Portraits from a Warzone: Photojournalism, life and death in conflict, by Helena Roy

It seems that the concept of a finite war has collapsed in the face of long-term conflicts without geographical limits. In the same way, reporting has changed and as smartphones have emerged as a reporting device, perhaps art seems out of place in a war zone. Static, micro-level portraits will not headline the ten o’clock news or sprint through Twitter. The ease of taking grainy last-minute iPhone footage befits the chronicling of ceaseless long-term struggles, it seems. But a portrait can just as easily convey the enormity of a conflict as a graphic battle scene. And as  today’s battle scenes  have chenged, becoming shattered generations rather than muddy, shelled fields – portraiture reflects some of the deeper consequences of war, reverberating across countries and time.

And so, artists are creating collaborative projects to thread communities out of those displaced by war. On 1st February 2014, in central Kiev, anti-government protestors were barricaded in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, living under a lethal siege. Armour was improvised in a setting of ice, fire, smoke and soot. Anastasia Taylor-Lind, a photojournalist from London, set up a makeshift portrait studio by the barricades. The result of her work is immensely powerful. Against a blank black curtain, ordinary men and women confront the viewer, vulnerable in their homemade protective clothing. As time progressed during this project, the artist’s subjects morphed from revolutionaries brandishing weapons, to women cradling flowers for the dead.

'Anika' by Anastasia Taylor-Lind (Kiev, 2014)
'Eugene' by Anastasia Taylor-Lind (Kiev, 2014)
'Olena' by Anastasia Taylor-Lind (Kiev, 2014)

When conflicts feel like relics of history, or too distant to be relevant, photojournalism throws forward untold stories that demand attention. Photojournalist Michael Kamber published photos from three of the Iraq war’s most prominent photographers. Frustrated at America’s desire to tune out of the war, and the US military’s encouragement of indifference by taking an active role in censoring what could be photographed, the cautiously obscure portraits – some shocking and gruesome – convey an unavoidable sense of perpetual sadness.

In Ali Musayyib, an Iraqi child jumps over the remains of victims found in a mass grave south of Baghdad. The victims were killed by Saddam Hussein’s government during a Shiite uprising here following the 1991 Gulf War. (Photography by Marco di Lauro, 27 May 2003)
An Iraqi woman walks through a plume of smoke rising from a massive fire at a liquid gas factory in Basra, as she searches for her husband. The fire was allegedly started by looters picking through the factory. (Photograph by Lynsey Addario, 26 May 2003)
Samar Hassan, five, screams moments after her parents were killed by U.S. soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division. The troops fired on the Hassan-family car when it unwittingly approached during a dusk patrol in the tense northern town of Tal Afar (Photograph by Chris Hondros, 18 January 2005).

The mass of social media flowing from every war zone makes it almost impossible to separate out nuanced understanding from the fake or unrevealing. Portraits from warzones offer a considered insight into the effects of war and social displacement around the world. Kamber’s portraits show wounds scarring both Iraqi and US communities, as soldiers bring home injury, grief and disillusionment with their sovereign state’s confused world identity. Syrian artist Tammam Azzam’s version of Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’, superimposed on a hauntingly empty, bullet-ridden building in Damascus, is a passionate plea for empathy and kindness amidst cold brutality. Here, the golden ghost of Klimt’s tender portrait mourns the splendour and love the city once offered.

Alan Jermaine Lewis, 23, a machine gunner with the Third Infantry Division, was wounded July 16, 2003, on Highway 8 in Baghdad when the Humvee he was driving hit a land mine, blowing off both his legs, burning his face, and breaking his arm in six places. He was delivering ice to other soldiers at the time. (Photograph by Nina Berman, 23 November 2003 - Milwaukee, Wisconsin.)
Syrian artist Tammam Azzam's 'Kiss' in Syria

As conflict after conflict is buried under an avalanche of new crises, it is too easy to forget one for another. The interchangeablity of hashtags perhaps references this better than anything:  #Ukraine, #Syria, #Iraq and #IslamistState. Photojournalism moves with a society undergoing struggles, capturing the suffering that will remain with people for generations. Most importantly, portraits encourage us to consider the status of the subject in a world perplexed by the boundaries of nation, class, race and religion.

With thanks to Anastasia Taylor-Lind, Michael Kamber and Tammam Azzam for photographs.

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