Critical Research Journal - Entry 4 - Reading Photographs
There is a Latin phrase that I find quite poignant to this week’s discussions and work: Jus Ad Bellum, Jus In Bello. It translates to Justice To War, Justice In War (ICRC 2015). Though a nice philosophy, it has never had any meaningful bearing based in reality because war, by its very nature, is not about justice. War is open and armed conflict to gain power, money, and/or territory. In my experience as a conflict photographer and photojournalist who has traveled to conflict zones across the globe, war is never about justice. Susan Sontag reflected on this in her book, Regarding The Pain of Others, when she wrote that “We hope only (so far in vain) to stop genocide and to bring to justice those who commit gross violations of the laws of war (Sontag 2004).” The problem I have with her statement is the people making those laws usually have only their best self-interests in mind, and the genocide she refers to is a byproduct of the open and armed conflict by those seeking power, money, and/or territory. I’ve been to enough conflict zones to know from first-hand experience that, while there are rules of engagement (ROE), law has little to no place in open and armed conflict. This can be clearly seen in the photographs we analyzed this week.
Steve McCurry gained international fame after his photo simply titled Afghan Girl appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1985 (McCurry 1985). What immediately struck me about Steve McCurry’s photo is that Sharbat Gula, her intense gaze notwithstanding, is dressed in a threadbare Iranian-style chador exposing her face, something unheard of in that part of the world. As the 2019 article in the Indian magazine The Wire pointed out, "it is not welcome for a girl of traditional Pashtun culture to reveal her face, share space, make eye contact and be photographed by a man who does not belong to her family." (Ribhu 2019). In fact, the Gula was forced to reveal her face by the teacher at her school in the Pakistani refugee camp where she was residing at the time, even though Gula tried initially to cover herself from view (Public Delivery 2022). Her own modesty was forcibly removed by the one person in the room who held the power to help her protect it, and that modesty was exploited by a stranger with a camera who exposed her to the world without her consent.
In stark contrast is the Jodi Bieber photo of Bibi Aisha in 2009. Bieber took great care to develop a personal relationship with Aisha and obtain her consent before photographing her. Bieber also helped Aisha retain her dignity with a wardrobe selection that included a more modern chador and formal tunbaan while posing in a comfortable, safe, and consensual portrait sitting. Bieber was careful and respectful to not exacerbate the trauma this woman had already suffered at the hands of her husband and his family when her nose and ears were cut off as punishment for trying to run away (Bieber 2019).
While the Afghan Girl photo by Steve McCurry did everything to elevate his career, it did absolutely nothing to elevate the woman in the photo. While Mr. McCurry enjoys a life of success and freedom, Sharbat Gula is living in a hut in Afghanistan under Taliban rule and her circumstances have changed very little (Tondo and Hilaire 2021). Aisha, on the other hand, is now living in the United States and benefitting from facial reconstruction surgery (Bieber ca. 2022).
It is interesting to note that both photos were captured during conflict. McCurry’s photograph taken in a Pakistani refugee camp during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (Public Delivery 2022) and Bieber’s photo taken after the American invasion of Afghanistan (Bieber 2019). While the two photos share a professional portrait sitting quality, the Steve McCurry photo has the clear photojournalistic aesthetic of a documentary photojournalist, and the Jodi Bieber photo has the look of a professional, modern portrait session. The contrast of these two photos goes on in the lives of these women whose current circumstances could not be more different, with Gula still eking out a meager existence under a brutal regime (Public Delivery 2022), and Aisha healing in a more comfortable and safe western society (Bieber 2019).
It’s easy for us, the viewer, to remove ourselves from the reality of these two women because we don’t share their circumstances, and we would need to go to great lengths to experience such pain. Susan Sontag wrote about this in her book, Regarding The Pain of Others, noting that the ‘we’ should not be “taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain (Sontag 2004).” Her words resonate with me on a deeply personal level because of my experience as a conflict photographer.
Prior to entering conflict zones, I could only imagine the pain I’d eventually bear witness to. After coming face-to-face with the daily reality of the people I encountered, I understood that my only reaction prior to that experience was to take their pain for granted because I simply could not fathom the depths of their daily struggles to put food on the table and keep a roof over their head, much less survive the day-to-day adversities of living in conflict.
But something else shocked me that I was not expecting, much less prepared for. I became addicted to the conflict zones I was photographing in. It may be a contemptible thing to admit, and I’m sure most conflict photographers would not dare to publicly disclose such a thing, but I came back missing the fear, pain, uncertainty, danger, adrenaline, and paradoxical realities of conflict zones. I also became anxious at the photos I was missing. This feeling came rushing back to me after viewing the Luc Delahaye photo, Taliban (Delahaye 2001), in this week’s class. After viewing and discussing Delahaye’s photo with my MA cohort and instructor for over 90-minutes, I woke up the next morning surprised at the depression I felt, not from viewing the photo, but from the similar photos that I was missing capturing because I was not out ‘running and gunning’ to get the shot. This feeling challenged my current aspirations to take my life beyond conflict photography and into the more serene practice of high-concept portraiture. I’m not sure I have it in me to build a life of photographic safety after living a life of photographing in conflict zones.
