David Shields examines over a decade of "extraordinarily beautiful" front-page war photographs from The New York Times, which he says glamorize war.
“As the Homeland Security slogan goes, ‘if you see something, say something,’” responds Shields to a question about his motivation behind writing WAR IS BEAUTIFUL: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict. The coffee table picture book features 64 full-color photographs, drawn from over a decade of the Times’ front-page war stories.
“I am a life-long subscriber of The New York Times,” says Shields. And after years of being drawn to the paper’s front-page color combat photography, Shields says he came to a realization. “I was struck by how extraordinarily beautiful and how little war-like these photos were.”
In fact, he found the photos so beautiful that he felt that they “disturbingly and ravishingly” glamorized war, instead of depicting the actual and true violence of war. “The book is a critique of the Times but it’s also a critique of myself and my fellow citizens. It took me too long to realize how seductive these images were. I think these images did work in helping to create some visual narratives of the war.”
Shields is quick to point out that his beef is not with the war photographers, whom he feels did “amazing work.” Instead, his “quarrel” is more with the Times photo editors who, according to Shields, seem to crop and edit photos for almost a cinematic affect. “It’s as if … the style department here is running the war department.”
Flipping through the book, Shields stops at the photo of a boy standing in front of what appears to be a car bombing. “He is wearing a St. Louis Rams football jersey, which sort of brings him back into the American landscape,” says Shields. “To me, [the photograph] feels incredibly movie-like, you know a Quentin Tarantino or Oliver Stone or Steven Spielberg movie.”
There is an obvious irony in the fact that Shields himself has published a coffee table book of the very photos that he is critical of the Times for publishing. To that he says, “The book is meant to be problematically beautiful. I mean to ask of myself and my fellow citizens and fellow readers how much beauty are we prepared to swallow in the name of glorifying wa?”
@Lailakaz — Laila Kazmi is an award-winning senior producer and writer at KCTS 9. Her first love is discovering and telling stories of diverse people, places, and history. She has lived in Karachi, Bahrain, Chicago, and Seattle. Laila is the series producer for Borders & Heritage, which features stories of immigrant and refugee experience in the Pacific Northwest and for Reel NW, featuring independent films from and about the Pacific Northwest. She also produces stories for IN Close and produced for PIE. Laila's video stories have appeared on KCTS 9, PBS NewsHour Art Beat, World Channel at WGBH, and KPBS. Her articles have been published in PBS NewsHour Art Beat, The Seattle Times, Seattle PI, COLORLINES, and Pakistan's daily Dawn.More stories by Laila Kazmi