Are we ready for Christoph Bangert’s War Porn?

Christoph Bangert is a photographer who has worked in Palestine, Darfur, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Lebanon, Nigeria, and Iraq, where he spent about nine months in 2005 and 2006 on assignment for The New York Times. From his time in Iraq he produced the book The Space Between. Many of the images that he took in conflict zones were judged by editors to be too gruesome for publication. In May 2014 he published War Porn, a collection of some of these graphic images.

War Porn - Christoph Bangert
War Porn – Christoph Bangert

The growth of the internet and the increasing number of TV news channels available to a UK audience over the past few years mean the images in the book are, perhaps, not as shocking as they would have been when they were taken. Turning through the pages of the book it is important to remember the level of editorial censorship that still exists in the UK and US regarding Iraq and Afghanistan.

BBC News 24, ITV News, and Sky News are the main news channels in the UK and their vision of the world is almost universally one where blood is never seen. In the rare instances that blood is shown the viewers are warned of the “graphic content” but still the images will have been heavily blurred.

Even when reporting directly from the heart of a war zone this censorship still applies. I remember watching the TV coverage of the Gulf War in 1990 and was enthralled by the explosions and hi-tech nature of the war. I stayed up as late as I could in order to drink up as much of the coverage as possible, scared I would miss a dramatic development. As a teenager I never really considered the grim reality of battle and the news channels, despite their 24 hour coverage of the conflict, never slipped up, never showed the human face of what was going on. For me the War was all about video footage of Tomahawk cruise missiles flying into radio towers or laser-guided bombs dropping on the centre of empty bridges.

Perhaps things would have been different if the Al Jazeera news channel had been readily available at the time but its fully English spoken 24-hour service didn’t began broadcasting until November 2006. This is the only channel in the UK that, in its late night broadcasts, regularly shows the aftermath of war or terrorist attacks – still censored but far less so than the other stations. Al Jazeera is still regarded by many as a channel for extremist views and so is rarely watched by the mainstream of British viewers.

War Porn - Victim of a suicide bomber
War Porn – Victim of a suicide bomber

War Porn forces me to face reality, not only of the original Gulf War and the continuing battles in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, but of my own part in the conflict in the Middle East. I was stationed in Basrah in 2008 as an air traffic controller. Sat in my control tower I helped direct the battle behind the safety of a computer screen. I had the sanctity of distance and never really considered what the gun sectors and ‘hot zones’ really entailed.

War Porn - Civilian casualty of a gun battle.
War Porn – Civilian casualty of a gun battle.

The book’s small size means I have to hold it close to properly see the images, close enough to catch wafts of the smell of ink and glue. Up close these pictures are larger than my TV screen, clearer and more real than anything I have seen digitally.  More importantly the book’s design means I have to make a deliberate decision to view the most graphic images. These have been printed in such a way that the pages are sealed together. If I want to look at them properly I must cut the pages apart myself.

I tell myself that I am a collector and so the book needs to be in perfect condition. In reality I don’t know that I want to see the pictures inside. Perhaps I should buy a second copy of the book, one that I can open fully and keep as the ‘uncensored’ version? In the meantime I can’t help myself and I squeeze the edges of pages together and this lets me peek inside.  It’s difficult to see into the dark interior but as I move through the different images I can make out enough to know I am looking at pictures of bloodied faces, mashed red limbs and dirtied grey flesh.

War Porn - Close up of the civilian casualty 'hidden' inside the books sealed pages.
War Porn – Close up of the civilian casualty ‘hidden’ inside the books sealed pages.

As I look at the shattered bodies I am reminded of the ‘surgical’ bomb strikes that promised no fatalities and I am annoyed that the TV news channels lied to me. They didn’t just lie but deliberately sought to protect my ‘innocent’ mind from seeing something they thought was too horrible for me to deal with. The question is were they right to do this? Are they right to continue to do this, even with today’s live-leaking, no filter, gore-soaked internet? What do the citizens of other countries get to see on their nightly news? Are they treated more like adults than I am?

I hadn’t really thought about this until I bought Bangert’s book. It doesn’t contain the answers. Instead it acts as a great starting point for a conversation about who decides what we can and can’t see, even if we wanted to, as consenting adults. It makes me wonder who is shaping my interpretation of the world and what they feel I need protecting from?

That’s why I love this book.

3 thoughts on “Are we ready for Christoph Bangert’s War Porn?”

  1. What a particularly thoughtful review, Paul. The questions you develop from the review, about who controls what we read and see, and why they do it, are ever more pressing as governments – including our own – increasingly seek to restrict what their citizens read and see, and their agencies engage in unsupervised blanket surveillance of whole populations of law-abiding people. Great piece.

  2. Mmmmm interesting article Paul… Pros and cons on both sides really I suppose…

    Bottom line for me personally is I don’t think I would want the images in my head.

    Demons I wouldn’t be able to get rid of.

    I’d feel like a bit of a sadistic voyeur.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s