Early Photograph, Late Interpretation – Considering An-My Lê’s ‘Mechanized Assault’ as a Seminal Photograph of the Iraq War

Mechanised Assault (2003-2004) Lê, A-M.

This photograph comes from 29 Palms, a series that documents the American military rehearsing for the Iraq War at their training ground near Twentynine Palms in the Californian desert. It shows an elevated view of four tanks and four Humvees fanning out from the bottom right corner of the frame, as rugged scrubland and shadow-flecked peaks extend beyond them into the distance. It appears particularly undramatic, even bathetic, but I believe Mechanized Assault is a seminal photograph of the Iraq War. In this essay, I will explore how we can view the image as an allegory for more than just the conflict, as well as firstly, the position of the whole series in relation to war photography and contemporary practices.

War photography is nearly as old as the camera itself, and over this time, has changed as much as any other genre. However, unlike other genres which have continually evolving definitions in the people’s imagination, (fashion or landscape for example), war photography does not. Like photojournalism, of which it is a subspecies, there are very specific, yet widely held understandings of its practices. The reason for this is rooted in its overwhelming prominence achieved during a golden age, roughly between the 1930s and 1970s. During this period, war photography’s symbiotic development with general interest magazines situate it at the very heart of mass media’s genesis, whereas other genres seem to enjoy repeated, if less notable, phases of recognition and reinvention. Thus the close-quartered conflict images of Capa, Cartier-Bresson and McCullin have a culturally iconic status that completely eclipses the slower work of previous photographers such as Roger Fenton in the Crimean War or Matthew Brady in the American Civil War. Then, as Natalie Herschdorfer notes, “it entered a period of crisis after Korea and Vietnam” in which “the same kind of close proximity was no longer conceivable”[1] as photographers were effectively banned from the battlefield unless through military sanctioned embedding. Coinciding with the demand for television footage to satisfy a new generation of news consumer, a static iteration of war photography’s practices became lodged in the public consciousness as the whole genre was displaced by video. There is still a very deep shadow from that glorified era that hangs over war photography today.

Bullet-scarred Apartment Building (2003) Norfolk, S.

As such, while traditional photojournalistic representations of combat continue to be made, it is of note that Herschdorfer and others have heralded the emergence of ‘aftermath’ or ‘late’ photography. Exemplified by Simon Norfolk’s Bullet-scarred Apartment Building, still images are used to reflect on conflict – its sites, victims and ephemera – after the fighting has ceased. Explaining the shift, David Campany observes that “photojournalists used to be at the centre of the event because photography was at the centre of culture. Today they are as likely to be at the scene of the aftermath because photography is, in relative terms, at the aftermath of contemporary culture”[2]. The decisive moment of classic war photography “far from being its ultimate incarnation” has become a “historically specific ideal”[3], now superseded by moving images. Interestingly, this turn to seek meditation over immediacy posits late photography as a more intellectually considered view than the heart-pounding rawness of depicting blood and bullets. The ability to reflect on events with hindsight allows these photographs to become the “images of record” for “official history”[4]. This trend also seems to correlate with the broader arc of postmodernism, which is a cultural precursor to late photography’s development. Strictly humanitarian messages from institutional authors represent a distinctly modernist interpretation of the photojournalist’s craft. Late photographs, from predominantly independent practitioners, with their subtle emphasis on the complexities and multivalent views in modern conflict, certainly resonate with the postmodern ethos of Lyotard’s “incredulity towards metanarratives”[5].

