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Book Review: Afghanistan: A Distant War by Robert Nickelsberg

Published by Prestel USA (2013)
Reviewed by Jean-Marie Simon
Monday, January 13, 2014 at 5:07 PM

Afghanistan: A Distant War
Robert Nickelsberg; Foreword by Jon Lee Anderson; Introduction by Ahmad Nader Nadery
Prestel USA (2013)

The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence
Susie Linfield
University of Chicago (2012)

By mid-20th century, photography had evolved from its 19th century origins as a rarified domain of professional photographers into a technology of the masses; the Kodak Instamatic generation embraced the “decisive moment” through the power of emulsion.  Forty years later, the advent of digital photography and the Internet coincided with a wave of catastrophic events, notably 9/11, the Iraq invasion and the Middle East revolutions. A second sea change occurred, with notable effects on combat and war photography. Now everyone was a photographer, including the subjects themselves.  In this new chapter in war photography, soldiers, insurgents, terrorists, first responders, and even victims began to document cataclysmic events, at times with the camera’s lens swiveling in both directions.

Digital photography’s real-time image making was conjoined with real-time publication, direct from smart phone camera to Internet, and potentially worldwide distribution.  This forever changed people’s expectations of the value of an image.  Late 20th-century model: a professional combat photographer working for a foreign publication, possibly risking oneself in a war zone to capture images no one else possesses, dispatching one’s precious film canisters in an x-ray bag for courier retrieval five time zones away, for publication days later as exclusive photos on a newspaper front page.  Early 21st century model: by-standers and actors now transmit shock and awe in a matter of seconds, as images of café bombing attacks and dying earthquake victims trapped beneath the rubble are beamed around the world even before the medics arrive. One wonders how many suicide bombers dispatch selfies before pressing the trigger.

These new photographers are not professionals, in the old sense, and though some are genuinely “amateur photographers,” today’s “by-stander-with-cellphone” is not precisely an amateur, either.  The by-standers simply whip out their phones and snap photos of an event: they don’t see them themselves as “photographers” in a professional, or even necessarily an amateur, sense.  They just happened to be there. This opening up and blurring of roles in the new media universe of instant, global information thus invites debate, particularly in the field of combat and war photography, over the respective functions, roles, and documentary authority of these various photographers of conflict who make and disseminate these images.  It raises a particular question, in fact, about the role and value of the professional combat photojournalist, both the immediate newspaper and other media photographs they produce for immediate news consumption, but also – and from the standpoint of assessing the special role of the professional photojournalist in today’s changed world – the claim of “permanent” documentary, historical, and aesthetic value embodied in the often beautifully produced and costly photography books that appear after the news cycle, and perhaps the conflict at issue, is years over. Is the professional combat photojournalist an anachronism in today’s digitized environment?  And does the claim to history and art – truth and beauty – implied by the permanent, large format, retrospective photo book actually mean anything today?

That’s on the side of the professional photojournalist.  But the subject also causes us to examine the value of professional images in an era where rank amateurs or bystanders sometimes have more access to events than their salaried counterparts – though the result being a barrage of mind-numbingly similar images from everyone present clicking away on their phones. When dozens of photographs of the same events all vie for attention, and when hyper redundancy in recording pain and terror results in market saturation, one asks: What is the point of professional war photography and, later, photographers’ retrospective books of their work? Do the professionals have any special claim to authority in their work in this digital world?

Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence does not challenge professional photography’s place in the world.  Linfield, a journalism professor at New York University, is deeply invested in the subject of political photography, and her book is an attempt to reconcile the awkward yet unavoidable intrusion that defines photojournalism in capturing its subjects’ suffering. Linfield contends without apology that the gore, horror, and humiliation that photojournalism often memorializes is a means to an end: It is a component part in understanding and, perhaps, ameliorating human suffering. In particular Linfield examines how photography and human rights causes interface, and how photography helps explain the issues with which human rights organizations and relief workers must contend.

II

Because I was a photographer and my work was documentary in nature–homeless women; itinerant migrant workers; and a decade photographing Guatemala’s 1980s armed conflict–I wanted to love The Cruel Radiance, and to a degree I did. Linfield’s examination of photojournalism is an earnest and intelligent effort to explain its role in the search for truth and impact. The author likewise offers an un-jaundiced, judicious critique of the photojournalists whose exploits propel them to demi-god status among editors (Linfield devotes a chapter each to Robert Capa, James Nachtwey, and Gilles Peress); the non-profits who fund them; and the earnest undergraduates who even today aim to change the world with Nikons and a press pass.

