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Lucy Knight

Theater of War

Just because there’s a stage doesn’t mean it’s not true

Emeric Lhuisset image
Emeric Lhuisset photograph
Emeric Lhuisset photograph

A battle is ensuing and the troops are crouched ready to fire, yet in the forefront there is a man holding a young fighter, like a bag of shopping, just staring into the camera. His friend is dying but calm pervades the scene and the viewer is left wondering, “What exactly is going on here? This is war right?”

The scene is of course staged. Running until January 10, French multidisciplinary artist, Emeric Lhuisset, has created a series of eight images for his aptly entitled Theater of War exhibition at The Running Horse Contemporary Art Space.

‘Staged’ is a taboo word when it comes to the representation of war through photography but the line between art and journalism in war can be blurred. For Lhuisset this was the point: “I wanted to question the staging process during conflict.” The title ‘Theatre of War’ reflects this. A term coined by the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, war is seen as a theatre, populated by men looking to increase ground and power through a series of ‘staged’ tactics.

Over the course of three years Lhuisset has travelled back and forth to Iraq to be with a group of Iranian Kurdish guerilla fighters. “I asked them to replay for me what could have been their reality,” he says, “through a series of staged scenes.” Each picture is inspired by a painting from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, a conflict Lhuisset believes to have been the origin of the creation of conflict images carried throughout the 20th century. Indeed, when it comes to war, the image can be far more powerful than any written report and it doesn’t always need to be of flayed bodies or crushed buildings.

Not on a politically motivated mission, Lhuisset is simply looking at the representation of war. When asked if he could be glorifying war with his stylized shots of people looking serene, he is quick to quash the idea. “I talk about war because it’s existing. We all know war is bad, that doesn’t need to be explained. I’m just showing another reality, not journalism and not film.” For him, the image of fighters simply sitting and waiting is as much a reality as shooting or running.

Roger Fenton, one of the first photographers dispatched to a conflict zone, took pictures of soldiers during the Crimean War of the 1850s. Having to pose for 20 minutes to get the shot obviously meant no ‘action’ shots and so the images, no less powerful in detailing a war, were always of men simply standing around or sitting. “This is what most fighters spend their time doing,” says Lhuisset, “It’s reality.”

Luisset’s series is clearly not something that would turn up in a newspaper with the tag line, ‘Latest fighting in Iraq worsens,’ yet his ability to tell a truth about a conflict still exists. Not every photograph seen in a newspaper from a photo-journalist will be the complete truth of the events taking place.

 

A recent symposium at the artistic association Ashkal Alwan, entitled History of the last things before the last: Art as writing history, looked specifically at the analogy of the work of a photographer and an historian. The artist Lamia Joreige talked about the inability to ever present a narration of history. Joreige rejects the idea that a complete history, or unique truth of a conflict can ever be collected, and concludes that many different representations are needed. Her project Objects of Warfrom the start of this century, looks at exactly this. A series of a series of videos and objects showing people recanting their Lebanese war experiences, shows that there is a truth but not for everyone – everyone sees a different side to the story.

 

Luisset’s approach finds common ground with that of photojournalist turned art photographer, Luc Delahaye, whose work captures images of conflict, its aftermath and more somber occasions, the line between art and reportage always misty. In 2003 Delhaye told Artnet magazine that “Photojournalism is neither photography or journalism. It has its functions but it’s not where I see myself: the press is for me just a means for photographing, for material – not for telling the truth.”

To say that there is ‘staging’ in modern war photography would cause a hush around the dinner table. While of course many photojournalists working today would argue that their work is pure and true to the events happening around them, it is possible to argue that some staging does happen, and not necessarily in the simple sense of making your subjects stand in positions you would like for them. As Lhuisset points out, one of the most iconic pictures to come out of the Libyan conflict was an image of a dead Gaddafi – a photograph of a mobile phone image.

In the work of Emeric Lhuisset, a group of Iranian-Kurdish guerilla fighters pose (image courtesy of The Running Horse Contemporary Art Space)

‘Staged’ is a taboo word when it comes to the representation of war through photography but the line between art and journalism in war can be blurred