One of the ironies of the war in Iraq is that while the US has failed to bring democracy to that country it has thoroughly democratised the photography of it.
In previous eras, official war photographers would take images, usually of the soldier-hero, and they would appear in newspapers or on news programmes, only mediated by editors and censored by governments. That has changed in recent times, with smaller cameras and nimble photojournalists bringing a previously unknown immediacy to the horrors of war. But perhaps a more significant shift comes from there being a camera on every mobile phone. Combined with easy Web distribution, these speedy digital technologies mean everyone can take photographs, be they civilians, refugees or soldiers, and we can all see them irrespective of military sanction or editorial mediation.
Photojournalist Geert van Kesteren has collected hundreds of mobile phone photographs taken by Iraqis, some of which are on display at the Barbican’s On the Subject of War exhibition. ‘Independent photojournalism doesn’t exist in Iraq,’ says van Kesteren. ‘You just can’t get access to civilians, and so there’s no sense in going there. The photographs I was taking did not square up to the experience of the refugees. It missed what I see as the cornerstone of photojournalism – the laying bare of the essence of a situation and making that visual through the perspective of the individual.’
Instead, van Kesteren collected the mobile phone photographs of civilians. These are unflinching, and take us to the heart of the conflict with an authenticity that swiftly reverses our battle fatigue. Julian Stallabrass, curator of the Brighton Photo Biennial and Reader in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art, agrees. ‘The speed, immediacy and amateur quality of mobile photographs seems to inspire trust,’ he says.
However, van Kesteren cautions against believing every mobile phone photograph we see. For every authentic image, there is a manipulated one. ‘Some of the images I collected were clearly created as propaganda by militias,’ he says, although this doesn’t diminish the power of the genuine ones. They show the chaos, in-fighting and human remains. ‘War makes once-peaceable ethnicities cleanse each other,’ says van Kesteren.
Compared to the vérité of van Kesteren, An-My Lê creates carefully crafted images of beauty. Her wide-angle landscapes of military activity have the formal quality of architectural photography, perfectly composed and expertly coloured. But when you look closer, they are as much about human hubris as big-scale images. ‘Lê stands back from her subject matter, and photographs it as if from a great distance,’ says the Barbican’s head of art galleries Kate Bush.
This reflects our own distance from the war in Iraq, both physical and emotional, yet it also shows the awesome scale of nature and the smallness of man. ‘It’s a visual metaphor,’ says Bush. ‘Lê asks us to keep a distance and think about what is happening.’
Geert van Kesteren and An-My Lê are part of the Barbican’s On the Subject of War exhibition, Barbican Art Gallery, Silk Street, London EC2, from 17 October to 25 January 2009. The three-part exhibition also includes sections on Robert Capa and Gerda Taro