March 2, 2008
BagNewsSalon: The Korengal Valley View
American soldier resting at bunker, Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, 16 September
(all images open in separate windows)
Today at 4pm PST/7pm EST, BAGnewsNotes presents “Reading the Pictures: The View From Korengal Valley.” This 90 minute discussion is the first meeting of the BAGnewsSALON, a real-time discussion forum dedicated to the singular analysis and discussion of social and political images.
We will be analyzing Tim Hetherington’s 2008 World Press Award winning photo (top, above) along with several additional images from his series. The Korengal Valley, located in Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Kunar, is a key six-mile long pass where American troops have been fighting the Taliban, almost inch-by-inch, since 2005. The area has also seen heavy allied bombing, with high civilian casualties. American troops maintain a regular working relationship with local villagers who are well practiced at playing the Taliban and the American forces off one another.
Our discussion panel will include professors Robert Hariman and John Lucaites, co-authors of No Caption Needed; photojournalists Alan Chin, Nina Berman and Stephen Ferry; LA Times Senior Photo-Editor Alan Hagman; and BNN publisher Michael Shaw. (Chin, Berman and Lucaites are contributers to this site.)
The conversation — using Meebo.com live chat software — will be moderated by BAGnewsSALON producer, Denise Ofelia Mangen. Denise — who is pursuing her doctorate of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College in visual and media literacy, and human rights education — has coordinated a number of significant documentary photo projects, and has worked closely with photographers such as Brenda Ann Kenneally and David Alan Harvey.
As a first outing, we are experimenting with how well the blog environment will support a discussion of this type, so it’s an adventure for all involved. We hope you can join us.
Hetherington World Press Korengal series (World Press Photo)
The Fight For The Korengal (Hetherington/Vanity Fair Photo Essay)
Korengal Platoon Portraits (Hetherington/Vanity Fair)
Into The Valley of Death (accompanying story by Sebastian Unger/Vanity Fair)
(images: Tim Hetherington. September-October 2007. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan)
>> UPDATE 5:47 PM PST — The following is the transcript from this evening’s chat. We look forward to your comments, either regarding the images or the discussion. And special thanks to BAGreaders who either participated or “tuned in.”
Welcome to the first BAGnewsSALON!
I want to welcome all of you to “The BAG.” As you know, the role of
BAGnewsNotes is to consider social and political imagery — and,
specifically, the unique details, composition and context of particular
images — for its political and media implications. (I should also
add that the site, although open minded, is a political blog, so we
tend to operate with a rather unapologetic progressive bias.) Beyond
that introduction, I’m thrilled to have this distinguished group
together, and am happy to let the discussion — especially, first time
out — go where it goes.
I remember seeing this image when it was first published and thinking that it bordered on the surreal.
It has some of the qualities of the thousand mile stare, but there
is something “extra” here … maybe the way his hand seems to be both
in motion and stationary at the same time.
also the color palette — that late afternoon shadow green
Yes, Alan, even the ground/mud has a greentint to it.
Yes, the image has a very timeless feel to it. It almost feels like it could be from the days of Vietnam.
But its not a natural green … almost like something out of a graphic comic book or novel.
it reminds me a bit — this whole pic essay, as well as lynsey addario’s — of Larry Burroughs’ images from Vietnam
There’s something very gentle, almost feminine about it. All the heroism, masculinity associated with warfare has been sucked out of him. It’s a picture of such despair, but you see no blood, no weapons.
Burroughs shot a lot of Kodachrome and early Ektachrome — the Ektachrome of the 60s often had this kind of green — with today’s digi cameras you can set the color balance, get a richness
the blood and weapons are in the other images of the pic essay
Yes I know that…. I like that you don’t see blood or weapons. It makes the picture more open. You have to imagine what he has seen that he’s trying not to remember.
The absence of those tools of war is very striking in this photograph since it reads so immediately as a scene from war.
I’m glad you mentioned the despair — and the softness. The caption seems to play against those elements, saying he’s (only) resting.
I agree with Nina: one of the achievements of the image is that we can still see him as a boy, rather than either a warrior or someone who has been changed too much by war.
