The genre of war photography can demonstrate both cruelty and tenderness, depending on the circumstances of when the picture is taken. Most people normally associate war photography with death and destruction.
Main picture – Felice Beato; picture 2 – © Don McCullin; and picture 3 – Robert Capa
But there are times where tenderness and compassion can be shown in this harsh context.
© Don McCullin
The reason for looking at this genre of photography is because of how I am seeking to represent part of my project for Cruel and Tender. War photography clearly sits in ‘cruel’ territory, but I believe pictures like the one above can also make the genre sit in the ‘tender’ territory too.
The recent history of Cambodia has demonstrated all too clearly how cruelty manifests itself in the aftermath of war, with the indiscriminate killing of civilians and apparent internal enemies. It was important for me as well visiting the grandeur of the Temples of Angkor (which is arguably the strongest representation of the history the Khmer culture), to also visit a shrine to a Khmer Rouge killing field. The nearest one in Siem Reap was at Wat Thmei. It was a strange feeling being there, seeing the remains (mainly skulls and limb bones) stacked up in a memorial in a compound, which is also an active Buddhist temple. While I was there, there was some ceremony taking place in the temple as a monk appeared to be giving a sermon of sorts which was being ‘blasted’ all over the temple grounds.
What was slightly incongruous were the vendors selling drinks, ice-cream and t-shirts less than 30 metres from the memorial… and kids playing around it as if it were just another building to use for their games. And maybe this is the right way to deal with this… apart from the tourists reading the information boards telling us about what happened, many of the vendors here, the monks and other Cambodian temple visitors no doubt experienced first hand the terror of the Khmer Rouge regime – as much as they revere their dead, they do not need treat this shrine in any way more special than other parts of the country, as their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters etc were killed all over the country. This may just be a convenient place to remember them, but no more than anywhere else.
I was somewhat wary of taking pictures of the remains, not because it was not permitted, but more so because these were not props. They are the remains of real people and they deserve respect and to be represented in a way that does not trivialise what happened. I do not know whether I will be able to do them justice in the way in which I will use them in the project, but I will at least try. More importantly, my visit there simply reminded me of how cruel we humans can be.
On the technical side the challenge was trying to deal with reflection and although I did reduce this somewhat as I had a polariser on my camera, I quickly decided that I would not be able to eliminate it. So I could either live with it and use it to possibly make the pictures more interesting or just walk away. I chose the former. So you’ll also have to live with the reflections as I have. I decided at the last minute (i.e. in post processing to convert to black and white). Maybe I am trying to make this synonymous with the war photographers I reference above… maybe it just gives it more depth… I’m not sure other than I think it looks better than leaving them in colour.
While taking these pictures, I was reminded of the ones I took for the project last year, Dreams/Reality, where I blurred and layers two different pictures together. Well, this time I just needed to blur, the reflection of the trees in the background provided the additional layer. Of all the ones I took, this is possibly my favourite. It has a ghostly, slightly otherworldly feel to it, enough to make you feel uncomfortable and hopefully to make you ask about why these skulls are there in the first place.
My last word for now comes back to the discussion of semiotics… we were looking at this in the context of classical still life and classical portraiture, but this will of course also be present in our cruel and tender project. It was not missed on me that the memorial to the killing field was located in a Buddhist temple and part of buddhism is focused on by “developing compassion for others”. So on either side of the memorial were statues of Buddha – cruelty and tenderness residing the same place. I have decided to show one of them below.
- John McCosh – http://www.nam.ac.uk/press/first-shots-early-war-photography-1848-60
- Roger Fenton – https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/ftncnw/
- Felice Beato – http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/beato/
- Robert Capa – https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL535353
Assigment criteria: 1 & 4