What we see in images of war

January 29, 2014

Helen Redmond reviews an exhibit of war photography at the Brooklyn Museum.

IMAGES OF war evoke the entire gamut of human emotion. Photos of bodies blown to bits, the vacant stare of a bloodied soldier smoking a cigarette, tortured bodies, emaciated prisoners in concentration camps and official portraits of four-star generals force people to confront the reality of war.

War photography has the power to whip up patriotism and xenophobia or to expose the brutality of war and turn people against it. Susan Sontag wrote in her seminal work On Photography:

Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we're shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates. Starting with their use by the Paris police in the murderous roundup of Communards in June 1871, photographs became a useful tool of modern states in the surveillance and control of their increasingly mobile populations. In another version of its utility, the camera record justifies. A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened.

"The Face of War" by Nina Berman
"The Face of War" by Nina Berman (Nina Berman)

Unfortunately, the evidence of war that is presented in the exhibition War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath at the Brooklyn Museum serves to glorify, justify and sanitize U.S. wars.

Technological advances in photography have led to a world that bombards us with images. Every aspect of life is photographed and filmed--from mundane photos of food on Facebook to x-rated amateur videos on the Internet. Cellphone cameras capture billions of images, as do "security" cameras placed in more and more public spaces by law enforcement agencies.

But there is one exception. The 21st century American surveillance state controls which images of war are seen. The censoring starts with the Pentagon policy of banning the photographing of dead or wounded service members and of coffins. Photographers who embed with American troops must sign Department of Defense Directive 5122.5, a contract that prohibits the publication of any image depicting a wounded or dead soldier.

In a rare move for the stenographic, mainstream media, the Associated Press (AP) defied the ban and published a photo of a dying soldier in Afghanistan, but not before former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called the president of the AP and asked him not to.

From the perspective of the U.S. government and the military generals, it's crucial that the barbarism of war and especially the bodies of dead American soldiers are never seen because they could turn the public against war. During the Vietnam war, body bags, coffins, footage of fighting and the iconic image of a young, naked Vietnamese girl burned by napalm were shown on the nightly news. The images helped build the antiwar movement.

With each new conflict, though, the Pentagon has added additional restrictions on what can be photographed.

AS THE world's reigning military superpower, with billions spent to wage warfare, the U.S. is involved in covert and overt wars all over the globe and is responsible for the deaths of millions of people and the destruction of entire countries. Therefore, the need to glorify those who fight the wars, to justify the invasions and occupations--the "humanitarian interventions"–and to sanitize the slaughter is enormous.

The first photos in War/Photography are of Saddam Hussein and the World Trade Towers on fire. Next to them in a display case is a deck of "Iraq's Most Wanted Playing Cards." There's a photo of General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan next to a photo of a still-burning and smoking Ground Zero. The juxtaposing of these images is to vindicate the invasion and occupation of both countries.

American soldiers are shown under attack, sleeping in their fighting holes, on patrol and in Tim Hetherington's photo, horsing around half-naked. His shot reveals the homoerotic antics of soldiers that are rarely seen.

In an aerial photograph by Carolyn Coles, we see dozens of Iraqi men detained face down in the dirt in neatly spaced rows, wrists bound in white plastic handcuffs by U.S. Marines.

The photo of Marine sergeant Tyler Ziegel by Nina Berman is a ghastly showstopper. He is shown in a classic wedding snapshot in decorated dress blues with his new bride who holds a bouquet of red roses. Ziegel's entire head is unrecognizable; it was blasted and burned in a car bombing in Iraq in 2006. His severely disfigured skull has no ears, eyebrows, eyelashes, lower lip or hair, and his nose is two black holes. When children asked Ziegel where his facial features are, he replied, "The bad guys took 'em." Thick, crooked layers of pink and white scar tissue cover his face. Nineteen operations later, Ziegel died from an overdose of alcohol and heroin.

These photos and dozens more, depict soldiers as benevolent, nonviolent and vulnerable and who are just doing a job or letting off steam. The images convey a complicated mix of contradictory ideas about men who are trained to kill: they're victims, their actions are inspirational, heroic and full of sacrifice.

BUT WHERE is the other side? That's the main problem with the exhibition. The curator left out images of the other side of war--the victims of U.S. aggression.

