The Wounded

War Photography at the Corcoran Gallery of Art

The end of the draft marked the beginning of the military as a subculture. Art about and by the army has worked to bridge the newly widened gap between soldiers and the rest of the country, helping civilians get as far inside the minds of soldiers as it is possible to get in the quiet safety of a gallery.

Two new photography exhibits, running concurrently at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through May 20, approach war in starkly different ways. These differences correspond to important differences in the experiences of soldiers a century and a half apart.

The two exhibits take up adjoining rooms. The first, titled “Shadows of History,” is in a white and open room, with small framed Civil War photographs on the walls. These are typically wide-view images, with small human figures ranged around ruins or equipment. There are no extreme angles and few distorting uses of perspective, although at least one of the photos is probably posed—the famous “A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep, Gettysburg.” In most of these photos the men are reduced to their roles as soldiers. Even the photo titled “Father Scully Preaching to the 9th Mass. Regt.” doesn’t actually show what it promises: instead of preaching or otherwise leading worship, the priest is standing with the other men facing the camera, his clerical garb emphasizing function over individuality in the same way their uniforms do.

There are some striking images here. George Barnard’s “Photograph from Nature, Savannah, GA” shows a quiet moss-hung clearing with grave memorials on one side and a grubby little tent on the other. Alexander Gardner’s “Incidents of the War, Ruins of Norfolk Navy Yard” captures a soldier in a jaunty pose atop the broken walls. Mathew Brady’s “Men on a Ship’s Deck, VA” portrays the whole host of emotions people experience when they’re waiting: resignation, surly sluggishness, bored flirtation with the camera. Some men find work to do, while another, of a different temperament, plays a banjo. The overall impression left by the photos is one of brokenness. The trees are half-stripped of leaves; everything is patched and makeshift. Everybody looks poor and tired, used to doing whatever they’re doing right now, knowing there’s no promise their task will be done soon.

Meanwhile, from the dark room next door come cries and whimpers: the soundtrack of the short video that anchors the exhibition of photographs taken by Tim Hetherington in 2007 and 2008. All the photos in “Tim Hetherington: Sleeping Soldiers” are of American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. Stepping from the white room into the dark one, the viewer confronts a startlingly intimate portrait. It shows a man in obvious pain, standing by his bed with his head thrown back. There are red streaks on his stomach which look like claw marks. One hand is bandaged, the other convulsed, the fingers clutching at the air. The explanation for his pain might not be what a civilian viewer would expect: “Specialist Tad Donoho screams with pain after being administered a ‘pink belly’ for his birthday. Each member of the platoon strikes his stomach until it begins to bruise, hence the name ‘pink belly.’” These photographs show what takes place within the platoon. Enemy fighters are not depicted at all, and civilians appear only fleetingly in the video. Hetherington, who was killed along with another photographer while covering the Libyan uprising in 2011, was embedded with these troops in a dangerous area, and obviously earned their trust.

The most striking similarity between the Civil War photos and the photos from Afghanistan is what we see of the soldiers’ immediate environment. Here again, a hundred fifty years later, everything around the fighters is broken and make-do. A soldier practices his swing on a “golf course” made of scrap metal. Soldiers curl into awkward, catawampus positions as they struggle to sleep on uneven ground or narrow gray beds.

Hetherington uses light to create eerie, cinematic, or painterly images: a soldier sleeping under bare downed branches is left in shadow while light dapples the underbrush just above and to one side of his head. There is a catch-your-breath image of a medic treating an injured specialist after a Taliban attack. It almost looks like a pietà, the light breaking dramatically onto the doctor from above, cutting through the haze of smoke.

The photographs highlight the soldiers’ vulnerability as they sleep. One soldier’s bare feet push against each other, like a child’s. Hetherington wrote, “Everyone had this fear that they might be overrun in the night. During my time with them, 70 percent of the platoon was taking some kind of mood-enhancing or sleep-affecting medication.”

The heart of the exhibit is the video, which takes viewers inside that troubled sleep, showing some of the confusion and fear of the exhausted soldiers’ dreams. It opens with a soldier sleeping on a polka-dotted pillow. Sounds and images of helicopters begin to surround him until his face is like a thin screen through which we see the choppers: we have stepped into a dream. The night is filled with flowing smoke and the sounds of explosions. The men have dirty, scabbed hands, rust-colored maps. Soldiers plan: “Who wants to go over this hill, bum-rush it?” Then something goes wrong and there’s panic: “Just chill out!” The panicking soldier looks up at the one trying to calm him and pleads, “Shut up!” And then the soundtrack dissolves into those little helpless howls that are haunting even when heard from the other room. Soothing murmurs mix with sobs. The last words of the video are hard to make out. Is someone saying, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault”? Then the sleeping soldier reappears, his motionless sleep replacing the chaotic sounds and images of his dreams. The viewer returns to the starting place: no longer inside the soldier’s experience but seeing him from the outside.

The experiences of drafted armies fighting a civil war and a volunteer army fighting far from home are necessarily different. The wide-frame Civil War photos show more of the society in which the soldiers are embedded—and over which they’re fighting. The ruins are ruins of home. The Afghanistan photos, by contrast, are tightly focused on the soldiers themselves. They emphasize the soldiers’ separation from home, from the people of the country in which they’re stationed, from everyone in the world except one another. It’s an intimacy forced by a shared danger and a shared isolation. These soldiers appear more vulnerable than the bored or dutiful or teasing soldiers of Mathew Brady’s pictures. The contemporary photographs also plead much more insistently for understanding; they do not assume the viewer already knows what war is.

Published in the 2012-04-20 issue: 

Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker in Washington, DC. She the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith and Amends: A Novel.

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