Aug 19 2013

Memory of Fire: Images of War and the War of Images edited by Julian Stallabrass

Ashitha Nagesh

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Memory of Fire: Images of War and the War of Images is a collection of what art historian and curator Julian Stallabrass describes as "loosely associated essays and interviews" on political images and the politics of image-making during war, with a focus on the recent war in Iraq. While photography has played a role in the portrayal of large-scale conflict since World War I, Iraq was the first war of the digital age. Journalism has always placed a premium on timeliness, but with digital photography, we no longer had to wait for film to be delivered or developed. As photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson explains, this meant that the expected output for war photographers increased greatly. It also meant that pretty much anyone with a cell phone could capture war imagery, which began to include things that previously were unlikely to have been made public, including the Abu Ghraib photos and the live broadcast of Saddam Hussein's execution.

Many of Memory of Fire's contributions were originally commissioned in 2008, following the Brighton Photo Biennale that Stallabrass curated on the same theme. The majority of the essays come from artists and photojournalists who were embedded in Iraq between 2003 and 2008, and the texts are accompanied by images of war from the twentieth century up to present day. Memory of Fire's exploration of embedded journalism is particularly interesting in light of what American journalists in Iraq were not permitted to photograph—namely, wounded or deceased American soldiers. Instead, the book abounds with images of Iraqi suffering and death. In an Ashley Gilbertson photograph from 2004, a GI takes a snapshot of a Madhi Army fighter lying on the street after bleeding to death. One of the clear themes of these images is that while American bodies are sacred, Iraqi bodies are fair game for humiliation and entertainment.

Memory of Fire itself is not always above acts of humiliation, however. In one essay, Rita Leistner, a photojournalist known for her co-authorship of Unembedded, recalls her work in Iraq in ways that are at times difficult to stomach, due to a tendency to patronize locals. Leistner's description of her Kurdish guides as "agile as the mountain goats that they would occasionally stop to study on the surrounding rock faces" recalled rather vividly the Wordsworth poem "Idiot Boy." The essay, however, does illustrate the inherent bias in embedded journalism, reflecting Stallabrass's assertion that "embedding produced a narrow view of the war … and one focused on the experiences of Coalition troops."

In contrast to the photojournalists, the artists in Memory of Fire—perhaps less consumed by the demands of publishers—consider more-expansive ways of representing war. An interview with Deutsche Börse Prize-winning duo Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg is particularly interesting when read along with the piece that follows it, Coco Fusco's Now You See It, Now You Don't. Broomberg and Chanarin have a spectacular approach to war documentation: While embedded with troops in Helmand, they exposed sheets of photographic paper to the sun whenever an incident of journalistic importance occurred, creating beautiful abstract prints that serve as non-representational markers of terrible events. Conversely, Now You See It, Now You Don't is a frank discussion of gendered torture tactics, racial stereotyping, and the hyper-sexualized role of female interrogators in Iraqi prisons. To move suddenly from Broomberg and Chanarin's highly abstracted, conceptual work to descriptions of guards "gyrating half-clothed atop seated prisoners and smearing them with fake menstrual blood in an attempt to break them" is incredibly affecting.

Memory of Fire concludes by looking to the future, using the works of Geert van Kesteren and Trevor Paglen to consider war photography in the "Google Era." In general, though, the role of technology in wartime is still given short shrift. Van Kesteren is the only person in the book to work with mobile-phone photography, and the role of instantaneous image-sharing sites is not considered at all. But perhaps this is understandable. As the book conveys, the digital age produces so much information, and so quickly, that we can't keep up. But if the book has an implicit point, it is this: Although war imagery is deeply influenced by ideology and technology, it is the primary way we witness the horrors of war. It's imperative that we don't ignore it.

Ashitha Nagesh is an art journalist based in London.

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