Reframing War: What Does US Soldier’s Final Photograph Really Represent?

On Monday, the US army released the last photograph taken by combat photographer, Specialist Hilda Clayton, which captured an accidental explosion in Afghanistan which killed her, an Afghan photojournalist who she was training, and three Afghan national army soldiers. On July 2, 2013, Clayton, 22, was conducting a live-fire training exercise when, without warning, a mortar tube exploded in front of her. Published this week in Military Review, the photograph not only documents the blast, but it preserves the final moment of Clayton’s, and the four Afghan national army soldiers’ lives.

Offering comment on the photograph, the Military Review commended the service of Specialist Clayton and stated that “Clayton’s death symbolizes how female soldiers are increasingly exposed to hazardous situations in training and in combat on par with their male counterparts.” Whilst the discussion of gender equality in the armed forces is one of the utmost importance, is it not second to questioning why the lives of these soldiers were taken so needlessly? In stating that “the story was not in the fighting but in the partnership that was necessary between U.S. and Afghan forces to stabilize the Afghan nation,” Military Review seem to be using the image to promote the work of the US army, rather than to acknowledge the brutality that was suffered by the soldiers and the horror of war which the photograph represents. Whilst US-Afghan relations may be contextually relevant to the image, failing to recognize the cruel and capricious deaths of the five soldiers’ is a revealing omission. The political agenda seemingly being driven by Military Review is, unsurprisingly, one which appears to promote war and which reveres death in the name of it. Implicit, therefore, is its advocating of violence and conflict.

Embodied in Clayton’s photograph is the unnecessarily fickle nature of soldiers’ fate in war, and thus begs the question: is war the most viable option for obtaining peace? In marrying two antithetical concepts, war and peace, the question itself seems somewhat contradictory; given the current state of global socio-political unrest, the notion that violent conflict can lead to peaceful resolution is not convincing.

Problematically, the arbitrariness which characterizes the deaths of Clayton and the four Afghan soldiers is yet to be discussed in public discourse. Whilst the image may signify the collaborative work of the US and Afghan military forces, it intrinsically captures the brutality of war by inviting its viewer to witness the moment of a lethal explosion. The shock effect of Clayton’s image is generated by its immediacy and temporal presence; the impact upon the viewer is intensified because the soldiers’ deaths are photographed in real-time. This once-transient moment is thus rendered immortal.

The ability of the photographic medium to then transcend space and time in its dissemination results in the invasion and penetration of the war in the domestic space. Crucially, making the public privy to Clayton’s image instigates a mobilization of the viewer’s mind and demands an emotional and politically-charged response. Given the harsh realities present in the capturing of the moment prior to needless death, the image calls for grief, anger, and, ultimately, dissent.

Photography, and its capacity to globally disseminate information, makes the abstractions that are society’s ills concrete. Critically, Clayton’s image makes identifiable the concepts of war, violence, and politics in the public arena. The authenticity of the image serves to de-sensationalize war; this, in turn, highlights both its senselessness and its magnitude. Just as the image of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old boy who was photographed lying face down, dead, on a beach near Bodrum in Turkey, served as a global awakening to the severity and injustices of the refugee crisis, Specialist Clayton’s photograph should remind us of the atrocities of war and the futility of death which accompanies it.