22 July 2010

War Photography as Visual Euphemism?

On a pretty regular basis I receive emails announcing exhibition openings, new books, and so forth. Sometimes I post about the event or appearance, sometimes I don't. Today I received the following from HOST Gallery (London):

"HOST gallery is pleased to announce the exhibition and book launch of Tim Hetherington’s Infidel. 20 September - 15 October 2010. More information below:

Infidel is an intimate portrait of a close band of warriors – a small battalion of US soldiers, posted to an outpost in the remote and dangerous Korengal Valley in North Eastern Afghanistan. Shot over the course of a year, Hetherington’s photographs prove surprisingly tender – arguably the strongest among them a series of the men asleep. This is a body of work as much about camaraderie, love and male vulnerability as it is about the horrors of war. The book’s title ‘Infidel’ is taken from a tattoo the men adopted as a mark of their comradeship. Hetherington’s photographs are sharp, moving and full of humour; they stand as a tribute to a group of men risking their lives in the interest of their own nation, and a provocative contribution the documentation of war in our time.

Please see attached press release and for more information please contact Harry on harry@foto8.com 0207 253 2770."
Let's be clear, Tim Hetherington is a very good photographer. He is no doubt a decent, sincere fellow as well. And the men he has photographed for this project are indeed risking their lives in the name of a national policy. I am not calling into question their motivations - and here I mean both the photographer and the soldiers - for doing what they are doing. I am asking about the consequences of the policy in which they (and we) all are caught up.

Having said those things, it is a considerable stretch - indeed, a stretch that I think cannot be sustained - to claim that these men are "risking their lives in the interest of their own nation." The war in Afghanistan is an ongoing disaster, in large measure because the Bush administration wasted resources and attention in Iraq. But, having inherited a mess, Obama is now prosecuting what is, despite his vigorous denial, a "war of choice." The current administration is asking these young men to risk their lives in the name of a policy that is demonstrably wrongheaded and, in all likelihood, doomed to failure. Neither the fraternity of the soldiers nor Tim Hetherington's images of it do anything to alter that basic reality.

So here is my question: If we can decry the way politicians and the print media consistently trade in (verbal) euphemisms (as I have done here repeatedly) isn't it possible to see the 'human interest' approach to war photography as a form of visual euphemism?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think yes absolutely, but I would argue that it's stronger than a euphemism. It's systematic obfuscation, and consequently a (sometimes well-intentioned) form of disinformation.

Where are the equal and opposing photographs and documentaries? Where's the opposite side of this coin - pictures of Afghan people (living and dead) and their lives lived over the course of a year? Where are Afghan opinion polls about the politicians we support? Where are the Afghans?

22 July, 2010 13:01  
Blogger Dan Pojar said...

I believe that neither the war in Iraq, nor this war in Afghanistan, have been in the interest of the US. And I find it disgusting that our national leaders have so vigorously pitched this very rhetoric to the public. Yet, I am left w/ one difficulty when wanting to just shout to this nation "wake up people!". And that difficulty is this: what do we tell those, and the families and loved ones of those, who literally gave limb or life in Iraq or Afghanistan for what they were told, for what they truly believed, was in the interest of this nation? If this nation's leaders were to reverse course on selling these wars as in the national interest, then what type of national apology would or should be offered to those loved ones who have been tragically impacted by these wars? Therein resides the dilemma for me.

23 July, 2010 00:13  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for your comment. I really don't think you face a predicament or dilemma. Sure, it will be difficult (I'd say excruciating) problem to care for the injuries of those who return and mourn those who never will. But that does not mean we ought to be sending more young men and women to risk life and limb for a misguided end.

As it stands, we are not funding the re-integration of combat veterans or their health care in anything like adequate levels. How about starting there?

23 July, 2010 07:10  
Blogger Walter Dufresne said...

Let me start by mentioning the US managed to kill hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese during the 1960s. I don't recall the numbers maimed or wounded.

When the Vietnamese finally ran the United States out of their country in 1975, many American citizens (if memory serves) clearly understood that US foreign policy maimed and destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers, and for no good reason, no good reason at all.

Despite photography's narcotizing role, that awful understanding is slowly re-emerging.

23 July, 2010 12:51  
Blogger Unknown said...

If you are interested in the "consequences of the policy in which they (and we) all are caught up", I would have thought understanding what motivates young men in war, and understanding how they are likely to act in a given situation, is of use. The limits of what we can and cannot reasonably expect of soldiers should have direct consequences in developing practical peace-building initiatives.
I appreciate it's difficult to comment without having seen the work... so please get a chance to see it when it comes out in October. There is also an accompanying film 'Restrepo', which will open in theatres in the UK at the same time.

25 July, 2010 09:37  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for the comment. The fact that young men and women will do things (like risk life and limb) is one thing; whether we ought to be asking them to do so is quite another. After all young people wil do all sorts of things. Part of my complaint is that military service (with its attendant risks and costs) is among the very, very few ways available to young people hoping to connect to something larger than themselves in a systematic way.
And, lest we forget, poor and minority "kids" are over-represented in the "all volunteer" service - especially among enlisted personnel. It is important to notice that given a narrow range of employment options, the notion of a voluntary commitment is pretty hollow.

