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Nov 28, 2007

Iraq: The Space Between. (First Pass)

(click for full size)

in his new book, Iraq: The Space Between, photographer Christoph Bangert offers three images which, as a related group, are emblematic of a war that completely failed to add up.

In the shot above, an American soldier is standing on a chair, peering over a concrete wall.  From our vantage, all we see are the forlorn tops of two Cypress trees, each vaguely linked to offset clouds like a weak joke on a "dotted i."

In a second shot, we see two American soldiers standing close to a more primitive wall, the scruffy head of a camel barely poking up from behind.  And in the third shot, we see an American soldier on his knees, pushing up with his toes, his gun all alone, his missing head inserted inside the hole of a wall or a vessel of some kind.

In his introduction, Bangert lays out his thesis:  These images (taken mostly while shooting for the NY Times) are about the gap or space between two Gulf wars; between "us and them"; between our invasion and the Iraqi's subsequent war with themselves.

Looking at the visual digests emerging just now, I can only think that the legacy of the Iraq War is turning out to be some kind of Dadaist expression.  In Christoph's book, as in Ashley Gilbertson's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak's M*A*S*H I*R*A*Q (which I plan to take up in the near future), if the visuals lacks a more logical visual narrative or a more obvious and familiar organizing principle, it is because nothing close was ever offered by reality itself.

In his very fine introduction to Christoph's book, writer Jon Lee Anderson draws a fix on these three images.  He writes:

In their flak vests, helmets, and ballistic goggles, the Americans appear unmistakably to be outsiders in an alien and hostile landscape.  They look, but they do not see; they seem lost, but are hunting for something tangible and finite, something that will give meaning to their presence, clues to a path that, if found, might eventually lead them home again.

I am interested in what the readership makes of these images.  Personally, I am taken by the more obvious metaphor of a headless delegate of Uncle Sam, boxed in and rummaging around, while so exposed from behind -- or captured from reverse as if in a stockade.

In the shot above, beyond the "tilting-at-topiary" top half,  I keep looking at that chair.  Besides its significance as make-shift, functionally -- the soldier already balancing on the arm rests -- it's just too low.  To situate oneself in a position to to "do justice" -- in other words, to effectively point an eye or a weapon over the wall and down -- the perception, at least, is that the soldier is not quite high enough.  Combined with the wall angling right and away, we get the overall feeling that America, off-kilter, was not quite up for the job -- whatever that was -- in almost every possible way.

Over the next week or so, I'll be sharing a number of other images from Christoph's book.  In the meantime, the Amazon page for Iraq: The Space Between is here.

Christoph Bangert website.

(image: ©Christoph Bangert.  June 1, 2005.  Tal Afar/Nineveh, Iraq.  Used by permission)


Why does the first image remind me of a guy watching sharks in a swimming pool?

I too saw shark fins first off. It took me a moment to see the chair. After I saw the chair, my impression moved from the soldier warily viewing sharks to the soldier improvising a precarious view of the unseen street below.
The sense was one of him(her?) not being given the correct tools and not being given access to the full story. The soldier has crafted a makeshift method of getting access to that information while we still are mostly not able to grasp it. The tops of the trees and the stain that drips down from the other side are our only clues.


Where do we draw the line between art and war? The images are certainly appropriate for discussion and analysis. But at what point do we draw the line between cashing in on warPorn and raising awareness to issues that we hope to change through our art? We must never give up, but how do we impact change with our art rather than commoditizing it?

As a political comic i too am aware of how i use the daily horrors to craft my art and then hope to "sell it" to the public. At what point does our artful analysis and "product" become no different that the news bumpers selling the same images but with a different spin?

In no way am i denigrating the work all of the progressives are doing. But as this state of war, horror and pain continues on seemingly able to withstand all attempts to slow it down, do we refuse to cash in? Ergh, artists with integrity...

Anywho, the images are striking and powerful. But then so was "Full Metal Jacket"...

Water is getting deep and the sharks are circling.

Can you please define your interpretation of warPorn for us? You are making a number of seemingly contradictory remarks in your post and I'm confused about your intent. Of course contradictions, especially in regard to war, are to be expected, but it would help me if you would spell it out. My most simple take on Christoph's work is that he is approaching man's most timeless pursuit (along with love) with an attributable but original eye. It seems that we could all benefit from such a perspective.

A childlike mood permeates these pics.
Johnny I told you not to climb on chairs !
Look children, soldiers and a camel on The Muppet's.
God, boy why stick your head in that hole again?

An adult take suggests one of dirt, dust, disorder and dreayness.

In a cold sweat, a soldier bolts from his bunk before being attacked by a giant Black Widow spider climbing on the outside of the wall. He realizes its time to leave Indian Country, stop kicking down doors, listening to wailing widows in black, but he doesn't know how.
Unfortunately we don't seem able to help him leave either.

Whether of Iraq, Pakistan or elsewhere, Christoph Bangert has many stunning photos. They share similarities to some found in, 'The face of the Arctic' - Richard Harrington, a book which I never loan.


If I understand your comment, you're questioning the relevance of looking at political and war imagery as anything more than an end in itself. It's a complicated question because I think we're attempting a lot of different things here, ranging from developing greater visual literacy skills, to building dialogue and and a knowledge base, to providing one another with moral support -- and yes, entertainment, too. (Check out "little Condi" in tomorrow's post.)

Still, along the lines of your comment, I spend probably way too much time wondering and worrying if what we are doing here is working/could be better/serves a greater purpose. What I try to do with those concerns, however, is to channel them back so they inform the larger project. It's that ongoing circumspection that informs the type and kind of subject matter we're looking at; the range, type and number of people I'm diligently working to bring into the space; and the various ways I'm attempting to expand the discussion.

Peter's comment regarding terminology reflects my own thoughts about the complexity of the question. I don't know if others of you have reactions?

Appreciate the replies. I guess my post was a bit rambling and confusing.
I think any attempt to profit off the war is warPorn.

And in a creepy way, both sides of this issue dig warPorn. Hawks like to see it as a "gangBang" (joyous war images),
while doves prefer "warSnuff"; where this is carange that we can point to as the horrors of war. Either way, both sides
use their versions of warPorn to sell their message.

Gross exaggeration, but i hope it makes a small point.

please keep up the great work. As MLK,Jr said: "History is a long arc, but it bends towards justice."


The third photo looks like a birth

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