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What Happens To War Photography When You Scrub Out All The War?

Conflict photojournalism is compelling because of the human drama within the frame: “you can’t look away” is the whole point. But what if that also obscures some other, subtler aspects of visually documenting war? A strange new exhibit at Le Bal called Topography of War asks that question point-blank, with intriguing results.

The exhibit collects digitally edited photographs, tactical sketches, videos, and mixed media collages that “look at war solely through its scenery,” according to the press release. “We might call them topographical essays which, without denying the human cost of combat, choose to look at war through its geography. All these images, taken since 2000, leave bodies, casualties, injuries and death outside the frame. Only the landscape remains.”

The effect can be eerily beautiful, revealing the stark beauty of the land human beings decide to kill each other on, which remains even as blood is spilled, cleaned up, re-spilled, ad infinitum. Or it can be darkly playful, as in Walid Raad’s “Let’s Be Honest, the Weather Helped,” wherein the artist photographs the locales in Lebanon where he found spent bullet casings, and sticks brightly colored stickers on the photos to mark the bullets’ locations. “Can we imagine anything other than battle to represent war?” the curators ask. Whatever your reaction to these images, it’s bound to start some conversations.JP