While WWIII isn’t officially declared, we just go about our days, or we don’t. I’m writing in anger and frustration, sick to the guts, thinking the best way to deal with this is to write and, in doing so, prevent students from having to hear me talk about this non stop for the rest of the year. The relationship between photographic imagery and its participation in the aestheticization of war is well known and documented. And yes, taking students into a critical journey on the relation photography has always maintained with violence can be pedagogical, but my feeling is that they are already traumatized by the two crazy years before this. They tell me they feel safe, they don’t feel this war is about them and I’m not going to promote the opening of another wound, knowing that those wounds will be left bleeding, without assistance. Let me rephrase: I hope writing this prevents me to continue to disrupt their sense of security.
What’s new about this war? That it might be the beginning of the long foreseen WWIII? That in involves new technologies in all spectrum, bringing a difference set of players into the game? That the exodus of refugees is ginormous? The potential for world annihilation? Catastrophe animates de spirit of the mainstream media, providing 24/7 images of death, destruction and despair. If the EU and the USA keep at it with their primitive idea of politics and socialism, WWIII is guaranteed and we might all pack and start moving. I could swear I heard Biden end his first State of the Union speech with a “go get them”. What drugs is he on?
Today, driving home from work, I tried the radio news and, surprise surprise, there’s this journalist condemning the idea that Russia and USA could bare any similarities. “There’s no possible comparison”, she reiterated. That’s the mainstream media here and whoever ventures into addressing the idea of Empire, bringing up the war in Palestine or the USA crimes of war is “suicidal”, she said. That’s the mainstream media here. As things escalate, radical thinking becomes just another scapegoat. I turned off the radio and switched to my source of sanity these days, in order to avoid another car crash.
We fear what overwhelms us, but we marvel at catastrophe and fetishize horror, promoting an industry of the apocalipse, full of technological gadgets and cyber-attack plans. Not conceiving ourselves as subjects of war, in war, we articulate desubjectivation, sustaining the places of passive and active experience, observing environmental disasters and providing for the end of the world, in the hope that, in the simulacrum of the catastrophe, some revelation will subvert the course of things. Limits are tested, the system is shaken, problems are isolated, methodologies are recovered and everything stays the same. The aesthetic operation is in progress. And what about collateral damage?
The romanticization and aestheticization of war are not separate things. Though both are huge umbrellas on their own, they are inseparable. We’ve seen how social media participates in the making and documenting of wars before, but there is something different this time. Some people living in Europe think they belong to some sort of giant nation, believe they share values – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – even if we all know those values are not in place. All values we think we share abide by bigger rules. If we weren’t paying attention, we’ll see all that shit unfold in the next days, weeks, months, years and decades.
Fuck me and my catastrophism, I know. I’ve made my peace with the fact that happiness is not an option for me in this life. Maybe the next one, I bet my chips on that. On the other hand, I’m well aware I can’t make it in a permanent agony. So here’s me going to the beach today with my dogs, trying to relax for a while, waking up my face with salted water, catching the sunlight and whatnot; trying to let some positive energy in. Fuck that. People camping in wild beaches, shitting all over the place, a car stuck in the middle of the sand, dead seagulls, a dead dolphin. Fuck people and their behaviour. Traces of how human beings are constantly making this world impossible to live in are all around, no escaping. Fortunately, there are good drugs to ease the mind.
The man in the photograph bellow is just like any other european. After all, capitalism and globalization have provided europe with a recognizable uniform, distinguishable from the uniform pictured in “other wars”. See, when we watch pictures of death, destruction and despair in Palestina or Syria, people “look different”. Here, the guy pictured shares the “same european values”. The photo depicts the coexistence of two apparently distinct universes – love and violence; life and death -, but it doesn’t really fit into a preconceived idea of war. We’ve seen that before, but never have we seen people fleeing war with so many cats and dogs, another sign that “they” share the same culture and values as europeans, meaning “we” care for our families. It’s a broken rhetoric. People in Palestine, Syria, Libya, Nepal, and every other place in the world care for their families and struggle to keep them safe. The point being the romanticization of everything photographed and photographable. I thank the sharing of those images. I’ll be stashing some valium just because of that, for these bourgeois dogs can’t even handle fireworks. Please excuse me, anger and frustration are an open road to cynicism and it won’t get any better if you decide to read along..
