Since the Crimean War, there have been photographers documenting and crafting iconic images to present to the public, as representations of war, its consequences and its horrors. Sometimes, photographers veered away from strict documentary photography in favor of a more artistic slant, as in the case of Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. In some of his photographs of dead soldiers on battlefields, the photographer moved the bodies into more favorable compositions and had some of his friends and colleagues pose amongst the corpses so as to make the battlefield appear more populated.
In Small Wars, the newest exhibition to open at the Johnson Museum, the photographer, An-My Lê, carries on the tradition of artistic documentation of war, and emphasizes the theatrics, assumed bravado and posturing associated with war, rather than its explicit horrors. The exhibition consists of two photographic series. The title Small Wars refers to a series of photographs taken by Lê of Vietnam War re-enactors in Virginia between 1999 and 2002. This series is coupled with 29 Palms, which depicts soldiers preparing to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and have been taken over the last five years.
Unsurprisingly, there are striking differences between the two series. For example, in 29 Palms, a photograph entitled “Corporal Hoepper” depicts a man in full military garb holding two guns. His helmet sits on the ground and his eyes meet the viewer’s. He stands plainly in front of the spectators, facing them completely. The way his arms hang limply at his sides implies a sense of vulnerability and a clear lack of bravado. The implicit sensitivity in this photograph makes it easy to imagine this grown man as a listless young boy wearing the costume of a “hero” and holding plastic toy guns.
Another intriguing photograph from the 29 Palms series is “Infantry Officer’s Brief.” The photograph depicts an infantry officer in a stance that would be dramatic if he had managed to captivate his captive audience. The officer stands with his back to the camera and has an arm outstretched; he is standing in front of a group of soldiers seated on a rocky hill. Their fatigues and the repeated arcs of their slumped-over postures gives the soldiers the appearance of blending in with the landscape, as if they were rocks ready to tumble down the hill at any moment. Additionally, very few — if any — soldiers show visible interest or attentiveness to the infantry officer speaking to them. While understandably, the conditions of a training camp cannot match the atmosphere and intensity of a war zone, there is a distinct lack of intrepidness, or even interest, in the training they are receiving. Perhaps this reflects on the fact that Lê does not attempt to show the horrors of war in her photographs (as noted by wall text about the exhibition) or perhaps, it serves as a perfect foil for the staged intensity of the photos in Small Wars.
An interesting difference to note is the disparity in motion implied by the photos in Small Wars when compared to the relative stillness of the photos in 29 Palms. The re-enactors in Small Wars seem more comfortable adopting the traditional postures of war heroes than the actual soldiers in 29 Palms. In a photo entitled “Ambush #1,” the figures of re-enactors are blurred, which makes the viewer’s eyes hesitant to settle on any particular feature the photograph. For a moment, the viewer is forced to quickly scan the area in the photograph in order to locate the source and cause of the movement taking place. For a moment, the viewer becomes caught up in act of the re-enactment.
In fact, for all of the bravado and posturing that 29 Palms lacks, Small Wars more than compensates. Even before viewing the photographs, a host of questions surrounding the subject matter emerge. For example, how much time should pass before it is appropriate to re-enact an event that was traumatizing, complex and divisive for the people alive during that time? As a result, the viewer can’t help but feel that the Vietnam War holds a very particular poignancy to the series (as well as the exhibition) that would be lost had Lê, who was born in Vietnam, chosen to photograph a group of Civil War re-enactors. The viewer simply cannot help but be reminded of the parallels between the Iraq War and the Vietnam War that have been drawn over the last several years, as well as attempt to draw parallels between the photographs in the separate series.
Overall, the exhibition provides an intriguing view into the less-frequently documented corners of war. Lê’s photographs are both thought-provoking and visually stunning in their composition and subtle yet unexpected treatment of subject matter. Small Wars will be on display until October 26th.