PRINT April 2001


THE GUNPOWDER STAINS on the young soldier’s face look a bit too authentic to be the real thing, as if some masterly makeup artist had just exited the frame. But, as it happens, this is the real thing. Only seconds before being photographed, the boy in uniform had been firing the enormous M-16 assault rifle that the state of Israel provides its soldiers for use during their three years of mandatory service. When Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra placed her subject in front of the camera, the gunfire was still resonating in his body. Is he posing?

In various series of works over the past decade, Dijkstra has portrayed young people in moments of vulnerability: young women who have just given birth, standing naked before the lens, child in arms; exhausted matadors postfight; adolescents in swimsuits on the beach. "What interests me is that ambivalent zone where you almost lose control,” Dijkstra comments about her recent video of teenagers at English and Dutch discos (The Buzzclub, Liverpool, UK / Mysteryworld, Zaandam, NL, 1996-97). Girls and boys are smoking and dancing, posing according to received ideas of what's cool, but still, something unique and unrestrained forces itself through. No matter how stereotypical their clothing and attitude, they all convey distinct personalities. “In the end, it's the individual that I’m after,” Dijkstra says. The tension between distinguishing marks and shared conventions could hardly be more extreme than in the case of youths in uniform. Visiting Israel repeatedly over the course of several years, the artist systematically photographed young women on their first day in the army and young men immediately after a military shooting exercise in the mountains. “I photographed many things in Israel, but ultimately realized that I couldn't capture such a complicated cultural and political situation, so I singled out just one theme: young soldiers in uniforms.”

Although today mass-media imagery and the basic ingredients of youth culture may be shared the world over, the global leveling of cultural difference is hardly complete. Things still mean different things in different places. A machine gun, for instance, signifies one thing if carried by an eighteen-year-old Israeli—someone who’s just left his family to serve in the army of a nation at war—and quite another if by a soldier from, say, Norway. Not long ago, Wallpaper ran a fetishistic feature on the Norwegian army, turning war into just another backdrop for hip Scandinavian style. (Such an article, bizarre as it was, would clearly have been beyond the pale had it dealt with Israeli or Palestinian kids in uniform.) In Dijkstra’s series of photos of soldiers, the stereotypical world of uniforms and conventional poses somehow makes individual traits even more conspicuous. It’s the particularities that one sees: the scars around the dark-haired girl’s eyes, the sharp black eyebrows of the boy with the sun in his face. These are documentary photos of young people who’ve just been through something, and the trace of that experience disturbs everything. They’re in uniform, completely controlled by rules and regulations, and yet through the unrelieved uniformity something else becomes salient, what Roland Barthes called the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, the This.

Daniel Birnbaum