Perception and Conflict

Maybe this should have been the title and the issue for the very first entry on this blog, since this is my core topic at the moment. That does not mean that it is all I am thinking about, rather it sits in the background of a lot of the stuff I am working on recently.

In some grant applications, I wrote in the past few months, and papers for different events, I used the phrase that perception has become a battleground and fear might be the most important weapon. With this I am talking about the tendency for conflicts to more and more take place in the virtual world of our brains. Drone strikes, suicide bombers, car bombs, sleeper cells, mass surveillance, all try to creep into our minds to become somewhat omnipresent. A drone strike might kill a suspect, but once you made it public that drone strikes are possible, you can take entire populations hostage by creating an uncertain feeling of fear. It doesn’t really matter anymore, if drones are actually flying or not, part of their goal is already achieved.

So in todays conflicts, images are used to authenticate the claim of invisibility. No suicide bomber blows himself up, without several cameras or phones recording the act. And the US military from time to time “leaks” some of their drone strike videos, to show how unexpected these were to those people targeted. That creates this strange dichotomy that on one side the threat has to be invisible to be suitable for todays battlefield, but on the other side it needs a PR department to be fully functional.

With this in mind, I think that the NSA was actually not all sad about the leaks by Edward Snowden, this rather served as a presentation of the potential their technology might have. Something they normally would have had no way to make public themselves. Now people are afraid of these capabilities, that still remain invisible and unfathomable.

Fear has us limit ourselves, check every bag on the train, be scared of using certain programs on our phones. Things these players could have never forced us to do, if they were out in the open. And I am quite sure they know that as well.

Back to the use of images in that context – the part that interests me the most. In a way it is strange that photography plays a major role in propagating the invisible. The feeling normally would be that this medium makes things visible, rather than helps to retain the invisibility of certain things. And that is precisely the point that fascinates me when working with this medium and it is the point I can not fully cope right now. It seems so simple, but in fact I have the impression that it might be a very complex issue.

Take my project “Camouflage” for instance. I am quite sad that this project draws a huge amount of attention for reasons I just don’t care about. People take this work as a odd “Where is Waldo” for grown-ups. But I am far more interested in the issues mentioned above. It laughable, when people have debates online about the precise location of the snipers in these images. In fact in most of the pictures, absolute no trace of the soldier is imprinted in the negative (since I could not afford a high end digital medium format camera, I still shoot analogue, when I am looking for the best quality available to me). No trace, absolutely none. Not even on the big prints I show in exhibitions. Yet still, people locate the snipers with dots and circles and stuff and are angry at me, or at other commentators that the positions are just not right. Others complain that in some images they see something, while in other they don’t see shit. And the question whether or note these images are authentic comes up regularly.

Yes, the whole thing is in fact authentic. I did photograph snipers. But none of the pictures could be considered real evidence for their presence. They are just not shown in the traditional sense. But still, they can be seen. German has a good word for that, which is “Wahrnehmung”. The Internet translates it as perception, but the German word might be more complex. The parts it consists of translate as “truth” and “taking”, so you take something for the truth through your perception. That way the snipers are in fact perceived in these images, even though the can not be seen or shown. I find that fascinating.

To be honest, after I took the first set of these images, I was highly disappointed by the fact that there is almost nothing to be seen. But the more time I have spent with this project, the more important this aspect has become. It is exactly what a sniper in the landscape is supposed to look like.

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