Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
July 7, 2015

More Drama, Less Reality: The Case for Fake War Photography

There is this inclination in the US to make entertainment simulate an authentic war experience. At a place like Oklahoma’s D-Day Adventure Park, the surreal, immersive world of competitive paintball beats out all other war games for its ability to deliver that front line rush of adrenaline. For a small fee you can suit up with full body armour and carry semi-automatic rifles, shoot real people with live ammo, and face a real fear of getting shot (I hear those paint-filled pellets pack a sting). And now you can do all that while scurrying around an embedded photographer, just like real soldiers do in a real war. In addition to the extra layer of realism for would-be commandos, what the embedded paintball photographer does is reveal for public scrutiny the lengths a culture will go for even a taste of the fog of war.

Mixing an element of professional photojournalism into war entertainment practically eliminates visual distinctions between war fighting and video gaming. Folks at Time Lightbox documented the fidelity between paintball at D-Day and real-world military conflict when they called up Peter van Agtmael—a professional conflict photographer who spent time on the front lines of Iraq—and dispatched him to Oklahoma. Agtmael’s assignment, in his own words, was to “photograph this fake war to compare and contrast it to the real thing.” At least in terms of the imagery, there’s not a whole lot of distance in these first two photos between fake war and what US audiences recognize as real war.

But fake war and real war have both been around for a long time, and we already know that film production talent has practically mastered the art of combat realism. What’s newer is how war photography is getting in on the act. Like the stuntman in this next photograph taken from a movie set confusingly, but not surprisingly included in this Reuter’s “Pictures of the Month” news photo gallery, look carefully and you’ll spot those mattresses down there on the ground, hidden just right for safe landing and a fantastic shot:

Considering what we know about fake war as entertainment, photojournalism is a good way to document how popular culture satiates its taste for impression and appearances. Beyond that, these images show how the staying power of US war culture depends on a citizenry that keeps its distance from actual warfare by getting up close and personal, not to the real thing, but to fake substitutes.

The flip side is true, too. When the real thing shows up right on our front doorsteps, elaborate mechanisms are in place that create distance between citizens and confrontation with reality. Consider, for example, this photograph taken just a few days ago:

In this photograph, a US soldier in Kabul finds himself laid out on the side of the road after a suicide bomber blew up a NATO convoy. This is happening, by the way, almost fifteen years after the second Bush administration committed US troops to Afghanistan. Remember when just the idea of a suicide bombing was enough to shock the conscience? Now, after a decade and a half of this stuff, the suicide bomb aftermath photo feels like yesterday’s news.

And the fact that it is yesterday’s news is part of the problem. We’re in such close proximity to warfare happening right now that we tend to let it fly under the radar. Photojournalists send home gripping images of actual warfare, and yet it seems like we distance ourselves from that event by categorizing the story as daily news and by placing the story right alongside other stories of the day. And so it goes, round after round.

One school of thought maintains that war photography brings the war home to us, motivating us to collective action. Time‘s paintball photographs take a different view: an entrenched war culture distances itself from the reality of war while getting as close as it can to mock up versions of the real thing. As for the actual pain of a soldier on his back in Afghanistan, I worry that this photograph, and its circulation as part of the daily news, sends a message to US audiences that there is nothing to see here, folks. Nothing to see here.

— Philip Perdue

(photos 1 & 2: Peter van Agtmael/Magnum for TIME. caption 1: 1st Infantry Division paintballers charge uphill during the assault on “Omaha Beach.” caption 2: (no caption). photo 3: Vincent West/Reuters. caption: A stuntman flies through the air following an explosion during the filming of the Koldo Serra directed feature film Gernika in the Basque town of Guernica, northern Spain, June 17, 2015. The film centres on an American journalist reporting the aerial bombing of the town during the Spanish Civil War by planes from Germany’s Condor Legion, in aid of the nationalist military rebellion led by General Francisco Franco. photo 4: Omar Sobhani/Reuters. caption: U.S. soldiers attend to a wounded soldier at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan June 30, 2015. At least 17 people were wounded in a suicide bomb attack on NATO troops as their truck convoy passed down the main road running between Kabul’s airport and the U.S. embassy, police and health ministry officials said).

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