There’s a small vignette I remember in Anthony Loyd’s My War Gone By, I Miss it So – his trenchant account as the Times correspondent in Bosnia then Chechnya – that attempts to articulate the moment when war finally happens. A sudden and dislocating condition, it seems arbitrary – an eruption that draws screaming, white noise and eventually a helpless keening from a ruined people. Loyd also notes a sense of irreverence amongst wait-weary journalists, who fall silent as the attack – becoming too real – envelops and perishes with an illogical and indiscriminate force.
In Paolo Pellegrin’s Double Blind, such incredulity crosses the pages of a book that follows a brief but dreadful timeline over one violent month in 2006. After the abduction of two soldiers by Hezbollah during a raid on an Israeli outpost, a battle engaged that was to shatter whole districts of Southern Lebanon. The relentless bombing and following acts of retribution were shocking – not only for their impact, but for the use of the remote and unseen methods of warfare that contemporary conflict has come to employ as standard. Throughout the month, Pellegrin and journalist Scott Anderson recorded the effects of the attacks on a civilian population caught between battle lines. Their dispatches for news magazines form the foundation of this book and, as such, it has become an earnest account of a chain of events that impacted heavily on regional stability. The transition to a more cohesive book format is engaging and provokes questions about the challenges of moving from the journals of a daily unravelling world to a more permanent artefact.
The design of Double Blind is handsome and simple. Almost magazine-like, it’s malleable – as an urgent report might be. Black and white photographs of artillery-pocked architecture and the wounded or discarded stretch across gutters or meet as dense, ink-rich couplets. Black double-pages carry Anderson’s grey text narrative, in which he attempts to understand and map the irrational while threading detail beyond the suggestive mannerism of the photographs. Black always seems at the heart of Pellegrin’s work. (See also the review of his collected works As I Was Dying on page 157.) In limited light, details often merge or are lost, giving priority to the anxious gestures of stranded residents and the possessed stares of desperate rescue workers. Skies are heavily treated in the print, sometimes drawing a veil of soot over the tips of housing blocks or rendering rooms free of all but their inhabitants.
Blood, logically, is a regular presence in the pictures, moving through nearly abstract frames like oil-black fissures. The use of metaphor in the work, the unfocused, oblique or “camera-shook”, punctuates the book as regularly as the text, drawing upon dramas that Pellegrin has come to employ regularly as loose interjections; smashed, burning cars and once-agile men – now crippled by dust and smoke – are rendered poetically against a stable, detail-driven text that emphasises the management and costs of war. Anderson also articulates the two authors’ attempts to negotiate such a process, beyond the unpredictability of what unfolds. His writing becomes a more measured, detailed foil for Pellegrin’s poetic impressions. Expanding on such abstractions, Anderson relates the sprinkling of sand over smeared blood, minutes after two young bike-riders were killed outside a candy-store. They are harsh incidentals, confounding and all too regular.
There can be constraints in returning to earlier styles. Previously, Pellegrin’s book Kosovo: Flight of Reason used shadow and reflection to relate the ferocious burning out of villages across the region, and the consequent bitter leaving of nearly a million people. His response was emotive and complicated, and the work held a richness that was I’m sure in keeping with a two-year involvement in the area. Beyond the dynamic, there was a lightness of touch and risk-taking within the frame that produced a deeply affecting sense of both the people and the territory beyond the book’s text-driven interludes.
Similar strategies recur in Double Blind, with clouds layering the vulnerable as they attempt to leave Southern Lebanon. Yet despite its coherent rationale, the brevity of the engagement in the region and the return to the successful earlier strategy seem to amplify a number of great photographs beyond the ultimate success of the book.