war_cover280War: A Degree South Collection #1 is a compilation of work by eight Australian photographers: Tim Page, David Dare Parker, Ben Bohane, Stephen Dupont, Jack Picone, Michael Coyne, Ashley Gilbertson and Sean Flynn. In the foreword Tim Page states that the book serves as “an antipodean anecdote to the tall poppies on the other side of the cultural world”. By this I assume he refers to the over-achieving likes of Don McCullin, Jim Nachtwey, et al – celebrated war photographers from the UK and USA.

In truth, War is a book borne out of passion and made by photographers who wish to pool their talents and stand firm against the sad state of “infotainment-orientated” coverage gracing the pages of magazines and newspapers which once would run their stories. That Australia has produced some of the greatest war photographers of our time should not be forgotten and while the eight photographers have certainly shot stories outside the combat zone, they agreed that war should be the “binding thread” to begin this, their first group project in publishing.

As well as the book itself I am lucky to have seen the exhibition of photographs that accompanies its publication, on display at the FotoFreo festival in Fremantle and Perth. At a previous year’s FotoFreo the photographers gathered conceived of the Degree South concept. It’s therefore apt that War should be launched at the same festival. The printing in both the exhibition and the book reproduction, is exquisite. For someone like myself – brought up on this genre of hardcore news photography – there can be little better than seeing Tim Page’s photograph of a boy crying over the body of a wounded girl in the back of a red pick-up truck, displayed next to David Dare Parker’s image of East Timorese returning to the remains of their homes. The former, an iconic colour photograph from 1968, the latter the encapsulation of an agonising and profound moment from a more recent conflict in 1999.

The exhibition also included images taken from the National Archive by army photographers during the First and Second World Wars. Their photographs provided a stepping stone with which to launch oneself across the years of Australian combat photography – for want of a better term – from 1918 to 1943 to 1968 to 1985 to 1996, and so to the present day. It was noticeable how the style of photography has changed, obviously influenced by the availability of cameras and lenses but also by a desire to get ever closer to the action.

There is something almost hyperreal to me about a scene of war and devastation photographed from a distance, strangely not the same when a photographer shoots right in the face of their subject. The wider view is disarmingly matter-of-fact, until you take it all in and become immersed in the detail. Only then can the viewer begin to extract the despair of the situation, or appreciate with trepidation the moment of impending doom that is suggested, but not yet exploding into the frame.

War is a veritable history lesson and a thorough compendium of conflict in our world over the past 45 years, from Tim Page and Sean Flynn’s “Nam”; to Ben Bohane’s coverages in Burma, Papua, Kenya and the Solomon islands; Stephen Dupont’s Afghanistan, Palestine and Rwanda; Jack Picone’s Angola, Bosnia, and Sierra Leone; Michael Coyne’s Iran; Ashley Gilbertson’s Iraq; and David Dare Parker’s East Timor.

The styles may differ and the angle of interest each photographer brings to their subject is unique, but there is no getting away from the over-arching fact that, for these photographers, the story is paramount and the events they witness are always more profound or important to others than their own experience of it. Amidst the images of death and destruction, and the protests and reprisals that necessarily make up a book on war, these eight photographers remain quiet, humble and focused on the job at hand. They are the personification of commitment.

Jon Levy

War: A Degree South Collection #1 published by T&G Publishing
Eur 60 (132 pp Hardback)