“War/Photography” at Annenberg


Author: Drew Jaffe

The advent of photography in the mid-19th century ushered in a new age of expression with startling ramifications. Moments that could previously only be communicated through text or brush stroke can now be captured and memorialized for posterity. Events happening in one part of the world could now be brought to life in a living room on the other side of the globe. In this context, war–particularly for the average American–was transformed from a distant phenomenon into a very real and devastating thing.

The Annenberg Space for Photography’s new exhibit entitled “War/Photography” provides viewers with a vivid look into the life of conflict. The exhibit offers a vivid glimpse into the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries, from World War I to the current war in Afghanistan. While most viewers will be familiar with the conflicts included in the exhibit, many have not seen the story of war told in such a visual fashion. Textbooks and news articles provide an informative–and somewhat detached–account of the battles but rarely achieve the kind of cathartic impact photos can provide.

The Annenberg exhibit brings about this catharsis through a realistic medium. The photos displayed capture a more personal side of conflict than is generally seen in the media. Detailed pictures of soldiers and civilians line the walls. Some of these photographs will be familiar to viewers. Joe Rosenthal’s iconic image of marines putting up the American flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi has a place in the collection. A photograph taken by Eddie Adams of a Viet Cong prisoner’s execution in a Saigon street also appears along one of the walls. Most of the photos, however, are not as well-known and recognizable. The images’ relative obscurity do not detract from their power. They capture intimate moments before war–a soldier’s long, cramped plane ride to a distant and war-torn country, the careful planning done by military leaders and the last tension-filled moments of peace before the outbreak of violence.

Further down the hallway viewers get a sobering reminder of the effects of war, but not in the impersonal form of general statistics or wide shots of destruction. Instead there are pictures of grieving soldiers distraught over the loss of their friend, a father holding an American flag for his fallen son during the War on Terror, whose anguish is palpable through his posture and the blank expression on a GI’s face as he writes a report on his fallen comrade in the marshes of World War II’s Pacific Theater. Surprisingly, the exhibit displays relatively few photos of the actual battles. Perhaps because, as the captions suggest, war is more than just the brute violence depicted in movies, and for some, it lasts beyond the official end dates listed in history textbooks. The photos show a population of people permanently affected by their experiences, either physically or mentally, but often both.

Similarly startling is the level of honesty in the photos, which indicates that the exhibit was never intended to be a white-washed or family-friendly chronicle of events. Pictures of dead soldiers and civilians–some indiscernible, some charred to the bone–hang along every wall. The naked and humiliated victims of war also make an appearance and serve as a grim reminder of the dehumanizing potential of conflict.

While the exhibit’s photographs are the primary focus, there is also a short film entitled “The War Photographers” about the photographers themselves. The short film contains interviews from renowned conflict photographers Alexandra Avakian, Carolyn Cole, Ashley Gilbertson, Edouard H.R. Gluck, David Hume Kennedy and Joao Silva. Through their interviews, viewers get a glimpse into the lives of these people and the conflict they experience both around and within wars as they struggle between capturing the moment and wanting to intervene.

As a final reflective activity, viewers are encouraged to write their thoughts on notecards and place them on a wall for future onlookers. Many of these notecards are short eulogys to family and friends who were victims of war. Some offered terse but powerful statements about war.

“War sucks,” one notecard said.

Another notecard offered a sobering postulation of human nature.

“We’re no different…” it said.

The Annenberg exhibit on war photography is free and will be open through June 2.

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