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For a long time, in the early days of the war on Iraq, Abu Ghraib was a primary target for insurgents. Even before the photographs of torture were leaked, Abu Ghraib was mortared almost daily. Abu Ghraib held thousands of falsely accused men, the majority of whom were later released without charge, ceremony or apology.

Monica Haller‘s new book Riley and His Story is a collection of thoughts, diary entries and digital photographs from his tour of Iraq. For a period, Riley was a nurse in Abu Ghraib and the images from the medical tent are novel, uncensored, bloody.

Riley’s photographs from the hospital sits between snapshots from military vehicles, marines sat in paddling pools, goofy group shots, Al Franken (?) and decaying out-of-use planes.

This is the aesthetic we all know exists and we occasionally glimpse when there is interest, lawsuit or cultural re-use of military personnel snapshots in the media.

There must be millions of digital photos by American marines. Haller’s book is simultaneously a cleverly assembled piece of the wider dissemination of such imagery and an affirmation to the unexpected familiarity of such imagery.

A 21st century war is not a war without vernacular conflict photography.

Just as soldiers of WWI sent home words thus defining modern war poetry, so the soldiers of today bring home pixels and jpegs and define modern war imagery.

The singular prose, simile and letter-writings that painted a mind’s picture have been replaced by the multiple functionaries and fingers of digital observation.

As were the Abu Ghraib torture photographs, why shouldn’t we expect the next most iconic images of this century to be amateur snapshots? And why shouldn’t we be prepared for an equivalent violence in said iconic imagery?

It is curious that discussions about the lamentable loss of unembedded journalism have not always been balanced by discussion on the tumorous growth of ‘soldier-journalism’ (a term unsuitable, but an understandable extrapolation from the term ‘citizen-journalism’).

Whether you like it or not, the Canon PowerShot and its hand-held competitors own the future of war coverage.

Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon buffered the cruelty of war, but there are few artists now. (We are grateful to Haller for being such a thoughtful manager of Riley’s output.) Nothing is softened or made poetic/metaphorical. Laid bare. Perhaps, both the best and worst of scenarios we should expect is military censorship?

Monica Haller’s book is important not because it is Abu Ghraib and not because the images are snapshots made by American military personnel, but because it is a portent of an aesthetic already upon us. And we are in denial.

From here on in photography is ugly.

I found this project through Alec Soth on the Little Brown Mushrooms blog, via LensCulture.

A video interview with Haller is permanently available at LBM vimeo.

A sizeable preview pdf (over 100 pages) of Riley and His Story is available here.

Riley and His Story has a website. You can find out more about Monica Haller here, here and here.


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