Hola amigos y amigas.
I recently wrote up a review of a photojournalism show at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. I wish I would’ve posted this over last weekend as it would’ve been a fine post for the anniversary of 9-11. All these photos are by Tyler Hicks. This review originally appeared in the Nashville Scene.
Can an army make war on a concept? Tyler Hicks’ photography exhibit Histories Are Mirrors: The Path of Conflict Through Afghanistan and Iraq, currently on display at Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery, doesn’t offer any answers where the contradictions of the War on Terror are concerned, but his images chronicle the soldiers and civilians who’ve been cast in the almost-decade-long tragedy. Hicks’ vivid photos show markets and massacres, heroes and hostages, every image taking its place in a sweeping drama presided over by a smiling villain: Saddam Hussein.
In Histories Are Mirrors, Hicks, a Pulitzer-winning New York Times staff photographer, documents the wreckage of the World Trade Center and the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, through 2004. Many of the wall labels offer only dates and locations, but the exhibit isn’t merely a timeline. Hicks’ best photographs capture the eternal features that crop up in the emotional landscape of wars everywhere: fear, pain, pride, rage, hubris, hope and hopelessness.
The show’s first images of the twin towers immediately recall the mute powerlessness of shocked Americans, resigned to observe the destruction as passive participants. Even photos of New York City emergency crews raise a paralyzing question: What do rescue workers do when there is no one to rescue?
Hicks then leaps into images and suites of photographs from a world away: A family in an open truck stares passively at an overturned vehicle in the bottom of a bomb crater; soldiers crouch and run in the violent confusion of a battle; an Afghan soldier firing an automatic weapon from a trench sets a rat-tat-tat pace for the succession of pictures on the wall.
In one image, an Afghan soldier dressed in modern camouflage gives orders to his men while wielding what looks like a medieval sword with a curved blade. Afghanistan’s geographic location has made it a region in conflict since antiquity, and Hicks’ photo implies that the country’s young men will be eternal soldiers.
In a photo titled “Mahawil, Iraq. May 14, 2003,” bodies wrapped in plastic dot the desert in a location where 3,000 corpses were recovered from a mass grave. This ghostly image resonates with another photo, “Nejaf, Iraq. August 21, 2004,” in which a number of Iraqi detainees are lying face-down in the desert, their hands cinched behind them with zip-ties. Both photographs recall the famous 1789 woodblock prints of the slave ship Brookes, its rows and columns of human ballast neatly accounted for if barely accommodated. In these compositions, Hicks’ subjects, like the slaves, are reduced to inert numbers before a rush of power, money and war.
Histories Are Mirrors is an expansive saga of conflict and emotion, but every drama needs a star. For Hicks, that star is Saddam Hussein. The exhibit features images of the dashing young Hussein graduating from college as well as the panicked, bedraggled old man many of us remember being unceremoniously hanged on YouTube. Various photos present a benevolent leader decorating watch faces and murals, and also a fallen dictator whose torn and burned images are redundantly obscured with obscene graffiti.
In “Baghdad Iraq. October 14, 2002,” a packed soccer stadium is awash in election rally banners that read “Saddam is Iraq! Iraq is Saddam!” Speaking out against Hussein resulted in imprisonment at Abu Ghraib or death. The identification of the man with the country was absolute: The Koran at the Mother of All Battles Mosque was literally written in Hussein’s blood. America’s pre-emptive war against Iraq began 219 days after the photograph was taken, spurred on by then President George W. Bush’s similarly confining declaration that “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”
The War on Terror has been a war against self-created monsters: radical Islam and Saddam Hussein. In “Abu Ghraib, Iraq. April 27, 2003,” Hicks’ eerie image of a defaced mural at the prison documents the fall of the dictator while alluding to the prisoner-torture controversy that was the most shocking public revelation of America’s moral failures in the conflict. The photo shows a painting on an interior wall of the prison featuring Saddam Hussein smiling and holding a child. His eyes are scratched out, and crudely drawn devil’s horns sprout from his head. A goat at the left edge of the photo walks out of the frame into the light from an open doorway, unwilling to accept any blame or to take sides with either “us” or “the terrorists.”
Histories Are Mirrors: The Path of Conflict Through Afghanistan and Iraq
Through Oct. 10 at Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery
Support Hick’s work as well as this site. Buy his gorgeous and moving photography book through The Sleepless Bookstore today.
Enjoy and leave a comment!
Joe Nolan <3