Approaching Reality

Angela Neuke

With the Gulf War, the world had just learnt to gauge a new dimension of the blitzkrieg.
It was the first electronically conducted war, presented to observers through satellite communication technology. In the absence of photos of the war, television reporters were able, very effectively, to elevate themselves to the status of heroes. Paul Virilio, Urbanist and Technological Sociologist, stated in an interview:
"You journalists are standing at the front line. You are soldiers. It does not matter, if you are for or against peace. The media are completely dependent on this U.S. Pool Video and the C.N.N. (...). Desertion in this war for you journalist soldiers would consist in denouncing the use of the weapons of communication." (1)
The photos of the Gulf War show the bombing attacks and were made with a video camera from aboard the U.S. Stealth Bomber. Stills made from these videos were distributed through photo agencies and in the meantime have been frequently reproduced in printed form. They have been made into the icons of this "clean war". The technical data and focus marks to be found on the photos, by their cool aesthetic and absolute technical superiority, imply that bombing mishits on non-military targets would be absolutely impossible. It was the videos of hundreds of burned bodies in a bombed bunker in Bagdad that first made people suspicious. These photos were not so widely distributed. Instead, the world saw the photos of Kurdistan people who had been gassed by Irak soldiers and of tortured citizens of Kuwait. It is amazing that the photos of the Irak victims of the U.S. blitzkrieg still cannot be found. Do these facts once again exemplify common journa-listic practices in spreading political propaganda in non-military capitalistic press organs?
Photos of the war in Vietnam showed us how powerfully such photos could penetrate into political consciousness. How could one forget Kyoichi Sawada's photo showing a man tied by his feet to a tank, being dragged through the sand. Was he being lynched before our very eyes? And when we think about the destruction of war, the photo of that naked girl running, screaming along the cold street, still accompanies us (Huynh Cong Ut).
Pictures like these ended the Vietnam War and proved who was guilty. And the photos of despairing U.S. soldiers made by Larry Burrows and Philip Jones Griffith can change nothing of this.
At the same time the German photographer Hilmar Pabel published in the international press his kitschy "Story of the Little Orchid". A U.S. soldier, his eyes raised to Heaven, sits holding the hand of a dying Vietnamese girl who had been fatally wounded. (1968) Pabel was "conscripted" into the service of the Nazi publication "Signal" during World War II. His picture story from Vietnam shows how unbroken the propa-ganda effect of such photography remains. Twenty years after the Second World War, he was still incapable of recognising that in depicting a culprit as a Good Samaritan, he was aiding U.S. propaganda.
To return to Paul Virilio's appeal to the soldier-journalists to abandon their work. Then there would be no more pictures to feed political consciousness. It is exactly official photography, the propaganda pictures of the pool photographers and the electronic photos, often mistaken for "Art Photography", that make obvious what kind of pictures are lacking. We know exactly what cruelty is cloaked by the accuracy of the camera lens. And as the campaign of false information through electronic aesthetic evoked the supression of the bloody reality, this was recalled by the bloody pictures of a traditional war (in Bosnia and Croatia).
Pictures which are simply lacking can provoke an anger which lasts a very long time. This anger is because we are not allowed to see the "new war" which has recently broken out: to satisfy our greed for new experiences. If such pictures are available they continue to work in a long process. We remember pictures which, through their symbolism, convey experiences that we do not want.
The atomic mushroom is such a symbol: an internationally understandable prohibition sign against further experiments. Without the photos of the victims of the atomic explosion in Hiroshima, or the photos of victims of later atom bomb tests, both under and on the earth, this symbol would only be a wondrous cloud.
If we did not recall pictures of the damage done by fighter bombers in the previous war, we would believe the evidence presented by the Stealth-Bomber photos.
With the war in former Jugoslavia we are able to make new experiences with pictures that are already familiar from the Second World War: streams of refugees, the evacuation of children, Care parcels, decaying corpses, wrecked houses. These pictures are familiar to Europeans who have seen the reality and the pictures. They know them from the stories of their parents and grandparents who can develop the showing of photos and films into an account of the atrocities of the Second World War. We have known for a long time what war in Europe looks like, but were still not in a position to prevent war in Bosnia - despite these new-old photos. It would seem that human beings have to keep on looking at war photos because the experience was emotionally positive: they want to know how long they can endure their own savagery or under what conditions they can reject the return of mankind to its primitive state.
