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Unite and Untie: A portrait of opinions on conflict in the Middle East

The current wars in the Middle East are the result of extremely complex, interwoven issues built over the course of centuries. The tension derives from colonial influences, which have arbitrarily drawn and redrawn borders for economic reasons. Long term disputes within and between Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths are compounded by autocratic ruling systems and Western culture’s imposition of democratic governments. In recent years, the United States’ involvement in the Middle East is focused on promoting democracy in the belief that it will lead to stability and concurrently control terrorist forces that pose a threat to the country and its allies.


The human toll of Middle Eastern conflict is massive yet largely immeasurable. Over 4,000 troops have been killed, and an estimated several thousand US contractors have perished. Many more have been seriously wounded. Troops stationed in the Middle East are under significant combat stress, challenged daily to identify their friends, allies, and enemies.


The fight for societal reformation in the Middle East impacts more than just the local environments where overt conflict takes place. The ripple effects throughout the United States include widespread fear, grief, and loss. Soldiers and civilians alike struggle to unite in a shared belief of what it means to “win” the conflict.


The photographic works in Unite and Untie depict aspects of Middle Eastern conflict through Western civilian eyes.


Nina Berman: Homeland Insecurity & Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq

Documentarian Nina Berman began her project Homeland Insecurity while photographing wounded US soldiers who served in the Middle East. The discernable tragedies of veterans pictured in Berman’s Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq and Marine Wedding symbolized the human cost of war. Berman wanted to explore the American public’s efforts to absorb and respond to the localized trauma induced by complex and incomprehensible acts taking place abroad.


The title of Berman’s series is derived from the term “Homeland Security”, a phrase introduced by President George W. Bush shortly after 9/11. The term, whose individual words were familiar yet foreign when conjoined at the time, quickly became part of America’s national identity. As US military involvement in the Middle East grew, Americans began to incorporate defense tactics into their daily lives.


“I made these images mindful of my own conflicted response to the call for “Homeland Security.” I would wake up some mornings in Manhattan wondering if I should take the subway and then berate myself for being fearful; I would laugh at the preparedness kits offered on the Internet and then shamefully buy them. I abhor the idea of racial profiling but once found myself looking suspiciously at an Arab man who sat silently for several hours on a park bench near my home.”


Berman’s Homeland Insecurity series was made from 2001-2008 in twelve US states. During this time, she photographed demonstrations of civilian patriotism, military exercises performed for the general public, drills and symbols of national security threats, whether real or imagined. Uniforms, costumes, and props donned by military and civilians alike are part of the cultural experience. Simulations like the one organized by the Illinois Department of Transportation at Chicago Midway Airport tests America’s strategies, protocols, and response time to terrorist attacks. Civilians watch a performance of crisis response at Fort Bragg, home to the 82nd Airborne Division, JFK Special Warfare School. Children partake in the virtual army experience of human target practice at the base’s “All-America Day.” In a fleeting moment, a stealth bomber swoops low over onlookers at an Atlantic City beach.


“Some of these events have the look and feel of state-sponsored performance art, where realism is replaced by theater, giving participants a powerful sense of identity and value through militarized experience. It is this identity and the ambiguity between real and made-up, so emblematic of post 9-11 discourse, that interests me most.”



Benjamin Lowy: Iraq Perspectives


Social documentarian and photojournalist Benjamin Lowy created night vision images of a war-torn Iraq while on a Corbis assignment to photograph for publications including Time magazine. Lowy began the series Iraq Perspectives in 2003 in response to his personal desire to reveal to the American public the experience of war. Using dental floss, gaffer’s tape and chewing gum, Lowy affixed the Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) on loan from the American infantry to his camera. He photographed in and around Tikrit, a town 90 miles north of Baghdad and in “Arab Jabour,” a 10 mile-long, 3 mile-wide region southeast of Baghdad, mostly inhabited by Sunni Arabs, where the Islamic terrorist group Al Qaeda is known to operate.


The areas where Lowy photographed were largely without electricity; most Iraqis in those regions have never seen their country at night. Western soldiers were the only ones with the ability to see in the dark, yet their green filtered and vignetted visions of the NVGs provided limited and distorted views of the landscape, creating indistinct and ethereal forms. In these images, soldiers combat insurgents, conduct night raids, defend civilians, and patrol abandoned streets.



Chris Sims: Home Fronts


Sims’ Home Fronts: The Pretend Villages of Talatha and Braggistan presents fictitious Iraqi and Afghan camps on U.S. Army bases. For a period of three-and-a-half weeks, infantry nearing deployment are trained in cultural diplomacy, combat, and insurgency. Vast in size, these Army bases in the desert near Death Valley, California and in the forests of North Carolina and Louisiana contain a consortium of fake villages which adopt different cultural identities reflecting current and anticipated conflict zones. Onsite workshops include makeshift structures such as shops, homes and mosques stocked with appropriate props. Villages are primarily staffed with “cultural role players” – Iraqis, Iranians, Kuwaitis, and Saudis who speak fluent Arabic and reside in Arab and Kurdish ethnic enclaves in the U.S. The remaining village actors are drawn from communities near the bases.


In an effort to make the training as authentic as possible, high-ranking officials inject current conflict scenarios into the rehearsal exercises. Within a matter of a few days the fake villages’ scriptwriters emulate real-time tactical realities of events occurring in the Middle East.


The troops’ training culminates in several days of 24-hour unscripted combat known as “Force-on-Force.” Infantry are taught to identify insurgent cells who are generally small, mobile, and vastly more familiar with the local landscape than the Coalition forces. “Fake” injuries and deaths are managed as if they were real, sensitizing the soldiers to the impending reality of combat.