Unfortunately, Linfield exaggerates the power of photography, and she does not explore sufficiently its limitations or how it necessarily must be yoked to the printed word. In explaining war, Linfield says, “photographers have done a better job of documenting [conflicts] than have journalists, who sometimes ignore them.” This is not fair. The power of photography lies in its ability to provoke or coerce an immediate reaction or to make someone either see something new or something familiar in a new light. The power of the printed word is cumulative, and Linfield needed to explore more judiciously the synergy of print and image, which serious photography endeavors employ.

Linfield summarizes her own hyper-estimation of photography’s power as the medium for effecting political change in her well-intended but mistaken assumption regarding its use by human rights organizations. “It is impossible,” she writes in Chapter Two, “to imagine transnational groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or Doctors Without Borders in the pre-photographic age.” “Pre-photographic age” seems to mean not literally before the invention of photography, but before photography became ubiquitous, extending even inside repressive regimes and their institutions, in the digital age but even in photography’s earlier instamatic era.  If so, Linfield is simply too young and under-equipped to value the themes of her own book, since examples that contradict this statement abound if one goes back to the foundations of these human rights NGOs. Throughout the 1970s, for example, Amnesty International issued Urgent Action appeals on behalf of thousands of political prisoners languishing in anonymous cells worldwide, and the tens of thousands of individuals who wrote on their behalf, urging their release, did not require the power of emulsion to do so.

Neither did this go unremarked in earlier periods. Gerald Marzorati’s 1990 book on the work of the American artist Leon Golub (1922-2004), A Painter of Darkness, for example, reflected on Golub’s attempts to render that for which few photographs, even today, are extant: the inside of the torture chamber.  There have been many discussions over the years of how to give visual representation of massive human rights violations, whether they are war crimes on the battlefield or abuses inside a regime’s closed cells, and how to represent that for which there is no available visual documentation.

But Linfield’s problem is more profound than that. Documentary photographic images might move us, shake us, and shock us to want to act from our emotional and affective core. Unfortunately the “truths” that photographs purport to convey are only rarely self-evident from the photo alone.  The facts of the image are almost never self-explanatory; in many cases of combat photography, one has little idea even who is on what side, what the sides in the conflict are and what they fight for (the only exception is the universal cue of a Nazi uniform), the good guys and the bad guys.  Photographs of violence in conflict, without further factual background, invite the viewer to take a narrowly neutral view: Violence is bad.  Any further consideration that this instance of violence, captured by the photographer, is tragic, yet justified by the moral facts of the conflict, is segregated from the image itself.  A photograph captures but also isolates.

III

There are rare exceptions, of course, preeminent among them that of a soldier bayonetting a small child. But that aside, photographs alone not only fail to explain good guys and bad guys. Photographs require interpretation, facts, context, and many cognitive propositions if our gut emotional responses are going to have any real relationship to what happened in the photograph.  Visual representations of gross violence offer a sensibility, but that sensibility is gossamer-thin without a sense to go with it.

A spectacular if unintended repudiation of Linfield’s assertion that images are paramount to understanding political violence is Robert Nickelsberg’s Afghanistan: A Distant War.  Published in late 2013, it is a text and image compendium covering not just the American war that began in 2001, but the region’s past twenty-five years of turmoil, by one of the few Western photographers who has been in the region over the long haul. Its time frame alone gives it a perspective that no other photojournalist can offer.  But it gains that perspective not only by offering elegant, stand-alone photographs, but instead by combining text and image. Afghanistan is an exemplar of the essential tag team of print and image.  Accordingly, it stands alone in the current crop of photography books for its seamless yoking of photographs and text and its implicit insistence that they receive equal face time.

Still, Afghanistan and similar efforts beg the question:  Why assemble all of this into a book in the digital age? Moreover, why believe, by implication, that a professional photographer’s collection of photographs offers something in an age in which an immediate digital image from the front-line iPhone, in a Damascus suburb or South Sudan village, is not more authentic and therefore more authoritative?  Why photo books of war photography by professionals at all?

