The Surviving Frame by Antonio Denti is a remarkable piece of work. In an era characterised by continuing cycles of wars and ongoing states of terror, a number of contemporary photographers are seeking out new ways representing violence. Although the work of these photographers has a conscious relation to photojournalism and the humanitarian goals of documentary practice, their images are tempered by the recognition that depiction of trauma and the cultivation of empathy are no guarantees of social justice. In Denti’s work, documentary, personal reflection and the stilled image work together to offer a unique account of the contemporary warfare and its ongoing effects.
Editor's note: All images are stills taken from video footage courtesy of Denti.
The Surviving Frame.
I have been a cameraman for Reuters since 1998. Until very recently I was very comfortable with the main traits of my profession, with the anonymity of my work and with the fact that my pictures would have the life of a may-fly, passing quickly in news bulletins to disappear for ever. Up until recently I had very rarely looked back. But then something changed.
It was, I think, when I saw my son – Martino – walking for the first time. As I watched this little man venturing fearlessly into his little world I shivered as I thought how little he knew, how little he had seen. And I begun to look back. To look back at the events I had witnessed, to the people I had seen during my work journeys. To my surprise memories did not come back in moving pictures. They came back as stills. As photographs. Surviving Frames, in fact.
I started going through my footage, picking the frames that I was unknowingly looking for and elaborating them with editing tools to try and give them the story-telling effectiveness that I think is unique to photography.
The Surviving Frame became a collection of photographs and of untidy thoughts. The photographs are what is left boiling down hours and hours of footage I shot as a news cameraman, in 20 years and across all continents (except Oceania). They are the remnant, the sediment. They are what I found when I finally started to look back.
Probably because of my son – the frames that survived are the ones where I can see a universal lesson about life and the human condition that goes beyond the specific complexities of the historic event or of the news event they portray.
Frames which have survived because they capture something archetypical about human life, on why it so terrifying and so beautiful.
The Coming of the Storm (Iraq 2003).
I left Baghdad in May 2003 after more than a month covering the US-led invasion of Iraq. A few days before my departure, off the coast of California, on board of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, US President George W. Bush had declared the war over, defining it an accomplished mission. I know now that, as we drove along the very long and straight desert road to Amman, then the main route out of the country, I had not understood what had really happened. I had not grasped the extent of the storm that had gathered there and that would unleash its powerful blows across the region and beyond in the years to come. Until this day.
An equilibrium of sorts had been broken and borders that had kept people together, at times against their will, started to shake violently. Consequences were going to be ferocious.
In August 2016, the New York Times Magazine published an issue titled ‘Fractured Lands’, by Scott Anderson, with photographs by Paolo Pellegrin on this storm. The introduction, by the Magazine’s editor in chief, read: ‘This story is unlike any we have previously published. It is much longer…the product of some 18 months of reporting…it tells the story of the catastrophe that has fractured the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq13 years ago, leading to the rise of ISIS and to the global refugee crisis.”
Looking back at these frames that have survived I have the feeling that, some more than others, they capture the signs of this coming storm. Signs that I had not seen as I took them, maybe just vaguely felt. But that I can see now.
It was relatively easy for the US-led coalition to achieve its objectives in Iraq in 2003. But the invasion opened the gates to years of hell in the country. It looked like there was a degree of shortsightedness in that intervention. Knowledge and understanding of the place seemed absent or overlooked. I remember the young soldiers searching. But what would have been useful to find – the history, the fear, the hatred, the faith, the desire of revenge or to prevail – all these things that really mattered and were going to determine what would happen in the years to come – could not be found hand-searching someone. They were not things that can be kept in a man’s pockets.
Of the limits of technology and of the faith in technology. Experience from recent conflicts has shown again and again how much of an illusion is the idea that air supremacy can win wars. Even more, not much knowledge or understanding of a land can be gained by flying over it.
Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, mass graves from the Saddam era started to surface in various parts of the country. This one turned out to be one of the largest. In an unmarked field near the ancient city of Babylon the bodies of more than three thousand people were unearthed. They were Shia, mostly men, killed in 1991 – when Saddam put down the Shia revolt that followed the first Gulf War. As the news that the mass grave had been found, hundreds of relatives gathered around the site.
