Eyes Wide Open; Facing the Ambiguity in the Reality Stills of War

Prof.dr. D.E.M. Verweij
Philosophy and Ethics
Faculty of Military Sciences / Netherlands Defence Academy
Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management I Radboud University Nijmegen

Lezing bij het symposium Vreemden in het Vizier†ter gelegenheid van†de opening van de fototentoonstelling† Vreemden in het Vizier, Legermuseum, Delft 26 april 2012

Photographs still reality. They show acts that are frozen in time. In that sense they objectify movement in such a way that we become voyeurs that are given the opportunity to study eyes wide open- every little detail of the reality stills in front of us.

This holds for every photograph, but our fascination seems to grow when we look at pictures that show an unfamiliar, maybe even alienating scene.
Especially these photographs seem to give us the opportunity to participate in a reality that is not ours. That was not ours before, and will not be ours in the future.
Yet, somehow these photographs tell us something about ourselves. For even though we are looking at an estranged reality, this reality still is part of our human condition. Moreover, it tells us something about our human condition, about who we are, as human beings.

The photographs of the exhibition Vreemden in het Vizier are interesting in that respect, for they show the reality of military practice, and more specifically, they show the reality of war.
And, what is most interesting, they do this in a way that reflects the ambivalence we experience with regard to war and violence as such. And, an ambivalence we might experience, with regard to military practice as such.
Yet, we have a special relation with our armed forces.

The armed forces are an instrument of force in the hands of the state. In other words the armed forces have the monopoly of violence, which is entrusted to them by the state.††
Thus in a way, by us. For we choose the politicians that make the decisions with regard to the where, when and how of military action, and thus of war.
In that sense we are also responsible for our soldiers, before, during and after we have sent them to war.

The title of my presentation eyes wide open refers to the †ambivalence we experience with regard to violence and war as such.
Ambivalence is derived from the Latin ambo which means both (both that form a couple) and valere which means being strong and powerful and †being of value.
So the word ambivalence refers to the duality of strong values and feelings we experience. Value- and feeling duplicity if you like.

This is something that belongs to our human condition. It is who we are. The photographs reflect our human condition in the sense that they reflect our ontology as homo duplex, as philosophers say.
Or to put it in less sophisticated and more understandable words: the photographs show us something about the duplicity, the duality, we often feel in ourselves and in others. This is especially true with regard to violence.

We have an ambiguous relation towards violence: we are both fascinated by it and we are morally outraged by it.
We condemn it and at the same time we cannot stop staring at it. Im not only referring to the amount of violence in films and computer games, (and as we all know there is a lot of that), Im also referring to a much more familiar fact: Traffic accidents.
Traffic accidents always attract a lot of people and often the traffic jams on highways are not only caused by the accidents themselves, but often by the queue of viewers looking for bloody details.
This double attitude, this ambiguity, of wanting and not wanting to see atrocities and bloodshed, in short, violence, is very adequately described by the old Greek philosopher Plato in his Book Republic (Book IV).

In the passage I refer to, Socrates, Platos, main character, and former teacher, tells the story of Leontinus, son of Aglaion:
On his way up from the Piraeus outside the north wall, he (Leontinus) noticed the bodies of some criminals lying on the ground, with the executioner standing by them. He wanted to go and look at them, but at the same time he was disgusted and tried to turn away. He struggled for some time and covered his eyes, but at last the desire was too much for him. Opening his eyes wide, he ran up to the bodies and cried: There you are, curse you, feast yourselves on this lovely sight.
So, he is angry with himself: angry with his eyes who want to see the bloodshed.

Plato uses this story to illustrate how our reason may be pushed aside by our desire to do something our reason does not approve of. However, this desire is strong. As I said, a beautiful illustration of our ambiguity with regard to violence.

It is this same ambiguity Susan Sontag refers to in her book Regarding the Pain of Others (2006). She states that we are fascinated by pictures of† intimate climaxes, above all, of love and death . And she continues: a photograph gives a mixed signal: Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, what a spectacle

This ambiguity towards violence can also be detected, in more than one way, in the photographs of the exhibition Vreemden in het Vizier.
First of all we are confronted with the ambiguity of the soldiers who took the pictures, and this also in more than one way. And secondly we are confronted with our ambiguity, sometimes uneasiness, when we look at certain pictures.

Let's start with the ambiguity of the soldiers. Some of the pictures can almost be seen as snapshots, taken on a holiday in a foreign country. And of course for many soldiers it was the first time they actually travelled abroad and were able to see and enjoy things they had not seen and enjoyed before.

For instance the picture of soldiers lying on the beach in Italy. Or the picture of a soldier passing a woman herding her cows in what we today call a burqa. The soldier looks in the camera with a smile. The womans face is invisible behind her veil. Who knows, maybe she smiles as well at the sight of these strange men wearing rifles as well as cameras.
If all the pictures would be like harmless snapshots taken on a holiday, we could understand why the cover of the photo album of one of the soldiers reads It is beautiful being a soldier.

