Much of an audience’s response to a text is shaped by the medium in which it’s presented. A photograph in a newspaper/site would be valued for its ability to accompany the text, to provide a visual illustration of a specific event more closely examined in writing. On the other hand a photograph in a gallery is viewed as a singular object, with a variety of non-specific, contingent meanings that are broadcast simultaneously. In this way, newspapers tend to only allow their audiences an empirical, didactic reading, while a gallery encourages an audience to read meaning based on a subjective, largely emotional analysis, according to the dictum of post-modern theory.
A photograph like Luc Delahaye’s shot of a dead Taliban soldier – which could justifiably appear in a traditional news update– raises a number of questions around how the meaning of an image shifts with its presentational context.
The photograph itself is marvellously subversive in how rejects the chaotic and hysteric language of traditional war-zone photography. In placing the corpse at the centre of the frame with a great amount of space given to the terrain, Delahaye has given his un-named soldier a unifying presence, which allows the image to project an uncomfortable kind of serenity. In conjuring a dissonant visual language, it’s possible that Delahaye had wished to describe the nature of Western attitudes toward war.
Taliban originally appeared in a New York Gallery, in the form of a 93 x 43 inch print. The asking price for the print was $15,000. Immediately, these presentational factors shift the photograph’s reading dramatically. The dead soldier, who would’ve appeared in a news broadcast as a bit player, is here given an iconic role as ‘the enemy’, and perhaps martyred by the monumental size of the enlarged print. In this reading, Delahaye is parodying the news media’s claim to objective exposure, by subjectively portraying his subject in a way that transcends the tokenistic exposure received by the subjects of news broadcasts.
Taliban belongs to the genre of ‘aftermath’ photography, a branch of documentary practice that veers into artistic territory in its focus on landscapes and architecture associated with major socio-political events, as opposed to the events themselves. An informed reading of Taliban requires an audience to bring the context of 9-11 and the second Gulf War, into that reading. Given that it was taken in 2001, Delahaye is trading on a highly emotional and contentious political atmosphere, in order to convey a similarly heightened message.
The philosophy of ‘aftermath’ photography is centred around an acknowledgement of photography’s inherent temporality, and as part of an artistic practice, has a greater emotional range than news photography’s marriage to ‘the moment’, because it allows the audience to amalgamate all the photographed moments that led to the aftermath, into the single image that properly acknowledges all those moments as having passed.
On Photography, Sontag, Susan. 2012, Penguin
Luc Delahaye’s ‘Taliban, 2001’, Walker, David, Vol. 23 Issue 4. 2003, Photo District News
The Aesthetics and Politics of Aftermath Photography: Rosemary Laing’s welcome to Australia (2004), Tello, Veronica, Vol. 28, No. 6. 2014, Third Text