Photographing the “Centre of War”

by Heather on May 27, 2009

Hallelujah, Ronit Novak is back. You may remember her from such HMAb posts as NYPH09: Controversial Photographers and The Buzz about Tim Hetherington. But wait, there’s more. Ronit writes:

From my NYPH audio interview with Tim Hetherington:

” …the crux of war is people killing each other, that’s what war is. Sure it’s the weapons industry, it’s all these other things, but the centre of war is that [people killing each other]. And I don’t know that many people are exploring the centre [of war], in that way. The terrain is normally mapped out by photojournalists, because it’s difficult terrain to access.”

Hetherington has a “love/hate relationship with photojournalism… because editorial assignments do not allow [their photographers] the opportunity to get engaged,” so photojournalists tend to “manufacture emotions” to procure substance. What does it mean to “manufacture emotions?” Is it a wide angle? A diagonal tilt? A provocative photographer that draws a weeping mourner inches from his/her Canon L-series lens?

Here’s a sample of popular wire photojournalism from a series of 3 bombs that went off in Baghdad last week:

A bloody sidewalk in Baghdad marked where at least three American soldiers were killed by an explosion on Thursday. Karim Kadim/Associated Press (ran in New York Times)

A bloody sidewalk in Baghdad marked where at least three American soldiers were killed by an explosion on Thursday. Karim Kadim/Associated Press (ran in New York Times)

Residents gather at the site of a bomb attack in Baghdad's Shula district May 21, 2009. A parked car bomb ripped through the poor mostly Shi'ite district of Shula in northwest Baghdad on Wednesday, killing 35 people and wounding 72 others near a popular restaurant, police said. REUTERS/Ahmed Malik(IRAQ CONFLICT IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Residents gather at the site of a bomb attack in Baghdad's Shula district May 21, 2009. A parked car bomb ripped through the poor mostly Shi'ite district of Shula in northwest Baghdad on Wednesday, killing 35 people and wounding 72 others near a popular restaurant, police said. REUTERS/Ahmed Malik(IRAQ CONFLICT IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Relatives of a victim grieve outside a morgue after a bomb attack in Baghdad's Shula district May 21, 2009. A parked car bomb ripped through the poor mostly Shi'ite district of Shula in northwest Baghdad on Wednesday, killing 35 people and wounding 72 others near a popular restaurant, police said. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen (IRAQ CONFLICT)

Relatives of a victim grieve outside a morgue after a bomb attack in Baghdad's Shula district May 21, 2009. A parked car bomb ripped through the poor mostly Shi'ite district of Shula in northwest Baghdad on Wednesday, killing 35 people and wounding 72 others near a popular restaurant, police said. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen (IRAQ CONFLICT)

A man sits next to the coffin of a victim killed in a  bomb attack in Shula district in Baghdad May 21, 2009. A parked car bomb ripped through the poor mostly Shi'ite district of Shula in northwest Baghdad on Wednesday, killing 35 people and wounding 72 others near a popular restaurant, police said. REUTERS/Stringer  (IRAQ CONFLICT)

A man sits next to the coffin of a victim killed in a bomb attack in Shula district in Baghdad May 21, 2009. A parked car bomb ripped through the poor mostly Shi'ite district of Shula in northwest Baghdad on Wednesday, killing 35 people and wounding 72 others near a popular restaurant, police said. REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ CONFLICT)

A woman walks beside a damaged vehicle at the site of a bomb attack in Baghdad's Shula district May 21, 2009. A parked car bomb ripped through the poor mostly Shi'ite district of Shula in northwest Baghdad on Wednesday, killing 35 people and wounding 72 others near a popular restaurant, police said. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen(IRAQ CONFLICT)

A woman walks beside a damaged vehicle at the site of a bomb attack in Baghdad's Shula district May 21, 2009. A parked car bomb ripped through the poor mostly Shi'ite district of Shula in northwest Baghdad on Wednesday, killing 35 people and wounding 72 others near a popular restaurant, police said. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen(IRAQ CONFLICT)

Women wept on Thursday in Baghdad during the funeral of a victim of a car bombing that killed 40 people. Hadi Mizban/Associated Press (ran in New York Times)

Women wept on Thursday in Baghdad during the funeral of a victim of a car bombing that killed 40 people. Hadi Mizban/Associated Press (ran in New York Times)

So wire photojournalists are at the “centre of war” telling the story of blood, bombs, and “manufacturing emotions.” for spot news publications. Some days I browse through Getty and Reuters and AP and the selection of photos are muted, prostrate rectangles, or sensationalist tableaux, that scream out “absence” more than “substance”. This tells me that the photographer did not, or could not, access worthy subject matter.