Actually, if you take the helmet out of the picture it would be hard to now who or what he is. So, yes we can see him as a boy, but he has clearly been thrust into this mess.
it doesn’t matter what he’s actually doing at that precise moment — sometimes the most telling moments are the least obviously interesting
He’s not resting. Nor is he simply “exhausted,” as the Worldl Press Photo Jury stated. He is overcome, as if by horror, futility, whatever.
Do you tend to read the expression as trama, though, or shock?
Yes, shock, disbelief, pain, exhaustion, completely undone.
Which makes it something of an anti-war statement, I’d say
And yet, only a small part of the scene … set to the far left and leaving much to the imagination as to what else is needed to tell the story …
r perhaps marginalized by the larger scene …
Undone but perhaps not yet ruined. It is becoming too easy to see them as damaged goods instead of people who will survive and deal. His posture could suggest that he will deal with this.
I’m not sure I fully agree with … in some ways he seems completly vulnerable … no sense of protection except that he is hidden in this small corner of space
I want to agree with Hariman here too — it’s relatively “easy” (wrong word, I know) to photograph soldiers at war looking this way — because, of course, how else do we expect them to look?
he seems to hold onto the helmet as if a life line … why not lay it down … but here, hidden from view somehow he imagines the need to hold on to it … not his gun, but his helmet
Is that a wedding ring glinting on his left hand?
He could rock back, but then forward; gasp but then talk. this is an optimistic view, but it is possible. The 1000 yard stare theme would say otherwise. But his eyes are closed, aren’t they? Closed, but to open again.
I liked Bob’s point. Positioned at the far left, he’s at the farthest point of what seems like the entry or the dugout/cave. Reinforces idea he has “pulled in” and potentially collecting himself.
To me, he actually looks more like an observer of the conflict rather than a participant. He doesn’t have that battle hardened look I so often see.
I wondered the same thing about the wedding ring. I tried to increase the file size but nothing became clearer….as for the helmet, i get the feeling he’s just come into the bunker or tent and taken the helmet off.
pulled in, I meant
even more so for the soldier in the double spread — a real round “baby face” with concern and maybe fear, but not the “battle hardened look”
The award notwithstanding, most folks, I venture, saw it in the context of the other photos that accompanied it in Vanity Fair and in the NYT article … does that alter how the photo is “captioned” and understood?
Alan, can you say more about the notion of “the observer.”
however if you look at sebastian junger’s contributor photo in the front of the magazine, HE has the look! kind of like D.D. Duncan’s photo of the Marine captain in Korea. Probably that was his and Tim’s joke or homage…
The ring…the empty space…the absence of weapons…the exhaustion… All combine to arouse great empathy for this soldier – whereas when I read the article, I felt only frustration and an emotional disconnect.
Yes, Junger does look like he’s lived a life of observing war…
There’s something about his uniform and vest, clean almost appearing untouched. Void of any machismo.
because the photos make us sympathetic to the individual soldiers — but the explaining text reveals what a mess we’re in — the meat grinder of counter-insurgency
I thought the Elizabeth Rubin text in the NYTimes about the same cast of characters was far more insightful.
Yes – the photograph makes us ask why he’s so exhausted and traumatized (?), but we don’t know why until we get to the article or the other photogrpahs.
of course, line infantrymen don’t get machismo. that’s for navy seals, green berets, fighter pilots
void of machismo… you think that’s part of what leads us to the text considering the context of this being another story of how bad things are in Afghanistan?
these guys aren’t conscripts, but between the bribery of signing bonuses and stop-loss and the lowering of standards, they almost are
line infantry almost never has machismo, unless it’s Prince Harry of the Blues and Royals or whatever!
And no one is going to pull this guy out of combat because he was photographed.
Anyone surprised by the jury’s selection of this image?
no football and motorcycles here…
yes i was surprised. i thought john moore + benazir’s assasination would get it
This image did surprise me – you?
Ditto, I Moor’es image of the man standing in the street, arms spread, would be the winner.