All of that applies to military service in general. With respect to our current wars, I suspect there is really no excuse for putting young people at risk. Making the conflicts and the people fighting them for us into a human interest story seems to me a questionable move. That is especially so given the very tight control the military (in cahoots with the allegedly liberal media) has imposed on our ability to actually see non-propagandistic images of the costs and consequences of the wars.


25 July, 2010 16:28  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Jim - I'm a reporter, so your moral outrage about this issue is a little misdirected towards me.

Interestingly, cops also carry guns and get killed, but we don't apply the same logic to them.

I hear you when you question my integrity for "making the conflicts and the people fighting them for us into a human interest story." Does this also apply to my reporting on civilans massacred in Chad/Darfur for Human Rights Watch, or the work I did about right wing death squads in Sri Lanka?

Thankfully, people are genuinely interested in reading and learning about the wider world from a variety of perspectives.. of which mine is just one. It might help if you look at the work rather than draw conclusions from an exhibition send-out.

The film actually has a very rare scene of the civilian cost of war. You should see it, and read the independent journalist Robert Fisk's commentary at:


25 July, 2010 17:37  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for the reply. Let's be very clear though: I have no outrage toward you or anyone else involved in the show. I have no moral outrage toward particular military personnel either. (They are there for all sorts of reasons, some of which I alluded to in my prior comment. And they end up in predicaments that require them to take actions many of which I find problematic. But it is not my job to judge them. That is what we have laws and 'rules of engagement'for.) I oppose the Iraq and Afghan wars on political grounds. A common refrain in my writings here is that in many instances we are dealing with politics not ethics and that discussions of photography consistently confuse the two.

So this is not about your integrity.
I raised a set of objections to what seems to me a relatively new, increasingly common and, to my mind, politically problematic way of depicting our wars. I have posted on the topic before and provide links to the earlier posts. In other words, this is not just about this show.

If you read the initial post I explicitly state that I am not calling anyone's motives into account. In fact, I think that in the US there is an emerging convention - a set of norms - about how it is accetable to depict and view war. Conventions are not individual creations. And reporters (print or photo) are not the sole - perhaps not even the most important contributors to the emergence of media conventions; for example, policy makers, editors, and organizations who facilitate access (or not) are probably more important. Having said that, photographers and editors and others work within conventions, so particular projects emerge within the context of and contribute (or run counter) to evolving sets of conventions. And there is nothing amiss about situating them in that way. Nor is there anything personal about doing so.

Finally, I did not draft the press release. (I doubt you did either.) I received it and read it as making a political claim that is to my mind highly contentious, namely that 'that these men are "risking their lives in the interest of their own nation.' I don't need to see the show or anything else to make that judgment.

Why? Because the wars are not in our national interest. That our military personnel establish fraternity and so forth in the process of prosecuting a disastrous policy does nothing to change either the underlying policy or what I think ought to be our assessment of it.

25 July, 2010 18:54  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Jim – I was a little confused by the quote your site opens with which talks about the ‘power of images for good and evil’ – I confused this for ethics, so thanks for clarifying your purely political approach.

You are right about the press release being written and distributed outside of my control, but your previous comment that, “Making the conflicts and the people fighting them for us into a human interest story seems to me a questionable move”, suggests a larger critique beyond this press release – on that basis, I would urge you to take a look at the work.

My work seeks to engage people about what is happening in Afghanistan – and is the starting point for a wider conversation, which judging by your blog, is a strategy that works. I accept you may be well educated, politically enlightened, and have no further need of such communication, but that doesn’t mean others may not find my work useful. Again - back to my previous point - what motivates young men in war, and understanding how they are likely to act in a given situation, is of use. The limits of what we can and cannot reasonably expect of soldiers should have direct consequences in developing practical peace-building initiatives.

As for your political ideas – you may be right in suggesting war is not in ‘our’ long term interests, but as for the practical here and now, the civil war in Afghanistan - and the Taliban that were spawned from it – did allow a refuge for Al Qaeda during the 1990's. They had airfields, global telecommunications, a drug economy and - mostly - no extradition treaties. (None of those things are true about their current refuge in the border areas of Pakistan.) From Afghanistan they planned and executed attacks that killed 3,000 American civilians and brought down two of the tallest buildings in the world. Withdrawing from Afghanistan may allow history to repeat itself in the sense that the Taliban will almost certainly sweep back into power, Al Qaeda may reestablish an operating base there and we may experience another 9/11-type attack. The war in Afghanistan is not in our national interest only if recurring terrorist attacks on our soil cost less than continuing the war. Thus far we are at 1000 soldiers dead, which is one third of the casualties on 9/11. Economic costs are harder to calculate but may be on the same order. The math would suggest that we break even, in terms of costs, if 9/11-type attacks happen at least every 27 years. Less than that and we'd be better off continuing to keep Al Qaeda confined in the border areas of Pakistan. More than that and we'd be better off withdrawing and just losing a few thousand civilians every generation or so.

26 July, 2010 09:47  

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