My War Story

[Editor’s Note: I’m currently enrolled in a graduate seminar on “Conflict Photography” at Harvard University. Our first assignment was to “tell your war story.” Here’s mine]

Driving through the Mississippi Delta in 2008, I passed through the little hamlet of Midnight, Mississippi, not so much a town as a few shacks clustered around a church hard against an abandoned rail line. Until mechanized farming destroyed the need for field labor, Midnight had been a thriving cotton town centered around a bustling cotton gin, connected to the larger world by a railroad bisecting cotton fields stretching as far as one could see.  Now it was a forsaken spot where a dozen abysmally poor black families clung to each other in desperation, whatever work there had once been for them long gone. It was a sad place, slightly surreal in its seemingly static acceptance of the cruelties visited upon them amidst natural plenty. Even the name of the town – “Midnight” – bespoke a wry cynicism, having been bestowed on it by a local planter who won the entire town in a midnight poker game back in the day.

Up through the 1960′s, Midnight’s economic and social relations functioned in a manner not much different than they did during slavery. Whites owned the land while entire black families, from school age children to grandparents, worked it.  The profits went into the pockets of the land-owner, the gin owner or off somewhere else. Today, large agricultural concerns farm the fields with machines.  The remaining residents, descendants of those who worked the land since slavery, have no work and subsist on government aid. The poverty in which they live and attempt to maintain some semblance of dignity is appalling.

I passed through Midnight twice that day. Both times I saw an elderly black man sitting under a tree across the street from the only commercial establishment in the area, a dilapidated market selling beer and cheap wine. First time I waved; second time, I stopped, got out of the car and said hello. The old man introduced himself as ‘Artee James’ and invited me to sit. We got to talking, as people who’ve just met and are trying to be friendly do – about the weather and Mississippi and the pick-up trucks that kicked up dust when they rumbled past. At some point I retrieved my camera from the car, which, being honest, was the reason I stopped in the first place. To my eye, educated in American social history and documentary aesthetics, Mr. James, sitting serenely under a tree on a littered patch of dirt in a forgotten town in the Mississippi Delta, had the makings of a fascinating series of photos, sufficiently ‘exotic’ yet capable of serving the larger narrative of my choosing.

I hadn’t really considered the ethics of the interaction I’d initiated when I stopped and said hello. Specifically, I didn’t think what Artee James might think. Had you asked me, I’d tell you my motives were pure and reasonable. Educated both as a historian and a documentarian, I saw myself as ethically neutral, documenting something that deserved documentation. Mr. James, to the extent I considered him at all, was my entrée into a larger aesthetic and social subject. As for my prerogative in doing so, whatever reservations I felt I put aside as unproductive.

We talked while I photographed him, more a friendly interrogation than a dialogue of equals.  Mr. James was gracious enough to tell me about himself and his life. Now in his late 70’s, he had worked the cotton fields since he was a child. Polite yet reticent, he had obviously seen more than he cared to tell. He told of a neighbor lynched in the early 60′s (I subsequently followed up on his story and found out, yes, it had happened, just like he said). Especially memorable for him had been Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘Freedom March’ through Midnight in 1964. He only glimpsed Dr. King from the fields as King marched through town with a large group of activists; Mr. James and his fellow workers had been warned by their work supervisor they’d be set off their land if they joined the march. Midnight’s white land-owner cut off water to the town to encourage the marchers to pass through quickly; Mr. James mentioned this matter-of-factly, like it wasn’t something that needed further explanation. Even though he’d been prevented from greeting or marching with Dr. King, the presence of people marching through Midnight gave him hope. It was a feeling he remembered, a sense of pride that a famous man like Dr. King would care for him and his troubles. He shook his head, as if reliving a bittersweet memory, and then fell silent. Meanwhile, I walked around him taking photos.

Eventually, his friends and neighbors came out to see what was going on as we talked and I photographed. They stood around quietly, respectfully, but with the body language of people turned in on themselves. When I tried to engage them in conversation, they deferred to Mr. James to answer. I presumed at the time their reticence was shyness and not born of distrust or dislike. They certainly weren’t rude. I ended up staying awhile; someone eventually brought me a beer and then another, a neighbor woman brought me a poem she had written, and, in the course of the afternoon, I met Midnight’s residents, including a middle-aged woman, son attending Mississippi State University, who seemed to know everything about the town and its history and was grateful someone showed some interest, and who ultimately invited me to come back and spend some time with them.

