When Jehad Nga’s photographed Somali pirates it was at a time when frigates not people were perceived as the main victims of their contemporary skull-duggery. It was also before American military engagement and the associated global media entered the fray
The main reason I focussed on Nga’s work back in December was because his pirate-subjects were imprisoned. Nga’s work at the time was featured in Time Magazine and The New York Times and I’d be lying if I wasn’t part of the consuming public that took more notice of the pictures than the politics.
Since the close of 2008, activities in the Gulf of Aden have ramped up. So has Nga’s career; in photojournalist terms he unleashed another blockbuster this week with his portraits of US Marines in the New York Times. I’ll confess – I’m a sucker; I think Nga’s Chiaroscuro portraits are irresistible. My only problem is that the same aesthetic has been put in place by Nga and I am left confused.
Nga described the jails in which Somali pirates were kept as dark and dank, so his visual language makes sense when working in that context. Has he made multiple photo essays of high contrast, using vibrant colour-schemes and dark negative space. Nga, has to my mind, forged himself a visual brand.
What is the end result of this? Is Nga just playing a longview game, in which his brand sustains longer than the stories? Is Nga just giving the public the cinematic frames it has lapped up previously? Is it problematic that he gives the same treatment to the ‘vilified pirates’ and ‘patriotic heroes’ we’ve seen in the newspapers this week? Are my queries unfair. After all one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. One man’s criminal is another’s political prisoner. Is it even Nga’s place to distinguish, or use visual devices to shape viewers’ thinking? We’d do well to remember Brando and Pacino played great villains, but they were villains we loved to hate.
What do you think? Do you contemplate the character of a subject differently when it is struck by bright pockets of light if it is an American soldier or Somali pirate? How do you reconcile that?
All images, except the Godfather II and Apocalypse Now still (final image) ©Jehad Nga.