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Now You See It: The Architecture of Disaster

In demonstrating the before and after of a violent action, architecture and spatial analysis become essential political tools

Military drones, we are told, have a powerful enough resolution to see the labels on the clothing of their victims. But a human rights organisation monitoring the consequences of a drone strike is only allowed access to satellite pictures at a much lower resolution.
It is such differences between images, between the before and after of a violent action, that lie at the heart of Eyal and Ines Weizman’s intriguing ebook essay for Strelka Press.

The text opens with the premise that: ‘History is increasingly presented as a series of catastrophes. The most common mode of this presentation is the before-and-after image − a juxtaposition of two photographs.’ These communicate not a slow process of transformation but of radical change − a singular action leading directly to a unique effect. The event that causes this change is itself missing from the pairs of images and is instead ‘captured by the transformation of space, thus calling for an architectural analysis’.
An account follows that examines the before-and-after phenomenon from the birth of photography (where the long exposures necessary meant that people were usually absent) to the latest images from the Landsat 8 satellite, launched in 2013, which are never released into the public domain at resolutions that can show individuals.

The Weizmans seek to problematise the phenomenon − does the camera lie and what does the gap between the before and the after conceal? Environmental changes and upheavals caused by human agency are discussed − from the French Revolution of 1848 through the bombing of Dresden to the genocides and environmental degradation in Cambodia and Darfur; from the side-on shot, to the bird’s-eye view.

Valley of Death

Roger Fenton’s controversial image of cannonballs littering the ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ in the Crimean war

Space is given to Susan Sontag’s celebrated analysis of Roger Fenton’s 1855 photographs of the Crimean War − where the road through the valley of death is thickly scattered with cannonballs − and to Errol Morris’s refutation of Sontag’s analysis by examining the position of fallen stones in order to determine the true order in which the photographs were taken. Before and after images, it appears, cannot always be taken for granted.

The problem of human rights NGOs being reliant on state-sanctioned surveillance for their own analysis of violence when state agencies may be themselves culpable for the events in the first place is also examined − especially when the environment rather than the human body itself is inevitably the subject of the images captured because of the allowed resolution of released images. The gaps in knowledge, write the Weizmans, will ‘forever keep the subject represented uncertain, discontinuous, lacunar, open to ever-new interpretations that will emerge every time we look at these images’.

This is an important point but the bulk of the later part of the essay considers only those forensic images captured by satellites. If you are looking for evidence of genocide or ethnic cleansing in the effects of violence on architecture, for example, then other images and information are also vital to help determine the culprit behind an act of destruction: has the blast blown walls inwards or outwards? From what direction did the missile come?

The gaps in our understanding of paired images can be minimised but the authors are right to demonstrate that increasing reliance on satellite imagery alone has its consequences: ‘It certainly opens up a new dimension in shifting our attention from the representation of the human agent to representations of territories and architecture, which also turns spatial analysis into an essential political tool.’

Before and After: Documenting the Architecture of Disaster

Author: Eyal and Ines Weizman

Publisher: Strelka Press

Price: £3.99

Opening Image: The review’s opening image shows a satellite image of smoke plumes from Kuwaiti oil wells burning in the First Gulf War, taken by Landsat 8

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