Art—as claimed by Sarah Forgey, a curator of the US Army’s art collection—unlike photography, can be imbibed with the human soul. “An artist can take human empathy, they can take human experience, and put all of that into a work of art.”
The US Army has been hosting residency programs for artists for a while now—since WWII -- and has been using them to document combat encounters. However, the soldier-artist is not just documenting these encounters: they immortalize them by using art as conversation. Oftentimes, the depictions of encounters that these soldier artists make are realistic; often times, a camera could easily get the shot the artists are making. In fact, if you watch the video linked, Sergeant Munoz, soldier-artist-in-residence at Fort Belvoir, uses photographs of soldiers as reference for his massive hyper-realistic paintings of soldiers. So...why not just use photographs? I postulate that a camera might draw into question the reality of the situations they depict. A camera, in the army, represents reconnaissance, documentation. The camera in the army is a weapon.To use a camera as a soldier-artist would be irresponsible. Art, for the soldier-artist, is artful—the reason it exists is to imbibe the combat encounters their art depicts with human empathy and soul, and thus is supposed to be based on events that happened, but human experience changes how those events look to make them aestheticized and visually powerful. If a soldier-photographer on the other hand, orchestrated an event in the same way the soldier-painter decides on their composition, it could be seen as orchestrating, tampering with reality itself, which the military camera is not supposed to do. If viewers of a photographic art see the photograph and have to wonder if the photograph was staged to get the right composition, then what other photographs aren’t staged?
Plainly if one looks here, they can see the US Army has created two separate sections—a photography section and an art section. Because the Army’s art is generated by referencing recent combat engagements, the art can be presented in a historical context—here was Operation Desert Shield and here was the art produced in response to Operation Desert Shield. The photographic art on the other hand, is even more historicized. In addition, some artwork is mixed in with photographs—for example, the Vietnam section. It is interesting to consider the lack of combat images in a war like Vietnam. The power of the photographs journalists took in Vietnam, and the power of the images captured stick with me and the rest of the country even today. Yet it wasn’t soldiers who took those pictures;it was photojournalists: like Horst Faas or Nick Ut. Nick Ut in particular is imperative to think about when considering the reality of the camera. There exists tapes of Richard Nixon, talking with his Chief of Staff, HR Haldeman, doubting the reality of the famous “The Terror of War” photograph—believing the photograph was fixed.
In addition, to bring the veracity of photographs and the allowances we give art full circle, I bring up Steve McCurry, a photographer who is best known for this 1984 photograph “Afghan Girl.” In 2016, McCurry was the target of a lot of criticisms over a lot of his work, both criticisms of its concept (“picturesque, touristy, professional visuals for mass consumption”) and its creation. McCurry apparently has photoshopped some of his images- using cloning and cutting to get images that tell different stories than the events captured.
Notice the cloning of the reflection to make the photograph match the virtual orientation of the magazine. In response to the issues of veracity of the image, McCurry has said: “Some of my work has migrated into the fine art field and is now in private collections and museums… today I am a visual storyteller… how confusing it must be for people who think I’m still a photojournalist.”
The difference between photographs and visual art is that one is raw, the other is doctored, literally artful. The US army doesn’t want people to think they are giving them misleading or biased information (read as propaganda). The military wants to paint a portrait of how life as a soldier is, yet cannot rely on photography because it is raw, and it exposes too much that if cut or edited, has potential to be noticed. Instead, to document a war for the people, the soldier-artist offers their services— realistically painting, drawing, or sculpting events that don’t have to necessarily have happened—because that’s the expectation that comes with art.
Written by Peter Sheehan