Tag Archives: War Photography

World War II Through Soviet Jewish Eyes

In 2003, a young American historian named David Shneer was conducting research in Moscow when he heard about an exhibition of photographs called Women at War. At the time, displaying photography on gallery walls was still a fairly novel concept for Russia, and the exhibit was not meant to be a blockbuster. To get inside, Shneer found that he had to ring a doorbell at a nondescript building, at which point a raspy voice came over the intercom and demanded: “Who are you? What do you want?” But the images inside astounded him.

Not only had they been taken with incredible skillarranging light and form in a way that would put to shame many of today’s war photographersbut they were from the Soviet battlefields of World War II, which made the surnames of their authors seem all the more strange. About four out of five of them, Shneer noticed, were Jewish surnames. “How is it possible,” he thought, “that a bunch of Jews, who are supposed to be oppressed by the Soviet Union, are the ones charged with photographing the war?”

As delicately as he could, Shneer put the question to one of the curators, who in typical Moscow style had a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “She looked at me like I’m an idiot and said, ‘Yes, the photographers were all Jewish.’” It turned out she was the granddaughter of one of them, Arkady Shaykhet, and their conversation that day is what led to the exhibit that opened on Nov. 16 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. Links backlinks blog comments . It has the same title as the book Shneer wrote from his researchThrough Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War and the Holocaust.

The show explores the way World War II was covered in the pages of Soviet newspapers such as Pravda, casting light on a side of the Holocaust that often gets short shrift in western history books. The genocide against the Jews, usually associated with images of Nazi death camps and gas chambers, was also perpetrated through mass shootings across Eastern Europe. Later termed the “Holocaust by Bullets,” it took more Jewish lives than the concentration camps, says Shneer, and it was documented most poignantly by the Jewish photographers of the Soviet press.

Although none of them are still alive to tell their story, Shneer spent the better part of a decade tracking down their relatives in Moscow and collecting nearly 200 works from their family archives. The prints were often no bigger than a pack of cigarettes, taken with beat-up cameras and two roles of film allotted for each battle. There are more faceless soldiers in these frames than intimate portraits of victims, and the most common theme is emptiness, at once bleak and monumental. But given their historical context, what seems most striking is the duality that runs through the lives and works of these photographers. On the one hand, these are works of Soviet propaganda, glorifying the Red Army in the tradition of socialist realism. “They needed photos of nurses doing good work on the home front, patriotic soldiers conquering territory,” says Shneer. “And their Jewishness rarely appears in that kind of material.”

But it does appear when they go off assignment to explore the Jewish ghettos in places like Ukraine and Hungary. There they found survivors living among the ruins of Europe, the yellow Stars of David on their overcoats still marking them for death. In the Budapest ghetto, the photographer Evgenii Khaldei found the corpses of his fellow Jews strewn about the floor of a gutted shop, a scrap of butcher paper covering the face of a man whose body lies in the doorway. Images like this did not appear in the mainstream Soviet press, but they were published in Eynikayt, or Unity, the Yiddish-language newspaper of the USSR. “We have this image in our heads that Jewishness was completely suppressed in the Soviet Union,” says Shneer. “But that’s really apost-war image of the country.”

Antisemitism only became part of Soviet dogma in 1948, the year that Israel was founded and Josef Stalin began his campaign against the”cosmopolitans” a Soviet byword for Jews. Many of the best Jewish photographers lost their staff positions at Pravda and other major publications that year, and phrases like “too many Jews on staff” began appearing in the official correspondence between the editors and their government censors. Some of the photographers continued working as freelancers for the propaganda press, but even after their experiences on the front, they rarely embraced their heritage. “None of these guys were buried in the Jewish cemetery,” says Shneer. “None ever tried to leave for Israel. None learned Hebrew.”

Soviet patriotism and its predilections came first, in their lives and in the work they produced. Even long after the fall of communism, when Shneer was conducting his research, the last surviving photographer from this group refused to meet with him. “He was still living in the Soviet world where meeting with a foreigner was scary.” In their style and execution, the images they captured are rooted in that world. They document the greatest triumph of the Soviet Union. But regardless of whether they are viewed on the pages of Pravda or a gallery wall, that world does not bind their relevance as monuments and works of art.


Simon Shuster is TIMEs Moscow reporter.

ThroughSoviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War and the Holocaust will be on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage from Nov. 16 2012 to April 7, 2013.

