Exhibition review: Sean Smith. Frontlines

Generally considered the greatest photographer to have documented the horrors of modern warfare, Robert Capa once opined that “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. Working exclusively for the Guardian and Observer, over the last decade photojournalist Sean Smith has placed himself as close to the action as possible in some of the world’s most intense and dangerous conflicts, producing an extraordinary body of work.
The 56 photographs that make up the aptly-named Frontlines exhibition summarise Smith’s time in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with a few shots from the Congo and Lebanon.
Embedded with American, and occasionally British, troops, Smith’s work could easily end up cheerleading for the invaders – something that he is fully aware of. “I realize that, by being embedded, I am seeing the country through the eyes of the occupiers. There is no way I can tell the whole story”, he noted about Iraq in 2007. “But what I can do is show the gap between the rhetoric of the government in Baghdad and the reality on the ground”.
Sure enough many of the photos on display are a shocking record of the US and UK invasion and the subsequent resistance to it. Aggressive house searches, hooded prisoners, the interrogation of young Iraqi men, a bloodied man and a wounded child – this is the reality of our so-called ‘humanitarian interventions’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is the award-winning photo of a US soldier guiding seven handcuffed and blindfolded Iraqi men across a desert landscape – a striking metaphor for an occupation that has effectively dehumanised and destroyed an entire nation for several generations.
Watching Smith’s 45-minute film from Iraq alongside one photograph of US soldiers standing over a dead Iraqi man, a disturbing narrative emerges. The dead man was probably a taxi driver shot at a checkpoint and then dragged in to the compound of a distressed elderly woman, whose house was then searched. During another house search shown in the film a US solider sits in a man’s living room and asks him “Why do you tolerate your brother being a terrorist?” The arrogance and lack of self-awareness is breathtaking.
With Iraqis experiencing these intensely pressured and emasculating interactions on a daily basis, is it any wonder the resistance to the occupation has been so ferocious and popular? Would we act differently if our homes were forcibly searched and innocent people so regularly ‘accidentally’ shot?
Unrelenting, brutal and confusing like the counterinsurgency it documents, Smith’s work is a disturbing reminder of the reality of US and UK foreign policy. And with the media currently directing its attention on Libya it is also a valuable reminder of what the New Statesman’s Mehdi Hasan recently called the “forgotten war” in Iraq. Because if we are going to stop this happening in the future, it is important we never forget the crimes that were committed in our name in the recent past. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan certainly won’t.
Sean Smith. Frontlines runs until 30 September 2011. Admission is free.
*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected] and http://twitter.com/#!/IanJSinclair

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