Thursday, 10 September 2009
Ben MacIntyre in today's Times argues for the 'immediacy' and 'revelatory' force of war photographs. His article is titled 'Pictures of war carry more moral meaning than thousands of words'. He is completely wrong. Images of warfare depend on words. Without words, they invite such an excess of meaning that they become, in effect, meaningless.
Take the photograph above, which is the cue for MacIntyre's claim. What are we looking at? There seem to be three soldiers, one of whom lies on the side of an earthen bank. Their faces are blurred or turned away. There is a tree in the background, which even the most expert arbiculturalist would be unable to identify. This may be a training exercise in the US, or it may be an image from Afghanistan or Iraq. The horizontal soldier may have slipped, or may have been shot. He may be rolling down the bank, or he may be still. Is he dead or alive? Is he fooling around?
Similar games can be played with Capa's Falling Soldier, which is why it matters whether we are seeing a soldier being killed or an actor acting. Without the verbal context to help us read the image, the image loses all force. Francisco de Goya, perhaps the greatest Western artist to depict the disasters of war, understood this well enough to turn it to his advantage. His images are accompanied by his own mysterious commentaries, which unsettle the viewer/reader in their oblique relationships.
I will happily admit that the photograph, reproduced on the Times website, may be clearer in the original, though no amount of visual clarity will provide enough context. That's another thing about photographs: unlike words, they lose detail as they are reproduced. And words can't be photoshopped.
So Ben MacIntyre claims that this picture is worth more than thousands of words. He might have said, more accurately, that it is worth nothing without words. He is immediately obliged to provide a commentary which gives the image its meaning:
Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard lies on his side in the Afghan earth, his gun still clutched in his hand. The air is speckled with the dust thrown up by the rocket-propelled grenade that has just been fired from a grove of pomegranate trees, blowing off one of Bernard’s legs.
As the camera shutter clicks, two other US Marines, blurred in their frantic efforts to save his life, are shouting: “Bernard, you’re doing fine. You’re gonna make it.”
The 21-year-old soldier did not make it.
Powerful stuff, which the photograph is hopelessly ill-equipped to do for itself.