The Ringling’s ‘Aftermath’ photography exhibit shows horrors after war

Published January 10 2018


There’s no question that war is hell, but as a civilian living in a country that hasn’t had a war on its soil in many, many years, images of the horrors of war can easily be avoided.

Not only the act of war itself, but the consequences of it, which is the subject of a photography exhibition at the Ringling Museum. "Aftermath: The Fallout of War — America and the Middle East" features images of the conditions and people affected by the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine and Israel, captured by photojournalists and artists active in the United States and the Middle East.

Images of wars and refugees pervade the internet, perhaps with such saturation that viewers can become immune to them. But the images in "Aftermath" make indelible impressions, bound to bring a profound sense of empathy to the viewer, from a variety of perspectives.

Upon entering the exhibit, you’re greeted by Suzanne Opton’s large-scale color portraits of American soldiers’ faces. They’re on their sides, as if their heads are on a pillow, or shot down, an idea not lost on the soldiers, as Opton points out. Her subjects are all between tours of duty at Fort Drum Army Base in New York, and each portrait includes which war they were in and for how many days. A range of expressions is revealed in these, from pensive to piercing, and all with the poignant look of someone who has seen things many never will, or should. In 2008, Opton put some of the portraits on billboards in the cities where the Democratic and Republican National Conventions were held.

Another artist, Jennifer Karady, also focuses on American soldiers. Her series, Soldiers’ Stories, features those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in staged narratives depicting the difficulties of returning to civilian life. In one, a soldier stands over a tire discarded on the side of the road, while his family waits in the truck. In a statement, the soldier describes the real incident after returning home, in which he pulled off the interstate when he saw the tire because he was so accustomed to looking out for IEDs while deployed in Afghanistan. Others include instances when camera flashes or loud, sudden noises have triggered the reaction that soldiers associate with bombs and explosions, but they’re just in a bar or walking down the street, not in a war zone. The images are excellent examples of tableau photography, rich in color and perfect in composition.

In a reminder that the more things change, the more they are the same, Simon Norfolk re-creates 19th century photographer John Burke’s posed photos of Afghani people taken during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. A group of turbaned Afghani men, identified as landholders and laborers, some kneeling, others standing and yielding spades, is re-created with a group of men who are the de-mining team from the Mine Detection Center in Kabul. Instead of turbans, they wear helmets with masks, and the spades have been replaced with land mine detectors.

Also included are Norfolk’s images of bombed-out architecture in Afghanistan. A particular standout is the shot of a victory arch of a local commander’s headquarters in the form of a colorful tent built in 2002 in Bamiyan. Look through the tent to the mountain in the background, and you’ll see the empty niche where a 1,000-year-old Buddha statue once stood, until it was destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Much of the exhibition focuses on refugees, providing some of the most emotionally charged images of the entire exhibition, which is saying something, considering the topic. Perhaps the most heartbreaking portion of the exhibition is Rania Matar’s photographs from her series Invisible Children. The Lebanese photographer captured images of a few of the more than 1.5 million Syrian refugee children who live on the streets of Lebanon. Just like when any kid sees a camera, some are hamming it up, but one photo that hits home is of two boys with shoe shine boxes. Neither is smiling or posing, and youth is fleeting from their faces.

A remarkable thing about many of the photos of people affected by war is how they’re all not as somber as you might expect. Photojournalist Eman Mohammed, a Palestinian refugee herself, captures photos of people carrying on with life amongst wreckage in her series What Lies Beneath the Rubble. Children play in a bombed-out house, a man feeds birds, a family hangs laundry. While there are other examples that depict how tough the struggle of being displaced by war is, in these images, there are moments of joy that remind us of the strength and resiliency of the human spirit.

Contact Maggie Duffy at [email protected]