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?
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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?