“At the height of my career covering conflicts,” reflects American photojournalist David Leeson (b. 1957), “I truly believed, deeply and passionately, that there existed a series of photographs, or a single photograph, that could end war. I wanted to find that one photo.” Leeson’s quixotic ambition for photography is cited in the catalogue for WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, a massive survey currently at the end of its run at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, before moving to the Brooklyn Museum in November. However utopian, Leeson’s sentiments accord with a widespread sense of the war photographer as a romantic and profoundly humane figure, maybe a little crazy, whose heroism is purer than the battlefield acts of soldiers because it is unsullied by killing. Over the last century and a half the photographer has become a fixture on the epic stage of warfare, a place where he (and sometimes she) can exhibit valor without violence.
Leeson’s dream of a world-altering picture or series envisions a miracle of compression, a distillation of conflict impossible to bear, so fully and horrifically would it encapsulate the truth about war. But the varied photographs presented in WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY, a sprawling and at times overwhelming exhibition arranged thematically, suggest that if we are to come to any understanding of armed conflict, we can do so only by wading through a kaleidoscopic profusion of images. Photographers in the Leeson mold, working on assignment for newspapers and magazines, are just one interest group — their images complement and compete with those of government propagandists, official and often anonymous military documentarians, and civilian amateurs. And, increasingly, the soldiers themselves: Marine corporal Reynaldo Leal’s dirty-faced Self-portrait after a Patrol (c. 2004–6) is among the many soldier portraits in the exhibition; Army staff sergeant Mark A. Grimshaw’s First Cut, Iraq (2004), which shows his friend Brook Turner tending to a lilliputian patch of lawn while deployed in a desert climate, is suffused with the sort of affectionate humor one might find given to a minor character in a memoir of military life.
An egalitarian spirit prevails in WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY’s selection and arrangement. Photographs firmly lodged in collective memory — Joe Rosenthal’s Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima (1945), Eddie Adams’s Police Commander Nguyen Ngoc Loan killing Viet Cong operative Nguyen Van Lem, February 1, 1968 — mix freely with finds from the archives. At the exhibition’s core lies the spectacle of combat, but, as is evident from the subtitle, its boundaries are porous. Equal consideration is given to warfare’s many cascading effects, such as the displacement of refugees, the retribution meted out by civilians, and rites of commemoration and remembrance, which continue to evolve long after the treaties have been signed. There are several photographs taken during peacetime, or at least when there is no declared war: an AP photo of Hitler saluting at a Nazi congress at Nuremberg in September 1937, Robert Frank’s 1956 image of a mostly empty Navy recruiting office from The Americans, Joel Sternfield’s portrait of a woman and child at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington in 1986. To include such works is to remind us that war recedes but never really disappears. Specific conflicts exert far-reaching effects, and war-making, as an ongoing prerogative of the state, is continually with us.
In WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY’s early sections we see how young men are made into soldiers and shipped off to fight, a process meant to hammer away at personal autonomy and individual moral agency — considerations that intensify when we assess their acts as combatants. An image from the German photographer Thomas Hoepker (b. 1936), A US Marine drill sergeant delivers a severe reprimand to a recruit, Parris Island, South Carolina (1970) captures two kinds of transformations: the cross-eyed mania of petty authority and the absolute submission demanded of the recruit. With theatrical rigidity, the sergeant presses himself into the space of the recruit, whose personhood is effaced: his profile indistinct, he is little more than a blurred ear and a swath of black skin spreading below a wrinkled cap. Set beside the menacing crispness of the sergeant’s features, the textured softness of the recruit’s head and neck suggests a personality made malleable, the better to be knocked around and shaped into fighting trim.
Unlike so many of the photographs in WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY, Hoepker’s image does not call out for further explanation. It is a still from a familiar story, a trope in a cultural set piece (think of the drill sergeants in popular films such as An Officer and a Gentleman or the more harrowing Full Metal Jacket), with little doubt about the narrative moment it represents. But the meaning of its larger story — whether it is regarded as a necessarily brutal but ultimately redemptive initiation, or a disfiguring metamorphosis of young people into vessels of obedience — is utterly dependent on the viewer’s assumptions.
And this is where photographs about military force raise, in heightened form, questions inherent to all but the most abstract photography. Where do our sympathies lie? With whom, if anyone, do we identify? To what extent has our response — revulsion, for instance, toward the people we call enemies — been primed by political rhetoric or other sorts of public discourse? The ways we take in war photographs are rarely confined to merely personal reactions but involve our greater loyalties and affiliations, the convictions grounded in our formative experiences, the lessons imparted at home and school and in our communities. And yet what we see in such images can trouble rather than affirm those convictions. As we all know, governments are keenly aware of the volatility of war photographs, and censor and otherwise monitor their dissemination.
