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Tyler Hicks: Histories are Mirrors: The Path of Conflict Though Afghanistan and Iraq

"Najaf, Iraq, Aug. 21, 2004"

By Anne Howard | Posted 11/23/2005

It’s rare to discuss war photojournalism without overusing some synonym of the word “shocking.” Such reportage usually involves blood, screaming children, commotion, running, and shooting—in sum, the unfamiliar shock of war, described in visceral immediacy. The thing is, the more atrocities you see on TV and in the papers, the less you feel them.

With a few exceptions, Tyler Hicks’ Histories Are Mirrors: The Path of Conflict Through Afghanistan and Iraq doesn’t aim for that kind of sensationalist provocation. The photographs are simply titled with location and date and captioned with spare language. He masterfully photographs the tense space between war and normalcy from the intimate, but unsentimental perspective of his subjects.

For inhabitants of countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, which have experienced violent political and religious conflict for decades, war and death are almost quotidian. Working within daily life, Hicks captures moments of uneasy calm: A woman covered in a brilliant blue burqua walks in front of a yellow wall speckled from years of machine gun fire; the occupants of a beat-up Toyota glance briefly at the shell of a truck in a bomb crater as they speed by; men in a barbershop watch, with distracted interest, a broadcast of Saddam Hussein urging the Iraqi people to resist the U.S. invasion.

Hicks captures scenes in which rage and frustration overwhelm routine. In one photograph, a young, bearded soldier lies dead amid twisted shrapnel; above him, a blank-faced crowd is gathered. The caption informs that the dead man is one of several Taliban soldiers that did not commit suicide or flee when the Northern Alliance marched into Kabul. Armed civilians, who “had lived side by side” with the Talibani for years, attacked their former neighbors—beating, shooting, even stabbing one wounded man in both eyes with a pocketknife. You wonder if this hushed crowd, standing back from the dead, is the same crowd that had just participated in this outburst. Like many of Hicks’ other works, this image doesn’t document the violence itself, but its aftermath and reactions.

That said, Hicks does catch some arresting moments of actual battle and bloodshed. Overall, though, the photographs are thoughtfully restrained, and their subjects don’t come across as unfeeling or inhuman. His work is intent on describing the continuity of humanity in wartime, through shepherds driving their flocks across the desert, a bride-to-be getting made up at a salon, and little girls finally allowed to go to school. Hicks introduces you to a reality of war that exists beyond anonymous casualties and political rhetoric in the stubborn persistence of daily life.

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