December 10, 2006

December View: Following The Salute

(In reviewing the year just past, this post is the second in a series in which Chris Maynard and I analyze some of the winners of the 2006 World Press Photo contest.)


(click for full size)

Over the couple years The BAG and The BAG Community have been looking at pictures together, I’ve held the highest regard for your feedback.  If I haven’t had the luxury to read every comment in every discussion thread, I make a strong effort.  And if I rarely join in or formally respond to those discussions, I can say that my own visual learning curve, my capacity to “see the other side,” and, particularly, my knowledge of the world has dramatically deepened as the result of these discussions.

That said, I was particularly taken with the reaction to yesterday’s post by Chris Maynard, titled Final Salute (link).  Chris was looking at the award winning photo narrative by Todd Heisler of the Rocky Mountain News of a young widow whose husband died fighting in Iraq.

The readership brings up an important point — one I hope can be discussed further here.  The issue involves the politics of empathy.

The question is, to what extent do Heisler’s powerful photographs make the war more “felt,” yielding greater political consciousness and a broader sense of humanity, and to what extent to do they sentimentalize a war that never should have happened and overshadow/marginalize/disappear a far greater number of Iraqi losses (each full of pain certainly commensurate to that of this widow’s)?

Because The BAG posts specific images for their specific content, and almost never for their illustrative value, I was a little conflicted about offering you another World Press Photo winning picture in response to the Heisler shots.  Still, given the fact we’re considering this one collection, I thought I would complicate the discussion by offering this image, by photographer Scott Nelson, as a something of a parallel.

This shot, taken May 7, 2005, shows an injured girl being carried from the scene of a suicide car bombing.  According to the caption, the explosion in Tahrir Square in Baghdad killed 22 people and wounded more than 35.  The target of the blast was a convoy of civilian contractors.

There are a thousand nettling questions to ask in considering this picture — and in comparing Nelson’s series to Heisler’s.  Here are just a few:

Given that Nelson’s work earned an honorable mention and Heisler’s won a first prize, were Heisler’s pictures simply more powerful?  And if so (and the difference is not just culturally subjective), how does one reconcile the culture gap and disparity in access when it comes to the creation of intimacy?  And then, when that gap exists but we’re hardly aware of it, how do we account for the difference between who is more badly pierced?

(image: Scott Nelson/World Picture News.

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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