From Michael Browning at the Palm Beach Post
Click the link below if the paper has killed the link or archived it where you can't get to the text.
You would have to be living in a cave if you haven't heard about the atrocities involving US soldiers and Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. While it isn't yet known if the torture of the prisoners has resulted in more than a few deaths, I can imagine this is the start of a vicious cycle quite like the debacle in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. You kill one of mine. I kill two of you. And on and on, back and forth it goes on for ever. It gets to a point for the lay person that no one side is better than the other.
I have that same problem now between the Democrats and the Republicans. There is sufficient evidence that the Clinton administration dropped the ball on keeping track of Osama bin Laden. The 9/11 disaster could have been prevented if our “intelligence” community had actually done their job. And surprise, surprise, it's that same intelligence gathering agency that delivered the raison d'etre to “liberate” Iraq; claiming that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction. Did Saddam Hussein use nerve gas on the Kurds living in Northern Iraq? Of course he did. But whether these WMD's existed at all or in quantities that the CIA (or our old friend Ahmad Chalabi) suggested is seriously doubtful. So there goes our excuse for even being in the area. Was Hussein a brutal dictator who wreaked havoc in people's lives? Absolutely. But have we forgotten Indonesia's Suharto and North Korea's Kim Jong Il? You haven't seen the US making a bee line to those countries have you? So, why depose one dictator you have been supporting all along and neglect the others? It seems way too convenient.
There has to be another reason for being out there in Iraq. To most of us, with our mortgages, our soccer practices and our backyard barbecues, “out there” is so far away that we couldn't give a hoot about it. But I wonder if Americans, with their gas guzzling SUV's or eighteen-wheeled trucks, who have to deal with already escalating gas prices will wake up from their stupor and take some action. For some being in Iraq IS taking that action – ensuring that oil prices are controlled less by OPEC and more by Americans. Is this cynical or conspiratorial? I think not. Neo conservatives will claim that rising gas prices will cause the world's greatest economy to falter. When the US economy sputters, the rest of the world feels the pain too. That we are intricately tied to one another is pretty clear. The question in my mind is, at what point does our agenda for a free, prosperous, democratic life impinge on the lives of others living in this world with us? And at what point does that effect on other countries and people ripple right back to us?
Check the gas prices lately? They are going up, not down as one would have expected. Why you ask? Well, the Bush administration is clearly mucking things up in Iraq. The Americans do not have a handle on the insurgency. The administration's efforts are spiraling out of control to a point where the June 30 hand-off to a yet unnamed presumably “democratic” group will really have to be called a “retreat” in the world's history books. The confidence and limited supply of trust the Middle East heaps on the US has made it very difficult to succeed. Already our actions in the region have triggered a ghastly bombing in Madrid. Which city in the world will be next? The few countries that joined the US (called the “coalition”) are starting to back paddle and exit Iraq, a country they had little to do with in the first place. Even Secretary of State and former General in the US Army, Colin Powell has made remarks suggesting his misgivings towards the war in Iraq.
Let's be sure there is a broader definition of the war in Iraq as opposed to the war against terrorism. The Bush administration has attempted unsuccessfully to marry both wars. It's unconvincing and in the minds of those who have lost family and friends in the 9/11 disaster, it should wholly unforgivable. While I have great respect for those who honorably serve in the armed forces, I have nothing but disdain for politicians and their ilk whose sole aim is to push an agenda that is disruptive to world peace. Almost 800 men and women have died serving in the US army. Untold number of people have died in Iraq and other places where US agenda has prevailed.
Years from now when the political spectrum has shifted we will have to reassess and rethink our international policies. Or, perhaps we need to do it now.
Whether it is writing, photography or artwork, the act of revealing, of stripping away to the very core of a human being or culture can be a violent process. Indeed, some cultures around the world rightfully fear that their soul is being robbed when a camera's lens is focused on them. Compounding this is the use and tone of our language to describe the photographic process. We “shoot” pictures. Then there is the “snap-shot,” or this one – “shooting from the hip,” as if our cameras were six-shooters slung in a pair of holsters.
