Corcoran Gallery of Art: War Exhibit

The images that we viewed at the Corcoran Gallery of Art were all emotional for me in some form. I not only felt sorrow and sympathy when viewing the pictures of the children, for example, but there were also some that were different; the series of photos of soldiers during their leisure time made me feel happy to be seeing something other than death and injury. It was interesting to see them doing regular things as if they weren’t in the middle of a war. For both of these extremes, I was a spectator. There weren’t any pictures that were too gruesome or emotional for me to look at, but if there were, would I be a coward? Personally, when I saw the saddest and most gruesome photos, I didn’t look away. In fact, these were the images I lingered in front of. They captured my attention. But if others were the opposite, if they looked away from these images, does that mean that they are cowards? I don’t believe so. Even if they did look away, they had to have looked for at least a moment. So in a way, aren’t we all spectators?

This begs the question: is it really appropriate for the photographers to be taking these photos in the first place? To document human suffering? I believe it is. If not for photographs, I would have no idea how horrifying war really is. Photographs take us there, in the middle of the war, so that we can relate to and respect what soldiers go through everyday. 


3 thoughts on “Corcoran Gallery of Art: War Exhibit”

  1. I completely agree that we need to see these photographs of war. I really liked the one comment by a photographer that was included with his picture of the burnt Iraqi: “If I don’t make pictures like this, people like my mother will think what they see in war is what they see in the movies.”

  2. I too felt guiltily transfixed by the most grisly and horrific images. But although many writers have described feelings like this as morbid or voyeuristic, I see them differently. I believe this captivation is derived from a sense of sympathy and compassion for the subjects and their struggles depicted in the images. In many of the images, particularly those that depicted injured and scarred soldiers, such as the swimmer missing his legs, or the groom with a severely disfigured face, I felt an overwhelming sense of sorrow and grief for the individuals. Despite entering the gallery with all of the previous knowledge gained from Barnet, Burke, Sontag, and others, I chose to let myself become enraptured by the images, to let them stir my emotions and thoughts, and to view the images through the photographers’ lens, whether biased or not. I understand now how images throughout American history have greatly influenced public opinion. Whether a photograph of the ruins of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, or of a South Vietnamese soldier shooting a Vietcong prisoner at pointblank range, or of bystanders on the streets of New York City on September 11th, well-crafted images can have an immeasurable impact on public opinion and the American psyche. Ultimately, though, I feel that we are only cowards or bystanders if we disregard context and critical thinking and allow ourselves to be moved simply by the images alone. As photographer Eddie Adams wrote of his iconic Vietnam era photograph, “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?'” For most of us, the images viewed last Friday at the Corcoran will never be fully relatable; we will likely never deal firsthand with the horrors of war and suffering. The least we can do, however, as we relax in our cozy dorms in idyllic and peaceful places like Foggy Bottom, is search for that context, that intrinsic meaning, that will illuminate the realities behind each image, ultimately allowing us to develop some sense of understanding of the complex subjects and stories illustrated in each photograph.

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