Aesthetically, Afghanistan is nearly flawless. Nickelsberg’s beautiful photographs; Prestel’s elegant design and printing; and Jon Lee Anderson’s dead-on Foreword (which should be subtitled “Afghanistan for Dummies”) together create a model for war photography books in an era where bound books, especially expensive, large format photography books, are an endangered literary species. When one reads Afghanistan and sits staring at the double page, three-dimensional contrast of shadow and light and the rhythmic synergy of action shots against somber portraiture, it’s possible to believe that print photography is not summarily doomed after all.

Nickelsberg understands the need for synchronicity of photographs and text. Not all photographers have the good sense to do so, since more than a few, along with editors and curators, believe that a photograph that somehow requires words to explain it must not be “art.”  It supposedly speaks for itself if it captures the “decisive moment” or, in the case of war photography, offers shock value, a bar that seems to get higher by the minute. Afghanistan contains a solid stable of riveting and even heart-stopping images, and there are too many good ones to list them in a book review: An Uzbek fighter firing on the enemy (p. 55); a wounded civilian in a pitched battle scene (p. 61); and Taliban soldiers attacking; the retreating Northern Alliance army (p. 83) are all testimony to Nickelsberg’s mettle under extreme circumstances, and they squarely position him in Susie Linfield’s pantheon of acclaimed war photographers. American military veterans of the Afghan conflict would likely find that this book offers an elegiac, yet unsentimental perspective on their time there, a perspective that likely would deepen as the years go by; the photographs devoted to the wars-before-the-American-war contribute to that long perspective.

IV

Nickelsberg’s photographs are enhanced, not diminished, by his inclusion of meaty captions, which provide factual counterpoint to the beauty, horror, or seemingly mundane image.  Moreover, what distinguishes Afghanistan from the shock and awe of the in-your-face wide angle images that characterize so many other photo books are the other photographs that temper the battles scenes. These images, together with their captions, are what give Afghanistan its rich texture.

May 1990. Khost Training Camp, Uighers. © Robert Nicklesberg, by permission.

Page 39 (above, click for full-size), for example, shows two nearly faceless Chinese Uighur fighters disassembling Kalashnikovs, in a camp in Khost in 1990. The image is not spectacular in itself, but the caption, which notes that the camp was funded in part by Osama bin Laden and Pakistani military intelligence, gives the image another layer of significance. On page 116, the image of a U.S. soldier in side profile seems like thousands of others until one reads the caption and realizes the dangers:

August, 2006. A US Army soldier walks down a trail from a 7,000 foot post in Kamdesh, Nuristan province. In 2009, US Army officials decided to abandon the Kamdesh bases after nearly being overrun by 300 Taliban fighters, suffering 8 killed and 22 wounded. Resupply flights to the remote base were vulnerable to attack.

Aug 2006 US Army soldier, Kamdesh, Nuristan Province. © Robert Nickelsberg, used by permission.

Full disclosure: I met Nickelsberg back in the day, in the early 1980s, when we were both freelance Time photographers in the wars of Central America. Though Bob was ambitious, he was also the good guy with an honorable agenda; in contrast to other press agency Alpha-males in the business, Bob, the tough skinny dude with the Domke bag and the million pocket safari jacket stuffed with light meter and cigarettes, strove to understand what was happening instead of just recording it for posterity and expensed dry cleaning. I lost track of Bob over the years, so it was especially gratifying to catch up with him again on the pages of Facebook, and to see Afghanistan featured on them.

Particularly striking is Nickelsberg’s refusal to position himself as the center of his own decades-long commitment to a place and people. Aside from his informative and sometimes riveting captions, there is little self-reference in Afghanistan, though judging from some of the images it is clear that the anecdotes, some of them heart-stopping, must abound.  In fact, Afghanistan’s sole short-coming with respect to content is the paucity of Nickelsberg’s narrative presence on its pages; one would like to have heard more directly from the photographer who was so deeply invested in the region for almost three decades and whose mental compendium of knowledge is one that Nickelsberg himself surely underestimates. Remarkably, in contrast to the journalists who pose self-aggrandizingly for promotional publicity photos in borrowed combat helmets, Afghanistan does not contain even an author photograph – an excess of modesty remedied here with a photograph from his youth that I took of him in 1982, photographing scavenger families who, then as now, lived in the Guatemala City dump:

