In Peshawar, Pakistan, 9 October 2001, a fireball engulfs an effigy of George Bush, during anti-US demonstrations. In this, the first striking image from Rethink, you can almost feel the heat of the scorching, bright orange flames flaring out at the surrounding crowd. Taken from John Stanmeyer’s essay “Moving through the wrinkles of God’s hand – Pakistan and Afghanistan 2001-2002” this photograph makes an effective metaphor for the intense animosity towards US foreign policy currently raging out of control across the Middle East. Rethink, a doorstep of a book, proposes various explanations for, and records of, related events in global politics through a combination of photographic essays and texts by political and cultural commentators.
We begin with Antonin Kratochvil’s black and white essay on the impact of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan: “The bear that overstayed: 1978-1988”. These grainy black and white shots, taken up to a quarter of century ago, introduce us to this dust-covered country and its tough war-weary inhabitants during their battles against the Soviets. John Stanmeyer’s story which follows produces some of the book’s most visually striking images. Children’s graffiti on a wall in Kabul creates a Cy Twombly canvas depicting the tanks and bombs. Its scribbles and energy convey the frenzy of combat and remind us of the tragedy of a childhood overshadowed by war. In another image the jet trails of a circling US fighter plane create a halo around the turbanned head of a Northern Alliance man as he sits against a softly glowing evening sky. In Alexandra Boulat’s “Terror against terror”, we move to Palestine in April 2002. Boulat’s photographs depict the clashes and incursions in Jenin and Ramallah that were part of Ariel Sharon’s operation Wall of Protection in the Palestinian territories. Palestinian detainees walk back into Ramallah, the ground beneath them criss-crossed with tank tracks, their hands and shirts held up past the unseen gun sights of the Israeli army. A crowd gathers in the rubble that once was the Jenin refugee camp. These are plain-speaking pictures of people weeping, body bags, rubble and blood.
Ron Haviv’s “Black and white – an uncertain journey with the US military” depicts the blurring of simplistic notions of good versus evil in the Iraqi and Bosnian wars. His colour photography includes clever compositions of soldiers silhouetted against a burning sunset while in training at Fort Worth, praying in the long grass, with a camouflage-clad priest, among the almost biblical landscape of Kurdistan. Other photographs are memorable for more shocking reasons. Haviv captures one of Arkan’s Tigers casually kicking his victim in the first battle for Bosnia. We return again to the Israeli conflict, in Christopher Anderson’s depiction of the desperate world of the stone throwers in Gaza, children fighting hi-tech weaponry with rocks – a horribly ineffective contemporary twist on David versus Goliath.
Gary Knight photographs Kashmir’s ongoing conflict in 2002. His images depict the ethereal beauty of this troubled region, the various forces at war within it and the effect of the fighting on a society trying to maintain its traditional way of life. Christopher Morris’s “Counter terrorism and the war on Iraq” mixes formal black and white photographs of meetings in the Oval Office with colour images of the messy reality of the US troops’ drive toward Baghdad. James Nachtwey’s stark black and whites stand out both for their unflinching gaze and their scope. “The Passion of Allah” tells stories from Pakistan 2001, Kosovo 1999, Kashmir 1999, Somalia 1992, Indonesia 1998-2000, West Bank 2000, Chechnya 1995-96, Bosnia 1993-94, Afghanistan 1996-2001 – the list itself speaks volumes. All pack an emotional punch, with images at times difficult to stomach, but he also has a fantastic eye – one can’t escape the menace and metaphor in the image from Kosovo of a clutch of scythes carried by a farmer walking past the ruin of a bombed-out building.
The motivation behind Rethink is best summed up in an article by Robert Dannin, found halfway through the book as an introduction to the work of James Nachtwey. In it Dannin argues the importance of photographs as “an essential method for political deliberation”. Rethink supports these noble intentions: to promote debate and understanding of current affairs in the context of “9/11”, the shattering attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon of 11 September 2001 and their aftermath. But the very size and scope of this ambitious publication brings problems of its own.
The content is let down by the structure and presentation. It certainly makes for a cumbersome read. The book is about two thirds text, reproduced without images, in blocks interspersed with photographic essays. In a publication of this size, with its large square format, this creates intimidating expanses of writing in a small font that is not particularly inviting to the reader. Another problem is the captioning system – it is not helpful to have to keep flicking backwards and forwards to find the information relating to an image.
The articles do not appear to be arranged in a coherent order and there is minimal background information provided on the authors. Some of the names – and their provenance – are well known: Kofi Annan and John Berger, Robert Fisk and Noam Chomsky, Günther Grass and Edward Said, Susan Sontag and the Dalai Lama to list a few… But not all the contributors are so easily recognisable. Among the multitude of voices are many articulate and interesting inclusions – an exchange of letters between Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe and American Jonathan Schell on Asian power politics and Robert Dannin’s passionate argument for war photography stand out. But any understanding to be gained from such a publication would only be enhanced by placing these words in a more defined personal and historical context.
This omission of background information also applies to the photographers. I find it very odd that nowhere do the editors explain that all of Rethink’s photographic work is by members of the VII reportage agency. That this is in fact the case can only contradict the all-encompassing approach promoted by the title. Indeed, when separated from the text, the scope of the photography is not so broad-reaching. Was the addition of the articles an attempt to give it a more rounded and global emphasis? The photographers’ shared association also helps explain the repetition of location and in a few cases the strong resonance between images. I do not wholly agree with Dannin’s comment that photographs can communicate an “unvarnished reality”. As any good historian knows, every source whether visual or otherwise, is the product of its author’s individual experience taking place in a specific historical time. To promote it as anything else is folly. Providing us with this contextual information would not lessen the power that these pictures undoubtedly retain. It is often argued that the proliferation of pictures of recent conflict in the media weakens our sensitivity to their power. However, the creativity and conviction of the photography in Rethink demands our attention.
Rethink appears to have originated in the work of the photographers. The editors have attempted to make it something bigger than the scope of their work allows. If the intentions of the publishers were to bring Rethink’s message to a wide audience, they would have benefited from a more disciplined editorial policy: declaring its true identity, condensing the text and ensuring greater clarity in the structure and design. In his slim introduction, Giorgio Baravalle says the book can be used as a weapon or a treasure. There are treasures to be found here – but with more guidance and better organisation it could have been a much more effective weapon.