As i mentioned before, I was confused by the head juror’s remark that it represents the exhaustion of a nation…….seems like a stretch to me as their are no afghans in the picture and i would venture that they’re far more exhausted then the USA.
they may be more exhausted in the real sense but in the political sense no one cares about afghan exhaustion. it’s like ho chi minh said, we’ll lose 10 to your 1 and yet you will tire first.
Nothing in this image says Afghanistan, so he must have been referencing the US…
i’m sure the taliban say that to themselves every night — and maybe they’re right?
I would think that would be one of the frustrations of being a photographer: you are trying to document what is happening to them, and the story always ends up being about us.
For Americans it doesn’t matter if it’s Afghanistan or Iraq, it all melds into one persistent quagmire with little prospect of traditional “victory” — the only good news is no news when casualties are lower than before
Or as in reports that we are not back to “just above pre-surge” casualties.
there are plenty of photographers working in Afghanistan where it’s still possible more or less (unlike iraq) but the apetite to publish stories from POV is small to nil
That is “now back to just above pre-surge casualties.”
from the Afghan POV is what i meant
and i meant the template of the soldier after the battle, which includes the stare but also soldiers crying, etc.
or learning how to run on prostheses?
to me the most powerful image in the series is the soldier seen from behind with his flak jacket covered in blood. you can’t see his face; he’s walking away from us; you can only imagine what happened to cause this
That is, Bob, do you mean a template that focuses on psychic trauma? Or more than that?
Yeah, the inner wounds. The soldier crying in Vietnam, in the chopper in Gulf I, etc.
that’s the Burroughs “Yankee Papa” story, and Turnley reprising it in the Gulf War I, coming from D.D.Duncan….a proud tradition in PJ…every war photographer strives for it on some level no matter how cynical you may think you are
It’s interesting to me how the depiction of American soldiers in battle from the beginning of both Iraq and Afghanistan has changed over time.
Can you be more specific Nina?
Mainstream published or photos that are being made?
The early images from IRaq and Afghanistan which were published in mainstream magazines, showed soldiers in groups, pushing forward, or fighting sand storms, running across a bridge, rolling into Baghdad. They were images of strength.
right–casualties were very low in the beginning–it was very rare to be able to witness US KIA. from 2003 i can only think of a very small number of photos which showed this
it didn’t really change until the 4 contractors were hung from the Falluja Bridge
I think the press changed. I think they started looking for different photos.
the 3 months i spent in Iraq in ‘03 and 3 months in afghanistan in ‘01-02 i never saw a US casualty.
no, i think we were always looking! but finding is another matter!
from the invasion James Hill and Joe Raedle had images of US casualties that were published, and published big, but it was such a small part of the so-called overall picture
Well, certainly early on the US press was endorsing the US posture … so that makes sense. As the war has gotten longer and public attitudes have shifted …
How, then, do you think the publishing and attention given to this image of exhaustion ((World Press, etc.) fits into that?
3900 US KIA now — of which only 100 were in the invasion.
The press coverage of US dead became focused around the question of showing the flag-draped coffins. The administration wins either way on that one.
well if 3800 of the 3900 KIA happened after “Mission Accomplished,” that speaks for itself –
Well, it certainly contrasts with pictures of soldiers sitting in Sadaam’s palace after ransacking it and smoking cigarettes … I realize I conflate two wars here, but the dialectical tension is pronounced.
there are no more palaces to ransack except for the extraordinary privilege and waste and bunker mentality and willful blinkers of the Green Zone
the question is whether the role of the media is to simply reflect attitudes or to change attitudes by reporting the war in context.
To make it real simple, it seems to me that the press supported the invansion and then came to oppose the occupation, but now we’re in some third state that might as well be called limbo.
I think a central question is how much does the mainstream press shape public opinion or reinforce it. The visual coverage of the Iraq, AFghanistan and Vietnam wars, I would venture to say, changed over time as the public attitudes changed.
the question is how are such public attitudes formed?
by what theyre getting in the press?
the “press” is too diverse an entity to be spoken of in such generalty — if you only watch FOX News — you’d have a very different idea of “reality”
Taking “limbo” or this “third state” further — I guess we also need to distinguish between the depiction of anguish or injury, as opposed to “exhaustion.” One says the war effort is not going well, the other speaks to our motivation…
Maybe what really resonates in this image, and why it was recognized at this point, is because of the way it reflects a broader mood of : “We’ve had it.”
i don’t think that public attitudes can be “shaped” — the public may respond in the short term to appeals of patriotism and fear, etc. — but over a long haul, the lack of convincing results is bound to change the way people think
so was the selection of this photo as the WPP winner ideologically motivated?
