WARNING ! potentially disturbing images
IN BETWEEN THE HORROR AND HUMILIATION OF WAR
A conversation with Christoph Bangert by Nina Toft
Christoph Bangert’s new book, War Porn, was nominated for the Aperture Foundation Photobook prize at Paris Photo in 2014 and is now in its third edition. Bangert works as an editorial photographer and has travelled to Palestine, Darfur, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Zimbabwe and Iraq, working on assignments for the New York Times, Stern Magazine and other journals. Nina Toft talked to him about photography’s role within the dramas and humiliations of war.
NT: In the introduction to your book War Porn, you talk about different layers of censorship: first you sensor yourself, then the editor will sensor you and then the readers will sensor the publication by choosing which images to look at. So the censorship of a publication is ruled by people’s own regulations and ideology as well as national and international law. In War Porn I understand you tried to avoid also self-censorship. How does this self-censorship normally come about?
CB: My basic idea is that we all self-censor: we all have problems facing horrific events. If we have the choice, we choose not to see these images. Most of us are drawn to positive images; we have to force ourselves to look at images that actually show the most gruesome aspects of war. We recently marked the 70-year anniversary of the liberation of prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps in World War II, and images filmed by the first British photographers to enter the camps are just now being released in a new documentary. We can’t look at these images lightly; we have to force ourselves. It’s similar for a photographer: we have to force ourselves to face the horror. In working on this book, I went through my archive from the last 10 years, searching not for my best images, but for the most horrific, the most gruesome and horrendous. The result is this book. I don’t even recall taking some of the pictures. Our brain erases these traumatic events, which is good and probably the reason why I can still sleep at night. But there’s a danger that we forget the horrific parts while the most heroic moments remain. There is drama and heroism in war, but the horrific is also part of modern conflict, and we have to make an effort not to forget. My own censorship is my own limit as a human being. It’s not fair not even to look at images of events that other people have to live with. I think it’s important to publish images of gruesome events, but it’s even more important to create a context where these images have a function. It has no meaning just to shock the viewer with horrible images; my argument isn’t to show these images on the cover of a tabloid newspaper. In order to deal with these horrific events meaningfully, images have to be published in a context that gives the viewer the opportunity to reflect.
NT: I do agree with you on the importance of creating a context for images that are published. Today, you can search for so much imagery online that has no context, images that show the most horrific faces of death. Often you can’t verify if they’re from true events or staged, but the images focus on violence for the violence itself, and you can’t bear to see it, at the same time as not being able to stop. In this lack of context, the reference to pornography makes sense.
CB: In social media today, we’re bombarded with images. Images are just floating around and we have no control over them. This fleeting, fast-paced way of looking has a voyeurism about it that can be related to pornography; it becomes war porn. How can I reflect on an event when I have to deal with 500 images that are just floating around? I think our role as professional image-makers and editors has become increasingly important, because of this gigantic flood of images. Our role is to find meaning, to sort out and edit down to create something meaningful for the viewer.
NT: On the news today, they show gruesome images from war and conflict zones, and these images are contextualised, but a news report is so dense with content, reporters, interviews – the images are packaged in such a way that I find no room for reflection. We always have to move on to the next topic. I was recently at Tromsø International Film Festival, where I saw, among other documentaries, the film Silvered Water, Syria Self-portrait. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it was a collaboration between Ossama Mohammed, an exiled Syrian filmmaker, and Wiam Bedirxan, a woman with a film camera caught in the siege of the city of Homs. The filmmaker also gathered imagery published by civilians on YouTube from the ongoing civil war. All these images are out there for us, but what this film does is to gather them into a form that makes room for your own reflections. I cried watching that film, because it had a form that allowed me as a viewer to reflect and engage rationally and emotionally with the images, which is something I feel that there’s often no room for in news reportage.
CB: Yes, if you don’t go beyond the shock, there’s no room for reflection. I think the key is authorship, whether it’s a documentary film or a news reportage or a photobook. You need to have an author who’s trying to tell you a story. I think the idea of authorship is what will save my profession in the end.
