Booknotes: Conflict in focus

There’s an easy assumption that, years ago, particular photographs of war and conflict had the capacity to change peoples’ minds, and directly influence policy: the harrowing image of Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt – the ‘napalm girl’ running screaming away from her village in 1972– is often talked of as a picture that turned American public opinion against that country’s war in Vietnam.

But these days, it’s said, in a world where 1.8 billion images are uploaded onto social media every day, what possibility is there any more for photography to shift social attitudes?

Such ‘then’ and ‘now’ binaries tend to oversimplify. The image of the body of three year old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015 after he was drowned when his family was fleeing war-torn Syria, is a recent example of a photograph which did help define a situation, and affected policy makers and ordinary citizens alike.

Nevertheless, consideration of how changing trends and contexts are affecting and reshaping ‘conflict imagery’ is important and necessary. Lauren Walsh’s book Conversations on Conflict Photography (Bloomsbury, London, 2019, xxv and 345) evidences how photography relating to war, violence and disputes ‘is thought about and handled by the practitioners who create and use it in a variety of situations’.

It consists of detailed and in-depth interviews with nineteen photographers, photo editors, and representatives of human rights and humanitarian organisations (these now play a leading role in funding the photographers who cover crises, intending their images to become resources in advocacy and aid work). Some are people who have frequently put themselves in physical and psychological danger; all are people who carefully consider the ethical and practical issues in presenting photographic evidence of conflict in journalism, campaigning and as resources for justice.

Though there is recognition that many of the images discussed were taken ‘through the lens of a certain ethnicity and gender’, the book does include a diversity of voices, including Shahidul Alam, the Bangladeshi founder of Drik Picture Library; Marcus Bleasdale, who worked as an investment banker in Amsterdam and London before resigning in disgust at a colleague’s flippant comment on conflict in the Balkans and seeks to photograph ‘the financial side of conflicts’; and the Iranian Newsha Tavakolian, who has worked in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, ‘amongst other places of turmoil’.

The conversations which Lauren Walsh held and transcribed with these photographers – and others equally impressive – are illustrated with some of the powerful, troubling and inspiring photographs discussed. Nevertheless, this is primarily a book of words about images. Issues covered include whether those who ‘consume’ images have become empathetically bankrupt? Were there once wells of emotion that have now dried up? Does too much graphic imagery stultify us?

Introductory essays to each section of interviews survey key debates, and relate the questions being asked back to the work of important writers including Susan Sontag and Jane Lydon. But the book’s usefulness and power results from the reflections of people who directly deal with and manage real dilemmas in their work: can photographs really change things, given that they cannot show us what is outside the frame, nor can it explain the causes behind what we’re seeing in the frame? Even if peoples’ curiosity can be sparked, do viewers trust images in the era of Photoshop and ‘false news’? How do professionals who’ve worked hard to get to a place and to build the necessary relationships with people whose lives (and deaths) they are recording deal with their frustration about people not caring, about not being able to get the images which matter to them published, and about the financial cutbacks and decreasing budgets in journalism?

Booknotes published March 2020

The illustration is a daguerreotype of American troops entering Saltillo in 1847, an episode during the Mexican-American war – the first major conflict of which photographic images were made. Saltillo was the capital of a vast Mexican province that included what is now Texas and other parts of the United States.