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Infidel

October 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Tim Hetherington’s new book, Infidel, which I haven’t yet seen, is gathering lots of attention. It’s on the NYT lens blog, with 19 pictures, and to put it simply, I want it.

I’m fascinated by some of the comments it has gathered there:

I’ve looked through this book, its pretty anodyne.

“The great war photographs are usually taken during the 1 percent of the time when fighting is happening”…
or they are of the non-combatants.

Where are the photos of the people living at the bottom of the valley?

Or,

Hetherington’s work seems little more than a mindless, locker room portrait of some very dangerous boys playing lethal games. Their glorification serves no purpose journalistically or otherwise.

And best of all,

… duty and sacrifice become revenge and sadism out of boredom by young men who sign up for money so they can kill, and when not killing, their violence turns on each other.

How very unfortunate.

Good work, whether it’s writing or photography, should open us to new perspectives. Prior to the Vietnam War, war photography tended to focus on “our boys.” David Douglas Duncan’s sympathetic treatment of American soldiers in WWII and in Korea is perhaps the leading example.

But all that changed with a new generation of photographers, in Vietnam, led by the likes of Philip Jones Griffiths and Don McCullin. Their view of the war was anything but sympathetic; the soldiers, rather than being “our boys,” were men caught up in a brutal and deadly conflict. The photographers’ sympathies now lay increasingly with the victims.

(It helped, perhaps, that Griffiths and McCullin were British; they had no horse in that race. And furthermore, British photojournalism seems to me, even today, to be far more progressive in its ethics than American photojournalism. But that’s a topic for another post.)

The photography of the Vietnam War created a template for war photography that continues to dominate today. We are to be concerned with victims and with the problems of everyday life, not with the dramatic moments of battle. And we are to see casualties.

Hetherington is coming under fire here because he discards that template. We do not see the other side. We do not see the civilians caught in the crossfire. Yet at the same time, he is not returning to the pre-Vietnam school, which was concerned with capturing the action of battle. Hetherington is bringing us everyday life, and when there is action, we see a soldier grinning at his mates in apparent unconcern; it hardly looks like action at all. This is very much a portrait of “our boys,” so Hetherington takes it on the chin.

But what does this portrait actually show us? This is not patriotic boosterism. It’s a portrait of a group of men trapped in a mountain firebase and isolated from the local population, bored out of their skulls most of the time. I particularly like the fifth frame at Lens, of the soldier playing golf, which alludes to Hunter S. Thompson’s early tale of a British expatriate in South America, hitting golf balls off his roof into the slums below.

We don’t see the enemy because they don’t see the enemy; we don’t see the civilian casualties of the airstrikes they call in because they don’t see those civilian casualties. This is a portrait of the experience of war for those men, a portrait that allows us to understand how limited their view is, just as it is a sympathetic portrait of the men themselves. This is far more complex than those simplistic criticisms allow, and it’s a pity that some people are not open to that understanding.

“I became a photojournalist by going to Central America”

October 5, 2010 Leave a comment

The Canadian photographer Larry Towell, who earns my lasting respect for being photographed with kittens, talks about his life and work in this video at the Annenberg Space for Photography.

Go see it.

Ashley Gilbertson: Shell Shock, On the Line

August 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Ashley Gilbertson’s photo essay, “Shell Shock,” on post-traumatic stress disorder among American veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan matters; this is an important story, one that demands attention. And it starts strongly, as Gilbertson turns the same eye that created “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” which was so sensitive to the aftermath of loss, on the suicides of returning soldiers.

It’s unfortunate that he then chooses to devote several frames to the sites of murders committed by soldiers suffering from PTSD. Although he does wrap it up with two survivors, the emphasis is on violence. The soldier with PTSD, we are warned, is a ticking bomb. If he doesn’t kill himself, he might kill you.

It’s a cheap and worthless world we live in if the only way to convince people of the importance of a problem is by appealing to the fear of becoming a random murder victim. Gilbertson here rolls back the clock to the 1980s, when the prevalent image of PTSD was the crazed Vietnam Vet, sniping from a clock tower with his deer rifle.

