En November 13, 2015, the American photographer Peter van Agtmael was in Paris during a massive terrorist attack carried out by the Islamic State (IS) group. That night, returning to his hotel room, Peter felt paranoid for the first time in a long time. “I had covered conflict for ten years and had always been able to prepare [psychologically] for the experience. That time, taken by surprise, I was half up all night,” he says. The shock continued to reverberate even after the photographer returned home to New York. Until then, when using the subway, Peter found himself keeping his back against the wall when possible and scanning every face as he charted their escape routes. “I have always been a visitor to other people's conflicts, but in Paris, when violence arrived so suddenly in a space I associated with comfort and sanctuary, I had little understanding of what ordinary people living in war feel every day. . Ten years of conflict work and I had missed one of the most fundamental lessons.”
Such dissonance between Americans' perceptions of post-11/XNUMX wars and the violence experienced by people trapped in conflict zones is the narrative pillar of Peter's latest project, Sorry for the war (Forgive us for the war, in free translation). In it, non-linearly sequenced photos interweave and stitch together the war in Iraq during the time of IS, the mass exodus of refugees to Europe, militarism, terrorism, nationalism, myth-making and war propaganda. The material gathered in Sorry for the war (whose texts and subtitles are written in English and Arabic) reminds us that, although the recent US wars have been practically forgotten, their consequences continue to reverberate, as the author notes.
The disturbing records, with acid humor (accentuated by the plasticity brought about by the use of flash and by the astute ordering of the images in the book), contradictory, mysterious and, at times, condemnatory, are articulated by Peter to study the construction of the idea of a war without The end. Although it depicts a post-11/XNUMX world – “an attack that 'given us license' to use our fears as an excuse for anything” –, Sorry for the war fulfills the duty of using recent history as a guide, but not limited to it, since “one must also look at the totality of American history as a structure: things don't just happen because of an event, they happen. as part of the continuum of history. Off the front, the photographer focuses on the aftermath of this culture, “serving both as evidence and as an interpretation of a country adrift, with often disastrous consequences”, and including the notion of eternal war, exemplified very well in four records of televised speeches by the recent US presidents (Bush father and son, Obama and Trump; with the exception of Bill Clinton), whose speeches should announce the end of certain conflicts and end up reinforcing, in these excerpts frozen by Peter, the opposite.
The title of the book, found on a hot pink post-it on the cover of the publication, comes from a photograph taken by Peter of an action, by the name of Balloons for Kabul (Balloons to Kabul), in an art gallery in New York. “New Yorkers wrote notes to the people of Kabul that would be delivered to them with pink balloons during their morning commute. It was a well-meaning but utterly inaccessible response to a decade-long conflict. Much of the work I do is about the disconnect between the US and the consequences of its – or our – imperial actions abroad. That note and that event seemed to symbolize a lot of the distrust and cynicism I had for our distorted idea of collective empathy,” he tells fellow photographer Tanya Habjouqa. “That note felt appropriate because this book is my apology and a helpless statement about what has happened over the past two decades. I can't change any results, but I can certainly create a rigorous document interpreting what's going on. And I think that's partly why the look at Americans in this book is kind of brutal and sarcastic. I have known generosity and grace in the heart of America. In the same way, I got to know incessant violence very well”, adds the photographer.
The choice of satire as a vehicle for criticism – rather than the deliberate use of shock – shows not only his experience (vast for such a young professional), but also delineates a path contrary to that of the news market, as Susan Sontag explains in the book In the face of the pain of others: “The search for more dramatic images (as they are often described) guides the production of photographs, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a stimulus for consumption and a source of value”. About the shock photos (as Roland Barthes called it), Sontag would ask: “Can you look at this?”. “There's a satisfaction in being able to see the image without closing your eyes. [But also] there is the pleasure of closing your eyes to the horror”, he points out. Whether through indignation, mystery or satire, Peter manages to maintain, through Sorry for the war, the prevalence of “why?”. “Why was this face in Guantánamo hidden?”; “why do people go to museums to look at drones?”; “why is the scenario behind this child in ruins?”; “why is there a huge sporting celebration in the middle of a book about conflict?”.
