Monday, February 18, 2013

The art of war

There are images that just aren’t right. This one, for instance:

‘Unfaithful Kiss’ – photographer Paolo Puopolo’s contribution to this year’s Female Students’ Calendar – portrays an Israeli and a Palestinian woman making up and making out even as they bear the physical marks of the hatred between their peoples. The 2013 edition of the calendar is called ‘Onerace’ (just like that, all one word – so radical) and the sponsor, ad agency Arakne Communication, has explained that it is intended as a vehicle not only of aesthetic values but also of a social mission, although what its headline image is supposed to signify is not very clear. Perhaps that increased lesbian relations amongst attractive young women will finally bring peace to the region.

The models, Valentina Cammarota e Femy Cristofaro, are Italian, and even if I don't get into the ways in which this makes the image less honest, we can probably agree that it doesn’t make it more honest. But that is also complicated. After all, didn’t the clothes used in that famous 1994 ad by Benetton really belong to fallen Bosnian soldier Marinko Gagro? Yet this fact didn’t make the naked attempt to associate a brand of colourful sweaters to social awareness and political commitment any less abhorrent.

Art, advertising, war. If you broaden the definition of advertising to include public relations and propaganda, this is the same set of relationships that underlies today’s image. Which is this one.

The straight story is that a young IDF sniper by the name of Mor Ostrovski took the picture and uploaded it to his Instagram account some time in late January. I became aware of it last Saturday, when Palestinian blogger Ali Abunimah posted it and wrote about it at Electronic Intifada. What happened in the next few hours followed a well-worn routine: first the outraged reaction, spreading through successive time-zones in an easterly direction; then the removal of the image; then the taking down of the Instagram account, but not before the image had found its way onto thousands of computers. The internet never forgets. All the same, it’s worth asking what exactly it is not forgetting this time.

As far as I can tell, Mor Ostrovski really exists (and, as at the time of writing, still has a Facebook account). Whilst it publicly censured him, the IDF has raised doubts concerning whether he did actually take the picture rather than finding it somewhere on web. Or the photograph could be a fake. Yet the first point should be relatively easy to establish – if the photo already existed, it would likely have emerged by now – and the second is perplexing. Faked how? Or more precisely why, seeing as presumably Ostrovski can create and compose that scene at will. He has no need to fire up Photoshop or get a friend to pose as a Palestinian youth at the other end of his rifle. It’s all right there for him.

Since there was no reason to fake the picture, we should assume that it’s real. Just like the other pictures in Ostrovski’s instagram account – some of which Abunimah has posted, some of which I’ve saved on my computer ahead of the predictable vanishing of the account. Pictures like this one.

This guy doesn’t do photomontages or trick photography. He just applies the standard Instagram filter, the one that ages your pictures thirty-five years and is the lazy index of contemporary taste. Yet we must concede that the sniper picture is beautifully composed. That it is a vehicle of aesthetic values. It is what contributes to make it so chilling. There is a heightening of the experience, the suggestion that a sniper could live in appreciative contemplation of their victim, like a photographer with their subject. Or they could choose the next strike on the basis of the best composition, or wait for the best possible light. This is an unbearable thought.

The last time I checked before it was taken down, the picture had garnered nearly 200 Instagram ‘likes’. This is the social dimension of contemporary photography, which on platforms like Instagram invests not just the reception but also the production of each image: so not just ‘I share this picture so that other may like it,’ but ‘I’ll shoot this particular picture in this particular way and share it so that others may like it,’ or possibly even ‘I take pictures so I may share them.’ By this I mean that the social layer is embedded in this like in any other picture shared by any other Instagram user, and that on these platforms expecting praise for the aesthetic values of a particular image becomes one and the same with seeking approval for one’s mission. Even when that mission is killing people. Even when it is killing children. Remember, it was the IDF that chose to have an official presence on Instagram to support its propaganda machine. They’re the ones at the forefront of understanding that social media is a weapon.

