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Sep 05, 2010

Optical Noise in Iraq

Coverage of the war in Iraq has been showing signs of fatigue lately, and for good reason. Now into the fifth year of the war, yet another parade of generals in Washington provided little consolation amidst the steady death toll–32 US soldiers in March, 46 so far this April, as well as hundreds of Iraqi deaths–and the many, many more who are wounded, traumatized, or refugees. But how many photos can you take of troops tramping through homes or dispensing medical care or just killing time? How often will we look at another bombed out vehicle or another general on PR duty? The carnage continues, but we all know that the political situation is not getting any better, everything is on hold until after the presidential election, and everyone is getting tired. Perhaps that’s why there have been a number of images lately like this:


It may be the season for sandstorms, but you wouldn’t have known it in previous years. Now, however, the slide shows have many variations on this shot. The sand is so comprehensive that it acts like an optical filter. The soldiers seem suspended like a prehistoric bug in amber. The one on the left has become doll-like, a GI Joe figure to be moved around but incapable of changing anything. The one on the right could be lost in thought. Everything is slowed down, grinding to a halt, as if there were sand in the gears of history.

If there had been only one of the sandstorm images, I would have let it pass. But they kept appearing, and then I noticed that there was another series also being spooled out. Images like this one:


This is a photograph taken through the night vision equipment used by US troops. The fact that the photo is taken through a scope or similar instrument while on patrol gives these images some sense of action, but there still is the sense that everything is happening in slow motion. Slow probably is good when men are walking around with guns at night, but the photo creates a sense of suspended animation. The green filter is not eco-friendly green but rather something from a heavy dream. Warriors stand in archetypal tableau as if at the gates of some netherworld. The green air is noxious, miasmic. The war is not a place for action; it is a place that will never change.

Both images may be surreal–or prophetic. They also might be examples of what we could call “optical noise.” That term could refer to the visual din in images cluttered with signage, but I’m referring to something else. Each photograph is an image of the war, but one in which the visual equivalent of white noise is omnipresent. That noise doesn’t occlude the image but it does interfere with emotional response. And, of course, it is tiring.The first photograph shows a scene that could be clear at another time; the second shows something that would be invisible without the cyborg eye. In neither case are we able to see clearly. In both we have a metaphor for the present state of the war, one in which we have seen too much and yet not enough. A war in which everything seems mired in sand, trapped in a bad dream, waiting for change, for clarity.

Photographs by Alaa Al-Marjani/Associated Press and Rafiq Maqool/Associated Press. (The first is from Najaf, Iraq; the second is from Mandozi, Afghanistan. There are many night vision images from Iraq, but this was the one close at hand when putting up this post. There are differences between the two wars, but both now are subject to optical noise, which is created by the repetition of stock images while providing a metaphor for the current stalemate.)


Optical Noise in Iraq


4 Responses

  1. […] Hariman wrote an interesting post today on Optical Noise in IraqHere’s a quick excerptCoverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been showing signs of fatigue lately, and for good reason. Now into the fifth year of the war, yet another parade of generals in Washington provided little consolation amidst the steady … […]

  2. JayDenver says

    In the top photo, what are the two large semi-circular objects in the background/foreground? I saw only (the more central) one at first and thought it was a rising/setting sun with the usual visual compression of a long telephoto lens. Then the second object registered. Are they scope artifacts as well? Some more visual filtering? Any guesses?

  3. Hariman says

    I don’t know, and it’s hard to tell if they are in the background or added by the camera or other equipment. The caption at the Chicago Tribune slide show said that the soliders were in “the Shiite holy city of Najaf,” so perhaps they are domes of a mosque or related building.

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