In Bullet Dodger, I described photojournalist – turned artist – Luc Delahye's work as epic. In Vision of Peace?, I published photojournalist Harikrishna's take on war photography. In his comments to Emerging Photog, he summarily called all war photography as pornographic. I am not sure if that makes all war photographers pornographers, but that pornography is a form of violence is a well-known fact. Perhaps he means that the resulting images from a war are simply consumed by us with sadistic pleasure?
“all war photographers are naïve, in the sense that naïveté is a precondition of heroism, and all war photographers are either cast in or aspire to the heroic mould, but most, consequently, are unwitting commercial if not political stooges.”
Remembering Hari's comments, I sent him the link to Paul's post and he promptly asked me to check out an interview on The Brooklyn Rail with David Levi Strauss. While Melancholy Rhino is appalled and very critical of how images from war have become a commodity (under the pretense of art), the Strauss interview is concerned with issues of representation and propaganda during war time.
I am also in the midst of reading Susan Sontag‘s article Looking At War: Photography's view of devastation and death, in the December 9, 2002 issue of The New Yorker.
I am tempted to post this well after I have munched on all of this heavy reading. But let me put this out there. Comments welcome. If you have other readings or interpretations of war photography, please chime in.
When I posted Emerging Photog, I didn't figure it would create this incredible dialogue about war and peace and the role of the image maker in the mix. Harikrishna, an alumnus of IIT-Madras and now a photojournalism student at the University of Texas, Austin (everyone, APPLAUSE) has had some interesting things to say. But they lie buried in the comments section. Well, no more. Here is his last comment in its entirety:
I have been seriously thinking and debating about the effect of war on photographers particularly after I saw the film War Photographer on James Nachtwey. My conclusions about him as a person came after I spoke to people who have interacted with him. All of them deeply admire his courage, but they are equally saddened by how the war adrenaline addiction has sapped the life out of him. He hopes to change the world with his photographs, but sadly things have only gone worse in the world since he has been making pictures. There seems to be no hope in almost all his pictures. What we see is just hopelessness and emptiness. Can they inspire us for a better world? I am yet to meet someone who would not be utterly dejected after seeing his book Inferno. There seems to be no hope in the world of James Nachtwey. Only desolation and destruction. Can such a tunnel vision change our hearts to make peace with each other? I dont know. This has lead to a lot of soul searching in my own personal life. Can we separate our work and our life? Would Nachtwey's vision of the world be same if he had a personal life where he enjoy simple pleasures? I dont mean to pass any judgements about his personal life, but the issue I am interested in is the Cause and Effect.
Somehow Larry Towell‘s war photographs comes to my mind. I read his pictures differently. They touch me more than some graphic war pictures made under herioc circumstances. There is no heroism or adreneline rush in Larry Towell's. His pictures are quiet. They make me reflect on the situation. Nachtwey's pictures make me think about the photographer. I am caught in the photographic composition. The light and everything else. Everything except the meaning.
Each image maker has her/his own approach to the subject at hand. Bearing witness to the horrors of war or the pleasures of life is a gift. The resulting images, which can be pedantic, need not be so all the time. Don't the images which hit us over the head and instruct also desensitize us in the long run? “Yet another image of a starving child,” we say. The images may have been shot by Nachtwey, Eugene Richards or Mary Ellen Mark. That doesn't matter. As Harikrishna laments, isn't it time we focused on our subjects rather than ourselves? I am curious how you bring empathy to what you do and with those you work – no, you don't have to be a photographer to answer that question.
In asking you to do this, I am reminded of Robert Cole's book – The Call Of Service. Coles, a Harvard university professor and psychiatrist who started the moribund DoubleTake magazine is a wonderful teacher. When I lived in Boston, I snuck into one of his sessions and was astounded by the breadth his knowledge. The book, which “examines the idealistic motives of people who engage in volunteer work, community service or civil rights activism,” is a fascinating read and I would recommend it wholeheartedly.
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