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Watching Men About to Die in Aleppo

We typically forget that photography–and life itself–happens faster than the blink of an eye.  And death, too.

The camera caught these Syrian rebels at the instant that they were bathed in fire from a tank blast.  The moment is uncanny: they stand exactly as they were a a split second before, and yet the fire and shock wave is already unleashed upon them.  Before, they had been picking up their weapons in anticipation of the tank that had been reported coming into the vicinity.  Now, they are caught in the fraction of a fraction of a second before being killed.  It’s as if the camera has isolated the invisible crack in time between cause and effect.  And between life and death.

The men caught in the light died from the blast, while the one darkened to a silhouette escaped with minor injuries (if we don’t count the psychological damage).  The camera uses both light and darkness, but there as elsewhere we depend most upon the light.  Yet here the flames both reveal and kill, while the dark clouds of dust and debris in the next image obscure the rest of the dying while sparing the lone survivor.  (The sequence of still images and a video are  here.)  As with war more generally, things are inside out or backwards, defying our ordinary sense of moral order.  Being in the right and dedicated and prepared didn’t help one bit, and men who seem to be living in the fire without harm are about to die.

I won’t pretend to account for all of this incredible photograph, much less the remarkable sequence of images that comprise the visual story.  Discussion is already underway–for example, at Michael Shaw’s prompting at BAGnewsNotes–and there are a number of issues in play.  For the record, I don’t think there need be any moral failing in showing or marveling at or being moved by the image.  The men and the moment are treated with respect, nothing disturbing beyond the inescapable fact of their being killed is shown, and that fact is so salient that there is little room to aestheticize the violence.  In any case, one set of moral qualms can displace other resources for understanding and judgment.

To that end, let me make two quick points.  The first is simply that the image is a perfect example of what Barbie Zelizer has identified as the genre of the About-to-Die photograph.  I won’t summarize her extensive analysis of the genre, which you can read for yourself in her excellent book, About to Die: How News Images Move the Public. Suffice it to say, however, that there have been many images that confront the public with this unique moment, and that they can offer the spectator an opportunity to reflect on the event itself, and on how it is or is not tied to the narratives and other interpretive contexts that surround it, and how our knowledge and reactions depend on the camera and the larger apparatus of the news, whether for good or ill.

One can ask these questions any time, of course, but some moments seem more fraught with significance than others.  One reason the about-to-die photo matters is that it reveals how any moment can be incredibly significant regardless of how it fits into a larger narrative, geopolitical conflict, or moral order.  There is no other moment left for those in the photograph above, and by ignoring it one would demean life itself.

My second point is that the image above has both literal and metaphorical value, not least because of how it exposes a moment of unexpected rupture.  I’m writing in the immediate aftermath of the attack on American consulate in Libya, and so it is easy to think of a flash point, and of the world changing in an instant, and of specific individuals going from life to death senselessly.  With each of the four Americans who were killed at the consulate, there will have been a moment and then another and another where things went from bad to worse, until each got to the last, thin crack in time.  With each attack, wherever it occurs, nations around the globe pass through a moment when hidden causes explode violently, and the idea that we can live within the flames is exposed as sheer illusion.

Photograph by Tracey Shelton/Global Post.


Shards of Memory After 9/11

Yesterday most of the world didn’t stop to commemorate the loss of life at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  That’s OK: it’s a big world, and there is suffering enough to go around.  Perhaps that’s why I found many of the images from New York to be somewhat garish: crowded, busy, cluttered with symbolism, and ultimately self-absorbed, they were awkward photos of a scene that already is more about the present than the past.  So let me offer another image in their place.

This isn’t New York, but rather a street in Kabul.  That’s one way that 9/11 is still a global event, and one where the loss of American lives and treasure continues.  The splintered glass is from a school that was lacerated by a suicide blast next door. The blood—well, that didn’t come from the masonry.  Those shards will have flown like shrapnel.  Terrorism, like torture, like any war in a civilian environment can traumatize not only with the weapons themselves but also by turning the furniture of everyday life into instruments of horror.