I think so.
Aren’t they always? or at least meant to reflect/represent the dominant paradigm?
seen another way, this photo essay is good recruiting material for the army. not machismo, but certainly serving and sacrificing for your country. what Prince Harry wanted a bit of
anti-war? no way
My problem is not that were being told that the wars are incrementally being lost or that were being softened up for a long haul, but that the reasons why we are there is often obscured or ignored
Of course it was ideologically motivated … the question is wht was the ideolgical disposition?
Alan — You don’t think this is an anti-war photo? Or you don’t think it is anti-Afghanistan?
no, it’s not anti-afghan. as i said, it’s classic “war is hell but it’s dramatic”
Speaking as I am from the UK, I have to say the harry coverage has been particularly shocking in the cultural attitudes its shown and the total lack of any analysis about what the hell the bloke is doing there in the first place.
Or, is it essentially anti-Iraq at the expense of Afghanistan?
you feel looking at these photos that these young men, though suffering and dying, are at their best, working as a unit bravely for an uncertain cause, not sure of success, but doing it day after day anywat
Interesting point, Michael…
i made fun of Harry as much as anyone but hey, what are those Bush twins doing?
4 of FDR’s sons served in WW II. LBJ’s daughters were and are very socially involved
Seems to me the winning photo is quite different from the rest of Tim’s take which I have to say, didn’t leave me feeling much of anything.
Really, Nina? Not even the “4 Mom” on the bullets?
Yes, what about the second shot: “Markings on a soldier’s grenades?”
That’s so typical. Could be in a movie.
The feeling could be distaste…
Maybe not for a New Yorker like Alan Chin???
reminiscent of the newsreels where they chalk insults to hitler on the bombs or draw naked girls on the airplanes
Seen it before, teeth on helicopters with the twin towers….etc. etc.
Hmm, I thought Chin would have a more personal reaction, though, to 9/11 “coming in first”
i agree with nina on this one — but it’s a fun photo for the same reason the newsreels were interesting
YEah, kit’s a cliche, but when the two pictures are published side-by-side can we ignore it with so much nonchalence?
I found the portraits (the slide show at Vanity Fair) quite moving. Am I alone in that? Or are they too easy to do?
The grenade pic, and indeed many pics ive seen from Iraq/Afgho, self conciosly hark bak not only to earlier images of conflict from earlier wars – but movies of those wars.
why, michael? you don’t see me chalking “9-11″ on my cameras, do you?
sion, it’s because we can no longer live without that visual literacy of past images. everything is a quote
Sionphoto’s comment is much to the point here. Isn’t there a sense in which the visual representation of war is a kind of eternal return or repetiton. It can be done with more or less artistry, but these all seem to be tropes that are repeated.
But that kind of proves the problem. Why chalk 9-11 on a bullet used in afghanistan?
conflation, just like the administration
it makes sense to chalk 9-11 on a bullet in Afg. just NOT in Iraq!
I like Alan’s point about visual literacy … but it isn’t just visual is it?
Al — Actually, it makes more sense than one for Iraq? No?
each postmodern reference leads us further and further away from whats going on. Its like people quoting tarantino scenes. Cool for the cognoscenti but ultimately meaningless
but quoting is OK IMHO. just because you’ve seen it before doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing again
Do any of the images in the series stand out at different? Not a trope?
not meaningless if you’re part of it
in Iraq, chalking “Down With Al-Qaeda In Mesopotamia” might be a mouthful to write out over and over again
And, as a photographer, you’re part of it? Aren’t we all part of it, even if only as observers of the observations?
Exactly! Exactly the reason i’m a photographer, to get to know it “for real” rather than through others — even when i know i’m being fed nonsense
Is the image that stereotypical, or is it more that Alan, Sion and Nina would react that way as professionals?
