Skip
Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

2 minute read

Iconic War Photography, With All The People Erased

Pavel Smejkal gives us a new way to look at some of history’s most indelible images.

  • <p>Pavel Smejkal’s <em>Fatescapes</em> show us iconic photographs without the people.</p>
  • <p>Sometimes the scenes are haunted by the figures that were once there--in other cases they just look like piles of dirt.</p>
  • <p>But Smejkal isn’t interested in the actual events so much as the photographs which have come to represent them.</p>
  • <p>These aren’t only "important historical images," he says, but also ones that are "important for the history of photography." They’re seminal works of photojournalism--images that grabbed our attention and brought us closer to the reality of things half a world away.</p>
  • <p>Or did they?</p>
  • <p>The main point of the obvious, digital alterations, Smejkal says, is to make us question the authenticity of the analog originals.</p>
  • <p>If a photograph isn’t staged or manipulated or fabricated, does that automatically make it truthful?</p>
  • <p>Or can these iconic images have an outsize effect on our understanding of the situations and events surrounding them?</p>
  • <p>In other words, can these documents end up being distortions?</p>
  • <p>Smejkal ends the series with a much more recent photograph--one of the infamous digicam shots of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib. This last image symbolizes "a new era in photography," he says, one where the Internet, social networks, and digital media have diluted the deceptive power any single image can possess. Now, he says, is a time to "look back to the history of photography" and ask "what we see when we see a photographic image of past time."</p>
  • 01 /10 | 1989 Beijing

    Pavel Smejkal’s Fatescapes show us iconic photographs without the people.

  • 02 /10 | 1855 Crimea

    Sometimes the scenes are haunted by the figures that were once there--in other cases they just look like piles of dirt.

  • 03 /10 | 1863 Gettysburg

    But Smejkal isn’t interested in the actual events so much as the photographs which have come to represent them.

  • 04 /10 | 1936 Spain

    These aren’t only "important historical images," he says, but also ones that are "important for the history of photography." They’re seminal works of photojournalism--images that grabbed our attention and brought us closer to the reality of things half a world away.

  • 05 /10 | 1945 Iwo Jima

    Or did they?

  • 06 /10 | 1968 Saigon

    The main point of the obvious, digital alterations, Smejkal says, is to make us question the authenticity of the analog originals.

  • 07 /10 | 1970 USA

    If a photograph isn’t staged or manipulated or fabricated, does that automatically make it truthful?

  • 08 /10 | 1972 Vietnam

    Or can these iconic images have an outsize effect on our understanding of the situations and events surrounding them?

  • 09 /10 | 1994 Sudan

    In other words, can these documents end up being distortions?

  • 10 /10

    Smejkal ends the series with a much more recent photograph--one of the infamous digicam shots of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib. This last image symbolizes "a new era in photography," he says, one where the Internet, social networks, and digital media have diluted the deceptive power any single image can possess. Now, he says, is a time to "look back to the history of photography" and ask "what we see when we see a photographic image of past time."

If I say "Tiananmen Square," what pops into your head? Probably the iconic image of a protester standing in front of a column of tanks. Even if you don’t know anything about the circumstances surrounding it, you know the photograph. You’d recognize it anywhere. But what if it didn’t have the protester? Or the tanks? Would you recognize it then? And would it still mean anything to you?

Pavel Smejkal explores all those questions in a series called Fatescapes. Using Photoshop, the Czechoslovakian artist carefully erased the human subjects from some of history’s most enduring images. Stripped of its tanks, the Tiananmen Square photo becomes a study of the traffic markings on the street beneath them. The famous Vietnam War image of the South Vietnamese General executing a suspected Viet Cong officer turns into an unremarkable snapshot of downtown Saigon. In some cases, you’ll feel the vague, haunting presence of the figures you know were there originally. In others, scenes of bloody battles just look like piles of dirt.

But Smejkal isn’t interested in the actual events so much as the photographs which have come to represent them. These aren’t only "important historical images," he says, but also ones that are "important for the history of photography." They’re seminal works of photojournalism—images that grabbed our attention and brought us closer to the reality of things half a world away.

Or did they? The main point of the obvious, digital alterations, Smejkal says, is to make us question the authenticity of the analog originals. The retouched images steer us toward a sticky epistemological question: If a photograph isn’t staged or manipulated or fabricated, does that automatically make it truthful? Or is it possible that these iconic images can have an outsized effect on our understanding of what was going on around them? In other words, can a document be a distortion?

Smejkal ends the series with a much more recent photograph—one of the infamous digicam shots of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib. This last image symbolizes "a new era in photography," he says, one where the Internet, social networks, and digital media have diluted the deceptive power any single image can possess. Now, he says, is a time to "look back to the history of photography" and ask "what we see when we see a photographic image of past time." And to acknowledge that images don’t have to be manipulated to be manipulative.

See more of Smejkal’s work here.

[Hat tip: It’s Nice That]

loading