The recent and popular Hipstamatic war photos depict contemporary soldiers, battlefields and civilian turmoil as reminiscent of wars long since passed. War photos move us by depicting human drama taken to its extreme, and these images, shot with a smartphone and “filtered” to look old, create a sense of simulated nostalgia, further tugging at our collective heart strings. And I think that these photos reveal much more.
Hipstamatic war photographs ran on the front page of the New York Times [the full set] last November, and, of course, fake-vintage photos of everyday life are filling our Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter streams. I recently analyzed this trend ina long essay called The Faux-Vintage Photo, which is generating a terrific response. I argue that we like faux-vintage photographs because they provide a “nostalgia for the present”; our lives in the present can be seen as like the past: more important and real in a grasp for authenticity.
If faux-vintage photography is rooted in authenticity, then what is more real than war? If the proliferation of Hipstamatic photographs has anything to do with a reaction to our increasingly plastic, simulated, Disneyfied and McDonaldized worlds, then what is more gritty than Afghanistan in conflict? In a moment where there is a shortage of and a demand for authenticity (the gentrification of inner-cities, “decay porn” and so on), war may serve as the last and perhaps ultimate bastion of authenticity. However, as I will argue below, war itself is in a crisis of authenticity, creating rich potential for its faux-vintage documentation.
Another round of Hipstamatic images from Afghanistan have been published and widely circulated this past week. As part of a larger project, photojournalist Balazs Gardi shot and collected a series of Hipstamatic images in an e-book and the photos are being run by NPR, the Guardian and others. While not all of these shots are strictly “vintage,” there has certainly been a trend towards more war photographs showing signs of simulated aging, scratches, fading and other markers of images taken long ago using film and printed on paper.
To be clear, this is not an argument about photojournalists using effects in general. And I am not satisfied with just saying that the Hipstamatic filter simply “looks cool” and leaving it at that. Also, I do not think that the usage of faux-vintage filters is just a technical necessity of taking photos with a phone. There are many ways to effect a photo shot on any camera, phones included. I want to ask why the faux-vintage effect is being chosen by the photographers when snapping the photos, then again by the news agencies when choosing to publish them, and then again by us, the consumers of war photography, when we click the images, “like” them, share them and so on? The fact that we are now being presented with photos of current wars that look like they were taken 40 years ago cannot be explained away by randomness or technical reasons but must also take into consideration larger cultural processes.
We know that photography can shape how we understand the world, and this is perhaps most dramatically realized in times of war. Famous war photos such as the young Vietnamese girl running in horror after being burned by a napalm attack or those of Iraqi prisoners tortured and humiliated at the American-run Abu Ghraib prison altered public opinion about those conflicts.
And, importantly, photography remains one of the last remaining ways in which most Americans connect to the wars we currently fight. War, for many in the West, is something that happens far away, its consequences delivered on screens rather than felt personally. As an official states, there is a “growing disconnect between the American people and the military.” As the American military shrinks in numbers, it becomes increasingly its own segregated social sphere. Of course, those in the military and their friends and families do have a very real connection to our wars. But the trend of disconnection from war has gone so far that even the soldiers fighting in modern wars are less connected to combat than ever before. This is most strikingly exemplified by the computer-operated drones flown remotely by military personnel many miles away from the destruction the robots deliver.
Jean Baudrillard argued in his controversial essay The Gulf War Did Not Take Place that Americans (even soldiers) now consume wars largely as media events disconnected from the reality of conflict. He links the literal media simulation of war to the larger point that war itself becomes liquidated of meaning. Baudrillard argues that modern warfare is unclear about “its status, meaning, its future.” Whether you agree that the root of this is the precession of media simulations or something else (government conspiracy, globalization, etc.), there now exists something of what he calls an “undecidability of war.” We are as epistemically and morally disconnected from war as we have become physically.
Simply, the point is that modern warfare is becoming unknowable. In addition to being removed from the actual conflict, it is increasingly unclear who is right and wrong, why we are fighting and what the metrics of victory are. We think back and romanticize conflicts like World War II: there was more (though, not complete) agreement over our involvement in the effort; we were good and the Nazi’s were evil; we declared war and we won with the conflict ending in an official surrender.
Today, we do not declare war and the announcement of “mission accomplished” is as comical as it is saddening. It is no longer as clear who we are fighting and just who is part of our coalition. It is unclear why we are fighting (we have only theories) and we do not know when it will end. An American public that is used to the Hollywood war-script (good/evil, winner/loser) has become more disconnected and confused about war than ever before.
Is there evidence that Americans are attempting to reclaim the Hollywood war-script in spite of the more confusing realities “on the ground”? Baudrillard gave examples of the “John Wayne” style rhetoric in the run up the first Gulf War and we surely remember George W. Bush’s similar hyperbolic speeches about good and evil this time around. I argued that the immediate celebrations across America online and in the streets in reaction to the announcement of Bin Laden’s death were partly about a cathartic reclaiming of the Hollywood script: Bin Laden was evil, and now he’s dead; finally, something easy to understand about the ‘war on terror.’
Perhaps this is a reason for the popularity of faux-vintage war photos: saturated, vignetted, faded, scratched and portrayed on simulated photo paper, Hipstamatic war photos frame contemporary conflict as like the wars our parents and grandparents fought. The simulated imperfections appear more real, dramatically gritty and borrow the cachet of war photos taken decades ago. We are reminded, often unconsciously, of those great images of wars long since passed; a time when fighting made more sense (even if this clarity is only the illusionary byproduct of hindsight).
The Hipstamatic images cathartically relieve our collective disconnectedness and confusion with modern warfare when the conflict is nostalgically depicted as akin to wars past. The contemporary battlefield is made to obey the logic of the movie set: good, evil, victory and defeat are comfortably clear. The simulated nostalgia reassures the viewer that today is just as important as was yesterday; our wars are just as significant, necessary, epic, heroic and dramatic.
To conclude, the Hipstamatic war images serve to remind us that the experience of war is vastly different depending on one’s social location. For some, war is experienced primarily as real (a reality overwhelmingly marked by pain). For others, especially those in the West, war is most often something to be aesthetically consumed. The Hipstamatic images from Afghanistan are shot for and consumed by the latter group. Faux-vintage war photography plays on this orientation to war by producing images less focused on reality and more on meaning. The photos on the one hand betray a strict actuality of war but on the other hand heighten the powerfully moving nature of conflict.
Given this, I worry that the Hipstamatic images from Afghanistan promote a nostalgia for war. Photography is one of the few remaining devices left to make war something most Americans can connect to, something that is close and real. The danger of the Hipstamatic war photos is that they may convey war as nostalgically beautiful and distant. But this is not some grainy, sleepy and warmly faded war of long ago; it is happening in the here-and-now in vivid detail. And it indeed is confusing and needs to be understood as such. We cannot run away from the fact that good and evil, right and wrong, winning and losing are all in flux.