It’s not often I spend a full post on context, but I think this will cover much about the role of the artist in documenting history, warfare and tragedy, as well as thinking about the role of patriotism in the Power and Conflict poetry, so it seemed like a worthwhile detour. It picks up on aspects of power & conflict from Ozymandias, My Last Duchess, Charge of the Light Brigade and War Photographer.
Images of conflict have been around practically as long as art and conflict have co-existed. If we think about why art exists – and I’m going to take poetry as a part of that – some of it is wishful thinking, visualisation or creative imaginings. Some is record-keeping: it is a narrative designed to document significant events. Some of it is planning. Some of it is celebratory, designed to celebrate this or that god. Art can tell stories or express a truth, just as poetry can. It can imitate reality or can even inspire reality.
We first come across art in Ozymandias: the sculpture of the long-dead king. The statue is at once a symbol of his might and power – or at least Ozymandias’s own thoughts about how big and mighty he is. Lots of that early art is very good at capturing “Look how great I am!”
Much of that ancient Egyptian art is about preservation of the past and it reflects the beliefs and values of those who commissioned it (by which I mean the people who paid for it or commanded that it be built). Just because Ozymandias thought he was an unholy terror who should make other kings tremble in their togas doesn’t mean the sculptor did. That said, it’s the traveller’s opinion that the sculptor captured “those passions” and emotions very well. Egyptians were also very good at using size to show value. I am big therefore I am important. And the bigger my stuff is, the more important I am.
Art also starts to indicate wealth. If you have an empire that can employ artisans, sculptors and musicians, then you were an empire who was doing pretty well. By the time words came along and ways of preserving events on paper, civilisation had already got pretty good at documenting things and exaggerating their own importance, especially if you were the victor.
Lots of early art was commissioned. Much of it was a way of remembering or memorialising events or as offerings, or even as a way to mark graves. Sometimes they represented an idea or an ideal. In that way, we’re already seeing the early commemoration that art (and poetry) can be, as well as a way of representing an ideal.
So you go from the ‘Look how absolutely marvellous I am!’ to the ‘Look how rich I am!’ to the ‘Here’s an idea in a statue form’ kind of stuff.
And then you’ve the obligatory ‘Look how many people we quite literally trampled on!’ stuff.
Not to denigrate the Romans, but I’m pretty sure they added very little to the genre. No offence to any Roman or anyone who has spent their life in pursuit of understanding the Romans. A huge generalisation, I know, but the Romans weren’t great at artistic innovation.
What happened next in Western art is the rise of Christianity and religious art. This reflected the kind of Europe-wide changes going on and in turn influenced what happened with the Renaissance – the birth of what we may consider to be ‘real’ art. Religious art didn’t contribute much to the artistic representation of warfare, so you have almost a thousand years where the West had very little in terms of either empires or full-on takeovers. Between the Scandinavian Vikings – not particularly known for their military art history or their contributions to literature – and the Church, more focused on buildings and religious art, surprisingly little happened in the world of Art & Literature in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Renaissance.
Where the Romans might not have added much value to the history of art, the Renaissance certainly did. All those big names you may know, from Michelangelo to Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli and Raphael. What made it happen comes down again to money, and we move from the artistic world of Ozymandias to the world of My Last Duchess. Because of Italy’s (and more specifically Florence’s) structure, it meant that there were a number of rich merchant families who’d profited hugely from Italy’s central position in the Mediterrenean and who could turn to that good old tradition of employing minions to churn out stuff that made them look cultured. Not a world different from the Kardashians really. Have money but no talent? Hire talent and show off to your friends. And what happened in Florence was then copied by lots of other city states in what we now call Italy. Poetry changed. Music changed. Art changed. And then Italy exported. The Renaissance found a home in France and in England.
Nothing much changed with art when you get down to it though.
Have more money than sense? Get someone to paint a portrait of you so everyone will know how marvellous you were when you’re dead.
Want to leave a legacy behind? Find an architect, a sculptor or an artist and get them to commemorate stuff for you. Build an enormous statue. In fact, think bigger. Build a castle. Build a church. Build a university!
Art didn’t deviate much from its original purposes: commemorate, remember, preserve; show off, boast, brag and posture; imagine perfect ideals to which we can all aspire; frighten your competitors and see off your rivals.
Post-Renaissance Europe didn’t change much. The Dutch masters liked to paint naval battles and you start to find artists who actually specialised in battle scenes or in naval battles. It’s the first time war gave artists a job to do. But guess what? Those Italian merchant families also paid for a lot of the specialist art too. Who pays for military art is always interesting.
So you get the general images of victors vanquishing their enemies, trampling them underfoot (and which gives rise to some discussion for Checkin Out Me History) and that continues at a happy pace throughout the European wars from the 1600s right up to Napoleon in the 1800s.
The Napoleonic Wars changed the way conflict was depicted no end. You start to get bloody scenes of loss that are much more realistic and less about bragging and looking marvellous in battle dress. You also find some paintings by “the vanquished” – the nations who lost or who lost heavily.