The digging lasted for days. All the remains identified as one person were grouped together in a small bunch and collected in a transparent plastic bag, except for the skull and a few belongings, that were placed on top of the bag. The bodies were reduced to bones, but some of the clothes looked new. On one of the bodies there was an half-full packets of cigarettes and a lighter.
In that stunning, sustained intensity, so far from me, I think I saw how the events of 2003 were a small chapter in a very long history. A history of division over something deemed very crucial, the source of the meaning of life. Ashura is central to Shia muslims. It’s a day of fierce mourning. It commemorates the killing of the grandson of Prophet Mohammed – along with his followers – during the battle of Karbala. In 680 AD. Husayn ibn Ali was defeated by the forces of caliph Yazid I and killed. A central episode in the shism between those who thought Mohammed’s successor should follow his blood-line and those who thought Mohammed’s designated no successor and the Sharia should do it… Saddam Hussein – a Sunni who ruled over a Shia majority – saw the potential danger of this intense ritual and strongly restricted it for decades.
The importance of the written word, for Muslims, Christians, Jews. I spent two nights then in the holy city of Najaf. Much of what I saw there looked like it must have done centuries ago. It was like stepping into a parallel wold, not at all unrelated but totally other than the stream of current affairs that I was covering there and that I was used, in general, to cover.
Of when it became clear that to stay was going to be much harder than it had been to get there.
I never forgot the face of this US marine. It always brought me back to the strange beginnings of that war, which continues to this day. It was the days right after the US-led conquest of Baghdad. He had been sent downtown to guard the scene of a strange shooting accident. A small bus had been attacked, riddled with bullets, some of its occupiers wounded. He stood there, looking at nothing visible to others at mid-air. Sent to guard the scene of a crime, he was sensing – it looked like – the start of a long tragedy. The start of a long war that is now being fought across borders. He – like most of us – did not know who had shot whom and why. This lack of understanding was to make many misinterpret the apparently quiet beginning of a very violent conflict.
The young man did what he could to help putting out the fire inside the burning maze of Baghdad’s market. He used spades and mud to fight the flames. When the danger was over some of the many children who had stayed inside the market with their parents during the fire surrounded him and – I think to thank him for his help – started touching him, dragging him and shouting at him. Suddenly, I saw fear taking shape on his face. A man who had not hesitated to enter a burning market and had showed no hesitation till then was struck by terror at the touch of a small human hand. The hand of a child. He seemed afraid of the sound of words, addressed to him, which he could not understand.
The human element, I thought, is the most difficult to face, to understand, to protect. Also at war. Also in that war.
When the last war against Saddam Hussein reached the outskirts of Baghdad, the staff of the Al Rashad psychiatric hospital – doctors, nurses and guards – fled. The patients – more than a thousand, men and women -remained on their own. After a while, they crossed the gate – which for the first time they must have seen open and unguarded – and ventured into the city.
The city, which they had felt breathing peacefully every day beyond the fenced walls of the hospital, must have looked terrifying to the escaped patients as the battle for Baghdad raged. Out of a thousand at least 500, some immediately, some after a couple of days, went back to seek refuge in the abandoned hospital with the open gates.
A US marine secures the Al Rashad psychiatric hospital, women ward.
When the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, then Jacob Kellenberger, learnt what had happened to the psychiatric hospital during the conquest of Baghdad he had tough words for the occupiers. For – he said – it is a duty of the “occupying power” to take care of the most vulnerable and powerless people. In response to his words, it was decided that US Marines would take over the place. Which, as I saw, they did without needing to fight.
I remember one of the Marines. The smell of the place, the patients pacing up and down, the flies on their bodies, the sudden screams… it all seemed to hit him hard. He had tears in his eyes. He had fought his way up to Baghdad from Kuwait, but nothing had prepared him for the despair of these abandoned people who continued to fight their merciless wars with themselves, now surrounded by war also outside.
Sadr City had only just got its new name, from the influential Shi’te cleric al Sadr. Until a few days before the name of the populace area was Saddam City.
Their childhood had not been easy and their youth ahead was likely to be even harder. But they were capable of that. Humans are capable of that, irresistible joy, even in the storms. It a measure of their strength.