on the aestheticization of the documentary image” – Page 5, Line 10
  • Ingrid Sischy 
  • Sebastiao Salgado
  • But Sischy’s real complaint about Salgado’s photographs is that the threaten the boundary between aesthetics and politics” – Page 5, Line 22
  • To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.” – Ingrid Sischy – Page 5, Line 30
  • German Marxism (1930s-1950s) – Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukacs, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno
  • Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) Movement
  • Albert Renger-Patzsh book “Die Welt ist schon” (The World is Beautiful)
  • It transforms political struggle so that it ceases to be a compelling motive for decision and becomes an object of comfortable contemplation” – Walter Benjamin – Page 6, Line 18
  • Eduardo Galeano – “Salgado, 17 Times” essay
  • They have looked without seeing and their images say nothing” – Eduardo Galeano – Page 7, Line 2
  • Like all politically effective images, the best of Salgado’s photographs work in the fissures, the wounds of the social. They cause those who see them to ask themselves: are we allowed to view what is being exposed?” – Page 7, Line 22
  • The subject of Salgado’s photojournalism, we must continually remind ourselves, is not there, is not in fact the visible but the invisible: what has been repressed and will not be spoken.” – Page 7, Line 27
  • The anti-aesthetic tendency can easily become an anesthetic one, an artificially induced unconsciousness to protect oneself from pain, and to protect the ‘hypocritical frontiers’ of propriety and privilege.” – age 8, Line 1
  • When one, anyone, tries to represent someone else, to ‘take their picture’ or ‘tell their story’, they run headlong into a minefield of real political problems. The first question is: what right have I to represent you?” – Page 8, Line 7
  • Grant Kester
  • The idea that the more transformed or ‘aestheticized’ an image is, the less ‘authentic’ or politically valuable it becomes, is one that needs to be seriously questioned” – Page 9, Line 12
  • To represent is to aestheticize; that is, to transform. It presents a vast field of choices but it does not include the choice not to transform, not to change or alter whatever is being represented” – Page 9, Line 21

My point:

  • Social documentary
  • The more aesthetically appealing the image is, the less authentic
  • Viewer finds it hard to empathize with the image
  • They are expecting to see something devastating
  • Less likely to take action


  • Photographs by themselves certainly cannot tell ‘the whole truth’ – they are only instants.” – Page 10, Line 13
  • Karl Marx



Epiphany of the Other:


  • This extraordinary balance of alterity and likeness, of metaphoric and documentary functions, is part of the Salgado signature” – Page 42, Line 22
  • W. Eugene Smith
  • This massive undertaking, which Salgado calls ‘the archeology of the industrial age,’ is intended to be ‘a kind of homage to the working class and the old ways of producing that are disappearing” – Page 44, Line 21
  •  “…Salgado has a passion to save an image of these people and these particular ways of living before they vanish forever” – Page 44, Line 27
  • … Salgado’s understanding of the geopolitical and economic backgrounds of the situations he documents gives his images an urgency of address.” – Page 44, Line 31
  • The photographer operates as a distanced, superior, “objective” witness to war, poverty, labour and exotic cultural practices in other parts of the world” – Page 45, Line 23
  • These images of spiritual transcendence are perhaps the most troublesome for contemporary North American viewers, who are accustomed to the materialist dualism that finds a contradiction between radial politics and metaphysics, between history and mythology, between justice and transcendence.” – Page 46, Line 31
  • Enrique Dussel
  • Unlike the hundreds of ‘shooters’ from all over the world who dropped in to ‘cover’ the famine, Salgado became involved at a different level” – Page 47, Line 18
  • In the first few days at a camp like this, making photographs was impossible, because of the emotional situation. You are too stunned to shoot. But after a few days you stop crying. And after a few more days you know you have a job to do.” – Sebastio Salgado – Page 48, Line 18

My Point:

  • Salgado’s work was a milestone in social documentary
  • He did not just photograph the event in a documentary fashion
  • He created an emotional connection between the subject and the event
  • He tried to show how strong the human race is and photographed pride


  • Whereas those other images end at pity or compassion, Salgado’s images begin at compassion and lead from there to further recognitions. One f the first of these further recognitions is that starving does not obliterate human dignity.” – Page 48, Line 26
  • Salgado did not photograph passive victims, and pity does not suffice” – Page 48, Line 33
  • Fred Ritchin
  • Ritchin calls this evidence of ‘and unfortunate tendency to elevate the messenger while denying the message” – Page 49, Line 18