Among the many exceptional, provocative and edifying photographs currently on exhibition at the Ackland Art Museum's Picturing the World: Carolina's Celebrated Photojournalists, there is one image that should be absorbed into the heart and mind of every American taxpayer—especially those who, unbelievably, still support the Bush administration's disastrous (and illegal) "pre-emptive" invasion of Iraq. The image, by Chris Hondros, shows a 5-year-old Iraqi child, Samar Hassan, huddled midscream beside a gun-wielding soldier on blood-spattered cement. Seconds before the photograph was taken, her parents had been killed—mistakenly, we are told—by occupying American forces.
The photograph's indictment is powerful and horrifying, much as Nick Ut's 1972 rendering of 9-year-old napalm victim Kim Phuc was and remains. But unlike Ut's iconic Vietnam War image, don't expect the moment Hondros captured to sear for very long in the public mind's eye. Already largely forgotten is Faleh Kheiber's 2003 photograph of Ali Ismail Abbas, the 12-year-old Iraqi boy who lost both his arms during America's "shock and awe" offensive. Along with Abbas' limbs, American bombs also claimed the lives of the boy's immediate and extended family. What is to be made of the speed with which our culpable culture accelerates, barely blinking, from one photographic horror show to the next? Is Ut's image only remembered because it embodied (literally) some sort of gruesome novelty?
Neither Hondros, nor his photograph, which is titled "Tal Afar, Iraq" (2005), are central to Picturing the World. "Tal Afar, Iraq" is but one print drawn from 30 images by 25 photographers selected in the juried section of the exhibition. The other half of the show focuses on six accomplished photojournalists: Andrea Bruce, Susie Post Rust, Ami Vitale, Jamie Francis, Janet Jarman and Charles "Stretch" Ledford. The obvious reason for the exhibition is for UNC to showcase the considerable accomplishments of its journalism alumni—all of the photographers exhibited have studied at UNC, and the show was co-curated (along with Ackland curator of exhibitions Barbara Matilsky) by professor Rich Beckman, founder of the school's photojournalism department.
But beyond the collegial bonds that connect the creators of these photographs, there's an urgent and discernable undercurrent linking almost all of the selected images. These photographers, if not all artists in their conception of the medium, have forgone the supposed comfort and predictability of the usual professional existence and made it their mission to traipse the globe. Their self-appointed task is to show the complacent denizens of North American and Western European countries that radically different realities exist in places that are out of sight and mind.
Johann von Goethe wrote that the "dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety." Considering we're seeing photographs made in the middle of troubled situations on no fewer than five continents, one supposes these photojournalists feel Goethe's ethos in their guts. We see Jarman immersing herself in the poverty of Mexico and Ledford doing the same across the continent of Africa. Post Rust's photography deals with the global scourge of AIDS. Vitale, who has a separate show opening Tuesday, March 4, at Durham's Through This Lens gallery, shows us glimpses of Kashmir, a regional hotspot and location of contention that may one day trigger an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange.
Bruce, like Hondros, has brought back disturbing images from Iraq. Her "On Iraqi Ground" (2003) might even serve as a companion and imagined precursor to "Tal Afar, Iraq"; in it, a U.S. Marine, his countenance twisted in rage, brandishes a pistol in the face of a detained Iraqi man, an alleged looter.
Overall, even if planetary prospects appear grim, Picturing the World shows a dedication to exemplary visual storytelling. The handful of poorly conceived exceptions proves the rule. Streeter Lecka's streaking NASCAR photograph is vapidity devoid of humanity and could only be of concern to those excited by the incessant circling of overpowered automobiles branded by corporate logos. Of real interest is "Headed Home" (2001) by Frances. In it, we see a vehicle moving actual flesh and blood on an actual road, and it's a scene infinitely warmer and more compelling than any captured at a motor sports arena could be.
Also included, problematically, is David Surowiecki's "World Trade Center" (2001), a shot of minuscule figures leaping from skyscraper to death. Recent history has borne out the tragic consequences of the media blitzing of decontextualized Sept. 11 imagery. Although the curators may think it significant that one of their photographers happened to be in vicinity to document the dreadful event, to this viewer more than six years later, Surowiecki's photograph seems inextricably fused to the propaganda campaign that was unleashed to bolster the Bush administration's tragic war march. Because of how Sept. 11 has been cynically exploited, it's difficult to remember the original shock in Surowiecki's photograph without acknowledging the lie subsequently used to sell the war. Arguably, "World Trade Center" only retains relevance when considered alongside Hondros and Bruce's photography from Iraq. Given that no event in the so-called "war on terror" will likely receive as much attention as the 2001 terrorist attack, it needs be persistently reiterated that in response to the horrible crime, a confused and misled America allowed another crime—one that has lasted much longer than a single day—to be committed.
Picturing the World, representing only a tiny fragment of the important photojournalism available to those who seek it out, makes clear the potential power that the still image could have in shaping our global understanding. But still, images like "Tal Afar, Iraq" lack any staying power in the ephemeral digital ether that characterizes our increasingly mediated perception. In such an environment, reality is easily distorted and reshaped by those pandering to the most puerile instincts. The phenomenon is cause for great concern.
Recently, writing in these pages about the television-based culture that ultimately gained ascendancy in the presidential election of Bedtime for Bonzo star Ronald Reagan, Indy film critic Godfrey Cheshire repostulated his theory that the country has abandoned an interest in reality (www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A167356). Cheshire's analysis is not without supporting evidence. Ours is a culture of "infotainment" and fleeting attention spans. NPR reports that the parasitic paparazzo who photographed Britney Spears shaving her head may have received upward of $350,000 for his or her "work." America, the paradigm of capitalism, succinctly places a monetary value on everything it holds dear, and, bearing in mind it is doubtful if even a fraction of the amount paid for Britney's haircut was collectively remunerated to all the photojournalists for their work now on display at the Ackland, the writing appears supremely legible on the wall.