This Means War: A Look at Conflict Photography

“War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath,” is a huge, tough-minded and very moving new show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It lays out the ways cameras have been put to use during 165 years of world wars, undeclared hostilities and barely organized fang baring. Cameras turn out to be the transformer tools of warfare, adaptable as battlefield aids for reconnaissance and surveillance, as peerless instruments of propaganda and, above all, as a means to witness the atrocious facts of war. You may not be able to end war with a camera, but you can do a lot of useful things with one — even tell the truth.

Instead of being organized chronologically, the Houston show suggests that war is better considered as an eternally recurring narrative. It divides its story into chapters, from prewar buildup through postwar remembrances, with wars from all periods combined in each. The weaponry evolves from sabers to torpedoes to rocket-propelled grenades. (For the record, sharpened steel is forever.) The photo equipment changes from 19th century box cameras to cell phones and satellites. But the fundamentals of war — brutality and suffering, grief and self-sacrifice — don’t change much. They haven’t since the first time a caveman figured out how to use a rock.

The main problem for war photography today is image overload. The tidal wave of pictures all around us, with every cell phone adding to the deluge every day, threatens to make even atrocity photos into just more pictures, as morally weightless as the movie stills they so often resemble. For all that, the scores of unforgettable pictures in “War/Photography” make clear that even in a world that contains too many pictures, pictures of war, the best ones, still have the power to stir your emotions. They may not be able to compel any particular judgment about the wars they represent, but they can insist that attention must be paid. After that, if photos by themselves can’t stop war — and they can’t — then the fault is not in our pictures but in ourselves.

(MORE: Read more of Richard Lacayo’s take on the show.)


WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston until Feb. 3 and will then move to Los Angeles, Washington and Brooklyn.

Richard Lacayo is an art critic and editor-at-large at TIME.



Tearsheet of The Day | Yuri Kozyrev photo of Saddam’s ‘rat hole’ in FT Weekend

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, unveiled their survey of war photography, WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, on Armistice Day yesterday. The FT Weekend magazine featured some of the work from the exhibition in their latest issue. You can view the FT article and slideshow here.  You can also read about the show over at Photo District News, which interviewed the exhibition’s curators.

Below war in Iraq photograph from 2003 by Yuri Kozyrev, which FT Weekend ran as a double truck.

p. 20-21. FT Weekend Magazine. November 10/11 2012 issue.
Photo © Yuri Kozyrev.
“A journalist climbs out of the hole where toppled dictator Saddam Hussein was captured in Ad Dawr. Iraq’s defeated leader raised his arms out of his ‘rat hole’ and said he was Saddam Hussein and that he wanted to negotiate. “ Iraq. December 15, 2003. Inkjet print.

Yuri Kozyrev (Russian, b. 1963) is a member of Noor Images and a contract photographer with Time magazine.

War/Photography by Geoff Dyer

War/Photography, on view from Nov. 11 to Feb. 3, is a magnificent, wide-ranging exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. As chief curator Anne Wilkes Tucker explains in the sumptuous catalogue, that slash in the title is important: this is not a show simply of photographs of war. It’s a demonstration and examination of the relationship between the two and how that relationship has changed over time. There are plenty of images of combat, but the catchment area extends way beyond the battlefield–both in space and in time–to include preparations for war, refugees fleeing its consequences, damage to property and the physical and psychological aftermath of conflict. Taken by some of the most famous photographers—more than 280 are showcased—in the history of the medium, by aerial reconnaissance units and unknown combatants and civilians, the pictures are drawn from the archives of photo agencies such as Magnum, military archives and personal family albums. It’s a stunning show, full of well-known pictures, surprising new ones and—if one consults the catalogue—surprises about well-known pictures.

More than a few of the featured pictures have been either faked or staged. That is to put it too simply, for the slipperiness of the distinction between “real” and “arranged”, or “genuine” and “fake”, turns out to be one of the themes of the show. The problem crops up right from the get-go, with Roger Fenton’s famous pair of pictures of the Valley of Death (1856) from the Crimean war—one of which shows cannonballs strewn more abundantly than the other. (slide #1) The scholarly war over which picture was taken first continues to rage. I thought this question had been definitively settled by Errol Morris in his book Believing is Seeing but John Stauffer argues in the catalogue for precisely the opposite conclusion. The “Dead Rebel Sharp Shooter” in Alexander Gardner’s famous image from the Civil War (slide #2) was dragged to the place where he is seen to have died and arranged in such a way that the rifle — not his own but a prop carried by the photographer — added extra pathos.

