Review by Natasha Baruah
War and Forgiveness
April 19 - May 3, 2011
Tasveer, New Delhi
In 2007, Ryan Lobo travelled to the war-torn nations of Iraq, Afghanistan and Liberia to document the lives of people there. His experiences in these locations varied. In Iraq, where he spent a month in Baghdad, he wasn’t allowed to step out of the security contractor’s cordon, as his permit to shoot a film on Iraqi women was rejected. Most of the images that he shot in Baghdad were from the windows of armored security vehicles. They are images of despair and desolation. They show a society so stricken with decades of war that it has folded within itself.
In Afghanistan, where security was just as tight for visitors and danger to life imminent, Ryan shot the farmers of poppy seeds. As Lobo explains in his blog, Afghanistan has a long history of opium cultivation, and remains of one the world’s biggest sources of illegal heroin. This had abated somewhat with the Taliban’s crackdown on the poppy fields, but with the overthrowing of the Taliban, business is back to normal. Ryan and his companions were in Afghanistan to film the destruction of the poppy fields by Afghan troops. Ryan also shot the debilitating destruction that the drug has brought about among its users-- inhabitants of one of the world’s poorest countries. Afghanistan too is a society much destroyed by war, and Ryan’s works captured the expressions of futility in the faces of the farmers living in abject poverty as they stand and watch their opium crops being destroyed by troops. The adolescent boys of the village, spectators to what must surely appear to them as unfairness meted out to their village, are openly hostile. Their expressions confirm their silent anger and helplessness as they watch the plunder of the means of their livelihood. The majestic Hindu Kush range in Ryan’s works isn’t the timeless and impenetrable marvel of nature that we learned of as children. Instead, much of the life that unfolds below its peaks is desolate and destitute.
Liberia, on the other hand, presented a different story. It wasn’t just about war, but also about salvation – or more precisely, about one man’s salvation. This series of works focused on Joshua Milton Blahyi, a fiercely violent warlord of Liberia during the First Liberian Civil war of the 1990s. More popularly known now by his nom de guerre, General Butt Naked – for fighting in the said state – he commanded a mercenary unit that infamously included child soldiers, and actively participated in human sacrifice, believing it to bestow him with magical powers. After the end of civil war in Liberia, he claimed to have “witnessed” Jesus Christ who commanded him to repent for his sinful and marauding ways. General Butt Naked prudently converted into a Christian Evangelist Minister, and now walks the earth seeking forgiveness from the families of the victims he butchered.
Ryan’s works capture the General as he stands on soap boxes and delivers sermons, revisits the places where he plundered and waged wars, is confronted by angry relatives of his victims, comforts those who are unable to articulate their anger at him, and ultimately seeks penance. The photographs also capture the General as he prances around happily, ugly as sin, his face alight with the joy of religious conviction. They make me wonder if he looked just as jubilant when the devil had spoken to him in the past.
Of all the genres of photography, I find war photography the most demanding, both for the viewer and for the photographer-- especially for the photographer. Under no other circumstance is the role of being behind the camera under so much scrutiny. The war photographer cannot remain merely a neutral observer of atrocities. Rather, his or her photographs reveal and are scrutinized for the position that the photographer takes with the subject. Ryan, who is an eloquent speaker and chronicler of his experiences, wrote that he came back from his travels with a sense of guilt and depression, which he realized wasn’t because of what he witnessed. It was because he feared that a seed of what he saw lived with us all, evidenced in our conversations, and the way we treat people. However, all is not lost yet. Ryan believes that watching the bloodthirsty General receive forgiveness from his victims was a confirmation of hope, of something human.
I suppose war photography speaks differently to all of us. Unlike Ryan, I could not bring myself to appreciate the “humaneness” of General Butt Naked’s interactions with victims and families. Images of him reaching tenderly for the arm of the woman whose brother he had murdered, while she wept wretchedly, left me livid and dumbfounded. I could not reconcile myself to accepting his actions, cloaked as they are under the guise of religious fervor. I found them crueler and more galling than his murderous rampages. People who had been pushed to the brink of grief and despair had now to face the man who committed those crimes against them. Was it really forgiveness that the camera caught, or was it resignation to the knowledge that evil will always go on, under different guises?
The images of Iraq and Afghanistan did not make me jump out of my skin, thoughtfully captured as they were. Brutal visuals caught “live” on television have ensured that my reception towards shocking images is duller than it should be. This is probably why Ryan’s works from Liberia disturbed me so much. It wasn’t the brutality of the General’s crimes, (history is littered with tales of similar barbarisms), but the images of people as they accepted him - either willingly or unwillingly. Like Ryan, I felt guilt and depression. I feel so because I fear that we let evil walk among us because we acknowledge its presence far too quickly and then move on.