30 Days – Day 2: A Photograph

So this one is taking a decidedly unexpected turn. I originally had several cherished family photos in mind when I compiled the challenge list, but ultimately due to questions of whether or not my internet-wary family would appreciate having them posted for all to see I’ve decided to go in a different direction (although the hunt through all our old albums was certainly beneficial for me from a gratitude standpoint – which after all was the point of this project.)

So I’m going in a more professional direction with this and in the process I guess I’m changing the prompt a little.

So here we go.

On day 2 of this challenge, I am grateful for: War Photographers.

Joe Odonnell

A quick warning here: some (all) of the photographs that I will link here are not for the faint of heart. Click through at your own risk.

This probably seems to you like a very strange thing to be grateful for. So let me explain.

See, professionally my research interests are dark. I gravitate towards the history of warfare – particularly the two biggies for the US in the 20th century – WWII and Vietnam. And as someone who routinely and purposefully surrounds herself with some of the worst things humanity has done to itself, the extremes of human suffering and brutality – you sort of develop a distance from the subject. You become jaded and separated from the reality of it, really as a defense mechanism more than anything.

It is easy to stop seeing the people you read about as real. It is easy to begin reading it almost as if it was fiction – to get that same sense of detached disgust that comes with watching a particularly gory battle scene in a movie, or a fictional bad-guy order some sort of horrible fate for the hero. You know it’s awful. You know it’s horrifying. But it doesn’t really pack quite as much of a punch as it should.

You become desensitized. You stop seeing who you’re reading about as people, and more as a subject or a case study.

And as far as I’m concerned, nothing is more dangerous than that.

So today, I am grateful for all the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to record the horrors we’ve precipitated. The photographs they produced are the things that keep me grounded in reality more than anything – by recording the moments when we as a species have lost sight of our humanity, they’ve allowed me to maintain mine as I study it all.

I can read several thousand first hand accounts of the human suffering caused by the firebombing in Japan, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but nothing connects me to the reality of that more than photos of it. Nothing reminds me that these were real people who lived through this horror – not some fictional retelling – than the photos that let me see the suffering with my own two eyes. I can read hundreds of historians telling me about the civilian toll of the napalming and “search and destroy” techniques utilized in the Vietnamese countryside, but nothing drives it home quite like seeing the pain in the flesh – in the cries of a little girl in pain, or the fear in an older woman’s eyes. I can read Holocaust memoir after Holocaust memoir, but nothing hammers in the true horror of it like seeing the bodies, seeing the graves, seeing the condition of the survivors.

Seeing, after all, is believing.

And on a far less personal level – nothing forces us (as a society) to confront the reality of our past quite like photography – specifically because it forces us to admit that the pain was real. The suffering was real. That these were actual things that humans did to other humans – purposefully, no less. There’s a realness in the pain behind these photographs that even the best actor couldn’t reproduce, and nothing can remind us of the real human toll of war quite as effectively.

And that reminder is invaluable.

It is horrible that these things happened. But they did. And we cannot let that fact be forgotten. Remembering the human toll of war is what will be most effective in helping us prevent these things from happening again.

You know the old saying, that a picture is worth a thousand words? There is nowhere that this is more true than in photography of war. One photograph can be more effective in arguing for peace than a million words spilled by a million people on the subject. And today, I am grateful for that.

 

[Photo of Joe O’Donnell – US Marine and Photojournalist known for his photos of post-surrender Japan, including the aftermath of the atomic bombs. Clicking the image will take you to the source.]
Advertisements

Leave a Comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s