A teenaged Ugandan girl stares solemnly at the camera, the lower third of her face a mangled mess. Her crime? Refusing to have sex with a rebel soldier. Her punishment? Having her lips cut off. A young American, his face a crumpled mask of pain, holds the equally crumpled helmet of his firefighter brother, who died in the World Trade Center attacks, at the brother's funeral. Another young boy, this one Chechen, presses his face and hands against the rear window of a transit bus as it evacuates refugees from southern Chechnya during the clash with Russia.
These images are from the nearly 137 photographs and three videos that make up "Thy Brothers' Keeper," a raw, agonizingly emotional exhibition now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. The show originated last year at Michigan's Flint Institute of Arts, and it's a safe bet the Boca Museum got it as part of a package deal when it signed John B. Henry III, the Flint Institute's director, as the juror for the "56th Annual All Florida Juried Competition and Exhibition," now also at the museum.
On the day I visited, people were clearly affected by the exhibition. Couples who had been loudly prattling on through the "All Florida" down the corridor suddenly lowered their voices to a whisper once they realized what "Thy Brothers' Keeper" is all about. People lingered in muted shock before the images, reading the lengthy text panels next to them. (A sign at the entrance to the show warns, "This exhibition contains imagery of violence and death," which is something of an understatement.)
The show makes jarring jumps from one part of the world to another, which is probably part of the point. No matter where you go, you can find evidence of how horrifically people treat one another. There is a section with images from our ongoing adventure in Iraq, including a shot of the shoes of American soldiers resting on the heads of suspicious Iraqis about to be arrested and another of "detainees" blindfolded and grasping one another's clothes in a procession dubbed the "elephant walk."
Another section documents the treatment of patients at mental hospitals in such Asian countries as Pakistan, China, and Indonesia, where, as photographer John Stanmeyer puts it, "the conditions of fellow humans appeared to have not improved since the Middle Ages." His stark images bear this out: A handful of children stare wild-eyed and clutch the bars of a Karachi hospital where more than a thousand of them are housed; a man with violent tendencies is tied to a cot in a bare cell in a tableau reminiscent of Ed Kienholz's famous installation The Mental Institution.
Cut to Mexico City, where, as Vida Yovanovich describes it, "photographing old women was something I had to do." Her black-and-white shots from a nursing home are vaguely surreal but also deeply disturbing, and the accompanying text contains one woman's heartbreaking question, "This is a prison, why have they left us here?"
Some of the groupings of photographs are more morally ambiguous. Wang Yishu's section, "Tsunami Holidays 2004," juxtaposes shots of the devastation of the December 26, 2004, tsunami with images of Thai prostitutes and drag queens cavorting with their clientele from the Western world. In South Africa, Fanie Jason focuses on the harsh punishments meted out to various criminals: laughing schoolchildren look on as a man brutally beaten for having stolen goods drags himself across the ground; a savagely lacerated man — an alleged rapist — lies propped against a wall as a group of vigilantes stands guard.
In general, the shots throughout the exhibition have the spontaneity and immediacy characteristic of the best photojournalism. Newspaper photographers, in particular, and some magazine photographers as well often have an uncanny knack for capturing extraordinary images on the fly. They're keenly alert to the visual possibilities around them, and the more extreme the circumstances, the more readily they respond.
Sometimes, this photographic sixth sense results in images of unexpected beauty. In a section chronicling child labor in several countries, Fernando Moleres comes across a young boy from a fishing ship who's responsible for beating a caught octopus until it's tender. Moleres snaps his shot just as the octopus is in midair above the boy's head, its arms elongated like Medusa's snakes. It's an image worthy of great Mexican surrealist photographer Graciela Iturbide. In a wholly different mode, Noel Jabbour discovers a group of Palestinian children frolicking in the aftermath of a rare snowstorm.
Having just seen, almost back to back, the documentary General Idi Amin Dada and the fiction films Blood Diamond and Hotel Rwanda, all of which deal with subject matter similar to that of this exhibition, I thought I could steel myself against the harshness of "Thy Brothers' Keeper." I was wrong — at one point, I became so distraught by a grouping of images that I had to walk away for a few minutes to compose myself.
Whether the 25 photographers who captured these images are artists or photojournalists is beside the point, just as it's irrelevant to debate whether this material is appropriate for a fine-arts museum. Geno Rodriguez, director of the Alternative Museum in New York, a partner in the project, addresses the issue in his introduction to the exhibition catalog: "The intention of presenting these thought-provoking images and the questions they pose within the context of art, instead of politics, is to open up new avenues of discourse within both the arts and education communities, as well as to provoke and invoke a sense of personal responsibility by stimulating a desire to become more involved in the creation of equality and justice throughout the world."
Lofty intentions, those. And while I don't doubt for a moment Rodriguez's sincerity, it's difficult to imagine people seeing this show and then rushing out to become politically engaged, unless they were already so inclined. Still, if the people passing through "Thy Brothers' Keeper" gain even a smidgen of greater understanding of man's inhumanity to man, even a hint of deeper compassion for their fellow human beings, the efforts will have been worth it. These images demonstrate again and again that our capacity for inflicting senseless suffering on one another seems infinite.
Two contrasting quotations posted in the exhibition — I forget the exact context — struck me as especially relevant to the state of today's world. One is from photographic genius Henri Cartier-Bresson: "We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again." The other quote is from Charles A. Kupchan, writing in the Washington Post in April 2005: "The rest of the world watches America; America watches American Idol." He might just as well have said, "While Darfur collapses in chaos, America can't be distracted from Paris Hilton."
One interpretation of what Cartier-Bresson meant, I think, is that photography can be seen as the conscience of the human race, a means of documenting what goes on among us and trying, at least, to keep us from forgetting it. And while photographers such as the ones included in this exhibition go about doing exactly that, America turns its back on the world. It's a tragedy of unspeakable proportions.