Christoph Bangert's last book, War Porn, utilised horrific images (some so brutal that they were sealed within perforated sections a determined reader had to tear open) to highlight the sanitisation of much of the media coverage of conflict we see. Having taken on the darker issues surrounding war reporting and our perceptions of conflict, his new book, Hello Camel, exposes the surreal and blackly comic side of today's wars, a facet of conflict he feels is as important, and as little shown, as the horror he highlighted in War Porn.
VICE: How did the images in Hello Camel come together? I assume that these are more a collection of photos taken over time, during your day-to-day work, which grew into a cohesive series, rather than being a project you actively set out to make happen?
Christoph Bangert: It was a little of both, actually. I think, in the beginning, a lot of these pictures happened by accident, or were taken in passing. I would see these strange or absurd moments and I would just, you know, take pictures – as I would of everything else that I see. After a while I realised that they were accumulating, and so I started to search for these moments. Moments that would show this idea that I had in my head by then about the sense of absurdity in war. The sense of disorientation or surprise.
A lot of your work is more what people may call "traditional" war photography. The sort of images people would expect, rather than these ludicrous moments collected in the book. Was there a definite point at which you decided you had to do a project that showed this side of war?
It happened after I published my last book, War Porn, which was all about the horror of war. I realised that there are two very important aspects of war that are completely underrepresented. They are the absolute horror, the unspeakable madness of it, which we rarely see in published photography. And then the other, equally important aspect is the absurdity. The second side is not represented because it's confusing for the viewer and these sorts of images can be very dangerous – no publication wants to be seen as making fun of war. Of course, I am not trying to do that either. But I think that everybody who has experienced war would find it completely natural and normal to explore these two aspects – the madness and horror is just as true and real as the bizarre and the absurd. Both ideas are very hard to translate into something that normal people at home who don't have experience of war can relate to. So in that way, both War Porn and Hello Camel are dangerous – they could backfire.
I wanted to ask about that. Even with the proviso that you are experienced in these situations, and are working to convey a little-explored reality of war, it must be nerve-wracking to publish a book that could very easily be misunderstood. Was that a big concern for you? How explicit did you feel you had to be to avoid accusations of triviality?
It is a worry. I am of course concerned that people could do exactly that and feel like I am trivialising these very serious events. But I think people will get it, if they look carefully at the book. All the reactions I have had so far have been thoughtful. People sense that I am not trying to make fun of war or take funny photos. The idea is to go far beyond that.
War is, unfortunately, an everyday event for us, it's happening all the time and sadly it's nothing special. Now, that doesn't make it less horrific; in fact, it makes it more horrific. That was the idea I wanted to convey. And I think people understand that. I am not trying to make people think the way I think. It's just an offer. The great thing about photography is that it's very much a wide-open medium: I can show the same work to all sorts of people and they will have different reactions. I can't control how people react.
There's a sense in the book that the feeling of ludicrousness you have on your side of the camera is also being shared by some of the subjects of the photos. Was that a feeling you got from the people in the photos too?
Absolutely. That is something that divides those who have experienced war and those who have not. We "normal people" expect war to be this dramatic event, this fight between good and evil, a mixture of both honour and misery – but dramatic! And of course it's not dramatic; it's either quite horrific or quite strange. It's weird, surprising and layered. Often you think you know what's going on, but you don't – you have no idea. A lot of soldiers, and also civilians, in these photos were very aware that what they were going through was not only probably one of the most difficult times of their lives, but also truly absurd. It made no sense at all.
What's your feeling, having worked documenting war in more "straightforward" reportage – and having covered it in ways that are rather untraditional with these two books – about the role of conflict photography today?
I think that the core reason to be there as a foreign photographer is still the same. Our job is to document what we see, to be honest and thorough in our reporting. There's no objectivity, but we should try to be honest and true to our own version of the events we witness. That's not changed, and it's a very old fashioned journalistic ideal, in a way. But I think we also have to make an effort to find a language, a visual language, that interests and that really intrigues people. We cannot continue showing people the same images of war over and over and over again, because people will go numb. If it's all dramatic pictures of men firing Kalashnikovs, of explosions, then what's the point? What do we learn from that, if we just repeat the same images that people know already and that they expect? We have to find an angle that is surprising and different, but which also carries the meaning of these events, the complete picture, even if it is troubling or complicated or layered. Sometimes it takes a book to convey these things; it can't be done in a Facebook post.
What do you hope people will take away from Hello Camel?
My hope is that when people look at it, their own expectations of images of war will change a bit. That people will recognise that these events are complicated and layered and that we have to find ways to visualise that.
Another important part of the book is the idea that people have this incredible ability to find normality in these extraordinary circumstances. People decorate their homes or barracks, they hang posters. We have this great strength as human beings to find normality – even beauty – in these situations. I think what we long for is order – we want order even if everything around us is chaos and death. The photos in the book are very orderly; that's the way I took them. It's almost as if something inside me also reacted to this chaos and I too was searching for some sort of order. That happened intuitively; it wasn't planned. I'm not a conceptual artist – I react to things I find.
An Afghan civilian employee of the American military helps facilitate party games during Independence Day celebrations for American soldiers and civilian contractors at Forward Operating Base Fenty. Foreign armies depend heavily on local employees working as translators, construction workers and cleaners. The workers risk their lives by serving foreigners, and are often threatened by insurgent groups for doing such work. 4 July 2013, Jalalabad, Nangahar, Afghanistan.
A cardboard toilet is set up by German soldiers of Charly Platoon, Company 2, Mechanised Infantry Battalion 92 near a temporary fighting position in the open desert. The German Bundeswehr might be the only force on earth that brings toilets to a battle. 28 September 2011, Nawabad, Kunduz, Afghanistan.
Iraqi Army soldiers create a human pyramid during a graduation ceremony at Kirkush Military Training Base. Between 2004 and 2014, the US provided the Iraqi Army with an estimated $25 billion (€22 billion) in training and equipment. Despite this, the Iraqi Army was unable or unwilling to halt the advance of ISIS fighters, who took control of large parts of Northern Iraq, including Iraq's second largest city, Mosul. 3 May 2005, Kirkush, Diyala, Iraq.
A lavish wedding at the Alwiyah Club in Baghdad. The wedding is the creation of May Nuri, a professional wedding planner. Even during the worst of times, with car bombs going off on a daily basis in central Baghdad and horrific sectarian violence gripping the city, huge weddings and festivities still took place. 30 September 2005, Baghdad, Iraq.
Major General Joseph J. Taluto, centre, commander of the 42nd Infantry Division, speaks in front of one of Saddam Hussein's palaces during a ceremony marking the events of September 11, 2001. The 42nd Infantry Division was created by General Douglas MacArthur in 1917. Drawing from National Guard units from 26 different states, MacArthur said that the unit would "stretch over the whole country like a rainbow". 11 September 2005, Forward Operating Base Danger, Tikrit, Iraq.