As with the Civil War, so in the First World War: it was impossible to take pictures of actual combat. One of the reasons why the famous footage of soldiers going over the top at the Battle of the Somme is faked is because it is on film. Filmed at a training ground, it shows a soldier who is shot, falls down, looks at the camera — and folds his arm before dying. Among the most spectacular images of the war, James Frank Hurley’s “An Episode after the Battle of Zonnebeke” (c.1918) (slide #3) seems like a composite expression of our idea of the Western Front — because, it turns out, it is a composite print made from multiple negatives. As Siegfried Sassoon wrote in his poem “Cinema Hero”: “It’s the truth/That somehow never happened.”

The complexity of Hurley’s image is in stark contrast to Wesley David Archer’s photograph of a pilot who has bailed out of his burning plane (c.1933) (slide #4). It is a picture full of suspense because we don’t know whether the parachute is going to open. What we do now know, courtesy of his widow, is that it was done with a model airplane. Armed with this knowledge you go back to the original and… it still looks amazing! You don’t feel cheated so much as admiring of someone who could create such a truth after (or independent of ) the fact.

Everyone is familiar with the doubts that continue to swirl around Robert Capa’s picture of the “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman” (1936) (slide #5) in the Spanish Civil War. No one can agree on exactly the circumstances in which it was made. And so, ironically, while photography is generally assumed to be strong as evidence but weak in meaning, Capa’s photograph has come to resemble painting, of which the contrary is held to be true. Joe Rosenthal’s image of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima in 1945 is an especially complicated case in that it was widely assumed to have been staged, faked, rigged or something like that, even if we can’t remember exactly what is supposed to have gone on because it’s all a bit muddled up with memories of the Clint Eastwood film about what happened.

The full story, as narrated in the catalogue, is that the flag was raised twice — not for Rosenthal’s benefit but, in the words of the Lieutenant Colonel who ordered it to be done, “so that every son-of-a-bitch on this whole cruddy island (could) see it.” (slide #6) How do we know this is accurate? Because there are photographs – i.e. photographs of the sequence of events that led to Rosenthal taking his photograph – to prove it. (see below) In any case, the success of Rosenthal’s image was due to the way that it not only recorded a moment and event but, in doing so, expressed a truth of enduring – even mythic – proportions about the Marine Corps. The same could be said of Len Chetwyn’s iconic picture from the North Africa (1942) campaign: a photograph which proves, at the most basic level, that this was indeed a battle waged by men in shorts! (not shown). The fact that a detail from it is used on the cover of a beautiful Australian edition of Alan Moorhead’s African Trilogy highlights the way that documentary veracity and imaginative truth are mutually supporting. The surprising thing – which turns out not to be so surprising if we consider how perfectly the picture is composed and lit — is that it’s the photograph that provides the imaginative half of that equation. Smoke grenades had indeed been deployed, but for pictorial effect rather than combat effectiveness.

Louis R. Lowery / Bob Campbell / Bill Genaust — The Museum of Fine Arts Houston

Three examples of photographs that documented the sequence of events leading to Rosenthal’s iconic photograph of the flag raising on Iwo Jima.

So there is a delicious irony, in a show that is so scrupulous and judicious in its investigation of the relationship between real and doctored pictures that the catalogue seems, in one instance, to have fallen victim to a booby-trap in its midst. John Filo’s photograph of the killings at Kent State in 1970 shows a distraught woman kneeling over the body of a dead student. Unfortunately it so happened that a pole in the background looked like it was coming out of her head. Since this pole was aesthetically unpleasing, it was removed from the picture as published in Life magazine and elsewhere. Amazingly this clumsily doctored version – you can see quite clearly how the pole has been erased – is the one printed in the War/Photography catalogue! (slide #7)

Courtesy of Jeff Wall

Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near
Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986), 1992

As we move into the contemporary the distinction between art and documentary becomes increasingly hard to sustain—or to put it the other way around, the No-Man’s Land between the two grows ever larger—as shown in works by color photographer Luc Delahaye (slide #8) and photojournalist Damon Winter’s Gurskey-esque view of a plane-load of troops “Flying Military Class” (slide #9). In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag argued that Jeff Wall’s “fictional” image “Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan)” was among the most successful war photographs of recent times. (note: Wall’s image is not part of the War/Photography exhibition) So perhaps Peter van Agtmael’s well-known shot of a line of U.S. troops sheltering from the downdraft of a helicopter in a rocky grey landscape in Nuristan, Afghanistan, in 2007, works on us powerfully for two reasons. (note: van Agtmael’s image is not part of the War/Photography exhibition) First because a compositional similarity to W. Eugene Smith’s shot of Marines sheltering from an explosion on Iwo Jima in 1945 (slide #10) establishes its place in the heroic and noble tradition of documentary photography. Second, because an uncanny resemblance to Wall’s image tacitly acknowledges that the fictive now sets a standard of authenticity to which the real is obliged to aspire.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum

An American Blackhawk helicopter lands at the Ranch House, an isolated U.S. outpost in the Waigul Valley of Nuristan Province, near Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan, 2007.

