War from a soldier’s perspective

This review will look at the reality of war from a soldier’s perspective and the very different ways in which journalists and main stream media represents war photography.  When one thinks of war photography, often brutal images of slaughter and violence begin to formulate. We often only see the effect of battles, rarely are we allowed into the private sphere of the life of the soldier. The ability to experience war through the medium of photography is a modern phenomenon. [1] This review will contrast three aspects of soldier’s lives: Sleeping, smoking and mourning in order to show the special power of  photography as a medium to show the soldier’s life in a military context and its ability to portray humanity amidst chaos.

Imbedded reporters, such as war photographers capture a sphere to which the viewer would have limited access to. According to Sontag, photographs of victims of war create an ‘illusion of consensus,’ we become numb to such images because we are constantly bombarded and therefore we begin to lose our criticality. The image allows the viewer to share the experience of warfare but from the position of safety. Herta Woolf finds the curiosity of others pain intriguing.[2] Modern photographs of war, show changes in how war is waged, not on the battlefields, but in cities. The distinction between combatant and non-combatant has drastically blurred as modern warfare has changed. Equally, the border between codes of war has changed, crossing the boundary between civilian and barbaric.

 On the other hand, in main stream media, uncensored violence of the Vietnam and Korean wars are a far cry from those which are exposed to the public today. In a modern society, technology has created uncensored material such as images caught on mobile phones and it has changed the way in which we relate to remote material.  According to Sontag, the embedded photographers in the earlier conflicts were allowed access to the war zones, bringing the war to the living rooms of families back home; this caused outrage amongst the public who for the first time were able to witness the true horrors of modern warfare. [3] Today, there is a censorship of warfare and the content allowed in mainstream media. New forms of capturing war have become increasingly popular- capturing the everyday events from a soldier’s perspective.Through photography, war becomes real for those distanced from the action.[4]

Although photographs of war are in some cases used to condemn the atrocities which are being carried out on both sides, they also bring ‘home the reality to those who have no experience of war at all.’ [5] Mainstream media tends to ignore the mundane everyday activities of war. Sontag argued in the 1970s that war photography no longer had the power to ‘enrage, to incite.’[6] Instead, she argued that photographs depicting suffering had become ‘cliché’ as we were bombarded by them. [7] Some journalists and artists have tried to find new forms of images of war which will have a meaningful impact.

Image

Figure 1. Image of a sleeping soldier taken by Tim Hetherington. [1]

The photograph taken by Hetherington shows the subject as both the soldier and the man. On the one hand is the soldier who carries out killing in the cause of his duty which is only considered to be the norm in a military context. On the other hand, one sees the soldier as a man in his vulnerability succumbing to the basic requirement of sleep. It is difficult to comprehend the violence he is capable of unleashing. We rarely see a fighting man half naked and exposed. Hetherington noted that this image shows a deep intimacy and trust between himself and his subject who is completely exposed and vulnerable. [2] The sleeping soldier in the foetal position shows the vulnerability of soldiers which we can all too easily forget. He further noted that ‘even in the extremities of human activity like war there can be a moment of tenderness. [3] The moment of tenderness captured by Hetherington is preserved in time like ‘flies in amber.’ [4] The soft body of the soldier is caught in the ordered and inescapable structures of military operation. This shows the power of photography to valorise soldiers and create a sense of innocence.

 Furthermore, seeing the soldier as a man, we can also appreciate the role with all its dangers.  Images of war are designed to shock and also influence and control our opinions, yet Hetherington is trying to create empathy in the ground and in order to do so, he had to become part of the battalion. It is only because of this that we are allowed to see the soldiers in such a vulnerable state and also see the soldiers as men. Hetherington has managed to create a scene which contradicts the normality of war. He described the soldiers as ‘always look(ing) so tough … but when they’re asleep they look like little boys. They look the way their mothers probably remember them.’[5] Hetherington allows the viewer to imagine themselves as a soldier. Photographs of soldier’s everyday activities is a subject which whilst often ignored, portrays war in a more realistic light. Hetherington’s photographs are a very good example of how boredom is a major factor of war. Only part of warfare is dispersed by occasional bouts of active duty. A lot of time is spend waiting around, arguably for a heroic moment. [6]

Image

Figure 2: Soldier smoking at night in Mosul, Iraq. Taken by Jeremy Lock. [1]

According to Klein, smoking frees the soldier ‘by momentarily masking the cruelty of his condition.’[2] The banality of smoking relieves the soldier from his environment. The double exposure incorporates a duration of time. Similar to the photograph taken by Hetherington, it shows soldiers waiting around, conventionally this could be seen as a mistake of artistic layering. According to Butler, photographs depicting war from the soldier’s perspective go against the normative approach to war photography and further, force the spectator to reconsider their view of war. [3] It is rare for soldiers to be captured in such a relaxed pose, and this photograph surprises the audience as a consequence. [4] The subject appears calm and relaxed, yet the objects in the frame such as his weapons remind the spectator that he is still a soldier. Klein further argued that cigarettes give soldiers the courage to endure the worst, it is also considered a tool to control ‘anxiety.’[5] This view changes the audience’s perspective of the photograph. At first glance the subject appears nonchalant, however, with Klein’s argument in mind- one can begin to imagine the trepidation of the soldier.  Heidegger by contrast argued that the cigarette ‘transforms this anxiety into fear in the face of an oncoming event.’ [6] The meaning of smoking has been interpreted by Klein and Heidegger, perhaps the cigarette suggests that he is masking fear. 

