Frieze talks: Photojournalism and the war of images
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
At this year's Frieze art fair, photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have been discussing the iconic, often anonymous photographs that emerge from 21st-century conflict zones. Here's their take on the images that define our era
Conflict zones are full of cameras. Soldiers, journalists, insurgents, civilians, even unmanned drones – they all have cameras attached. There's an old Russian saying: "the bullet is a blind fool", but today even weapons can see. So how have these technological leaps altered the way conflict has been depicted in the decade since 9/11? If there is such an abundance of cameras, why is the representation of war still so sanitised in the mainstream media?
The majority of images we see from Afghanistan and Iraq are produced by embedded journalists, whose rules of engagement are imposed by the British or American military. The long list of what an embedded photojournalist cannot photograph includes: car bombings, suicide bombings, wounded soldiers, dead soldiers, the coffins of dead soldiers, battle-damaged vehicles, hospitals, morgues. There are of course exceptions, in the journalists who enter the theatre of war "unilaterally", but they are the exception to the rule.
Why is it that images we trust are now most often the lowest resolution or blurred images, so-called "poor images"? Images taken by a mobile phone, for example, are read as more authentic. Perhaps it's because there seems to be a trade-off inherent in these images: a compromise on quality (resolution, composition, focus) for speed and authenticity. These images are read as non-partisan, made by people who happened to just be there at the scene rather than professionals hovering around waiting for an event to happen. Two award-winning press images that are perfect examples of this are Bhutto's assassination by John Moore and American Soldier Resting at Bunker, Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, 16 September by the late Tim Hetherington.
So what's a photograph of human suffering worth and who benefits from it? It seems shocking to us that the Associated Press appears to make money by offering images of torture like those of Abu Ghraib to news organisations, even if each time this occurs the dehumanisation is perpetuated, and even though we know that these acts were performed for, rather than incidental to, the camera.
Long before the Abu Ghraib images or the spectacular 9/11 attacks, described as an "image wound" for the US, the role of images in conflict have been contested. A surprising early example of this is Bertolt Brecht's War Primer. First published in 1955, the War Primer is a collection of what Brecht called "photo-epigrams", which consist of a photograph (mostly cut-outs from newspapers) accompanied by a four-line poem.
For Brecht, photography was a weapon against truth. Press images, he worried, were a form of hieroglyphics, in urgent need of demystifying or decoding, and he produced his War Primer as a textbook for how to read images. In his unending battle to "lay bare the device", to show how things worked, Brecht wanted to rescue images and text from their unhappy partnership.
One of Brecht's photo-epigrams shows an image of German soldiers in the process of executing a Frenchman. Brecht's quatrain reads:
"And so we put him up against a wall
A mother's son, a man like we had been
And shot him dead. And then to show you all
What came of him, we photographed the scene."
Brecht's anxieties about photography are as pertinent as ever in today's visual landscape where the so-called "war on terror" has been described as a "war of images".
Our most recent project has been to update Brecht's original book. War Primer 2 is concerned with the proliferation of images since 9/11 from both sides of the conflict. We started trawling through back issues of various newspapers a few years ago, but soon realised that if Brecht was alive today he wouldn't just be going at newspapers with a pair of scissors. "Don't start with the good old things but the bad new ones," he once said. He'd be downloading videos on YouTube, we imagine, gathering screengrabs and mining a whole host of "poor images" available on the internet. Our War Primer 2 is very much a product of this digital no-man's-land.
Despite the burden of images in our time – the previews, thumbnails and jpegs, compressed, uploaded, ripped, squeezed, reformatted, re-edited and authorless – history, it seems, demands icons, and it calcifies around certain images. Photojournalists, caught up in the image supply chain, make photographs that arrest us and that are hard to argue with. But they cannot help us demystify the results. It is the role of the artist to interrogate and challenge this system.