What is it good for (WIIGF)? And how does photography account for it, or tell the story of war?

Lots of assorted threads come to mind, and I’d like to start a string of posts that deal with war and its intersections with the image world I encounter. I’ve been mulling this over ever since PhotoNOLA last December, when I asked Bruce Davidson about shooting war, and he said that the Civil Rights Movement, Brooklyn gangs, and the NYC subway had been war-like enough for him, that he’d never felt compelled to go into combat zones despite other great photographers who had and had emerged with some profound photographs (Don McCullin, James Nachtwey, etc.). Apparently the Magnum war bug never bit him. That is, he’d never felt compelled to go into war in search of an image that would capture not just news, not just details, but an image that might summarize man’s plight, an image that might cause the end of wars.

Bruce Davidson lecture, Historic New Orleans Collection, December 2008

He was fairly emphatic about it. I was a bit surprised to hear that he hadn’t done any war photography, but his humanitarian, pacifist side seems to survive well in his photographs nonetheless. For a New Yorker, he’s surprisingly low-key. A survivor, of sorts.

Here’s a guiding, or framing, quote to kick off this series of posts:

War isn’t a matter of routine. What it involves is the disruption of routine. War “breaks out,” it signals its appearance, it demands the declaration of its beginning and end. For an event to be considered a war, it must be relatively isolated, take place within a limited time frame, and express the pretension to victory of at least one of the sides. When events are prolonged beyond a reasonable time frame and appear to be incapable of resolution, we have recourse to the term war of attrition, meaning the mutual attrition by either side of the other side’s strength. War is one expression of an economy of violence. It takes place between states, focusing on their armed forces. An armed conflict between at least two sides is a condition for war. Occupation is another expression of the economy of violence. The suppression of the occupied side’s power and the negation of its ability to fight (its ability to manifest its power) are conditions for occupation. In war, the physical territory is divided in such a way that the front turns into a stage on which the campaign is enacted. In the case of occupation, the entire territory serves as a stage.

–Ariella Azoulay, Death’s Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy (MIT Press, 2001), p. 220

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