Photo Projects and the War
Kateryna Iakovlanko presents various photography projects
and questions what duty an artist has when
representing a conflict visually.
Kateryna Iakovlanko opens her second session with us by showing a short film called One Hundredth of a Second. The scene: some war zone. The victims are ambiguously white. An intrepid photographer ignores her co-worker's pleas to head to safety and goes in to get her shot (plenty of quick edits, for effect). She sees a little girl. This girl runs behind a series of pillars, is accosted by a soldier, refuses to give up her bag and assumes a pose that later earns the photographer a major award. Audiences at the gala applaud a photo of the young corpse. Photographer flees in tears. End scene.
Sure, Kateryna says, the video might be a bit on-the-nose but the question still gets asked: what responsibility to producers of visual images have when they're in the field? Does the photo itself reproduce the violence? Can violence be transmitted visually? What should be our priority: documenting the event, creating an emotion, or depicting the larger context? And when we try to show the truth of violence and war, do the ends justify the means? Documentarians ask themselves these questions or are confronted by them. Sometimes unwillingly.

Then there's the question about whether or not repetition desensitizes us to certain visual realities. Newspapers often prep their New Year articles with a report including typical pictures from what happened over the previous twelve months – the same images (or types of images) get recycled so much that by the end they become something like a visual cliché.

And conflict zones have their very own clichés, but before she goes into them Kateryna wants to talk about a few different problems facing photographers who work on the front lines. First they know, in the back of their minds, that editors like to buy and print photos that fit these clichés – sometimes they even prepare a checklist. Which is why some photographers decide not to work with media outlets at all.

Then there's the question of whether or not photography's just an illustration for an article. Or is it documentary in its own right? Some mix of both, or something else? In what ways can this affect how photographers shoot an image, and how it gets marketed?

Of course then there's the issue of access – there are so few photographers working in East Ukraine, for example, that it's hard for media outlets to get fresh images. They often buy photos from the Associated Press or Reuters. Which is simpler, but it means that we're flooded with the same images for articles that are completely different. How are we treating photography when we're doing this?

In a media ecosystem where people feel huge pressure to print (or post), we sometimes make mistakes – there have been cases when photos from old wars were used like they were from Donbas. There was a picture of a Syrian kid, maybe eight years old, standing close to some ruins. Someone printed it and said it was at the Donetsk airport – it circulated all the way through global media channels until someone realized there was a mistake. Or, in another case, there was a photo of a super-aggressive woman protesting near tanks. After a week they realized it was made in Chechnya. In 1994.

For three years, she says, they've had a good system for checking photos but before that it wasn't so developed. And every minute you spend on checking, you're constantly having to fight the thought that someone else might steal your scoop. A Google image search is often enough, but sometimes it's trickier.

She flips through a list of the most common war images:
Abandoned toys among ruins
Ruins, generally
Women and/or children, suffering
Soldiers in motion
Portraits of soldiers
Ordinary people in the region
National symbols, also in ruins
Dead people
Military equipment
When you get the same images in the same wars year after year, Kateryna says, it feels like a manipulation and doesn't work as an image anymore.

She asks us to think about what gets lost when we keep dealing in clichés. What's consistently left out of the pictures? What lies behind the image of the enemy? Think life during occupation, the pain of loss, the frustration of war.

Back in the Soviet Union certain images were banned for reasons at times ridiculously vague. There's a famous image of a Soviet boy mourning the loss of his family – the link between personal pain and political pain could be used by the party, but it could also be dangerous. Then there was a famous photo of an American soldier with his arm in a bayonet splint – she has no idea why this had to go. Then there were clear-cut cases like the famous Berlin photo taken by Evgeny Haldey at the end of WWII. The Red Army soldier had a few wristwatches on his arm – it was ambiguous if they'd got them through looting, so the image was 'cleaned' until there was only one watch left. Both versions are now in circulation.
There are cases like the German photographer Herbert Liszt. He used to work in fashion magazines like Vogue or Harper's Bazaar and after a brief stint in Greece he went to the front lines. For inspiration. His photography of Kyiv during the occupation looks unnervingly like a fashion book, prompting questions about whether or not this is morally sketchy. Someone looking at the pictures would be more enamoured by the angles and lighting than by the fact that the worst war Europe had ever seen was still in process. It hides the context completely. But does that make the project illegitimate?
Then you have projects like that of David Jay, an American recipient of the Magnum Prize. His project was called 'Unknown Soldier' and he documented veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan war. We see their bodies, often maimed or amputated, and there's no story or emotional context. Some say that this was a brave exploration of a forgotten topic while others make them seem utterly clinical.
Aleksander Chermenev from Donbas is a Ukrainian photographer and decided to make a version with local soldiers. He worked with one hospital, and when one of his subjects died there was this new relevance for the project. It became important to Chermenev to show them. Some say they should be art for art's sake, others that they should be sold to benefit the hospital.
Then there are the complicated cases of when soldiers take their own photos of war. Some, like from the Vietnam war, were only published 10 years later. Others were personal albums, like one collection she found from a German student who became a soldier and was sent to Russia, Ukraine and France. He was quite young and had never left his town before – the photos feel like a travel blog. While he was in Paris he even met his first girlfriend – everything during that time was connected to rather happy moments for him. And isn't that understandable?

