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.
There is much more to be said about faux-vintage photography in general outside of war photos specifically. See Nathan’s original essay on the trend. Follow Nathan on Twitter.
tomslee — August 2, 2011
Very interesting. Authenticity - if you can fake that, you've got it made.
Chris Mountford — August 3, 2011
Very interesting comment tomslee, though I think in an important sense, authenticity cannot be faked, only misplaced.
Clay Templeton — August 4, 2011
It might be interesting to think about Civil War battlefield photography. What role did photography play then?
Stephanie Medley-Rath — August 5, 2011
Have you considered how people cling to nostalgia during periods of rapid change? Perhaps some of the appeal of faux-vintage photography has to do with people looking towards the past when things were "simpler." I wonder if it has to do with the age of people using this type of photography. Do you know the age of the typical faux-vintage photographer? It seems strange to think that part of the appeal could be for a simpler time, but if the typical faux-vintage photographer was a child during the 1970s or wasn't even alive in the 1970s, then it could have very well been a simpler time for them. They may have been shielded from the Iran hostage crisis or oil shortages and so on.
Check out the following for more on nostalgia (if you haven't already):
Kuhn, Annette. 2002. Famiy Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. New York: Verso.
Zerubavel, Eviatar. 2003. Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Weekly Link Round-Up | Phire walk with me — August 8, 2011
[...] Faux-Vintage: Afghanistan and the Nostalgia for War This article from The Society Pages discusses the recent trend in editing war photos to have vintage and classic visual effects, and what that means for how we relate to the mental image of war in general. [...]
Hipstamatic War | haikuforphotography — August 16, 2011
[...] Jurgenson writes, “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”. (See his full essay here) [...]
Faux-Vintage Afghanistan and the Nostalgia for War « n a t h a n j u r g e n s o n — August 29, 2011
[...] This was originally posted at my blog Cyborgology – click here to view the original post and t... [...]
Faux-Vintage Afghanistan and the Nostalgia for War » OWNI.eu, News, Augmented — August 30, 2011
[...] This post was originally published on Cyborgology. [...]
El infinito y más allá — September 2, 2011
[...] de naturaleza humana al que debemos día a día, con forzado trabajo, apuntalar con el más artificioso y rebuscado de nuestros pensamientos, defendiéndolo del incansable ataque de hechos que amenazan con doblarlo [...]
Weekly Link Round-Up ‹ Phire Walk With Me — October 3, 2011
[...] the weekend. Here’s a beautiful timelapse of fires burning over Tottenham in North London.Faux-Vintage: Afghanistan and the Nostalgia for War This article from The Society Pages discusses the recent trend in editing war photos to have vintage [...]
The Faux-Vintage Photo: Full Essay (Parts I, II and III) » Cyborgology — April 16, 2012
[...] Also: Faux-Vintage Afghanistan and the Nostalgia for War. [...]
atle — July 3, 2012
Hello Nathan, thank you for an interesting article that I just stumbled upon by chance.
Reading your article I got some additional thoughts i'd like to share, so here's my 2 cents:
The purposefull addition of any aestechial layer to any form of media - in this case the use of instagram filter to a photograph - has the effect of distancing the viewer from the actuality of the media - in this case the depicted objects or events - by turning the viewers attention towards other layers in the media, the creators or the viewers subjective interpretation of the media and the objects and events therein.
Taking into consideration the photographers choice of motiffs - more or less neglecting the products and results of warfare; the dead or maimed bodies; soldiers maimed, wounded or killed in action etc. - to me it becomes evident that the purpose of using these instagram filters is to obfuscate the reality of modern automated warfare, by instead conveying a romanticized concept and perception of warfare and it's implications.
So maybe I disagree in choice of terms, even though these instagram filters appears to be lending these pictures some sort of authenticity, they are actually doing the complete opposite: they are removing them further away from authenticity, authenticity here being understood as a concept including some core of reality and/or truth.
Furthermore, as the use of these filters can be seen as just one small step in the continuous process of blocking the more harsh pictures af the actualities of the latest western wars out of the global collective memory - most if not all reports on the wars excludes casulties of war - I think it's fair to say, that as these photographic reports - who should ideally be a documentary of the implications of the events at hand - fail to convey the actuality of warfare, they - purposefully or not - inevitably end up being in part propaganda for both the actual war at hand and for warfare itself:
The first is being portrayed as a validated series of events within a comprehendable humane setting, later lending its credibility to the second for it to be used as a certified political concept and tool for handling large scale conflicts.
Apertures Matter (a brief response to ‘Stories In Focus’) » Cyborgology — August 27, 2012
[...] My first thought is to the ethical implications of video-journalists documenting the world as it appears versus creating something more artistic. Should the documentary videographer be required to depict the world as it appears to the eye? Should they try to keep as much in focus as possible to convey as much of the “truth” of scene as they can? I explore some of these issues surrounding the ethics of war-photographers using Hipstamatic and Instagram faux-vintage filters here. [...]
Hipstertechnoauthenticity » Cyborgology — September 27, 2012
[...] about low-tech “striving for authenticity” in my essay on The Faux-Vintage Photo, reflected on Instagrammed war photos, the presence of old-timey cameras at Occupy Wall Street and the IRL Fetish that has people [...]
A Bomber’s Page One Selfie » Cyborgology — May 6, 2013
[...] out of their way to obscure reality with dramatic editing such as a faux-vintage filter, something I discussed when the paper ran award-winning faux-vintage war photos from Afghanistan. While the New York [...]
Faux-Vintage Afghanistan and the Nostalgia for ... — August 8, 2013
Photojournalists use Instagram to capture the life of a soldier. | Digital Trends — September 28, 2013
[...] for skill, and instead focus on the idea that photography apps that make pictures look faux-vintage induces a sense of nostalgia in viewers, a sense of nostalgia that inevitably dulls the sharp horror of present-day [...]