Can an army make war on a concept? Tyler Hicks’ photography exhibit Histories Are Mirrors: The Path of Conflict Through Afghanistan and Iraq, doesn’t offer any answers where the contradictions of the War on Terror are concerned, but his images chronicle the soldiers and civilians who’ve been cast in the almost-decade-long tragedy. Hicks’ vivid photos show markets and massacres, heroes and hostages, every image taking its place in a sweeping drama presided over by a smiling villain: Saddam Hussein.
In Histories Are Mirrors, Hicks, a Pulitzer-winning New York Times staff photographer, documents the wreckage of the World Trade Center and the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, through 2004. Many of the wall labels offer only dates and locations, but the exhibit isn’t merely a timeline. Hicks’ best photographs capture the eternal features that crop up in the emotional landscape of wars everywhere: fear, pain, pride, rage, hubris, hope and hopelessness.
The show’s first images of the twin towers immediately recall the mute powerlessness of shocked Americans, resigned to observe the destruction as passive participants. Even photos of New York City emergency crews raise a paralyzing question: What do rescue workers do when there is no one to rescue?
Hicks then leaps into images and suites of photographs from a world away: A family in an open truck stares passively at an overturned vehicle in the bottom of a bomb crater; soldiers crouch and run in the violent confusion of a battle; an Afghan soldier firing an automatic weapon from a trench sets a rat-tat-tat pace for the succession of pictures on the wall.
In one image, an Afghan soldier dressed in modern camouflage gives orders to his men while wielding what looks like a medieval sword with a curved blade. Afghanistan’s geographic location has made it a region in conflict since antiquity, and Hicks’ photo implies that the country’s young men will be eternal soldiers.
In a photo titled “Mahawil, Iraq. May 14, 2003,” bodies wrapped in plastic dot the desert in a location where 3,000 corpses were recovered from a mass grave. This ghostly image resonates with another photo, “Nejaf, Iraq. August 21, 2004,” in which a number of Iraqi detainees are lying face-down in the desert, their hands cinched behind them with zip-ties. Both photographs recall the famous 1789 woodblock prints of the slave ship Brookes, its rows and columns of human ballast neatly accounted for if barely accommodated. In these compositions, Hicks’ subjects, like the slaves, are reduced to inert numbers before a rush of power, money and war.
Read more at Joe Nolan’s Insomnia