I regularly find myself drawn to photographing riots and protests that take place throughout America when I’m back home. They’re no replacement for the fuel I receive when doing direct conflict photography, but they do feed my desire for high-risk conflict photography. I selfishly fed my desires this week after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade Abortion Ruling (Healthline 2022). People took to the streets in my home city of Seattle to protest and display acts of civil disobedience in retaliation to the ruling. I covered the events and found the ember of high-risk conflict photography burning inside me once again. While I was able to capture the emotions of people protesting the revocation of basic reproductive rights, I heard the calling to conflict zones ringing in my ears louder than the speakers arguing passionately through their bullhorns at the Seattle protests. While I was there photographing for my agency, I must admit that I was photographing more for myself than for anyone else. I felt like a shameful voyer as I photographed people’s pain with the detachment of someone who will never truly understand the personal trauma of women whose basic reproductive rights have been so brutally ripped from their lives as punishment simply for being a woman. So, instead of taking photographs - and that is what we all do as photographers… we take - I made deliberate choices to capture moments and emotion and obtain consent either before or after each photograph. Not everyone was agreeable to being photographed by me, but obtaining their consent to be photographed helped us both retain our dignity and tell a more compelling and united visual story.
This week’s assignments challenged me in ways I was unprepared for, and the coincidental Seattle protests forced me to confront the new path I have planned for my life to leave a world of high-risk, high-reward and settle into a less complicated reality. But, this week also reminded me of something that those of us living in comfortable western society take for granted: The inertia of rest (QA Study ca. 2022). It’s the false belief that “it could never happen to me,” and makes it easy to view images of people in conflict, either at home or abroad, from a distance. But, what most of us don’t stop to consider is the belief of “why not me?” Because it is well within the realm of possibility that those circumstances can happen to any of us, and the ‘we’ in that case would take on an entirely different meaning. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court made that abundantly clear when they repealed Roe v. Wade.
A life cushioned by the comforts and relative safety of modern Western society makes it easy to look upon the pain of others with a detachment that limits our sympathy to imaginings of that pain while not requiring us to experience that pain first hand. Social media has exacerbated the deleterious effects of this. We’ve trained our brains to swipe left and right and live with an attention span that is shorter than that of a goldfish (McSpadden 2015), while instilling apathy into our daily lives.
Photographs of human beings subjected to the ravages of conflict are secular icons that “deepens one’s sense of reality (Sontag 2004),” but modern society has made such meditations an afterthought.
Much like the coffee and tea that have become so integral to our morning routines, war and conflict are staples of human history. They will never leave us and will always be a reality that inflict human suffering upon the innocent. War is not repulsive. War is seductive. It is why we return to it time and again when every rational instinct is to avoid it.
If we as human beings truly embraced the notion of humanity, then there would be no need for war. Unfortunately, war does not often come by way of need, but by way of want, and the people who enact that war almost never suffer because of it.
Neither of the people considered here in my writing and images could be argued to have received justice, making the Jus Ad Bellum, Jus In Bello phrase just that… a phrase. Its merit stands on nothing more than a platitude for which no justice is served.
And so, the naked army marches on.
ICRC, International Committee of The Red Cross. 2015. ‘What are jus ad bellum and jus in bello?’. ICRC [online]. Available at: https://www.icrc.org/en/document/what-are-jus-ad-bellum-and-jus-bello-0 [accessed 22 June 2022].
SONTAG, Susan. 2004. Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin.
PUBLIC DELIVERY. 2022. ‘The story of Steve McCurry & Sharbat Gula, the Afghan Girl’. Public Delivery May 2022. Available at: https://publicdelivery.org/steve-mccurry-afghan-girl/ [accessed 24 June 2022].
TONDO, Lorenzo and Eric Hilaire. 2021. ‘‘It’s heartbreaking’: Steve McCurry on Afghan Girl, a portrait of past and present’. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/sep/20/its-heartbreaking-steve-mccurry-on-afghan-girl-a-portrait-of-past-and-present [accessed 22 June 2022].
KARNAD, Ribhu and Raghu Karnad. 2019. "You'll Never See the Iconic Photo of the 'Afghan Girl' the Same Way Again". The Wire. Available at: https://thewire.in/media/afghan-girl-steve-mccurry-national-geographic [accessed 21 June 2022].
BEIBER, Jodi. 2019. Aisha [online]. Available at:https://www.jodibieber.com/aisha/ [accessed 21 June 2022].
HEALTHLINE. 2022. ‘Supreme Court Overturns Roe V. Wade, Wiping Away Constitutional Right to Abortion’. Healthline [online]. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/supreme-court-overturns-roe-v-wade-wiping-away-constitutional-right-to-abortion [accessed 24 June 2022].
QS STUDY. ca. 2022. ‘What are inertia of rest and inertia of motion?’. QS Study [online]. Available at: https://qsstudy.com/what-are-inertia-of-rest-and-inertia-of-motion/ [accessed 24 June 2022].
MCSPADDEN, Kevin. 2015. ‘You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish’. Time [online]. Available at: https://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/ [accessed 24 July 2022].
List of Figures:
Figure 1. McCURRY, Steve. 1985. Afghan Girl. Public Delivery [online]. Available at: https://publicdelivery.org/steve-mccurry-afghan-girl/ [accessed 24 June 2022].
Figure 2. BIEBER, Jodi. 2009. Bibi Aisha. Jodi Bieber [online]. Available at: https://www.jodibieber.com/jodi-bieber-photographer/projects/aesha/ [accessed 24 June 2022].
Figure 3. DELAHAYE, Luc. 2001. Taliban. Le Mois De La Photo Montréal [online]. Available at: https://moisdelaphoto.com/artistes/luc-delahaye/ [accessed 25 June 2022].
Figure 4. CHACON, Mat. 2008. Honk If You’re A VBIED. Mat Chacon [online]. Available at: https://www.matchacon.com/photojournalism?pgid=l12j6ehd1-81ffa8dc-f30e-473d-af61-2672947e32a4 [accessed 24 June 2022].
Figure 5: Mat CHACON. 2022. Woman Mourning Roe v. Wade Ruling. Private collection: Mat Chacon.