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Art: Picturing Death

War and peace, the tolerable way

By Laura James · October 4th, 2006 · Visual Art
  Images of War is on view at Junior Gallery through Oct. 14.
Sean Hughes/photopresse.com

Images of War is on view at Junior Gallery through Oct. 14.

The exhibition currently on view at Junior Gallery, Images Against War, is a mixed bag. It's tempting to say that the photographs included in the show are profound, good, political, timely and fresh. The problem is that the work isn't necessarily any of those things.

Which is not to say that the exhibition isn't brilliant. It is.

Soon after the war in Iraq began, Tina Schelhorn, the curator and founder of Galarie Lichtblick in Cologne, Germany, became a little lost. She wanted a way to express her feelings about the war, corruption and devastation and quickly came up with an idea. Schelhorn invited friends, students, neighbors, professional photographers and everyone else she could think of to submit images of their own perceptions of war and peace.

What evolved is a selection of nearly 2,000 photographs from countries all over the world -- including the United States. Americans, according to Schelhorn, were incredibly "thankful" that we were allowed to take part.

At this, the curator laughs, perhaps not really understanding how many Americans don't want to be categorized as American, pro-war, pro-Bush, pro-globalism. When we aren't, we're thankful.

And yet the images collected in the exhibition are fraught with violence, treachery, bereavement -- pain, physical and otherwise. These images fight their way into the viewer's eyes. Walking through this microcosm of war, however, it's difficult not to be struck by the absence of a certain kind of pain, death and scaring.

Susan Sontag's final book before she died, Regarding the Pain of Others, made valid and disturbing points about this topic. To paraphrase Sontag, there is a big difference between "our dead" and "their dead."

Don't be surprised to see Muslim women poring with rage and anguish over wood coffins or makeshift body bags. Expect to find countless images of dark-skinned, mangled babies in clinics that look nothing like America's.

There are the now-clich├ęd 9/11 landscapes: Manhattan from a distance. From those images, so similar to pictures sold to tourists on street corners in New York, we remember the pain of that day, of course, but we aren't privy to the real dead. The faces. The bodies. The war.

When some media sources tried to show actual death, they were lambasted. People were outraged at the lack of feeling these photojournalists had.

We saw the disaster from afar -- we saw the survivors, the clean up, the "cross" that was nothing more than metal welded together. We saw people walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. We saw phone poles with the smiling faces of the "missing." There was a careful consideration to what we were allowed to see. These were our dead. We had no right to photograph them.

It makes sense to investigate which photographs are presented in the exhibition at Junior, which have been censored and what this has to do with power. Pictures revealing the number of Americans killed in Iraq, for example, have been censored almost completely.

When a Seattle newspaper in 2003 published an image of coffins flown in from the Iraq war fields, covered in American flags, the picture was immediately the subject of vituperative questioning and eventual censorship. People complained about the families of these fallen soldiers having to see such an image. Yet nearly every day since the war began the front page of American newspapers show grave images of Iraqi soldiers mourning, bloody and dead.

The message the media is sending is clear: We're not the ones who are dying, they are. We're winning. They're losing.

Clearly neither Schelhorn nor William Messer, the local curator, is responsible for this lacuna. It's the fault of big government working as hard as hell to hide the faces of certain dead, certain wounded, certain kinds of pain.

The exhibition includes about 230 images and is an abbreviated version of the major Images Against War show running concurrently at the Peace Museum in Chicago. Junior's exhibition comprises both technically brilliant and aesthetically boring (very newsy) images, all absolutely worth seeing. Grade: B+

IMAGES AGAINST WAR is presented at Junior Gallery in Brighton through Oct. 14.


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