Standing before the photographs of French artist Emeric Lhuisset, portraying fighters in majestic poses, the fallen silently mourned, the air thick with gun smoke amid a verdant mountain setting, an eerie sense of familiarity pervades. The dramatic images of Theater of War – an exhibit currently on display at The Running Horse Gallery in Beirut  – follow a group of Iranian Kurdish fighters at a secret training camp in the mountains of Iraq. The familiarity that seeps through comes as the photographs have been composed to recreate scenes from the 1870 Franco-Prussian war painted by artists such as de Neuville and Detaille.
Lhuisset chose iconic images from this moment in history because of the fact that they signified a change in the way conflict was depicted. France suffered a crushing defeat in the war, and there could be no triumphant images of proud generals. These painters, who had themselves fought in the battles, chose as their subjects the anonymous soldiers.
By re-enacting these archetypal images of conflict as a portrait of the Kurdish fighters, Lhuisset explores how the reality of war is depicted and communicated. Notions of how to distinguish the fictional and the real are challenged as these fighters living within a conflict zone relive scenes from the horrors of another war, politically and geographically worlds apart, that had its place in time.
Sitting with Lhuisset among the figures pictured, he tells of the times over the last three years he spent living among the fighters, learning of their reality, their life, routines, and their conflict. Despite his proximity to these men and women, and the friendships formed, historical narratives of conflict were still observable.
Lhuisset is fascinated by the history of conflict photography, which in its genesis during the Crimean war often involved portraits of elegantly posed officers or the careful placing of cadavers to appease an aestheticism inherent in the concept of photography. He found that conflict photography has always served to augment the heroism of fighters, and to portray the absurdity of conflict. At the same time, in Lhuisset’s eyes it is validated through its means to be witness.
In this work he concurrently plays with two themes intrinsic to conflict depiction and its history: staged shots and the creation of an iconic image. Aggravating a debate over what is a fair communication of reality, staged photographs are the subject of much controversy. Many of the most well-known images of conflict in history have been staged, most famously perhaps Joel Rosenthal’s Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima and Yvgeny Khaldei’s Flag on the Reichstag.
For many observers, this manipulation removes the authenticity and power of the image, and brings into question what is actually being communicated. However, the impact of these images, across publics and histories, cannot be denied.
The degree of fiction and manipulation certainly varies. There are images that have been staged purely for propaganda reasons, or those sculpted to improve on the aesthetic beauty of the shot, and those that for practical considerations have to be re-enacted for the camera.
Lhuisset mentions the most famous and infamous images from the Iraq war. The much heralded image of Saddam Hussein’s statue being pulled down in Firdos Square, at one time considered to be a symbol of the imposed liberty of the Iraqi public, was in fact directed by American troops. For Lhuisset, the shocking images of American soldiers torturing and abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison show another aspect of staged imagery; the manipulation and creation of scenes as the soldiers lived out their fantasies.
The authenticity of a staged photograph then becomes a more complex issue as something is often powerfully communicated, and the reality behind it, distorted as it may be through the captured frame, existed in some sense.
Lhuisset notes that during the 1991 Gulf War, no imagery of casualties circulated; it was as if it was a war with no death in a land without humanity. Werner Herzog magnificently depicts this in his 1992 filmLessons of Darkness on the devastating Kuwait oil fires set by the retreating Iraqi army. Through aerial shots of the fires and an almost alien, detached narration of the scenes, Herzog poetically focuses on the absurdity of the destruction, if not the reality on the ground.
The industry of photojournalism demands images of action; dramatic, intense, beautiful. Lhuisset explains that images of this nature convey such a limited glimpse of reality as conflict for the most part revolves around elongated and tense periods of waiting. During his time spent with the guerrillas, like many conflict photographers, he was met with the continuous feeling that as a documenter of images present, he was altering the situations he hoped to capture in their naturality. Often as he raised his camera to shoot, the combatants would strike more dramatic poses, enacting their concept of the image of a fighter, itself informed by imagery, sometimes fictional.
When staging the shots for his work, Lhuisset spent long hours in discussion with the men and women he was living with and together they decided on the visual representation of their reality that they believed to be most powerful. The images staged visually removed them from their political context, but in so doing avoid the exoticism and Otherness that conflict depiction often draws out.
The narratives that play into the visual representation of war are what makes Lhuisset’s work a reminder that conflict photography , like art, is a subjective interpretation of the world.
Theater of War is on Display at the Running Horse Gallery until 10 January 2013.
In conjunction, Emeric Lhuisset will host a conference on Works on Representations of War, a Contemporary Approach at the gallery on Monday November 26 at 7 pm.