For the same reason, scenes such as this can lead absurdly in the other direction to normalize violence.  Step back (figuratively) just a bit, and the image looks like a plate prepared at some tony restaurant: the small entree, a detritus of smaller pieces strewn casually as if nature’s work, and then the delicate drizzle of sauce to give it that aesthetic touch, framing the composition as a serene moment of transitory elegance in the art of living.  “Lovely presentation, isn’t it?”  (No way that is going to fill me up.)  “One can see the Japanese influence.”  (Perhaps I can grab a burger on the way home.)

The joke is lame, but it points toward something better.  The abstraction in this composition provides important elements for serious remembrance and reflection.  Lives were shattered and can never be put back together again.  Rich, red blood continues to be spilled, many times over the death toll of eleven years ago.  The closely cropped image reminds us that just about everything else is outside the frame, part of a much bigger world where life goes on regardless of what happened to you and yours, or to those who died this past week, month, or year because the root causes of terrorism still haven’t been addressed adequately and the unintended consequences of US military actions still haven’t been remedied.  The image is both elemental in its concentration on the ground-level facts of violence and comprehensive in its suggestion of how much goes unseen, misunderstood, and mishandled.

The abstraction works in another way as well.  Glass is an optical instrument, like the camera taking the photograph. Perhaps the lens supplies a missing wholeness, a restoration of order in the aftermath of its destruction.  One can indeed trace lines, a vector, an organic outline in the array from lower left to rear center, but that is a small consolation.  Better, I think, to see each sliver of glass as a fragment of perception or experience or memory.  Violence attacks not only individuals, but also our collective resources for remembering and empathizing and understanding, that is, for seeing a good life held in common.

Each piece of glass stands for some small part of a larger understanding of the events of that day and of the long decade behind us.  Every time a bomb goes off, more lives are broken.  Every time violence expands, the bonds of community are damaged.  Every day the blood-letting continues, the world’s collective capacity for peace is diminished.

Photograph by Johannes Eisele/AFP-Getty Images.


Hiding the Cost of War

The photograph above is of Tammy Duckworth, a candidate for U.S. Congress in Illinois’ Eighth District, speaking at the Democratic National Convention this past week. She is also a war hero, having been among the first women to fly combat missions in Iraq, losing both of her legs when a grenade landed in her lap while piloting a Blackhawk helicopter north of Baghdad.  Her opponent for Congress, the incumbent Republican Joe Walsh has accused her of not being a “true hero” because she makes a point of discussing her military service in her campaign.  To quote former President Clinton in a different context, “that takes some brass,” especially coming from someone who has never served a day in the military in his life.  But the photograph above is not about Congressman Walsh’s Neanderthal attitudes nor even about Tammy Duckworth’s heroic service and sacrifice to her nation—or at least not explicitly so.

Shot from behind the podium and at a high angle that crops her body at the waist and accents her prosthetic legs, the photograph emphasizes what the viewing audience could not see—at least not while she was speaking. Viewed from the front we see a face, the marker of the liberal individual, a person.  And any person who can make their way onto the national stage to address a live audience of thousands and a mass mediated audience of millions can’t be doing all that bad.

Viewed from the back, however, the photograph invites a different story.  It reminds us of the terrible price that this individual paid—and now note that she is anonymous, faceless, another casualty of war but not one that we have to address directly.  In short, the photograph is an aide memoire to what we desperately don’t want to see, to what we want actively to forget: that we sent her into battle and the price she paid is really our debt, but it is a debt we have no way of paying.

In a sense, the photograph is a comment on the hundreds of images we see of the more than 1,200 veterans who have lost limbs in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and yet, through the wonders of modern medical technology (ironically made possible because of advances in “war medicine”), survived to live what appear to be so-called “normal” lives.  And indeed, it is the emphasis on appearance that is very much to the point, for in the end we rarely learn very much about the ordinary lives that such people live and pain, trauma, and hardships that they face.

Consider, for example, this photograph that appeared recently in a slide show dedicated to the recovery of war veterans at Brooke Army Medical Center.

