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Images of War vs Peace

Caroline Jaine's picture

Browsing Facebook back in August, I was greeted with a stark photograph of a young man doing homework under the glow of a newly installed street light in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.  I clicked on the next image: grinning children on a swing.  Next: a policewoman shines out from her patrol on the Old Road; child soldiers hand in weapons in Tubmanburg; and the baby of a returning refugee is handed down from a truck.  There were many more dramatic images on the slide show - shared on the social network by the United Nations Mission in Liberia.  It was titled “10 years of Peace”.  I “liked” it.  It’s rare to see such images of peace.  Each photograph illustrated a powerful back-story of recovery – and together they plotted a credible and inspiring path to peace.  My knowledge of Liberia doubled in five minutes.
A month later on International Day of Peace those same images were the subject of discussion at The Centre of African Studies at Cambridge University.  Now framed and hanging in the Centre, it was interesting to gauge people’s reactions.  A small group had assembled and although many of them were African, they also confessed to having no prior knowledge of Liberia.  One touching observation, “This shows Liberians path to peace by Liberians…it is African’s who have made peace here”.  True - although the photographs had been taken by United Nations photographers, the presence of the UN was distinctly low key.  We also had a discussion about images of so-called “peace” being used for propaganda purposes.  As a self-confessed cynic, I fully sympathize, but these set of images felt far more than just PR for the United Nations.

For centuries now artists and photographers have produced images of war.  It is often seen as a brave and noble pursuit that contributes to our awareness of the grim reality of conflict.  Pictorial evidence of the gritty truth has been needed to both reveal atrocities and to record the history of these horrors.  I am thinking about Picasso’s Guernica, the photography of Robert Capa, and  more recently of the artists still employed to capture contemporary wars on canvas.
But have we overdone it? Are we now saturated with foul images? Have they ceased to have meaning, or has their impact diminished? Many people I know have switched away from depressing news content, and there is now a tangible movement towards more positive news. Should there be a tangible move towards more positive images too?
Why is it that an image of war is considered a “gritty truth” and an image of peace not so?  History shows us that artists and photographers in the business of making war imagery are often in the pay of governments, and those with a big agenda or ideology to sell.  And yet, we remain far more cynical about images of peace.
An image of “peace” is hard to pin down.  The war artist easily captures a shocking, dramatic moment – as does the war journalist.  But the peace artist or reporter is left to document a mere void: the absence of violence.  And whilst the absence of violence has been captured so well in the series of images from Liberia – it is too often conveyed with rainbows, doves and pastures green.  There may be space then for a new movement of “development” artists and photographers.  People that take the same risks to tell people’s stories.  People that travel to challenging places – but focus on recovery rather than destruction.  There are other gritty truths – and so often untold.  If not, historians of the future will look back on the stock of imagery of the past century and assume we are a cruel bunch. 
As with the art and imagery or war, the art and imagery of development and recovery may be funded by agenda ridden organisations – but quite possibly the movement will also attract those creative individuals inspired by human resilience and interested in presenting a balanced story.
I have explored the plurality of “truth” and the representation of reality often - never more so that in Simulated realities, Manipulated Perceptions (2011).  Our own realities often contain less grit and the truth of our overall human existence is likely to be far more mundane.  The majority of us don’t live under the shadow of war or in euphoric moments of post-conflict reconstruction.  We wake, eat, go to work or school, watch TV and talk to friends on social networks. Next time you are uploading a picture of your dinner onto Facebook, why not take time to browse some visually inspiring pages? You could do worse than start with the United Nations Mission in Liberia.  

Photo Credit: Christopher Herwig/UNMIL
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