If you’ve been following this site, you know I’ve been taking in images from Ashley Gilbertson’s book, Whisky Tango Foxtrot, based on the extended time he spent as a war photographer in Iraq.
In this shot, we see an American soldier snapping a photo of a dead Mahdi Army fighter. The Iraqi was killed in May 2004 in the course of an overnight grenade-lobbing battle in a Karbala amusement park between insurgents and troops of the First Armored Division. According to Ashley’s caption, Army policy is to leave Iraqi dead for other Iraqis to recover and bury. As a result, the body was still on the street the next morning.
Based on Ashley’s text, the soldier is taking the photo because the scene is “an object of curiosity for GI’s.”
The allusion reminds me of a bumper sticker that was popular during the Vietnam War. It read: “Join the Army: Travel to exotic distant lands; meet exciting, unusual people and kill them.” Of course, the slogan has everything to do with cynicism and next-to-nothing to do with insight. Still, looking at an image like this, it makes me think hard about the intersection of war (especially a U.S.-instigated cultural and religious war) and personal digital photography and video. (You do remember this, right?).
Call it a mixing of metaphors, but at a perverse level, where does a shot like this depart from the sphere of work-a-day war fighting and become, a lá the bumper sticker, a sadistic exemplification of tourism?
At the same time, I’m interested in the politics of the shot, and the curiosity of one shooter — a professional — shooting an amateur.
As Gilbertson conveys throughout the book, the largest portion of the shots he ended up with were the result of his — and the visual media’s — limited access to the war. That being the case, one thing this picture captures is the irony that the troops — so many of them with a point-and-shoot on their person — had the media in their pockets, while the war photographers, and by extension, the rest of us, had next-to-nothing.