Looking Alive

Do the portraits from HBO's "Alive Day" documentary compel us to see veterans more clearly, or just to watch HBO?

Given advances in medical technology and the tactical nature of the ongoing conflict in Iraq, American combat troops are now surviving injuries that would once have been fatal -- and attracting the attention of visual documentarians as a result.

Making portraits of the wounded, however, is a delicate matter. Damage is as much, or more, psychic as physical. Innumerable variables are in play regarding dignity, memory, and the reconstruction of post-combat identity. And then there are still other factors in front of those, including the context and purpose of the images themselves.

Over the past year, I have been aware of and spent time studying two sets of portraits of injured American Iraq war vets: Nina Berman's award-winning series Purple Heart: Back From Iraq and a newspaper photo feature titled Wounds of War by South Florida Sun-Sentinel photographer, Anastasia Walsh Infanzon. Because photographer Lori Grinker includes a few injured veterans in her distinguished series, AfterWar, I have been looking at relevant examples there also. (Full disclosure: Nina Berman contributes to my BAGnewsNotes blog.)

© Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Then, two weeks ago, I received an email announcing a new documentary series from HBO titled "Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq." The program, which consists of individual interviews conducted by actor James Gandolfini with ten injured Iraq war veterans, premiered Sept. 9. According to the press release, "the documentary about wounded soldiers surveys the physical and emotional cost of war through memories of their 'alive day,' the day they narrowly escaped death in Iraq." Billed as "a multiplatform event," the project also features portraits of the veterans by the well-known photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

Together these wounded veteran series constitute an important new sub-genre of war photography that seems to have sprung from three converging factors: 1) the continued escalation in Iraq, 2) recent leaps in medical technology, including fascination with cyborg-like associations, and 3) the fact that there were previously few, if any, photographic studies dedicated exclusively to portraits of wounded American war veterans.

Although there are notable differences in approach between the Berman, Infanzon and Greenfield-Sanders images -- Berman and Greenfield-Sanders employed color while Infanzon used black-and-white; Berman's images were set in the soldiers' environment while Infanzon and Greenfield-Sanders used a studio with a neutral backdrop -- these distinctions seem less significant than the more personal factors. Specifically, I'm thinking about the psychological complexity of the engagement between veteran and camera, and the degree and depth of engagement between the veteran and himself.
In almost every Greenfield-Sanders shot, for example, the soldiers are positioned to convey that they are angry or aggrieved. They are captured with arms akimbo; or with arms tightly crossed over their chests; or with prosthetics offered in evidence; or leaning into our space with hands clasped; or presenting us with a (cold) shoulder. It seems that the soldiers in Greenfield-Sanders images were invited (whether actively or tacitly) to identify with their anger and engage with the camera (and hence the audience).

By contrast, the Berman and Infanzon images -- or, say, Lori Grinker's compelling photo of veteran Tim Lee -- register a good deal of disconnection (individual forms of inhibitory pain, perhaps?) between soldier and photographer.

© Nina Berman/Redux Pictures

As Nina Berman writes:

My soldiers almost never look the viewer directly in the eye. They look off or within. They do not connect, which is part of the point. They are unapproachable as subjects -- there is a distance that is nearly impossible to overcome -- which is part of the sadness.

These different levels of engagement are also indicative of the separation between "concerned" or documentary photography, which seeks what is unique about its subject and highlights that personal drama, and advertising or commercial photography, which employs its subject's image to urge a sale. Along those lines, one might argue that the Greenfield-Sanders photos are not portraits at all. I say this due to the way, in comparison to the others sets of pictures, these images represent a "reversal of intent."

In the Berman and Infanzon shots, in other words, the subject is the veteran and the point of the picture is for us to gain a window into his personal experience. In the Greenfield-Sanders photos, on the other hand, the subject is the stare, and the point (or demand) of the shot is to set up a confrontation with the viewer.

It is understandable if that confrontation feels uncomfortable, by the way. That's the point. Whereas the Berman, Infanzon, or Grinker images aim to bear witness, the Greenfield-Sanders shots seem aimed to get a rise out of us and/or to coerce us to do something. The question, then, is what are they coercing us to feel or do?

In the best case scenario, those ferocious gazes are a provocation for us to more vigorously consider the soldier's insult and what we are prepared to do about it -- like an advertisement for a patriotic Hollywood film or a recruitment poster.

Given the stereotypical looks and gestures, however, it is difficult to care about them as anything but victims...or to see them as much more than actors. Despite their shared subject matter, these Alive Day images have less in common with Berman or Infanzon's documentary work and more relation with commercial photography.

And to that extent, those soldiers' stares have the same intent as all advertisements: to fix our gaze in front of this particular television show.

-- American Photo's newest columnist, Michael Shaw, is a practicing clinical psychologist, but we know him through his popular, politically charged image-analysis blog, BAGnewsNotes.com. With his adept dissection of newswire photos and his Reading the Pictures feature at the Huffington Post, Shaw has cultivated an outspoken voice and a loyal following within the blogosphere. We are excited to bring his insights to our readers in the form of an online feature as well as a guest post on our State of the Art blog.

Robert-Acosta
Robert-Acosta
Robert Acosta
Jeremy-Feldbusch
Jeremy-Feldbusch
Jeremy FeldbuschNina Berman/redux Pictures
Alan-Lewis
Alan-Lewis
Alan LewisNina Berman/redux Pictures
Sam-Ross
Sam-Ross
Sam RossNina Berman/redux Pictures
Tim-Lee
Tim-Lee
Tim LeeLori Grinker
Dawn-Halfaker
Dawn-Halfaker
Dawn HalfakerTimothy Greenfield-sanders
Dexter-Pitts
Dexter-Pitts
Dexter PittsTimothy Greenfield-sanders
Jake-Schick
Jake-Schick
Jake SchickTimothy Greenfield-sanders
Jay-Wilkerson
Jay-Wilkerson
Jay WilkersonTimothy Greenfield-sanders
John-Jones
John-Jones
John JonesTimothy Greenfield-sanders
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