The banality of motivation

I finally went to see, Infidel, Tim Hetherington’s posthumous solo show at Foam Amsterdam and it left me in a heavy mood. Even accepting that the show offers only a small glimpse of his work as a photographer and cineast, its quite relentless focus on war is a chilling indication of the life he made for himself and how he chose to frame his own experience. It is not a choice I’d ever be comfortable with. I count myself lucky that besides covering the shooting and explosions I had an alternate existence reporting lighter fare such as the plastic surgery craze in Beirut or drunken gay parties in the Saudi desert or even the more staid political and business stories. In Diary, the very personal video account of his work, just a few minutes of syrupy footage are dedicated to what might count as the good things in life. “This is as good as it gets” a voice (Hetherington’s?) declaims over idyllic images of a blond girl playing in the green grass against the backdrop of a forest, “This is England, early autumn. Look at it”. And back to the war it is.

I noticed from the comments on my previous piece on Hetherington that many people wonder why war photographers do what they do, and keep doing it. I have no answer and maybe there is no single answer to that question. Questions of motivation tend to lead to circular arguments: I did it because I thought I had to/it would be good for me/it would be good for others/I wanted to see it/understand it etc. Yes, but why?

Which leads me to what I had intended to write about originally in this post, Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil. Last week, while I was sick with a stomach bug, feverish and weak, flitting in and out of semi-lucidity and the bathroom, I finished re-reading her account of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Probably not the best way to ingest a treatise on the Holocaust, a painful exercise at the best of times, but I had been at it since I saw the eponymous Margaretha von Trotta movie in which Barbara Sukowa plays the Jewish German/American political thinker as she attends the Nazi’s war crimes trial and faces the reaction to her controversial book on it afterwards:

I thought the movie was OK, not great, and it addressed some interesting moral questions. Main among them was the price we may have to pay when we stick to our convictions and confront people with what we might regard as uncomfortable truths. But after re-reading Arendt, I think that the movie missed the point. It portrays Arendt as overwhelmingly driven by a a quest for logic and rationality, despite some heavy-handed attempts to balance that with a couple of rather mushy scenes from her private life supposedly meant to show her soft side. Reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt’s account and analysis of the trial, I was struck by how she is clearly struggling with her own feelings. It can be seen in the overly zealous attempt to create distance between herself and the Jewish participants in the trial, the prosecutor, the judges, the witnesses etc.  and conversely her strained apparent attempt to be fair to Eichmann, by her small digressions and detours, and by the tone, which is didactic but strangely equivocal at times. It may be reading too much of her biography into her work but it’s hard to see how she could have written about it free of emotion; after all it dealt with genocide, the extermination of her own community, the perversion of her actual and philosophical birthplace and at a different level with her conflicted feelings toward the Jewish people and the state of Israel. In the context of her time it made sense for her to present the account as a strictly neutral, rational analysis of the proceedings. Nowadays we’d personalise such a story in a flash, appropriating it as our own if there’s even the slightest connection, to better stake a claim to it.

Arendt of course had good reason to present her account as unemotionally and rationally as possible; it was the continuation of an immense and important professional body of work on totalitarianism and violence. Yet, knowing that as a young woman her dissertation was on the subject of love in the thought of St Augustine, her later turn toward researching anti-semitism, totalitarianism and violence is very likely to have been motivated exactly by the kind of personal interest that she sought to ban from her Eichmann analysis. I’m not often inclined to advocate partisanship in reporting – Eichmann in Jerusalem was also a kind of reportage, for The New Yorker – but it’s probably preferable to an unsuccessful attempt to cover up one’s feelings toward a highly emotional subject, such as the Holocaust. Then again, we owe Arendt a huge debt for her insight that great crimes can be committed in a very humdrum way, that going along with injustice is often the easy and even seemingly logical option. Whatever the motivation behind her work, it is important and we are lucky to have it. Maybe we should look at the work of war photographers such as Tim Hetherington in the same way. Motivation is neither here nor there and is often unimportant compared to the outcome. On the other hand we often cannot help but let  the writer’s/artist’s motivation affect our understanding of the work. It remains a conundrum.

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4 thoughts on “The banality of motivation

  1. Wasn’t the major concept of Arendt’s text that evil is banal when those who are committing evil acts do not believe that they are in the wrong and / or can psychologically bypass the evil nature of their actions as “just following orders”? Which was indeed Eichmann’s defense?

    To compare Arendt to a war photographer seems so crass and contradictory. Her insight could only be shared via the written word. Photographs are another beast and a much more slippery one at that. Her work and Hetherington’s cannot be compared. Not because of historical reverence for Arendt’s work, but because they are so fundamentally different in their function.

    Arendt’s motivation seems painfully obvious. It is Eichmann’s motivation that was questionable and how his psychological conditioning by himself and the Nazi state had led him to believe he was free of responsibility and guilt because he was only doing his job.

    Not to compare Eichmann and Hetherington, but I think there is more to be said for an analysis of his motivations as a photographer and other war photographers in a sense that he sees his role in war and conflict as fundamentally good, protected by the archaic romanticism of “artistic reportage”.

    The attitudes of many documentary photographers echo the ideas that Arendt put forward, not Arendt herself as a person.

    It’s his job so that makes his actions okay; the portrayal of his images of suffering or those who cause it as an art form is okay; the belief that these pictures have some moral high ground or function over and above just being reportage; the desire to go to a foreign country and photograph those in need for money is normal.

    There is not banal motivation, it is the motivation itself that is banally evil. If not evil – a strong word – it is at least banally suspect.

    1. Well, I’m looking here at what motivates people and how that affects the work they produce and our perception of it. I’m not comparing Arendt to Hetherington and I’m certainly not comparing anybody to Eichmann. That said, I think I know what you’re saying, that motivation can be suspect. I think it depends on how honest someone is to others and to themselves, which is not always easy. In the end we all need a reason to get out of bed in the morning (or whatever time we get up), it’s just that we don’t need to make such a song and dance about it.

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