So what do we do with happy Nazi albums? His son thinks they should be preserved for history, but his widow thinks they should be destroyed. She understands the context and knows it wasn't as clean as her late husband claimed things were. It's tricky to understand what to do with this kind of content.

After seeing albums like these, Kateryna wondered if the same things could be seen in Ukraine's war today. So she checked Instagram, which's probably the most democratic way for soldiers to post photos during war. She had a lot of questions about why they did it, what context they choose and what audiences they had in mind.

Many of the veterans she spoke to posted pictures mostly for friends and family – it was a way they could communicate with their home communities. Say that they're alive, they're okay. There were lots of pictures of weapons and it seemed to glorify the whole situation, but often the captions were funny or ironic. They're young, energetic, they have relationships, find girlfriends or wives, all this seeps into the images they create. Some of them develop intensely personal relationships with the places they're posted, and some post hipster photos of coffee and three layers of filters.

So why, she asked, did you want to make the war beautiful?
Many said they didn't post depressing content on Instagram before the conflict, so why should they start? One guy made the difference of shooting all his army photos in black and white, a comment on how you see values in war. It also has the virtue of setting that time apart from regular life. at least visually.

They also mentioned being told to be careful because the photos could be used by enemy troops. Pictures of checkpoints were forbidden, as well as of certain other facilities. There was an official video one year with some best practices, but smartphones aren't inspected on a regular basis.

Many of their photo-taking practices were related to memory. There was a story of one former soldier who had a friend who died – the veteran was sad that he never took photos of him. Not having him in his feed was as if he never existed. She heard him say he was afraid of forgetting what he looked like.

There can also be unexpected social value in posting things to social media. For example, Facebook has those 'On This Day' features, and one time a photo popped up that everyone had forgotten about. There was a guy who organized a little Maidan in Donetsk and, because of all the crazy things that that happened after, it was completely sidestepped. Facebook had literally supplemented the collective memory of an entire community.

The popularity of these kinds of on-the-ground photos have led some photographers to shoot their pictures as if they were inexperienced. This was the case with one American photographer who went to Syria – people back home didn't entirely understand this was intentional and ended up mistaking the photos for pics from actual soldiers. It created a very large discussion Stateside.

Then there are different kinds of art photography, and these artists take a more abstract path when reflecting on the war. There's Alena Grom from Donetsk, an IDP herself, and when she moved to Kyiv she decided to start taking photography seriously. Her project 'The Womb' depicts children who had been born underground, in bomb shelters. Сhildren of the war so to speak. They were placed in basements for her shots and sometimes overlayed with ultrasounds.
Aslan Gaisumov is a Chechen who studied in Moscow and is now a very popular Russian photographer in Europe. His project "Untitled (War)" used books as a metaphor for conflict. He burned them, fired guns at them, did different things so people could encounter the effects of violence in a different way. It was also meant to suggest a connection between war and culture.
One of our participants points out, though, that people often fetishize Gaisumov's work. Some find it problematic – it's easy for him to create these beautiful objects, but what does it really accomplish? Others ask about the presence of women photographers but lament their lack of visibility.

Other projects are mentioned: a book very blatantly titled 'The War is Beautiful' which, for one person, seemed to completely disregard the reality of suffering. Then there are projects like 'Enjoy Poverty', where a Western photographer gives cameras to some Congolese folks and teaches them to shoot terrible things in their communities (and sell the pictures). Someone says we need to move past this binary that life is beautiful and death is ugly. That things are more complicated than that.

Someone else mentions a project with war-photo outtakes. Some being too aesthetic or not aesthetic enough. Someone else pipes up that we take aesthetics to be suspicious, but maybe they're not?

Still others discuss how no one wants polished, iconic photos anymore because anyone can make them. People are more interested in 'bad' photos made by locals or amateurs, or pictures that are obviously, though aesthetically, imperfect. How this can also confuse the intentions of photographers who use similar techniques for other, more intentionally political purposes?

Others wonder why we're talking about photography at all, and if we could please speak about something useful.