What a Painter of "Historical Narrative" Can Show Us about War Photography

Steve Mumford, Abbas and Mohammed, 2004

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dessau, Germany, 1945

Steve Mumford, Abbas and Mohammed, 2004. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dessau, Germany, 1945.

Context and Comparison:
During his time in Iraq, Mumford has focused on civilian life almost as much as military action, and sometimes the two commingle in this paintings in ways that unsettle our ideas about how American presence has affected Iraqis. Journalists reporting from Iraq have brought home a variety of human interest stories in various media, and the question here is whether Mumford’s work communicates something we are not used to seeing in a news image.

The painting’s caption reads, “Every U.S. base has several kids like these, who hang out at the gate and run errands to buy whatever the soldiers need. They make a very good living off their surcharges and become close with the soldiers” (Mumford, "Stories from Baqubah"). While the caption suggests a situation beneficial to both American troops and Iraqi children, the caption’s coupling with the picture offers more complexity.

Looking at Abbas and Mohammed, any viewer steeped in the news photos from Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib scandal cannot help but see its prison connotations. The two boys, their faces a bit obscured in the shadows, rest their arms on the bars of a gate-type structure, with chain and padlocks front and center. The boys’ expressions offer viewers few clues to their reasons for standing behind these bars, but they seem to present some emotional cues. One boy looks a bit bored or sad, while the other has an expression that makes him look like a schemer. Because I am aware this is a painting, I see these faces as constructions made by the painter. He chooses to draw these lines in ambiguous shadow presumably because he saw them that way (literally or figuratively). The painter seems unwilling to depict these two boys as overtly well off or downtrodden. However, consciously or not, the positive-leaning caption makes their lives sound great. It tempers the doubt in the image, which an American audience might see as objectionable. After all, this picture was published in 2004, an eternity ago when public support for the war was high. So while Mumford demonstrates a taste for an ambiguous image when he paints it, as a writer he plays it safe politically. Photojournalists of most types could be accused of these same narrative moves, of course.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Dessau, Germany, presents faces in a different situation—one of extreme emotion, conveyed by a different medium. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, when first exhibited, this photo bore the title Exposing a stool-pigeon in a displaced persons camp, Dessau, Germany. It shows a French Nazi informer discovered at a camp for displaced persons at the end of World War II. Critics describe it in terms of Greek drama, noting the chorus of angry faces surrounding the two protagonists, one with her teeth bared in rage, and the other with her head bowed in shame.

I find myself investigating the faces one-by-one with this story in mind to test whether it is true, and sure enough, I start seeing the scene the way Cartier-Bresson and the critics have described it. Before I saw the background information, though, I couldn’t be sure what this photo was trying to represent. The woman with bared teeth may be reaching out in a gesture of congratulation, and the man seated at the table may be himself a Nazi, for all I can tell. At first the furrowed brows of the chorus may represent quizzical emotions, rather than anger, and the accused woman may be hanging her head out of fatigue—that is, until I notice her clenched fist visible just above the table. With the assurance that a camera dumbly records a sample of the light in front of it without interference on the part of the photographer, I look at the details of the picture, believing that they can show me the truth of what happened. But is it that simple?

Theory for Analysis:
Cartier-Bresson (1952), the legendary photographer, also did a lot of drawing, and he described the difference between making photos and drawings this way: “Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing a meditation” (p. 45). For him, looking at a photo investigates the subject of the photo, while looking at a drawing investigates the mind of the person who drew it. This fits with most viewers’ assumptions when we look at photos as opposed to paintings, and it fits with the way I initially looked at these two war images. If Abbas and Mohammed were a photograph, our interpretation of the situation might rest in a deep reinvestigation of details, perhaps the small lines in the corners of the boys’ eyes or a sign in the background that viewers might overlook at first glance. Because it is a painting, the story we infer here becomes more about Mumford’s choices, in contrast to the photo next to it. We know Cartier-Bresson couldn’t have been aware of all the faces and their precise situation when he shot the photo. He reacted immediately; he didn’t meditate the way Mumford did. Our investigation of Dessau, Germany, depends on minimizing the photographer’s involvement. Human turmoil buzzes under these people’s skin without the photographer’s help, or so we tend to assume. We don’t want to allow space for an artist’s aesthetic or rhetorical craft here. It must be about the non-conscious flexion and torsion faces do when emotion comes to life underneath them. Without this way of seeing, photography’s power to convey emotion becomes diminished.

And yet, Cartier-Bresson was aware of his active, social intuition when taking photos, as he made clear: “The decisive moment and psychology, not less than camera position, are the principle factors in the making of a good portrait” (1952, p. 31). A good photographer, then, must maneuver the camera with technical agility and learn to guess the mood and motivations of the people being photographed in order to decide when and where to snap the shutter.

Even after making that choice, the photographer continues to mediate what makes its way to an audience. Cartier-Bresson wrote, “For photographers, there are two kinds of selection to be made, and either of them can lead to eventual regrets. There is the selection we make when we look through the view-finder at the subject; and there is the one we make after the films have been developed and printed. After developing and printing, you must go about separating the pictures which, though they are all right, aren’t the strongest” (1952, p. 25). Composition is a major concern with any news image worth publishing, and in that light, I wonder how many other photos of Dessau, Germany the photographer rejected in the darkroom. This one is exquisitely composed, dramatic like a Sophocles play—but what other angles, gestures, and facial cues has the photographer denied us? Was this really a scene of such clear emotion? No matter how deeply we look into it, we must remember that this photograph cannot provide a definitive answer because its publication is the result of a cloud of choices, luck, and assumptions, similar to any picture.

Thoughts for Class Discussion:
Comparisons like the one above have potential not only to inform students’ sophisticated reception of the news, but also to inform their own work as collectors and communicators of evidence. A quick in-class writing prompt serves as a useful jumping-off point for this comparison: I show students the captions of both pictures, asking them to design two pictures that fit those descriptions; that is one image that shows the beneficial relationship between American troops and Iraqi children Mumford writes about, as well as one image that shows the exposure of a Nazi stool-pigeon. I let them choose whatever medium they find most comfortable to convey their ideas: stick figures, written descriptions, and play-acting are popular.

After discussing what students have come up with, I show them these pictures. Concentrating on the composition of the pieces and the way the faces and gestures are depicted, we talk about whether or not the pictures communicate what their captions claim, as well as what choices have gone into these pictorial-textual hybrids. Gesture in particular seems ambiguous in both of these pictures, and students’ renderings have potential to be much more explicit. I ask if dramatic slashing and cuffing or grins and handshakes better convey the uncovering of a stool pigeon or the relationship between American troops and Iraqi children than the pictures above.
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by Paul X. Rutz