Ethics of Aesthetics – Reflecting on the war photograph

The Brighton Photo Biennial’s 2008 programme Memory of Fire: the War of Images and Images of War, explored conflict photography, the making of, use, circulation and relevance in today’s society. The exhibition was curated by Julian Stallabrass, who took the Iraq War as his point of reference.

Whilst researching this topic I came across:

Are You a Vulture? Reflecting on the ethics and aesthetics of atrocity coverage and its aftermath Rughani, Pratap (2010). Book Chapter published in: Peace Journalism, War and Conflict Resolution Peter Lang : Oxford, pp 157 – 172.

Which also covered many similar points but I will probably do a separate review on this essay.

Exercise

This exercise asks that we read the two essays in the BPB 2008 programme and look at the work and the curator selected for the exhibition, writing a short press release of about 250 words in our learning log.

  • Making an ugly world beautiful? Morality and aesthetics in the aftermath by Sarah James.
  •  The Power and Impotence of Images by Julian Stallabrass.

Firstly I thought I would research WHY press releases are made in the first place, sounds obvious I know but a good starting point.

Different from an invitation, a press release contains background information about the artist, the work, and the show. It is targeted to members of the press who may want to check out, write about, or even review your show. That having said, you can also send your press release to clients, galleryists, curators, or anyone you think might be interested in knowing more about your work.

I thought I would also check out the original press release and found one here, which had a word count of 175.

A  review of both essays…

I found the essay by Julian Stallabrass to be uncomfortably informative. During the Iraq war and subsequent War on Terror, we were all made aware of the torture that was being meted out to detainees. Probably most of the general public thoughts went along the lines of ‘good they deserve it.’ But does anyone ‘deserve it’? Many people commit atrocities due to indoctrination or mental issues. Many of the victims of torture, we are told, are innocent, or if not completely innocent have no real information to give.  Should we even trust information given under duress?

The fact that many of these torture sessions were photographed makes me wonder why? Was this for further degradation? Did the powers that be learn anything from observing still images of a man tied to a bed with a pair of panties covering his face?

Stallabrass does not talk about the morality of torture but informs us that the power of imagery has altered from a historical point of view. Torture during the Vietnam War was a state secret, whereas by the Iraq War it had become an overt policy. The nature of photography had also changed and his essay explores the ‘changing relationship between military strategy, the conduct of war, the media and its technology.’

He asks us to consider the vast amount of amateur footage that was published, the embedding of photojournalists with the military, giving unfettered access to military operations, and the encouragement to produce positive propaganda images only. This had a restrictive downside; narrow points of view, some censorship meaning highly controlled and sanitised images, those that Kenneth Jarecke railed against. How much was staged for the cameras, to sell a clean and anodyne war to the folks back home?

The media controlled the publication of stronger imagery due to fear of upsetting viewers and advertisers, proving the old adage that money talks. The rise of TV news and digital photography has probably exacerbated the decline of the paid rate for printed materials. Newspaper barons now have profit as a prime motive, information is published unchecked. ‘cliché reigns..[the] press has become degraded in public opinion…thought of as unreliable, gullible, mendacious and venal.’ To this effect ‘unrestrained capitalism works against the interests of democracy.’

There are seemingly two facets of photography; the photo-journalistic – speeding and intimate – and the ‘aftermath’ images which tend to be exhibited in museums – slow, sometimes artistically beautiful and ‘severely composed’. Whichever facet you view people remain cynical of the press and the imagery served up before them. There appears to be a lack of opposition to war, the Coalition seemingly allowed to engage in Nazi like tactics with ‘inadequate comment from the press…and with little published photographic representation.’ This is why the biennial and the work of Edmund Clarke is becoming more and more important.

Stallabrass concludes that whilst he believes that the biennial is ‘powerless’ in greatly swaying opinion or changing the course of these forces, ‘if…we have become to behave like Nazis, and if that cannot be grasped…if it does not cause a fundamental questioning…then something about our democracy is broken.’

I think I agree with him.