Soon, everyone was at it. The Spanish were depicting how Napoleon’s troops sliced and diced them – in scenes reminiscent of Macbeth with the carving of passages through battlefields:
Art takes on two roles here: commemoration of the successes and victories, portraying the soldiers as glorious and noble when faced by swarthy adversaries, and depictions of the realities of war – the lootings, plunderings and such like. You can loosely term these as ‘propaganda’. Two sides of the same coin: glorification of war vs the realities of war.
Want to make your enemies look like immoral sadists? Get someone to paint a picture of it.
1824 brings a major change in depiction of war with a four-metre-long frieze of Greek citizens in the aftermath of an attack from the Ottoman empire forces painted by Eugène Delacroix.
The invention and development of photography as an art form changed things a little. First, we all know that art isn’t real. Nobody sat around posing for their painting after they’d been stabbed on the battlefield. Art is construction. It is about representation, and how the artist (or the patron/country/organisation bankrolling it) wants you to see things. It’s a staged mise-en-scène, theatre designed to evoke emotions, designed to bolster beliefs.
Photography was more ‘real’ – or at least it offered the opportunity to be so. You can’t depict (well, you couldn’t as easily in the days before Photoshop) things that weren’t there. You can stage it, certainly, but photography is instant and easily portable. Some of Great Britain’s Victorian wars started to make use of an employed photographer – not least because lots of those battles were in faraway places like China and India, Prussia and Crimea. Mr & Mrs Joe Bloggs had no way of knowing how the war was going. It wasn’t like you could just step outside your door and see with your own eyes.
An 1862 photograph from the American Civil War.
War photography, then, less good at the ‘glorious’ and ‘noble’ and pretty good at revealing the horrors or realities of war. Not much of a shock that people’s views about war and death began to change around the same time. Hard to say if this was influenced by images that captured the realities of war but it’s pretty hard to imagine soldiers as fine, strong, heroic victors when you’re looking at photos of them with their heads and limbs blown off.
By the time we get to the Crimean War, and Charge of the Light Brigade, war photography was a well-established genre. The more portable and accessible cameras became, the less of an artist you needed to be to use them. Still, some of the most powerful and most moving images of war have come from professional war photojournalists.
We move then into considering the role of a photographer, or a photojournalist. What is it that they are doing? For some, they are clearly there – paid for – to capture material that can be used as propaganda for either side. Whether they’re showing the atrocities of the enemies or glorifying acts of bravery, much is designed as propaganda.
Some are there to present the realities of war or conflict Even that comes with a ‘why?, a ‘who for?’
Often that can be something as simple as ‘to raise awareness of what’s happening’ or ‘to show people what’s going on’, but there is the knowledge that the ‘right’ image can change things for good.
What they are, though, is trapped behind a camera with a job to do. Your job is to document and to preserve, maybe to raise awareness.
Just as a side note, by the way, this is clearly a topic that interests me. I love photography and did a lot of hours in darkrooms in my youth. I even have a full darkroom kit, though I haven’t used it in ten years or so. Photoshop takes the fun out of chemicals and hanging around in darkrooms. I’m also the photographer for the animal shelter where I’m a trustee. It’s my job to photograph things that happen, so I’m more than aware of the power of the photo. I don’t, for instance, take adoption photos of our dogs with the kennels in them. Whilst getting a bleeding-heart adoption might be okay for some, it’s not ethical for me. I don’t want people to adopt a dog because they feel sorry or guilty. That way is a way to massive problems. It’s also manipulative and cynical. I don’t share photos of wounds or where I’ve had to document the condition in which animals arrive. Those photos are to document impartially and they go to court to help the judge decide what should happen in abuse or neglect cases.
But taking those photos can be hard, and you’ll often find me weeping. I have to take photos of wounds, of starving animals, of animals near death, or even animals who have died. I have to catch them at their worst without being emotional about it or trying to do anything other than be impartial.
That can be hard when you want to punch an owner in the face and you want to take a dog home with you because it’s clearly suffered so much.
And I have NOT to intervene. If I see maggots in ears, I can’t stop to clean them out. I just photograph them and move on to the next thing to photograph. In fact, if I start cleaning and treating the dogs, it stops me doing my other jobs. Sometimes, it is horribly emotional and I have to stop.
And I’m just talking about animals in a shelter, not children in a warzone.
Sometimes you’ve got to consider the ‘greater good’ and forget trying to help at all, knowing that you can help more by sharing.
Sometimes, with humans, you have to photograph them or document them, take their stories, when they are at their very worst. You have to remain impartial, and that means not intervening.
But that is very hard and you have to try to compartmentalise. The camera becomes almost like a protective bubble that stops you seeing things first hand. The camera protects you and acts as a buffer or a barrier between what you’re doing and what you’re seeing. It’s like you lift that camera up and you have a job to do.
Video comes into this too. When I was 10 or 11 or so, the BBC showed video of what was happening in Africa – the same footage that inspired huge interventions for famine relief such as Live Aid and Band Aid, Comic Relief and so on. You know, when you capture these things, that you are having more of an impact by sharing than you can ever have by intervening.
1984 changed everything for me.
