The Heroic Image
Robert Wilson – Helmand
Book Review by Jane Fletcher
Helmand by Robert Wilson
Published by: Jonathan Cape
As I write, it is the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice: 11.11.2008. Lest we forget, a recent edition of Metro featured one of Robert Wilson’s photographs from Helmand Province as its ‘Big Picture’, taken from his ‘record of the 52nd Infantry Brigade as it neared the end of its tour of duty’ in Afghanistan. The image is entitled FOB Edinburgh [Forward Operating Base], a perversely anonymous title for such an apparently deep and penetrating portrait of a man whose desert-dusted face looks powdered with pigment, whose cracked lips are stained with colour, whose eyelids and irises are so delineated as to appear lined with kohl. Indeed, if the eyes are the windows of the soul, Wilson’s photographed soldiers are fascinating individuals. They are strangely, shockingly beautiful, too.
Wilson, a member of the British Institute of Professional Photography, is probably best known for his advertising images, campaigns including Adidas, Cancer Research, Gillette and Guinness. His close-up portraits of sports personalities, such as Michael Owen and David Coulthard, can be found in the National Portrait Gallery collection. Wilson used similar techniques to document the 52 Brigade on tour of duty. He used the same equipment too: Hasselblad camera, a Phase One back and a Canon digital SLR. The mesmerising effect of his subjects, however, has nothing to do with the airbrushed artifice we associate with advertisements. Instead, they have the curious quality of hand-tinted photographs. Their fascination depends upon a certain kind of living literally etched into their faces: the dirt and dust and peeling, crazy-paved skin. Conversely, some of the soldiers look like they’ve risen from the dead, or wandered out of Jeff Wall’s ghoulish, all-too pertinent Dead Troops Talk: A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moquor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986 (1992). The subtle hues of their faces are interrupted with the bruised colour of cuts and wounds that, like Barthes’ punctum, serve to pierce and rip the thick skin of the unsuspecting uninvolved viewer.
The portraits and group photographs are not only of British Troops. Wilson photographs Afghan soldiers and warlords, though the relationship between photographer and subject here remains unclear. The photographs of children are slightly sentimental, despite the barbed wire through which they peer. There are a couple of portraits of British women soldiers, a sign of new times perhaps, though the pin-ups, and a printed towel with girlie-motif hung out on a line to dry, suggest tensions may remain.
For those, like me, who have no experience of the military, Brigadier Andrew Mackay’s essay on counter-insurgency proves a very valuable contribution, and his fluency and insight are reassuring. His final paragraph turns to the 52 Brigade, which "had not conducted an operational role since the Second World War, and from its vantage point of Edinburgh Castle had focussed on regional issues in Scotland and on the units under its command". It was he who invited Wilson to join the tour so that "the actuality of life as a soldier... in these circumstances" could be represented.
Mark Holborn’s essay concerns itself more with previous examples of documenting ‘war through a lens’, from Roger Fenton’s famous Crimean studies to Capa with his Leica and Beaton in the Blitz. He also refers to Paul Seawright who was commissioned in 2002 by the Imperial War Museum to photograph in Afghanistan. Supported by various organisations, writes Holborn, Seawright made "markedly unspectacular pictures of the landscape", devoid of people and alluding to the "implicit danger" of what lay beneath the surface.
Helmand also includes pictures of places, traces and hidden dangers, from aerial views to claustrophobic shelters and hide-a-ways. One of the most disorientating images is Flight waiting room, Lashkar Gah the shadow of the camouflage net confusing the picture planes, so that it shares that sun-baked madness of one of Friedlander’s desert scenes. Other photographic references resound, some of them incongruous. Camp Bastion depicts an unfinished jigsaw on a stained, insubstantial table, the Union Jack draped behind. The jigsaw shows a mountain vista, clean cool crisp, sublime. The paradox is obvious, but I’m reminded of a crasser irony: Martin Parr’s Think of England.
The most obvious homage to the photographic canon is Flight to KajakiThe Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855). Though the cannon balls have been replaced with a machine-gun, the landscape is uncannily similar: dry, ravaged and inhospitable. The aperture of the aircraft from which the weapon protrudes is almost identical to the kind of arched window-mount Fenton used to frame his own landscapes in the mid-Victorian period.
What Helmand lacks is the kind of chronology contained in Susan Meiselas’ Nicaragua (1981) that allows the reader to contextualise the current counter-insurgency within a turbulent history of invasion and oppression. Instead, Wilson, a consummate commercial photographer, could be accused of creating precisely the heroic images that our political leaders require, as they urge us to admire the armed forces instead of voice our cynicism about recent British military interventions. Such interpretation would be unfair.
Helmand will always be much more than slick propaganda. Its power derives largely from the ordinariness of the men and women in extraordinary conditions, and the expression of this contradiction emanating from their direct gaze. The beauty of the images depends on the techniques of the photographer who, by meticulously rendering the minute detail of pores, moles, freckles, follicles and lashes, evokes something less tangible. Shot under a blistering sun, these accomplished and affecting studies are profound because they bring us nearer to recognising that elusive yet awesome essence of being that Simone Weil tried to describe, as a different war raged:
"There is something sacred in every man, but it is not his person. Nor is it in the human personality. ...It is he. The whole of him. The arms, the eyes, the thoughts, everything"