Propaganda, in aiming to manufacture the broadest possible consensus, enlists images whose import is self-evident, or would be made to seem so through the use of captions or other framing texts. Antiwar photographers might be charged with simply asserting a counter-mythology, an equally partial selection of events. But the most powerful photographers who have opposed war do more than engage in polemic when they channel their indignation toward not only the horror but also the nauseating strangeness of specific outrages. They’ve shown that some of the most shocking images need not contain dead or maimed bodies. In a well-known 1968 photograph from his book Vietnam Inc. (1971), Welsh photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths (1936–2008) gives us a ten-year-old in fatigues, glaring out with coiled intensity from beneath an adult’s helmet much too big for him. The ill-fitting headgear evokes the innocent dress-up antics of children the world over, but plainly we are not looking at a boy’s game of make-believe.
Even before we read the caption, the picture is unsettling, but it is made more so by Griffiths’s explanatory text: Called “Little Tiger” for killing two “Viet Cong women cadre” — his mother and teacher, it was rumored. The caption is a stunning but still clouded revelation because we don’t know the exact story; it’s only a rumor that his victims were his mother and teacher. It’s a point of uncertainty that foregrounded, in 1968, the American public’s greater wall of incomprehension toward our South Vietnamese allies. How can we presume to grasp the reality of a faraway people in the midst of conflict, who exalt their children as war heroes? (The slightly different wording used in Vietnam Inc. goes further, telling us the boy was “feted” for the killings.)
Vietnam War photojournalism, together with the dispatches of writers covering the conflict, marked a high point of the sort of war work that seeks to persuade as much as document. Indeed, it is often lauded, or blamed, for helping to turn public sentiment against the war. As a result, photographers have been tightly restricted during more recent American wars, and inevitably chafe against the limitations imposed on them. “If I don’t make pictures like this, people like my mother will think what they see in war is what they see in movies,” said Kenneth Jarecke (b. 1963) of his “Incinerated Iraqi” (1991), deemed too grisly by the AP to be shown in the United States while the first Gulf War was going on, though it was published abroad and stirred debate about British involvement in the conflict when it was featured prominently in The Observer.
If governmental strictures have set boundaries for what photographers are now permitted to show us (at least for the recent American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), there has also been a change in ethos among many contemporary photographers, who seek to draw forth empathy for those whose lives have been riven by conflict. The late English photographer Tim Hetherington, killed in Libya in 2011, spoke of the “personalization” at the heart of his work, and how he hoped his photographs and films would spark a process of creative engagement with the subjects portrayed. This sort of relationship all but presupposes areas of ambiguity for the viewer to work through.
Darien, Wisconsin (2007), by the American photographer Peter van Agtmael (b. 1981), is an image of the war brought home in double-sided fashion. Raymond Hubbard, an Iraq War veteran with a prosthetic lower left leg, has put on a Star Wars stormtrooper’s helmet that covers his entire head, and to his sons’ delight he engages them in a light-saber battle. Van Agtmael has noted that Hubbard’s own father had been similarly wounded in Vietnam, and struggled thereafter, physically and psychologically. Is Darien, Wisconsin an image of family reunion and renewal, and of Hubbard’s own healing? Or does it show Hubbard as alienated, masked, physically fragmented, taking part in child’s games that feed into fantasies of combat that have nothing to do with contemporary warfare? Asking us to consider the relationship of soldiering to culture and family, van Agtmael brings us close but not too close to the scene.
WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY arrives at a historical moment when both war and photography are in a state of flux. Although by an empirical measure war is becoming less common, the world doesn’t feel less violent, in large part because of the unceasing flow of images — still photographs and, in ever greater volume, video footage — that make it all but impossible not to be exposed to images of conflict. After 9/11 (subject of the very first images in the exhibition) we are all cognizant that any place can be instantly transformed into a war zone. Living-room wars used to flicker through our homes; now such wars follow us wherever we go, streaming into our awareness over laptops and smartphones.
This outpouring of images, at times crude and amateurish but always carrying some sort of visual testimony, has diminished or at least resituated the role of the war photographer. It’s not that contemporary photojournalists and other photographers who document war are not the equals of the Robert Capas and Margaret Bourke-Whites of earlier eras. But it’s unlikely that their photographs could ever be iconic — now a banal word, which I use here only to mean widely shared in the public mind — in the same way. Notoriety, and not inherent power, is what now lifts particular images out of the onrushing current of pictures. The most familiar wartime images of the last ten years are not those of photojournalists, standing apart to bear witness, but the participant-observer snapshots from Abu Ghraib, incriminating their photographers in the humiliation of their prisoners.
WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (500 Seventeenth Street NW, Washington DC) through September 29. It will be shown at the Brooklyn Museum, November 8, 2013–February 2, 2014.