An-My Lê also states the “psychic aftermath”[6] of war to be the locus of her practice – ably demonstrated through her previous projects, Viet Nâm and Small Wars. She is clearly a ‘late’ photographer. Yet speaking of her motivations, the full comment includes “the precursor to war”[7] as well. This surely refers to her work from 29 Palms, which in documenting rehearsals for war, could perhaps be considered as ‘early’ photography. If so, (excusing the light-hearted formulation), it retains the features of late photography: crucially, the viewer is detached from the actual fighting and given the space to reflect on contemporary warfare. This effect is achieved by Lê’s deliberate desire to blur fact and fiction, as noted by a number of critics. Alluding to the possibility for atemporal readings of the work, Lucy Soutter states “the large format images are in the monochrome black and white of most Vietnam-era photojournalism and echo compositions from 19th century war photography”[8]. The choice of subject matter too – an absence of real action in the simulation of war – “asks us to question the very premise of ‘authentic’ photography to begin with”[9]according to Karen Irvine.

More intriguingly, Richard B Woodward claims the ambiguous nature of the combat in 29 Palms “furthers Lê’s investigations into war-as-theatre and image-as-‘news’”[10]. This seems to reference Jean Baudrillard’s trio of essays, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, which hypothesised the first Gulf war as fictional (in its apprehension by western audiences) due to the limited and ‘propagandised’ media coverage it received. The repercussions of the debates this sparked were such that any look at contemporary warfare since has required cognisance of it – we now accept all reporting to be filtered through layers of mediation and obfuscation by the parties involved. To that end, in 29 Palms Vince Aletti finds “a Hollywood-style disconnect between appearance and reality, not unlike what issues from the Pentagon these days”[11], and Irvine also perceives the images to “subversively mirror the media’s sanitised view of the Iraq War. They present no blood, no gore, no cruelty, no shock”…[12]

Security and Stabilization Operations, Graffiti (i) (2003-2004) Lê, A-M.

Security and Stabilization Operations, Graffiti (ii) (2003-2004) Lê, A-M.

From these interpretations, we begin to see that by hinting at the fabricated elements of modern war’s depiction, the series operates on a more meditative level than traditional photojournalism. However, there is a strange truth that emerges from these fictions. In looking at the “GOOD SADDAM” and “GO HOME G.I.” graffiti daubed across the mocked-up Iraqi town in Security and Stabilization Operations, Graffiti (i & ii), Woodward opines that “the haplessness of these ‘realistic’ touches only underscores the grotesque sadness of playing war and the chasm between it and the genuine article”[13]. Teasing this out further, Mark Godfrey clarifies that “though the ‘Iraq’ the Marines create is a complete fantasy… these are real documents of their fantasy. As such they are perhaps the most authentic representation of the contemporary crisis, for it was the Iraq of America’s imagination that pushed the troops to war”[14].

From this perspective, the project acts as not only a comment on the unreal nature of contemporary war reporting, but also on the very real nature of America’s delusions. A decade’s analysis has generally found consensus around the realisations that firstly America and its allies willfully manufactured evidence to initiate the conflict, and secondly they were woefully ill-prepared for how the conflict and its aftermath would actually unfold. Arguably an atrocity but at least a quagmire, the blunders of this war now seem captured with uncanny prescience in 29 Palms’ record of American fantasy. However, Lê’s understated tact, honed through previously exploring the traumas of America’s war in Vietnam as a citizen of both nations, enables her to brilliantly forge what Godfrey describes as “a profound critique of American aggression without criticising the subject of [her] images”. As a result, while illustrating the mundane logistics of war, the series more profoundly questions its myopic representation in the media, as well as implicating the political follies now revealed in this war’s instigation – and all while maintaining an objective humanitarianism towards the personnel involved. It is clearly work of remarkable interest.

Captain Folsom (2003-2004) Lê, A-M.

