In 2007, the intrepid film-maker and photographer Ryan Lobo went to two war zones—Afghanistan and Iraq—and to Liberia on the western coast of Africa, which is still recovering from the effects of a civil war. He photographed mostly people, and some buildings and scenery, at each of the three places, and these photos are currently on display at a show titled War and Forgiveness.
Accompanying the show is a catalogue containing the images and Lobo’s semi-impressionistic account of his experience in the war zones. The text provides the context and explains the circumstances in which the black and white photos were taken. After you have read the text, the photographs by themselves feel incomplete—even though they lyrically convey the reality the photographer seeks to capture.
For instance, the image of a little Afghan girl making faces at the camera amid a ravaged backdrop is unsettling, but when you read that she is the child of heroin addicts and will probably be sold off at some point, it becomes poignant. Lobo places his subjects and the wreckage surrounding them— shattered buildings, rusting pile of war machinery—against the majesty of the Afghan sky and mountains, throwing in stark relief the human folly of war. The shots of Afghan children—a beggar girl, a boy vendor, son of a poppy farmer—wearing expressions that seem both naive and knowing, reflect the predicament of coping with the reality fate hands us.
There is a preponderance of concrete in Lobo’s Baghdad pictures—in the form of barricades or floors or walls of a prison—as if reflecting blunt military might. Marooned in this arid photographic landscape are Iraqi men, women and children, either alone or in twos. Suspended in the distance are the helicopters, looking magical—at least to a detached spectator—while also feeling as inevitable and heavy as the concrete. The marriage is complete in a shot of a helicopter painted on the walls of a barricade.
The “forgiveness” in the show’s title comes from the third, and in some ways the most disturbing, place that Lobo photographs. His account of Liberia, and the visit to a slum in the capital Monrovia, where he suddenly finds himself in physical danger, is vivid; seen in its light, the photos of the hostile slum inhabitants too assume an air of menace. In Liberia, Lobo is accompanying a former warlord who committed unspeakable atrocities and killed thousands—he was called General Butt Naked because he would fight naked. But now he is a changed man—his name is Joshua Milton Blahyi and he is seeking forgiveness from his victims and redemption by converting to Christianity.
Lobo seems to accept Blahyi’s transformation at face value and captures Blahyi’s meetings with his victims and his baptism by missionaries. Blahyi recounts to Lobo how he used to kill little children and literally eat their hearts.
Here again, the images capture life playing itself out in a setting ravaged by violence and suffering. They impress upon the viewer that war or no war, one has to carry on in life—there is no alternative.
War and Forgiveness is on display at the Seagull Arts and Media Resource Centre, 36C, SP Mukherjee Road, Kolkata, until 1 August, 2-8pm daily (except Sundays).