War Photography

War photography produces some of the most memorable images, photographs which stand the test of time, and of all the famous war photographers, one in particular stands out.

That photographer is Nick Ut who took a photograph of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, an image which remains, perhaps, the most iconic of all the Vietnam War images, taken in 1972 after a napalm attack on her village.

World famous even today, Nick Ut's picture of her running naked in the street after she tore the clothes from her severely burned body, documents the plight of war-wounded innocents in Vietnam in an emotional sense, at the same time as it embodies innocence in an aesthetic sense.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc screams in pain after her home is struck by napalm by Nick Ut/AP

The photograph of naked Phan Phuc cannot be erased from the mind's eye once seen. Ironically, editorial reactions against publishing the picture of Phan Phuc hinged upon her nakedness and the suitability of the image for public viewing which speaks to the ever-present bottom-line with which war photography has to contend.

Ut (born 1951) and other photographers wore soldiers' uniforms, marking themselves as targets for the enemy, even though the most dangerous weapon they carried was a camera. Yet Nick Ut's bravery in the theatre of battle, his moral certitude and tenacity proved irrepressible, and the photograph won a Pulitzer Prize, the second that Ut won for war photography during the Vietnam War.

The execution of Nguyen Van Lem by Eddie Adams/AP

Another well-known war photographer who covered the Vietnam War was Eddie Adams whose photo of the execution of Nguyen Van Lem won both a Pulitzer and the World Press Photo Award in 1969. The self-effacing Adams (1933-2004, American) attributed the picture's timing - and thus its impact upon both Vietnamese and American publics - to chance. He shot the photograph at the precise moment that General Loan shot his gun. Adams saw the weapon in the hands of General Loan, a high-ranking police official, and assumed Loan's posture was a scare tactic - but it was not.

What Adams would subsequently point out about the picture, that may have helped to solidify world opinion on the Vietnam War, still resonates today: things are not always as they seem. After taking the picture, Adams discovered General Loan's motivation. At the time, Loan was in uniform and operating within the vilest of environments. The prisoner had shot a family under Loan's jurisdiction.

The photograph proved instrumental in judging the Vietnam War on a world stage. "What would you have done?" asked Loan before his death. Unfortunately, the world also judged Loan's actions, and he fled to the United States, with his reputation tarnished, and having lost a leg in the conflict.

Adams is often portrayed as ambivalent about the destruction of Loan's reputation, regretting the parts of the story not captured on that second day of the Tet offensive. He covered 13 conflicts during his lifetime and developed his own moral values with respect to images of war, claiming that a war photography picture was "a half-truth." That is to say that a claim to moral high-ground based upon what we think is reality in the picture frame does not take account of all that we do not see.

Thus, we have a cultural divide: on the one hand we have the picture-says-a-thousand-words group, and on the other hand the de-constructionists who treat the image as both artefact and art. But it is only within a narrative context that war photography speaks of reality, as is the case with Nick Ut's photograph, where we not only have his verbal testimony but also that of the now-mature Phan Phuc who resides in Canada.

Photograph of Victims at Abu Ghraib Prison

Abu Ghraib Prisoner Abuse

Nonetheless, war photography still excels at retaining apparent moments of truth for posterity. By contrast, the photograph above, taken in the Abu Ghraib prison just to the west of Baghdad, is a staged document of the Iraq War. The photograph has been used to document both mental torture and, reflexively, military personnel gleefully posing and becoming part of the pictures.

The infamous pile of naked, hooded bodies is crowned with the smiling, wholesome face of a United States soldier, while a fellow soldier over-sees the pyramid with a look of pride and joy. It would seem that the captors took satisfaction in torturing their victims as well as the act of making the photographs, leading to a collapse of image maker, subject, and viewer onto each other, not unlike the pile of bodies in the picture itself.

The roles of all who had a part in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse create matrixes of the collapse of the conventions of making pictures as we know it, just as in all the arts today we see a blurring of genres and roles. But the matrixes here involve aspects of governance itself: from a war that should never have been fought to the many cover-ups that have ensued. And this is not the end of the story, as whole series of pictures of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal make their way round the art museums, still war photography, but also transforming the status of what constitutes art photography.

It is interesting to note that investigations into the staging of war documentary photographs continue on photographs of the Civil War and of the Spanish American War, even today. Staging may be part of the artistic process where it occurs in art photography; it confounds and detracts from the subject when it is suspected in what is marketed as purely documentary pictures

After the War is Over

The photos made by a war photographer during the time of conflict, can alter a country's image to its detriment, particularly after the war is over and the country begins to rebuild. In the current global economy, tourism is becoming more and more important for many small countries and the image of a war-torn nation can take many years to erase from people's memories.

Dan Groshong was one of the photographers who covered the conflict in Timor-Leste (East Timor) but after the war was over he turned his camera to more gentle pursuits. Intent on showing the world what a wonderful, richly-diverse and welcoming place Timor-Leste was, he spent three years visiting and revisiting the island and produced a remarkable series of photographs which he put together to form a book (see below) which was then presented to the Government to help them in their first steps in creating a new future. These visits were funded by Groshong himself, such is his love of the island and its people.

Left: Timor-Leste - Land of Discovery by Daniel J. Groshong

Dan Groshong's vision is for an island that can sustain itself at least in part through eco-tourism, where shark's fin soup becomes a thing of the past in favour of shark spotting and underwater diving with sharks.

Groshong is a remarkable man who has shone a light into the dark night of war in East Timor and now shines a beacon of hope in the rebuilding of this unique corner of the world. 

Photographer Dan Groshong with Friends Photo by Joao Vas/Tayo Photo Group

Some of the images from the book are available as a slideshow at the website of East Timor Now or click this link to review Timor-Leste: Land of Discovery.

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