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Representing War

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As long as there have been wars, artists have tried to depict the realities of war. From Goya and Picasso to Capa and Nachway, atrocities have been rendered in every medium. When photography emerged as a new medium for documenting wars, the images were supposed to accurately display the condition. It told the true story because it was a mechanical reproduction. The photograph became THE tool to tell the truth about war. With every following war, at the technology of photography improved, the role of the war photographer evolved. They became embedded to get closer to the action to capture more compelling images.

Over the hundred-plus years war photography, a visual language has developed. The same images are produced in every battle of every war, of soldiers, of destroyed homes and cities, of casualties.

In the article Unconcerned but Not Indifferent, authors Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin describe their experience judging the World Press Photo Contest in 2007. This annual contest promotes the excellence in photojournalism by selecting one image they consider the best of the year. The judges spend a week sifting through some 81,000 submissions going round after round narrowing the selection of images until they arrive at what they consider the best image of the year. In the first round the caption information is left out for the sheer amount of time needed to go through so many images in the first round. The authors don’t agree with the process, because they argue citing Susan Sontag, the photograph relies on its caption to create meaning.

So they sit in a room and watch images flash on the screen, images of reoccurring themes including people suffering, women holding children, reflections of puddles and fighting. They describe the numbing effect of clicking through a slideshow of the years’ news. “When you see hundreds of pictures, many of the describing human pain, and all seamlessly stuck together in a power point presentation, each individual image becomes less demanding. One persons suffering is instantly cancelled out by the next.”

When judges of such a prestigious award, men who are undoubtedly passionate about the field of photojournalism, describe the vast majority of photojournalism — war photography included — as clichéd, there is a problem. People are shooting the same photos. The dates change, the countries change, but the imagery changes little. One blurred, low resolution black and white image of a soldier, a finalist in the 2007 competition, looks very, very similar to an image Robert Capa would have shot in World War II.

Then when the photojournalists themselves admit to trying to find a different way to document conflict because they are bored with what they are seeing and what kind of imagery they are producing. Alexandra Boulat, describes this experience in her multimedia presentation. Her decision was to shift her focus to the everyday experience of women in the war torn country, Palestine. By this different philosophical approach, she begins to show a different perspective of the war, one that is still often shown in the media. James Nachwey also photographs women suffering, and so does Lynsey Addario.

Though viewers become desensitized to these images, and the imagery often resembles photographs from other, past battles, photojournalists still risk life and limb to go into battle and capture these images. A risk that has recently increased.

There has always been risk with this profession, that photojournalists accept for the drive to show the world the suffering and tragedy that occurs that the people elsewhere are isolated from. Larry Burrows and Robert Capa both died photographing wars. Dying by land mines and crossfire aside, there have historically been rules set up to address and mitigate the risk to journalists. These rules for treatment were established in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Additional Protocols. Where journalists have two options: under the Geneva Conventions they can imbed themselves as a war correspondent and accompany military forces but risk being targeted by opposing forces but are entitled to prisoner of war status if captured; meaning they get fed, housed, regular medical care and have the right to send and receive letters. Or journalists can cover a war as a civilian correspondent under the Additional Protocols. Journalists can’t be deliberately targeted but aren’t entitled to POW status if captured and detained by a hostile government.

Recent stories about the treatment of journalists in Egypt and Libya have highlighted a growing problem. Two different stories by journalists highlight the need to be more resourceful. One man recounts his experience of being beaten by a group of Mubarak supporters and his eventual rescue by soldiers. In another story, photographer for the New York Times describe the new approach he has to take to keep himself and his gear safe: including disguising his nylon camera bag in a  trash bag, and using consumer gear that makes him look like merely a tourist. A limitation on the quality of content he can capture but solution to limit negative attention. “It is precisely because you have good equipment that you can operate in loud, crowded situations such as Tahrir Square. But they are exactly the sort of things that we can’t be seen carrying now.”

Journalists take these steps to hide the fact they are part of the media because of the shifting attitude where photojournalists act independently of the fighting to becoming targets in conflict. Today, marking “TV” on the side of a vehicle doesn’t shield you from the fighting, it turns you into a target.

Because of the targeting of journalists, many media outlets rely on “citizen journalists” to capture images of important events with their cell phones. However many editors reluctantly rely on this method because of the vetting that has to happen over determine the accuracy of those images. A citizen may not be a trusted source like the freelance photojournalist they regularly work with.

But sometimes even photographs from trusted sources are inaccurate. What we learn is that many of these images are lies of some sort: Photographs were staged, images altered, and captions changed so the same image would be used by opposite sides of a war as propaganda.

Some argue that the fact an image is staged or a caption altered doesn’t alter the reality of the condition of war that the image depicts. Robert Capa’s Fallen Soldier may be staged, but this could happen.

Thibault Brunet’s plays with the fiction of war. He works within the language of war photography but his images have a twist. His images of soldiers and battle scenes, matted and framed and hung in galleries aren’t photographs are actually screen shots of first-person shooter games. He captures compelling images of battle scenes: soldiers catapulted in the air by a bomb blast, gritty black-and-white images of bullet hole-scarred businesses. His work highlights how the visual language is so ingrained in our minds that video game creators can recreate these environments that when presented in a gallery matted and framed like a photograph, they can easily be mistaken for war photography. “I chose to explore theses games against the natural will of my avatars, the one that usual player would use. I chose to do it as a photographer.”