The relationship between Wall’s large works and the scale and ambition of history paintings has often been remarked on. But Gary Knight’s picture from Dyala Bridge, Iraq, 2003 (slide #11) achieves an even more remarkable relationship with the art of the past. A photograph taken in the immediate aftermath of fighting, it combines the documentary immediacy and evidential power of the best photojournalism with the epic grandeur of history painting.

Geoff Dyer is an award-winning writer and journalist. See more of his work here.

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath will open at the Museum of Fine Art Houston on Nov. 11, 2012.  The exhibit will then travel to Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and Brooklyn Museum through February 2014.

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Three War Photographers: Feel Fear, Keep Going

Clichés are tricky things. They convey a kind of truth — but can ring hollow. They can sound profound — but once uttered, they’re utterly forgettable. And while often employed to pay tribute to an individual, or to describe a specific profession, some clichés can be applied to a litany of vocations.

When other people run away from danger, they run toward it. They go into battle armed with nothing but courage. Like everyone else, they experience fear — but unlike everyone else, they keep going.

Ultimately, though, there’s one especially odd, defining characteristic about clichés: they endure for a reason. And while some of the assertions above — about running toward danger or experiencing fear — could easily pertain to any number of pursuits, from firefighting to mountain climbing, very few occupations in the world can make those platitudes sound new and meaningful again quite like the job of war photographer.

Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Here, in a short film by Will Wedig, Jonah Weintraub and Bill Shapiro — made to honor recipients of Time Inc’s prestigious Briton Hadden Lifetime Achievement Award — the profession and the passion of war photography, as practiced across decades by acknowledged masters, get their due.

One of the honorees, LIFE’s Ralph Morse, was sent to the Pacific in World War II as the youngest war correspondent working in that theater. All he managed to accomplish during the conflict was to survive the sinking of a cruiser off of Guadalcanal; make dozens of the most celebrated (and shocking) pictures to come out of the global conflagration; chronicle the liberation of Paris in 1944; and record the German surrender to Eisenhower in 1945. (Morse went on to so devotedly and inventively cover the early days of the Mercury Seven and the Space Race that John Glenn dubbed him the “eighth astronaut,” while LIFE’s long-time managing editor George Hunt once declared that “if LIFE could afford only one photographer, it would have to be Ralph Morse.”)

Larry Burrows—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The late, British-born Larry Burrows distinguished himself covering Southeast Asia from 1962 until his death in 1971. His work, from the searing single image, “Reaching Out” (featuring a wounded Marine desperately trying to comfort a stricken comrade after a fierce 1966 firefight in a landscape that might have given Hieronymus Bosch nightmares) to his great photo essay, “One Ride With Yankee Papa 13,” not only captured the war in Vietnam. For millions of people around the world, Burrows’ pictures encompassed and defined the long, divisive catastrophe.

He and three fellow photojournalists died when their helicopter was shot down during operations in Laos. Larry Burrows was 44.

James Nachtwey for TIME

Finally, there’s James Nachtwey, who has covered civil strife, natural disasters and armed conflicts around the globe for more than three decades. He has seen fellow photographers and friends injured and killed while doing their jobs. He has been wounded himself (in Iraq in 2003, when an insurgent tossed a grenade into a Humvee that he and TIME’s Michael Weisskopf were riding in). He was the subject of the 2001 Oscar-nominated documentary, War Photographer, and is widely regarded as the greatest living photojournalist.

“To see life,” Henry Luce wrote in his now-famous 1936 mission statement for LIFE magazine, delineating what he envisioned as his new venture’s workmanlike method and its lofty aims. “To see the world; to eyewitness great events … to see strange things — machines, armies, multitudes … to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.”

Across decades, Morse, Burrows and Nachtwey have seen, and have helped us see, the very best and the absolute worst that humanity can offer.

When other people ran from danger, they ran toward it. They went into battle armed with nothing but courage. They experienced fear — and they kept going. These are war photographers.

Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com.

The Gallery as Public Square: ‘Almost Dawn in Libya’

The photographer André Liohn, who got an early start on covering the civil war in Libya and stayed in the country through the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, was recently asked not to use that term—civil war—to describe the conflict. Liohn had returned to Libya to introduce a project that he started with seven other photographers who covered the war-torn African nation last year. They call the project Almost Dawn in Libya, and through it they plan to exhibit their photographs of the war in the Libyan cities of Tripoli, Misurata, Benghazi and Zintan. But as Liohn was telling a young lawyer who had been active in promoting the revolution on the internet about their work, the photographer was confronted about his choice of words.

