Photography in disaster areas offers the most tangible case of the barbed ethics integral in that most precise of art form’s management and exhibition.
The victors of this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, widely considered the most prestigious of its kind, offer a prime example of the merits and dangers that shadow anyone wielding a camera in conflict areas.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin pipped several others to the £30,000 prize with their 2011 book War Primer 2. Bromberg and Chanarin visually explore the vicious froth and muck of America’s “war on terror”.
Perhaps it seems ignorant to question anyone brave enough to put their lives on the same knife-edge as foot soldiers in situations as fraught with terror as Iraq and Syria. Injuries and deaths of journalists and photo-journalists happen annually, the consequences of which are poignantly documented in photographer and three-limb amputee Giles Duley’s recent programme Walking Wounded, Return to the Frontline.
It is unquestionably essential to relay accurate information to the public, and it is an incredibly noble incentive that drives one to document danger zones. Photography, the most faithfully mimetic means of documentation, seems the most appropriate for delicate situations’ truths. The methods and presence of those hungry for a story does however fundamentally influence the manner and activity of those fighting. War media is a business like any other, and business requires products in order to survive. These products are capitalised on by books such as War Primer 2, the cameras searching for the gold-mine of blood and gore that will fruit the highest readership back in merry England.
Subjects in War Primer 2 include Arabic women with guns, smiling children swaddled in bombs the size of life-jackets, and soldiers photographing corpses. These harrowing and real topics are sheathed in glossy paper and a platinum cover. They sold out copies, which now sit on glassy coffee tables amidst the comic books of the middle-classes, Vogue and Tatler. Guns and bombs are dismissed by the form they inhabit in the stylized War Primer 2, the images of which were “compressed, uploaded, ripped, squeezed, reformatted, re-edited” to conform to Broomberg and Chanarin’s artistic visions.
The photographer’s rectangle domesticates this experience, demarcating boundaries in a barbaric omission of what lies outside the frame in the given situation. Photos claim unquestionable evidence, and require a certain arrogance in their claim upon truth. No other medium makes such a claim, words and even video evoking far more subjectivity. The saving grace for me of War Primer 2 is short poems beneath each photo, indicating a creative vision over a journalistically genuine one.
Susan Sontag notes how photography is “more than passive observing. Like sexual voyeurism, it is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening”. Attention galvanizes those wishing to prove themselves to the world, with terrorists and soldiers alike energized in front of the cameras in a media-triggered display. A child is more likely to break a window with a stone if his friends egg him on with a camera. The same is true for war atrocities.
The staging process of photography encourages those in conflict areas to continue what they are doing, playing to the cameras. Media attention assigns importance to an event and exacerbates it, in the same way that a bully is encouraged by his peers’ sniggers.
In appropriating images into art the essence of the real situation is immolated and the charred remains offered up as homage to the God of War. War Primer 2 is a powerful masterpiece, but one that questions the dubious role of the media in war zones.