What is also interesting about his work, is that this medium, video games, is made for an entirely different audience, but provides an avenue for people to experience war. And that the creator of these games strive so hard to accurately depict that environment they hire retired soldiers and advisors, and capture audio of actual weapons in use.

Medal of Honor, the first successful first-person shooter game based on a historical war was created by Stephen Spielberg right after “Saving Private Ryan” as a WWII game for Dreamworks Interactive. It has gone through a series of versions over the years but in the version that came out summer or 2010, the franchise moved the battle to the present day. The story begins just before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and gamers describe the perspective you see in a game as “the camera,” even though video games are not really a lens-based medium.

Users can play roles like a member of a Navy Special Operations team, Army special operations soldier, Army Ranger, and an Apache helicopter gunner. They seize Bagram air base, ride ATV’s through real valleys, and snipe Al Queda Fighters near the mountain of Takur Ghar

The developers invested a lot in creating a game that accurately depicts the environment and experiences of fighting in Afghanistan. The game has more than 50 actors, there are thousands of lines of dialogue, many in foreign languages like Pashto, Gulf Arabic and Chechen. The computer-graphics team examined videos from Afghanistan that were posted on YouTube and LiveLeak. They recorded actual weapon fire, attached microphones to Apache helicopters to record take-off and landings. They even hooked microphones to the targets they destroyed. Waylon Brinck, the computer-graphic supervisor for the game said they wanted the player to feel, not like they are in a movie, but like they are in Afghanistan.

These games as a medium to depict war are unique because they give you a sense that you are someone else not just controlling someone else. You never hear their voice or or see anything of them other than their hands because the developers don’t want to break the immersion. And because of this, a gamer and explore the environment and engage in battle of their own will. They have some control over the narrative.

However, because the game is so authentic and deals with a contemporary war and because users can play the role of a member of Taliban, this game has offended people. Specifically families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even the British defense secretary, Liam Fox has called for retailers to ban Medal of Honor.

Other argue that these games are about navigating a virtual world and not about relating emotionally to the particulars of that world. A study by Joel Penney, a doctoral student at the University of Penn found that gamers did feel empathy for the characters in the game. One respond wrote that, after playing the games, his “feelings have deepened in respect for those who have died.”

The first-person shooter game, Six Days in Falluja is not only authentic but is also very realistic. It depicts the environment and conditions of an actual battle in Iraq. In an effort to accurately depict the battle and just like in a documentary, creators interviewed marines who fought in the battle for Falluja, but also talked to Iraqis who lived through it — both civilians and insurgents. Though the creator called it an interactive documentary, and the effort to stay true to the conditions and events rivals that of a film documentary, this game still offended Americans.

This game is also unique because it adds a layer of moral ambiguity that doesn’t exist in other first-person-shooter games. An Iraqi will pick up a gun and will the player must quickly decide whether that individual is a friend or enemy and whether or not to kill him.

Though the creators call the game an “interactive documentary” the concept for this game created an outcry from families of soldiers killed in that battle. A video game doesn’t have the aura of respect or concern for respectfully depicting the events of that battle. A documentary with this amount of research or even a photo essay would have been heralded for its level or research. Maybe, like the documentary Respeto, it would have won awards for its compelling narrative and accuracy in storytelling.

The idea of showing the realities of war in an interactive environment is compelling. By using a foundation of a first-person shooter game, people may develop a more nuanced understanding of a soldier’s thought-processes in battle. However, the audience of first-person shooter games may not be the same audiences that seek documentaries or photography of wars. This message may be lost on the wrong audience.


Andrew Burton, “A Photojournalist Attacked in Egypt,” The Picture Show, NPR February 3, 2011, accessed March 27, 2011.

Halla Beloff, “Social Interaction in Photographing,” Leonardo 16 (1983) 165-171.

Ernst Jünger and Anthony Nassar, “War and Photography,” New German Critique (1993) 24-26.

Anthony Shadid, Lynsey Addario, Stephen Farrell, & Tyler Hicks, “4 Times Journalists Held Captive in Libya Faced Days of Brutality,” The New York Times, March 22, 2011 accessed March 22, 2011.

Stephen Farrell, “What Not to Bring to Tahrir Square” Lens: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism, The New York Times, February 8, 2011, accessed March 36, 2011.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, “Unconcerned but Not Indifferent.” (2008)

James Estrin, “Finding the Right Tool to Tell a War Story,” Lens: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism, The New York Times, November 21, 2010, accessed March 27, 2011.

Committee to Protect Journalists, “On Assignment: Covering Conflict Safely.”

Elizabeth Rubin, “Lynsey Addario at War,” Aperture, Winter 2010, 25-33, 78.


Written by uartsgr655

May 13, 2011 at 2:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] We had to produce a 7-10 page paper. I compared photojournalism to first-person-shooter games like Modern Warfare and Six Days in Falluja. They were posted on a blog for our class. You can check it out here. […]

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