06 April 2008

The photographer's dilemma

On Tuesday last, the second of April, I talked to a group of HND photography students about photography in war or analogous conditions. (These are not my own students, wth whom I could have a conversation over months; I have a little under two hours in which to either be useful or fail them.) I wish that I had first read this Unreal Nature post from the previous day before doing so – I would have added it to the sheet of references I handed out. Alas, my meandering orbit only today, most of a week later, brought me to catch up on Julie Heyward's incisive view of the world.

It's the third year I've done this. The first time, I was very nervous about it. After all, the only things that my experience really equips me to say about photography under conditions of war are (a) it's just documentary photography, like any other, and (b) it's utterly unlike anything that any civilised human being has ever encountered or should ever encounter.

If you are inclined to quibble that civilised people clearly do encounter war conditions, and photograph it, I will answer that in that encounter they become, axiomatically, either uncivilised or dead. That the concept of a civilised person who has encountered and/or photographed war is an oxymoron.

Me? I am most certainly no longer civilised. All the civilisation with which society provided me evaporated rapidly. Oh, I have the veneer of civilisation; I can act the part. I even feel the most precious affections of civilisation – many of them, in fact, more deeply and intensely than before I encountered the corrosive years of conflict and its photographic recording. But that is no longer the unquestioned nature that it once was; it is the result of deliberate self civilianisation, not default civilisation At core I am now a feral creature who could, at the drop of a hat, shed it all again; and within that core, carefully watched and guarded lest it escape, is a small cold ineradicable drop of psychopathy.

So, in that first year I was diffident. It wasn't a mistake – it was the right way to approach things, in retrospect.

The second year, I tried to do it differently. I would tell them how corrosive is the field I am describing. I would openly try to put them off considering it. There is, despite common misperception, nothing whatsoever noble, glamorous, romantic about warfare, nor about its documentation. I would tell them this, try to describe the corrosion and persuade them that they should give it a wide berth. The world is full enough of people who don't have that option; why voluntary put your hand in the acid bath?

Unfortunately, that approach was a mistake. It was, of course (again in retrospect), pure middle aged arrogance on my part. We all have to live our own lives; I have lived mine on my own terms, much of it by doing things that other people believed to be stupid or wrong headed; what made me think that I had the right to shape or curtail other lives, or their rights to decide?

The result was a failure of the second year's session.

This year, I learned from my mistakes. Or, at least, I hope that I did. I hope that I managed to be more objective, more passive and dispassionate as a presenter. I hope, though, that I didn't permit that dispassion to obscure the truth.

"... ... ...
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie:
Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

(Wilfred Owen, Dulce Et Decorum Est, 1917)

No comments: