Tuesday, July 19, 2011

war photography

A friend put this on his Facebook profile, http://www.visuramagazine.com/katie-orlinsky-libya.

It's about a mutual friend who we both met in Oaxaca in  2003.  We were all arriving in those days.  Three years later, as a conflict between Oaxaca's civil society and it's government escalated into a street "battle" (the quotes because the weapons were largely sticks and rocks on  the side of the people and canisters of tear gas on the side of the police which, albeit unpleasant and quite frightening, are indeed not usually deadly), the three of us along with other friends and colleagues met up in the central square of Oaxaca in order to make revolution.  As the confusion of conflict buzzed about us, I heard a man say into his walkie talkie, "The police are making a front on Bustamante (a block away), we all need to go there and get ready for the face off."

I'd always been stubbornly confident to a fault, and apparently received Highest Honors on my undergraduate thesis because I'd gone into a war zone to do my research, but in that moment I remember a feeling flooding through my bones and down to my feet that made me certain that I was a) not willing to die for the battle that I'd until then thought myself a part of and b) therefore had no business whatsoever being all up in it.  Coincidentally, Katie's then boyfriend, a Oaxacan very much in his own struggle, looked at my face in that precise moment and perfectly read what my mind and body were thinking.  I remember that without a word he extended his arm toward me, at the end of which his hand was wrapped around the handle bar of the bike that he and Katie shared.  I accepted it with unspeakable gratitude and promptly jumped on and fled the center of the conflict through eerily quiet streets and the caustic remnants of tear gas.

I imagine something akin to this is what Katie must have felt on Tripoli Street in Misurata, Libya on April 20th, as she watched her colleagues fall and bleed.

My head can't decide how to feel about it all, and yet I can't just leave it at that either.

Last night I looked at some of the work of one of her fellow disaster photographers who was killed that day, who did 14 tours in Iraq, and many others among all manner of war-torn peoples.  The tragedy of each image is always the same.  It makes me feel that the side of me that wants to say "their work is important because it gives the rest of the world images of what is really happening" is actually quite wrong.  It makes me feel certain that the side of me that wants to say "they have no business being there whatsoever" is right.  Who are we to know what a child looks like when she's covered in the blood of both her parents, who were just shot dead in front of her because they didn't stop their car promptly when a foreign officer told them to?  Isn't that the sort of thing we should only know if we are truly going to know it by truly living through it?  This child felt her parent's blood fall on her, heard the blasts of gunshots and shattered glass, felt the confusion thereafter, only to be taken from the car by men dressed as non-men, in head-to-toe combat wear, and then photographed like a starlet on the catwalk with no frame of reference whatsoever that could explain the western obsession with "seeing" to "believe".  I imagine that the flashes from the camera in the night must have been just as terrifying to her as the bullets that killed her mother moments before.  Later, the "image" won merits and was discussed by media.  The girl was called "doll like" but was by no means a doll.  The media itself turned her into a doll.  They did NOTHING whatsoever to help her or her people in so doing.  We do NOTHING to stop our soldiers from killing innocent civilians each day, because we simply can't. 

So why?  By what right does a western, white press move in and out of places where not-so-white refugees wait and die during months of war to do the same?  By what right do these talented and daring photographers gain prestige for themselves upon the misery that they capture in the faces of others?

I don't mean to judge Katie or the men who died.  I am proud to know such a brave soul, though I wonder what purpose she'll find for her life now that the innocence inherent in bravery shattered and left her shell shocked.  I'm sure (knowing her) that it will continue to be a noble purpose, and pray that she can mentally leave Tripoli street as her body and soul were fortunate to do.

I wish that the horror that is war, fighting and killing and loving and losing amongst people, were not so hackneyed as it is in our society. (Especially considering that for more than a century we have not experienced a single war as civilians.  This, to me, is KEY).

I wish that saying "Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me" were enough for the entire Earth and all it's people.  (I wish it were enough for me).  I wish that we could all leave our yellow curiosity for blood and misery behind and look for images of peace and love on faces of all the colors of the world.

Finally, I wish Katie all the best and, in spite of it all, thank her for her images www.katieorlinsky.com, which are not so bloody, but rather are beautifully human.

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