Christoph Bangert, who in 2007 published Iraq: The Space Between by powerHouse books, is in Iraq on assignment for the New York Times right now for two months. His photographs have been appearing as a Visual Diary on the NYTimes Baghdad Bureau: Iraq from the Inside. Here’s some of his posts from the past few weeks:

Baghdad– Did you ever wonder what happened to Saddam Hussein’s Arabian horses? Photo By Christoph Bangert for The New York Times

Baghdad– Did you ever wonder what happened to Saddam Hussein’s Arabian horses? Photo By Christoph Bangert for The New York Times

Baghdad– Garbage on the surface of the Tigris River is collecting at a temporary steel bridge that runs beneath the 14th of July Bridge. Photo: Christoph Bangert for The New York Times

Baghdad– Garbage on the surface of the Tigris River is collecting at a temporary steel bridge that runs beneath the 14th of July Bridge. Photo: Christoph Bangert for The New York Times

Blue plastic chairs fill a classroom at the Falluja Business Development Centre. Photo: Christoph Bangert for The New York Times

Blue plastic chairs fill a classroom at the Falluja Business Development Centre. Photo: Christoph Bangert for The New York Times

A yellow door in an American-funded agricultural school close to Falluja. Photo: Christoph Bangert for The New York Times

A yellow door in an American-funded agricultural school close to Falluja. Photo: Christoph Bangert for The New York Times

This photograph is accompanied by a generous written contribution by Bangert:

This photograph is accompanied by a generous written contribution by Bangert:

This photograph is accompanied by a generous written contribution by Bangert:

I often get asked to explain in words what my pictures are about. I find this almost impossible to do. Although I believe that it is crucial for a published image to be accompanied by a caption that accurately describes what can be seen in it, any attempt to explain or analyze the image by the photographer will inevitably result in a failure.
So why do people want me to explain? Never in history have we been surrounded by more imagery and photography than today. But paradoxically we also seem to live in increasingly text-driven societies, where discussions and intellectual battles are fought with words and not with images. Maybe we have a tendency to believe and trust the written or spoken word more than the image because we struggle to trust our own thoughts and ideas that we individually have towards images.
So what is the picture above about?
Curtains?
A mood?
The photographer?
Nothing?
Iraq?
It’s really up to you, the viewer.
–Christoph Bangert

I can’t decide if these photographs are:
informative?
vacant?
beautiful?
timely?
thought-provoking?
pretentious?

Hetherington sites these artists that working with new ways to document the war:

from Baghdad Calling, a collection of cellphone photos by Iraqis in Baghdad. © Geert van Kesteren

from Baghdad Calling, a collection of cellphone photos by Iraqis in Baghdad. © Geert van Kesteren

 The Day. This is a 50 metre-long roll of colour photo paper that Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin brought with them with embedded with the British Army in Iraq at the front line in 2008. Over a period of 10 days they exposed a section of the paper to the sun during notable events. Sections of the roll mark events such as the day of 100 dead; the brothers suicide; the fixers execution; the nobody died; the jailbreak; and the press conference. © Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

The Day. This is a 50 metre-long roll of colour photo paper that Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin brought with them with embedded with the British Army in Iraq at the front line in 2008. Over a period of 10 days they exposed a section of the paper to the sun during notable events. Sections of the roll mark events such as the day of 100 dead; the brothers suicide; the fixers execution; the nobody died; the jailbreak; and the press conference. © Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

And then there’s this:

Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, 1936  Robert Capa © Magnum

Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, 1936 Robert Capa © Magnum

An American soldier killed during a house to house fight against German troops. April 18th, 1945. ROBERT CAPA © Magnum

An American soldier killed during a house to house fight against German troops. April 18th, 1945. ROBERT CAPA © Magnum

Who right now is at the “centre” truly shooting emotionally, conceptually, holistically? Is that even possible in this age of 3-day embeds with the military, heavy restrictions on photographers (ie. no wounded or dead soldiers, no identification badges, bombing sites are off limits for an hour after detonation) and publications appealing to advertisers that would prefer you not drop your newspaper in your Cheerios because of an alarming photograph.

What do you think of the difference between these very different styles of war photography? Is either group more desirable? How can we overcome the challenges of our current restrictions and create images that are effective, evocative and informative?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

me June 10, 2009 at 9:15 pm

I was reading recently about a show (Controversies: A Legal and Ethical History of Photography) that I did not go see, which quoted a book I have not picked up in many years, Sontag’s “On Photography.” She recalls seeing the images of Bergen-Belsen by British soldiers: “When I looked at those photographs, something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror. I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying. To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them.”

I used to believe, and I say this from a supremely comfortable distance from the visceral reality of anything resembling war or hardship, that we need to be confronted at every opportunity with the bloody centre that Hetherington refers to, or risk complacency. I wonder sometimes whether that has left us so inured to bloody consequences that we are left trying to portray strife by picking away at the edges, portraying catastrophes with pictures of yellow doors, empty blue chairs, a hanged tyrant’s horse.

I need to think about your post a bit more, obviously, since I am having a difficult time weighing the two styles of war photography: one flirts uncomfortably with irrelevancy, the other might be soul-destroying.

Thanks for this. Also, I do love a place where your entry can co-exist with another that includes the phrase “massive risk” in a discussion about photographing a garden party. Keep it coming! ;)

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