The line between popular culture and the reality of conflict is no longer clear cut, but where does this leave photography?
Before he was killed in Libya, war photographer Tim Hetherington talked of “the feedback loop” – the self-perpetuating link between the reality of conflict and its portrayal in popular culture. But where such fictions were once tightly controlled, the internet has opened the floodgates, creating an ever-increasing circle that is seemingly more gruesome than ever before.
A few months before he died, Hetherington submitted to Vanity Fair a series of photographs of US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. At the time, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now was getting a re-release. The designers at Vanity Fair mixed the images up, mistakenly using Hetherington’s shots to illustrate a review of the famously conceptual rendering of war.
It was an ironic mistake. Just before the photographer died covering the uprising in Libya, he wrote of what he termed “the feedback loop” – the way in which servicemen echo fictional depictions of war while in combat, and vice versa. “You had this idea that young men in combat act in ways that emulate images they’ve seen – movies, photographs – of other men in other wars, other battles,” his collaborator Sebastian Junger said at Hetherington’s memorial. “You had this idea of a feedback loop between the world of images and the world of men that reinforced and altered itself as one war inevitably replaced another in the long tragic grind of human affairs.”
Hetherington talked of how such mimicry becomes layered into war – how soldiers and the public at large come to understand, assess, quantify and ultimately consume conflict from the safety of the barricades, or from the safety of our homes. “The media has become such a part of the war machine now that we all have to be conscious of it more than ever,” Hetherington told The New York Times reporter Michael Kamber.
He talked of teenagers in war-torn Liberia watching Rambo the night before a battle with government forces, of American soldiers in the Korengal Valley, accessorising themselves in emulation of the iconic images of the Vietnam War. In the weeks before he died, he talked of young Libyan rebels hanging ammunition belts around their necks, carefully ‘arranging’ their bandanas, then incessantly posing for him with V for Victory signs. They barely knew how to fire their guns.
“He was put off by that,” says Hetherington’s biographer Alan Huffman in a phonecall from his home in Brooklyn. “He didn’t want them to pose because it was staged, inauthentic. And then it occurred to him that what he was seeing was underpinning the war, and all wars. He realised that even in the photographs of the American Civil War, everyone is posing. It’s integral to why men go to war.”
Eventually, Huffman writes in Here I Am, his account of Hetherington’s life, “the seeming fakery of inexperienced rebels posing with guns they barely knew how to use struck Hetherington, in retrospect, as an authentic response to having been thrust unexpectedly into war.”
“It’s something every war reporter needs to be conscious of,” says Australian photographer Adam Ferguson, a contemporary of Hetherington who has reported from both Afghanistan and Iraq and is currently documenting refugee camps in Syria for The New York Times. “I was once embedded with US Marines in Marja, which at the time was a volatile area in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. I was photographing this young Marine sat in a pool of light. He knew I was photographing him, and he kept holding up his dogtags and turning them in the light. I photographed him doing it and remember thinking, ‘This is such a poetic shotʼ.
“When I looked at it afterwards, I realised I’d made a Hollywood movie still. He knew what he was doing, I think, because he kept glancing at me; he played out a notion that I think existed before he got to Afghanistan. It’s as if he couldn’t help but act it out, because that’s what he understood war to be.”
The feedback loop has long existed, then, but in 2014 it has been carried “to extremes I don’t think Tim, or any of us, envisaged”, says Huffman. The ubiquity of cameraphones and distribution networks such as Twitter and Instagram has rapidly expanded the size and speed of the echo chamber, and its influence on our conception of war. The 9/11 attacks were designed for maximum visual potency, but back in 2001 there were few cameras on hand to record the planes as they flew into the Twin Towers. It was only by chance that a French TV crew was filming on the streets of Manhattan; in the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the once-controlled flow of images from the battlefield to the living room has become a flood. Added to this is a new breed of soldier, one who carries a gun, and a camera connected to the internet.
To read the full article, pick up a copy of this month’s issue of British Journal of Photography
Stay up to date with stories such as this, delivered to your inbox every Friday.
NOVEMBER 2016 ISSUE: From New Agers to Planet Yorkshire, BJP has this month turned its focus on the photographers who have spent their lives making visual that most important and intangible of things – the idea of community. It’s available to order now.
INTERNATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY AWARDS: Win a solo exhibition with a £5k production grant and global exposure from BJP and WeTransfer showcases.