Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"One cannot look at this. I saw it. This is the truth"

Prison Interior 1810-14 - Francisco de Goya

The Third of May 1808

Last night I finished 'Double Vision' by British writer Pat Barker (who also wrote 'The Regeneration Trilogy' ). It took me all of two days.....the book entranced me and has left me pondering on things photographic. Set in post 9/11 times, in a country village close to Newcastle, England, the story centers around two men, a writer and a photographer (now dead), both journalists who cover war zones, and tells of their relationship with each other and with those close to them. At the heart of the story is the ethical question of veracity and vision, of how the written word does not necessarily invoke total truth, but yet a photographic image tends to solidify the event, making it unquestionably truthful. This is what really happened. The main protagonist is writing a book about the ways wars are represented. In the following conversation with the widow of his friend, he describes why he felt compelled to write this particular book.

'  'I can even tell you what started it. Jules Naudet, the guy who was following a rookie fireman round New York on 9/11 and just found himself filming the attack on the towers? Well, something he said haunted me. At one point he turned his camera off - he wouldn't film people burning - and he said, "Nobody should have to see this" And immediately I thought of Goya.'

' "One cannot look at this"?'

Yes - but then "I saw it." "This is the truth." Its the argument he's having with himself, all the time, between the ethical problems of showing the atrocities and yet the need to say "Look, this is what's happening".....and I thought, My God, we're still facing exactly the same problem. There's always this tension between wanting to show the truth, and yet being sceptical about what the effects of showing it are going to be.' '

This is a moral dilemma, but the visual image is a mainstay in recounting the news of  the day and a necessity particularly when it comes to something as horrific as war or poverty. Until we can actually see the reality of war, it is somewhere over there, not here in our everyday reality, it can be rationalized or forgotten, it cannot touch us emotionally. The visual image before our eyes forces us to look, and reminds us of the responsibility we bear that stems from this newfound knowledge. 

Difficult as they may be to look at, I am thankful for the work of photographers such as James Nachtwey, who is the subject of an incredible film 'War Photographer', Marcus Bleasdale, and Alexandra Boulat, all members of  VII Photo Agency. Their work reflects entirely the scope of what it means to be human, to the darkest depths of humanity and back again towards hope, for there always has to some glimmer of's the essence of life.

James Nachtwey. Chechnya, 1996  
James Nachtwey. Kosovo, 1999

Alexandra Boulet. Kosovo, 1999
"you can show war without showing a gun, and that's interesting, in just one photograph"


rayzoar said...

Search the string "on fire" at
tinyurl com/2n911cts
for evidence that Jules Naudet was lying when he said that about the people who were allegedly burning.

lynchart said...

Hey whats up! One month and no post.
I look forward to read the next one.