 Afghanistan is so good that it deserves to be read by people who, like me, cannot do much more than name the country’s capital. To some degree it has reached an audience: Thanks to the power of the digital age and instant access to online magazines and blog sites, Afghanistan has been widely reviewed by a blue chip stable of online reviewers.  Paradoxically, the publication of images from Afghanistan on NationalGeographic.com and David González’s LensBlog page in the New York Times (to name just two of the many online reviews) unintentionally underscores the challenge that photography books face these days.  The limited print version, a modern day David, confronts a digital Goliath, no slingshot in sight.  Most great ideas never find their way into print, and even those that do are remaindered within months. Because its quality is so high, Afghanistan provides a useful vehicle for discussing the purpose of war photography books in our era of disposal news and disposable images. Put another way, in an age where over a billion people possess smartphone cameras, is there value in a professional war photographer’s coffee table book?

V

The paradox of digital photography is that today it is both easier and harder to produce a photo book. In 1987, for example, when Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny (WW Norton), my text-and-photo book on Guatemala’s thirty-year armed conflict was published, photography books were expensive. Even if one cobbled together the funding, the process was lengthy and cumbersome. In my case, proof sheets shuttled via courier between New York and Tokyo for over half a year, and my editor and I spent afternoons squinting at the image corners armed with photo loupes and grease pencils. Marketing was another Sisyphean task; once published, one held one’s breath to see if the high priest of reviewers, the Sunday New York Times, and then the legions of other print newspapers and magazines that followed in its wake, would acknowledge one’s life’s work.  If the book sold well, there was a second or third print run, but once those books sold out, the book died a quiet death on the remaindered shelves of the local second-hand bookstore (preferably The Strand, of course).

Today, by contrast, it is easier to publish photography books because the digital era has made everyone not just a photographer but a potential publisher as well. A few thousand dollars and you are off and running; without leaving the home office one can produce and market a digital photo book. Moreover, the power of Facebook and the avalanche of online blogs and magazines now make publicity cheap and instantaneous; this stands in stark contrast to the 1980s, when Google was a distant glimmer in someone’s eye, and so was Mark Zuckerberg.

In fact, the very efficacy of the digital age now makes physical book publishing seem cumbersome, expensive, and obsolete. One need not buy Afghanistan to see a surfeit of pictures, many of them excellent photographs, of the region’s conflict. Open the newspaper that gets thumped at your door and there is a photo-shopped image above the fold with a link to more images online. For example, the New York Timeson-line compendium of last year’s stellar photographs contains multiple spectacular images from the Middle East. (Sergey Ponomarev needs to do a book, soon.)  Google the region, and a cornucopia of images appears that you can complement with text cribbed from that search – provided, anyway, that you know enough to be able to do so.

Though production costs for publishing top-quality hard copy photo books have fallen, free online access still makes the economics of photo book publishing inefficient.  Afghanistan illustrates the point. It weighs over three pounds, not an easy haul from coffee table to night table (and shipping costs not negligible, either, even if you have Amazon Prime), and its sticker price of sixty dollars induces hesitation among those of us with no trust fund in sight. The subject is depressing, and although many of the photos are gorgeous, their subject matter is not something to peruse while waiting for the Ambien to kick in.  Further, despite a good deal of online publicity and glowing reviews, almost fifty remaindered or review copies were for sale on Amazon two months after Afghanistan’s publication. (Pearls before … enough said.) This prompts the question of who pays retail for books. While Afghanistan is neither as expensive or as hefty as Susan Meiselas’ equally valuable, but formidably priced, book on the Kurds (Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, Random House, 1997, $162; re-issued ten years later in paperback, University of Chicago, 2008), it raises the question of who will shell out for Afghanistan, since it is neither a succulently beautiful nor exotic subject ripped from the pages of the Smithsonian catalogue, ripe for arrangement between the cocktails and the olives.

Why, then, do we continue to buy political photography books like Afghanistan, containing images, text, information and punch, and a complex social and political backstory? And should we, or instead just leave it to the amateurs and bystanders in the field with their cell phone cameras linked instantly to the Internet?

