Meditations on Photographs: Sleeping Soldier (Steve Kim, Korengal Valley, Afghanistan) by Tim Hetherington



It’s such a sad old feeling
the fields are soft and green
it’s memories that I’m stealing
but you’re innocent when you dream
when you dream
you’re innocent when you dream

(from Tom Waits’ Innocent When You Dream)
The first time I saw Tim Hetherington’s Sleeping Soldiers - I think it was actually a video presentation - I immediately had to think of that Tom Waits song. And then I thought what a marvelous piece of propaganda I was looking at. (more)

This is not to say that Sleeping Soldiers was created as a piece of propaganda. The photographer was very sincere when making that work, and the general public equally sincerely admires the work. But this was, I think, supposed to be photojournalism, and what did this have to do with photojournalism?

But introducing photojournalism is like throwing a red herring into the mix. After all, as much as many photojournalists refuse to accept it, their images work just like everybody else’s. So we might as well stop pretending that we need to treat these photographs any differently than all the other images in our life.

There are two types of propaganda in photography: In the first, someone uses a photograph to send a message that might or might not be true, to influence our opinion. This case is very well known, even though the term “propaganda” itself tends to be only used when we’re dealing with foreign dictatorships, say, and less so when we’re looking at, for example, photography used to say something about a presidential candidate.

The second type of propaganda works just the same way, but there’s a twist: It is actually directed at ourselves: We use certain photographs not only to project an image of ourselves, but also to show ourselves that we conform to that image. A classic example is family photography. Another example is provided by people’s Facebook photos. Posting photographs taken at a party on Facebook shows everybody - incl., crucially, ourselves - that a good time was being had. It’s a self-inflicted propaganda, a propaganda where we are only too happy to believe in something that in reality might not exist or that has many more facets, some of them unpleasant.

Sleeping Soldiers is a piece of propaganda in that second sense. We read these photographs the way we want to read them. They tell us something about these soldiers, and especially about ourselves, that we want to believe.

These last two wars, with their “embedded” photographers, have led to dead or injured civilians and enemy soldiers for the most part disappearing from photographs. Instead, the focus has been on our military, and the job they do. Sleeping Soldiers takes this portrayal of war to its logical conclusion: It eliminates even the element of combat. Of course, it is important to keep in mind how and where these photographs were created. But what’s interesting here is the attention paid to especially these photographs.

Photographers in general have very little power over how their images are viewed and treated. This is especially true for photographs in a news context (photographers producing work for art galleries have an easier job). You can talk as much as you want about your intentions and what you want your images to mean. But the moment they’re out in the world, people view them with their own baggage, with their own ideas, and that might generate a meaning that is very different from the intended one.

We’ve never fully understood the war in Afghanistan beyond cartoonish idea of “evildoers” in caves and people with turbans doing strange things. This is fully not our own fault, since we weren’t necessarily encouraged to understand much, and we certainly weren’t given too accurate a picture, either. Much to their credit, many photographers, Hetherington among them, went to Afghanistan and Iraq to produce photographs that would attempt to shine a light on the situation.

But in a news context, there always is the picture editor of the newspaper or magazine, making selections, there always is the editorial focus, there is the business of selling newspapers or magazines… And decisions were made (I’m using this vague way to phrase it on purpose) not to focus on photographs like the one discussed here, but instead to show something else.

On top of that, we have been busy going about our own lives, our own problems. There are quite a few, as many of our jobs are disappearing, as parents have to both have jobs so that the family can often just barely get by… We might literally not have the time to deal with yet another problem to worry about, especially not if it’s a problem far away. And then add to that the fact that the people going there, the soldiers, are all volunteers.

Why that war isn’t over, yet, is hard to understand. It has been going on for quite a while now. But the one thing we all know, the one thing we can all agree on is that our intentions were and are good. (They are, aren’t they?) After all those years, after seeing (actually hearing of) so many of our soldiers coming home either severely injured or even dead, we’re tired of all of that. Why are we even engaged there, in a place so far away, a place where, it seems, so few people have an interest in what we have to offer?

Sleeping Soldiers offers us visual solace, taking us back to that innocent state that we would love our life to be in. We know that things aren’t quite so simple, we know it’s unrealistic to expect them to be that simple, but we want to believe so badly that they are.

you’re innocent when you dream
when you dream
you’re innocent when you dream

(photo: Tim Hetherington/Magnum Photos)