After photographing war for fourteen years in Cyprus, Vietnam, Biafra and the Lebanon, Don McCullin said, "there doesn't seem any point in going that close any more, because the law of averages will claim me and I don't want to die in someone else's war for a lousy photographic negative". To be a war photographer is to be close to the action - the photographer necessarily puts himself or herself at risk to record the atrocities of war and people killing one another. The act of photography is inseparable from military action. The Silence is Gilles Peress' account of the war in Rwanda of 1994. Unlike the war photographer Robert Capa, Peress has not photographed soldiers being killed or caught up in combat. Peress has come in after the slaughter and has photographed the dead and damaged bodies of the Hutu people who were tortured by the Tutsi.
Photographs of war may have numerous roles. They can give evidence of its atrocity; they can function as political tools for propaganda purposes; they can record events for historical purposes. Where does art fit in? Peress' work suggests a sensitive formula: politically ambiguous but unambiguously compassionate. The Silence does not contain any statement by Peress; the pages are not numbered; there is little information presented to us by way of text. The book is a series of images cataloguing human waste, the moral ugliness of war and the desecration of land, animals and people. Peress has documented instruments of torture in a concentration camp, a baby's gro suit; it is difficult to determine if the baby has just perished in its clothing over time; empty houses branded and stigmatized with the word "Hutu", and dead bodies so twisted and contorted, missing their head, or torso or legs that it seems impossible to consider that the dead were once alive, had happy experiences, contributed to their community and belonged to families.
In other sequences of photographs you work out tragic narratives. You see the Hutus on the move, in refugee camps, people walking, sleeping and dying beside each other. There is no room for privacy, modesty, or pain. The refugees walk past rows of dead bodies on the road; then dead bodies are scooped up with a bulldozer: Peress moves in closer; the bodies are dumped in a pit, the faces look like statues; it seems so unreal.
Peress has not photographed surreptitiously. This makes his photographs chilling. The objective of war is to kill or exterminate people and Peress reminds us of this. The people in his photographs have not 'gone to sleep'; they have suffered, they have been tortured, decapitated and mutilated.
There is a danger that war photography can be voyeuristic. But there are numerous ethical and aesthetic dangers in the genre, as if the physical dangers of taking the photographs were not enough. Making spectacle from harrowing human circumstances is an uncomfortable idea. But then so is the way that war is 'sanitized' by the large American broadcasters. Oddly, when it comes to the screen, war is realized in its ghastliness through fictive films more than in reportage of real life. The artistic status of these films creates a dilemma analogous to that of the photographic genre.
Perhaps the most pertinent is Apocalypse Now, ironically with Dennis Hopper's character the war photographer. After seeing the film you may find Peress' images less shocking or possibly even interpret his photographs as film stills. There is a danger with this genre of photography, that we have become so accustomed to viewing images of violence, killings and war on television that our senses have become dulled to the realities of war. However, long after we have forgotten about the gruesome war images on television that make our stomachs turn we have photographs like Peress' which do not allow us to escape the enormity of war and the vulnerability of human flesh. It is an unpleasant experience for the viewer, but an important document for history.
*Matthew Sleeth has gone on a more peaceful road with his camera, creating a book titled Roaring Days. The back and white photographs are mostly dark, grainy and moody. On first viewing it appears that Sleeth has moved about quietly with his camera and photographed people without their authority. Yet we know that in most cases he has sought their permission and they are complicit in the image making process. This makes for bedrock documentary photography.
Sleeth's work belongs to an old photo-picaresque genre: he has not photographed high fliers, high life or posh houses. He has created a visual narrative of Australia's underbelly, a substrate which includes images of circus life, commuters on public transport, prostitutes on the street and in hotel rooms, men at work in a foundry in Melbourne, young people engaged in alternative life styles and union members and workers involved in the waterfront disputes in Melbourne in 1998. His images are of a passing-nostalgic time, a time far back, full of events, institutions and old-codgers which manage to survive today and still serve our community. Sleeth's circus images are compelling. He hasn't photographed the circus in full swing. He moves backstage to photograph the performers practising; he goes into their trailer and he photographs the big tent. One photograph shows a performance viewed by a small audience. A grandmother and her two grand daughters sit on plastic chairs on a grass surface and eat fairy floss. The large balloons that the girls are holding have dinosaurs printed on them. This is like an eerie omen. Along with the dark style, there is something portentous in the imagery.