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The aesthetics of the war in Afghanistan

 

The US-led war in Afghanistan is one of the longest running conflicts in America’s history. After more than nine years, the US and its allies have been fighting in Afghanistan longer than Soviet Union was by the time of its 1989 withdrawal. The war in Afghanistan has also surpassed the formal duration of the Vietnam War, although that claim can be contested.

Photographing this war has only been possible through the system of embedded journalism the US and its allies established for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, leading to an understandable concentration on certain locales like the Korengal Valley (as I discussed here, in a good debate with Tim Hetherington). Only on rare occasions have we seen the conflict from a perspective beyond allied forces, as in the Taliban photographs recently made by Gaith Abdul-Ahad.

Covering such a long-running conflict, the dynamics of which have not altered greatly in its nine years, necessarily produces a certain uniformity to the subjects conveyed. In Boston.com’s Big Picture gallery for November 2010 we see 43 high quality images that detail allied forces, Afghan civilians, Taliban casualties and American military families. There is also an inevitable regularity to the look of these images. As Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder has noted,

most photojournalists working today, including me, are using similar equipment (very high end 35mm digital SLR cameras) so what we do sometimes looks very uniform.

The aesthetics of the conflict is a vital dimension of assessing how the war in Afghanistan as been pictured. But to raise the issue of “aesthetics” is to travel into troubled terrain. A lot of photojournalism is still predicated on the idea that it conveys “things as they are.” This phrase stems from a Sir Fancis Bacon quotation that Dorothea Lange regarded as her working motto:

The contemplation of things as they are, without substitution or imposture, without error and confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention

It also provides the title for the World Press Photo book on the history of photojournalism (Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955), it crops up in Henri-Cartier Bresson’s Decisive Moment, and I heard David Hurn invoke those same words during a foto8 seminar in October this year.

The commitment to photojournalism’s descriptive ethos in opposition to “a whole harvest of invention” runs deep. It is a commitment that suggests description is distinct from aesthetics, which is taken to be solely about art and beauty, such that any attempt to “aestheticize” a reality like war is morally suspect.

Photo: Private Santiago taking a cigarette break after a firefight. Damon Winter/NYT

We have seen this in recent months through the mixed reactions to the Afghan war images made with iPhones and photography apps. In March this year David Guttenfelder produced a portfolio of Polaroid-like pictures (using ShakeIt Photo) detailing daily military life in Afghanistan. Then last month Damon Winter also made an iPhone series with the Hipstamatic app, one of which was used in the New York Times.

For both Guttenfelder and Winter these pictures, made in addition to their “straight”, DLSR produced, photographs were designed to represent both the daily grind of the war and the vernacular images that soldiers themselves take. According to Winter, “composing with the iPhone is more casual and less deliberate…And the soldiers often take photos of each other with their phones, so they were more comfortable than if I had my regular camera.” Guttenfelder made this interesting observation:

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that Marines and soldiers are now shooting more photos and video themselves. They email them home or post them on their Facebook pages. I’ve even seen them set up a little point-and-shoot video camera next to themselves in the middle of a firefight. But usually they photograph the little moments during their down time to show how they live. The photos are little bits of memory, keepsakes from their long deployments, and a way of communicating with people back home. So, in a way, I was trying to create those kinds of real-life, non-newsy snapshots that Marines might shoot for themselves.

One of the things that is interesting about the Guttenfelder and Winter pictures I have chosen here is their stylistic similarity to Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press Photo winner of an exhausted US solider in the Korengal Valley. It seems that whatever the chosen tools, some looks are common.

That said, the need to produce something new after nine years of war is part of what is driving photographers to deploy new approaches and tools. It is evident in different subject matter like Ashley Gilbertson’s Bedrooms of the Fallen, and in novel forms like Damon Winter’s rotating panoramas of US military locations. However, the attention garnered by iPhone pictures and the panoramas led two of the best analysts of contemporary photography to a shared critical commentary on Twitter (14 December 2010):

(Michael Shaw, @BagNewsNotes) Hate to sound like luddite, but iPhone pics and now buzz re: 360º views feels like war coverage has forgotten the war. http://nyti.ms/fiPX4O

@BagNewsNotes couldnt agree more: 1st mobile hipstamatics and now 360ºs enuf with the tech over substance war photos http://nyti.ms/fiPX4O

@foto8 Thing is, it’s not about hi-tech, lo-tech, old-tech or no-tech so much as plain fundamental boredom with the war.

I think we should ask hard questions about how to represent a war that has gone on for so long. I don’t think, though, that those questions are best pursued by a concern over the technologies of representation or the anxiety about aesthetics.

That is because the critique of photography in terms of aestheticization gets to the very nature of photography itself. As Mark Reinhardt asks in Beautiful Suffering, “do indictments of aestheticization in the narrowest sense shade into a challenge to photographs’ sensory engagement itself? Is it the work of giving photographs aesthetic form, as such – is it the very nature of the photographic image – that provokes anxiety?” He thinks so, and I agree.

