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Battlespace: Iraq & Afghanistan

November 22, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

If you’re squeamish, don’t click on the links.

Battlespace: Unrealities of War is an online exhibition of photography from the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that purports to give us an unfiltered view of reality; purports to, I say, because every photograph you see passes through numerous filters, beginning with the mental filter of the photographer composing the frame. What they mean, of course, is that the work is unfiltered by mainstream media or censorship.

It’s worth a look. Here we see both the best side of this kind of work, and the worst.

This photograph, by Gaith Abdul Ahad, is an example of the latter: it bullies its audience with blood and gore, but tells us nothing significant beyond the fact that people bleed. The framing is inept; we see plenty of foreground pavement, but miss the facial expressions and reactions of the bystanders, which, one suspects, would be far more interesting than the bodies.  And there’s no context; we need a caption to explain what has happened here.

You may object that this concern for composition is inappropriate, that war photography is exempt from such concerns. Nonsense; good photojournalism lies in photos that explain themselves to the greatest extent possible. With modern cameras, more than ever, the technical aspects of photography are reduced to f/8 and be there. Skill is in the eye. This is simply a weak picture, the kind of thing that can be produced by anyone who can keep his lunch down and his hands steady.

Composition counts. Compare that weak shot with this one, by Christoph Bangert. Bangert makes clear what a human life is worth in this environment, by making sure we can tell it was thrown out with the garbage. Note, also, how careful he is with the power lines, not to let them distract.

But Gaith is not inept; far from it. His second image here is much stronger, in that it provides thecontext (the burning M113) that explains the bodies. And if you look at his work in Unembedded, it’s clear that this man has an excellent eye.

Don’t blame Gaith; blame the organizers of this exhibition, who decided that it was more important to show you “unsanitized” and “unfiltered” photos than to show you effective ones. Ironically, this goal is itself a filter, a filter that often selects pictures that speak loudly, but to little effect.

Ultimately, when you’ve seen enough war photographs, blood and dismembered bodies lose their ability to shock. How people die in war is no longer interesting; what matters is how people live. And this is where much conflict photojournalism fails. What was needed to make a case for intervention in Bosnia was not more pictures of the dead, but pictures to document the terrible living conditions in the besieged Sarajevo: how people found food, how people found water, how people got through their days.

In that light, consider the photos of Yuri Kozylev, which make a more powerful statement, if a quieter one, than any heap of bodies. This is where the power of still photos lies: in their ability to freeze a moment so that we can consider all of the facial expressions and all of the body language of the people trapped within the frame.

Or consider this shot by Luke Wolagiewicz.

These are the pictures that need to get past the filters.

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