Visualizing the war?
At a time when politics is often consumed by citizens visually – through social media, video news coverage or popular culture – the need to become aware of the weight of visual communication is increasingly pressing. “This need becomes even greater when we consider that so few of us [inhabitants of conflict-free areas] now have direct experience in war or with the army”, so argue Nick Robinson and Marcus Schulzke in the study. Visualizing War? Towards a Visual Analysis of Videogames and Social Media. According to the authors, as it is experienced more and more remotely by citizens, war ends up being presented as a spectacle centered on the use of increasingly powerful and technologically sophisticated remote artillery (as in recent images demonstrating the might of the Iron Dome, in Israel, sometimes resembling scenes of Star Wars, others with fireworks).
Robinson and Schulzke point out that: “The consequences of this growing portrayal of war as entertainment may suggest a movement toward an increasingly soporific citizenship that becomes progressively disengaged, no longer questioning why we fight, instead getting lost 'in the fact'. that we fight”'. The researchers add that it is possible to observe a variety of citizen responses to this kind of content “of distraction, fascination and voyeurism” to be “positively mobilized to actively support military action”.
An important observation made in Visualizing War is that a considerable sample of studies on militarism “emphasize the ways in which nationalist and militarist themes come together” in the interests of the state and its armed forces. Using the United States as a case study, Robinson and Schulzke argue that “recent disillusionment with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with a demand to 'support the troops' at all times, has led to a subgenre of of war that demonstrate this”. Such a phenomenon is also described by Peter:
In recent years, we've had [in the US] a president who has created an atmosphere of deep fear by exploring the idea of threats to this country, our freedom, our security. So when I look at the Trump presidency, I see the post 11/2020 world written all over it. The year XNUMX was, for me, the pinnacle of recent American history. It embodied all the political forces that have been on the move in recent decades.
The study also draws attention to the conflict images created for video games and those involved in their dissemination. It is estimated that the game Call of Duty, for example, has approximately 100 million participants worldwide and that sales of the products premium encompassed by the franchise have exceeded $400 million since its October 2003 launch. This is not an isolated case, however. As University of Georgia Associate Professor of Communication Sciences Roger Stahl identified: “September 11, 2001 and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq kick-started a boom in sales of war-themed video games.”
Citing the work of Vit Šisler, a researcher at the intersection of culture and digital media and an assistant professor at Charles University in Prague, the study underscores that military games often contain stereotypical representations of Muslims. Šisler argues that “the enemy” is collectivized and linguistically identified as “terrorist groups”, “militants”, and “insurgents”, while American or allied troops are humanized and individualized, with playable and non-playable characters “portrayed with nicknames or characteristics”. specific visuals. Furthermore, the “allied forces” are also shown as part of a multilateral action, which would justify “the rhetoric of a war on terrorism, with the Middle East enemy, demanding almost continuous military containment and intervention”. But not only that: taking such representations as a starting point, it is possible to suppose, controversially, that complex social and political problems can be solved only in a military way. Resisting this visual typification, Peter van Agtmael reports to Tanya Habjouqa: “When my eyes are on the Iraqis, Afghans and Syrians caught in the midst of this chaos, it's so much kinder. And that's partly because I have a greater degree of sympathy for the real victims of this conflict. A reaction to the fact that these groups have often been visually marginalized and only seen in moments of extreme violence and sadness throughout the history of photography.”
Even if, as stated above, his view of Americans is more analytical, in Sorry for the war, Peter directs his poignant critique of the state and imperialism, portraying soldiers from his homeland with humanity as well. Some of these characters deal with physical sequelae from their time in combat, others psychological, or even criminality resulting from unemployment.