I subsequently spent a week photographing their children, homes and church. They treated me with respect and kindness, even though what I was doing was trading on their pain and historical misery for my benefit, something I only realized in hindsight.  One particular encounter – me with my camera, a resident doing yard work in the church cemetery – left me profoundly troubled by what I was doing in the name of ‘documenting’, by the assumptions I brought to the process by which I objectified their difficulties and pain.

*************

My encounter with Midnight, Mississippi came to mind when I began to think about my ‘War Story.’ I don’t come from a ‘military family.’ Neither my siblings, father nor either grandfather fought in war; I never served in the military nor do I identify with military culture or the nationalism that glorifies it. I don’t have a ‘war story’ per se; I’ve never experienced war except as a passive consumer of its language and imagery, gleaned from various written historical sources and contemporary visual depictions. While I’ve read Herodotus and Thucydides and Homer’s Iliad, classical notions of warrior excellence and war as a maker of meaning strike me as irrational vestiges of dysfunctional cultural constructions. To my mind, there’s nothing good about war.

I’m not sure there’s anything good about photographing war either. I see the same ethical dilemmas in conflict photography as I eventually saw in my interactions with Mr. James and the residents of Midnight, the exploitation of another’s misery in service to individual ends. How do you ‘document’ the pain of others without exploiting the sufferer and leveling their experience to an aesthetic event?

A few years ago I was in Powell’s Books in Portland, a white upper-middle-class hipster place if I’ve ever seen one; looking through the photography section I picked up a book that had recently gotten a lot of interesting reviews in the art press. The author/artist had compiled odd and interesting photos gathered from Google Street views and made a book of it. It had won a few awards, and the author had made a name for himself in the proper circles, something he could leverage in the future. Paging through it, there was a Google Street view from Midnight Mississippi, a blurry capture of an old black man sitting in a lawn chair under a tree. It was Artee James.

21 thoughts on “My War Story

  1. Dominique Pierre-Nina.

    Great piece with a lot to think about.

    I think the last paragraph say it all about what is perceived good photography these days.

    As in the first paragraph ” Until mechanized farming destroyed the need for field labor,”I see That as an analogy for the plague of imagers we now find ourself with.
    And much like Midnight and it’s prosperous pass, the essence of photography is eroding away.

    ” How do you ‘document’ the pain of others without exploiting the sufferer and leveling their experience to an aesthetic event? ” Power-full Question, I think non of us have an answer to, well I don’t.

    Reply
  2. Ron Himebaugh

    From his own words Walker Evans felt he was exploiting the Tingles and fellow sharecroppers, much the same conflict you describe. But how different is it from shooting pictures of anyone unbidden, using them as props as it were? A matter of degree? Your intrusion seems pretty soft, not the shoot and run sort.

    Reply
  3. CSD128

    I often struggle with this very ethical dilemma. Am I really trying to take pictures for the sake of documentation or are they just an extension of my increasingly troubling lust for camera equipment? Am I just trying to garner praise in order to feed my ego? I’m not sure of th answer to these questions, but they are always there in one form or another when I pick up my camera.

    Reply
  4. Rob Campbell

    Your first shot is a remarkable capture of the Tin Woodman making a hasty departure up on the left of centre. What illicit, rusty pleasure had he been contemplating – or even enjoying – before your untimely arrival with that Leica? (I fondly hope – on both accounts!)

    On a general level, your ultimate unease regarding your photo session at Midnight is something that is applicable (for some people) to street photography as a whole, or at least, that part of it which consists of photographing the denizens of the street rather than its furniture and often interesting juxtapositions of form and colour. I don’t do much shooting of strangers, but when I do, there is seldom a time devoid of at least a soupçon of guilt, and an even stronger one of relief that the event passes without confrontation.

    There is certainly personal gratification if one can catch something that transcends the purely physical fact of what’s there, in front of the camera, so as to give it some sense of meaning or a state of tension. And therein one of the problems: the photographer has a hard time separating the two emotions: that of the moment of shooting from that of the moment of seeing the photograph afterwards. Can the two really be isolated? For myself, only if I leave a lengthy time-gap between shooting and putting the image into the computer. The result can be an interesting one: I start to wonder about the why of the shot. Sometimes, I never do get why I took the snap. In a pro situation, it was one of the advantages of shooting Kodachrome and going on trips: by the time you got yourself and the film back, the editing process was done cold(ish), when enough time had lapsed to override the carried-over emotional power of the extraneous events at the moment of shooting.

