Framing War


curated by Judy Ditner

April 9 – April 24, 2005

The movement from photojournalism to art photography travels a well-worn path, but it is a difficult one to negotiate if specific information is not to fall by the wayside. It is especially difficult when the situation is not only recent but still at issue, for as “art” takes center stage, “news” is pushed to the margins. [1]

The sites of the newspaper, magazine, book, and gallery and museum have very specific differences in the way journalistic photographs are presented and understood, and each has its own set of questions, drawbacks, and advantages.

In a magazine or newspaper, the editors decide which photographs to publish, and how to present them; their placement, size, and the accompanying text all influence how photographs are read. In a magazine context, many of these decisions can be beyond the photographer’s control. The obvious advantage of this type of publication is that the readership is very large, and as a result, the mass media are a fundamental part of the business. In a book, or museum or gallery, on the other hand, the photographer has more control over which images are used and how they are shown. The photographs reach a smaller audience, but that audience has a chance to spend more time with them and to contemplate the issues in a different way because each context implies a distinct type of looking.

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“Framing War” investigates the shifting contexts of contemporary war photography – from news to books and exhibitions – through an examination of photographs from the war in Iraq by Alexandra Boulat, Ron Haviv, Gary Knight, and Antonin Kratochvil. These photographers acted both as embedded and independent photojournalists during the war, and their coverage of this conflict has been widely published and exhibited internationally. These four photographers are also among the founding members of VII Photo Agency, a photographic cooperative founded in September 2001 and are highly respected photojournalists and contract photographers for major news weeklies in the United States and Europe.

The photographs in “Framing War” were taken during the U.S.-led war on Iraq in March and April 2003. The specificity of this selection helps to limit the discussion to images produced during and leading up to the official war, and reflects an attempt to keep the pool of images relatively narrow. Their experiences of the war varied widely, and the work they produced imparts disparate views of the war, both in the events they photographed, and the way in which they chose to record and present the photographs.

Alexandra Boulat covered the war, and the days and weeks leading up to it, from Baghdad, documenting the climate and tension in the city as its people prepared for war. Unlike the majority of her colleagues in Iraq, Boulat chose to cover the events on film rather than digitally. In this exhibition, nine of her photographs from the series “Iraq through the fall” are presented. Several of her photographs from this series are strangely absent of people: a photograph of candles set on the Tigris river by peace activists; a Baghdad cityscape, the sky blackened by oil smoke; children’s laundry drying on a terrace while oil fires burn in the background; a bombed out area in a civilian neighborhood in Baghdad. Even her photograph of a dead child is abstracted and serene. The caption is crucial. “A young girl lies, wrapped in a white sheet on the marble table in the mortuary washing room of a Shiite Mosque. She was killed by a bomb blast during the coalition bombing of Baghdad.” The image is a quiet statement of loss. It speaks of death poetically rather than directly. There is an air of sadness and mourning in the blue-green light that illuminates the scene.

Antonin Kratochvil presents “Hell in Basra”, a series of eighty black-and-white photographs, projected as a digital slideshow on the gallery wall. Kratochvil’s photographs focus on the experience of the Iraqi population in the southern city of Basra as British forces made their way towards the capital. The digital format allows for the presentation of a large number of images, which together create a more complete picture. In this sense, “Hell in Basra” functions like an extended digital photographic essay, and each photograph is enriched within the context of the others. Kratochvil’s photographs are never balanced; there is usually a disproportionate amount of sky or ground, and faces are usually cropped off around the edges of the frame. These visual tensions created by Kratochvil evoke and reinforce feelings of confusion and insecurity.

Gary Knight presents a digital sequence of 189 photographs taken during a two-day battle, to secure a strategic position just outside of Baghdad. This work, simply titled “The Bridge”, is projected at a rate of one frame per second, lending a feeling of urgency and immediacy. Since many of the pictures were taken within a short time frame, their sequencing animates them and pulls the viewer through the scene in what feels like real-time. The digital presentation is more true to the digital format that Knight used to record the photographs, and functions like digital contact sheet, unedited, and revealing. When projected as a series of still photographs, they retain the impact of a still image. This impact is combined with a more immediate sense of time – the viewer moves with the photographer through the scene, and becomes more aware of the photographer’s movements and choices through the sequencing of the images.

Ron Haviv’s “Iraq 2003” tracks and records the events and operations of a U.S. military unit during the war. This series of still photographs is accompanied by sound that Haviv recorded on the scene, music, and audio footage recorded from news broadcasts. Through Haviv’s sequencing and use of narrative sound, “Iraq 2003” situates the photographs in a context from which they cannot be separated. Haviv was assigned to the First Marine Division, Tank Scouts from 29 Palms, California at the beginning of the war, transferring to the Third Battalion, of the Seventh Marines (3-7 Marines) just four days before fall of Baghdad. Although taken while embedded in these units, Haviv’s photographs do not present a glorified version of the events, but rather strike a balance between criticism and compassion. His combined use of sound and digital reflects the changing way photojournalists are working in the field.

In addition to the photographs and multimedia presentations, “Framing War” presents magazines and books in which these pictures were published, to prompt the viewer to consider how the context in which one encounters photographs of war affects one’s response to the images and the events. The aim of this exhibition is to raise questions and engage debate regarding how photographs of war and conflict can be presented responsibly, to the viewing public, the photographed subject, and within the larger historical context of the events.

– Judy Ditner, 2005

Judy Ditner is a graduate student at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College. The exhibition “Framing War” was organized as part of her M.A. thesis project. Before attending Bard, Judy worked as an independent curator and managed a private photography collection in Toronto, Canada. She has a long-standing interest and involvement with photography, receiving her B.F.A. in Photography Studies from the School of Image Arts at Ryerson University in 2002.

[one_half first]"Framing War", curated by Judy Ditner, April 9 - April 24, 2005Alexandra Boulat[/one_half]

[one_half]"Framing War", curated by Judy Ditner, April 9 - April 24, 2005Ron Haviv[/one_half]

[one_half first]"Framing War", curated by Judy Ditner, April 9 - April 24, 2005Gary Knight[/one_half]

[one_half]"Framing War", curated by Judy Ditner, April 9 - April 24, 2005Antonin Kratochvil[/one_half]

1. Martha Rosler, “Wars and Metaphors,” Decoys and Disruptions Selected Writings, 1975-2001, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press): 2004, 246.