in his new book, Iraq: The Space Between, photographer Christoph Bangert offers three images which, as a related group, are emblematic of a war that completely failed to add up.
In the shot above, an American soldier is standing on a chair, peering over a concrete wall. From our vantage, all we see are the forlorn tops of two Cypress trees, each vaguely linked to offset clouds like a weak joke on a “dotted i.”
In a second shot, we see two American soldiers standing close to a more primitive wall, the scruffy head of a camel barely poking up from behind. And in the third shot, we see an American soldier on his knees, pushing up with his toes, his gun all alone, his missing head inserted inside the hole of a wall or a vessel of some kind.
In his introduction, Bangert lays out his thesis: These images (taken mostly while shooting for the NY Times) are about the gap or space between two Gulf wars; between “us and them”; between our invasion and the Iraqi’s subsequent war with themselves.
Looking at the visual digests emerging just now, I can only think that the legacy of the Iraq War is turning out to be some kind of Dadaist expression. In Christoph’s book, as in Ashley Gilbertson’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak’s M*A*S*H I*R*A*Q (which I plan to take up in the near future), if the visuals lacks a more logical visual narrative or a more obvious and familiar organizing principle, it is because nothing close was ever offered by reality itself.
In his very fine introduction to Christoph’s book, writer Jon Lee Anderson draws a fix on these three images. He writes:
In their flak vests, helmets, and ballistic goggles, the Americans appear unmistakably to be outsiders in an alien and hostile landscape. They look, but they do not see; they seem lost, but are hunting for something tangible and finite, something that will give meaning to their presence, clues to a path that, if found, might eventually lead them home again.
I am interested in what the readership makes of these images. Personally, I am taken by the more obvious metaphor of a headless delegate of Uncle Sam, boxed in and rummaging around, while so exposed from behind — or captured from reverse as if in a stockade.
In the shot above, beyond the “tilting-at-topiary” top half, I keep looking at that chair. Besides its significance as make-shift, functionally — the soldier already balancing on the arm rests — it’s just too low. To situate oneself in a position to to “do justice” — in other words, to effectively point an eye or a weapon over the wall and down — the perception, at least, is that the soldier is not quite high enough. Combined with the wall angling right and away, we get the overall feeling that America, off-kilter, was not quite up for the job — whatever that was — in almost every possible way.
Over the next week or so, I’ll be sharing a number of other images from Christoph’s book. In the meantime, the Amazon page for Iraq: The Space Between is here.
Christoph Bangert website.
(image: ©Christoph Bangert. June 1, 2005. Tal Afar/Nineveh, Iraq. Used by permission)