Review: Private Pictures: Soldiers’ Inside View of War, by Janina Struk
The cover of Janina Struk’s book shows the intriguing image of a soldier apparently about to take a snapshot with a digital camera. We cannot see the soldier’s face. It is hidden by his hands and by the camera being held to the eye. The camera appears as if pointed at the viewer, in this case the reader. Why is a photograph being taken? What is actually being photographed? What is going through the soldier’s mind as the button is pressed? Who will see the result, where and why? This cover picture of a picture being taken raises many questions. They are the type of questions addressed between the pages of the book itself.
Janina Struk is herself a freelance documentary photographer, but her book steps back from her profession and examines the practice of soldiers themselves recording images of war situations – a practice which has existed virtually from the time photography was invented.
Torture & trophies
The opening chapter launches straight into the story of how a set of such pictures shook the world in 2004. Entitled “Outrage at Abu Ghraib”, it recalls the worldwide shock and horror which resulted after the publication of pictures showing US soldiers humiliating and torturing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. The photographs were taken by ordinary soldiers, regular army reservists from small-town America.
Struk discusses a whole raft of issues which the scandal raised, focusing on the various meanings of “trophy” pictures – photographs taken by soldiers in wartime of the enemy, captured or killed like a hunted animal.
Holding up a mirror
It is a disturbing and troubling chapter, mainly because it asks awkward questions of the reader, which are not easy to answer. Why do we have a prurient interest in such pictures? Are we more concerned about people taking photographs of torture – simulated or real – than about torture itself? Do we really want to know what actually happens on the ground during wars, as seen from the soldiers’ perspective? Are we happier with the more familiar (more aesthetic?) products of professional war photographers? Whose pictures are more suitable for display in a gallery or museum? Should they be displayed at all, and if so, why?
Pictures break silence
Other chapters touch on quite different but related themes – why British soldiers in the First World War defied the ban on taking photographs and compiled collections showing wartime experiences like a family album; how and why an uproar was caused by an exhibition in Germany of photos showing atrocities being committed in the Second World War by members of the regular German army (as opposed to more ideologically driven units such as the SS); how Israeli soldiers used photography to “break the silence” surrounding the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The book has no simple answers to the questions it raises but its very strength lies in putting them clearly and explaining in detail the contexts involved. Janina Struk has travelled the world to accumulate evidence for her book. The result is an extremely well-researched work which deserves to become a standard reference for anyone concerned or simply curious about the issues involved in war and photography.
Buy the book
Private Pictures: Soldiers’ Inside View of War
By Janina Struk
Paperback, 212 pages, illustrated,
I.B. Tauris, 2011, GBP 14.99