BY Jonathan Griffin in Reviews | 01 JAN 08
Featured in
Issue 120

Brighton Photo Biennial 2008

Various Venues, UK

BY Jonathan Griffin in Reviews | 01 JAN 08

Franco Pagetti (2003)

The Brighton Photo Biennial 2008, ‘Memory of Fire: The War of Images and Images of War’, curated by Julian Stallabrass, was a complex and multivalent enterprise. While ten exhibitions across the south-east of England made different strategic advances on this theme, the main moral and conceptual thrust of the Biennial came in the exhibition ‘Iraq through the Lens of Vietnam’, at the University of Brighton Gallery.

The show wrangled with nothing less than the possibility of photographic objectivity. An introductory text explained how photojournalists in both the Vietnam and Iraq Wars have been allowed relative freedom, thanks to the military’s recognition of the power of images to win hearts and minds back home.

During the Vietnam War photographers repaid this freedom by creating the searing, iconic photographs that steered public opinion in the West against the War. Why, asked Stallabrass, have equivalent images not been produced in response to the ongoing conflict in Iraq, which has for a long time been seen by many as iniquitous and unlawful? One answer, he suggested, may be found in the practice of ‘embedding’. By placing journalists with a unit of soldiers, the military appears to encourage unrestricted access to the front line. The journalist’s viewpoint, however, is necessarily shackled to that of the troops, with whom strong bonds of affiliation are often formed. Examples of ‘embedded’ photography in the exhibition (and they were clearly signalled as such) share the soldiers’ sense of alienation from, and suspicion towards, the Iraqi culture they find themselves attempting to navigate.

A second reason for our difficulty in picturing this conflict may concern the nature of contemporary warfare. The first gallery of the exhibition collated photographs from Vietnam, taken by both Western and North Vietnamese photojournalists. Many were familiar – Nick Ut’s napalm-burnt and screaming child, Ron Haeberle’s photograph of corpses at My Lai or Eddie Adams’ photograph of the pavement execution of a Vietcong suspect. Military engagement today, Stallabrass argued, is characterized by activities that in Vietnam remained hidden: kidnapping, extradition and torture.

While such tactics are now widely acknowledged, they are almost impossible for journalists to witness at first hand. It is this that makes the photographs that emerged from Abu Ghraib prison, taken by soldiers themselves, so remarkable, and which has resulted in certain among them becoming the defining images of the war to date. A grid of these photographs was reproduced on one of two large panels that bisected the gallery devoted to images of Iraq. On the other side, somewhat drolly, was a selection of official generic images taken from, the US army’s website. Elsewhere digital photographs were selected from those submitted to, an Arab nationalist website based in Basra.

Stallabrass was clearly attempting to patch up gaps in our visual conception of the war with primary source material and to open up the category of war photography to include not just journalism but amateur image-making too. This approach, however, combined to form not a cohesive and multi-faceted whole – merely a clamouring tumult of opposing voices shouting over each other. In the face of such confusion we become as wary of the veracity of images as nervous soldiers facing down a baying crowd. In every photograph I found myself wondering what’s excluded or what happened moments before or after the shutter opened. The caption for each image became of crucial importance in constructing a moral position on the sometimes disturbing, sometimes downright horrific, images on display. But where did the captions come from? The photographer? A newspaper editor? An archivist? The curator? A mixture of all four? 

The potential for distortion and misinterpretation exists not only in the photograph itself but also in its subsequent presentation as historiography. This is perhaps a rather well-worn observation about photographic authenticity, but it nonetheless applies to how, in attempting to create a more valid picture of the war, Stallabrass confused truth and criticality. It was clear from the title of the exhibition alone how he feels about the Iraq War, and it seemed that he was searching for a way to dam up his moral stance with heavy clods of objectivity. Sadly this did not happen; the picture simply began to break up and float away. Geert van Kesteren understands this problem. In another branch of the Biennial at Brighton’s Lighthouse gallery his photographs sat alongside mobile phone photographs borrowed from Iraqi refugees, unashamedly partisan fragments of his and others’ daily experiences of war and its effects.

Thomas Hirschhorn sees it too, his gut-wrenching Incommensurable Banner (2008) carrying scores of photographs found online showing bodies torn apart by sophisticated modern weaponry. Even the photographs in the De La Warr Pavilion’s exhibition, ‘The Sublime Image of Destruction’, while largely devoid of people, acknowledged that no landscape is innocent. All three opted for authority over subjectivity, comprehensiveness over clarity, and fairness over fervour. The trade itself is a valid one, so long as all concerned are aware of what is being sacrificed. It is not possible to have it both ways.

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.