Conflicting storiesMarch 18, 2015
So far, this century has like most others been shaped by war (the title given to Don McCullin’s major retrospective exhibition and book). Since the end of the second Gulf War (the invasion and occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011) invasions and battles between armies of nation states have been largely replaced by terrorism and insurgency, intervention and drone strikes. This period has also seen great changes in the way war is reported as the nature of war itself and the technology used to record events has developed.
What is important is how our understanding about conflicts are actually shaped by the availability of images. If images are not available events go under or unreported, or sometimes the side with the best images gets to control the narrative.
In 1999, ITV showed a three-part television documentary ‘The Second World War In Colour’. The programme stated “Almost all our recollections of the Second World War are in black and white. [My emphasis] But years of research have unearthed hours of previously unseen colour film offering a completely new portrait of the war. The result is the Second World War in Colour – a remarkable insight into the event that shaped our modern world.” It is important to emphasise these “recollections” were not ours, we cannot remember what we did not see ourselves. We do however understand or sometimes fail to understand events through images. And images can be powerful and misleading. The programme’s ‘unique selling point’ was colour and the narrative was dictated not by the importance of the events shown, but by the availability of colour moving images. So for example, Hitler’s home movies are given screen time, whilst his suppression of political opponents within Germany is not.
Naturally for the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War there is ‘The First World War in Colour’. The photographic technology of the time meant there was even less colour imagery available, so the makers colourised existing black and white footage. Apparently the viewers who fit advertiser’s key demographic won’t watch black and white films.
Our understanding of and public opposition to the Vietnam War was to some extent formed by photographs such as those taken by Don McCullin and published in the Sunday Times. Newspapers were still almost exclusively black and white, however the new Sunday Supplements did carry colour images of Vietnam such as those by Tim Page. Advertisers however were uneasy about their products sharing page space with images of blood.
Two of the key images from Vietnam that galvanised public opposition to the war are Nick Ut’s shot of a naked young girl (Kim Phuc) running, burnt by napalm, and Eddy Adams’s picture of the prisoner being shot point blank in the head by a police chief. It should be remembered that there was also movie footage of both incidents, but it is the still images that are best remembered.
Because of the power of such photographs and the effect they had on public opinion, the portrayal of war has become much more controlled. After Vietnam, governments ensured photojournalists were ‘embedded’ within military units or as McCullin found in the Falklands War, were denied access to the conflict zone altogether. Without independent journalists to witness what is happening abuse or deception may be more likely.
In the first Gulf War, much of the footage we saw was distributed by the US military and made up of gunsight video – the discussion was shifted to technology porn about how amazingly accurate laser guided bombs were, rather than questioning the legitimacy of the targets they were used against.
Drones attack targets in the Middle East piloted by remote control by someone sat in the USA. This is real war fought as if it were video game. Recordings of cockpit chatter have shown combatants to be removed from the reality of their actions. He talked of the near impossibility of photographing modern war in the way we still think of ‘war photography’. Hence his very different approach, focusing on the technology and aftermath of warfare.
Photographer Simon Norfolk has argued that much of the business of war is now conducted remotely. He makes a point of placing his work as part of a historical tradition, citing Roger Fenton’s 1885 Crimean War photograph “Shadow of the Valley of Death”, which portrayed cannonballs that had fallen short of their target during the Siege of Sevastopol.
Fenton could not be there at the actual battle and even if he had, the communications technology of the time would have prevented newspapers reproducing any photographs until long after the event. There is something of a cliche in contemporary photographer were photographers do not photograph the action or even the subject purportedly to show a greater truth about the subject – Edmund Clark’s ‘Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out’ being an example.
Although the ‘wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan are in the eyes of the Western forces over, the fighting continues and is still being documented, not in the main by photojournalists, but by people taking part in the fighting. Many of these are on the ‘opposing’ side, which partly explains why these images and these stories are not being seen here. Terrorist groups have proved to be media savvy and understand that creating visually strong images gets their name, if not message across. The growth of 24 hour news and its immediacy and constant repetition has added to this.
An internet search would find many such images, probably high on horror and low on aesthetics. McCullin himself has thought deeply about the question of aesthetics when portraying such subject matter. There is something troubling about beauty in war pictures and war pictures in galleries.
There have been hardly any photographs of dead or badly injured U.S. or British troops published in the mainstream media, as editors found their readers and advertisers criticised such images as being disrespectful. Closing down debate by invoking “patriotism” and “respect” was discussed in me and Cat Gregory’s documentary ‘The Trouble With Icons’. Terrorists themselves understand that whilst very graphic images may spread terror or morbid interest mainstream news outlets will sensor such images, so instead they stage events, use props such as dressing hostages Guantanamo Bay stye orange jumpsuits and let the outraged news presenter’s descriptions suffice. New media outlets such as the puerile Vice do publish graphic images.
Arguably the most important images from Iraq were not of battle, but of the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghrabib. Photojournalists did not take these, and it must be stressed, they were not taken as evidence of abuse. Rather they were the macabre souvenirs of captors not dissimilar from ‘happy slapping’ mobile phone footage being uploaded to YouTube. Combatants have taken these images as long as they have had the technology to do so. Similarly the footage of a US helicopter killing a Reuters cameraman was a leaked cockpit recording, recorded as a matter of course, not as testimony. Gun camera and mobile phone footage and stills taken from it have their own aesthetic, the rawness of which seems to add to the viewer’s voyeuristic thrill.
This voyeurism is not confined to teenage bedrooms. On 1 May 2011, American Special Forces raided the hideout of Osama bin Laden and killed him. President Obama and his National Security Team watched the attack as it happened on closed circuit TV. White House photographer Pete Souza took a picture that was widely circulated, but barely questioned. It was not thought appropriate to release footage of bin Laden’s death. The execution of Iraq’s ex- President Saddam Hussein had been filmed on a mobile phone and circulated undermining the claim of moral justice.
In Romania the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu was filmed and shown to convince the people he and his wife were really dead. However it had been thought that this was too voyeuristic, so actors had been used to re-enact the execution and this dramatised version was the one broadcast.
I would suggest that the ‘problem’ of war photography is not a lack of images of current conflicts but who is taking them, what they show and how they are distributed. Written history has changed, the source material is different. Diaries, letters and first hand interviews give a broader understanding than the ‘official’ linear procession of diplomatic incidents. The photographs that will tell us most about life in the 21st Century probably won’t be taken by photojournalists and probably won’t be seen in newsprint.