War Time

Photographs taken during times of war have been one of the staples of photography since its infancy in the mid-19th century. In our collective consciousness, we have come to harbor stereotypical images of assembly, ceremony, national mobilization and, of course, destruction. Overt displays of patriotism and triumph mingle in our imaginations with those of ruin and mourning.

With this series of photographs I contemplated such imagery as the country embarked on a journey into a new kind of war for a new century. The events of September 11th, 2001 directly followed a century in which war and photography flourished in a near-perfect partnership: photography helped to define war in the 20th century, and war helped to secure the centrality of photography in visual culture. In keeping with George Orwell’s prescient vision, the so-called “War on Terror” announced a new, perpetual war effort, without clearly defined parameters or even a known enemy. In the waging of this war, citizens were instructed first of all to be very afraid. Beyond that, they were strongly encouraged to go about their increasingly deregulated business, all while being presented with tightly controlled information and carefully designed imagery. Skillful blending dissolved and morphed the pre-emptive War in Iraq into the vagaries of the War on Terror.

This was certainly a war that was being fought both within and without our borders, and the project’s center of gravity was the presidential election of 2004. Through the mundane and the everyday at ground level, these images look at this special time in the United States. The election was a national gut check at a time when most citizens were slowly becoming aware that all was not as it seemed. While alluding at times to the familiar imagery of war, the photographs depict a populace that has been psychologically manipulated, brutalized and dumbed down, all the better to passively accept the brazen theft of its treasure and the crimes being committed daily in its name. The surrender was cool, emblematic of the passive and pliable culture of the moment.

The stories take place, for the most part, on the periphery of events and places of some significance to the current wars, describing the trace effects (or lack thereof) on those not actively involved in conflict. Represented in the body of work are military towns, National Guard installations and war memorials. Also seen is New York City during the 2004 Republican National Convention, Washington, D.C. in the last days before the election, and smaller towns on holidays and dates of significance: Memorial Day, the day the War in Iraq began, July 4th, the date for handover of authority to the Iraqi leadership, the anniversary of 9/11, and Election Day 2004.

Could Barack Hussein Obama have ascended to the Presidency if George W. Bush hadn’t led the country into such a steep descent towards hell? We will never really know the answer to that question, but we can’t avoid the fact that we are the same country, and the same people, who enabled its hijacking. The America of 2004 may now look and feel like a bygone era, but it is still with us, lurking just beneath the surface.

William Noland © 2008