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]