‘Endgame: Afghanistan’ puts forth a catch-22

In Endgame: Afghanistan, recently displayed in the ’62 Center, Ben Brody documents the daily lives of soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. His work focuses not on the violence amidst the war itself but rather on quieter moments of both soldiers and citizens. The subjects of Brody’s photos are often candid and unassuming, but the images in context speak to greater truths of the war.

Brody uses smoke and dust to illustrate the consuming, destructive effects of wartime, not only on the battlefield, but also in the many other tasks of U.S. soldiers. He captures a grape field covered in smoke that “hangs like a morning mist” after explosives are detonated to clear mines in this area. In another photo, two soldiers in the foreground with their backs to the camera move into a dense dust cloud, disappearing from the viewer’s visibility. The accompanying caption explains that the dust that overtakes the scene has been caused by the detonation of an explosive device. A third photo shows dust clouds kicked up by a landing helicopter suspended midair, debris flying in all directions. The description elaborates that the helicopters are delivering supplies to U.S. troops and must make multiple landing attempts because the dust gets too thick. Brody uses smoke to conceal his photos, but the presence of smoke reveals the general truth that, for soldiers in Afghanistan, destruction is the norm. This controlled violence against Afghanistan’s landscape is a necessary component of completing responsibilities and ensuring safety, but the consuming effects of these actions are also evident.

Other photos are clear, crisp and matter of fact. Yet, the context provided is contradictory and sometimes undermines the visuals presented. One image portrays a sergeant and an Afghan boy sitting and looking at each other at the side of a road while a motorcycle approaches in the distance. The composition is simple – two main figures in the foreground, one in the background, clear sky, flat dirt road; however, “in Iraq, soldiers likely would have suspected an approaching motorcyclist to be a suicide bomber and reacted aggressively. In Afghanistan, soldiers take a more relaxed approach to keep civil relations with the villages they patrol. Unfortunately, many have died for their lack of caution,” Brody explained. In context, the photo is no longer a fond moment of an unlikely, unspoken connection between two people – rather, it is political, a catch-22 situation with the possibility of impending violence and destruction.

Another image captures five stacks of large metal shipping containers, one being moved by a shipping crane. The stacks are neat, and the shipping containers are colorful – reds, yellows and blues accompanied by a bright blue sky. Brody uses the same method of a quiet, simple image to explain that jobs previously done by soldiers are now given to contractors so that it will seem as though fewer soldiers are being stationed in Afghanistan. However, these contractors are more expensive to hire. While 9800 soldiers were ordered to stay in Afghanistan after 2014, 30,000 contractors also worked in conjunction with the military. So, the photo demonstrates this form of outsourcing by the military that is intentionally deceiving.

Brody also captures an aerial shot of an abandoned U.S. military base in Kapisa. The buildings in the base are bright red and blue, and the location is also enclosed by clearly delineated walls. The base sticks out awkwardly from the villages nearby that blend in with one another and are shrouded by trees. The visual disruption of this work speaks to the disruption of Afghan life by these U.S. soldiers. Troops may seek to establish civil relationships with local people, but their presence by virtue is immediately obvious and perhaps intrusive in this environment.

Brody’s take on wartime photojournalism thoughtfully explores the unique perspective of U.S. soldiers. He explains complex situations and difficult conflict-related issues through deceivingly simple images. His works do not pick sides, and they do not immediately betray his opinions of the subjects at hand; rather, the viewer can follow his train of thought when considering the image in context. At the same time, viewers also question their own standing on such issues. Is it a problem that the military hires contractors to limit the amount of soldiers stationed in Afghanistan? What is the true impact of the effort to withdraw troops from Afghanistan? To what degree is this successful, and how does this impact the daily lives of the soldiers still there? Brody provides viewers with threads of information to follow to find these usually unacknowledged truths.

An American sergeant and an Afghan boy sit and look at each other as the possibility of impending violence and destruction looms. Photo courtesy of Randall Flippinger.