To some, the idea of war photography immediately invokes the image of soldiers on the battlefield, a visual story that has been documented again and again throughout conflicts dating back over the past century.
But after a decade in which thousands of people were killed and thousands more severely injured in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the concept of war has become something more human and more personal — in part because of the efforts of photojournalists.
Through photos, they’ve sought to more fully document how war isn’t confined to the battlefield — but that the daily reality of conflict has a lasting impact well beyond the battle zone, where the scars, both emotional and physical, are hard to heal.
That’s part of the driving force behind “War/Photography: Images of Conflict and Its Aftermath,” an exhibition that opens Friday at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. The exhibit, which originated at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, features nearly 400 photographs spanning more than 165 years, from the Mexican-American War in 1846 through the civil uprising in Libya in 2011.
It includes some of the most memorable images of conflict, including Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the Marines raising an American Flag at Iwo Jima and Eddie Adams’ shot of a Viet Cong prisoner being assassinated on the streets of Saigon — one of the most famous images of the Vietnam War.
Rather than grouping the images chronologically, the show presents images by themes and aspects of war — documenting periods such as recruitment and training, the wait before war and the actual fight. And it also provides a powerful visual examination of some of the more gruesome aspects of conflict — including executions, death and the horrible injures that some soldiers have to live with for the rest of their lives.
But it also aims to show that war isn’t just about the fight. Some of the most emotional photos in the show document the aftermath of war: the impact on civilians and what happened when soldiers came home from war — or, in many cases, when they didn’t.
The show includes several images from a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo essay by Todd Heisler, who, as a staff photographer for the Rocky Mountain News, spent a year documenting the efforts of the Marine Honor Guard in Colorado as they handled family notifications and funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq.
In one of the most moving images, Heisler, who is now a photographer for the New York Times, photographed a widow on a blow-up mattress next to her husband’s casket the night before his funeral — a member of the Marine Honor Guard standing watch nearby.
According to the show’s curator, Anne Wilkes Tucker, that image and others in the show were included to give visitors as realistic a portrayal as photography can provide about what war and its aftermath is like.
“We wanted it to be the experience of someone walking through a conflict and seeing it through the eyes of photographers over time,” Tucker said. “We wanted to try and make people understand what a combatant’s life is like, both the ordinary and horrific.”
Some of the best-known names in photography are represented, including Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke White, Weegee and W. Eugene Smith. But much of the work featured in War/Photography comes from working photojournalists like Heisler whose names may not be as familiar to the public — though their images of war and its aftermath likely are.
It also includes the work of dozens of unnamed military photographers as well as images taken by soldiers themselves documenting their life in service to the country.
In one photo, an American soldier is shown trimming a patch of grass outside his tent in Iraq with scissors. The flush green plot — only a few feet long — stands in stark contrast to the rocky desert terrain and the tan canvas of the tents. The photo, taken in 2004, went viral after it was posted on a blog during the Iraq war. Curators tracked down the soldier who took it, Staff Sgt. Mark Grimshaw, and added it to the exhibition because they felt it was an important observation about soldiers trying to find normalcy in a situation that is anything but.
“Most of the press photographs that are published (of the war) are fighting and death,” Tucker said. “But that picture is daily life — an observation of how it is to be in this situation.”
The exhibition includes images from photojournalists who lost their lives documenting the horrors of war — including Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, who were killed covering the conflict in Libya almost three years ago.
And it also includes the work of those who came close to death but never dropped their cameras— including Joao Silva, a New York Times photographer who lost his legs when he stepped on a landmine while embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2010. In spite of his horrific injuries, Silva managed to pick up his camera and shoot photos of Marines coming to his aid — images that are included in the exhibition.
For Tucker, curating the show prompted her to think more expansively about war and how it resonates well beyond the battlefield — but also from generation to generation. And for her — and for others, she hopes — the photographs are a reminder of the bravery of men and women who have risked their lives for country.
“I think all of us have to wonder, could we do that? You see too many John Wayne movies, and you lose that sense of the wonder of bravery that it takes,” Tucker said.