New York

An-My Lê

Murray Guy

War photographers have to a certain extent always staged their shots. Even the earliest known examples of the genre were contrived; American Civil War lensmen like Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner weren’t above scattering a few cannonballs or moving bodies to more dramatic settings. As Susan Sontag tells it in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), it wasn’t until the Vietnam War that we could be reasonably certain that photographs from the front weren’t setups: Images like the famous shot of children fleeing a napalm attack were simply too horrific to have been engineered, and the horrors therein were confirmed by the competing medium of television.

An-My Lê left Vietnam as a teenager in 1975. In her series “Small Wars,” 1999–2002, she worked with reenactors in Virginia and North Carolina to stage battles from the Vietnam War. For her latest, ongoing project, “29 Palms,” 2003–, Lê has been photographing a large swath of California’s Mojave desert that has been designated a combat-training zone for Marines headed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Shifting from Vietnam to the Middle East—from re-enactment to rehearsal—Lê engages both the history of war photography and media coverage of current conflicts, getting close to the action without placing herself in the compromised position of the embedded reporter.

As it happens, Lê chose the site after being denied entry to Iraq as an “embed,” but had she been admitted the results might have been less remarkable. The seventeen black-and-white photographs, taken with a large-format camera, capture Marines in various stages of training, both active (a serpentine procession of tanks) and passive (a group of infantry officers undergoing briefing). While suitably vast and dusty-looking, the Mojave Desert bears little resemblance to Baghdad or even the rockier Afghan terrain; for one thing, a distant veil of smog reminds us of the site’s physical proximity to Hollywood. And while 29 Palms is one of the only Marine training sites to use live fire, there are few signs of it in these images. In 29 Palms: Mortar Impact, 2004, a landscape with distant wisps of smoke, the eye is drawn to barrels labeled DO NOT SHOOT.

While none of the pictured drills were staged for Lê’s camera, her shots are too artfully and deliberately composed to pass for documentary. Many have a timeless quality, like stills from classic war movies. The subject of 29 Palms: Colonel Greenwood, 2004, crouched in a corner of the frame with binoculars raised, could almost be on the lookout for the Germans were it not for the pixilated camouflage print on his fatigues. The exception is a quartet titled 29 Palms: Security and Stability Operations (Good Saddam), 2004, depicting trailers adorned with the military’s comically crude take on anti-American graffiti (FREE SADDAM, BUSH DONKEY) and faux Arabic script (squiggles and dots that bear a distinct resemblance to cartoon breasts and a smiley face). In one image, a group of Marines clad in fatigues overcomes an “insurgent” and pins him to the ground. In its ugly specificity this scene evokes the less-anticipated fronts of today’s war, from Fallujah to Abu Ghraib.

The war Lê fled in the ’70s has in recent months become a political hand-grenade—even as its leitmotif, the returning coffin, is now banished from the nightly news. It’s no less absurd that in Lê’s largely peaceful pseudo-reportage, death muscles its way into the picture. Hence the punctum of the otherwise unremarkable 29 Palms: Guard, Combat Operations Center, 2004: a small mound of earth, marked with a cross, in the middle distance. As it turns out, this grave isn’t part of the official obstacle course of 29 Palms—it marks the spot where a Marine was killed in training. Even the simulacrum of war produces casualties.

Karen Rosenberg