    With your piece here, I think it shows that photographs of this nature do need a verbal context in order to make sense and to appear as a connected whole, a body of work around a theme. Observed separately, who would make any connection between any of them except where the same central character features again?

    Perhaps that’s a kind of rule of thumb distinction between street and reportage? Street has to stand alone; reportage requires context.

    And there we go: much of the morning has passed without my looking at lots of Internet imagery. That should please some correspondents here! Until they realise that instead of safely looking at snaps I have put my tuppence-worth in front of them instead! Sometimes, you just can`t win.

    😉

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Rob: I have no problem with street photography. People out in public are just that, people out in public. Photos of them aren’t inherently exploitive. They’re just photos of a social situation of which they are a part. They don’t mean to comment on that person as a person. People on the street don’t possess any “interest equity” (see below). There’s nothing /I deprive them of when I photograph them as anonymous social actors.

      Not so with the Midnight photos. They are about those people. They get their resonance from who those people are, what their individual and collective history is, the stories they tell, what I like to call their “interest equity,” which they’ve earned at the cost of generations of social and individual abuse. As a photographer and documentarian, I’m tapping that “interest equity” for my benefit.

      Reply
      1. Rob Campbell

        I’m perfectly happy to accept that as your take on street photography, but sadly, it isn’t the only reason street happens. Much of it is indeed exploitative in the extreme, and I’d put my fellow Brit, Parr, into that classification when he does his take on the British working class. Yeah, they often do appear boorish and stupid, but in many cases those people are simply the product of their limited opportunities and generations of trying to blend in with the rest; you don’t get red badges of courage – though you may well deserve them – when you try to be an individual or improve both your lot and your social behaviour. It wasn’t all that long ago that girls were not encouraged to have a good education because it was all “going to be wasted on them”; those concepts take decades to die out – if they really do. I wonder how many young men actually drink too much because they like it, go to football matches and support teams because it’s their own choice, or they do it only to keep up with their “mates” and avoid being ostracised, following which course is one sure way to avoid social mobility and move nowhere at all, unless by going into the army.

        But I digress; much of street works precisely because the shooter has managed to catch some unfortunate doing something that may be perfectly normal, but seen in photographic isolation, appears stupid. Again, I am not putting your work in that category. Neither Frank’s, for that matter, but I’m not so sure about Klein, though I admire his guts and ability to turn what he does into great images; the difficulty comes if I try to sanitise them (the images) or otherwise give them a moral bill of good health. I can’t always do that, though by enjoying them as I do, I cannot believe myself to be on any moral high ground above his own. HC-B, on the other hand, gives me no such doubts regarding my admiration for his oeuvre; he does what he does, but without any apparent acid. And very much ditto, Leiter.

        Ambiguity is supposedly an essential element of good street; can that be achieved without just a trace, at the very least, of negativity towards the subject matter if that subject is a human being? If negativity sounds too harsh a term, what about a sense of humour at the cost of that subject? I don’t know; my own taste for street, on the rare occasion I want to do it, is based purely on sex appeal: if an attractive woman is in range, that’s where the camera, freed of fears, would point. Garry Winogrand seemed to feel much the same way. Even the shot you posted here, of the couple with the apes, is not free of the fact that its power is not just because of the implications of mixed races and apes held as children, but because of the fact that the white woman is pretty damned good-looking. Were she not, nobody outside the KKK would much care, one way or the other.

        In closing, not much can be defined or turned into standard rules of good behaviour, but it sure all does underscore the power of photographs!

        Rob

        Reply
      1. Nick

        I don’t see any war here, no named ennemy, just a kind of resignation. If you feel the need to serve Midnight people, turn your documentary into a manifesto. If not, your article is just another way to blame oneself and get away without much damage. It is well written (as usual) but I don’t clearly see the conclusion, that’s all.

        Reply
  5. Howard Pan

    Your write-up resonates strongly. It often feels wrong to photograph others since I know I am not treating them as an individual but rather as an element in my creative process.

    Reply
  6. Lee Rust

    An automated camera can be detached, but a photographer cannot. The Google cam did not get involved and you did. Artee and his neighbors understood the affirmative power of your focus on them, so they got just as much from the interaction as you. Maybe more.

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      In my more charitable moments, I’d agree with you. However, once I start thinking about it, I’m not sure, Lee.

      I certainly got something from them: a story, photographs, a very interesting experience for an upper middle class educated coastal guy. I can claim a certain status as a person concerned with my subject’s plight. In other words, it’s a great opportunity to ‘virtue signal’ e.g. I’m a progressive, concerned person on the side of the oppressed. Really? I’m a guy who found some poor folks and spent some time photographing them. Now I’m writing about them.

