Shots from the conflict zone

by Jordan Green


Ivisited the West Bank for about two weeks exactly 10 years ago. There was conflict to witness, to be sure: One evening a motorcade of Israeli armored personnel carriers drove through the village of Beit Umar. In what had been a ritual confrontation going back to the first Intifada in the late 1980s, Palestinian teenagers flung stones at the advancing Israeli military detachment, and predictably the detachment responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

That was actually the least interesting part of being in a conflict zone, where, in fact, the fighting was at a lull. What was more significant was that life was on hold. Young people had stopped going to the university because it was too dangerous to walk through checkpoints to get to classes. Fruit was rotting on the branches because the military had declared an orchard tended by Palestinian farmers to be a security zone. Young men were sexually frustrated because, with no employment prospects, they couldn’t even contemplate marriage and were discouraged from interacting with the opposite sex.

It was both the interruptions of normal life and the way that people carried on regardless that were interesting: There were no guests at the Marriott Hotel in Hebron where a single bullet hole pierced the lobby window, and taxi drivers blasted their horns driving through intersections because traffic lights had long ceased to function.

Curtis Mann, an artist based in Chicago, subverts one of the primary drivers of war photojournalism, which is to document atrocities, make people who see the images care, and mobilize them to do something. By bleaching out parts of the images, the artist forces the viewer to ask themselves if they really know what they’re seeing. Which is a fair question to ask about photojournalism, when the images look real but actually might only be selectively revealing a reality that is more complex than we care to understand.

“You can see in the remnants that are there that these are the seeds in between,” said Steven Matijcio, curator of contemporary art at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, where Mann’s exhibit, Modifications, is on view through Sept. 16. “It’s the aftermath, the rebuilding, the banalities. He’s focusing on these in-between images.”

His multi-image piece, “Pullings, Hill,” captures the tentative feeling I experienced in the West Bank. Chunks of concrete barrier give the unmistakable sense of a military checkpoint. Groups of people milling about might be engaged in a tense negotiation or grappling with a practical problem. Large swaths of the photographs are bleached away, giving the impression of a consuming inferno. There appear to be cords running willy-nilly through the images: Tethering human forms that look like astronauts adrift, or connecting groups of men to a laborious activity, as if they were trying to pull a vehicle out of the mud. They might be engaged in a playful game of tug-of-war, or in a serious conflict.

Matijcio said the cords suggest “an umbilical nature” to him and summon the idea of a social network that is all that’s left in the wake of military destruction. He observes a “push-pull” that’s “inviting and humanizing, as well as a tension.”

“He never gives you an easy out,” Matijcio said.

“You’re stuck in this intense limbo.”

Mann explains in a video running on loop in the exhibit that he found the images through searches on Flickr for specific places or events. He says he’s “appropriating images from complex and conflicted places that I’ve never been to and subjecting them to varnish and using resist and dipping them in bleach and destroying the photograph and the context of the photograph.”

Mann will be at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro on Sept. 6 to talk about his work, Matijcio said. He hopes the visit will generate interest in the exhibit.

Mann, who acknowledges he has never visited a conflict zone, clearly wants us to take a second look at images of conflict, in which carnage sometimes inures us to suffering rather than connecting us with our humanity.

“It slows you down with the reading and engages with a different side of your brain,” Mann says of his work in the video. “You are having to use your imagination.”