This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2004

War photography is hell

Brian Joseph DavisWebsite@joylandfiction

A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but a snapshot rarely tells the whole story

Photgraph of dead soldiers beside a road

One cannot argue with photographs, and that is the inherent problem of the medium. A photograph is often viewed as exactly what it represents—a destroyed building, a dead child. It can scream, but it rarely speaks or engages us like the written or spoken word. In capturing death it is the apparent duty of most photographs to leave us “speechless.”

In 1862, Civil War photographer Mathew Brady became the first to cross the death barrier when he displayed his collection of photographs, “The Dead of Antietam.” His images of Confederate casualties set the standard for all reactions to atrocity photos to come—moral outrage at the invasion of death’s privacy, and at the stunning indictment of war.

As Susan Sontag wrote in her 1972 treatise On Photography, the reactions are suspect and limited because “a capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex…. It needs to gather unlimited amounts of information.” While one would assume that these images could change history and sway public opinion, Sontag concludes to the contrary: “the attempts by photographers to bolster up a depleted sense of reality contribute to the depletion.”

In light of the last 30 years of—not entirely annoying—postmodern theory, Sontag’s strident criticism now seems as artificially old-timey as boudoir photography. It is true that before calculated shock wears off, new images are presented to us—often before we can engage with the photograph. But to assume that taking and looking at photos only leaves us with a sense of immobility is to assume that we have no active relationship with photographic images. Sontag’s belief that one can never understand and connect with photographs, again, informs much of her recent book, Regarding the Pain of Others. Yet the problem with trying to locate a morality within the aesthetics of photography is that photography has no aesthetics. A picture’s power (and secret) never resides in the focus of its content, but rather in questions of why the photo was taken and what the relationship between photographer and subject is. We take photos to remember (and is there anything we forget more than death?) but Sontag felt that “our oppressive sense of transience of everything is more acute since the camera gave us the means to ‘fix’ the fleeting moment.”

In contrast, the late critic Roland Barthes was fascinated by these questions. Like Sontag, he found attempts by photographers to aestheticize their work (“classic” composition, ironic whimsy, exploiting grain and materiality) to be vulgar but despite this, he saw in a photograph’s unintended, discrete elements, the power to convey mortality with great lucidity. He called this detail in a photograph “the punctum”; in literal terms, a detail that pierced him when viewing. With the unaesthetic snapshot being the only kind of photograph to consistently capture the popular imagination, history has borne out Barthes’ theory. Without the bluff and hustle of clumsy aesthetics, snapshots can only speak the truth of photography’s covert mission—the containment and neutralizing of death.

Many war photographs are snapshots. Most are not. Nick Ut’s photograph of Kim Phuc fleeing her village after a US napalm attack is a snapshot and perhaps singular in its intensity. In the photo, a group of fleeing children is centered by the naked, burnt Kim Phuc, her face expressing an unknowable suffering. In the background, the satanic cloud of napalm is a grey haze. Following the children, three soldiers gesture—implying everything from practiced calm to numb shock. Their suffering too, is unknowable. Were we ever meant to see this photograph?

War, by its very nature, is spectacle—a grand staged execution—and staged photos are often the only images we are allowed to see. Another photo from the Vietnam War—Eddie Adams’s photo of an executioner’s bullet as it strikes a still-standing prisoner on the street in Saigon—was staged. The bullet is real, the corpse is real but the execution was moved outside for the benefit of the press. Its formal posing ultimately disturbs more than the before-death gaze on the prisoner’s face.

Thirty years and a change of location later, the photos taken by the 320th and 372nd Battalion of Military Police stationed at Abu Ghraib are, like all unforgettable photographs, snapshots. The chill at first glance is what most would assume is the ultimate evidence of a battered country’s degradation but what stops the heart cold is beyond the photographs’ focal points of shamed bodies. Why did they casually document these acts? Officials have claimed that the photos were taken in order to intimidate other prisoners; the suggestion of which serves to normalize the photos as elements of proper war spectacle. But what of the look of glee on the prison guards’ faces while committing acts of sadism informed as much by high school hazing as by the CIA handbook? Are they not similar to looks on Cancun vacationers’ faces, caught in a saucy tableau by the camera’s flash? A not unlikely comparison as the battalions have been distanced from the “regular” army in the press. They are a reserve unit, untrained and drawn from common fields like data processing and the service industry. The purpose of these images is, under closer scrutiny, the same purpose behind vacation photos—proof of adventure and dominance over an exotic locale. If these images were, as they were purported to be, created to intimidate, do they continue to intimidate us as spectators? Even with the arrangement and posing they are snapshots, and as snapshots they only reveal an impotent, banal evil.

Brian Joseph Davis is a photo-based artist searching for a less problematic medium.

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