This thesis is presented by Ernst Tugendhat in "KURSBUCH 105" and he describes the situation which gives rise to war: "Firstly, this lies in the nature of human beings; secondly there is the actual immediate cause - the interests of the power-holders in the state, and finally the ideological motive." (2)
Humanity needs a multitude of vivid pictures to follow its own socialisation process from its "status naturae" to the genus human; although the human race, in contrast to animals, is still killing its own kind. In 1904, before photography and television had become instruments of mass communication, Rudolf Steiner, in his articles "Aus der Akasha Chronik". (3) describes modern man, in contrast to the "Atlantier", as thinking in concepts, and possessing understanding and reasoning power by means of which he can keep rules. The "Atlantier" are described as a people who, on the basis of their experiences, had learned to think in pictures. They based their judgments on the many pictures they had seen in the course of their lives, and so roused their memories.
The immense mass of pictures, eighty years later, seems to prove how far removed we are from those beings who could think in concepts and employ their logical understanding to keep rules. We, as producers of pictures, as photographers, film makers, artists, use our imagination to find out which pictures help people to internalise and store pictures - in the sense of a collective memory - in order to make a contribution relevant to the prevention of war. War pictures can be used as propaganda material for or against war.
The photographs in this book, taken by Wolfgang Bellwinkel and Peter Maria Schäfer, are actual photos taken of the war. During five journeys they have observed the war together. In the course of this, they have followed two completely different concepts, through which they narrate what they perceived so differently in the same places.
Wolfgang Bellwinkel's photos are authentic slices of reality. Single pictures in the tradition of the social documentary photography. They are pictures which, when seen at a distance, help us to visualise what this war in a former holiday resort, is really like. They are close ups which show us children who cannot be comforted, the pitiful soup under the Christmas tree, the place where water can be obtained, the oven that provides warmth, the shattered body of a soldier. These are everyday pictures of war that describe
people in a state of dreadful emergency: fear, hunger, death, thirst, cold. Large colour prints show with technical precision every detail of the reality of war. They are extracts which bring a sense of closeness through their narrative exactness. The approaching of reality is achieved through the progression in the photos. Wolfgang Bellwinkel was a witness of events as a photo journalist. He does not submit to the dictates of poster-like photos, of formulae which can be quickly understood: pictures made for the printed media. Instead he achieves a deeper human dimension through his subjectivity and complexity.
Peter Maria Schäfer's idea was, not only to show the scenes of the war in Bosnia, but also to show scenes where the ritual of war was celebrated. He makes the reality of war visible by placing the events in Bosnia side by side with the intertwining of power and helplessness taking place outside the war zone and thus makes clear the complexity of the total situation.
Peter Maria Schäfer visited eight different places and contacted at first hand the sufferings of the civilians, the aggressive overlord behaviour of soldiers at the front, the well-meaning U.N. soldiers, the helplessness of the members of the peace conference in Geneva, the friendly German soldiers in Ancona, helpers for Sarajevo, the official visit of the Secretary of the U.N. in Bonn coinciding with a conference of "Deutsche Wehrtechnik e.V." (German Society for Weapon Techniques) and the war victims in Bosnia.
Peter Maria Schäfer shows these eight themes in blocks of five photos which he, similarly to Bellwinkel, describes in a journalistic, documentary, symbolic language. The difference lies in his choice of a quadratic form: thus he distances himself from traditional journalistic pictures. His sequences are ordered according to themes. Climaxes were consciously avoided.
Peter Maria Schäfer's thematic picture cycles and Wolfgang Bellwinkel's emotionally moving pictures were not produced to be evaluated by the printed media nor as the thematic product of a special artistic task. They are pictures of "eye-witnesses", as the term is used by Georg Herold, who explained his refusal of the invitation to attend the exhibition "WAR" in Graz in 1993, in the following way: "Photography is there to witness events. The question is whether it can then be considered as art. In any case I am not in a position to make an artistic statement about this theme, at a time when war is taking place on our doorstep." (4)
This statement is more a proof of his dignity, than of the speechlessness that Werner Fenz accused him of. (5) It demonstrates clearly what is the task of photography oriented on reality, if it aims to produce pictures of remembrance which will help to avoid war.

Angela Neuke, Essen, July 1994

(1) TAZ, 21.01.1992
(2) Tugendhat, Kursbuch 105, Sept. 1991, p.3
(3) Steiner, R., "Lucifer gnosis", Berlin 1904-1908
(4) Georg Herold, KRIEG, Graz 1993, p. 62
(5) Fenz, KRIEG, Graz 1993, p. 69