War & Protest exhibition

November 2, 2007

Michael Rand and I have both sent photographers off to war. Michael for the Sunday Times Magazine, I for Life magazine in World War II and later for Magnum, the Washington Post and New York Times. So when Vaughan and Pranvera Smith asked us to choose the Pictures of War and Protest that now hang at The Frontline Club we decided to pull no punches. We wanted to compel you, the members and guests of Frontline, to think of the risk taken by those who took the pictures and also to think about those who were photographed. Sorry if such thoughts spoil your lunch.

There’s a history lesson on the walls of the Club. As you first climb the stairs, take a look at the front page of the Daily Mail for September 30, 1938. The headline reads “Chamberlain and Hitler Sign a ‘No More War’ Declaration”. You don’t need to return to the restaurant to see what followed.

Londoners of my generation can easily identify with the pictures downstairs. St. Paul’s has never looked so noble as it did when it withstood the nights of the Blitz in 1940. In New York that September I wrote the copy for Cecil Beaton’s Life cover photo of a bandaged child. Four years later, in London, I heard the explosion of a V-2 and asked George Rodger to go have a look. He came back with the picture of an old lady, dignified as ever, being removed from a battered bus.

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Keep going. Things don’t really get better. At the first-floor landing you will see James Nachtwey’s photo of the Blitz that hit New York on 9/11/01 – 61 years after London’s. This time the bombs were airplanes, and the casualties were slight but only by comparison. Afterwards George W Bush declared, unilaterally at first, a new war, a War on Terror. It has proved to be an elusive enemy.

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As you climb to the second floor you will see, in ascending order, six of the surviving 11 images made on ‘Omah’ beach by Life‘s Robert Capa on D-Day, June 6, 1944. It was a Tuesday, and we in Life‘s London office waited all day Tuesday and most of Wednesday before we got Capa’s films. In the resulting rush most of his negatives were over-cooked but those that survived give the feeling of that historic day’s most terrible moments.

An 18-year-old English lad was working in the Life London darkroom that day. His name was Larry Burrows. He was not the one who ruined Capa’s film, but Larry became one of the greatest of all war photographers. On the second floor landing you see one of his finest photos, the picture of one wounded soldier reaching out to another. It is a reminder that war brings out the best as well as the worst in men.
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Larry died when his helicopter was shot down in the unfortunate American invasion of Laos in 1971, along with two other photographers. By then Larry’s hero Robert Capa was also dead. In 1954, Bob went to one war too many and stepped on a land mine. On one of the final days of the French war in Indochina.

Somewhat more fortunate were those photographers who were merely wounded. Life‘s W. Eugene Smith was shot in the hand and mouth on Okinawa, Don McCullin, veteran of 11 wars, was wounded both in Cambodia and Salvador. James Natchwey, a five-times winner of the Robert Capa Award for courageous photojournalism, was hit by shrapnel in Baghdad.

Two dead, three wounded, to add to the eight frontline cameramen who died and are honoured on the Club’s floor between floors. All in the same line of work.

Do their photographs make any difference? Don McCullin once asked the question “Is Anyone Taking Any Notice?” in the title of a book. It was the topic of discussion when the exhibition opened last November 11th — Armistice Day. There are two classic photos of protest — Marc Riboud’s girl thrusting a flower at the bayonet of a soldier guarding the Pentagon and Jeff Wedener’s photo of the lone man confronting tanks on Tiananmen Square.

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Ascending further, to the Forum floor, one finds the two great patriotic images of World War II: Joe Rosenthal’s flag raising on Iwo Jima and Yevgeny Khaldei’s flag raising on the Reichstag.

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But what is victory? David Turnley’s photo raises the question. An American soldier, one who fought and won the war, discovers that he is travelling next to his best friend — who’s in a body bag.

Victory is perhaps more like Alfred Eisenstaedt’s sailor who spontaneously kisses a girl on VE day in Times Square. Or even the potential conquest as two Russian officers eye two girls in Red Square, observed by Cartier-Bresson.

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As a reminder that man has the capability of destroying the human species, Michael Rand and I sadly agreed on the juxtaposition of two images in the Forum: the awesomely beautiful mushroom cloud at Hiroshima, and a Nagasaki mother, nursing her baby in the second bomb’s aftermath, by the Japanese photographer Yosuke Yamahata.

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Photographs show what has happened. They do not tell why, or who was responsible. Frontline’s photographs leave such questions unresolved, the better to be debated in the Forum, questions such as:
Why do statesmen seem to lack the courage of ordinary soldiers?
Who continues to profit from war?
Why is war sometimes the first option, rather than the last?
Why, why, why?



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