25 July 2010

Changing Conventions in War Photography & the Disaster in Afghanistan

U.S. Army soldiers of the 1-320th Alpha Battery, 2nd Brigade of
the 101st Airborne Division, look towards insurgent positions
during a firefight at COP Nolen, in the volatile Arghandab Valley,
Kandahar, Afghanistan, Saturday, July 24, 2010.
(Photograph © AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Over the course of the afternoon I had an interesting and helpful exchange of comments on this earlier post. My interlocutor, photographer Tim Hetherington, has taken exception to the post, interpreting my comments as questioning his integrity. I certainly did not intend the post in any such way and indeed stated as much at the outset. I apologize to Tim if I created that impression.

Having said all that, I thought it might help to depersonalize the disagreement. Let's not talk about Tim's work. My concerns are two. The first is directly political in the pedestrian sense; it centers on whether whether our troops in Afghanistan are serving our national interest. I stand by my judgment that they are not. They are there enacting a misguided policy. We can argue the question, but I am pretty confident about where the preponderance of evidence will fall.

My second concern has more to do with the politics of photography. Here is the nub of the issue: why is it acceptable to depict our military adventures in Afghanistan with images like the one I discuss here, whereas images like the one I discuss here generate an uproar? My concern is that we are witnessing not just the sort of censorship (and accompanying official rationalizations)* of images of war that prevents the media from showing even flag draped coffins being unloaded at military bases, but also the emergence of a parallel convention wherein we will get sanitized views of war dressed up in tee-shirts and boxers as though the soldiers just happened to be camped out there and came under attack totally by surprise. That is what I meant by visual euphemism.

As if on cue, I just found the image above festooned across the top of the home page at Huffington Post accompanying a story on the publication of classified records of the Afghanistan debacle (here and here too). Given the information that was released today, the confidence I noted above is growing.
* For examples of censorship see, e.g. [1] [2] [3] ...

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Blogger Tom White said...

Jim you are dead right. Let's not confuse the politics of an issue with the representation of that issue. The way in which something is represented or mis represented does not change the underlying facts. Reports and analysis of those facts (in photography, film, the written word, audio recordings, data and comment and opinion) should all go into the pot to help us untangle and understand what those facts actually mean.

Too often people confuse the representation with the actual, and neither is ever a complete truth. What is problematic and worrying is when the conventions of representation filter the way something is perceived by those who go and report on the events first hand. Is it possible for one to see (or absorbs through any sense) what is actually happening and processes it without the filter of their pre-conceptions? Can any of us do that, even when looking at the representations passed on to us?

In a class last year I delivered a short lecture on the history of photojournalism and one of the first slides I showed was of soldiers relaxing during the Crimean war, I then held up that day's copy of The New York Times which - as luck would have it - had a picture of soldiers more or less 'at ease' on it's front page. http://www.nytimes.com/indexes/2009/08/17/pageone/scan/index.html

My point was that photojournalism hasn't changed as much as some might think.

In any case, I think it is an important discussion to have, especially in regard to photography - how do we represent the world we live in. Can it ever be truly objective, what happens when it is not and how does that affect how the event is perceived by those who only know it though it's representation. It is not an easy discussion, which makes it all the more worthwhile engaging in.

I saw Restrepo a couple of weeks ago and it raised a lot of issues in my mind, both about what it represented and the way it represented it. I think it is a remarkable piece of documentary film making but one that both reveals and excludes. I came away from it feeling informed yet with a head full of questions.

Perhaps all journalism should end with a comma, and never with a full stop.

By the way, if you haven't already (I suspect you may have) you should check out Tim Hetherington's work from Liberia published in his book 'The Long Story Bit by Bit'. Admittedly I knew little of this country before reading that, but I feel it is a worthwhile addition to any library and on the basis of that I look forward to seeing what his forthcoming book on Afghanistan shows us - especially in how he presents the work in relation to what I have already seen of it published in Vanity Fair and exhibited in art galleries.

26 July, 2010 00:19  
Blogger Stan B. said...

It's a pretty simple formula, any images positive about the war effort (eg- soldier "rescuing" a wounded child), or sympathetic to our troops (eg- Restrepo) is a go, anything depicting the horrors and realities of war, particularly when we perpetrate it or it is in turn inflicted upon us, is verboten.

26 July, 2010 10:21  
Blogger sunilphoto said...

Hi Jim. It seems that the recording, presentation and reception of photojournalistic images cannot escape the apparatuses which permit their very existence. As we know, all are deeply embedded in convention. Also taking into account photography’s inability to legitimise facts, surely it will be through the small breakthroughs of progressive thinking photographers, policy makers, editors, organisations and with perhaps discussions like this that truths really start to emerge; not in images themselves but the actual discourses that go with them?

29 July, 2010 03:46  

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