Maybe it is…
Personally my issue is not with the image. I think its intruiging and in many ways subtle. My issue is with what assumptions are being triggered in the audience who see it
You are talking about the grenades shot, right?
right, sion. which is why it might be more intersting for Vanity Fair and World Press to show us graffitti or Iraqi **** or other such stuff we’ve never seen before, rather than this, no matter how strong Tim’s images are
Sion — elaborate please. What “assumptions” and in what do you see as the ‘trigger” that invokes reaciton?
Nope, the winning pic. There is a connection between the presence of the US sodiers and the Afghan man hoding the dead kid. But our sympathies are being led towards the soldiers, not the civilians
but sympathy for civilians is just another set of assumptions
What assumptions? Are they at all warranted reactions?
For all I know the soldier might be looking shocked because hed just killed the baby. But without context, its easy to be lured into looking at the image with ‘noble sacrifice’ motifs from other immages in our heads
Its like the Harry pics. We are being invited to look at a good looking fresh faced lad, kicking a ball about and having a jolly ripping time giving ‘terry taliban’ a jolly good thrashing, and therefore to assume that its ok.
I agree that context is everything. But there is never only one final and certain context … right? Aren’t there competing contexts that then push and pull meaning in different directions?
There are surely multiple contexts for inteprting “Harry” no?
Id agree. In this case though, you probably wont be surprised that I think the context these images should now be seen in, is a growing amount of evidence that both wars were prosecuted illegitimately
What I loved about the Harry pictures was how staged everything looked. Everything looked completely staged. What was he doing with a dirt bike there? Never saw Americans with
Sion: Well, you’re not goint to get me to disagree with that.
Probably that was his butler used to deliver him his daily copy of the Times…crisply ironed on a silver tray.
Sorry, my fingers are slippery…what I meant to say is that the Harry pictures were so obviously staged…I can’t believe the British public didn’t see through that.
hilarious, i agree. now, sion, iraq and afghanistan are not the same war. i do not think that the war in afghanistan is unjust. obviously the prosecution of it is another issue altogether
on harry’s cap it says ‘we do bad things to bad people, but it doesn’t say we do bad things to 9 good people in the process, unless one understands the realityof this game,
Any thoughts on the meeting between the military and the British Press- agreeing on an embargo on any reports/images until Harry returned?
What was funny is indeed how Kiplingesque the Harry images were…its all ’sticky wicket bally good show tally ho’ stuff.
i don’t think it’s the job of the royals to communicate moral complexity. the job of a good junior officer is to get killed setting a good example. or if not, then ride dirt bikes and have some fun.
US media didn’t report on John McCain’s son in Iraq last year. it was no secret — but not talked about
The cap motto should have said ‘ we do jolly bad things to bloody bad blokes, what! Toodle Pip!’
all fun and games till the stick him with assegais, as happened to prince napoleon in zululand
Like the Monty Python sketch said ‘what is required right now to boost morale is a totally pointless sacrifice’. Us Brits excel there…
Alan: further support of Nina’s previous comment… Though does that also call into question the authenticity of Heatherington’s images? Or no, because of the anonymity of the soldier(s) in that instance?
The difference is I didn’t know John McCain had a son until you mentioned it and certainly could not pick him out of a crowd. The Princes can hardly do anything without being photographed.
…and how Kiplings only son died, after his father pulled strings to get him to the front. Kipling never recovered.
I have to check out folks. But this has been illuminating. I hope we do it again … and in the meantime I hope to see you all as regulats at the Bag (and www.nocaptionneeded.com).
thank you JOhn!
Thank you, John! Look forward to next time…
Bye, bye, thank you
Program note: why don’t we go 10 more minutes.
Have a good night. Thanks all.
Bye, Alan. Thanks!
OK, I better get on the road to Toledo…
Well, it’s not the smoothest ending in the world, but maybe we’ll call it here. Thanks to all for coming. You’ll be seeing more chats soon, with a much slicker interface and maybe multimedia as well. Thanks!
And good luck to Alan Chin in the media storm of Ohio!
This was great – thank you all for your participation!