The new multimedia exhibit Conflict Zone featured in this week’s Reader’s culture section is a testament to the gritty and somber reality of war, but also to the fact that people have to live and work in places where few would choose to visit.
The exhibit is an all-volunteer effort, with Jackie Spinner, a former Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post, leading the effort from Oman, where she's completing a Fulbright Scholarship at Sultan Qaboos University. This summer she's coming to Chicago to take over Columbia College’s multimedia journalism program.
The exhibit's currently seeking gallery space in eight other cities: San Diego, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Austin, Miami, Boca Raton, and Tampa-Saint Petersburg.
“There’s a lot of life that happens in a conflict zone,” Spinner said. “What I would like people to come away with, I want them to see what I’ve seen. I want them to see the whole battlefield. It’s not just soldiers fighting.”
Some of the images on display show the simple side of life in war, like the Iraqi couple on a date in bumper cars. Then there’s the tragic and almost comedic innocence of children living in a warzone, as in the photo of two boys — one hoisting an AK-47 in the air, the other, a goofy-looking kid with large ears, with a large pistol tucked into the waistband of his sweatpants. They don’t look tough. They look like kids.
What’s really stirring and what’s really interesting about this exhibit is the violence. After all, the images of war wouldn’t exist without the violence. And the exhibit wouldn’t have come together without the result of violence.
Spinner said she started networking with old colleagues from the war beat soon after Joao Silva, a veteran war photographer shooting for the New York Times, was badly injured in Afghanistan after stepping on a landmine.
His injuries — the loss of his legs above the knee and damage to his intestines — shocked Spinner and other war reporters. So did the death of Spinner’s close friend Chris Hondros, the well-respected and experienced Getty Images photographer who was killed in Libya April 20. Hondros was one of the first journalists to sign up to contribute to Conflict Zone; his 2005 photo of a young Iraqi girl after U.S. soldiers killed her parents became instantly iconic.
“When Joao Silva got hurt and we heard about it, I think many of us were stunned. Even though people have gotten hurt before in these intense conflict zones … it doesn’t happen all that often, and it hasn’t happened for a while. It was a pretty big wake up call,” she said.
“Sometimes we lull ourselves into believing it’s the newbies that get hurt because they make stupid mistakes. But that’s not true, that’s not how it works,” Spinner said.
Indeed, the exhibit shines a light on the dangers journalists working in combat zones face. Hondros was working alongside Oscar-nominated filmmaker Tim Hetherington when he was killed. Yesterday, after Libya released four journalists it had held for more than a month, and Iran released an Al-Jazeera reporter missing for weeks after covering the uprising in Syria, news came that Anton Hammerl, a South African photographer working in Libya, had been killed. In March, four New York Times journalists were taken prisoner by the Gadhafi government, and were later freed, having been beaten and interrogated.
Silva is currently recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital; a fund has been set up to aid his recovery, and half of the donations from the exhibit will be donated to aid him. You can also donate via Conflict Zone’s website to two organizations that help wounded soldiers and their families, the Independence Fund and Fisher House Foundation.
Silva co-authored a book called The Bang Bang Club with fellow South African photog Greg Marinovich, about their experiences covering the country during the Apartheid era. It’s now a motion picture starring Ryan Phillipe as Marinovich and Neels Van Jaarsveld as Silva.
More than anything, though, the exhibit serves as a reminder that, yes, there are still wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fickle natures of the news business and the American attention span mean we rarely hear about these conflicts anymore, at least not the way we used to. After 10 years, we’re rightfully weary.
The daring assault that killed Osama bin Laden and the United States’s involvement in Libya may have reignited some interest in our ongoing involvement in the Middle East, but who knows how that will last?
“I think that for those of us who have been covering war or covering conflict for many years, at some point, you feel people are jumping up and down and screaming to get people’s attention. People get anesthetized,” Spinner said.
She writes on her blog:
Our nation hasn’t really been at war. A tiny faction of the population—less than 5 percent—has been at war. Conflict Zone is a way for the rest of that population to witness what we have, to survive what we have, perhaps even, like us, to feel guilty that we have.
The images are so jarring — it’s not often you see a young man helplessly looking into a camera as blood pours from his mouth a stone’s throw away from Millennium Park — that they can only make you cognizant of the wars. Nor do most Chicagoans experience the chatter of gunfire, as recorded by former Army journalist Bill Putnam.
Michael Yon, an independent journalist who has spent years embedded with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan, presents a moving photo of an Army major cradling a young child. We do not know if the child is injured, or worse. They make you wonder what happened, who these people are. Who they were.
“We tend to view these wars as distant abstractions,” says Dr. James Tobin, an associate professor of journalism at Miami University in Ohio. “A good photograph instantly changes your relationship with these conflicts. …I’m really struck by the power of these.”
What struck him most — beyond the drama in each photo — was the personal connection forged with the subjects, especially the residents of countries under siege.
They make “clear the terrible devastation of the low-level violence, violence as it occurs to three or four people. … (They have) the ability to show the impact of war at the microscopic level.”
And they do so in a way that really hasn’t been experienced since the first years of the war in Iraq. Then we became familiar with the Marlboro Marine, the lynching in Fallujah, Hondros’s image of 5-year-old Samar Hassan. Now we have more distractions than ever — iPods, iPads, iPhones, texting, tweeting, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPNU, flash mobs, well, you get the point. Our ability to pay attention — especially to the complicated, tragic, and drawn-out conflicts abroad — for a prolonged period of time has been compromised. Think about it: Facebook didn’t even exist in 2003. YouTube was four years away in 2001. There were but two ESPN channels.
Tobin lamented to me that his daughter sent 2,000 texts last month.
“We are so bombarded with text and images right now,” he said. “It’s very hard for any image to capture our attention and hold it.”