UPHA is Ukrainian Photographic Alternative, an association founded in 2010 by a representative of the Photography School of Kharkiv, curator and professor Mikhail Pedan. It represents more than 200 photographers, critics and curators. Last year they launched a book called Made in Ukraine., published by Booksha, already promoting the aestheticization of violence. Am I still allowed to criticize anything made in Ukraine or is it suicidal? The photographs bellow are but a very small glimpse into that promotion of a national identity. It’s not horrendous or anything like that, it’s just a cocktail of common places in contemporary photography: the use of flash as metaphor to alienation; tension between preconceived ideas of beauty, love and violence; sweet and sour portraits; twisted angles as signs of spontaneity, etc., etc., etc.
Stupidity knows no limits. Thousands, if not millions, are using social media to share images that, in their view, portrait the bravery of the people fighting the war in Ukraine. There’s no need to name names, I think stupidity is a given right and not the source of evil. As they promote these images of “brave men and women fighting for their country”, what I see is, again, more evidence of the romanticization of war, not to mention the stereotypes, the objectification of women and the pornographic nature of the evident propaganda strategy that excites soo many and hurts but a few. The problem is not the people or the guns, neither the fact that images are being used to boost moral and create the simulacrum of an united nation. The problem is the photographic apparatus and its intrinsic unethical and violent nature. Look how sexy these women are holding their guns, isn’t that the obvious subtitle? How stupid are we all to keep doing this?
Lewis Bush, author, teacher, researcher, which I usually read at Disphotic, is doing image verification in the context of this war. Writing about such he says: “Even when they’re [the images] shared for the purpose of boosting morale, false stories occlude acts of genuine heroism and sacrifice, and make it harder for journalists, researchers, activists and others to work out what is actually going on.” He writes this regarding the widely shared image of “The Ghost of Kyiv” (a pilot said to have single-handedly brought down six Russian planes). So the image on the left is the one propelled, the supposed portrait of the soldier-hero-ghost. The image on the right is a portrait that also circulated, depicting marine Vitaliy Skakun, who is said to have blown up a bridge at the risk of his life to stop the advance of a Russian tank column. The funny thing in all this is that the face chosen to occupy the body of Shakun is of a lawyer from Buenos Aires. Any doubt that the propaganda machine is having fun? I’m curious, but completely blind to Russian propaganda machine. It’s hard to get my hands on that. Furthermore, propaganda from Ukraine is the one directed at “us”, westerners.
Now for a more serious note: I completely understand the legitimate will to join the EU. I understand the EU has more democratic values and we are (don’t fucking know who this we I keep referring to is) just radical bourgeoisie wanting something else. That dream is powerful and 100% legitimate, but the EU is, in itself, an amalgamate of capitalist/neoliberalist nations/states, who are also under the influence of the Empire, with their bloody hands and their colonialist history. As generations get renewed, there is a chance for new ideas, new experiences, new communities, new empathies. Wars, as the regressive movements they are, bring to the front such profound feelings of trauma and anger (also nostalgic feelings of essencialism, nationalism and other isms) that progress becomes in itself a regression, an Utopian dream.
Now cancel culture is having a blast. As the EU and the USA promote censorship to “Russian culture” as a fighting mechanism, the most ludicrous things are happening. Just the idea that there is something as “russian culture” is part of the problem, accentuating nationalisms, folk ideology and whatnot, romanticizing and fetishizing every single object that was once an icon or has the potential to become a symbol. We’ve see it before and we know where this is going. How long until they cancel ballet? Culture, culture, culture, this myth with such big wings…
One university (a university, yes, you heard it right) cancelled a course on Dostoevsky, programmed by writer Paolo Nori. The university said the measure was taken in order “to avoid any controversy, in a moment of high tension”. They then backtracked and things are back to normal, as if a university could ever erase this episode from its history. As the discussion unfolded in facebook and everyone agreed this was nonsense, what jumped at me was the nationalist rhetoric. Instead of condemning the academy, people were actually taking the bait and saying things like “Dostoevsky is not Russian, he belongs to humanity”, “Dostoevsky is more European than Russian”, etc., etc., etc.
Well, I think I exhausted my anger for now. Will be hibernating for a few days.