What you are looking at here are not real arms and legs, but rather “life-like covers” designed to slip over prosthetic limbs so as to masquerade a disability and to hide it from public view.  Note in particular the customized tattoos on the arm that make it appear to be individual and personal. There is every reason to believe that an amputee would want to be “seen” as normal, to hide his or her stigma, and thus to mask their prosthesis with a “life-like cover.”  Or rather there is every reason to believe that this is how someone who does not share such a disability—a so called “normal” person—might imagine how an amputee would want to cover-up his or her “shame.”  But really, the shame is ours and such “life-like covers” function, at least on par, as a veil that makes it easier for us to forget or to ignore our complicity with the sacrifice such men and women have made and the real debts that have to be paid.

Photo Credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP; John Moore/Getty Images

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The Everydayness of War

I was having a conversation with a former student recently who was exasperated by the fact that the war in Afghanistan, approaching its twelfth anniversary, is the longest American history and yet it is rarely on the front pages of our newspapers and but for the occasional report of U.S. troops being killed—usually in small numbers—there is hardly any public debate or discussion about it.  And the question, of course, is why?  Why is it that a war that is costing us roughly $100 billion a year, and has taken nearly 2,000 American lives, while wounding another 15,000 seems to have no traction in the public consciousness?

I thought of this question when I came across this photograph circulating in a number of different slideshows this past week. The scene is from Syria, not Afghanistan, but what makes the image distinctive is the way in which it frames the act of war in an ordinary and everyday environment.  The soldier here is a sniper, but he doesn’t wear a uniform, dressed instead in a camouflage vest that covers what appears to be athletic running gear. He is not on a conventional battlefield, but rather in what appears to be someone’s living room.  And he has converted the equipment of everyday life into weapons of death as he perches himself on a couch and uses seat cushions and pillows to balance and aim his high powered rifle.  Curtains seem to provide him with a modicum of cover.  And more, he exudes an uncanny nonchalance, simultaneously focused on the task before him and yet altogether relaxed.  Notice for example how he holds his cigarette while adjusting his scope, implicitly dividing his attention between the two.  War for him has become routine, neither here nor there, a condition of everyday life that can’t be ignored and so becomes commonplace, part and parcel of living in a constant zone of conflict.

There is no parallel to this image or the experience it represents in the United States.  The wars we have been fighting in the Middle East over the past eleven years are wars fought at a distance.  We are typically reminded about them only when someone we know is directly affected by them—killed or maimed—but even then for most of us the effect tends to be temporary as we mourn our loss and then quickly return to going about our lives without any serious concerns for our immediate personal safety. In short, these wars have not become part of our everyday being.  And as such, they become too easy to forget, or worse, to ignore.

Photo Credit:  Goran Tomasevich/Reuters


War’s Longue Durée

At a time when the quarterly report is becoming the long view, there is need to remember that some events will continue to be felt long after they have ceased to be the news of the day.  This recent photograph from a Bosnian reburial program seems suffused with sadness despite the bureaucratic uniformity of the victims’ coffins.

These green capsules contain additional victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre that were discovered this year.  Unfortunately, Bosnia has had to learn how to handle large-scale funerary responsibilities.  The coffins seem to stretch out behind the frame endlessly, as though part of some industrial process.  Or perhaps a similar operation in agribusiness: the green coloring and slight variations give the scene a ghastly similarity to some sort of hydroponic production facility.  The remains contained within will already have given much back to the earth, so the analogy may be more apt then we’d like.  No matter how you look at it, dignity is not easily restored to those who were butchered by the thousands.

And yet dignity is possible–as long as there is the sorrow of individual loss.  The lone woman provides that sense of proportion and more.  She could be a worker, but even so one who has become pensive by virtue of those around her.  More likely, she is a relative, for nothing needs arranging and she is empty handed, with one finger touching the box to her right.  That single gesture speaks volumes, saying at once how much we want to touch the loved one, and how impossible that is.  She can only gesture, and so her sorrow remains contained, as if her heart were in one of those green caskets.  And yet she is there, and they are restored to the human community, however belatedly, by her presence.