War photography tends to focus on the pain and suffering inflicted by the soldier; it is rare for the spectator to see the true emotions of soldiers captured on film. The French film theorist, Christian Metz argued that ‘photography is a cut inside the referent; it cuts off a piece of it, a fragment, a part object, for a long immobile travel of no return.’ [7] This also invokes a primitive belief that a photograph takes away part of the spirit.  Metz is suggesting that the photographer has captured a piece of the soldier for the audience, a private moment which was never intended to be seen by others. The photograph has taken away his privacy. This photograph shows the soldier crying. The stadium studium in the photograph is the signs of his crying, that is obvious to the audience, but the curl of the helmet strap is the punctum.[8] Military uniform has to be ordered and in place, but the curl disturbs the regimented image of the soldier and betrays his humanity. Leeson has brought an aspect of humanity to the soldier.

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Figure 3: ‘For a Fallen Soldier.’ Taken by David Leeson. [1]

The photograph captures, the pain and agony of the soldier experiencing emotions which one can see he is trying to restrain. It exposes the myth of masculinity which is drummed into men by militarization and shows an intimate moment of grieving. [2] The photograph shows a soldier and a man who is coming to terms with the horrors of war. Butler argues that to ‘confirm that a life was, even within the life itself, is to underscore that life is a grievable life.’[3] The photograph brings us face to face with that grieving. Sontag argued that war photography tends to focus on physical destruction; however, Leeson has opted to explore the emotional effects on those who serve in the military. [4]

These photographs have been captured by war photographers. As I have shown, Sontag argues that we are becoming numb to the atrocities of warfare because of an overexposure of powerful images on a daily basis. It even appears that conventional images of war have begun to bore modern audiences and new ways of presenting material are essential to maintain a meaningful public engagement. Today’s society is demanding ever more lurid images of warfare. Because of this, embedded photographers are seeking new ways to engage the audience and create new angles which have not been considered. This is why I have chosen to investigate aspects of soldier’s lives which are not as widely documented as the theatre of war. Hetherington, Lock and Leeson remind us that those fighting are human too and as such experience the basic human need for sleep, rest and emotional release. I feel that these photographers bring an aspect of humanity to those who are often portrayed as killers.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida, (Toronto, 1980)

Brown, Chris, ‘Soldier I wish you well.’ Review of International Studies, Vol.35.4 (October 2009),pp. 880- 882.

Butler, Judith, ‘Photography, War, Outrage’ in PMLA, Vol. 120, No. 3 (May, 2005) pp. 822-827.

Butler, Judith, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London, 2010)

Hetherington, Tim, Sleeping Soldiers, Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

Klein, Richard Cigarettes are sublime, (London, 1995)

Knightley, Philip, In War Truth is the First Casualty: The war correspondent as Hero, Propogandist and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq, (London, 2003)

Leeson, David, ‘For A Fallen Soldier’ (Photograph) 2003.

Metz, Christian, ‘Photography and Fetish’ in October, Vol. 34 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 81-90.

Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London, 2013)

Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, Artist Information Pack. (self published)

The Guardian Newspaper, Tim Hetherington’s war photographs show moments of intimacy and aburdity, accessed 27 November 2013.

Wolf, Herta, and Nicholas Grindell, ‘The Tears of Photography,’ Grey Room, No. 29, New German Media Theory (Fall, 2007), pp. 66-89.

Wollen, Peter, ‘Fire and Ice,’ in Photographies, 4 (1984) P. 118-120.

 

Websites

Lock, Jeremy, The National Geographic, http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2013/11/01/jeremy-lock-capturing-war-from-the-front-lines/  accessed 20th December 2013.

 

 

 

 

 


[1] David Leeson, ‘For a Fallen Soldier,’

[2] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London, 2010), p. 266. 

[3] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London, 2010), p.98 

[4] Chris Brown, ‘Soldier I wish you well.’ Review of International Studies, Vol.35.4 (October 2009),p. 874.


[1] Jeremy Lock, The National Geographic, http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2013/11/01/jeremy-lock-capturing-war-from-the-front-lines/  accessed 20th December 2013.

[2] Richard Klein, Cigarettes are sublime, (London, 1995), p. 139.

[3] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London, 2010), p. 151.

[4] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, (Toronto, 1980), p. 32.

[5] Richard Klein, Cigarettes are sublime, (London, 1995), p. 141.

[6] Richard Klein, Cigarettes are sublime, (London, 1995), p. 142. 

[7]Christian Metz, ‘Photography and Fetish’ in October, Vol. 34 (1985), p.84.

[8] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, (Toronto, 1980), p. 53.


[1] Tim Hetherington, Sleeping soldiers (Photograph.)

[2] Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, Artist Information Pack,(self published), p.8. 

[3] Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, Artist Information Pack, (self published), p.4.

[4] Peter Wollen, ‘Fire and Ice,’ in Photography’s, 4 (1984) P. 84.

[5] The Guardian Newspaper, Tim Hetherington’s war photographs show moments of intimacy and absurdity, accessed 27 November 2013

[6] Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, Artist Information Pack,(self published), p.24. 


[1] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London, 2013), p. 16.

[2] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London, 2013), p. 6.

[3] Philip Knightley, In War Truth is the First Casualty: The war correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq, (London, 2003),p. 494. 

[4]Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London, 2013), p. 93.

[5] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, p.10.

[6] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, p.11.

[7] Judith Butler, ‘Photography, War, Outrage’ in PMLA, Vol. 120, No. 3 (May, 2005) p. 824.

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