The massive show of war photographs on display at the Brooklyn Museum is somewhat of a mess. Its unusual, if not bizarre, organization fails to foster—in fact, actually precludes—a creative conversation (moral, political or historic) among the 377 photographs it presents. In this sense, the exhibit, which spans more than 150 years and is modestly titled “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath,” is a wasted opportunity. And yet, almost in spite of itself, it also shows precisely what photography can do so well—sadly, perhaps—when it comes to documenting the sufferings and atrocities we gather under the rubric “war.” And so, despite its grave failings, this is a show that is well worth seeing. 

Perhaps the show’s curators thought they needed some novel device—something unusual, improved and snazzy—that would grab the interest of an attention-deficient audience transfixed by its smartphones. This may be why the curators have eschewed any coherent historical organization, or even historical perspective or context: history is, you know, so old hat. Their new hat consists of a series of concepts that, presumably, define all modern wars—starting with the Mexican-American War of 1846–48 and going up (almost) to the present—and around which the photographs are grouped. These include “The Wait,” “Executions,” “Leisure Time,” “Faith,” “Children” and “War’s End: Retribution.” Alas, under the rubric of these timeless tropes, photographs are often juxtaposed in ways that are, at best, mysterious and, at worst, severed from precisely those other images that would deepen their meanings and challenge our understandings. Instead, we are presented with abstract concepts or visual puns. The relatively sparse captions that accompany many images exacerbate this problem, either by failing to provide contextual background or even occasionally by misleading. (Laurent Nkunda, a fearsomely brutal Congolese warlord and enslaver of children as soldiers, is identified as a “dissident general.”)

And so my reaction as I made my way through the show—a frustrating series of crowded warrens—was, frequently, bewilderment. (“War/Photography,” which closes on February 2, was organized by, and originally opened at, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which is perhaps more spacious; some of the photographs that appear in the show’s catalog, and were shown in Houston, are not mounted at the Brooklyn Museum.) Why, I wondered, were the “Iraqi Most Wanted Playing Cards”—those cheerfully bright pictures of Saddam Hussein and his posse, distributed by the US government after our 2003 invasion—nestled next to black-and-white photographs showing the obscene stacks of jumbled corpses in Nazi concentration camps? Because, it turns out, the death-camp pictures were published in 1945 by the US Office of War Information, which means that both sets of images—those of dead Jews and those of Iraqi tyrants—are part of the show’s first category, “Media Coverage and Dissemination.” There may, of course, be ways in which murdered Jews and Iraqi war criminals should, or at least could, be thought about in tandem, or might be seen to exist within some sort of historic continuum. But surely this would require the presentation of an argument—one that encompassed decades of complex postwar history both in Europe and the Middle East—that has nothing to do with the anodyne concept of “media coverage.”

Other juxtapositions rely on emphasizing the (often meaningless) similarities of visual details. In the section called “Reconnaissance, Resistance, and Sabotage,” the exhibition catalog shows a Seamus Murphy photograph (originally displayed in Houston) that depicts a Palestinian militant, his face swathed in a tightly wound keffiyeh; through the narrow slit for his eyes, he is reading, and apparently broadcasting, what I take to be a communiqué. Placed next to this is an Adam Ferguson photo of an American soldier in Afghanistan; it is nighttime, and he peers into long-range surveillance equipment on the lookout for improvised explosive devices. In both these pictures, in other words, the eyes have it. But so what? In the section titled “The Wait,” a Susan Meiselas photograph from Nicaragua shows six muchachos, or Sandinista guerrillas, primed for battle behind sandbags. Two have their guns drawn, but all have their faces covered by a random collection of scarves or kerchiefs: in white, black, red, yellow or prints. Next to this is a Carolyn Cole portrait of an American soldier in Najaf, Iraq, whose face is smeared with black and beige “war paint.” Perhaps there is a connection between the Sandinista Revolution and the war in Iraq; Noam Chomsky would say so. But in this context, the only connective tissue is the donning of masks. To which one can only respond, again: So what? 

* * *

Sometimes these visual connections are not just irrelevant but cruel. In “Prisoners of War and Interrogations”—obviously one of the more brutal sections—the exhibit’s catalog presents a surprisingly peaceful image. Taken by Werner Bischof, one of the early Magnum photographers, in Korea in 1952, it shows various laundry items—shirts, socks and, most prominently, a pair of men’s trousers—fluttering on silhouetted lines of barbed wire. This photograph abuts another, in which a pair of men’s trousers also dominates the frame. But this latter picture, taken by Sean Flynn in 1966, shows a Viet Cong suspect “being interrogated”—that is, tortured—as he hangs, by bound legs, from a tree; he is surrounded by his tormentors, one of whom holds a stick. The juxtaposition of these images—hanging pants! hanging pants!—reveals the kind of formalist sensibility that gives formalism a bad name. Indeed, it is the kind of formalism that, as Robert Hughes once wrote, “would find no basic difference between a Nuremberg rally and a Busby Berkeley spectacular, since both, after all, are examples of Art Deco choreography.” 

