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Sunday, April 06, 2014

Art & War

It was Robert Capa’s photograph of The Falling Soldier that changed the perception of people about war photography. Capa shot the photo in September 1936. Wikipedia informs me that war photography began nearly eight decades before Capa’s iconic photograph – in the Crimean war of 1853-56, when Roger Fenton became the first ‘embedded’ photographer to capture the action in Crimea. The entry on war photography claims that first war photographs were shot by a British army surgeon during the second Sikh war in the Indian subcontinent (now Pakistan).  

War photography brought the horrors of the war into the living rooms and on the breakfast table through the newspapers. Photographs such as Eddie Adam’s impromptu shot of General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan shooting a Viet Cong spy on the streets of Saigon, or Nick Ut's photograph of Kim Phuc and other young children running after being caught in a napalm attack changed the complexion of the war in Vietnam, and turned the public opinion decisively against the American misadventure.

(Incidentally, Kim Phuc is now a Canadian, living in Ajax, Ontario).

The Gulf War and the advent of CNN changed not only war coverage but also the media. Technology enabled the horrors of war to be telecast into our living rooms as they happened. Among the most memorable television images of that era are of CNN’s live coverage of the coalition campaign’s bombing of Iraq captured through night vision camera. Peter Arnett, CNN’s reporter in Baghdad, became a globally known journalist. Arnett had also won a Pulitzer for his Vietnam coverage.

The attack on the twin towers, the saturated coverage of the tragedy globally, and the second Gulf War was the beginning of a new era in war photography. For the first time, media’s coverage of the war was regulated, and surprisingly the powerful western media that had set global standards of free speech, acquiesced.

Rita Leistner
In a deeply insightful review (published in Literary Review of Canada, March 2013) of Michael Maclear’s Guerrilla Nation: My War In and Out of Vietnam, Rita Leistner, internationally renowned photojournalist and an author, says, “Humans have always used the most recent technology available to document war – the history of every war has a parallel story of its emerging, dominant technologies. The Crimean War was the first war to be photographed; the Iraq war was the first to be defined by digital cameras and same-day transmission of media by internet and satellite; the Arab Spring changed the game entirely when civilians documented the uprising from within using their own smartphones; today, the World Wide Web is rapidly replacing newspapers and television altogether.”

Rita Leistner was one of the participants at an engaging discussion on Art and War organized as part of the Spur Festival – a festival of politics, art and ideas – last week in Toronto by Helen Walsh and her team from Literary Review of Canada and Diaspora Dialogues.

James Wellford
Michael Kamber was the other photojournalist, and James Wellford, Newsweek’s photo editor, was the moderator.  The discussion was “not just the practicalities and ethics of capturing images in the midst of conflict but also the stories that emerge from it.” When intelligence is mixed with experience and a shared perspective, it results in a scintillating exchange of ideas that is at once enthralling and disturbing because of what is said, and also for what is implied.

Rita and Michael are amazing raconteurs, and James a minimalist moderator who infrequently prodded the panelists to gently guide the discussion into a different dimension (and being a New Yorker couldn't help himself from using the f word at least once during the discussion). Disturbing though it may seem, both the photojournalists agreed that there is a deep aesthetic involved in the depiction of carnage; “people expect to see visually arresting and clinically composed photographs.” Both also agreed that extreme mastery over what was essentially a mechanical craft was essential for success.

Michael Kamber
The discussion was interspersed with photo slides of Michael’s and Rita’s works (mostly in Iraq, but also in other parts of the Middle East and in north and West Africa). Both extensively covered the Iraq invasion and captured the horrors of the war in their own individualistic (and artistic) ways. Nearly a year before the Abu Gharib torture photographs were published, Rita had documented photographic evidence of torture, but couldn’t find any takers for her work. It was only after Associated Press exposed the Abu Gharib torture was she able to get her work widely published. Similarly, Michael also found a lot of his work censored by the US military.

And yet, rather surprisingly, both were not totally opposed to embedded journalism. “Without that (protection offered by being embedded) you couldn’t possibly last till the first afternoon,” Michael said rather impatiently to a question about the ethics of embedded journalism from a member of the audience.

Both reacted differently to the extreme physical and emotional stress they encountered on assignment. “I wanted to shoot everything, without really thinking about what I’d use. You realize that you’re in a part of history that’s soon going to pass,” Michael said, and confessed, “I was terrified the whole time. My hands were shaking when I took the photographs.” (of a soldier who was cut into half from waist when he stepped on a hidden explosive).

Similarly, Rita also confessed to emotional trauma but insisted on returning to the war harbouring the hope that just by capturing the carnage, you believe that somehow you can stop it in some way; that brutality could be stopped or scaled back after the photographs were published. Both also agreed to absolute necessity of protecting the context of the photographs and rights of the subjects of their photographs.

Michael’s photographs from Liberia and Rita’s photographs from the asylum in Sadr city (a Shia suburb of Baghdad) were the images that conveyed – without the necessity of words – the true meaning of war and art.

The video recording of the debate:

(Panelists' photographs from Spur website: spurfestival.ca

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