And by ours. The photograph is part of the memorial.  And memory needs to include not only the names of individuals but also the history that they suffered.  More yet: there is need to realize how that history is still unfolding.  The term “the longue durée” comes from an historiographic method that emphasized structural factors over events, and I’m not about to settle that argument here.  One might note, however, that for moral judgment “long” is defined in part by the span of a human life, and that war is one of those events that creates a harvest of sorrow for generations.  By looking at the photo above, one can begin to realize how nothing in modern society changes any of that.

Photo0graph by Dado Ruvic/Reuters.


The Night Watch

There is something altogether haunting about this photograph.  Shot in the evening, it is illuminated by the starlight (and perhaps a bright moon) but animated by the green glow of night vision.  Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” was famous for its use of light and dark to suggest movement where we might otherwise imagine a static frame, but here we get natural and artificial light as it combines to suggest a lone and anonymous presence stuck in an altogether static frame in a scene where we might otherwise anticipate agency and movement.

To get the point contrast the image with the photograph of the Raising of Old Glory on Mt. Suribachi during World War II. There too the soldiers are anonymous, but their anonymity is masked by their collectivity; we may not know who they are individually, but they are working as a team to a common and coordinated purpose. And, of course, it is a clearly national purpose, as symbolized by their connection to and effort on behalf of the flag.  Here the soldier is an army of one and there are no markers of nationhood. Indeed, the only identifiable symbol in the photograph appears to be the top of a soda bottle (possibly a Coca Cola bottle, marked by the characteristic red cap, but there is no way of knowing for sure) which emerges from the bottom of the frame.  But surely this soldier does not serve and sacrifice in the name of sugared water.  Or at least one would hope that we are not fighting and dying in the name of commercial interests.  The bigger point, however, is that there does not seem to be any movement at all as the soldier is hunched over, motionless, immobilized as he appears to be gazing  trance-like into the past.  Once again, contrast this with the photograph from Iwo Jima, where the image not only captures the raising of the flag at the height of its extension  upwards, but also where the direction of such movement faces to the right of the frame, the more conventionally forward looking, future oriented direction.

According to the caption, this is a U.S. soldier sitting at an observation post in Afghanistan’s northeastern, Kunar Province.  We are not told what he is looking at, but Kunar is a largely mountainous area besot with muddy rivers and rock filled, craggy pathways that combine to make passage treacherous if not impossible and so it is not hard to imagine the landscape he is observing.  But what exactly he is looking for … that is hard to say.  The war in Afghanistan is, of course, the longest war in America’s history, and Kunar has been the site of some of the fiercest battles between U.S. troops and Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and various mujahideen, but even for all that it is not clear what has been gained or lost (except for human lives, American and Afghani alike; the displacement of millions of individuals; and a price tag conservatively estimated at 600 Billion dollars) by such engagements.  And yet, the photograph suggests, for all that we sit and watch.  Static.  Unmoving.  Transfixed, it seems, by an advanced technology that allows us to see into the dark even if it is unclear what we are looking for—or what exactly we should do if we find “it.”

What makes the photograph haunting is perhaps how it functions as an eerie cipher for American involvement in Afghanistan writ large: individual, not collective; transfixed by a backward looking tunnel vision; and altogether immobile.  In its own way, it perhaps encapsulates the current war in a manner similar to how Raising the Flag on Mt. Suribachi symbolized an earlier war–only in reverse.

Photo Credit: Tim Wimbome/Reuters


Man Down in the Global War on . . . . What?

Whatever your politics, you’ve got to be affected by this photograph of the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Maimanah, Afghanistan.

Even if viewed by an Afghan citizen opposed to the US occupation, I think the image would be mesmerizing.  It has a magnetic pull something like what happens when traffic slows to a crawl as it passes by a really bad roadside accident.