As the introduction to Things As They Are notes, “in the end, the business of representing reality is all about invention.” In this context, aesthetics is about how we see, perceive and represent the world generally. Photography as a technology of visualization is therefore inevitably and inextricably bound up with aesthetics. Nobody taking or making pictures can escape that.

Photo: An injured Corporal Manuel Jiminez, struck by an IED, is shielded by his fellow marines as a medvac helicopter lands in the clearing. Victor Blue.

As an example, consider the photographs of freelancer Victor Blue. According to PDN, ‘Blue is shooting the project primarily with a Canon 5D Mark II, and converting his images to black and white. “I envisioned Afghanistan in gray tones. I saw color as a distraction,” he explains.’ Blue’s photographs, excellent in many regards, invoke the traditional aesthetic of Vietnam era photojournalism. And, as always, they demonstrate that the desaturation of shots is permissible while oversaturation or specialist apps are deemed to be dubious. And what about David Guttenfelder’s “regular” DLSR photographs. Are they not the product of a conventional news/reportage aesthetic?

Perhaps we have reached an impasse in photographing the war in Afghanistan, with both the standard and different approaches no longer carrying the emotional weight of a nine-year conflict. Perhaps, then, the path forwards is not a matter of expressing anxiety about aesthetics per se, or choosing one aesthetic approach over another, but of using the full range of aesthetic options to tell a different story? Which begs the question – what is that different story that needs to be told about the war in Afghanistan after all this time?

Featured photo: A US marine wakes up in the morning after sleeping with his platoon in a mud walled compound in Marjah in Afghanistan’s Helamnd province. David Guttenfelder/AP

References:

  • Mary Panzer, “Introduction,” Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955 (World Press Photo/Chris Boot Ltd, 2005)
  • Mark Reinhardt, “Picturing Violence: Aesthetics and the Anxiety of Critique,” in Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain, edited by Mark Rienhardt, Holly Edwards and Erina Duganne (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
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Tod Papageorge and the ‘truth’ of photography

Tod Papergeorge is one of the most insightful photographers around. Interviewed by Mark Durden for foto8 last November (I’m catching up on some reading while snowed in), he offered some interesting views on photography, documentary and truth.

Photo: Tod Papergeorge, ‘Central Park, 1978’

Durden asked Papageorge if he thought his work was part of what John Szarkowski called the New Documents:

New Documents was an effective title for that exhibition, but none of the photographers included in it—Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander—nor any other photographers I knew at that time, would have used the word “documentary” to describe what they were doing in their work. If nothing else, Robert Frank’s The Americans had taken care of that by defining an aesthetic that depended on poetic transformation, rather than an (apparently) literal fealty to a series of facts.

As for me, my initial introduction to serious photography occurred in 1962, when I discovered a couple of early pictures of Cartier-Bresson’s while taking a college course in basic photography. They convinced me, literally on the spot, to be a photographer—and not because I had an itch to document this or that aspect of the world. I saw these pictures as poetry, Cartier-Bresson as a prodigious poet, and photography as a way to possibly do something roughly in the same camp.

Later in the interview, Durden asked Papageorge to expand on his statement (made in Papageorge’s essay on Gary Winogrand) that while photography pictures the world it does not follow that it has a moral responsibility to it. Was this not contrary to writers like Susan Sontag and other critics, said Durden:

It’s always been puzzling to me that capacious minds like Sontag’s, to say nothing of those of almost every art historian, look at a photograph and see not a picture, but the literal world held in their palm. With that, they’re revealing themselves to be no more sophisticated than the proverbial tribesman who believes that a photograph made of him steals a piece of his soul. There seems to be no cure for this universal form of innocence, or ignorance, but it is, to put it mildly, frustrating to spend years working as a photographer and writer about photography and realise that this misunderstanding is as prevalent today as it was the day I first saw those Cartier-Bresson photographs—and recognised them as picture-poems.

You mention Genet and writing, a good parallel. Let’s say that the young Sontag reads the front page of the Times, and then turns to Our Lady of the Flowers, both experiences generated by black marks on a page, yet utterly different in their intention and, presumably, effect. Is it so difficult for her not to see, then, that the photographs on that front page are similarly different from the Diane Arbus portraits she’s thinking of writing about?

For Papageorge, failing to appreciate the differences between news photographs and those of Arbus, Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand and others was the product of a philosophical error:

…Sontag (and legions of French critics and their progeny) was tarring photography with a tired brush, based on a much older relationship that obtained between pictures and moral lessons, and the unexamined belief that the pictures themselves were in some way at least related to the literal truth.

Of course, semiotics teaches us, if we needed the reminder, that a photograph represents a physical trace of the world, and therefore exists in an ontological space quite different from that of any of the non-filmic arts. I don’t buy that argument: ontologically, a photograph is a unique kind of picture, but a picture nonetheless, one that has radically transformed the piece of the world it describes, whether for artistic or journalistic or any other ends, but (obviously) has not transported it out of its picture-state into some nebulous truth-state.

I don’t want to draw any big conclusions at this point, other than to say that we need to think carefully about how Papageorge’s statements impact on the desire for photographs as documents. If work understood as ‘documentary’ is better appreciated as ‘poetic’, what are the implications of this for truth claims based on pictures?