Up Close and Suffering

Lined up, but down on their knees, foreheads scraping the earth, seven men grovel, their backs bare and beaten, while rebel troops with automatic rifles hover behind awaiting the signal to blow out their brains. The picture, from a year-old video, on page one of the New York Times (9/5), startles. The executioners are Syrian rebels. Weren’t they supposed to be the “good guys”?

Most likely the photo editor felt this shot was just too dramatic not to be on the first page; yet maybe he felt a twinge of grief at the vulnerability of those bare backs with no faces. Later, how did he feel about the picture of the dead Afghan suicide bomber (6/11), his bearded face in the upper right corner, his right arm stretched to the hand of an Afghan security worker that reaches into the frame to take the dead man’s fingerprints? Without the caption the touching hands are a symbol of tenderness, like the fingers of God and Adam touching at creation. We can deduce from the corpse’s shredded shirt and shoulder that the rest of his body has been blown away. Why can’t war photography teach us that the spread of this senseless cruelty will either kill or corrupt us all?

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Susan Sontag half answers this in On Photography: “To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more—and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.” How do we know what they mean? Sontag says, “All photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions.”

Yet they are powerful enough that governments, which know they will again and again wish to lead their people into war, censor them.

Among my family treasures is the huge (529 pages, 16 inches by 11 inches) The War of the Nations Portfolio, 1914-1919, whose sepia pages crumble as I turn them: 89 pages of kings, presidents, generals, emperors and now long forgotten famous persons; then endless marching armies, trenches, gutted cities, factories, artillery, airplanes and boats; and a two-page world map featuring faces representing the 45 races who had joined the Great War. In a picture of inductees in Trenton, N.J., I searched for my father’s face. But where were the dead? A picture of a distant, unidentified body and another of two German soldiers represent the millions lost.

I am in awe of War/Photography, Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, by Anne Wilkes Tucker and Will Michels with Natalie Zelt, based on an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, in Houston, Tex. It investigates the relationship between war and photography through more than 480 images by 280 photographers from 28 nations from 1848 to the present. Rather than progress chronologically, the authors move through categories of pictures: recruitment, training, the fight, aftermath, death, grief, property damage, prisoners, executions and the end.

Some scenes are familiar: the little naked Vietnamese girl running from the napalm attack and the dead G.I.’s on the New Guinea beach (1943), the first picture released of a dead soldier. President Roosevelt ordered its release because he feared the public was growing complacent about the human cost of the war.

Finally, the sting of two less familiar images will last forever. Eugene Richards, for his book War Is Personal, interviewed 15 veterans whose lives had been radically, tragically transformed by the Iraq War. Sgt. José Pequeno lost almost half his brain and can no longer talk, walk or do anything alone. One photo shows him from behind in his tearful mother’s loving embrace. The whole left side of his head is gone. Richards writes, “War all comes down to these tiny little stories about peoples’ lives that will never be the same.”

In Vietnam in 1966Larry Burrows, in an embattled aid station, a “blasted, muddy landscape filled with chaotic activity” as wounded are borne in and out, sees Sgt. Jeremiah Purdie, a blood-soaked bandage tied around his head, lurching forward, reaching out to his friend, a wounded, glassy-eyed marine covered with reddish-brown mud and propped up against a shattered tree truck. Titled “Reaching Out,” today it hangs on Sergeant Purdie’s wall, connecting him to the Marines “who never made it home.”

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