Julian Stallabrass’s Killing for Show is an exacting, meticulous encyclopedia of war photography. Spanning the decades of the Vietnam War and the so-called War on Terror, the book is a gruesomely detailed analysis of war photography’s double act: both as art and testimony, subject to aesthetic as well as—at least potentially—ethical evaluation. The range of examples covered is breathtaking. It includes the most varied types of photography, from Magnum-type shots to propaganda items, memes and amateur pictures, from leaked footage to pr releases, from embedded collaborator to partisan perspective. It catalogues its developments as a series of relentless horrors hoping for moments of redemption—which remain few and far between.
The timing of the book’s appearance points to a glaring contradiction. In the present, photographic images have lost almost any authority to act as proof of anything. Doubt is the default mode of reception. Almost anyone has the tools at hand to manipulate different types of imagery. The veracity of the photograph used to be guaranteed by its machinic nature. But its claim has been thoroughly deflated by the platform-disseminated inflation of data—propaganda, advertisement and all-out lies.
On the other hand, the book also documents a period in which photographs were backed by a widespread belief in machinic realism (i.e. the photographic apparatus guarantees some form of ‘objectivity’). In this view photography functioned as a para- or pre-legal informal institution, which produced evidence and historical records. This notion rested on unspoken assumptions about the function of public spheres, for example the idea that visual proof of something automatically had a political effect. A camera was seen as a machine that produced truth from reality following a sudden intrusion of enlightenment. The public sphere was supposed to function in a similar mechanical way except in reverse: a flash of enlightenment was supposed to trigger real world consequences. In a Habermasian ideal world of rational democratic public spheres this might perhaps have been the case. But this link—if it ever existed—was broken long ago. Neoliberal policies of privatization undermined whatever public sphere existed. Information does not routinely trigger rational democratic deliberations, let alone remedies for military violence, but is consumed, traded and speculated upon. Nevertheless the myth of the one photograph that could end a war by swaying public opinion by way of its evidentiary power of persuasion persists, as documented by Stallabrass.
Killing for Show exists suspended between both paradigms. Belief in the evidential quality of photography violently squares with the news market’s demand for spectacle and quantity. As in Karen Barad’s quantum-inspired phenomena it becomes impossible to separate or disentangle those planes from one another. I am not an art or photography historian so I don’t consider it my role to evaluate the achievement of the book from an academic perspective. I find it hard to imagine a more detailed, laborious and conspicuous analysis though. It must have taken months and years of focussed labour to create this catalogue of cruelty. So, I will try to think with the corpus that the book presents. If this is war photography—then what is it?
Early on I started noticing a peculiar way of reading, or failing to read this book. I would find my eyes on a slalom course trying to avoid seeing many of the photographs. It was terrible enough reading about the content and context of these photographs. Looking at them felt excessive, violating the dignity of many of the subjects—forced into complicity with the gaze of power, especially as many of the photographs were already meant—as Stallabrass emphasizes—as active and operational forms of degradation, deterrence and torture. Shame, guilt, embarrassment and sadness welled up finding myself accidentally exposed to shots of naked pows while trying to confirm some details. Being forced to witness felt like yet another act of structural cruelty towards photography’s involuntary subjects. Yet not looking at them equally produced a major form of guilt. But why did I even feel ‘obliged’ to look at the horrors? What social forces did this double bind stand in for? It seemed as if war photography was a prolongation of warfare by other means, while pretending to help end it.
Another pretty obvious situation was made clear by this compilation. Not everything is included in the theatre of war. Not all subject matters are equal within this spectrum: speed and thrill are privileged over the slow grind of reproduction; shooting and special effects obviously turn out to have more currency than documents of infrastructure or political background. Most of the machinery of war, including the whole scene of political declaration or negotiation, seems like the invisible bulk of an iceberg, excluded from the staging of war proper. As in Brecht’s poem one could ask: who is cooking for the soldiers? Where are their weapons made and who makes them? Who heals the wounds, who washes the uniforms, who transports the ammunition? Where is boredom, which by many accounts numbers among the principal components of wars? Where is the pump, the pipeline, the shell company for hiring mercenaries? War photography as witnessed in Stallabrass’s exhaustive corpus seems to mostly draw a blank. Except for some examples of informal rendition infrastructures, most of the logistical machinery of war remains unseen. This is not a complaint about the author omitting this or that example. On the contrary: precisely because the book presents such a wide panorama, the edges of the genre seem more stark and it becomes equally possible to outline the rhetorics of war photography both through its examples and through its omissions.
These omissions are the more surprising as Stallabrass, in an especially illuminating chapter, teases out how photography was able to invade formerly invisible spaces by technological means. Using the example of photographic speed (sensitivity to light), he analyses war photography as an accelerationist enterprise. By increasing speed—both in the sense of sensitivity and transmission velocity—photographers were able to ramp up both temporal and spatial resolution, moving into the interstices of time as well as increasing visibility in under- or unlit scenarios. Yet even the technological conquest of photography’s space-time mostly failed to move its range of topics beyond its standard tropes: scenes of heightened affect, human damage, violation and trauma. It is surprising how little the subjects change across different times, technologies and platforms and how stable they remain despite massive changes in both photographic context and the technologies of war itself. One could conclude that the genre supports itself by allowing limited visibility for military action while upholding minimum visibility/intelligibility for the structural underpinnings of violence. The artificial scarcity of depictions of violence serves to guarantee their spectacle value. Thus, the genre is mostly conservative, except for some artists (Henner, Paglen) trying to reach into the structurally unseen. It preserves, reproduces, monetizes and potentially functions to intensify a state of exception.