October 2014

James Orbesen

nonfiction

War Porn by Christoph Bangert

At the start of Christoph Bangert's collection, War Porn, the photographer warns us: "You were not supposed to see these images. No one was." Of course, starting off that way acts as little more than an open invitation. It's the old playground trick or carnival barker's call: "hey, you want to see something really nasty?"

Yet, Bangert isn't a showman and doesn't believe in the glamorization of the "heroic war photographer." The reader isn't asked anything to feel or believe anything, really. The photojournalist is careful to state that this only represents his personal experiences in the places of tragedy that dot our world in increasing numbers. All Bangert wants you to do is look. Indeed, as he says, "You HAVE TO look at it!"

And, of course, we will look.

War Porn is a collection of over 160 photographs, all previously unpublished, that Bangert snapped for various news outlets documenting death and destruction mainly across the Middle East. Reprinted, on glossy stock, in full color, the photos have a richness to them that contradicts the pain and suffering captured.

All of the photos depict horror and atrocity, suffering, death, and misery. It's a collection meant to be shocking, the photos that go unpublished because of their gruesomeness, photos deemed unsuitable by editorial boards. Indeed, the title, as Bangert correctly assess, is both ironic and totally accurate. These images border on the pornographic simply because of the sheer taboo surrounding pictures of dead babies and maimed bodies. We look even though we may not like what we see.

But, as Susan Sontag observed, decades ago, in On Photography: "Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised -- partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror."

This is perhaps more true today than when Sontag wrote those words in the 1970s. Images of death and destruction have metastasized, spreading from the work of war photojournalist pioneer Mathew Brady, to Robert Capa's Spanish Civil War and World War Two photos, to the infamous images out of Vietnam, captured by the likes of Eddie Adams and Nick Ut. Images of mass destruction, today, sit at everyone's fingertips, easily accessible with a few keystrokes.

Sadly, the proliferation of violent images from war zones throughout the Middle East hasn't stemmed the tide of blood. The novelty is gone. If Sontag was right about photos being incapable of creating a moral position, only reinforcing one, then what does that say about most of us?

However, War Porn isn't a mere collection of grotesques. Bangert crafts the book in such a way that it is both unique and challenging. When I first opened the cover, I thought I had a faulty copy. It seemed that many of the pages were uncut, folded together, hinting that this was an escapee from quality control. But that's intentional. Many of the more shocking images are tucked away, needing, as Bangert suggests, a letter opener or a knife to be seen.

This act of cutting, tearing, and opening up implicates the reader in a way few books of photography have previously done. Of course, there's much to be said about the voyeuristic nature of photo viewing and issues of culpability and fetish making when it comes to looking at controversial images. Photograph collections have challenged viewers before.

Still, this choice of cutting gives the reader an agency, if only for that initial slice. Instead of the usual collection asking: "come and see," this becomes "are you sure you want this?" Knives can cut both ways, after all. Viewing, something passive, becomes, momentarily, active. You have to work for your shock. It doesn't always come on an open page.

While Sontag asserted that "...the moralists are demanding from a photograph is that it do what not photograph can never do -- speak," Bangert's use of uncut pages, alongside his index of captions at the book's end, gives a fleeting voice to these images. Subject, photographer, and observer become mixed up. In a way, what gets posed to the viewer is: you worked for this, now what else will you work for?

What crystallizes this further are the photos Bangert closes his collection with. We jump back to World War Two, to photos of his grandfather, a German doctor and Nazi true believer. The grandfather didn't make it into the Waffen SS but, instead, was an army doctor on the Eastern Front, a theatre of battle unmatched in its savagery and brutality. It wasn't uncommon for whole towns, whole cities to be slaughtered, epidemics of rape to occur as armies marched past, as well as wholesale executions, either by bullet or gas chamber. Bangert reflects, imagines, what sort of horrors his grandfather witnessed. Of course, the grandfather never speaks of them, tossing aside his history on the frontlines in favor of stories about his beloved horse.

Bangert urges the reader to do nothing more than look at the photos he's captured. He's being facetious, plucking at our moral fibers through the back door. Essentially, what War Porn does is affirm that photographs are ways of remembering, of trapping the past. The horrors of the present may not be addressed. But they will be remembered. The people may cover up their deeds, forget, die. Even with an Internet worth of digital images, cataloguing untold horrors, to dull the novelty of these images, photos continue to be bulletproof, death proof. The crimes of our current moment are not forgotten thanks to the spectacular work of people like Christoph Bangert and his startling collection.

War Porn by Christoph Bangert
Kehrer Verlag
ISBN: 978-3868284973
192 pages