NT: The title of your book, War Porn, in relating your war images to pornography, is in itself quite controversial and provocative. You also pose the question in your book: why are we so attracted to images of other people’s misery? In her book about images from war [Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003] Susan Sontag talks about how we accept gruesome images of ‘the Other’s’ death, in far away places, while the TV broadcast of September 11th, for example, was very harshly censored when it came to showing death graphically. Why did you choose to relate your images to pornography? And do you think there’s been a shift in our reception of gruesome images of war in the last ten years or so? I mean, a shift from watching other people’s misery to a different kind of identification.
CB: The title is meant as a provocation. During discussions about images from wars, at some point people will claim that war photography is pornographic because it’s dehumanizing, it’s voyeuristic. And there is a certain truth in that. It’s a valid argument, because the event itself is dehumanizing. If a human being is tortured to death, it’s difficult to imagine something more dehumanizing than that. If I take a picture of it, of course you’ll find a trace of that deed in my image. But if people come to the conclusion that it’s immoral even to look at the image, that’s something I don’t agree with. So I decided to turn this argument on its head and say: even I will call it war porn. But no matter what you call it, we still have to look at these images. We have to acknowledge what’s happening to people. You can call it war porn if you like, but you still have to look at it.
NT: I’m sure people in these situations have sometimes asked you to take the picture.
CB: Yes. In the last four pages in the book is a series of pictures of a man who was tortured to death. It was in Iraq, in Bagdad, where there was a lot of sectarian violence at the time and the man’s brother called us and said that we had to come to the morgue and see this and photograph it. Other times, people just want to be left alone and of course I respect that. I don’t photograph people who don’t want to be photographed. There’s always a way to ask, and people let you know if they don’t want to be photographed.
NT: You’ve covered the conflicts in Afghanistan and in Iraq. How would you define your role as a photographer in war? What’s your motivation and ultimately, your mission?
CB: Motivation changes. To be quite honest, for young men the motivation to go to a conflict zone and take pictures is quite similar to the motivation of the soldiers going to war. You want to gain experience, live your life, and live it differently from your parents. Young men from our part of the world are afraid of living an ordinary meaningless life like their parents are living. This part of the motivation I call the adventure part: to go out and experience something extraordinary. Then there’s the idea that I want to document what I witness. Most people in my society can’t or won’t go to these places, so I go for them and report back. We have to document and report what’s happening in the world. Over time and with age you become a better journalist and you hopefully find a good balance between these two motivations.
NT: It’s interesting that you compare the motivations of the photographer and the solider going to war. Images from war and conflict have been used instrumentally for a long time; it’s not a new thing that victorious, symbolic actions are staged or that killing is staged for the photograph. But today, when every killing in war can be photographed and published and made into a symbolic attack, what thoughts do you have about the camera as a weapon in war?
CB: It’s called war propaganda, and it’s a very fine line. Everyone who goes into a war situation and reports back has to ask themselves if they’re being true to what they’re witnessing or if they’re producing propaganda. There are no clear rules; you always have to ask yourself: am I being biased? There’s no objectivity in journalism; I think we’re pretty much past that idea. It’s just not valid anymore. Journalism is always subjective and people make mistakes. The important thing is to have many different viewpoints, a variety of journalists and publications reporting on events. As a viewer, you have to be conscious about what you choose to see and read.
NT: Today, everybody can make photographs and publish them. I know there’s a lot of discussion about this in your field. How is it changing your way of working and your way of making a living as a photographer?
CB: There seems to be an illusion that everything that happens in this world is documented and published and that we all have access to it. I don’t think that’s the case. Who’s photographing the atrocities of Boko Haram now in Northern Nigeria? Nobody! There are no photographs! The only materials that exist are images shot by Boko Haram themselves, which they use as propaganda. There are no journalists there; its too dangerous: if they catch you they cut your head off. I do think we should see these propaganda videos – this is how these people portray themselves – but it’s a poor way to report on these events. People in Northern Nigeria don’t have a smart phone, and if they did, they’d be running a big risk taking photos and publishing them. In the countryside in Afghanistan most people don’t have a smart phone or they don’t dare to take a photograph. There’s a big need today for high-quality journalism. But I do think all the imagery shot and published by non-professional photographers is a good thing; it’s an important addition to what we do as professional photographers. But that brings us back to the initial question of context. It doesn’t necessarily help us to have access to six million images. To create meaning, they have to be sorted and put into a context. I think this will increasingly become our role as photographers in the future: to navigate and point to the essential.