This is not the reality of PTSD. Reality, for the most part, is people suffering in silence: people who prize courage, now debilitated by fear, living in a culture that discourages one to admit a problem. And accompanying the startle reactions, the intrusive memories, and the anger, is the terrifying feeling that you’re no longer in control of yourself. These people need help and understanding. They don’t need to be stereotyped as killers who can’t leave killing behind.

Gilbertson does much better with “On The Line,” a story on the people who man the phones at the Veterans’ Affairs crisis line. Here, the story is told through their voices, and the picture that emerges is far more moving. Gilbertson is extraordinarily skilled at evoking what is absent, but he fails in “Shell Shock,” where we have no contact with PTSD itself. The absent voices of the callers in “On The Line” bring the reality home.

Kevin Frayer: Afghan National Army

July 29, 2010 Leave a comment

More interesting work from Kevin Frayer cropped up yesterday at The Guardian: a series of 10 frank black-and-white portraits of Afghan National Army soldiers based in the southwest.

What’s significant about these soldiers is that none of them are actually from the southwest, a detail that has MSNBC (where the same photos are shown, in smaller scale) calling them “foreigners.” It’s jarring to consider that, in ethnically divided Afghanistan, you can be an Afghan and yet a foreigner in your own country.

For some, these photos will serve as further proof that the war in Afghanistan is hopeless, that the West can never win. But the truth, I think, is more complex. Neither the existing government nor the Taliban actually enjoys much support in the south-west, at least according to the only opinion polls available. The Taliban never controlled the country, either. In fact, Afghanistan has been continually at war with itself for thirty years, for reasons that have, for the most part, absolutely nothing to do with the lives of most of the people caught up in the war zone. This war was on before we got there, and it will continue after we leave. It’s not that the West can never win; no one can, least of all the Afghan people.

Among Frayer’s portraits, I like the two soldiers hiding behind their sunglasses best of all. Those sunglasses, both as barrier between the soldier and his environment, and a symbol of Western cool, make explicit the gulf that lies between Afghanistan’s warlords and the bulk of the people they claim to represent.

Kevin Frayer

July 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Kudos for Canadian photojournalist Kevin Frayer appear on the NYT Lens blog:

Seven months ago, Santiago Lyon, the director of photography at The Associated Press, described Kevin Frayer as a game changer, meaning that “within hours of his arrival on any major story, his photos jump off the screen and immediately give us a competitive edge.” You have only to look at Slide 1 to know that Mr. Frayer is back in Afghanistan.

I think that recognition is well deserved. I first noticed Frayer back in May, 2000, when he was covering the Walkerton crisis. His tightly-cropped photo of five-year-old Tamara Smith clutching her teddy bear as she was wheeled out to the air ambulance ran on the front page of every newspaper I saw. It was the first picture to put a human face on the crisis, and you can see it at CTV’s “Decade of Canada“—it’s the third frame.

Note also Frayer’s shots of a Canadian sniper in Afghanistan (frame eight) and a man outside Womens’ College Hostpital during the SARS outbreak (frame 12). The latter may seem to be a mere snapshot at first glance, but notice the careful framing. Frayer has made sure that the signs to each side of his subject are legible, giving the photo context and obviating the need for a caption. It goes to show that, when the easy shots are people wearing facemasks, you can still rise above the crowd.

Quick hits

June 21, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m leaving, on a jet plane—specifically, on a Beech 1900D, powered by two Pratt & Whitney PT-6A turboprops. You can decide whether that’s a “jet plane,” or not. Anyway, the point is, here are a couple of quick links to sustain you.

Random web surfing (which I think should be called “surfage,” pronounced in the French manner, as it sounds more classy) brought me to this old 2005 interview with Don McCullin at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

And the New York Times has a piece on Tim Page and his ongoing search for the remains of his friend, Sean Flynn.

The girl in the picture

May 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Just recently I linked to a gallery that included Nick Ut’s famous napalm girl photo. Today, I found a BBC radio feature on the girl in that picture, Kim Phuc, who now lives in Toronto.

It’s old news, but worth a listen. In particular, Kim Phuc’s experience of the trials associated with life as “the girl in the picture” cast light on the recent controversy surrounding Marco Vernaschi’s photo of a mutilated Ugandan boy.