While the majority of training is combat simulation, these exercises also teach soldiers how to practice in-country diplomacy and negotiate challenging public relations scenarios in regions scrupulously covered by international media. To make the events seem more real, fake newspapers, television and radio stations broadcast the day’s happenings.


Like the soldiers and “cultural role players” on the bases, photographer Chris Sims participates in the theatrics of America’s “fake” Middle East. Adopting the role of spectator and participant, Sims plays the character of a war photographer. His observational photographs depict the inner workings of these camps from 2005-2007:


“Here, backstage in the war on terrorism, I see insurgents planting a bomb in a Red Crescent ambulance; American soldiers negotiating with a reluctant mayor; a suicide bomber detonating herself outside of a mosque; and villagers erupting in an anti-American riot. The designers and inhabitants of these worlds take great pride in the scope and fidelity of their wars-in-miniature. By day’s end, hundreds of soldiers and civilians lay dead – the electronic sensors on their special halters indicating whether friendly fire, an improvised explosive device, or a sniper’s bullet has killed them.”



Mark Bagge: Iraq Live


In the last decade, American television networks’ increased competition for viewers’ leisure time manifested a rise in programming intended to promote and satiate a public captivated by celebrity culture, beauty, tragedy, and reality shows. Concurrently, news reports became shorter in length, documentary stories were branded. The boundaries between journalism and fictional entertainment programming became increasingly blurred.


In early 2003, British-born, Houston-based Mark Bagge took great interest in how the television funneled reality and fiction alike through a controlled, two-dimensional output. By virtue of the medium’s limitations and the media’s management of information, what America experienced as real-time factual events about the early stages of the Iraq War were mediated through a series of complex technical designs and cultural filters, impacting how information was received and processed.


Bagge raised a series of questions about the portrayal of the Iraq War by US television programming:


“Were the facts that were being reported actual facts, or were events being reported in a way to influence the opinions of the viewers back home in the living rooms of the United States? Was this an attempt to influence public opinion, or a recognition that the format of movies and celebrity is one that is easier to consume and understand than the hard facts and horror of war?”


Bagge photographed his television set for a period beginning shortly before the conflict in Iraq began. The photographer selected Polaroid 600 film for the project as its immediacy and supersaturated color palette mirrored the TV, and the blurry output functioned as a metaphor for Bagge’s questioning. In March, 2003, the main mission for this period, coined by the United States as “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” was to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, conclude Hussein’s support of terrorism, unite and liberate the Iraqi people.


Bagge directed his camera to a diversity of television coverage, including then-CNN anchor Paula Zahn’s reports, stock market coverage, journalists’ reports from Iraq, Rumsfeld’s speech, soldiers in combat, and Oscar attendees in black tie and Iraqi women dressed in traditional black abayat.


He photographed the story treatment for the “Saving Private Lynch” campaign, a tale of grand heroism which was later questioned by many to have been manipulated. Bagge was interested in the way the Hollywood-style story treatment drew parallels with Stephen Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan.


Bagge turned his attention to Nicole Kidman’s Best Actress acceptance speech at the 2002 Academy Awards in which she remarked about the horrors of death and the Iraq war. Her concerns, along with the lauded commentary given by Best Actor Adrien Brody, situated the celebrities in the role of political spokespersons: Hollywood actors who are celebrated for their fictional portrayals reporting their opinions on real events.


Iraq Live, titled for its duplicity of meanings, sets the scene for the beginning of civilian mediation with the war. Bagge’s installation design was inspired by the work of Japanese photographer Yamamoto Masao, whose assemblages of tiny photographs give the appearance of a bomb or shell blast. Iraq Live is intended to be read from the center outwards.



Toby Morris: PTSD


It has long since been acknowledged by America’s Armed Forces that war can have a devastating impact on soldiers’ psyches. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a term coined in the 1970s to describe psychological trauma, is increasingly omnipresent in our nation’s lexicon as more and more soldiers return home from war with mental illness. While an invisible injury to most, it is believed to affect 11% of U.S. Iraq veterans and 20% of Afghanistan veterans.[i]  


A PTSD diagnosis is highly controversial in military affairs. In January 2009, the Pentagon released a statement that it would not grant Purple Heart medals, an award given to service members wounded in combat, to those diagnosed with PTSD. It is believed that the disorder is underreported by military personnel; it is likely that the entrenched prejudice against mental illness has led numerous veterans to avoid seeking psychological treatment. Yet, the U.S. government recently pledged to increase medical aid to those diagnosed with PTSD. Houston-born photojournalist Toby Morris photographs male and female veterans with different degrees of the disorder and documents their varied treatment regimens.


Included are four portraits of young American veterans. The first subject, Eugene, served with the Army in Iraq and sought psychological counseling for a variety of PTSD-related ailments before going AWOL (absent without leave) because of a perceived lack of concern from the military medical establishment. Eugene has since been awarded 30% disability as a result of his PTSD by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Wendy, who served in a medical unit in Iraq, is convinced she has PTSD. She has chosen not to file a claim with the VA. Louis was recently discharged from the Navy because of extreme PTSD. He served two years as a corpsman assigned to a unit in downtown Fallujah, Iraq. He is currently awaiting a medical separation from the Navy. Logan is an Iraq Army veteran haunted by dreams in which his family is killed. He believes his stress has resulted in PTSD, but his trauma has yet to be diagnosed.




[i] US Department of Veterans Affairs, 2009.


19 February – 1 March, 2008


Houston Center for Photography

Artist / Photographer

Mark Bagge
Nina Berman
Benjamin Lowy
Toby Morris

Chris Sims


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