April 4, 2014

Remembering Anja Niedringhaus: She Was Ironic, Too

We, like everyone else in the photojournalism community, were shocked and saddened by the death of AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus yesterday in Khost. In an age of personal branding and concerns over ethics, Anja was a quiet force, a professional committed to bringing an unvarnished, yet sensitive and nuanced eye to war, the political dance, to the experience of women, as well as the challenges and everyday moments alike for the citizen in the conflict zone. There are some powerful and prominent remembrances on the web today showcasing her work and her last photos covering the Afghan presidential election campaign. Here are some strong samples:

Parting Glance: Anja Niedringhaus (James Estrin and Steve Farrell – NYT Lens Blog)

Slide Show: Remembering Anja Niedringhaus (The New Yorker)

In Memoriam: Anja Niedringhaus (1965—2014) (Time Lightbox)

Photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus Killed in Afghanistan (Atlantic In Focus)

Over the years, Anja’s imagery appeared quite a few times at BagNews. If the retrospectives above more than capture her strength as a reporter, what they tend to be overlooked somewhat in her most familiar work was Anja’s sense of irony. Given the length and futility of America’s Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, her photography was often brilliant, not just as reportage, but as subtle commentary. In her honor, we offer you three images of hers that ran here at Bag drawing on some of our thoughts at the time. If others have captured Anja the documentarian, the humanist or the advocate for women (which we addressed, too, with these photos from the Kabul Central Woman’s Prison), these images demonstrate her gift for irony.

This photo is one of my favorites. The caption reads:

A U.S. soldier arrived to the scene where a suicide car bomber attacked a NATO convoy in Kabul on Thursday. Afghan insurgent group Hezb-e-Islami killed at least 15 people, including six Americans, in a suicide bombing in Kabul that the militants said was in reaction to President Hamid Karzai’s recent offer of long-term bases to the U.S.

What’s notable about the picture is that it managed to circulate widely in May 2013, long after the Afghanistan story had slipped off the media radar and out of the public’s consciousness. To explain why, one might chalk it up to great photography in the soldier’s vehement expression and overwhelming brawn. That’s not the full reason though.  The strength of the photo has to do with the pathos, and the way it stands out against the background of time and politics. In this case, what it portrayed (accentuated by the shambles and the standing around) was the overwhelming display of muscle and resolve as a counterpoint to how impotent the American mission had become.

This takes us back to 2008 Iraq, channeling the post-surge fame of General Petraeus as the architect, finally, of a more effective American occupation.  Anja’s irony was turned up many decibels in our sarcasm. As much as a reader of pictures, BagNews was a bitter critic of the Bush Administration as well as a card-carrying member of the liberal blogosphere at the time. We wrote:

Nice to see General Petraeus … celebrating the grand opening of a USO facility at the air base in Balad, Iraq. I mean, if our fighting men and women are going to be there another hundred years, they are sure going to need some place to unwind between that 33rd and 34th tour of duty.

The real stumper to me, though, is the video game of choice here. What happened to Halo, Left Behind: Eternal Forces, or even 9/11: The Video Game? Could it be that Public Affairs got to choose?

Besides the phallic association (oh yeah, and there’s also the gun propped in the corner), I love the situation on screen. It’s like a mirror of the Administration’s almost five year old story line: We may be in the rough at the moment, but in the next shot, we’ll surely be on the green.

Of course, the photo itself had none of that acidity but the clownishness amidst the surreal saga of the Iraq War, and Anja’s eye for this swinging star — America’s demigod juxtaposed with the cartoon image, and the cartoon image juxtaposed with the weapon dead-center — was the perfect catalyst for getting us going.

(click for full size)

And then, this news photo from November ’04 is one of the earliest Bag ever posted.  Paradoxically, it’s also one of the best examples of Anja’s remarkable range.  These outlandish and culturally blasphemous photos (there’s another) document America’s invasion of Iraq in the last throes of “conquerer mode.” As you know, wire photographers often write their own captions. I’m almost certain Anja penned this one. In its literary style, it reflects the objective, yet robust narrative of her photos which, in this case, captures all the flavor of the absurd. It reads:

US Marines of the 1st Division dressed as gladiators try to control a horse and stage a chariot race reminiscent of the Charlton Heston movie–complete with confiscated Iraqi horses at their base outside Fallujah, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 6 , 2004. For U.S. Marines tapped to lead an expected attack on insurgent-held Fallujah, the bags have been packed, trucks have been loaded and final letters have been sent, leaving one final task – the “Ben-Hur.”

Finally, I leave you with an invaluable link to appreciate Anja’s talent, her wonderful eye, and most importantly, her prodigious breadth in narrative and tone. The gift is that we get to hear from her — and enjoy her analysis, vision and concern — in her own words as she narrates this wonderful eight minute presentation of key photos from Iraq published at irak.arte.tv. I want you too see it also, though, because of the story Anja tells about the American gladiator photo. You see, the image is about a lot more than farcical behavior at the front end of that fateful invasion ten years ago. Rather, her description, and her commitment to the story, unfolds the deepest irony. If you watch it, you’ll understand too.

(photos: Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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