Of all the sessions at Spur Festival in Toronto this year, Art&War (moderated by the deadpan humour of Jamie Wellford) has stayed with me the longest. Both the photographers, Mike Kamber and Rita Leistner, were unassuming, open, and modest almost to a fault. Both had served in conflict zones from the Iraq war to the Palestinian border and as Wellford went through their photographs, they both lamented how even in the midst of chaos one must find beauty. A photographer’s lens must always look for that aesthetic, and for Kamber, answering a question about overcoming fear, that search for beauty is what kept him going.
“If only I can get that frame right.”
Kamber talked about his promises to himself of getting out alive and never coming back but then always coming back to yet another conflict zone despite the fear. Leistner compared that strange desire (death wish?) to how her friends having gone through childbirth would resolve “never again” and then go through it all over again. Photographing in conflict zones then is a little like having babies and coming back for more. They both admitted that they were adrenaline-driven but they wanted to document the reality of war, and make people think. And if their photographs could make one pause and think, then that would be worth it.
Wellford talked about how it is often a sanitized version of war that clicks with audiences and editors. How even as one is exposed to blood and gore, the eye still searches for a grotesque sense of symmetry, and so much is not seen by audiences. War photography still remains heavily censored and what gets seen is often not in the power of the photographer, but they do it to document these tormented lives. Kamber at one point recalled how a military unit he had been working with asked to meet with him in a room. He thought he would get beaten up but was shocked when they thanked him for getting their stories out there. Kamber talked about how one cannot just roll up in the middle of a gunfight and start shooting (with a camera). You always have to ally yourself with one or the other side, a dilemma that Leistner faced as well as she tried to cover the Palestinian and Israeli conflict zones. As a photographer going into the field, you can either tell one story or the other, but it is crucial that these stories get told.
Coming at the heels of the death of the AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus in Afghanistan, this session was a humbling reminder of the realities that these photographers face. Wellford also showed a few pictures of the Sleeping Soldiers by Tim Hetherington, a photographer who lost his life while covering the Libyan Civil War in 2011. Both photographers acknowledged it being hard to photograph someone who also knows that they may not live to see those images, but they still document the brutality of war, and search for unexpected pockets of hope.
Leistner towards the end showed a portrait of an old woman in an Iraqi mental asylum dressed in her stripped blue gown standing against a pale blue wall. Seemingly carefree. Even striking a pose for the camera as she exercised. Leistner recalled what the woman had said to her back then: “I hate war, these many wars. But I do like life. Sometimes one finds strength, like a drowning person.” And maybe there is something in that. To finding strength and moving on, and to hoping that we hurt each other less and learn to co-exist, which was a message that lay undercurrent throughout the festival. The Art & War session raised a number of difficult questions, and there were no easy answers either, but kudos to Spur for bringing these issues to mass audiences.