Tuesday, March 4, 2003

War's underside on display at NKU

Veteran photographer puts reality in focus

By Angie Gillespie
Enquirer contributor

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS - From raining fire near Quang Ngai to geysers of fire in Kuwait, this man has shown war to the world.

War photographer Philip Jones Griffiths has brought his images and ideas about decades of war to the Tristate on the eve of the next one.

Griffiths, a freelance photographer and author of the 1971 book Vietnam, Inc., hopes to give a realistic and uncensored perspective of war in a 7:30 p.m. Thursday lecture at Northern Kentucky University.

What: "Dark Odyssey," a lecture and slide show with war photographer Philip Jones Griffiths.
When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday.
Where: NKU's Business Education Psychology Building, Nunn Drive, Highland Heights.
Cost: Free.
At NKU, the Welsh native, a freelance photographer since 1963, will show slides of his work shot in 140 countries through several wars, talk about his life as a photographer and participate in a panel discussion.

"One can see a progression of my interests," in the slides, which follow the general format of his autobiographical book, Dark Odyssey, Griffiths said. The first picture in the show was taken when he was 16 years old.

"One is always being concerned with the Davids rather than the Goliaths. I've always tried to be on the side of people who are being oppressed," Griffiths said in an interview from his New York home.

"The reason I give these talks and show these pictures is to try to get people not to believe everything they read in newspapers," he said, referring to his pictures' reputation for showing the "unofficial" side of the Vietnam War and other world conflicts.

While lauded now, Griffiths' photos were often rejected by media clients who wanted a different sort of picture of war.

Sponsored by the Campaign Against Censorship in the Arts (CACA), the Griffiths show in Northern Kentucky is really two exhibits. The first exhibit, "Dark Odyssey" is on display at NKU's main art gallery.

It consists of 113 black-and-white photos reflecting war times as well as Griffiths' travels.

Separated into two categories, the photos are in chronological order. That show, at NKU, runs until Friday.

A more war-concentrated version of the exhibit will move to The Artery at 912 Monmouth St. The exhibit entitled "Inside War" will focus solely on Griffiths' war prints. The 65-piece exhibit at the Artery will run March 14-April 6.

Curator William Messer brought the exhibit to Greater-Cincinnati in response to the build up for war with Iraq.

"We want to show people what war actually looks like and is really about, before we plunge into one again," said Messer, who is also the founder of CACA.

"Young people have no idea; the last war, in the Gulf, looked like a video game to them, views from the end of smart missiles with little figures bicycling across a bridge before it is blown up."

Messer said that few visual arts organizations have been willing to react to the current crises in the world.

"Most major visual arts institutions plan their exhibition programs two, three, even four years in advance," Messer said.

"It has not been possible for most of them to react to the events of Sept. 11, let alone the war on terrorism, U.S. troop involvement in Afghanistan, and the preparations for another war with Iraq."

Politics is another factor causing art institutions to stray from war exhibits, Messer said. "The impending war, like sex and religion, is a topic with political overtones, the addressing of which can affect institutional funding."

Messer said some people are finding the exhibit shocking. "People are very moved, sometimes shocked by what they learn. I spoke with one young woman whose husband is a Marine in the Gulf. The work was certainly disturbing to her, but she said it was good to understand what he might be facing in reality," Messer said.

Long career filled with risk

Griffiths' photo exhibit has been traveling the world since 1992. He served as president of the Magnum photography group for five years and has photographed many wars and their aftermath in places like Algeria, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.

Residing in New York, but mostly traveling the world, Griffiths said his passion to photograph the "dark corners" overrides any dangers. "If I die, it had better be for some worthwhile end," said Griffiths.

Griffiths was in the Arabian Peninsula to cover the aftermath of the Gulf War about 10 years ago. "I didn't cover the war itself. I basically did things like the oil fires."

One two-photo grouping, on display at NKU, he said, shows a "decomposing corpse in the desert in front of the oil fires juxtaposed against Kuwaitis water-skiing through the oil slicks."

The NKU show displays high-quality photo prints, an art that is being lost as young photographers learn their craft solely on digital equipment.

Asked about their production, Griffiths said he does all his own prints. That's a rarity for many professional photographers.

But it's his nature to give such attention to "the things one really cares about I suppose."

In contact with Baghdad

As the U.S. readies for war, Griffiths is "keeping an eye on it," and is in contact with the press office in Baghdad every few days, where they are processing, he said, 1,500 applications for visas.

He thinks photographic coverage of the war may be different this time, with the military's new policy of "embedded" journalists who actually travel with troops.

"There is some tantalizing news that this one's going to be different. In a sense it will be great news if that (embedded journalists program) does happen."

But Griffiths is just eyeing the situation and doesn't seem to support this war.

"If I need an excuse, it's simply that I've seen too much to agree with the President's view of the world. Like most empires, when you're a hammer, you see every problem as a nail. You go in there with guns blazing."

Photo with most impact

Griffiths said the photograph of his that has elicited the most response over the years, and his personal favorite, is the last picture in Dark Odyssey.

"It's a very, very simple picture," he said, of the portrait of an injured woman, her head swathed completely in gauze with her burned hand to her head. She's been tagged "VNC" - Vietnamese Civilian - a tag that dehumanizes her, but will possibly save her life. She'll get care as a neutral party, not as a "VCS," Viet Cong Suspected enemy.

"That had a very profound effect on a lot of people." It was taken in a hospital in Quang Ngai in old South Vietnam, where there was "carnage every night."

The woman was a patient in a Quang Ngai hospital where the "lucky ones who weren't killed or too badly wounded to be moved came." There were a few Quakers from America and one Spanish surgeon, Griffiths said.

"He was the one who decided each morning who was going to live and who was going to die, because he couldn't possibly operate on everyone."

Eyeballs, humility, skepticism

Griffiths has some advice for the photojournalists of the next generation about what to take with them into the battlefield.

"I just think skepticism is the main attribute that one really should possess."

It's difficult though, for contemporary photojournalists to move beyond work that can "reinforce the old prejudices," he said.

"We're often commissioned to sort of illustrate the preconceptions of a picture rather than be told to go out and be told `look around and see what you can find.'

"This is starkly different from the days in which photojournalists were "handed a ticket and a bunch of traveler's checks and told to `Come back and tell us what you found.' "

While Griffiths is regarded as one of the more famous photographers in the world, he said, "I've been with Magnum for almost 40 years and they still can't spell my name. We're there to observe, not to impose ourselves. I think the lower the profile the better."

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