Consider, for one thing, professional photographers take more images of their subject than amateurs, because that is what they do for a living. Talent, persistence, and the whirring of the motor drive result in the production more good photos, more “decisive moments” and, as in Afghanistan, more cohesive stories that explain otherwise inscrutable subjects. Although amateurs sometimes grab the fortuitous and occasionally spectacular image, so far, with the spectacular exception of nanny-photographer Vivian Maier (Vivian Maier: Street Photographer; powerHouse Books, 2011), I cannot recall a memorable photography trade press book produced by an amateur in recent years.  As for the immediate flood of images on the Internet in the case of an immediate event, they are both valuable and evanescent; as a result, what now separates the men from the boys is, despite the ever-apparent threat to the book industry, the publication of political photo books running the gamut from self-indulgent door-stops, varnished in political self-righteousness, to the thoughtfully-contrived, longitudinal recordation of events, as found in the pages of Afghanistan.

VI

In addition, we trust photographers for whom the camera is a tool, not a cause or a mission statement, to provide a less manipulative view of the world. Although by-standers provide many images from immediate disaster scenes, many of the brutal combat photos posted over the Internet today are taken by partisans and fighters who seek to convey a message. Many war photography books advocate a point of view, of course, and the photographers who make them often hold opinions one way or another regarding the different sides in war and their hopes for the outcome. At the same time, however — and in contrast to the participant or by-stander with his cell phone camera — people who buy war photography books rely on professionals not to coerce the “decisive moment” in the field.

Professional photographers draw the line in part because they are paid to photograph, not to advocate; no matter how much one may covet the next Pulitzer or Capa award, no earnest war photographer wishes to become the Janet Cooke or Stephen Glass of war photography.  The advent of digital photography has undoubtedly forced photographers to defend the integrity of their images: the ability to photo-shop a politician’s head atop a centaur for viral sharing on Facebook is mere parody since the alteration is obvious.  The real issue is when digital manipulation means to change the photographs, and hence the news reporting, of a real event in a war zone.  There are still lines to be drawn between players, posers, and poseurs. As a result, for all the riveting and sometimes shocking images Afghanistan contains, Nickelsberg’s reputation in the field gives Afghanistan the gravitas of authenticity.  This might seem counterintuitive – what is more authentic than the insurgent fighter under mortar fire in the rubble sending out an image from his cell phone?  But taken collectively, all of those cell-phone photos are not so much “authenticity” and “authoritative” visual representation as they are a kind of shallow, posing Internet TV reality show.  Real authority still tends to accrue to the professionals who invest long term and with an eye to facts of the moment, the long-run context of culture and history, and yet also the beauty and elegance of the well done photograph as frankly aesthetic object.

Finally, the Bob Nickelsbergs of the world still look to the print edition to do justice to their commitment and their talent. A photo book is sui generis: it is not the trashy, dispensable airport kiosk novel or the unwieldy academic tome ripe for Kindle (if anywhere). Photography books demand a face-off between photographs and text and the ability to watch a story unfold.  People like flipping back and forth among the pages, they like feeling the heft of one hundred gram paper and seeing the little holes where the book has been sewn. They like showing it to their friends over a beer. You don’t share a large format photo book over an iPad, over a beer, at least not where I come from.  Although Afghanistan will certainly appear in electronic form, and it will be lighter and cheaper, the irony of digital books is that their very convenience is ultimately what makes them unsatisfactory to peruse. Perhaps that will change through the advance of technology; it certainly holds for now.

Perhaps the purpose of photography books is finally just to get the book out there. The judicious curation of images with a cohesive story line, when synchronized with informative and supple text, is an exercise in historical memory as against the inundation of ephemeral online images of battle.  When done right, as in the case of Afghanistan, there is a place for war photography books on one’s shelf; among the library stacks; or merely nestled in the time capsule, awaiting some unimaginable brave new world of viewers to peruse it in shock and awe and perhaps, beyond shock or awe, toward a better understanding of the lessons therein.

(Jean-Marie Simon first traveled to Guatemala in 1980 as a freelance photographer, and later reported for Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International during the 1980s civil war. Her book of photographs and text, “Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny” (WW Norton 1988), was re-published in 2012 in Spanish (“Guatemala, eterna primavera, eterna tiranía,” Print Studio, Guatemala). The iTunes digital version is forthcoming in April 2014. Images from “Afghanistan” are © Robert Nickelsberg and used by permission; Robert Nickelsberg photo from Guatemala, September 1982, © Jean-Marie Simon and used by permission.)