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Pictures Without an Exhibition | The Nation

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Pictures Without an Exhibition

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Untitled (prisoner #389 of the Khmer Rouge), by Nhem Ein, 1975–79

Untitled (prisoner #389 of the Khmer Rouge), by Nhem Ein, 1975–79

The evil twin of resistance photographs is perpetrator photographs (the selfies, one might say, of war criminals and their flunkies): images of sadism, violence and cruelty that are made by the perpetrators of atrocities, whose aim is not to expose barbarism, but to celebrate it. “War/Photography” presents a few of these images, spread out among various categories, including a 1937 shot, mysteriously displayed in “Training,” of Japanese soldiers bayoneting captured, bound Chinese soldiers in Nanking. (Though the photographer is unknown, it is unlikely that anyone other than a Japanese soldier or photographer could have made this picture.) With rare exceptions, though, the museum largely ignores the greatest troves of such photographs, including the estimated hundreds of thousands taken by the Nazis of their victims, as well as such photos from the Bosnian, Sierra Leonean and other wars.

Yet with the ubiquity of the cellphone camera, new forms of distribution and new kinds of conflicts—the late twentieth century’s perfect storm—these sorts of images have become the icons of our era. Think, for instance, of Daniel Pearl’s meticulously, indelibly videotaped beheading, or of the Abu Ghraib torture snaps; both are prime examples of perpetrator images. And Syria—currently the world’s most debated conflict, though it makes no appearance in “War/Photography”—has become ground zero for such images. In that bleeding country, government and rebel forces routinely record their own atrocities—including tortures and beheadings, often witnessed by cheering crowds and sometimes accompanied by cheerful music—which they then disseminate on YouTube and social-media venues. (Last fall, in Turkey, I met a photographer who, at the urging of the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, photographed the group’s beheading of a captured man. The resulting series of still images was, without doubt, more grisly and disgusting than any I had ever seen—including those from the Holocaust—and the photographer in question, a young Turkish man, seemed dazed with trauma. “I am not in good shape,” he told me.) The goal of such photos and videos, at least in the view of the perpetrators themselves, is to intimidate the opposition, advertise the group’s ruthlessness and dedication, gather converts and additional fighters, and raise funds. A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal estimates that more than 1 million such videos are now in circulation; the number of still photographs is unknown. 

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War/Photography” downplays all this. Yet it does some things very well. In particular, it shows us how very good photography can be in documenting the vulnerability of the human body and the experience of grief.

Though politics, weapons and modes of communications have changed vastly in the past 100 years, the human body has not. Our bodies are burnt, crushed, shot, flayed, starved, broken, bled and raped, just like those of our forebears. And so we see Greg Marinovich’s 1990 photo from Soweto of an African National Congress supporter hacking away at a black man who has been set aflame, while Kenneth Jarecke’s 1991 photograph, “Incinerated Iraqi,” shows just that. For those who think the past was not just a different place but a kinder one too, four images of Union soldiers—starved literally to the bone while held as POWs by the Confederate “Rebel Authorities”—will be a shock. A century later, three young Biafran soldiers—crippled, maimed or blinded—face us in Don McCullin’s 1968 photo; what makes this image almost unbearable is that two of them hold hands, as if they were still schoolboys. 

Alexandra Avakian shows us a woman named Leonora Gregorian sitting up in her bed; standing beside her is her chubby-cheeked 4-year-old son, who looks expectantly at her though she turns away. Through the opening of what looks like a hospital gown, we can surmise that something terrible has happened (a white bandage hangs loosely from her exposed left breast); the caption explains that she had been raped and tortured—in front of her child—during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which erupted in the wake of the Soviet Union’s implosion. Yet a picture need not be so graphic in order to expose the hideousness of war; indeed, some of the most powerful pictures are bloodless. “Rehabilitation Centre in Tehran,” taken by Michael Coyne in 1985, pithily sums up the waste of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, in which millions of combatants—some still children—were maimed or killed. The color photo shows an ornate room crammed with crutches for prosthetic limbs; in the background is a large, nicely framed portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini. 

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And then there is grief, in all its terrible variety. There is grief as fury, captured, by Robert Capa, at a Naples funeral for twenty teenage anti-Fascist partisans in 1943; the black-clad women mourners look as if they could—and will—kill to avenge the crime and the insult of their sons’ deaths. There is grief as agony: Gleb Garanich’s color photo highlights Zaza Rasmadze’s face contorting with pain—we can almost hear his sobs—as he clutches his brother’s corpse in Gori, Georgia, in 2008. There is grief as quiet solitude, as a lone Somali man, surrounded by a vast, empty field of brilliant burnt-orange sand, stands in the grave he has shoveled for his daughter. (Taken by Howard Castleberry in 1992, this is, it must be said, a spookily beautiful photograph.) There is grief as grace: James Nachtwey shows us a parched, barren Kabul cemetery in which a kneeling woman in a billowing burqa—even her eyes are hidden—bends forward to touch the grave of her brother, a victim of the Taliban; her outstretched hand is gnarled and wrinkled. (Nachtwey has said that, after he took this picture, the woman greeted him by lifting her burqa.) There is grief as defeat, shown in Harry Benson’s deceptively undramatic photo from 1971. Set in what appears to be a drab airport waiting room, we see a middle-aged African-American man, neatly dressed in a suit and tie, sitting on a plastic chair; he has placed his small suitcase at his feet. He stares down at the limp American flag he cradles in his lap; his shoulders slump just the tiniest bit, suggesting a future lifetime of sorrow. 

Despite the uplifting moments of survival, courage and comradeship that the exhibit presents, “War/Photography” is decidedly not about the triumph of the human spirit, historic progress, the ultimate brotherhood of man, or any of the other flattering ideas with which we periodically comfort ourselves. It shows—as though there were still any doubt—that technological and moral progress do not march hand in hand. This exhibit brought to mind something Andrei Sakharov, that great humanist and rationalist, once said: “We must make good the demands of reason and create a life worthy of ourselves.” “War/Photography” shows how radically we have failed in this endeavor, which is why it should be seen.

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