Capturing war: the potential of visual argumentation

September 7, 2015 § 1 Comment

The introduction of photographic technology in the early journalistic age had necessitated a rethinking of war & the representation of soldiers. It is an undiscussed phenomenon that the heroism of warriors in battle paintings [or as marble busts, for that matter] has no coequal in war photography. The two representations are polemic, they cannot co-exist: when photojournalism enters, war glorification disappears almost immediately.

The first official war photographer, Roger Fenton, was not a photojournalist, but a propagandist for the Crimean War. His work is not far from the painting that preceded it directly. The portraits were staged, as was required by the equipment which relied on long exposures. He also shot landscapes to depict the terrain where soldiers had to travel & live, including the famous Valley of the Shadow of Death. The message was still one of heroism.

But already in 1855, James Robertson & Felice Beato were photographing destruction of the one same war. That strand of “anti-war” photography was also marred by its own propaganda, staging to heighten emotional effectiveness — for instance, piling corpses to exaggerate atrocity.

As cameras improved, battles no longer had to be re-staged but could be captured live. With technological advancements, another change occurred that would incidentally effect public opinion of war: there was a proliferation of war imagery & a more efficient dissemination. This gave the opportunity for the public to become active observers of warfare in real time, i.e. at a point where they might feel incited to act in other ways too [inscripting in foreign wars, which wasn’t seen massively before then, or by protesting].

Today, the public has been monsooned with such images to a point of near disaffection. Our worlds have certainly been broadened by modern photography, mobile phones, & social media, but have they become so big that we have become passive observers from sheer quantity? Is there such a thing as too big a world?

The hope that maybe the images of history will achieve what the study of it aspires to — to avoid making the same mistakes, to circumvent the shame of catastrophe repeated — no longer feels realizable. No one is expected to be moved to take up arms, & anti-war protests are notoriously low in frequency. Yet the visual argumentation of photography is still being used, all without staging. The mobilization that is hoped for now is patience, understanding, & empathy.

Jaroslav Jindra, whose photographs are presented below, explains that his work is “a response to all those who question, from their warm homes or comfortable offices, why Syrians (& others) didn’t stay in their homes but decide instead to travel without visas”. This is a series of a very different kind of war photography, focusing on the civilian costs, the effects on urban masses & structures, & children as the symbols of violated innocence. We should remember that it isn’t an innovation of redirecting where the camera lens faces, but it is the changed nature of warfare that has relocated conflicts into highly-populated areas. The cameras simply followed.

Accepting that the borders of battlefronts have shifted will allow for more welcoming policy for refugees at state borders.

NB: Gallery contains images of corpses, including child corpses


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