97 years ago yesterday the greatest armed (man-to-man) conflict the world has ever known ended by “a cessation of hostilities” (an armistice), the 11th minute of the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month, it is known as Remembrance Day. In the United States 11 November is known as Veterans Day. I was struck (as were many) yesterday by a breathtaking image of Maya Lin‘s masterpiece, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, by photographer Angela B. Pan. I have always thought of Lin’s highly polished black wall of granite (without the Congressional driven design-compromised bronze soldiers statue added) as something both pure and raw. The ‘wound in the earth’ as something powerfully symbolizing the emotions which every family feels when death finds them, the darkest grief of our hearts made physical. Pan’s image is the near perfect (while nothing is ever truly perfect I think the evergreen wreaths disrupt the integrity of her image). The wet surface of the walkway and the wall itself making ribbons of colour from the reflection of trees, morning mists hanging low on a still green grass and a sky streaked with apricot, sepia, silvery blues and gold leading us by two point perspective to the Washington Monument. Her photographer’s eye has pulled light into the darkness, reflected it, distorted the pain found in the open graves and transformed such into something transcendent offered at the end of our (visual) journey.
Just as Pan’s perspective draws us toward a metaphorical Nirvana bathed in luminescence, other photographers’ eyes (and their respective lens) open up the horrors which a handful of stupid people drive our collective humanity toward. In the case of photojournalists (long before they were given that moniker of respect) they trudged into the blood soaked and muddy battlefields, into prison camps and shattered villages, and onto shelled roads thick with dust and disease to send black and white images to magazines and newspapers documenting the displacement of women and children and the elderly. The innocents of shameful behaviours politically and physically caught between machines of the military (defense industry) and those that carried out their orders using them. The Library of Congress exhibition of Women Come to the Front highlights (what remains are their press credentials and bios online) the work eight women accomplished in chronicling war. Toni Frissell who is better remembered in photographic circles for her fashion photography image at right is just one of tens of thousands of images of what is left behind.
We are in the midst of the greatest exodus of humanity since World War II, yet again it is the intellectuals, the elderly and the children fleeing the carnage. Yet again we are faced with uncomfortable truths realised by a pebble being thrown in the pond. The ripple effects unknown to those who cast the first stone but keenly felt by tens of millions around the world. Humanity all bleeding the same shade of red. The front lines are blurred with a photographer’s lens. Tim Hetherington understood that, and it cost him his life in Libya. He documented the brutality of war, the real costs of lives living an obscene version of ‘normal’, disrupted from community but for being born in the wrong place.
“Underpinning my work is a concern with human rights and analyzing political ideas, with thinking about history and politics. It’s also about witnessing, about telling stories. Photography to me is a way of exploring the world, creating narratives, and communicating with as many people as possible…”
~ Tim Hetherington, after he won the World Press Photo of the Year 2007
War and wars. We destroy and create history at once and we learn nothing from either. There are no victors. War wrecks men and women, civilians and military alike. Those who fought and died in senseless wars that go on longer than they should because of both greed and malevolence. Mustard gas in WWI, Monsanto’s Agent Orange in Vietnam (which continues to impact the health of those who were on the ground and the children of their children). Nixon was criminally insane as was Saddam Hussein, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush and Bashar al-Assad most certainly are, the list goes on and on.
My girlfriend Nancy said, “We build memorials and preserve battlefields.” War photographs should haunt us to guide us to not repeat the endless tragedies. A war memorial, and the photos of it, is often the only thing beautiful to come out of a war.
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