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A 30-year-old memory of a metal figure riddled with bullet holes, standing in the furrows of a German field, finally persuaded photographer Herlinde Koelbl to investigate what military training targets look like around the world. The six-year project started in 2008 took her to over 20 countries, with a series of more than 200 photographs now published in Targets by Prestel.
“I was interested in the targets at which soldiers were trained to shoot,” she explains in her introduction to the book. “Who is the bad man? What does he look like — the enemy that they are later expected to kill? Is he an abstract figure? Does it have a gender and if so, which? Are there cultural differences? Has the image of the enemy changed?”
What she found was surprisingly diverse, from mannequins on remote-controlled cars in the United Arab Emirates and green blobs that look slightly like melted toy army men at an American base, to simple outlines of bodies balanced on spare tires filled with rocks in Lebanon.
“In Afghanistan, it was just a foam mattress with a piece of paper pinned onto it as a target,” she writes. “In Ethiopia, there were wooden targets reduced to outlines; it was similar in Russia, except that they were painted in bright colors there. Sometimes I saw the same paper targets in different countries, as they had all been ordered from the same catalogue. In Germany, on the other hand, I came upon cut-out soldiers reminiscent of naive painting and life-size chipboard cows on a meadow.”
As a viewer, we see just what Koelbl shows us without details on when the targets were created, if they’re regular for the country’s military or something homemade for the particular training ground. Is the vaguely human-shaped target at a United States base with what looks like a Soviet star on its helmet a relic of the past, or do bullets still ricochet off its form?
The monograph includes wider photographs of replica training towns and sporadic close-ups on soldiers’ faces with quotes, such as: “It sounds horrifying but you have to learn to kill automatically in order to function.” However, they’re often redundant to the narrative of what object is the first “enemy” and what this might imply about a military’s mentality. The Munich-based Koelbl has spent over three decades as a documentary and political photographer, and she gives each target a powerful portrait, whether it’s a piece of looming metal in Mongolia with bullets still embedded in its rust, simple tin cans in the Western Sahara, or a full-figure articulated mannequin scarred with a volley of shots on an American base in Germany. No matter the target or the conditions of training, around the world, as she frames it, everyone is ready for a fight.
Targets by Herlinde Koelbl is available from Prestel.