In April, the widely respected photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus was shot dead by an Afghan policeman while covering the country’s elections. She was the third journalist in as many months to be killed by suspected Taliban. Her friend and Associated Press (AP) colleague Kathy Gannon was wounded in the attack. While Niedringhaus had covered conflicts since the early 90’s, from Bosnia to Libya, she also photographed sports events, such as Wimbledon and the Olympics. In 2005, she was part of a team of AP journalists to win a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the fighting between allied forces and insurgents inside Iraqi cities.
Photographs weave through our lives so thoroughly these days that it’s quite easy to become both complacent and cynical. War photography is particularly loaded with distrust or ‘compassion fatigue’ over what it purports to show.
In her now-canonical series on essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote that “photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.” We learn nothing from merely looking. Understanding requires a narrative, which takes place over time, and photographs provide just a tiny slice.
Sontag was suspicious of photography because photos are, well, photo-realistic. They appear to show reality—the truth—even though most people realise they can be doctored, staged, or even presented as evidence in support of opposing points of view.
Niedringhaus seems to have taken a more positive view. In an article for Der Spiegel, AP’s Christoph Reuter wrote that after winning the Pulitzer, Niedringhaus was frequently offered opportunities to exhibit her photos in galleries. “They say it’s art,” she said, “But I don’t think of my work as being art.” Instead she said she sought to portray reality as precisely as possible through her work, asking, “who, if not us, is going to do that?”
Above is one of Niedringhaus’ most famous Pulitzer-winning photographs, featuring three US soldiers standing in the rubble of a Fallujah street in 2004. Taken on its own, it shows what all war photos show: something probably bad, probably important, and disputably necessary (armed conflict) is happening somewhere in the world. The oddity of the soldier’s toy is the most arresting thing about the picture. So what does it say about that soldier, or the attitudes of allied forces in Iraq?
I think what makes Niedringhaus’ work so compelling is her focus on the incongruities that help to make people’s lives, indicate their particular history, their fears, and hopes for the future. Her photos may not provide understanding by themselves but they constitute an invitation to understanding, and a most generous one at that. The toy raises questions about the soldier, and his comrades. What message is the soldier trying to convey by carrying such a mascot? That he doesn’t give a shit? That he’s a joker? That he’s superstitious. That he’s afraid?
Through its main focus, which is incongruous, what Niedringhaus’ picture does is remind us of an entire life—entire worlds—lived either side of the moment recorded by her camera. This is something Sontag was worried would be lost in our naïve but persistent belief that photographs simply depict reality.
Niedringhaus’ pictures frequently showed war’s horrors, such as the bloody aftermath of bombings, but she was most noted for focusing on quiet moments of lives lived in conflict zones. Discussing her book, At War, Niedringhaus wrote: “For me, covering conflict and war is the essence of journalism… The legacy of any photographer is her or his ability to capture the moment, to record history. For me it is about showing the struggle and survival of the individual.”
In the above photo, an Afghan girl wears her burqa while playing with her friends in Kabul in 2013. Again, Niedringhaus’ photo raises questions. Must the girl wear the burqa at play, or is she using it to augment her play, something that may be frowned upon by conservative, male elders? Perhaps the girl herself approves of the gender regimen symbolised by the burqa? Probably she doesn’t care.
Back in the 1970s, Sontag wrote: “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge —and, therefore, like power.” But what is Niedringhaus appropriating with this picture? Where is the power relation? Is it the Western liberal mind tut-ting over the repressive veiling of women and girls in Afghanistan? Nothing solid can be drawn from the picture. We only know that the girl was at play because it was bylined with such a description. It does not represent a reality that is already set for us in Sontag’s terms, ideology. Instead, it arrests the viewer with its beauty and unreadability.
Niedringhaus took the above photo of George W. Bush holding a Thanksgiving turkey at Baghdad International Airport on November 27, 2003, more than six months after the president had declared the Iraq War “mission accomplished.” It can be construed as propaganda: the down-home president risks his life to cheer the troops during a difficult time—violence in Iraq was reaching new levels every day. But does this photo focus on the incongruous? Probably not, unless one finds politicians carrying food innately ridiculous (what I call the ‘Miliband banana moment’). It’s likely the photo entrenched opinions about Bush and the Iraq War: a worthy cause against a brutal dictator that should be supported by freedom-loving people everywhere, or a hideous new paradigm in US foreign policy based on greed and lies despised by freedom-loving people everywhere. ‘Propaganda’ will always be taken in different ways by different sides.
Niedringhaus recorded a historical moment, but one that prompts further questions rather than shutting the debate down. Why was the president there? Surely if the mission had succeeded he would not spend Thanksgiving in what was probably the most dangerous city in the world. What has really made him go there, and what will happen next?
Even in this photograph, Niedringhaus’ genius for the particular in conflict shines through. Her photos tell us about war, yes, but they also tell us that something is going on—and we need to find out what that something is, rather than dismissing it as yet more human suffering.
That same year, 2003, Sontag, softened her scepticism toward photography in her book Regarding the Pain of Others: “It is felt that there is something morally wrong with the abstract of reality offered by photography; that one has no right to experience the suffering of others at a distance, denuded of its raw power; that we pay too high a human (or moral) price for those hitherto admired qualities of vision—the standing back from the aggressiveness of the world which frees us for observation and for elective attention. But this is only to describe the function of the mind itself.” I like to imagine that Susan Sontag found that the work of Anja Niedringhaus offered us time to stand back and to think.
Title image source: Reuters