If you ever have the chance to read Michael Buerk, Kate Adie or George Alagiah writing about reporting on war or catastrophe, it’ll really give you such a good insight into their roles and how they feel about it. George Alagiah, in particular, in A Passage to Africa in the old Edexcel IGCSE anthology, writes much more emotionally about his feelings about documenting tragedy. He writes about how ‘ghoulish’ he felt, preying on the tragedy of others to ‘make news’ (which is often profitable, too, don’t forget). He writes too about how he felt innoculated against what was happening – how he came to feel impassive and unemotional because he’d seen it so many times. You become habituated to it and almost immune. Seeing it that often, not being able to do anything practical and knowing you are hunting for that ‘one’ image that will sell papers can turn you into a hardened cynic.
He says, “The search for the shocking is like the craving for a drug: you require heavier and more frequent doses the longer you’re at it. Pictures that stun the editors one day are written off as the same old stuff the next. This sounds callous, but it is just a fact of life. It’s how we collect and compile the images that so move people in the comfort of their sitting rooms back home.”
I think that is probably the best explanation of the feelings behind being a journalist or photojournalist. It’s your job to ‘move’ the people back home, but they too become immune to the images so that you are constantly searching for something more shocking, more horrible.
You can read the full extract here and I would recommend it since it describes in detail how it is to be caught up in a tragedy.
Of course, these are not about warzones.
War photographers and journalists have a good deal of power, although they too must realise they need to search for more and more shocking images to get the reader to feel anything at all.
I want to finish by talking about what you HOPE will happen…. and a story about an image that changed things for many of my friends.
It’s the photo of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy dead on a beach in Turkey.
He drowned in 2015 as his family attempted to escape war in Syria. The family were refugees hoping to find safety in Europe.
Now there is always hostility towards refugees. I can’t begin to unpick that. We rich, civilised Europeans in our safe and secure countries, with our spare bedrooms and our shiny cars, our iphones and our First World Problems feel righteously irritated that some other people – whose skin is different than ours or who wear different clothes than we do – want to save their children so much that they’ll uproot them from everything they’ve ever known and take them to a place of uncertainty, where the only thing they can do is put all their pride and dignity aside and ask for shelter from strangers who hate them. You go anyway, leaving everything behind that you can’t carry – your past, your present, your souvenirs, your photos, your family – even though you may have already had asylum applications turned down, hoping against hope that you will find safety there.
I think many of us who do care had a rude wake-up call with that photograph. It reminded us horribly of the brutal truth of what was – and is – happening. On the day the photo hit the news, many of my friends here in France decided to do something huge and positive – to do what they could. Some went up to the migrant and refugee camps in Calais, Dunkirk and Paris to see what was needed and what could be done. Three years on and their efforts still roll on. That photo changed their lives forever. It reminded us of our responsibilities. It reminded us that we are all “one body” and all those things the Inspector says in An Inspector Calls. Donations surged. Practical help surged. A few politicians here and there started making noise about it. And that photo, slowly, changed views. It changed hearts and minds. It changed political policy. Even the refugee-hating Daily Mail recognised how powerful the image was at painting an image of the human costs of the war in Syria. It comes to something when you can make a scurrilous, inflamatory rag like the Daily Mail take a step back and have a little sympathy.
The photo was highly debated. Some commentators thought it was manipulative – that there’s something ethically wrong with showing photos of dead children on beaches for whatever purpose that may be. You might think so too. A lot of people find images such as this disgusting and manipulative, or sick. Personally, I think there’s nothing wrong with the truth. Do refugees die in attempts to get to safety? Certainly they do. If you can’t stomach the reality, then you need to get involved and change reality.
I don’t know what your feelings about such photographs are. Personally, I see a huge value in them. We shouldn’t live in ivory towers protected from the reality of the world around us. Sure, I skip past some – we’re now into the seventh year of conflict in Syria and little has changed. The photographs dry up as does people’s interest. When you tap into people’s emotions, you have to understand how hard it is to remain emotional. It’s hard to be angry or frustrated or sad at the same intensity. But you can change beliefs and values, and that’s what I guess most photojournalists or photographers would aspire to do.
That, or it’s a way to make a living. I can think of better ways to make a living as a photographer though, when you’ve got people who’ll pay thousands for a wedding photo package, or pictures of their newborn. One of my photographer friends does nothing but photograph the interiors of buildings. He makes a good living. Whilst the cynic in me would agree that for some it’s a ghoulish way to make a living, there’s got to be some deeper motivation there somewhere – some desire to change the hearts and minds of people in their comfy armchairs enjoying a pre-lunch beer.
Capturing conflict and power through artistic means – be that sculpture, art, photography or poetry – has changed significantly from those early epic celebrations of heroism and the use of art as a way of demonstrating power. We move from those huge statues in the desert and cryptic relics of powerful, long-dead civilisations, or brash attempts to show off to your future wife’s family, or recording feats of glory and strength in the face of adversity to seeing things from the perspective of the artist themselves: a way to leave their own legacy and make a difference that has a huge emotional cost and leaves them often in an ethical quandary.
Next up: structure and form in War Photographer