Vietnam, Afghanistan and the sphere of legitimate aesthetics: developing a critical photographic practice

May 13, 2011 · by David Campbell · photography, politics

Life 1965 Vietnam, Afghanistan and the sphere of legitimate aesthetics: developing a critical photographic practiceWhat would a critical photographic response to the war in Afghanistan involve?

The is no single answer to that question, but having both contributed to and learnt from a workshop on the Burke + Norfolk show at the Tate Gallery in London this past week, it is one we have to pursue.

To begin to answer that question requires that the frames – the cultural, political and aesthetic frames that produce what Judith Butler calls “perceptible reality” – be exposed. First up is the fact that a set of myths about the Vietnam war and the role of the media in that conflict continue to shape how both the US military and its critics approach the imaging of war.

The conventional wisdom is that Vietnam was a “living room” war in which a highly critical media subjected its audience to a stream of graphic images depicting combat and its casualties. These pictures – including the iconic black and white photo photographs we can all easily recall – are said to have shocked viewers and mobilised public opinion against the war.

What is striking about these claims is that they are shared by both the military and it’s critics. The military think the coverage of Vietnam was unpatriotic and contributed to America’s defeat, while their critics endorse half that view and promote the idea that making the cost of war visible is a necessary step in ending it.

For the military the lesson learnt was that they need a better way of regulating the media, which resulted in a series of schemes culminating in the system of embedding implemented for the invasion of Iraq. For the critics, the conclusion was that showing an unsanitised view of war is the basis for any critical response. As a result, much of the debate around the imaging of Afghanistan has been locked into a stand off about the pros and cons of embedding.

The problem with this framing of the options is that what happened in Vietnam does not accord with the myth. The best analysis of American coverage – Daniel Hallin’s ‘The Uncensored War’ - shows that far from being unpatriotic, newspapers, magazines and television continued to support official government perspectives even as the peace movement grew. Far from showing an incessant diet of gory visuals, the US media shied away from graphic images. Overall, journalists filed reports that were easily woven into a narrative that fitted the national frame.

This is significant for photojournalism’s understanding of it’s historical role and potential power. The visual icons we now associate with the war – the photographs of Larry Burrows, Philip Jones-Griffiths, Don McCullin and others – were either rejected by the media, published after the event, or were simply unrepresentative of the majority coverage.

Much photojournalism exists within and reproduces an ‘eternal present’ obscuring the frames that narrow its perspective. Embedding is one such frame, but it is located within frames too, especially the frame of historical memory that has mythologized aspects of Vietnam. There is also the general journalistic frame that means, in the absence of any radical divisions amongst the governing political elite, the mainstream media presents what Hallin calls a “sphere of legitimate consensus” through which debate is prescribed and critical alternatives are marginalised.

Burke + Norfolk embodies one critical response to Afghanistan – bringing the historical frame into view by putting contemporary images about the allied war machine (some of them produced while embedded) into a relationship with nineteenth century imperial portrayals (reviewed here by Russell Watson). At the Tate symposium, Mishka Henner offered another strategy.

Sunset helicopter Vietnam, Afghanistan and the sphere of legitimate aesthetics: developing a critical photographic practice

Although a documentary photographer, Henner is now working with “photography from the world” (images produced by others) as much as “photography of the world” (his own practice). He has produced a series of creative works from Google Earth and Google Street View databases. Using the latter, No Man’s Land is an insightful project that both reveals the marginal existence of sex workers and comments on the aesthetics of landscape photography. It is, he says, part of an effort to critique visual discourses through editing and curation that re-purposes their meaning.

 

Henner is now mining the US Department of Defense photographic collection looking for categories of images produced by particular stylistic frames. In a form of ‘coding’ that is categorising pictures throughout the identification of repeated styles, he is exposing what I think could be called the “sphere of legitimate aesthetics” through which Afghanistan is being made perceptible. Henner has uncovered hundreds of images that show, for example, men and machines silhouetted against golden sunsets (what he calls “Empire Sunset” and what Beierle and Keijser called “Sunset Soldiers“), soldiers extending hands to children (“The Friend”), and military doctors treating sick civilians (“The Healer”).

Simon Norfolk’s exposure of the historical frame, and Mishka Henner’s and Beierle and Keijser’s delineation of the stylistic frame, are new critical responses, though of course they are not the only ones. They won’t end the war, because no picture has the power to do so. The cliche that certain photographs can by themselves change the world is another of the myths that needs to be dispensed with. But photographs do force us to think hard about what is happening and why. And as Barthes observed in Camera Lucida “ultimately, Photography is subversive, not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.”

First photo: Life, April 16, 1965

Second photo: Sunset soldiers, February 24, 2011

4 Responses to “Vietnam, Afghanistan and the sphere of legitimate aesthetics: developing a critical photographic practice”

  1. David:

    To add to your analysis, I think too often the general feeling tone of the audience towards a subject is overlooked in analyzing the impact images have on them. In this case, there are dramatic differences between the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

    The audience in the US during the Vietnam war was impacted heavily by the effects of the military draft. Vietnam was fought, at least in the later years, by a heavily conscripted army, which means that the direct communication between the audience in the US and soldiers in combat and returning from combat was more evenly distributed across society than in our current situation in Afghanistan where our army is made up of volunteers. It was certainly not evenly distributed, but it was more evenly distributed. The direct effects of combat death, wounding and post-traumatic stress disorder were also more widely felt across American society.

    To have an audience that faces a choice between being sent unwillingly into combat or flight and/or imprisonment gives a great sense of urgency and immediacy to the problem and raises a sense of activism. Fighting a war with a purely volunteer army releases some of that tension and thereby lowers the overall cohesiveness of the audience feelings towards the war. I think audience ambiguity has a strong influence on the way the images from Afghanistan perform in the public sphere. There are few clearly defined publicly shared feelings around which people can rally.

    We know from leaked documents from George Bush’s presidential intelligence briefing at the start of his first term that the army did not believe that the public would support any kind of sustained military conflict, taking that lesson from the Vietnam war. Hence his decision in the Gulf War to engage very briefly with Iraq and then follow-up with economic and political embargo and isolation. In retrospect, it would seem that public support or at least the level of pubic resistance might be more influenced by the draft than was thought.

    My point being that images from both wars are received by audiences that have pre-existing feelings and positions on the wars in their personal lives and belief systems. The relative cohesiveness or ambiguity of those feelings and positions will have a large effect on how much audience response is possible or even observable. The military’s identification of journalism as the agent that turned public opinion on the war is, as you rightly point out, not supported by looking at the media created in both wars.

    Best,

    Aric

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