People forget that a TV crew also recorded the scene as Kim Phuc fled that napalm attack; we remember the still photograph. That’s the peculiar power of photography. It creates icons, whiloe moving images fade from memory. And its ability to make icons out of people who may not wish to be icons is one of its problems.

How do you deal with the potential fallout of your photographs? Do you stop taking them?

The Big Picture: Vietnam

May 12, 2010 Leave a comment

The Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog is one I keep an eye on. Last week, to recognize the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam War, they put up a gallery that’s well worth a look.

Vietnam has a special significance in war photography, not simply because of it’s status as a Baby Boom touchstone, but because it marked a shift in how photographers covered war, the reverberations of which are still being felt today.

The photography of WWII was primarily cheerleading an Allied victory in what might be called “the last good war.” In Korea, riding the wave of righteousness that followed, and of anti-Communist sentiment, photographers were happy to show that war is hell, without questioning its necessity, our moral authority to conduct it, or the actions of our own troops. David Douglas Duncan, who took pains to show American soldiers in a positive light, is the avatar of Korean War photography.

All that changed in Vietnam. Growing anti-war sentiment was reflected in, and amplified by, anti-war photography. In part, this may be the influence of photographers from non-combatant nations; it can’t be a coincidence that two of the leading anti-war photographers of the Vietnam era, Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths, were British. And for the first time, war photography ceased to be the preserve of travelling correspondents from Western countries. Vietnamese photographers made a significant contribution.

This gallery is missing most of the usual suspects: we get nothing from McCullin, Philip Jones Griffiths, or the brilliant Larry Burrows. There are a lot of uncredited AP photos and DoD photos. But it also highlights the significant work of two Vietnamese photographers, Nick Ut and Henri Huet.

Henri Huet, the son of a French father and a Vietnamese mother, is little remembered these days, probably because his career ended in the same helicopter crash that killed Larry Burrows. But his photography stands out in this gallery—and these photos are not even his best-known work (although one appeared as a Tim O’Brien cover).

And Nick Ut, of course, is known for his Pulitzer-winning photo of “napalm girl” Kim Phuc, but this gallery gives us just enough to show that he was no one-trick pony.

Check out the gallery.

Eye candy rots your brain

April 27, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s depressing to read the fuss over that excessively Photoshopped shot of that Icelandic volcano whose name no one can actually spell, most recently at the Toronto Star‘s photo blog. The Star demonstrates excellent judgment in declining to attempt the spelling, but pretty poor judgment in the discussion of the issue.

The discussion is aimed at a general audience who might complain that the photo looks fake, which of course it does. The photo looks horrible; it’s the typical output of someone who has just discovered the saturation slider. But is there a real ethical issue here?

Not unless you decide that the important thing about a news photo is that the colours pop.

None of the content has been changed; the photo has just been dolled up in an attempt to make it look more spectacular—to improve its quality as eye candy, that is.

Never mind the more serious ethical questions in photojournalism. Never mind the ways in which photographic “truth” is manipulated by framing, timing, and the choice of which photo to run. Never mind that photojournalism is the one area outside the editorial page where one is permitted—encouraged—to express a point of view, a point of view that the mass audience tends to accept as truth.

No, the important ethical issue is oversaturating a picture in an attempt to make it look cooler.

Has Photoshop destroyed our ability to think about pictures in anything but the most superficial ways?

Marco Vernaschi responds to his critics

April 25, 2010 Leave a comment

In light of the volume of negative commentary that we’ve seen on Marco Vernaschi’s Ugandan child sacrifice story, I think it’s only fair to call attention to his response posted at Untold Stories today.

Some of his points are entirely reasonable. For example, some of the criticism levelled at Vernaschi has taken the statements of Moses Binoga at face value, without considering that Binoga’s statements may themselves have been speculative or self-serving. The willingness of some critics to take Binoga at face value while second-guessing anything Vernaschi says suggests, shall we say, an interest in the grinding of axes.

I think it’s also fair to point out that the allegation made by Anne Holmes, that Babirye Margret’s murder may not have been a case of child sacrifice at all, which implies that the facts were misrepresented, is supported only by an unnamed “contact in Africa who knows a great deal about ritual sacrifice on the continent.” Yet Binoga seems to be treating this as a child sacrifice. I do not think, therefore, that it’s fair to suggest that Vernaschi is misrepresenting that case.

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