Battery of Questions for Combat and Product Photographers

10 September 2020

By Derek Coulombe

  • Does air change in a war zone? I mean the nature of air itself—its tactile, sensible qualities. If so, are you able to describe it? Is it denser upon the skin? Does it carry sensation, time?—does it bear a smell? If so, of whom?
  • How often, when picturing a velvet bedspread, suit, or collection of cushions, does the requisite friction occur between layers of textile to produce an audible sound? Further, how often does this sound, given that it has occurred, expand to fill the space of the studio? Does it begin to echo, breathing in rhythms foreign to its genesis? Does it become too loud to speak across?

  • Do colours modify under gunfire? Please note I am not asking after your perception of colour under conditions of stress; what I am asking is whether the colours change in themselves under fire. If so, what does it feel like to detect this? Do you know you are seeing this difference as you behold it? Does the camera notice?

  • How often, when photographing jewelry, are you confronted with the taste of blood in your mouth? Or skin? Do you smell hair ?

  • Are you tasked by your employer to find specific postures in war? What shapes does the body predictably compose in conflict?
Image: The Mnemosyne Atlas, Panel 45, 1924-1929 by Aby Warburg. Photo courtesy of Media Art Net.

  • Do you ever refuse to picture a subject? Do you ever refuse to picture a subject when you know you should picture them or when you know it is required? Is your refusal noble, unethical, or an abandonment? Is it an illness of images? Where are your hands during this process, what guides them there, what holds them in place? Do you collect these images inside yourself untaken? Do they feel like dreams do?

  • Do precious objects appear edible as you photograph them? If so, under what circumstances? Have you given space to these delusions?—have you ever drunk bitter folds of silver, masticated the bulk of a sapphire, or bitten into the leanness of gold?

  • What role does peripheral vision take in your pictures, in your practice of capture? How often is your chosen subject merely a pretext for how the photograph manages  its own borders? What can a lack of focus be said to picture, what is the nature of its record? Is the vision inherent to this perceptual edge also and equally sibling to the real that clarity claims?  

  • What kind of camera do you use, and how do you wear it? If you carry multiple cameras, how are they arrayed across your body? What does each mean to you, what are their discrete functions? Can you sense the weight of these apparatuses when you are afraid? Do you fumble often in the fear of your position?

  • Do landscapes change within the frame of your viewfinder? Does the geography bloom towards something other than itself under the vision of the device? If so, does this undulation of the scene remain after the camera is lowered?

  • How often do subjects, shortly after fastening the wafer-thin bracelets of gold watches, enter states of bliss? Do their spines wax and slump to meet that small, glowing anchor? Do their eyes contain a hybrid vision during these episodes—an optics holding two blazing lights dissonant in source and scale—all of this occurring through a mellow fog of tears? 

  • How often do you adjust exposure settings during an engagement? Do these technical adjustments make sense to you as they are performed?

  • How often do you find your subjects beautiful? Are the forces of sexual attraction active for you within the confines of an ambush? If so, does the camera notice? Does your breathing change?
Image: Casualty of the Ultimately Successful Assault on Hill 484, 1966 by Larry Burrows. Photo courtesy of International Center of Photography (ICP).
  • What relevance does a failed exposure have to the physical world? Does distortion via camera shake have a correlation in lived space? How often have you seen limbs bend and grow viscous in the daylight? What about blurred vision and upset focus—have you watched the seams and borders of two bodies lose their contour and fall into one another? Are their movements like those of heated sugar? Do the outlines of their limbs seem backlit, or do they simply thin to a point of merger? Are you afraid a butchery of insides will pour out from these translucent skins?

  • How does it make you feel knowing that you have gone to watch?
  • What is it like to document lawn furniture? Does the studio begin to smell of a missing sun? Can the polypropylene ever be heard moaning under the weight of blood-rich bodies? Does skin risk burning under those false lights? 

  • How do you move with and among combatants? Do you walk? How often do you ride in trucks? What is the nature of their upholstery?—are the surfaces all folds of blistered leather, or dusted, bloated neoprene? Do these sag beneath your plush weight—or are the seats bare, with pliant riders all flush with bruising?

  • When shooting pictures under fire, are you able to compose them formally? I suspect so, and if this assumption is accurate, I want to know what an aesthetic register feels like as it operates among the mechanisms and gestures of death. Do aesthetic considerations last straight through to annihilation? Are bodies falling apart paired with pictorial concerns—and are these two linked in real time? If so, please describe the sensation.

  • When arranging bulbs around a backdrop to document a vase, or perhaps a set of cutlery, does the light you are caught in bear a sovereign within it? What sort of power does this incandescence suggest?

  • Do you believe the images your camera presents to you?

  • Do concussive explosions interfere with your camera’s functions? Does the exposure slip under these pressures? What happens to images produced within these conditions? What is the nature of truth in their contents?

  • Do you long for certain pictures during combat? How do these desires affect you? Can their production be anticipated through the observation of surrounding bodies? If so, what does it feel like as an image is about to cohere? 

  • Have you ever mistaken a plush, overstuffed leather couch for the corpse of a giant?

  • How do people present themselves when they know they are about to fight? Are their aesthetic concerns present? If so, are they evident? Can you sense what they wish to manifest in those situations?

  • How often are the dead handsome?

  • Do you ever fear that your viewfinder will cause your subject to explode? If so, how often do you experience this fear?

  • How can bodies be said to be structurally modified by carrying handbags during a shoot? How often, for instance, is the ninety-degree angle of vertical brachium meeting the horizon of the forearm formally adjusted under the weight of the bag? Does that upper section of the limb ever multiply and grow, stretching downwards with its burden? If so, by how many inches? Is this measurement variable in relation to the composition of the handbag? If so, does leather render a larger growth than suede? 

  • Have you watched death occur through a camera? If so, what did the mediation of this device do?

  • What has sight done to you?

Feature Image: Gold – NYT April 22, 1979 (alphabet stickers), 2013 by Sara Cwynar. Photo courtesy of Cooper Cole Gallery.