He responded that what he had seen seemed to fit his own conception of a civil war, but she told him that, to her, the conflict didn’t fit that category. “That you can come to us and challenge this concept that we have of it—that’s exactly what the project is for,” Liohn says.

The photographers behind Almost Dawn in Libya—also known as ADIL, an acronym that sounds like the Arabic word for justice—aim to use their work to help Libyans come to grips with what happened there in the past year, to turn galleries into spaces for public debate. They are not the first to think about what would happen if those who might appear in war photography got to see those pictures. Susan Sontag described in On Photography the way that a photographer can seize control of a narrative and Susan Meiselas’ In History examined the ethics of conflict photography in Central America in the 1970s and ‘80s. But, says Liohn, there’s a new factor in play these days.

“The Libyan revolution or the Arab spring, it’s probably the first time where victims of a violence were able to document their own suffering. Mobile phones, videos, graphic design have been extremely important to unify people. They did it through images,” he says. “But today the images that they created have lost the context of the violence.” Liohn says that, without that context, the images that were once a rallying cry have become a source of fragmentation: each city has its own images of how brave its people were or how much they suffered. By showing the same exhibit of 100 pictures, not sorted geographically or chronologically, in four different places at the exact same time, the ADIL team hopes that Libyans will be able to start a dialogue that is not divided by city.

And Liohn says that, through ADIL, the photographers involved will cede their control of the images. “We are not showing it to a public that never saw Libya,” he says. “We are actually exposing ourselves to the public.” Part of the project involves bringing the photographers back to speak to that public and hold workshops, though, so Liohn says that hearing dissent about the way Libya is portrayed is part of the point. The larger point, however, is that the people who see the exhibits may then be inspired to discuss the country’s direction.

“The people there are waking up from this kind of dream-nightmare situation,” says Liohn, “and no one actually knows how the day is going to be.”

Learn more about Almost Dawn in Libya—and the photographers involved (André Liohn, Lynsey Addario, Eric Bouvet, Bryan Denton, Christopher Morris, Jehad Nga, Finbarr O’Reilly and Paolo Pellegrin) at their emphas.is fundraising page here

Inside Syria: Photographs by Rodrigo Abd

AP cameraman Ahmed Bahaddou and I sneaked into Syria from Turkey, traveling with the rebels’ Free Syrian Army. Our aim was to understand and cover the conflict in the country’s northwest region, as well as in the hard-hit Homs neighborhood of Bab Amr, under siege for weeks by government forces.

Almost as soon as we arrived, news broke of a massacre and the military victory of Bashar Assad’s forces in Homs. But after traveling in the country for about 10 days it became clear that the rebel stronghold of Idlib was likely to be the next source of news.

Saturday, March 10, was a horrifying day in Idlib. Ahmed and I had slept the night before in a hospital for security. The city was completely dark, making it impossible to drive in the city, and the sounds of the fighting could be heard everywhere.

Turky

Rodrigo Abd—AP

March 12, 2012. A Turkish man drives a tractor on a dirt road in Turkey, meters away from the Syrian border.

After waking up that morning, we began documenting the chaos as dozens of civilians and fighters brought the wounded and dead to the hospital. We could hear that the fighting was very close, with the sound of bullets whizzing nearby. Assad’s forces were taking control of all the neighborhoods and it was clear they were not going to welcome the presence of journalists.

It was time to leave.

In the last light of the evening, we saw fighters celebrating the destruction of a tank, and we ran with them, trying to avoid the direct line of fire. A sudden big explosion that spewed a huge grey smoke over a group of wounded soldiers created a terrific scene that I quickly photographed.

After we ran back to the hospital I encountered some of the most moving images of the conflict: a group of rebel fighters weeping over their dead comrades. They may not be my best photographs, but I think they tell a lot about the situation in Syria.

We left Idlib that night, traveling again with the Free Syrian Army. After walking in the dark in complete silence through a passage, we then hiked more than 11 kilometers to avoid military checkpoints in hopes of reaching a friendly city.

Anything we suffered to tell the story was nothing compared with what the Syrian people have experienced in nearly a year of conflict: broken families. Human rights abuses. Children severely injured. More than 7,500 people dead. The cruel realities of a country with a dark future.

Rodrigo Abd is a photographer with the Associated Press. See more of his work here.