      What did they get from it? Some guy pointing a camera at them and asking them awkward questions, a guy who breezed into town in his nice car, stayed just long enough to get what he needed and then vanished, never to be seen again.

      Reply
      1. Andrew Molitor

        Attention is not without value.

        You give the lost and the hopeless something merely by attending to them. It isn’t hope, it isn’t food, or shelter, but it is not without value. Humans, I suppose, are social creatures, and mere social interaction feeds something within us.

        I have a small number of what might be termed friends who are very close to without hope. I photograph them very very sparingly, because what I give them is so slight. But, there is an exchange. It is not one-way.

        Reply
        1. Rob Campbell

          “Attention is not without value.”

          I understand what you’re saying here, but find it troubling, too. There is quite a lot of danger implicit in that idea: is the emotion something derived from those people, an award, directly and in some tangible, visible form, or is it something that comes from within the self, and ends up as little more than a comfortable self-congratulation?

          This isn’t meant to be an attack on you, more a reflection of things in my own life, where looking back, I get the feeling that I may have been sailing into a situation like some minor pope, bestowing blessings left, right and centre simply by my being present. I hope I didn’t show any of that, but I’m pretty sure I probably felt it at least a little bit. Looking back, all that I can say in my defence is: what an ass!

          But hey, youth is youth and we all know it lasts for ever, right? Trouble is, later on, you reflect a little bit and cringe even a little bit more.

          ;-(

          Reply
  7. Lee Rust

    Tim, your guilt might be justified if you had published a glossy photo book and made big bucks without sharing the wealth with those folks, but you did not.

    Whenever there are people in front of your camera who are aware of the photographic process, there’s always the chance that a relationship will develop. Artee James and his neighbors were just getting to know you when you suddenly disappeared. You acted like you cared about them. Maybe that’s what you feel so bad about. Maybe after all those years you could revisit Midnight and pick up the broken thread.

    Perhaps you won’t be able to make the connection that Eugene Smith did with the family portrayed in “Minimata”, but you might do better than Dorothea Lange could with the “Migrant Mother”.

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Lee: I did a google search of Mr. James. Seems he died on Jan 1, 2018, so there’s no going back to pick up the subject I’d started so long ago. I wonder if there’s anyone sitting in that chair under the tree these days.

      Reply
  8. Pieter de Koninck

    By showing or publishing your photos, along with some of the people’s and area’s story, others know a little bit more about them. That is something you are giving in return for taking the photos.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      That’s a standard justification for photojournalism.

      I’m led to wondering what it did for many of the people whose life has been revealed under the camera’s effective microscope; what did “migrant mother” gain other than being the model for a picture she couldn’t afford to buy? The Japanese family ripped asunder by metal poisoning in the wonderfully touching photographs by W. Eugene S. or the exhausted doctor whose life he followed in another famous essay? And HC-B’s shots of the lowest working-class areas of Paris, did a rich boy’s publication in left-wing mags achieve anything at all? And dear old Ms Arbus… dare I even go there?

      Photography can turn (I refuse to say reduce) everything to eye candy. It’s one good reason for sticking to subjects where candy may well be the objective, rather than unfortunate, unintended outcome. We meddle with an amazingly powerful and unpredictable medium.

      Reply
  9. Leicaphila Post author

    “We meddle with an amazingly powerful and unpredictable medium.”

    Yes, and that’s the problem I find myself having with “War Photography” which I’m currently knee-deep in studying. Journalistic Photography never stands on its own. Photos don’t exist in isolation. They don’t possess a fixed meaning. They need to be interpreted.

    Viewers bring their unique biases – intellectual, emotional and cultural expectations – to the photographs they view, much like they do to a text they read.

    In “Regarding the Pain of Others” (2002), Susan Sontag’s monograph about war photography, she notes that the exact same photos of war carnage and atrocities were used by both the Spanish Republicans and the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War to support their claims and rally their supporters.

    A photograph of a uniformed soldier holding a weapon to the head of a person in civilian dress may represent diametrically opposed things to different viewers. It may be a source of pride to an American civilian when he/she understands it to represent a young American soldier doing his military duty in the battle against “terrorism.” Likewise, the same photo may be a source of outrage for an Iraqi civilian who understands it as visual evidence of American war crimes perpetrated again innocent Iraqi civilians. In the future it might be used in a Marine documentary or in a War Crimes trial.

