|A conflict of views
An image never reflects a whole situation ... it reflects a moment ..." This observation accompanies Patrick Baz's photograph of an Iraqi man obliged to lift his robe and reveal his unglamorous underwear to a US soldier. The photograph is part of "Iraq Uncensored", an exhibition of more than 150 photos from two news agencies, Getty and Agence France Presse.
This ambitious show tells us a great deal not only about power relations in Iraq today, but also about how the power of a pointed camera is reinforced by that of a pointed gun. Some of the photographs capture the 21 days of action in the recent war, others provide glimpses of life before and after the conflict. One black and white picture from the Getty archive of expatriate huntsmen and hounds, captioned "RAF Exodus Hunt enjoying the Stirrup Cup, 1934", offers a telling insight into the British role in Iraq's history.
Many of the images are harrowing: a badly burnt baby with almost transparent skin, the blood vessels echoed by the white mesh dressing (Tim Sloan); a mourning widow at Karbala watched by a soldier (Karim Sahib). Others are understated but no less illuminating: the bloodied camera abandoned when the US forces bombed the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, killing several journalists (Patrick Baz); a soldier photographing the surprisingly pink boudoir in one of the presidential palaces, its unmade bed testifying to a hurried departure (Romeo Gacad).
The exhibition claims to be "an uncensored, unbiased pictorial history of the recent events". But can it really be uncensored? In the process of selecting the images, some of the most gruesome were perhaps discounted. And this is certainly not an unbiased vision of Iraq. Whichever side photographers were working from, their movements were tightly controlled. Because many photographers were embedded with the invading forces, more than half of all the photos in this show are of soldiers or military hardware, usually American. Those operating independently of US/UK forces were instead controlled by Iraqi government minders, who decided where they went and when. A Getty photo of screaming women with guns, captioned "The Jerusalem militia", is presumably from a PR outing. Only one photograph--of an anti-war march in Berlin--acknowledges the strong external opposition to the war.
Despite these different viewpoints, everything is subsumed into one graphic outpouring in this exhibition. All the images are given equal prominence: photos of the main players--Tony Blair looking beatific as he clutches flowers, then creeping along behind George Bush; Donald Rumsfeld struggling to get into a flak jacket--detract from the impact of, say, Patrick Baz's image of an elite Republican Guard with a hole in his helmet.
There is little room in this show for a different sort of picture-making, such as Simon Norfolk's large-format still lives of traces of the war around Baghdad (recently on show at the Metro Imaging Gallery in Clerkenwell, London), which allowed the viewer space for interpretation. It would also have been interesting to see some of the images in the journalistic context for which they were intended.
The photography on display is of a high standard, especially given that the pictures were produced by photographers working under pressure to meet deadlines. They were not taken with an exhibition in mind, and this shows in the poor quality of some of the prints, where small digital files have been overstretched. There is one wide shot of a group of journalists running for cover--revealing that a news event is rarely covered by a lone photographer, and that a major concern can be keeping other photographers/film crews/journalists out of the picture.
And ironically, even as digital technology has made sending foreign news photos faster and easier, it has become harder for freelancers to survive the competition from big agencies such as Getty and AFP, with their huge and constantly updated websites. Thus work is inadvertently being censored through the domination of the market by those with the best resources.