Thursday, April 21, 2011
April 21, 2011: Picturing War
My colleague and friend Irene—she of the great guest post on Clara Barton—has requested, very appropriately to be sure, a tribute post on Tim Hetherington, the Afghan expert and photojournalist and war correspondent and human rights activist (and Academy Award-nominated co-filmmaker, with Sebastian Junger, for the documentary Restrepo) who was killed while on the job in Libya on Wednesday. Irene’s request is appropriate not only because Hetherington’s identity (as a British-American citizen who has been intimately tied to our world conflicts for the last decade and more) is profoundly AmericanStudies, but because I have of course thought on multiple occasions in this space about images and narratives, causes and casualties, and the identities impacted by, war, and those were, from what I have learned in a short time, central questions of Hetherington’s work on every level.
As “from what I have learned in a short time” probably intimates, though, I feel pretty unqualified to write about Hetherington in any specific way. I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t know his name before I saw the news of his death, or at least that I didn’t recognize it; and while I did know of Restrepo, and likewise have heard of War, the book that Junger wrote based on his and Hetherington’s experiences in Afghanistan, I haven’t seen the film nor read the book, and so cannot write with any authority about either of them. There is, I have realized in thinking about this today, an AmericanStudies lesson in this for me—at times, despite my best intentions, I believe I do separate very contemporary issues (about which I often have stronger political takes) from more historical ones (about which I have, I hope, stronger analytical and scholarly takes), and thus don’t read and learn quite as much about the contemporary issues (at least outside of political blogs and conversations). There’s only so much time in the day/life, of course, but given how much I have read and learned about America’s earlier wars and their narratives and images and meanings, I should certainly try to do more of the same for our current military efforts.
One area of the Civil War that I have thought quite a bit about, interestingly enough, is the very early version of photojournalism that accompanied it. Mostly that means Matthew Brady (1822-1896), the pioneering photographer who sought in various ways, using the certainly limited technologies of the era, to document in images the Civil War as it happened. On one level, Brady did exactly that, in ways that permanently altered America’s views of war—his images of battlefield corpses from Antietam (the war’s single bloodiest day of battle) were the first such photos ever produced, and brought a battle like that home to America very viscerally. Yet on another level, Brady already introduced many of the questions that have plagued, or at least troubled, photojournalism and war ever since—he apparently staged at least some of those photos to make them more compelling, and while that doesn’t necessarily destroy their veracity (he was moving around real corpses, not constructing false ones or the like), it certainly leads to questions not only of the role and goals of photojournalists, but of what kind of audience effects they produce and what that means about a society’s relationship to and understanding of (in these cases) war.
Certainly I think we’re much better off having a Brady and a Hetherington, having photos and documentaries, having ways to picture wars and their realities and effects much more fully than we otherwise would. But as with any texts and narratives, we’d be best off also analyzing those artists and images, considering what they are and what they do, and what they tell us about not only their subjects and lenses, but ourselves. More tomorrow!
PS. Three links to start with:
1) A beautiful eulogy by Hetherington’s friend and colleague Peter Bergen: http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/04/21/bergen.on.hetherington/index.html?iref=allsearch
2) Matthew Brady collection at the National Archives: http://www.archives.gov/research/arc/topics/civil-war/brady.html
3) OPEN: What do you think? (And “you” doesn’t just mean Irene, although I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping she’d add her voice here.)