Photography and War – Pippa Oldfield

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Reaktion books have an excellent series on photographic issues and theme, Exposures. A recent edition is by Pippa Oldfield, on Photography and War.

The book is set out in themes: Dispatches from the Combat Zone (traditional, male oriented war reporting; Military Vision (the use of photography by Governments to wage war); Home Fronts (photographs documenting civil society at war); Secrets and Exposures (uncovering atrocity); and Legacies (witnessing the impact and aftermath of war when it is over). Oldfield throughout pays particular attention to the role of women.

It is a well researched and thoughtful book, which does not feature the ‘same old’ photographs of conflict. No ‘shell shocked soldiers’, here.

But the reason I am writing about the book is because of an error, which I contacted Oldfield about;

Pippa

I have just bought a copy of ‘Photography and War’. I am enjoying (if that’s the right word) your thematic approach and the broad scope of the endeavour. You have developed an interesting line of critique in a well illustrated and thoroughly researched book. A really good read, thank you.

After an association with Cambodia that goes back over two decades, I am just completing a project on ‘Unfinished Stories: From Genocide to Hope’. This is built on personal stories of Cambodian friends who suffered but survived Khmer Rouge times, and who dedicated their subsequent lives to education. We all know each other through an program that my wife and I founded in 1999, in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Save the Children in the Khmer Rouge Reconciliation Areas, started just after Pol Pot’s death. My current project is a documentary (book and exhibition) that uses my photography to accompany our friends’ previously untold personal stories.

The reason for this email, beyond my thanks for your book, is to comment that you note a death toll in Cambodia of 300,000 to 500,000 people (pg 132).

I am not sure as to what that refers, as the lowest estimates (Kiernan, 1999: 458; Sharp 2005 et al) put the death toll at 1.7 million, and most likely more than 2 million. The number of executions alone is possibly as high as 1 million (through the mapping project of unmarked grave sites by DC-Cam). Of course, sadly, no one knows for sure, but certainly the numbers you quote are low.

I am offering this not as a critique but just as someone who is quite close to the history of Cambodia and who cares for the people. Their history is still too often hidden from sight.

Best regards
Mick Yates

Pippa graciously wrote back, noting the error, and hopes to correct it in the next edition.

In the meantime, I have two thoughts.

First, when any book contains at a misstated fact or  a silly error, sadly it undermines the authority of the entire work. What else has not been checked? Hopefully I have avoided such in my own recent book, but time to treble check.

Second, the actual death toll is not central to Oldfield’s point – the hubris of the Khmer Rouge keeping such photographic records at Tuol Sleng, and their use today to bear witness is more important. But the power of the photograph is still understated. As Michelle Caswell pointed out so forcefully, the camera was an instrument of execution – the photograph was a necessary step to bureaucratise the torture and legitimise the death. Once the subject was photographed, they were dead. Rarely has the photographic gesture, the ‘shooting’, meant so much.

…………………………………….

CASWELL, Michele. 2014. Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia. Madison: University Wisconsin.

KIERNAN, Ben. 1996. The Pol Pot Regime. 1999 Edition. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

OLDFIELD, Pippa. 2019. Photography and War. Exposures. London: Reaktion Books.

SHARP, Bruce. c. 2005. Counting Hell. From Cambodia – Beauty and Darkness. Available at: http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/deaths.htm (accessed 18/04/2018).

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