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photo-eye Book Reviews: War Is Only Half the Story, Vol. 3

War Is Only Half the Story, Vol. 3, Photographs by Louie Palu,
Asim Rafiqui, Rodrigo Abd, Andrea Bruce, Davide Monteleone,
Saiful Huq Omi, Ami Vitale and Donald Weber.
Published by The Aftermath Project, 2011.
War Is Only Half the Story, 
Vol. 3
Reviewed by Joscelyn Jurich
Louie Paul War Is Only Half the Story, Vol. 3
Photographs by Louie Palu, Asim Rafiqui, Rodrigo Abd, Andrea Bruce, Davide Monteleone, Saiful Huq Omi, Ami Vitale and Donald Weber.
The Aftermath Project, 2011. Softcover. 132 pp., black & white and color illustrations throughout, 11x11".

When I was working in Sarajevo in 2005, a well-known reporter for an even better known publication told me, "There are no more stories here." True, the war story no longer existed in the form often most alluring to journalists, their editors and the corporations that sign both paychecks. But a range of different stories had replaced the old one: how people re-build after conflict, how they re-define themselves and a country which, according to the International Commission on Missing Persons, as of 2011, is still missing more than 10,000 people from the 1992-1995 war. New stories of this type from Bosnia-Herzegovina were rarely told through photographs or articles in 2005. In 2011, more than 15 years after the war's end, they barely exist. Yet then, as now, the war is truly only half the story. This invaluable collection, War Is Only Half the Story, Volume 3, reminds us of the essential other half and that it should remain neither silent nor invisible.

A non-profit supporting documentary photographers covering post-conflict areas, the Aftermath Project was founded by Sara Terry, a photographer and writer and former staff correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor who spent five years covering post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina. The photographs in this diverse yet cohesive collection are the work of the project's two winners and six finalists who received grants from the organization in 2009 to pursue projects in India, the US, Guatemala, Iraq, the Russian Caucasus, Burma, Kashmir and Ukraine and this collection of over 100 pages of text and images show the often brutal physical, psychological and social effects of conflict. Only Rodrigo Abd's "Reclaiming the Dead from Mass Graves in Guatemala, A Story Only Partially Told" might be described as "post-violence." Yet even his essay tells the same story that each in this book does: the effects of conflict, war and upheaval evolve but are ultimately enduring.

Abd's photo-essay, though a finalist not a winner, has one of the most fluid narratives and is among the collection's most moving. The contrast between the images' vibrant, saturated colors and their despairing subject matter is arrestingly discomfiting: a gape-mouthed skull lies in a mass grave among the tangled glowing threads of traditional Mayan clothing, strands of fuchsia, purple, hot pink and lime green entwine around the skull's eye sockets. A man and woman squatting on the grass of a former military base look at a large photograph of a bullet punctured skull, a victim of the Guatemalan Army. The glowing cream color of the man's hat echoes the skull's off white, suggesting that the moment is itself a memento mori. The most powerful image in the essay is also its least representational, a portrait in reflection of two individuals killed by the Guatemalan Army in 1982 taken at a commemorative mass in 2004. The lingering shadow images of these victims suggest how the long dead are mirrored and absorbed into the daily experiences of the living.

War Is Only Half the Story, Vol 3, by Louie Palu. Published by The Aftermath Project, 2011.
 The winning photo essays, Asim Rafiqui's "The Idea of India" and Louie Palu's "Home Front," could not be more disparate in subject matter or approach. Rafiqui's project takes its name from the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore's statement that "the idea of India is against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one's own people from others, which inevitably leads to ceaseless conflict." Focusing on Hindu and Muslim communities in Uttar Pradesh, Kashmir, Rajasthan and Kerala, many of Rafiqui's photographs portray contrasts or unexpected visual echoes: the intense red of a man's string Kabala bracelet matches the red in a sexy billboard above him; intricate geometric patterns on an elderly man's ivory topi (prayer cap) seem an extension of the elaborate decorative patterns adorning the mosque in the background.

War Is Only Half the Story, Vol 3, by Louie Palu. Published by The Aftermath Project, 2011.
Where Rafiqui's images are crowded with colors, spaces and textures, Palu's photographs of American soldiers and veterans from the Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam wars, possess a stark minimalism both lonely and intimate. Several of the essay's photographs are uncomfortably close portraits showing expressions that range from the pained to the fatigued, to the seemingly single-mindedly determined. Still others are unsettling in their distance: one of the eeriest is the portrait of Vietnam veteran Craig Barber taken through frosted glass so that his image - a torso with one hand raised as if attempting communication or escape - is nothing more than a blurred, ghostly shadow.
War Is Only Half the Story, Vol 3, by Louie Palu. Published by The Aftermath Project, 2011.
  Many of Palu's images are hard to look at - not just those showing soldiers' deformed or amputated limbs, but also his quietly anguished portraits. Several of Andrea Bruce's "Unseen Iraq" photographs, which focus on Iraqis coping with the multifarious effects of the war, also portray individuals who seem heartbreakingly alone in their suffering, whether it is internal (Qasim Ali, who closes his eyes to the detritus around him as he waits for his minibus to work) or physical (nine year old Omar, who lies wounded in bed, his small body curled up against the wall of the hotel room where he is waiting for treatment from Doctors Without Borders).

War Is Only Half the Story, Vol 3, by Louie Palu. Published by The Aftermath Project, 2011.
The collection's final essay, Donald Weber's "Into the Half-Life," about the city of Zloitnye Vody in Ukraine, is despairing in text but not image. He documents this Uranium mining city of 54,000 people, 40,000 of whom have been hospitalized for radiation related illnesses. Save for the opening and closing images, the photographs are serene, almost innocuous - but the captions remind us that something else is going on. The photograph of a young woman striding though an open green field portrays a contaminated village whose radiation levels are equal to Chernobyl, and the wistful portrait of a young boy is Danil Kravets, 6, who has environmentally caused lymphoma.

"Perhaps the most important stories," James Traub suggests at the end of his foreword to War Is Only Half the Story, "are the ones that can't be told with words alone, or with pictures alone." The separation of the captions from the images in each photo-essay thoughtfully provokes the reader to consider how much of the "whole story" either can tell alone. While photographs provide the story's "what," Traub writes, they are incapable of providing the necessary context to answer the "why." But in trying to answer "why," print journalism, he argues, is often too programmatic and reverts to simplistic fixes for complex problems. Traub suspects it also often loses the ability to portray suffering, what he deems as the collection's "master subject." One of Susan Sontag's central questions, "What to do with such knowledge as photographs of faraway suffering bring?" remains explicitly unanswered in the book, though it is implicitly asked on almost every page.—Joscelyn Jurich

Joscelyn Jurich is a freelance journalist and critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including Bookforum, Publishers Weekly and the Village Voice. Jurich is currently a Fellow at the Writers' Institute at the City University of New York.