Taken during the Libyan civil war of 2011, the photograph shows eight young men jumping down from an anti-aircraft gun. Their movement spirals out from the base of the gun towards the viewer. Some are still in the air; others, in the foreground, are already dashing away. The barrel of the gun, poking diagonally out of the frame, forms the picture’s axis. Like exploding fragments, the motionless bodies fly off in every direction, tracing all the various stages of jumping and running, calling to mind Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th-century motion studies. It is not clear from the pillars of black smoke in the background whether a missile has just been fired or has just struck, nor whether the men are fleeing or about to attack.
This picture, entitled Rebels Battle for Ras Lanuf, an Oil-Refining Town on the Libyan Coast, on 11 March 2011, won the 2012 World Press Photo Award in the Spot News category. It was taken by Yuri Kozyrev, who has won the prize several times, and it stands out among the usual World Press motifs of destroyed cities, injured victims and despairing survivors. Focusing on the action and speed of the fighting, it confers on rebellion the lightness of a sporting activity. Kozyrev gave his series, taken throughout the Arab Spring of 2011, the title ‘On Revolution Road’; photographed from a moving jeep, one might mistake the rebel uprising for a road movie.
Kozyrev captured what the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called the ‘decisive moment’, and the picture bears a remote resemblance to Cartier-Bresson’s own photograph of children playing among ruins (Seville, Spain, 1933). Within the picture, a hole in a wall forms a secondary frame that one of the children breaks by leaping playfully through it. In the background, the viewer’s gaze is drawn into a maze of ruined buildings. Cartier-Bresson’s art consists in melding the different formal and metaphorical levels of perception in a single picture. To cite Walter Benjamin’s concept of the ‘dialectical image’, the photograph forms a ‘constellation of past and present’ as if in a ‘lightning flash’. In Kozyrev’s photograph, on the other hand, the formal elements drift apart disconcertingly. Body parts overlapin abrupt, uncoordinated movements. The photographer’s rehearsed skill is that of quickly capturing spectacular moments to fulfil the requirements of action photography, and yet this perfect moment might just have been created randomly as the camera rattled off ten raw image files per second. No additional levels of meaning open up beyond that of the rebel’s energetic will to fight. The picture is actually more closely related to what Benjamin calls ‘frozen unrest’.
In another picture from Kozyrev’s series, Libyan Rebels Fire Katyusha Rockets at Government Troops on the Frontline. Ras Lanuf, 2011, a man shouts and throws his hands into the air as, to the right, a rocket is discharged from its launcher leaving a blazing trail in its wake. These two unrelated elements combined with a dramatic evening sky – a twofold decisive moment that only focuses on simultaneity, not meaning – exemplify what media theorist Vilém Flusser has called the ‘programme of the photographic apparatus’, whereby actions enabled by the technical equipment of the medium entail indelible mental patterns. In action photography, the sought-after decisive moment captures the tensions that build up during an event, at their most extreme point, just before they dissove into a state of rest again. The unfolding of time – broken down into instants so fleeting that they are barely perceptible to the physical eye – paves the way for new visual arrangements. Pictures showing people at the peak of emotional excitement, of projectile launches and strikes, always carry a mission, and the point of impact is the viewer’s retina.
The common assumption that high-definition, hyper-realistic images of violent events have a greater capacity to shock is no longer tenable. Today’s media-conscious viewers have become accustomed to displays of others’ experiences of violence as an integral part of the media landscape. That sense of comfortable familiarity does not apply to the war photographer in action, of course. In trauma theory, it is assumed that in a dangerous situation, a fight-or-flight reaction (adopting an active stance rather than freezing up when shocked) can prevent subsequent trauma. Taking a photograph – a seemingly absurd reaction to an explosion – might actually be a life-saving move for someone who finds themselves under the programmatic conditions dictated by the war reporter’s profession. On his blog, Goran Tomasevic, a Kosovar who took his first war photographs during the conflict in his home country, comments on his photograph Vehicles Belonging to Forces Loyal to Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi Explode after an Air Strike by Coalition Forces, along a Road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah, 20 March 2011 as follows: ‘I was maybe 150 to 200 metres from the explosion. It’s pretty much full frame. This picture was really easy, just point and shoot. It didn’t take much imagination. Sometimes you need to get creative and shoot it this way, or that way, but this one just happened.’ At moments of shock, the passing of time, usually experienced as a steady flow, is churned up. The decisive moment around which the digital cameras of the action photographers revolve is a controlled accident. The present becomes a vanishing point generated by chance – the force majeure to which control is handed over – prompted by the feeling that this is the only way to cope with the current dilemma of increasingly complex and numerous options for action. In this scenario, the future emerges not from a linear view of time and space, but from a disruptive moment.
Advances in digital image technology allow fleeting instants to be split, expanded, exploited and halted in increasingly sophisticated ways. In his video for Massive Attack’s 2010 single ‘Splitting the Atom’, director Edouard Salier used 3d animation to create a tracking shot through an exploding city at a standstill, the debris stopped in mid-flight, allowing the moment of the explosion to be viewed like a museum exhibit. Recent photojournalism has produced images involving viewers who pass through dystopian scenes in fast vehicles and who will not intervene. In Spencer Platt’s winning picture for the 2006 World Press Photo award, a group of young Lebanese in a convertible drive like tourists through a neighbourhood destroyed by bombing. In a photograph documenting the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami that won second prize in the same awards this year, Lars Lindqvist reprised this motif: a car, its bonnet cropped in the foreground, drives through a devastated landscape and out of the frame; behind it, several ships are piled up on a collapsed dike. The car window is wound down and the woman inside is looking straight into the camera. The view of the disaster zone shared by photographer and viewer is mirrored in the woman who glides through the scene, seemingly unaffected – either hardened or in shock, like the photographer himself. I can’t help but think of Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History’ (an allegory that has become as stereotypical for theory as explosions are for war photography) who gazes back over the ruins of the past while being driven on by the storm of progress into a future to which his back is turned – except that here the gaze is split in two directions.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell