Overlooking the Realities of Conflict
In his book, Hello Camel, German photojournalist Christoph Bangert challenges our clichéd notion of modern warfare, revealing images of conflict in Afghanistan, Gaza, Darfur, Lebanon, and Iraq that are equally odd and absurd.
© Christoph Bangert, from the book Hello Camel. An American soldier searches for weapons and bomb-making materials in a disused water tank during a joint operation of the 213th Battalion of the Iraqi Army and American soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment out of Fort Riley, Kansas.
At the Kurdish National Museum, housed in the former Baath party headquarters in Sulemaniyah, life-size statues embody the torture of Kurdish prisoners by their Baathist captors during Saddam Hussein’s regime. The expression of the executioners is fierce, the animosity distorting their facial lines. They incarnate a certain iconography of war and violence, one largely disseminated across media pages, so much so that it takes a second look to realise that these are sculptures and not human beings.
“We always think that we know what we look at though actually we usually don’t. I like the idea of reminding people that we have no idea what we are looking at”, Christoph Bangert, a long-time conflict photographer who took the image explains.
© Christoph Bangert, from the book Hello Camel. A resident camel keeps a close eye on soldiers of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment Tiger Squadron, Apache Troop during a cordon and search operation in Ba’aj, a predominately Sunni Arab town of 25,000 close to the Syrian border.
In his recent book, Hello Camel, he compiled such ambiguous images that incarnate the absurdity of war. After War Porn, his previous book that illustrated horror, he focused on another largely overlooked reality of conflict. “Most images from both books were never published in a newspaper. War Porn’s pics are too terrible, and Hello Camel’s are too layered, too confusing - and they are because war is confusing. We think it’s a dramatic event, which is true, but there is much more to it. It has a lot to do with everyday life, and people having the strength to reinvent everyday life in extreme circumstances”, he adds.
Daring to show (darkly) laughable images of war, he emphasises the necessity to report about it in another way - one that skips wandering tanks, young boys brandishing a Kalashnikov and other scenes that have transformed war into an impersonal, remote and codified event.
© Christoph Bangert, from the book Hello Camel. An Afghan policeman searches for bullet holes he was supposed to have created on a paper target during a training session conducted by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar.
In one photograph, an Afghan policeman at a shooting training camp is looking, puzzled, at a target representing a soldier. “If you look at the composition of the image, it’s very clean, orderly, and I thought it was fitting very well. War is indeed chaotic while all the military frame is quite orderly - the contrast between the need for order that everybody is craving and the chaos of conflict always clashes in a war”, he points out.
It also feels very much like this man, looking at what is given to him as an incarnation of war, doesn’t understand it - the same feeling that soldiers experience when parachuted from their native countryside to such a foreign context, that readers undergo when facing the anonymous flow of images that comes from conflict, and ultimately that photojournalists feel while covering it. “War is also something that is set up for journalists. It’s a very troubling experience to realise that some things are happening just because I am there. Of course violence and fighting would happen no matter what, but I am not a neutral observer; I am also part of this war. It’s troubling, and makes it morally difficult, but you have to acknowledge it.”
Hello Camel by Christoph Bangert
Photographs by Christoph Bangert // Text by Christoph Bangert // Design by Chiho Bangert
Hardcover // 44 colour illustrations // 96 pages // 24 x 32 cm
Christoph Bangert is a German photojournalist covering war and conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza, often for The New York Times.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.