    It’s all about context. This being the case, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the purpose of conflict photography: what legitimate purpose might it serve? Or does it even have one? Can we better understand it as ultimately counter-productive to its generally understood function of delegitimizing the myths of war and uncovering its inherent cruelty and horror? Could it be that it actually legitimizes what it seeks to stigmatize by 1) aestheticizing it; 2) by leveling its meaning; and 3) by providing visual confirmation of partisan positions? And does the sheer volume and duplication of depictions of atrocity harden us to its reality?

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      ” I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the purpose of conflict photography: what legitimate purpose might it serve? Or does it even have one? ”

      You don’t want much, do you?

      I guess a lot depends on what you’ve seen of such pictures, and very much on the time and context of your exposure. I lived through WW2, but my visual childhood memory of it is limited to what I saw in reality, and what I remember today of what I saw in the news theatres of the time, establishments that perhaps few know anything about today.

      During that period, we lived not far from Northolt, an importantly strategic RAF station of the era. I remember looking up into the summer skies and seeing gliders being towed away to their fate over France or in Germany. At the time, I didn’t think of it that way – of possible/probable one-way trips for the troops within those birds: it was just something exciting for a child under eight to watch. Also, I recall going into London by train and seeing the damaged buildings alongside the track. I can also just remember seeing, on some evenings, flashes of light down in the south over London.

      That the reality of the time held nothing closely related to fear (for some children), was not my unique experience: David Bailey, who lived in the city and closer to the sharp end of the war than did I, and who is but a few months difference in age to myself, thought of it in terms of Hitler having killed Bambi because his local cinema was bombed. So how do we, who lived on the doorsteps of war in the days of WW2, think about war photography? Regarding “our” war, it was mainly newsreels, which became an extension of the movies. And what were the movies? Inspirational products designed to bolster adult moral. Propaganda.

      I think war stills photography perhaps took on a more all-pervasive nature during the later time of Korea and Vietnam. Certainly in Britain, the advent of the Sunday Times and Observer weekend magazine supplements became massively important for conflict photographers of all kinds. I don’t remember Life magazine as ever being particularly widely available in Britain, where, again, we had our own politically “local” stories to concern us: Northern Ireland, Kenya, Rhodesia, Cyprus… the Berlin blockade and wall were all well-documented.

      What sort of a legacy did it leave for us? A plethora of war-junky photographers, some living legends today, others killed on the job. We got Don McCullin who has became the personification of war photographer for most Brits, though his memories of the time have brought him books and a lot of spiritual turmoil – how could they do otherwise?

      Have we learned anything? Yeah, that many suffer or die; that cripples of all degrees are left to tell the tale; that precious little is ever won or resolved either way; that in the end, yesteryear’s arch-enemy can become today’s best customer and supplier. We learned, too, that economies that are totally wiped out can grow as a renewed, modern model and outpace those less damaged that try to survive and carry on from there.

      Did we ever see truth? Sure we did; the variable was partisan loyalty towards the image.

      Another photographic aspect to consider is the one of colour v. black and white. Does colour pretty everything too much, even gore; does it have the failing of being too literal or, instead, is that an advantage, removing as it does, the interpretive skills applied by the brilliant printer?

      Is it better that we have those images than not? I believe that it is far better to have them, as history and matters of record, even if some have been set up for effect. Otherwise, we only have words, and those are even more troublesome to assess than photography, which at least has some real content. Didn’t someone say something akin to: I’d rather see one photograph of Christ than read all the literature? But hey, digital is the new devil in the background, rendering even the visual part of any proof suspect.

      I guess that future war photography, to hold any more credibility, will have to be further developed so as to ensure the impossibilty of digital manipulation. Maybe such a science quietly exists.

      Reply
  10. 32BT

    You guys ever read humansofny? He recently had a series about survivors of Rwanda in ’94.

    Do I need to see pictures of mutilated children? No.
    Piled corpses of mass execution? No.

    I don’t need PTSD myself.

    But I do believe that these stories need to be told. I do believe that these people should have an opportunity and a platform to have their stories told. And if you, as a photographer, have the ability to tell the stories in pictures and found a respectful modus to do so, however indirectly, then you should by all means seize the opportunity. Perhaps you possibly have a moral obligation to do so.

    It can be done respectfully, and it helps both these survivors as well as potentially all of humanity in the future going forward. (That is of course, If we would ever learn from history, which, I realise, is a very, very feeble assumption…)

    Reply

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