Lies, inconvenient truths and the peril of the sublime

Anna Somers Cocks on Memory of Fire: Images of War and the War of Images, by Julian Stallabrass, ed Photoworks, 228pp, £19.95 (pb)


A US night raid on a suspected terrorist’s house in Fallujah, Iraq, in October 2003. The photograph was taken by Lee Davis of Bravo Company, 1-105 Parachute Regiment

This is a demanding book: it demands that we tune our moral sense and wake up to the realities behind visual images, because, willy nilly, we are exposed to more of them now than were created in all the previous history of mankind. It is also a denunciation of our wars from Vietnam onwards.

If the first casualty of war is truth, here we have first-hand accounts of how the truth of war can be turned into a lie by a photograph—or its absence. There is, for example, the big lie imposed by government: no photos may be taken of wounded or dead US military personnel unless the photographer has obtained prior permission from them, which photographers feel squeamish about getting and which is nearly always refused anyway, so we do not even see what the public was shown in the First World War.

Not for the squeamish

Then there is the embedding system, which limits journalistic freedom and leads to self-censorship out of a feeling of comradeship. By comparison, journalists in the Vietnam war ranged freely (an especially vivid interview here is with the veteran photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths, who chose to live with a Vietnamese family so as to see things from the local point of view).

Then there is the squeamishness of editors, who censor anything too gory, so we have to turn to the work of Thomas Hirschhorn, who exercises his artist’s licence to show us the ragged lumps of meat that we become when caught by a car bomb—or a drone.

Then there is the danger of aestheticising something that in truth is terrible; “the seductions of the military sublime”, as Sarah James puts it in her very good essay. She is not the only writer to say that it is up to viewers to interpret what is put in front of them, to imagine disaster.

This is an intense book, full of deeply felt experiences and dense with facts; from a footnote, you learn that US nurses in Vietnam got used to being shown photos taken by soldiers of atrocities. Fast-forward to the infamous Abu Ghraib images taken by moronically dehumanised US soldiers of their humiliated prisoners.

More images, less impact

The fact that we are now all photographers is put to good use by the Dutchman Geert van Kesteren, who was frustrated by the banality of the pictures he was managing to take of Iraqis but then had the good idea of asking them to show him what they had on their mobiles, and out of these made an influential book, Why Mister, Why?: Iraq 2003-2004.

Memory of Fire is about our responsibility with regard to images in an area of life that really matters, unlike much art today, which aims low and is pretty futile. Its editor, Julian Stallabrass, makes a sobering point, however, about the relative impotence of images. Despite (but perhaps because of?) the exponential growth in the quantity of image-making about war zones today, none of it has had the impact of certain shots from the Vietnamese war (I think of the screaming Vietnamese girl running naked down the road, or Don McCullin’s dead-eyed, exhausted soldier), and he attributes this not to any failing in the photography itself, but to the absence of a coherent opposition to war among us: ultimately, it is we who have to take an image into our hearts and make it matter.

Published Mon, 31 Mar 2014 07:29:00 GMT

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