Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Taliban 2001

so you're striding up to the doors of some elegant Manhattan art gallery and, after wafting your invitation - 'History', in this case, is the modest title of the exhibition - at the bouncer and collecting your glass of Bollinger and wad of canapés and waving to all the currently useful darlings on your rolodex and checking once more to make doubly sure you haven't missed anyone important, you finally drift through to look at the art, and you're confronted with this photograph

it's printed to 8' x 4'. that's big. that makes you think - oh, hit them with your credentials - Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth, Philip-Lorca diCorcia. big. impressive. technically superb. large-format panoramic camera. polaroid film? luminous texture. reminds you of a whole catalogue of western painting - religious, even. but what do you feel? well, you feel fairly overwhelmed, of course, so you do what everyone else does, and check out what you're supposed to feel from the catalogue. and this is what you read:

" From a higher vantage point, we ponder the beardless beauty of a dead Taliban soldier, printed to appear nearly life-size.
The wound and peaceful posture deepen our sense of intimacy. Events subsequent to the solder's death, materializing through objects, to the same, dusty clothing, a searched and abandoned wallet, feet without shoes.
The camera's clear precision does not detach. It embeds the soldier in a deathly geography. Our privileged access to this enemy surpasses all frontiers and national boundaries. As in a dream, we feel the boy's grandeur slowly unfolding within ourselves.
History, in these tableaux, is an art of intimate immensity. Recording the real, they ask us to contemplate cool, secret, silent, universal phenomena, belonging to no age, perpetually recurring throughout time's long duration."

(I'm not making this up - I couldn't if I tried - this was written by one Eugenia Parry, god bless her)

Luc Delahaye is the latest photographer to make that meretricious leap from the rarefied world of the Magnum photojournalist to the even more rarefied one of fine art. he's in illustrious company, of course: Magnum has been the benchmark of photojournalistic standards for the last fifty years. legendary names: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Josef Koudelka, and - a personal favourite - my countryman (and exact contemporary) Chris Steele-Perkins, whose own 'Afghanistan - Kabul - 1994' portfolio bears interesting comparison with Delahaye's. the photograph on the right is his 'Mujahadeen play volleyball in a park. 1994.'

however, times are hard for photojournalists - few hardcopy publications are now prepared to let a retained photographer loose on a story that might take months to acquire, and fewer are prepared to devote a dozen pages to that story once it 's filed. so Luc Delahaye has now officially declared that he is no longer a photojournalist - that he is an artist (don't scoff - these distinctions matter in some circles).

although the copyright icon for 'Taliban' says 2001, this is actually one of a series made during Delahaye's period of roaming around Afghanistan (he's a little vague about how exactly he did that - the word 'embedded' had yet to be coined) during 1994, when the Taliban was in process of becoming the nexus of disaffection for those muslim extremists who felt betrayed by the political events subsequent to the succesful removal of the Soviet occupation: as mujahedin they had been vaunted as heroic freedom fighters, supported in both matériel and training by the United States to the tune of many billions of dollars. by 1994, however, they were becoming a perceived nuisance to western interests in the region (it goes without saying, of course, that this was always about oil and the routing of pipelines) as their particular brand of Islamic fundamentalism was proving to be a powerful ideological bridge between the various local tribal factions jostling for power in the vacuum caused by the Soviet withdrawal, and their control over Kabul was not what the US had had in mind when they were bankrolling the war.

however, although few in the west were comfortable with a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, they remained a local, and relatively trivial problem on the international political stage.

until the eleventh of september 2001

the notion of 'military intelligence' has been so effectively discredited in the last twelve months as to merit that phrase's position close to the top of the top ten list of greatest oxymorons of all time. however, 'military intelligence', by identifying the al-Quaida network as perpetrators of the 9/11 atrocity, and by asserting that its leader, Osama bin Laden, was living under Taliban protection somewhere in Afghanistan, effectively demonised the Taliban overnight, and sealed its fate, for the time being, at least.

all war photographers are naïve, in the sense that naïveté is a precondition of heroism, and all war photographers are either cast in or aspire to the heroic mould, but most, consequently, are unwitting commercial if not political stooges. they go risking their own lives in pursuit of the photograph that will secure their reputation - as another Matthew Brady, another Robert Capa, or the next Don McCullin, or Larry Burrows, or James Nachtwey - perhaps subscribing to the Magnum myth about revealing 'the truth' in 'the decisive moment', but truly careless that what they are really doing is nothing more noble than feeding the insatiable public appetite for authentic images of horror - of real death, of real destruction, of real suffering ('jaded' is entirely too genteel a tint for this state of desensitivity - 'j.springered' gets closer). provided 'the enemy' has been effectively demonised by the media arm of the political machine (the word 'evil' is frequently invoked in this context) then he becomes legitimate fodder for the vengeance-driven need for proof of his subjugation, and the war-photographer is the willing forager for that fodder.

if there's a man or woman left standing who doesn't know, by now, that war is man-made hell, and that, once unleashed, the dogs of war wreak unspeakably dehumanised and indiscriminate acts of merciless violence on men, women, and children, then no mere photograph is going to help them understand that. the archives are stuffed to bursting with the screaming ghosts of millions of burnt, blasted, mutilated, agonised human beings whose individual dyings and deaths, dispassionately recorded and filed, have taught us nothing - absolutely nothing - about how to co-exist. and nothing any young gung-ho upstart off to the latest war zone with a bandana round his head and a bag stuffed with state-of-the-art kit might have to say about 'witnessing' or 'dispassionate reporting' or 'capturing the truth' is really worth a bucket of beans - what he's after is sexy war-porn which will sell, sell, sell.

