Often we can forget that realism is a genre, thus we may forget to look at a war documentary representing trauma, for example, in terms of rhetorical conventions. A psychoanalytic framework is implicit here through the reliance on retroactive significations, the uncanny, and repetitions (motifs) of destruction as norms of analysis.
However, “Documentary photography thus provides something of a limit case in the representation of war and its aftermath, a case in which we might expect art and rhetoric to be at their most severely attenuated” (229). Documentary photography contains rhetorical conventions like the “use of either natural lighting or of a single powerful frontal flash, a preference for black and white as opposed to color, a graininess of texture, subjects who have been caught unaware rather than posed, the failure to exclude ‘extraneous’ elements from the frame, and a caption that connects the image to a specific time and place” (230). These rhetorical conventions aren’t necessary norms of reading photographs, but possible norms reading photographs with respect to certain emotional effects, if the “photographs may be read as evoking them. That is sufficient, given the nature of connotation, to activate and demonstrate the photographs’ rhetorical component” (234). In fact, “The working of these rhetorical elements, moreover, underlines the surprising degree to which the medium of the wartime documentary photograph can combine the real and the aesthetic” (234). Silver asks, what other kinds of rhetorical conventions might we identify?
One rhetorical convention for understanding trauma may be deferred recognition, retroactive signification, “no knowledge of the sinister presence of the residual radiation that is visible in none of his photos but must disturbingly haunt all of them for any viewer with the benefit of hindsight” (233). This hindsight invokes a ghost that haunts the scene, turning the familiar into something unfamiliar. The ghost is a trace of the real, a formal interruption of the otherwise insistent chain of signification, cracks that “seem an almost deliberate attempt to disrupt his photographic compositions, to interpose another plane of signification between the viewer and his subject on which have been left the marks of a frenetic partial erasure of the image itself, as if its nightmarish content were too terrible to confront full-on” (252).
Silver isolates an important motif in Yosuke Yamahata’s photography, “Rubble is present in photo after photo: vast expanses of rubble stretching from the bottom of the frame into the photographic grain of a distant horizon, close-ups of the rubble incidentally included in tightly framed shots of charred corpses, and rubble in the middle distance, confronting the eye with a jumble of forms both recognizable and unrecognizable” (249). It is as if we are brought to the limits of identification/recognition when this vast, incidental change of dimension is repeated over and over, “The presence of the rubble in photo after photo thus comes to govern much of one’s response to them” (249). It is the indefinite “photo after photo” aspect of the rubble which invokes an uncanny distribution of the sensible, “the rubble also presents us with the spectacle of the familiar made strange” (249). “This rendering of the familiar as something utterly transformed and therefore strange and uncanny, a work performed in the first instance by the bomb itself, is relayed through Yamahata’s photographic record as an aesthetic principle” (249). A single photo of rubble simply would not register as a motif and so would not seem to repeat unstably the representation of something too nightmarish to confront full-on, the trauma, “the rubble in Yamahata’s photographs acts not only as an index of the bomb’s disruption, but also as an important arbiter of our response to it as viewers” (250).