Afghanistan: British and Afghan troops battle Taliban
Afghanistan: British and Afghan troops battle Taliban Credit: Jason P. Howe

Every modern war has its iconic photographs—the ones that get seared into memory and reproduced in history books. Matthew Brady’s picture of the Confederate dead at Antietam. Joe Rosenthal’s view of the Iwo Jima flag-raising. Nick Ut’s shot of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack. Perhaps no image better illustrates the confusion and futility of the second Iraq war than Chris Hondros’s 2005 photo of a screaming five-year-old, Samar Hassan, splattered in her parents’ blood and crouching next to the boots of an American soldier from the patrol that killed them.

Hondros himself was killed April 20 while covering the uprising in Libya. His work is included in Conflict Zone, a show of nearly 90 images by 22 photojournalists who’ve chronicled the post-9/11 struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While Conflict Zone bluntly portrays the chaos and trauma of war, it also makes a point of showing that life goes on, says exhibit codirector Jackie Spinner, a former Washington Post staff writer who reported extensively from Iraq and is currently teaching digital journalism as a Fulbright scholar at Oman’s Sultan Qaboos University. Spinner wants viewers to “pay attention to the everyday-life scenes. There’s a lot more that goes on in a conflict zone besides tanks and gun battles. . . . People still get up in the morning. People still go about their day, sometimes in extremely intense circumstances.”

Indeed, the show features images of Afghan soldiers dancing, an Iraqi couple enjoying bumper cars at a carnival, a little girl sipping a Pepsi.

But other photographs capture the intensity of combat. The world seems to shake in Jason Howe’s picture of one soldier covering his head as a second fires a rocket-propelled grenade. Another Howe image shows the bodies of men who were apparently executed before being dumped in a garbage pile. And a series by marine reserve sergeant Joel Chaverri, in which we see two soldiers shot while attempting to rescue a third, calls to mind Robert Capa’s famous photo of a loyalist fighter’s death during the Spanish Civil War.

Conflict Zone was conceived after New York Times war photographer Joao Silva stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan last October, losing portions of both legs. Donations raised through the exhibit will be split between a fund for Silva and two organizations that support badly wounded troops and their families, the Fisher House Foundation and the Independence Fund.

Silva’s photographs are in the exhibit, too, and they’re gripping—especially the montage he was shooting when he was injured. First we see a couple soldiers looking for hidden explosives. Then the camera angle changes dramatically, and a look of concern crosses the face of one soldier as he notices the injured photographer, still clicking away. (Silva cowrote The Bang Bang Club, about his early work in South Africa, which was turned into a 2010 film.)

Spinner, who will soon take over the multimedia journalism program at Columbia College, hopes the exhibit will remind people of the ongoing wars and their lingering effects. “I want them to see what I’ve seen. I want them see the whole battlefield.”

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