The Biennial’s keynote show is not one to visit if you have five minutes to spare. These images command sustained attention. A couple of industry colleagues have suggested that such imagery is simply not the right – appropriate even – subject for a biennial, which should perhaps seek to celebrate the possibilities of photography, or at least carry images that people can look at. While I have already mentioned my concerns about the disparate (geographical) nature of this biennial, and the associated difficulties of maintaining a sense of context, after seeing this exhibition, I am convinced of its thematic suitability. In fact, I would ask how could we fail to address the concerns expressed through the biennial at this point in history?
While the world’s media obsesses over the End of Capitalism, these wars, and their legacies endure. However, questions about its suitability must probe deeper. Those who are politically engaged are already aware of the use of images by government war machines. So what is it that photography, the specificity of photography, can bring to the discussion table? Does looking at images placed in this kind of context inform and shape our knowledge in a different way? Can we keep in mind the set of thoughts we marshall after viewing this exhibition, when several days or weeks later, we visit another? Are varied and different approaches to photography widely included in the biennial? Such questions are not to be answered immediately; we have exhibitions to see…
Most interestingly, the first images you see when you walk through the doors of Brighton University Gallery to see Iraq Through the Lens of Vietnam are rarely exhibited images by photographers of the National Liberation Front (known to the Americans as Viet Cong), images that took a whole generation to be seen by a wider public. Photographs by The Dinh, Tran Cu and others remind the viewer that while photography – and the New Journalism – was certainly used powerfully as a tool in the anti-war campaign, the range of images seen at the time was severely limited. Now, of course, while the mass media might only publish"‘war" images taken by embedded photographers as the daily diet, any number of other images by "the other side" can be found at the click of a button – as the second room of the exhibition shows. The Vietnamese photographs, which came "courtesy of Tim Page" are affecting, and make an urgent case for photojournalism today. Without these initial documentary images that say "this happened", further, more reflective photographic explorations of war lose their meaning. That’s not to say, however, that these images have greater truth claims than any other work, remembering that their initial purpose was also propaganda for the National Liberation Front.
Baghdad, April 4, 2004. An Iraqi boy celebrates after setting fire to a damaged US vehicle that was attacked earlier by insurgents. © Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
Other work in the first room includes the image that is known in photography shorthand as Napalm Girl; that is the image taken by Nick Ut on Route 1, near Trang Bang on 8 June, 1972. I have only ever seen this image displayed as an icon of the horrors of war; to see it properly contextualised gave it still greater resonance. Another well-known image, by Don McCullin from Hue 1968, depicts a Viet Cong suspect being tormented by US marines. He is kneeling, blindfolded and tied to a rope – a rope that connects this image directly to the infamous images from Abu Ghraib, in revealing army practices (if not their pleasure in carrying them out). We learn more on this subject from images by Philip Jones Griffiths: a bandaged-headed woman, photographed in 1967, was tagged VNC – a Vietnamese Civilian. More usually, the caption states, people were tagged VCS – Viet Cong Suspect. Special status was granted to all dead peasants, regardless of allegiance: VCC – Viet Cong Confirmed.
In a Photoworks article, curator Julian Stallabrass says he prefers to keep his silence on whether there is a beautiful way to rearrange corpses. An image by Larry Burrows from the Mekong Delta in 1962 answers the question eloquently, as the Viet Cong dead lie spreadeagled, their flag still flying, observed by US "advisers".
A computer screen showing the extraordinary "traffic" of the Abu Ghraib pictures – how the infamous image has been widely appropriated and commodified – leads the way into the second gallery. Here, viewed from the street, a large panel displays a carefully constructed grid of several small images printed to exactly the same size and shape. We see hero soldiers, soldiers and sunsets, soldiers and Iraqi children, soldiers and teddy bears and Iraqi children and sunsets. They are images taken by military photographers as propaganda for the US army.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Jacob Bailey August 22, 2006 Spc. Antoine Davis, from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division patrols Tal Afar, as an Iraqi child walks alongside. This photo appeared on www.army.mil. © U.S. Army.
By contrast, and what a contrast, the reverse side of the black panel also displays a grid, with a similar amount of images displayed in exactly the same way. These are also images taken by the military, but they have a different usage altogether. They were taken to humiliate and subjugate their subjects, Iraqi prisoners, who are depicted in various states of torture. Those by Private Lynndie England will be familiar to most, but there are many many more, taken on mobile phones and sent from soldier to soldier as trophies of war. While the images that created a media storm were shocking, to see so many together invokes different feelings, including shame – shame for being part of the same species – and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. How can we look and do nothing?
1.53 am Oct 20 2003. Detainee is handcuffed in the nude to a bed and has a pair of panties covering his face, the Abu Ghraib prison, Baghdad, Iraq. Photo taken using cameras owned by Cpl. Charles Graner Jr. and Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick II
Another powerful piece of curation is positioned right next to this last assault. A huge Shock and Awe picture, like a fabulous firework display, faces out onto the street. For those on the inside, the reverse of the panel displays two pages from Albasrah.net, a website which declares its aim to “expose the occupation and shed light on its crimes.”
To hold its own after this relentless onslaught, the final section of the exhibition needed to pack its punches. Yet the "unilaterals" section, which occupies the gallery’s north wall, failed to offer a coherent visual alternative to the shock and gore just witnessed. Ideally, a gallery three would exist, and in it would be the work by Norfolk, Seawright, Broomberg and Chanarin, instead of being out at Bexhill. Or, as Ken Grant suggested, Judith Joy Ross’s quietly moving portraits taken at the Vietnam veterans Memorial in Washington DC.
So does it work, this juxtaposition of imagery from Vietnam and Iraq? It is certainly interesting to realise how much imagery from "the other side" we are able to access at the click of a button, in comparison with 30 years ago. Yet it is also salutary to be reminded that even supposedly leftist media that opposed the war offer only an extremely sanitised view of what really goes on. For more on this, see Thomas Hirschhorn at Fabrica… (or read about it here)
(Opening image: An explosion rocks a building in Saddam Hussein’s palace complex in Baghdad, March 21, 2003, during the American "Shock and Awe" air raids that marked the beginning of the occupation of Iraq. The complex on the banks of the Tigris later became what is now known as the Green Zone and houses both the Iraqi legislation as well as key American installations. © Franco Pagetti / VII)
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