Yet, there are also other pictures, and pictures that were not meant to be seen. As one of the soldiers says I did not want to send my mother pictures that would frighten her (p.29)
In fact, it was prohibited to take pictures of war crimes and executions. However, there are such pictures. But, often they are taken out (even ripped out) of the pages of the photo albums by the former Wehrmacht soldiers themselves.
The pictures that were taken out of the albums show an empty space but at the same time they inform us about the forbidden reality that is taken away and left to our imagination.
The text under the empty spaces still refers to the images that we were not meant to see. And as such they make it possible for us to form a picture of the picture that was not meant for our eyes.
A good example is the empty page, in one of the albums, that clearly shows the spot were a photo was ripped out. Erschossene Partisaner in Pleskau (shotdown partisaner in Pleskau) it says at the bottom of the empty page..

Another example of the ambiguity toward violence we detect in the pictures taken by the soldiers is the distance with regard to their object. In some pictures there is almost no distance with regard to the object and in some the distance is so great that it is difficult to see what is being photographed.

For instance, pictures of colleagues are taken up close and so are the pictures of† two French ladies on a terrace, smiling, and the picture of a soldier arm in arm with a French family. Harmless pictures they seem, almost snapshots, with no reference to the violence of war. This is interesting. For it seems that the further away the picture is taken the more problematic the action seems from a moral/ethical perspective.
We have to sharpen our focus and then we see, yes it is a man hanging from a tree.

Another example, of this distance with regard to the object, †is the picture taken in the woods, showing what are probably prisoners. Is this the picture of an execution site? The distance makes it difficult, if not impossible, to see what is taking place. Trying to enlarge the picture only blurs the image more.
The uneasiness that creeps up on us when looking at pictures that have the suggestion of violence in them brings me to our own ambiguity, as viewers, as spectators. And it brings me, for instance , to picture †of soldiers looking at a house on fire. Was the house already on fire when they arrived? But, the soldiers are not trying to extinguish the fire. Maybe they were the ones who put the house on fire?

Similar questions come up when we look at he picture of soldiers taking pictures of each other in a house. Did they enter the house by force? What did they do with the owners, with their belongings? The text under one of the pictures reads: there is even a radio, as if they were surprised to find a radio in the house that they entered.

The uneasiness grows when we look at the picture of half a circle of smiling soldiers in a field clapping their hands and encouraging a woman to dance. Her dress is raised a bit, showing her muddy legs and bare feet. The distance toward the woman makes it impossible to see her face. Is she dancing voluntarily, or not?
What was the intention of the soldier taking the picture? Displaying the questionable acts of his fellow soldiers? Or just showing how beautiful the live of a soldier was?
This question also comes to the fore when we look at the picture of a statue of Jeanne D'arc, completely intact amidst the ruins of the buildings around her. She seems to point with her raised arm to these buildings. As if to say: what have you done?.††
Did the soldier taking the picture had the same idea? We don't know.

Yet, we do know that photographs, and images, can have a function. They can work as an indictment, as a complaint, a charge against society, or politics.

A famous example is Francisco de Goya's painting The Third of May,1808, (painted in 1814). It is a large painting hanging in the Prado in Madrid. (There is also a picture entitled The second of May representing the uprising of the Spanish people against the French (Napoleonic) Army).†
The third of May represents the killing of the Spanish rebels, in fact citizens, by French soldiers outside Madrid.

Goya painted this execution site. Given the measures of the painting and the closeness of the persons in the painting we are almost part of the execution scene. And our eyes are immediately drawn towards the man who is going to be shot.
The white and yellow of his clothes form a sharp contrast with the dark colours of the rest of the painting, and also with the already executed people lying almost in front of our eyes at the bottom of the painting.

Yet, our eyes are not drawn towards them but towards this man in yellow and white, holding his arms wide open. A man who is going to be shot in a minute.
Goya forces us to look at him. What is also striking about the man in the picture, are his eyes. His eyes are wide open, looking at his executioners. His mouth is closed, yet his eyes seem to ask: what are you doing, why?
But his executioners don't look at him. They look down at their guns.

The eyes of the man, and thus Goyas painting as such, are a striking example of an indictment, a charge, against the cruelty of the Napoleonic war, and of war as such. And throughout the history of Art, this work has been seen as such. (As an indictment)
Paintings, pictures and photographs can have that function.

To quote again Susan Sontag from her book Regarding the Pain of Others : Images have a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing. Sontag describes this as an Invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn to deepen ones sense of reality.

I would like to add: to deepen the sense of our human condition and of the ambiguities of our human condition, of who we are as human beings.