Of all the project’s images though, I propose Mechanized Assault as having additional aesthetic qualities worthy of attention. We can detect these and something of Lê’s skill as an artist when starting with another photograph from 29 Palms. In Captain Folsom, we see exactly the same scene moments beforehand, shot with a wider lens to include a small group of soldiers in the foreground. They appear, presumably with Captain Folsom facing the camera, on a mound in the bottom right of the frame, overlooking the mechanised assault vehicles which are below them. The tanks and Humvees are nearly in place, as is the cloud cover beginning to creep across the distant ridges from the left. What we can then infer about the construction of Mechanized Assault is that Lê not only waited specifically for the drama of the clouds to dapple the background peaks, she also centrally framed the vehicles as cornered by the majesty of the landscape, and not part of the general background they occupy in Captain Folsom. Although these decisions may well have been instinctive, the slowness of her method (a 5×7 plate camera) implies she cannot have been unaware of the many symbolic elements she was bringing to the fore. Lê only admits modestly that landscape “is like a stage and, most importantly, I try not to let the people and their activities completely take over”[15]; but Irvine begins to contextualise her skill when observing that by emphasising “the sublime vistas of the landscape, she shifts some of our focus to the relative insignificance of man. Mountains and deserts dominates the series, the vastness making the war elements appear small and toylike, adding to the artificial nature of the scene”[16].

Winter Sunrise From Lone Pine (1944) Adams, A.

This acknowledges the artifice of the military games, and again reminds us of the subtle interrogation by Lê of combat’s problematic portrayal in recent decades. It also draws attention away from the human element to what Woodward describes as “the special awesomeness of the west”[17] as a backdrop in 29 Palms. Lê would surely be aware of this theme within landscape photography, so when contrasting Mechanized Assault with, for example, Winter Sunrise From Lone Pine by Ansel Adams, the homage seems clear. Similar rhetorical devices are employed and are equally effective: the tiny scale of the assault vehicles (like that of the grazing horse) catalyses the sense of foreboding posed by the sublime environment. To move the comparison beyond the merely photographic, further parallels can be elucidated when appraising the work in relation to Westerns, such as Anthony Mann’s The Man From Laramie. The privileging of America’s rugged terrain in Mechanized Assault immediately conjures striking visual resemblances to it – amongst many others – and ignoring this particular film’s plot, a plethora of familiar associations from the Western genre ensue. Ideas of violently confronting supposed threats from nature, of moral certainty embodied in mythic American heroes and of martial justice circumventing the institutions of law, all feed into the heady blend of connotations that the photograph evokes.

The Man From Laramie (1955) Directed by Mann, A. [DVD] USA: Columbia Pictures

As such, in a semiotic evaluation of Mechanized Assault, we can effortlessly appreciate Roland Barthes’ notion of the polysemous image. While it literally depicts a paused moment in an army training exercise, we are simultaneously overwhelmed by the tumult of “iconic messages” that seem to be attached. Moreover, when we cross-examine these instinctive connotations with the more intellectual reflections on the photograph’s social context, a cloud of tensions and questions begins to form. The elevated view of the scene, which encourages a sense of mastery over the events unfolding, is left in total discord by our anxiety about the prolonged, bloody morass that actually awaits the soldiers in Iraq. This awareness is perhaps an “experience of the contemporary sublime” that comes from “being caught in a geopolitical circumstance”[18] that we can’t fathom. It finds a disquieting harmony in what Julian Stallabrass describes as the “data sublime” of such photographs’ large format resolution “overwhelm[ing] the viewer with the richness of its detail”[19], while remaining impossible to apprehend in totality. Peering into that detail, the potential for violent destruction contained within the tanks’ small hard shells is juxtaposed with superb bathos by the soft-edged stillness and expansive desolation of the environment. But like the unfounded sense of threat from this sublime landscape, what invisible enemies and paper tigers are those small hard shells supposed to protect man from? With the bloody morass awaiting the soldier’s folly, does man not need protection from himself? In the end, it is by inspiring these unresolved ideas that Mechanized Assault achieves its status as a truly exceptional work – it is an allegory for the discrepancies in our perceptions of Iraq, in our perceptions (through the media) of warfare in general, and ultimately our perceptions of all the timeless threats ‘out there’ to our security. It is an allegory for man’s folly.

