World

'War Porn' book shows what few dare to see

The photographer Christop Bangert has now published pictures that his editors refused - stark images of war. His book, "War Porn," is an appeal not to look away from the brutality of armed conflict.

Cuffed hands of a dead body (Foto: Christoph Bangert)

DW: Mr. Bangert, those who look through your book 'War Porn' see war completely unfiltered: A beheaded man's body eaten at by dogs and ditched in a dump. A baby left alone in a basket after a house was stormed. A naked and battered body on a blood-soaked sheet. Do the images of war have to be so brutal?

Christoph Bangert: The images have to be as brutal as war itself. A war is nothing sacred, nothing extraordinary. People have been fighting wars throughout human history. That has to be documented just like anything else. Then it's up to us what we make of it - or what we don't.

When I look at your pictures, I have the impulse to look away. You have to view these things from just a few meters away. How difficult is this for you?

Christoph Bangert (Foto: private)

Christoph Bangert

It is very hard. As a photographer, you have to overcome yourself and work and be professional in such extreme situations. But this is very important. I travel into these regions because I have a duty to capture these images. And I have to publish them. Sadly, the most disturbing pictures are sometimes not published - that's how this book came about.

Many of the pictures in your book have not been published elsewhere because they were deemed too shocking. In this article, we also show only the 'more harmless' images. Can you understand this self-censorship - this impulse to protect oneself from horror?

That is a totally natural reaction. Essentially, self-censorship takes place in three steps. First, the photographer does it. There are a lot of pictures that I don't send on to the editorial department. Next, editors decide what they do and do not want to show. And the third step - which is actually the most interesting - is the one that we all go through. As observers, we often don't want to see the images. We are not able to force ourselves to. As such, this book offers not only media and self criticism but also criticism of us all as observers. We all have a responsibility to actively seek out such images and to look at them - even if it's very difficult.

Why do we have to look at these pictures?

We have to look at these things because they have really happened. We recollect still images rather than sounds, documents or videos. So, photography creates memories for people. When we leave out the horror and the terror from war reporting, then people don't remember these aspects. This is the danger. The context in which the pictures are published is equally important. It doesn't make sense to publish the pictures on the front page of a tabloid just to shock people and boost circulation. You have to go further than the shock everybody experiences.

What does that mean?

We often see images showing the drama of war: rolling tanks or young men with Kalashnikovs. We have seen these things a thousand times. But it is relatively easy to look at these pictures. We hardly ever see the real horror of war. That is ultimately crazy. It is our job to find a context, a way to show these pictures. I have tried to do so with my book.

A hand peeks out from a blanket (Foto: Christoph Bangert)

"If we were to become numb to looking at these images, we wouldn't be human anymore."

But don't we become more jaded when we see even more shocking scenes?

I don't think that we become jaded. They're such terrible things - they touch everybody. You can't get used to them. Think about the images of the liberation of Auschwitz. It is so extreme, so terrible. If we were to become numb to looking at these images, we wouldn't be human anymore. You don't need to look at these pictures every day, but you should see them. And we don't do it because it is so difficult for us, because we censor ourselves.

But don't you mainly serve voyeuristic needs? Your book has the title 'War Porn' - inspired by soldiers and civilians in places like Afghanistan who have swapped pictures of atrocities like porn magazines or trading cards.

These pictures are dehumanizing to a certain degree. But the event - that which really happened - is, of course, the terrible thing. That's what's unbearable. Not the image. We're only creating a picture of this reality. The events themselves are far worse than what you can show in an image. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't publish these images.

You can call it pornographic or voyeuristic. I have often experienced, though, that this argumentation is used as an excuse not to look at the images. But there is no excuse not to recognize and view such images.

The images are often photographically appealing. Beautiful pictures of war - isn't that absurd?

War is absurd - these strange things that happen and make no sense at all. It's horrible. But I can't take poor pictures just because the issue is so serious. That doesn't mean that we think what's happening there is good. My job is taking good pictures because no one looks at bad pictures. I want for people to really look at the images.

Two soldiers take care of another soldier with a blood overall (Foto: Christoph Bangert)

"We often see images showing the drama of war ... We hardly ever see the real horror of war."

Does your work also help the victims, the people that you take pictures of?

I don't help anyone. I just record what I see and experience, as honest and truly as I can - even if it's never impartial.

Have the things you have seen and experienced sometimes made you weep?

Not me, but some of my colleagues. Emotionally, the most difficult moment for me as a photographer comes later. On the ground, you're very concentrated. Everything happens very fast, and you work intuitively to try to take a technically good picture. You don't have time to reflect on it. It's more difficult later when you're looking at the pictures and you then really take in what you have seen.

These images are not only on camera and on the hard drive, but also in my head. But it is a mercy, too: many people who have been in extreme situations - soldiers, but also civilians in war zones - come back empty-handed. It is very difficult to put into words what you have experienced. Having the images is my great fortune. When I have to tell my family or my friends what I have experienced, I don't have to talk much. I just show them the pictures.

Christoph Bangert (born in 1978) is a photographer and journalist. He studied photography in Dortmund and New York. Bangert now works in war and crisis zones including Afghanistan, Darfur, Pakistan, Nigeria and the Palestinian territories. He documented the war in Iraq for the "New York Times" and has won multiple awards for his photography.

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