Sarah James looks more at the aftermath, the Sublime and the ethics behind making an ugly world beautiful. The examples of photographers who fulfil this criteria she cites as: Simon Norfolk, Paul Seawright, Joel Meyerowitz and Sophie Ristelhueber. (note to self to research more on SR)

Yet again these bodies of work link to the war on terror, Harlan K Ullman and James P Wade defined the new mode of warfare as shock and awe. James links the political strategy of shock and awe to the imagery also produced, describing an aesthetic of violence, a staging of the key events exploited to create ‘a dangerous range of…war-mongering emotions.’ It is her opinion that this war is also being fought over the precise meaning of the photographs, that these images depict ‘highly aestheticised’, surreal depopulated landscapes. The fact that they appear devoid of life adds to the abstraction.

Both Meyerowitz and Norfolk refer to the sublime and how this art term may need a new definition. Is it wrong that such destruction can look beautiful? This is a question that has been asked many times before over different subject matters for example Edward Burtynsky with his take on pollution and the oil industry. I think it is warranted as the slow process, several of the photographers used large format cameras, offers a different perspective. I don’t think that the empty landscapes, urban or otherwise, make me dismiss the people who once dwelt in the battered tenements. More so I wonder what happened to them, question the right we have to bomb the innocent populous. I don’t think a ravaged building needs to have a dead body or displaced person out front to make me empathise with the situation.

I don’t know that I fully agree with her summation that these aftermath images are totally detached. The Ground Zero imagery had a poetic beauty about them but that added to the poignancy of the event. Sebastião Salgado’s images of Kuwait are stunning, but they also reveal the horrendous effect that the war had on the oil fields and the workers.

James asks ‘does a war photography that seeks to represent the inhuman, abstract and even horrifically beautiful world of this contemporary military sublime offer any resistance against it?’ This was also a question asked by Stallabrass. Is there resistance to the war? I ask is it the photographer who is creating little resistance or the political will of the people that is influencing the imagery?

The article leaves us to contemplate the success or failure of this type of work, reminding us that ‘the sublime is the peculiar place where aesthetics and ethics merge, and that it is an uncomfortable coalition at the best of times.

 

followed by the press release…

Press Release

 

Memory of Fire: the War of Images and Images of War – BPB 2008
The Brighton Photo Biennial feasts on strong meat this year. Guest curator Professor Julian Stallabrass, lecturer at the Courtauld Institute, is also a writer and photographer, with a keen interest in the relationship between art and the political. Along with other renowned theorists he investigates the urgent issues which arise from the depiction of war, the use of these images by the media, the circulation of unofficial amateur images, censorship, the military as a PR and image-producing machine, and the impact of digital media.

 
The Biennial, housed in several venues from Bexhill on Sea to Chichester, Portsmouth, Winchester, as well as in Brighton, will display images ranging from the Russian Revolution to more recent conflict, focusing predominantly on Iraq and Afghanistan. It will analyse how images are informed by the changing social and political climate.

 
Fully embracing the multimedia experience itself, this year BPB 2008 with three exhibition venues in Brighton, will have on offer an extensive film programme, talks, workshops and portfolio reviews along with a series of participatory and publicly sited projects. Furthermore, BPB 2008 looks to inspire the vast online community by launching a new website as a platform for ideas and discussion around the theme of photography and conflict.

 

Research

https://shop.photoworks.org.uk/products/memory-of-fire-images-of-war-and-the-war-of-images-julian-stallabrass    [Accessed 4/07/2017]

https://www.questia.com/magazine/1G1-192053616/brighton-photo-biennial-memory-of-fire-the-war-of [Accessed 4/07/2017]

https://thepracticalartworld.com/2011/06/19/how-to-create-a-press-release-for-your-art-exhibition/ [Accessed 4/07/2017]

https://thevaultimaging.wordpress.com/2008/06/20/recent-press-release-brighton-photo-biennial-2008-memory-of-fire-the-war-of-images-and-images-of-war/ [Accessed 4/07/2017]

https://www.lensculture.com/articles/guy-lane-memory-of-fire-the-war-of-images-and-images-of-war [Accessed 4/07/2017]

Are You a Vulture? Reflecting on the ethics and aesthetics of atrocity coverage and its aftermath Rughani, Pratap (2010). Book Chapter published in: Peace Journalism, War and Conflict Resolution Peter Lang : Oxford, pp 157 – 172.

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