However, there is a compelling criticism of all late (or in this case, early) photography that needs discussion. As Campany concludes in his essay on the subject, the helplessness of such sublime experiences “can also foster an indifference” and “easily flatter the ideological paralysis of those who gaze at it with a lack of social or political will to make sense of its circumstance”[20]. Would a cursory view of Mechanized Assault provoke less of a reaction than the bullets and blood of Capa, Cartier-Bresson and McCullin? The answer is probably yes. And yet, would the work of those three exalted figures make the same impact now as it did in their heydays? The answer, I would posit, is no. Lê reminds us that “our hearts are colder these days from having been bombarded with one agonising and horrific picture after another”[21]– it feels impossible that traditional war photography could arouse us from our desensitised slumber any more. So, while we must be wary of encouraging political detachment, the lack of ideological conviction in contemporary audiences seems inevitable, as its origins lie in a more profound cultural malaise than merely a lack of powerful imagery. Consequently, Lê’s further question of traditional war photographs is as sobering as it is relevant: they “certainly remind us we are at war, but how thought-provoking are they?”[22] If we regrettably accept blasé shoulder-shrugging has replaced outrage as part of the modern condition, Mechanized Assault, in epitomising late photography, is perhaps the perfect response. Despite appearing to shrug right back, it masks beneath the surface a storm of conflicting ideas that are most definitely thought-provoking.

As such, although late photography will never replace traditional photojournalism for the function it still performs, it represents the nuanced complexities of the 21st century far more completely than the iconic yet limited work of the latter. An-My Lê’s series 29 Palms is a superb, if semantically inaccurate, example of this genre. Now the war is ‘over’ (and the ‘peace’ has begun), the late postmortem reveals how incredibly prescient Lê’s objective approach to her early subject was. Furthermore, if 29 Palms discloses biases inherent in our reasoning and representation of that war, Mechanized Assault, through its particular aesthetic elegance, manages to additionally invoke biases inherent in our reasoning and representation of all threats to our security – and the follies they lead to. It is a seminal image of the Iraq War, as it would be of any war.

William Eckersley, January 2014

[1] Herschdorfer, N. (2011) Afterwards: Contemporary Photography Confronting The Past London: Thames & Hudson, p.16

[2] Campany, D. (2003) Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’ [online] <http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness>

[3] Campany, D. (2003)

[4] Campany, D. (2003)

[5] Lyotard, J-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge [translated by Bennington, G. & Massumi, B.] Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

[6] Lê, A-M. (2005) Small Wars [interviewed by Als, H.] New York: Aperture Foundation, p.123

[7] Lê, A-M. (2005) Small Wars [interviewed by Als, H.] p.123

[8] Soutter, L. (2013) Why Art Photography? London: Routledge, p.59

[9] Irvine, K. (2006) Museum of Contemporary Photography: Small Wars [online] <http://www.mocp.org/exhibitions/2006/10/an-my-le-small-wars.php>

[10] Lê, A-M. (2005) Small Wars [essay by Woodward, R.B.] New York: Aperture Foundation, p.116

[11] Aletti, V. (2004). An-My Lê The Village Voice, October 6-12th, p.151 [online] <http://www.mutualart.com/OpenArticle/AN-MY-LE/F3398DF90B3C79FB>

[12] Irvine, K. (2006)

[13] Lê, A-M. (2005) Small Wars [essay by Woodward, R.B.] p.116

[14] Demos, T.J. (2006) Vitamin Ph: New Perspectives in Photography [essay by Godfrey, M.] London: Phaidon, p.154

[15] Lê, A-M. (2005) Small Wars [interviewed by Als, H.] p.123

[16] Irvine, K. (2006)

[17] Lê, A-M. (2005) Small Wars [essay by Woodward, R.B.] p.110

[18] Campany, D. (2003)

[19] Stallabrass, J. (2013) Elite Art in an Age of Populism [online] <http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/people/stallabrass_julian/documents/populism.pdf>

[20] Campany, D. (2003)

[21] Lê, A-M. (2005) Small Wars [interviewed by Als, H.] p.123

[22] Lê, A-M. (2005) Small Wars [interviewed by Als, H.] p.123