Injured soldiers lie bleeding on the battlefield. Young children, screaming, run from artillery fire. Dead journalists lie with their cameras and their gear beside them.
These are the images of warfare.
Since the invention of photography in the middle of the 19th century, photography has been used to capture scenes of conflict around the world. It has created the most realistic depictions of warfare to date, and revolutionized how civilian populations viewed the trauma.
This revolution is the subject of an excellent new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum: War and Photography. Running through February 2, 2014, War and Photography examines the various stages of warfare and how photography helps sear those conflicts into our collective memory.
Warfare is a traumatic event difficult to understand if you have not experienced it first-hand. Yet War and Photography brings a voyeuristic and emotional glimpse into the aspects of armed conflict.
The exhibit is organized based on eight stages of war: recruitment, training, embarkation, daily routine, battle, death and destruction, homecoming, and remembrance. Each stage provides dozens of photos from world conflicts: U.S. Civil War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam War, Yugoslav Wars, Rwanda Genocide, multiple South American wars, and more.
The photographs are carefully chosen and displayed, depicting the harrowing details of death and destruction that warfare brings.
Some of the images are very famous- like the 1968 photo of Vietnam’s chief of police executing a suspected Viet Cong member, or the 1972 photo of young Vietnamese children running away from their village after a napalm attack.
Others are not so recognizable- like a 2008 photo of Congolese women fleeing their war-torn homes, or a 1980 photo of assassinated bishop Oscar Romero’s funeral in El Salvador.
From profile photographs of soldiers and civilians, to aerial photographs of enemy bombardments and battlefields, the exhibit captures nearly every important moment and viewpoint in the world’s major conflicts.
With introductory explanations of each stage of conflict, paired with detailed captions on a majority of photos, War and Photography also gives you the context necessary to understand the images you are seeing. It is important to view the photos individually, eyeing them closely and examining their depressing details. But it is equally important to read each photo caption for clarity and reflection.
People often look at photographs of war, and later forget them. But the images will live with their survivors forever. The War and Photography exhibit, by placing hundreds of war images together in one space, creates a much more lasting impact for non-survivors to reflect on war’s effects. It’s also an excellent reminder of just how prevalent war is in many parts of the world.
The exhibit did have multiple faults: one lacking aspect was the show’s emphasis on American-involved conflicts: i.e. World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Photographs from these wars comprised a much larger percentage of the exhibit than photographs from other international conflicts. It would have been better to have a more equal balance of images from hostilities around the world.
I also believe the show would have been better organized by the conflicts themselves, rather than thematically. Concentration can be difficult when viewing images from half a dozen wars placed together in a single exhibit section. The nuances and individual circumstances of each war can also be lost through the exhibit’s current organization.
Despite these issues, War and Photography is still a visceral and informative look at how photography has captured warfare over the past 150+ years. Extensive and grossly engaging, it will capture and hold you for a very long time.