Where are the photos that show American soldiers beating and sexually humiliating Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison? Why not display the shots of a smiling Lynndie England with a groveling, nude prisoner on a leash or of Charles Graner grinning and standing next to a pyramid of stripped naked men wearing pointy, green hoods?

The iconic photo of a hooded prisoner standing on a box, arms outstretched with electrodes attached to his fingers isn't part of the exhibit. But a great print by Yuri Kozyrev captures the truth and torture of that image. A wall mural in Sadr City shows the prisoner in Abu Ghraib next to the Statue of Liberty with a hood over her head. Little boys, seemingly oblivious to the mural, sit on the wall and play soccer.

There are no photos of the civilians murdered by the U.S. "Kill Team" in Afghanistan. Mark Boal broke the story for Rolling Stone, writing:

Then, in a break with protocol, the soldiers began taking photographs of themselves celebrating their kill. Holding a cigarette rakishly in one hand, [Andrew] Holmes posed for the camera with [Gul] Mudin's bloody and half-naked corpse, grabbing the boy's head by the hair as if it were a trophy deer. [Jeremy] Morlock made sure to get a similar memento.

Rolling Stone published 17 photos showing the atrocities committed by the Kill Team.

Since 2001, the U.S. has bombed six Afghan wedding parties. In one strike, 30 people were killed. Where are the photos of dead brides, grooms and guests?

Kenneth Jarecke's photograph, "Incinerated Iraqi," is one of the few photos that show the consequences of U.S. aerial bombardment. His lens captures a frozen-in-time, burned-to-a-crisp Iraqi soldier in the front seat of a wrecked convoy truck. It is both mesmerizing and terrifying. Words under the photo explain that it wasn't published in the U.S. because, "it was deemed too graphic for distribution."

In an interview with the BBC, Jarecke said of the censoring of the shot, "Images like that are meant to cause a debate in the public: 'Is this something we want to be involved in?'"

Curiously, there isn't one photo of antiwar demonstrations. War always provokes protest and to exclude those images is a deeply dishonest omission that leaves the viewer with a sense that humanity doesn't care about the victims of war and that war is unstoppable.

ISRAEL, THE most rapacious warmonger in the Middle East, also gets a pass in War/Photography. Since the birth of the Israeli state in 1948, the Zionists have never stopped provoking wars or invading Arab countries, nor has it stopped killing Palestinians. But from the one-sided presentation of prints of this conflict, the viewer wouldn't know that.

A picture by Rachel Papo shows seven women standing at a military kiosk counter, guns casually slung over their backs. They're buying snacks and drinks. It's a rare photo in the exhibition that shows women soldiers.

If you've ever wondered what a bus looks like after it's been completely blown up, wonder no more. Ziv Koren's overhead view of a bus full of Israeli passengers shows the grisly outcome. It's as if the bomb blast forced the vehicle through a paper shredder. The aftermath is confetti composed of human remains splattered inside and outside of a twisted metal skeleton. Bright red luggage dots the bus and street. The driver, his arms folded on his chest, is slumped over, dead behind the wheel.

The words that accompany the photo explain: "The widespread dissemination of this picture provoked such outrage from Israeli citizens that laws were passed against publishing images of Israeli casualties from terrorist attacks."

These images portray soldiers and Israeli citizens as either neutral actors or victims.

Nowhere in War/Photography are there images of dead Palestinians who make up the vast majority of casualties. There are no photos showing the Israel army crushing the Palestinian Intifada or the savage assault on Gaza in 2008 called "Operation Cast Lead." Over 1,400 Palestinians, including 300 children, were killed and entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble. There is no shortage of photographs that document Israeli atrocities against the Palestinian people but they are missing in action on the walls of the exhibition.

In the last room of War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath, viewers are encouraged to write comments on white sticky notes embossed with a red poppy. It is the "remembrance poppy" which has been used since 1920 to commemorate soldiers who have died in battle.

The walls are covered with angry denunciations of war. One person wrote, "Don't say war is hell unless you've been there--USMC." And that is why we need photographs of war that tell the truth--that slip through the Pentagon and mainstream media censorship machinery. Because we can't all be there.

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