Meredith Kleykamp, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, points out that unemployment rates are higher among veterans compared to non-veterans, with the greatest disparity occurring among women. In the study Unemployment, earnings and enrollment among post 9/11 veterans, Kleykamp indicates that in 2011, approximately 12% of all post-11/30 veterans and nearly 18% of those aged between 24 and 9 were unemployed. Given that today's veterans are more likely than their peers of previous generations to marry and have children, the effects of transitioning from military to civilian life have setbacks that extend to their spouses, children and communities. In previous research, she points out that not all soldiers enter the military with opportunities to grow in the army. “Young people with lower socioeconomic status were almost half as likely – than their peers from more affluent backgrounds – to enroll in college rather than enlist in the military,” she explains. The results of their analysis show that educational goals play an important role in the decision to enlist in the armed forces in the United States, even more so with the so-called “Post 11/2009 GI Bill”, released in August XNUMX, which pays tuition fees. and state school fees.
“I fight at the airfield. The weather is warmer, it's colder. Four men in uniform to take home my little soldier,” sings Kate Bush in army dreamers, one of 68 songs considered “inappropriate” to play on the BBC, the UK public radio and television corporation, during the Gulf War, for which the largest contingent of soldiers of any European state that participated in the combat operations.
Just over a decade later, the United Kingdom became involved in the Iraq War, which began in 2003 and ended in 2011, with the official end of British combat operations on 30 April 2009.
In the course of the conflict, Steve McQueen was selected by the official program of artists of the Imperial War Museum to produce a work of art about the British Armed Forces. In 2006, he traveled to Basra, one of Iraq's three largest cities, where he spent six days integrated with British troops. Having worked in video art for at least a decade at this point, McQueen planned to produce a testimonial film about troops serving in Iraq; however, even integrated with the combatants, he was subjected to movement restrictions that frustrated him and thwarted his plans. Later, at his home in Amsterdam, McQueen was posting his income tax return when he noticed that the stamp on the envelope had a portrait of Vincent van Gogh. The proportions of the portrait on the stamp and the fact that they can reach different corners of the world, made the idea sound promising to the artist. Stamping the seals would then be portraits of soldiers who had died in combat, as a form of homage. McQueen stated: “An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate yet distinctive way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in defense of our national ideals. Labels would focus on the individual experience without euphemisms. It would be an intimate reflection of the national loss, it would engage the families of the dead and permeate everyday life – every home and every office.”
Faced with the disinterest shown by the Ministry of Defense when McQueen presented his project, the artist hired a researcher to contact each of the families who had lost loved ones in Iraq and request an image of them, as the ministry had also refused to provide the pictures. Initially, 115 families were contacted, of which 102 responded and, of these, 98 agreed to participate. Since the beginning of the project, however, more casualties have occurred and, similarly, all families have been invited by the artist to participate in the project and honor their loved ones in Queen and country (For the Queen and the Fatherland, in free translation).
For the final version of the work, McQueen created an oak cabinet containing 120 double-sided vertical panels, which can be pulled out for viewing, and on which 160 stamp sheets with portraits of British servicemen who died in Iraqi service are displayed. Each sheet has details such as name, regiment, age and date of death printed in its margin. In the office, the sheets are arranged in chronological order, from seven casualties on March 21, 2003, to RAF Sergeant “Baz” Barwood, killed on February 29, 2008. For BBC's Jo O'Connor, Steve McQueen said he was hopeful the exhibit would allow people to reflect on the victims of war. “More than 650.000 Iraqi men, women and children also died in this conflict and I hope that by allowing people to identify with the British soldiers who died, they will also think about the people in Iraq,” said the filmmaker.
According to the artist, Queen and country can never be complete until Royal Mail permits the general use of the stamps. The British postal service denied McQueen's proposal, saying that the families of the dead and the public would find the stamps "harrowing and disrespectful", despite the solid support shown by the families, the military and also the public, which gathered 26.673 signatures. in a petition to support the project, when Queen and country ended its run across the country in 2010.
If I could do anything for you
For the art curator Moacir dos AnjosOn Introduction to Aesthetics: A conversation between art, philosophy and psychoanalysis, the work of Steve McQueen and Emily Jacir is cross-pollinated when it comes to grief and the brutal consequences of conflict; in particular, Moacir mentions the photographic installation Where We Come From, from the Palestinian Jacir.
