CIVIC’s executive director Sarah Holewinski recently contributed civilian harm experiences for the exhibit War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, currently on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Caroline Kavit, the author of this post, is a photographer and writer who has recently joined CIVIC as the communications intern.
Photography shapes the way we perceive warfare. For the majority of people who are far removed from the front line, images serve as a surrogate for reality. Sometimes, a single image is so powerful that it comes to define a conflict, like Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut’s photograph of a naked girl running from a napalm strike during the Vietnam War or “Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima,” by Joe Rosenthal. A new exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art seeks to shift the photographic history of war away from these “greatest hits” toward an anthology-like approach that encompasses the progression of conflict from instigation to aftermath.
Bringing together more than 200 photographs of conflict that span 6 continents and 165 years, “War/Photography” is an unprecedented examination and deconstruction of the relationship between wars and the images that portray them. The expansive subject matter has been broken up into chapters that represent the different phases of an armed conflict—recruitment, training, combat, daily routines, homecoming, aftermath, remembrance, and more. Each section is preceded by text, which has the dual-purpose of providing information and punctuating the tone of the exhibit. The writing (which included input from Center for Civilians in Conflict) is measured and meant to allow the viewer to come to their own conclusions about the morality of war and photography’s place in it, but the sheer size of the exhibit sends a message about the ubiquitous nature of armed conflicts and the suffering that follows in their wake.
As a photographer, I read the story on the walls as one of the evolution of the medium from daguerreotype to digital. Photographers have been attracted to the same subject matter throughout the history of conflict, because while the way we fight war has changed the human suffering has remained constant. With the development of new technologies, photographers have been able to shoot from new points of view in hopes of bringing the viewer closer to the daily realities of armed conflicts. Walking through the exhibit, it is hard not to constantly compare the images despite vast differences in the place and time they were taken. I found myself mentally coupling photographs based on aesthetics, finding similarities in composition between an image taken in the Crimean War and an image from WWII. However, as I moved through the exhibit I began to see another narrative.
The date photographs were taken ranged from 1846 to spring 2012, but a line of seemingly inevitable sorrow can be traced through all of them. The artistic merit of the images was slowly pushed to the background, and I began connecting the grief. The same scenes of destruction and suffering appeared to take place over and over again throughout the history of warfare. The similarity seen in the almost complete destruction depicted in “Bombardment of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 1st, 1974” by Christine Spengler and “Dresden After Allied Raids, Germany, 1945” by Richard Peter was striking.
These images made decades apart by different photographic processes in different conflicts depict almost identical scenes of heartbreak. I began to see the exhibit as a visual representation of lessons not learned. Civilian harm is inevitable in any conflict, but there are ways to minimize it. This exhibit uniquely visualizes just what is at stake if we do not change the way fighting forces operate and call for the integration of civilian protection into the core of every mission.
“War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath” is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from June 29th to September 29th, 2013 and at the Brooklyn Museum from November 8th, 2013 to February 2nd, 2014