In this essay from 1972 John Berger questions the effectiveness of graphic war photography and in doing so anticipates many of the debates about documentary that were soon to come. It was originally published in New Society magazine and subsequently reproduced in the 1980 collection, About Looking.
Writing during the closing phases of the Vietnam war, Berger begins by describing both the extent of the American bombing campaign of the north of that country, and the indiscriminately cruel nature of the lethal armanents being used. He notes a photograph in the newspaper by Don McCullin, from earlier in the war, depicting a man holding his injured child in the aftermath of a bombing. The actual photograph is not reproduced in the book but it is most likely the one below that Berger is referring to.
Shocking images such as this had only recently become acceptable in American newspapers and Berger recounts two commonly cited reasons for this. One is that the public are demanding to know the truth of war and the newspapers are giving them what they want. The second is that the public have steadily become immune to images of horror and the newspapers are competing to show ever more horrific images in order to gain their attention. Berger rejects both of these, and goes on to suggest that such images are now acceptable to the mainstream media because they are clearly failing to have their intended effect. By this he means that they are not moving the public to seriously question, challenge or threaten the political establishment that is pursuing the war. If they did, then the media would not be carrying them.
So what effect are the images having? Surely such visceral and shocking material must move the public in some way? Berger does not suggest there is no effect, and he writes of the profoundly disturbing experience that viewing such material can entail. Typically, the most powerful of McCullin’s images focus on sudden discrete moments of pain and agony – the injuries sustained as a result of bullets and bombs, the accompanying cries of grief and so on. Such moments are abrupt and terrible discontinuities within the victim’s normal experience of the flow of time, but this discontinuity is also echoed in the viewer’s experience of looking at the photograph. The viewer is leading their regular life and are suddenly confronted with, and (if they have any empathy in their make-up at all) forced to momentarily share, the victim’s suffering. The effort of returning from this contemplation to “normal” life triggers feelings of despair, indignation or guilt. The viewer’s own moral inadequacy becomes the focal point of his or her concern, and this is either suppressed and put to one side, or assuaged in some way, such as by means of charitable donations to a relevant agency.
Either way, Berger suggests, the photograph, rather than causing the viewer to question his or her support for the political systems that make wars such as this possible, depoliticises the issue entirely, and allows the belief that this particular tragic event is simply an example of the suffering that is part of the universal human condition. In other words – wars happen, people get hurt, that’s the way the world is.
Two thoughts occurred to me while reading Berger’s piece. The first was that his sentiments very closely echo the criticisms made of photographers like Sebastiao Salgado that began to surface a few years after this essay was published: for example, the criticisms referred to by David Levi-Strauss here. I would be curious to know what Berger’s opinion of Salgado is. Does he see Salgado’s images in the same way as he sees the McCullin photograph, i.e. as evidence of a universal suffering that does little to cause the viewer to question the political roots of the situation? Or does he agree with Levi-Strauss that Salgado’s deeper engagement and empathy with his subjects somehow transcends this? The fact that Berger wrote a glowing introduction to Levi-Strauss’s book might indicate the latter and it would be fascinating to hear Berger’s take on this.
Secondly, I wondered what Berger would make of Luc Delahaye’s recent History series. This seems like an attempt to combine elements of reportage war photography with more contemplative images designed to prompt the viewer into questioning the roots of the events depicted. For example it contains an image of a dead Taliban soldier in Afghanistan but also one of Bush addressing the UN General Assembly.
Does this represent an example of the sort of deeper political engagement that Berger is looking for? Or is it simply an attempt on the part of the photographer to insert a certain grandiosity and purpose into his work in order to aid his transition from the newspaper to the art gallery?