Week 8: Responses & Responsibilities

“As objects of contemplation, images of the atrocious can answer to several different needs. To steel oneself against weakness. To make oneself more numb. To acknowledge the existence of the incorrigible” 

(Sontag, 2005)

Growing up I became fascinated by war photography. It fuelled my imagination. As I became older, it showed me the reality of man’s continued will to destroy itself, through violence and war.

The likes of Margaret Bourke-White, Time Page, Timothy Hetherington, Don McCullin, Robert Capa, Moises Saman and Roger Fenton, are just a few of my many inspirations. All have had a place in my own developmental practice when it comes to photography.

I hail from a military family and as the eldest of all the grandchildren, it was thought for a while that I would follow in the footprints of my elders. However, my grandad taught me that war was, for a better word, hell and that my own life path was very much away from the chaos of battle.

At 17, I was offered a place with the marines. I turned it down in favour of going to college. Instead of a rifle, I picked up a camera and to this day I still wonder how my life would have turned out if I had chosen the other path.

It is at this point that I am drawn very much to a poem by Carol Ann Duffy – War Photographer:

In his darkroom he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.

He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.

Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.

A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.
From aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns a living and they do not care.

(Dufy in Kumar, 2018)

For me, the resonance of this work and that of the quote by Sontag above, speaks volumes of how war photography has impacted culture since it first emerged, during the American / Mexican war during 1846 – 1847.

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Fig 1 

Since this time, photography as a media has evolved the most during times of conflict. Here the camera was developed to be the all-seeing spy, either on the ground, but most notably in the air.

Developments of the medium during wartime pushed the camera’s technology to new and unimagined places. Ironically my grandad’s film career started by using an old WWII battle camera – as shown below.

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Fig 2

It is an interesting note that the only other significant push in the cameras evolutionary technology (away from the military and space) was from the porn industry. In peacetime, porn artists strove to achieve new ways of achieving better and better image results. Proving to me that man’s wanton destruction of self was mirrored only by its wanton will for pleasure.

War’s came and went, from the US Civil war, Crimean War, World War One, Two and every other conflict in between. The camera was always there, part of the action, part of the story and always watching.

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Fig 3

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 Fig 4       

Shell-shocked US Marine, The Battle of Hue 1968, printed 2013 by Don McCullin born 1935                                             

Fig 5

PRT Farah Conducts Medical Evacuation Training with Charlie Co., 2-211th Aviation Regiment at Forward Operating Base Farah

Fig 6

War its seems is a photographers dream and nightmare all at the same time. Yet the methods of capturing the images of war are still very much the same now as they were in Fenton’s and Brady’s time. That being the gaze upon the battlefield and the creation of stills and video that speak ‘witness’ to the masses safely at home.

The story of war can only be told – it seems – when it is seen in its true glory. Its destructive, murderous nature only relatable to the civilian masses through the viewfinder of a camera. The images of war that we see in today’s media – when viewed over our morning cereal – are a testimony to the many years of conflict within which the practice has developed. And the many sacrifices it has had to make along the way.

Is Photography An Agent for Change?

For me, photography in war can provoke change, but not necessarily for the better. Now more than ever it has become easier to coerce the masses with propaganda or censor the reality to be replaced with an alternative, ‘controlled’ narrative.

Some images of war stick with us, others sicken us, intrigue us or provoke imaginations. Some really can make a change for good.

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Fig 7

The above image is one such gaze that forces us to rethink our position. The images of war are not often as straight forward as they first seem, more so are the stories of war photographers.

One such example focuses on Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington during 2003 Liberian civil war. Embedded with Dictator Charles Taylor’s forces in besieged Monrovia, Hondros endured artillery and rocket fire to send frontline pictures of women and children being killed by the hundreds.  Getting global recognition for his photographs, they alerted the world to the genocide that was occurring in Liberia, mostly on civilians.

At the same time Hetherington, embedded with the LURD rebels, provided images of rebels shelling civilians. Charles Taylor considered Hetherington a threat and sent assassination squads to kill the British photojournalist. Surviving the ordeal Hetherington later wrote Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold, which is now seen as the standard text of the Liberian Wars.

This example – two war photographers on opposing sides of the conflict, working to produce images that have been credited with stopping the civil war, is, in my view, an example of how photography can and does force change. Such images brought peace in this case, but in others, they have been the very cause of war.

Hondros later commented on his image (above) “Does it celebrate war or is it, you know, something else? I think a lot of different people would take different things away from that picture.”

(Hondros in Brown, 2018)

Hondros along with Hetherington were both sadly killed by artillery in Misurata, Libya 2011 whilst carrying out their work.

It is here that I find Duffy’s last verse of her poem is most striking:

A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.
From aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns a living and they do not care.

I believe war is shaped by the images the public see – it can sway the way the war is accepted or rejected at home. The Vietnam way – 1965 – 75 – was one such case where mainstream media, given unparalleled access to US forces, produced work that caused outrage in the US and led to mass protests for peace. 

The Iraq war, Afganistan, the war on terror – all have produced their share of iconic images, shocking scenes that made most of us, at some point, all feel we needed to do more, or that we needed to take a side in a conflict many miles from home. Or, in the case of Northen Ireland, just on our doorstep. 

Image sanitation for the digital generation is more notable now than ever. I am struck by Barthes The Third Meaning, in which he describes the photographic message as:

“The photographic paradox can be seen as the co-existence of two messages, the one without a code (the photographic analogue), the other with a code (the rhetoric of the photograph).”

(Barthes in Garage, 2019)

Within war photography I find many images conform to this. That being, while the photographic image pretends to be objective and neutral, it always has certain controlled cultural connotations and ideas encoded within it. For me, no war image has been taken without a will (conscious or other) to include some form of political or cultural message.

The very cultural setting that the photograph was taken, often informs its ideals and values. The viewer simply allocates these to the political positioning most comfortable to them. This ‘code’ I see as the source of emotive reaction to any image, but especially those of conflict or death.

Death fascinates and intrigues. Images of death, especially of those from battle, often draw the viewer to stair, not gaze, at the spectacle before them. Human nature, after all, is tribal.

I shall end on a quote from ‘On Photography’ – Sontag sums this up most notably for me by stating:

“Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time”

(Sontag, 2008)

 


References

Images 

  • Fig 1 – Unknown. (1847) Daguerreotype – American troops ride into the city of Saltillo during the war with Mexico.  (source media)
  • Fig 2 – Anderson, L. (1948) Meet the Pioneers Filming. (source media – private collection)
  • Fig 3 – Fenton, R. (1855). Piling arms. (source media) 
  • Fig 4 – Brady, M. (1863). The Battle of Gettysburg. (source media) 
  • Fig 5 – McCullin, D. (1968).  Shell shocked US marine. (source media) 
  • Fig 6 –  Ives, J, Chief Petty Officer. (2013). Medical evacuation training on FOB Farah. (source media) 
  • Fig 7 – Hondros, C. (2003). Joseph Duo, a Liberian militia commander loyal to the government, exults after firing a rocket-propelled grenade at rebel forces at a key strategic bridge in Monrovia, Liberia. (source media)