The two soldiers are survivors, it seems, but even they are stunned and slowly dropping into an immobility and isolation approaching death.  Behind them, someone worse off is being dragged unceremoniously away, whether to a hospital or the morgue remains unclear.  The empty space in the middle of the frame seems to radiate out from the pole, as if reverberating from the blast that already has occurred.  Weapons and body armor are scattered on the ground, or slung over the back of one of the police officers, so this is not a story of projecting power, building stability, or any other imperial objective.  This miniature battle was over as soon as it began, and all that remains is the frenetic running around of some Keystone Cops doing damage control.

The fact that three people in the scene are taking pictures only adds to the sense of chaotic futility.  Shoot all you want–and a lot of good that will do the guys on the ground.  Pan further into the background and you’ll see that for other spectators it’s a lot like driving by a really bad accident.

The photograph was taken in April.  Not this month, and so it’s now being taken somewhat out of context.  Or is it?  April, May, last year, this year, does it really matter to most people?  Ten years and counting, “context” starts to sound hollow–what kind of context is appropriate when images become interchangeable and few are paying attention anyway?  And even if I supplied the rest of the captioning information–April 4, 2012, at least ten dead, etc.–would that create anything like the terrible body blow that knocked those soldiers to the ground?

Contextualization is one of the most important ways of articulating and anchoring meaning, but there also are important ways of thinking that become available through decontextualization.  By letting the image resonate while withdrawing those props that can be used to place, categorize, rationalize, and file away the event, one may, however briefly, be awakened to empathy and thus to serious thought.

Thinking includes comparisons, and another benefit of taking things out of context–which we do all the time when using language, by the way–is that one can make unexpected comparisons.  Like this one, for example.

One picture or two?  Well, two.  In the second image the man down is a civilian and his assailants are right there rather that vaporized.  He isn’t so much knocked into semi-consciousness as struggling painfully to avoid being choked and smashed into the pavement.  And the cops are attacking, not scurrying about, and hurting rather than helping.  In fact, they are all citizens of the same country, though not on the same side.  The photo is of violence occurring at a Labor Day march in Santiago, Chile, which is a long way from Afghanistan.

But not as far as you might think.  This photo, too, could have been taken in many another month or year.  Indeed, the neo-medieval body armor of the riot police suggests that the scene may be more timeless than we know.  And one of the more punishing side-effects of globalization is that the world is coming to have one continuous street.  And that street is the scene for insistent outbreaks of dissent, protest, and other forms of resistance, and for recurrent crackdowns by security forces having varied uniforms and insignia but an increasingly unified apparatus of equipment, techniques, training, and deployment.  And one way or another, it seems that the guys getting knocked down are being betrayed by leaders too complicit with the redistribution of resources up the economic hierarchy.  It’s all one street and sometimes it seems to be all one war.

So perhaps they are similar images after all.  In a world becoming re-habituated to violence, the usual distinctions come to mean less and less. In order to comprehend a world out of joint, sometimes the photos have to be seen out of context.

Photographs by Gul Buddin Elham/Associated Press and Luis Vargas/ZUMAPRESS.com.


In Memoriam: Horst Faas, 1933-2012

Horst Faas photographed everything from wars in Algeria and the Congo to the 1972 Munich Olympics and much  more, but he was most noted for his work in Vietnam and later the horrific conflict in Bangladesh, twice winning both the Pulitzer Prize for Photography(1965, 1972) and the vaunted Robert Capa Gold Medal (1964, 1997).  By all accounts he was responsible for setting new standards for war photography.  His photographs in general displayed a gritty realism and his images from Vietnam in particular depicted the execrable effects of the war on both sides of what he called “this little bloodstained country so far away.”  He was chief of photo operations for the AP in Saigon from 1962 to 1972.  In 1967 he was seriously wounded by a rocket propelled grenade that nearly took his life; but even then, forced out of the field and confined to a desk he was pivotal in insisting that two controversial (and ultimately iconic) photographs were distributed over the AP wire: Eddie Adam’s “Saigon Execution” and Nick Ut’s “Accidental Napalm.”   He was the AP’s senior editor for Europe until his retirement in 2004.

At NCN we mourn his passing and celebrate his vital  contributions to the public art of photojournalism under the most difficult of circumstances.

Photo Credits: Horst Faas/AP