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For many of us, the very idea of photography has become difficult or impossible in recent weeks, yet it remains a fundamental part of our lives. Social distancing, quarantine, and our anxiety for those we love might stop us from going for a stroll outside with a camera and attending a workshop, festival, or seminar. But it doesn't shut down a conversation.
Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others concludes with a discussion of Jeff Wall’s huge photograph ‘Dead Troops Talk (A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter, 1986)’. ‘Exemplary in its thoughtfulness and power’, this image of a ‘made-up event’ was constructed in Wall’s studio. ‘The antithesis of a document’, the picture’s effectiveness derives, in other words, from the fact that it is a fiction.
But what effect does this have, in turn, on combat photographs that are documents? Are they diminished or enhanced by comparison with Wall’s mock-up?
Consider, for example, Peter van Agtmael’s well-known photograph of a line of US troops sheltering from the downdraft of a helicopter in a rocky grey landscape in Nuristan, Afghanistan, in 2007.
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