Did Mor Ostrovski aim at the Palestinian youth solely in order to take his picture? Did he take the picture instead of shooting his gun? It ultimately doesn’t matter since the absolute power over life and death that Ostrovski possessed and likely still possesses is entirely contained within the frame. There are no checks against this power. It alone gets to decide whether to engage in art or murder.

We like photographers to be the ones who bear witness, not the ones who shoot to kill. But things are never that simple, are they? The famous Robert Capa photograph above may or may not capture the death of a loyalist soldier in Cerro Muriano, Spain, on September 5, 1936. The conditional depends on whether or not it was in fact staged – so it’s either an uncanny miracle of mechanical timing and human intuition or one of the world’s great photographic tricks. We’ll never know for sure. Does it matter? Perhaps not. Not anymore. All that remains is the picture itself, and it has only one possible reading – that a man is dying, at this very moment. And so too Ostrovski’s picture may be a piece of bravado, or a fake, but it means only one thing: that a soldier is about to shoot, and a child is about to die.


Unknown said...

Software is the new advertising.

stephen said...

It's an image that can be read as profoundly against the occupation, too. Its effect as some sort of ego-boost for the sniper with power of life and death is equally nullified by the horror felt by any normal civilian.

Ben Wilson said...

it’s either an uncanny miracle of mechanical timing and human intuition or one of the world’s great photographic tricks

It's not that unlikely if you're shooting lots of pictures in war zones that you'll eventually get a shot of someone being killed.

As for the photo of the crosshaired kid, I find it hard to get outraged. It's showing something that happens all the time, that snipers train their crosshairs on people. The gun sight is, after all, a telescope, and they use it to look around. Quite often they don't know what they're looking at until they've got it in the crosshairs. It's what they do. This guy was capturing it.

The context that he sits up there on any kind of regular basis doing it is the nasty bit.

Anonymous said...

Errol Morris, a clever and interesting documentary maker, has written a book called "Believing is Seeing" that discusses the making and reading of photographs. What we believe shapes what we see and what we believe is what we show. Personally I find these images shocking and sad but was that their intent? I suspect that Capra's image was but not sure about the sniper's. I would be interested in your take on the Abu Ghraib torture photos.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Somebody else was telling me about Believing Is Seeing just this morning, I haven't read it. And I agree it's hard to be sure about the intent of the sniper's picture. The Abu Ghraib photos came across to me as a way to document a shared experience, which just happened to be one based on the practice of torture. But in any other way they were like holiday or party snaps. Ostrovski has - I don't want to say aesthetic pretences - more of a photographic eye. He wants to take good pictures. He wants his pictures to say more than what is in front of his eyes. And in a way he succeeded: as Stephen said, he produced a powerful document of the occupation.

Matthew Littlewood said...

I'm glad you wrote about this, Giovanni, the whole notion of the "authenticity" of the image intrigues me. To continue on the topic of those notorious Abu Ghraib photos, Erroll Morris's documentary "Standard Operating Procedure" is a really frightening look at the sort of working environment that led to the possibility of those images being taken- right up to the top of the chain of command.

Morris's film hardly exonerates those responsible (in fact, you come away disliking every single subject involved), but it does suggest there was something else behind those images, as it were. I mean, what makes them so awful to look at is how banal they are- there really is no sense that there was any *effort* as such in their composition.

As for the photo taken by the IDF sniper, it's actually quite the striking image, even if the macho posturing of it means I can't enjoy it on any level, not to mention the fact the implications behind it are simply awful.

Likewise, I agree with Ben about the Robert Capa photo- it's the sort of shot that would be too difficult to stage, in a sense- look at the way the soldier's body is flopping- that's the eye of a photographer who's picked his moment. For better or worse.

Megan Clayton said...

The skin of my eye,


I lie.

The cross-hairs


and split membranes.

My old out-


detritus to a drain.