In July 1950, the Law of Return was adopted by the Knesset in Israel, according to which every Jew – regardless of origin in the world – could claim the right to citizenship and residence in the State of Israel. By contrast, more than 700.000 Palestinians were expelled or fled the region during its founding. Exile by exiles. peter beinart, in an opinion piece for The New York Times, suggests that “recognizing and beginning to remedy this expulsion – allowing the return of Palestinian refugees – requires imagining a different kind of country, where Palestinians are considered equal citizens, not a demographic threat. . To avoid this reckoning, the Israeli government and its allies insist that Palestinian refugees give up hope of returning to their homeland.”
To Edward Said, whose text orientalism is considered one of the founders of postcolonialist thought, “it is as if the reconstructed Jewish collective experience, represented by Israel and modern Zionism, could not tolerate that another history of dispossession and loss existed alongside it – an intolerance constantly reinforced by hostility Israeli nationalism to Palestinian nationalism, who have painfully rebuilt a national identity in exile.
In this context, taking advantage of her ability to move with relative freedom in Israel with an American passport, Emily Jacir posed the following question to other Palestinians: “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” . In a non-material exchange, they provide her desires, longings, and dreams, and she promises to fulfill them. “She makes her body an extension of these people's bodies to fulfill their desires”, as Moacir dos Anjos puts it.
in the presentation of Where We Come From (Where We Come From), against white panels, black letters describe the requests made to Jacir (transcribed in English and Arabic) and immediately beside him, the artist inserts color photos as a documentary update of her mission. In some cases, like Rizek's, she adds her own notes below the order. “Go to Bayt Lahia and bring a picture of my family, especially my brother's children. I've been studying at Birzeit University for three years and I can't get permission to go to Gaza to see my family. I am not allowed to be in the West Bank as a citizen of Gaza; so I am confined to Birzeit until I finish my studies,” asked Rizek. In her note, Jacir reports that “her family was very happy for me to be able to bring lemons and strawberries planted by them. They took me to their plantation and we picked lemons and strawberries for Rizek. I also brought him the ma'amoul his mother made, a pair of boots, two belts and nuts.” Four photographs show Rizek's family and her brother's children reaping the fruits that Jacir cites.
The descriptions involve things we usually take for granted: visiting our family, playing football, revisiting our childhood home. The latter was the case with Ibrahim. “Go to Jaffa, find my family's house and take a picture. As a refugee, I am banned from visiting my country by the Israeli authorities, who control all borders in defiance of UN resolutions.” In weaving her response, the artist admits her failure to get what she had promised in return: “After spending two afternoons in Jaffa, I couldn't find the house. Street names are now in Hebrew. I asked people and talked to four of Jaffa's older residents, but they couldn't remember where the house was. They remembered the family name very well and knew it was from Jaffa”. In this piece, the part destined for the photographic record is blank.
“However, it is only this translation, written in clear language and then photographed, that for many is insurmountable. Going from written description to photographic update can be easy for some, like Jacir, who has US passports. But for other unfortunates involved in the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been going on since 1948, the terrain between text and photography, description and realization, represents an impassable chasm, an impossibility on which a complex of desire is constructed. cultural critic TJ Demos in an essay on the work. “These plays stage a perverse inequality between things and people. This inequality is the ability of goods to move relatively freely in global markets and across national borders, while people are physically and geographically constrained. People, not things, are denied entry into certain territories or nations, regimented in ways that are politically instrumental in maintaining political bodies, economic groupings, and ethnic identities.”
Where We Come From it was carried out from 2001 to 2003. Moacir recalls that, the following year, Jacir issued a note clarifying that he would no longer be able to carry out the project, “I am no longer allowed to enter Gaza and certain Palestinian cities in the West Bank”, she says. “Palestinians with foreign passports are increasingly being barred from entering the country at all border crossings and being forced to emigrate. Israel has decided that 'freedom of movement' is no longer a right for US passport holders and has created measures to ensure this.
Even though they transit between different mediums and fields – from installation to documentary photography – the four works referred to in this article share the fact that they are documents of suffering, and as written by Susie Linfield, “documents of suffering are documents of protest: they show us the what happens when we unmake the world”.
Read in English, click here.