'Taliban' is a war-trophy - one wrapped, to be sure, in a cloak of pseudo-patrician decency - but actually an image that belongs in a long line of totemic images - of the vanquished paraded before the victors. it appeals to a regressive political instinct, but one whose provenance is identifiable - Ancient Rome. the Roman Triumph was a spectacular treat for its citizens - a reassuring demonstration that all was well in the homeland - that the captured barbarians, paraded in chains through the streets, would no longer represent a threat - the latest to be subdued to the Pax Romana in the ever-expanding outlying reaches of empire. decimation was another characteristic Roman technique. the ongoing paroxysm of revenge against the 9/11 murders has seen at least a hundred Afghanis and Iraqis killed for every one victim of that attack. (despite there being even less proof of Saddam's support for al-Quaida than there is for his possession of wmd's - indeed, his link with 9/11 was not even in contention as justification for the Iraq war - more than fifty percent of Americans have been persuaded to believe that the invasion of Iraq was justified on those grounds.)

differently titled - 'The Unknown Soldier' perhaps - this photograph would have been generic and would have been quite differently perceived and regarded. but it is titled 'Taliban 2001', and it was exhibited in the ghost-shadows of the Twin Towers. it is therefore generic by default - by dint of the kind of cynical disinformation that characterises all propaganda. the juxtaposition of the word 'Taliban' with that date - '2001' - ineluctably enmeshes this image in the shameful catalogue of political manipulations that has led to the pulverising of two Islamic countries in the wake of that dreadful day. this soldier was killed seven years before the attack on the World Trade Center in a firefight with fellow Afghanis - one of thousands of similar casualties in a local civil war. to describe him as 'the enemy' is as disingenuous as calling water snow. furthermore, there is a kind of inverted glee in evidence here at the fact that this photograph was not taken by an American - so no-one can point and accuse anyone of gloating. even better - it was actually taken by a Frenchman (the French opposed the war, you know). double whammy! up yours, Taliban! up yours, Jacques Chirac!

under whatever delusions he might have been fighting, one thing is certain - the dead young man who is the subject of this photograph believed in what he was fighting for. he was a devout Muslim who died believing he was fighting for the one true faith. to appropriate the image of his corpse as subject matter for what we call 'art' is absolutely no different from displaying stuffed aboriginal corpses in museums as objects of anthropological curiosity. actually, it's worse, because copies of this image can be acquired ($15,000 per print - I am honestly not making this up - from the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in NYC) for further flaunting of your own personal taste or wealth - and there was a limited edition (100) of smaller prints available in a book for $1,000, but they're long gone - and, doubtless, in process of accruing already.

did someone mention something about 'dignity', about 'intimacy', about 'humanity' in connection with this image?

had a small copy of this photograph been offered as a gift, say, to the soldier's parents in a spirit of compassion, then, and only then, might it have been considered as being imbued with 'dignity': one can (just) imagine a grieving parent clinging to this last, albeit bleak, albeit horrifying image of their beloved son as if there were a kind of comfort to be shared between them in this visual cradling-by-proxy. however, as soon as it's extracted from such a (just) comprehensibly humane context and translated, via the cash-hungry machinery of the Fine Art Asylum, into ein Kunstwerk - printed to a grotesquely bombastic size, mounted on a gallery wall, and offered for sale at a price which represents more than this young man could ever possibly have hoped to earn in his short lifetime - then it forfeits the right to be considered in terms which include notions like 'dignity' or 'humanity' or 'intimacy' (and god help her if those demented ravings quoted from the catalogue above actually reflect the reality that woman inhabits).

consider - had this soldier been a GI (when did you last see an image of a dead American?) this photograph would never have been seen - anywhere.
consider - what sort of moral cowardice shields its gluttony for cheap (or, in this case, very expensive) aesthetic sensationalism behind the confidence that the parents of this dead young man will never be able to muster the financial resources to file a lawsuit against the photographer, his agents, or the gallery (I will mention only the 1964 Helsinki Accord and the 1948 Geneva Declaration of Human Rights)?

the incorporation of the dead human body into art has been an enduring theme - from the memento mori of religious painting to the more recently contentious uses of actual corpses.

a fellow-photographer in the Ricco/Maresca catalogue - Joel Peter Witkin - is responsible for this beautiful image called 'Cadaver with Necklace 1980' in which - crucially - the eyes of the cadaver are covered by a delicately draped black silk blindfold.

in 1918, when this photograph was taken in the Trobriand Islands, there was a strange complicity at work - between the photographer (an anonymous ethnographer), to whom 'art' was of no consideration at all in using photography to document what he or she found, and the recently-bereaved young man whose wife he holds up proudly so that she might be recorded - and remembered - as the beauty he married. almost a century down the timeline, our reading of this photograph can't help but be informed by our current understanding about falsely sentimentalising 'primitive' cultures' relationships with western mores and technologies. for all that, however, the unguarded openness of those faces bespeaks, not only a very different attitude to death, but a genuine cooperation between artist and subject: in discussing this image, it's perfectly appropriate to use words like 'dignifying' and 'immortalising' and 'human', despite there being, even to a sensibility as jaded as ours, something very weird about this situation.

the exhibition of Luc Delahaye's photographs continues its world tour in the UK at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford until the third of May this year. 'Taliban 2001' is only one of many equally arresting images by a photographer whose aesthetic consistently reflects a sense of detachment bordering on ethical autism.

I can think of only one way in which this particular image - 'Taliban 2001' - might be elevated to the status of true art, and that is if, interposed between the spectator and the display, were discovered standing the silent figure of a middle-aged Afghan woman, burkha removed, holding a hand-written placard reading simply, 'My Son.'

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