24 January 2011

Framing the War in Afgahnistan

"This mandating of what can be seen - a concern with regulating
- was supplemented by control over the perspective
according to which the action and destruction of war could be
seen at all. By regulating perspective in addition to content, the
state authorities were clearly interested in regulating the
visual modes of participation in the war."

~ Judith Butler. Frames of War, page 65.

Caption (Toronto Star) : US Army flight Medic SGT Patrick Schultz
talks to a wounded US soldier in the rear of a medevac helicopter
while enroute to Kandahar Airfield after he was injured by an
improvised explosive device in Zhari District, Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Photograph © Louie Palu/Zuma Press.

A short while ago Michael Shaw wrote this post at BagNewsNotes.* He pointed out a striking similarity in the work of three terrific photographers - James Nachtwey, Tyler Hicks and Louie Palu - who had recently been embedded with military units in Afghanistan. More to the point, he noted the similarity in the way their respective work framed the ongoing war there.

The folks at PDN report that one of the photographers - Palu - has taken exception to Michael's post. To his credit Michael has updated the post to reiterate what I took to be clear in the first instance - namely that this is not about the intentions of the photographers, but the strategy of the Pentagon and the tone-deafness of the media organizations. That said. Palu has got to be kidding if he thinks that "accepting an embed" is a politically naive decision. think about the practice of embedding journalists: The military are going to send you to see what they choose for you to see. This is part of the "regulating of perspective" of which Butler speaks. And while that need not make any photographer a tool of the military, it does make is especially difficult to present anything resembling an oppositional or critical view of what is happening in Afghanistan.

So, Palu's complaint about the use of individual pictures misses the mark by a wide margin. The same goes for the self-serving - and I would add patronizing - rationalization of his editor quoted in the PDN piece. The problems with embedded reporting are ongoing - they are not, as the editor suggests, something from the past that Michael has simply dredged up. What we are getting is the regulation of perspective, a particular "official" framing, that is meant to limit what we see and how we interpret the war. The fact that photographers and journalists have no choice but to accept embeds if they want to cover the war does nothing to alter that state of affairs.

The images Palu and Nachtwey and Hicks made were taken up by large media organizations and used in ways that they may hardly have intended. But those images, taken from a military-sanctioned perspective, sustain an interpretive frame whether the photographers like it or not. The fact that, as Michael points out, the stories in Time, The New York Times and The Toronto Star are near substitutes for one another is telling in that regard.
* For the record, I know and like Michael - he runs what I consider to be an invaluable blog. And if you scroll down the comments on this particular post, you'll see that I threw in my two cents early on.

P.S.: Updated 26 January 2011 ~ There is an interesting and helpful post here on this ongoing discussion.

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