TWO PHOTOGRAPHS—“Tarok Kolache – Before” and “Tarok Kolache – After”—were published side by side on Foreign Policy’s website on January 13, 2011, accompanied by the banner headline, “How 25 Tons of Bombs Made an Afghan Town Disappear.” The words promised to explain “how,” but the images only registered the brute, blank fact of disappearance. “Tarok Kolache – Before” shows a small fragment of a thriving green landscape with neat rows of pomegranate trees and bushes encircling a labyrinthine compound of beige dwellings. A small blue arrow at the top right corner points left, indicating north. The aerial picture on the right, “Tarok Kolache – After,” was taken from a more oblique angle. It shows nothing more than a sand pit. The surrounding vegetation is blanketed with dirt. The destroyed area in the middle looks like the surface of the moon: Few traces of the beige buildings remain, save for some brown fragments that look like ancient ruins. It is as if someone had rubbed an eraser across the middle of the field, leaving a smudged, blankened mass.
The Foreign Policy blog post beneath the images detailed the US military’s “clearance” of Afghan villages in late 2010, including the alleged Taliban tactical base in Tarok Kalache. According to the military, these images were proof of a “success”—the complete and total devastation of an enemy base. Local Taliban forces were putatively responsible for a series of attacks with homemade bombs and IEDs; 49,200 pounds of ordnance were dropped in retaliation.1
The contrast between what the article said took place at Tarok Kolache and the monochromatic visual proof provided by the military is extreme. The two images contain none of the spectacular pyrotechnics of the “shock and awe” operation broadcast on American television eight years ago. These photos, taken in broad daylight, are more like fragments of a topographic map or screen grabs from Google Earth. The perspective excludes any details of what might have been destroyed in the wake of the operation; we can see no bits of color, no items of clothing, no bodies trapped in the rubble. They are aerial views, snapped from a safe distance, cool and clinical, lacking the on-the-ground immediacy of war photography. They have nothing of what Roland Barthes would call the “punctum”—no detail that unexpectedly pricks the viewer, only a heavy, dull thud.
These military images of Tarok Kolache evoke a brand of photography that pictures violence without documenting it, represents ruination without aestheticizing it. That approach seems to be a product of conceptual art—with its deadpan attention to the traces of past events, the absence following action—and photojournalism, which have both struggled to represent the casualties and consequences of war in a way that resists reducing conflict to either the obliteration of a single body or a storm of missiles illuminating the darkened sky.2
British artist Sarah Pickering, for instance, took up the challenge of representing what the photos of Tarok Kolache deny us—the moment of impact—in 2004. Her series “Explosions” focuses on controlled detonations at British military bases and testing sites, documenting demonstration explosions performed by weapons manufacturers—displays of firepower. Her renderings of the explosions themselves capture the climactic event—each bomb or mine in full bloom, its blast radius at maximum distance, giving a visible shape to its destructive potential. The images allow us to see the particular traits of various kinds of ordnance: Electric Thunderflash erupts like a small poof of smoke conjured by a magician; Napalm is a jet-black cumulus cloud that hovers menacingly a few feet above the earth.
Pickering arranges her color prints serially, in a language familiar from conceptual art. The explosions, pictured in pastoral landscapes or on deserted dirt roads, can appear nearly harmless. Ground Burst No. 1 (2004), for instance, is shocking only in its understatement: a small, almost cartoonish burst of smoke emanating from the earth in a short, puffy semicircle. Landmine (2005) is only slightly more impressive: A column of orange flame ignites the soil and sparks shoot into the air like a fireworks display. Although these are officially referred to as “simulated pyrotechnics,” the explosions are genuine. Real fire, real flames.
YET BOTH THE CONTAINED BURSTS and blasts of Pickering’s images and the blank devastation in “Tarok Kolache – After” omit the same thing: a moment of violence. Pickering’s photographs of demonstrations act as a metaphor for the standard sanitized media coverage of “real” (or consequential) explosions. But by giving a shape to these explosions, Pickering’s photographs aestheticize them. Each is only a “simulation,” something that can be evaluated on aesthetic grounds (how it looks) and not moral ones (who it impacts).
Looking at Pickering’s photographs brings to mind Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk, a book of black-and-white photographs published nearly half a century ago, ten years into the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Each of the book’s fifteen snapshots depicts a small fire: a kitchen-stove range with the gas flame turned up high, a woman smoking a cigarette, a fire extinguisher in use, a small metallic lighter in full flame, a book of matches on fire. Ruscha considered photography only a practical medium and his photographs simply collections of facts. But Various Small Fires and Milk suggests otherwise. We may be able to look at a single lit cigarette without imagining the smoker’s hand being spontaneously set ablaze, but it is nearly impossible to look at a series of fifteen small, controlled flames without thinking of their potential to become larger, more destructive fires.
Perhaps more deliberately suggestive is the glass of milk that Ruscha chooses to punctuate his book. The apparently arbitrary juxtaposition of fire and milk elicits a fleeting image of a small disaster; the same can be said for his book Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, whose final juxtaposition conjures a barefoot swimmer by a pool who has accidentally stepped on broken glass. In the years that followed, Ruscha claimed in interviews that he chose “neutral” subjects in order to “de-aestheticize” his image. But given the recurrence of other disastrous scenarios in his works, like his 1968 painting Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (whose oblique, aerial view, incidentally, resembles that of the Tarok Kolache images), it’s hard to believe that his choice of subject matter was ever entirely innocent. Whether or not Ruscha was referencing the Vietnam War in Various Small Fires and Milk, the mundane conflagrations pictured therein—so small and controlled that we hardly even consider them to be fires—inevitably become stand-ins for eruptions elsewhere.
Viewed today, Ruscha’s photographs indicate the degree to which popular imagery of disasters in fact captures simulations of events or the aftermath of violence. When this fact is turned into a conceptual strategy for representing the events and consequences of war, we get images whose emotional charge is generated by their very blankness, their very absence of human beings. We get the dull waste of “Tarok Kolache – After,” photographs that are evidence of the very thing they do not show.