Even when meaningful relationships between pictures could be fostered, the organizational principles of “War/Photography” often prevent them. Richard Avedon’s enormous 1971 portrait called “Napalm Victim” filled me with revulsion (as a person) and shame (as an American). It shows a Vietnamese woman of unknown age. Her hair is pulled back, she wears a black shirt with a trim of white, and she stares directly at us. But this is a stare like few others. The woman’s left eye has, I think, been melted away, and a blind white ball fills the distended socket; her nose is gnarled and twisted, wrenched to one side; her upper lip looks smashed in, her lower one swollen; she is missing several teeth; and her skin is a criss-cross of deep lines. Even if you, like me, are no fan of Avedon’s, this picture demands contemplation, for here Avedon is not (as he so frequently did) bragging about his ability to shock us, but rather presenting us with a woman whose very existence is a shock, and whose wounds are an indictment for which there is no conceivable defense. Avedon himself becomes irrelevant. But shouldn’t this picture be in conversation with—wouldn’t its sorrow be deepened, its challenge sharpened, its meanings either clarified or complicated—if it were shown with Don McCullin’s picture of a dead North Vietnamese soldier, eyes still open, surrounded by scattered photographs of those he loved, including a smiling young woman and two toddlers? Or with McCullin’s iconic portrait of a shell-shocked American grunt—his stare as unrelenting as the napalmed woman’s—awaiting evacuation from Hue? Instead, “Napalm Victim” is sequestered, far away, in a grab-bag category called “Remembrance.”

* * *

Yet there is an even greater problem with the Brooklyn show’s plus ça change orientation. Its emphasis on the timeless themes of war precludes an understanding of the crucial ways  wars—and the documentation of them—have changed. Surely a show that surveys war photography with such breadth, if not depth, should at least suggest some of the ways this is so, and why. The Mexican-American War of 1846–48, and the one in Congo today, have both created misery and death, and it is right to illustrate those similarities. But these two wars, and the images of them, differ in some radically significant ways—and that, too, merits attention.

One of the greatest ways contemporary wars differ from those of the nineteenth century is in the toll—the deliberate toll—taken on civilians. In an essay called “War and Peace in the 20th Century,” the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote of “the erosion of the distinction between combatants and non-combatants.” He continued:

The two world wars of the first half of the century involved the entire populations of belligerent countries; both combatants and non-combatants suffered. In the course of the century, however, the burden of war shifted increasingly from armed forces to civilians, who were not only its victims, but increasingly the object of military or military-political operations. The contrast between the First World War and the Second is dramatic: only 5 per cent of those who died in World War One were civilians; in World War Two the figure increased to 66 per cent. It is generally supposed that 80 to 90 per cent of those affected by war today are civilians…. There is no reason to doubt that the main victims of war will continue to be civilians.

Hobsbawm wrote this in 2002, but nothing that has happened since—in Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Uganda, Darfur, Syria—alters his claim. And the Brooklyn show does, indeed, present an extensive section on “Civilians,” which includes a wide variety of images and is one of the exhibit’s most interesting and moving sections. There is Herbert Gehr’s sedate 1943 portrait of a middle-class black family, reading and knitting, in their Harlem living room; Paolo Pellegrin’s jarring, jagged shot of Yasir Arafat’s funeral in Ramallah; Ziv Koren’s overhead view of crazily jumbled steel parts and body parts splattered on a Tel Aviv street, the handiwork of a suicide bomber; Jonathan Torgovnik’s sorrow-stained portrait of a worried Rwandan woman named Valentine, who drapes her arms protectively around her lovely, almost-adolescent daughter—a child born from Valentine’s rape, or mass rape, during the genocide. But the great shift that Hobsbawm and other historians have noted—and the moral and political implications of this shift—are not suggested, much less analyzed.

Indeed, in the twenty-first century we are witnessing, astonishingly, the veritable erasure of the very concept of the civilian. It is not just that photographers are, increasingly, targets, as the museum makes clear in its grimly elongated list of photojournalists killed in 2012 (a stark contrast to the years 1941–45); so are doctors and nurses, polio vaccinators, United Nations personnel, humanitarian aid workers, journalists, teachers, funeral-goers, hospital patients, postal workers—and children. As the London-based Oxford Research Group recently reported, hundreds of children have been summarily executed in the Syrian war, and even infants have been tortured. It might be argued that a museum is no place to raise such issues. But it might equally be argued: Why not?

Perhaps more surprising, “War/Photography” does little to illuminate the changes that have taken place in war photojournalism itself. The traditional model—the photographer who comes from “outside” to document a war’s suffering and alert the world to it—is a noble if battered one; it is still, thankfully, extant. But throughout the twentieth century, other kinds of war photographs—those taken by “insiders,” both victims and perpetrators—have also been made. It is these kinds of images that have become increasingly important, due to changes in technology and in the nature of contemporary conflicts themselves, which often involve what are euphemistically dubbed “nonstate actors.”

“War/Photography” does present a few of what might be called “resistance” photographs—such as “Dutch Worker’s Front,” taken by Communist photographer Cas Oorthuys during the Nazi occupation of Holland. Surprisingly, though, the curators show none of the underground photographs taken by Jewish résistants in the Nazi ghettos. They do much better with Soviet photographers. One grainy, startling photograph in particular became more ominous the longer I looked. Taken by an unknown photographer, who may well have been an amateur, in 1941 and titled “Scenes from a pogrom perpetrated by Ukrainians,” it shows a middle-aged woman kneeling beside a young, perhaps teenage girl, who sits on the ground; they are probably mother and daughter. The girl is naked except for her shoes and socks; her mouth is opened in desperate alarm—she seems to be crying out to us—and her arm extends toward the camera beseechingly. Meanwhile, her mother attempts to pull up the girl’s underwear, which has apparently been ripped off. 

These kinds of photographs—taken by activists or amateur witnesses, and sometimes now called “citizen journalism”—have gained enormously in influence, due in large part to the cellphone camera and the proliferation of social-media sites. During Iran’s Green Movement revolt in 2009, for instance, when most of the foreign media was barred from the country and the domestic media cowed or attacked, it was cellphone pictures from the movement’s participants that supplied many if not most of the images to the rest of the world. Those pictures—of massive demonstrations, beatings and deaths—appeared everywhere from Facebook to CNN to the front pages of major newspapers throughout the world. The museum makes little note of this phenomenon. 

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. 

* * *

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. 

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.