The war of Images

The Pentagon has a rather insidious phrase to describe the latent power of the image in modern warfare

TV clips and photographs of the Shock and Awe campaign that rained down on Iraq in 2003 were called ‘force multipliers’. The meaning is pretty straight-forward: take a picture that shows the might of the US military (a building being destroyed for example) and ensure its worldwide exposure through various media outlets. Thus the power inherent in the physical attack is multiplied manifold, in print, on TV or online.

As part of the series of exhibitions that made up this year’s Brighton Photo Biennial – entitled Memory of Fire – curator Julian Stallabrass displayed a classic example of the force multiplier: Franco Pagetti’s vii, an epic cacophony of smoke and fire. The image of the destruction of Baghdad was displayed at enormous size in the biennial’s Iraq Through the Lens of Vietnam show.

Of course, force multipliers can work the other way. Alongside Pagetti’s single spectacle of warfare, Stallabrass aligned another wall, showing a series of 70 much smaller images. Taken with digital cameras and cameraphones, the familiar-seeming grins and thumbs-up belied the uncomfortable truths of the wider subject matter: the systematic abuse that took place in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. Displayed alongside the framed examples of ‘classic’ photojournalism (by Larry Niven, Tim Page, Philip Jones Griffiths) the snapshots taken at the prison, in all their lo-res amateur awfulness, retain a unique power. In fact, some are now as iconic as any photograph produced during the whole Iraq war.

Perversely, as the pictures were taken by US military personnel (who confessed under oath to their mistreatment of Iraqi detainees) the Abu Ghraib photographs are as much a part of the US state production of images as the army-sanctioned shots of its soldiers playing with Iraqi children, displayed on the reverse of the wall. Both series of images are, Stallabrass revealed, copyright free.

More than simply examining the changing nature of photojournalism, the biennial showed how our engagement with images of conflict has shifted. While a force multiplier does its job as propaganda, the power that a framed black and white photograph has to shock can, now, easily be matched by a jpeg.


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