Disarming Photos

What power lies in a picture? Flat, boxed in a frame, a mere snap in time, skeptics may say. But, for at least three artists in a new, Washington, DC, exhibition, photography offers the sweeping power of protest -- dynamic, fully dimensional -- captured in the smallest and simplest of human moments.

“We Could Be Heroes” is the latest exhibition at the gallery Transformer, a shoebox of a space wedged into a gentrifying neighborhood east of Dupont Circle -- and into a city not nationally known for its arts scene. The brainchild of gallery co-directors Jayme McLellan and Victoria Reis, Transformer showcases the work of emerging artists; “Heroes” is, however, one of the first overtly political shows the gallery has produced.

Featuring the work of three photojournalists and four artists working in video, painting, sculpture, and drawings, “Heroes” grapples with the brutality of genocide and political inaction in the face of epic violence, and it puts vibrant, horrified, and numb real-life faces to those known in the war on terrorism only as “collateral damage.” The artists' work provides a subversive undernarrative to official indifference or disregard of the human costs of war and genocide, just as the gallery in which their work is featured taps into the artistic underbelly of khaki-infested DC.

“I see art as a social tool,” said McLellan. “But if art hits you over the head, it's no good. If you can go deeper, though, to the realm of inspiration, then you can really create change.”

Running through June 25, “Heroes” is the product of such inspiration. It is, in effect, head curator McLellan's homage to the work of humanitarian powerhouses like John Prendergast, an expert on Sudan and a special adviser to the International Crisis Group, and artists like Lucian Perkins, a Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post photographer known for his work from the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the poverty-torn streets of Washington, DC, itself.

One of Perkins's photographs from the former Yugoslavia inspired McLellan's own foray into photography and moved her to launch cultural exchanges between U.S. artists and those from the Balkans in her work with another local nonprofit arts organization. Not surprisingly, Perkins's work forms a substantial part of the “Heroes” exhibit.

Perkins's photographs from Iraq and Afghanistan draw on a remarkable quality of light, hazy and dust-filled, a harsh and scratchy view into countries staggering out of bullet-torn ruin. A boy flies a kite over crumbling walls; trucks packed with impoverished Afghan workers headed to Iran roll down a bleak road. In one of Perkins's most powerful photos, a crowd stands around a bloody body, two men nudging it with their feet. A young boy in the crowd stares directly into the camera, his hands over his mouth, his eyes conveying a shocked, aghast horror, turning the photo, in effect, into a haunting editorial.

The show's method of photo display adds to the impact: McLellan chose to showcase the photographs not as still lifes, framed on the wall, but in a series of slides projected on to opposite walls of the gallery and on a TV poised in the space's storefront, facing the street. As a result, the photos gain a sort of cumulative power as they unreel, violence giving way to rejoicing, providing jolts and resonances of scale and mood.

Perkins's photographs are followed by those of J Carrier, whose work from the Darfur and Nuba Mountain region of Sudan shows the fallout from the ongoing conflict in the country. A man dominates one photo, even as his looming body has been reduced to an elbow cradling a machine gun; a cluster of brightly clad women stand before him, fear etched on their faces. Another man hovers by a child's bedside, his hand covering half of the child's tiny back. A woman stands in a field, flinging her green and red scarf in a dazzling curl over her head; the photo is a moment of intense, visual exuberance, of defiant beauty.

Brian Liu's work focuses on the impact of landmines: men yarning away outside a prosthetic-leg clinic, deminers hovering in patchy grass. Liu and Mary Wareham (of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines) recently completed Disarm, a documentary on landmines, which features footage from Colombia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, among other countries. Transformer will be screening Disarm during the later dates of “We Could Be Heroes.”

The photographers' work is complemented by that of other visual artists, including Paul Weil's finely detailed pen-and-ink drawings and silkscreens, which recall LP covers from punk rock bands. Renowned chef and artist Carole Wagner Greenwood contributed three tablets featuring pairings of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers' faces; she has scratched lines like “I am risking everything” on them. Viewers look down on each tablet, regarding them as they would a tombstone. Evan Berodt's painting of Condoleezza Rice shows the secretary of state stepping out of her motorcade; she dwarfs the car as she looks out over a grey skyline. Berodt flanks Rice with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings, one a mirrored wall sending out warped reflections of other buildings. The painting is an effective commentary on what Berodt calls, in his artist's statement, “the democratic business of war.”

Lisa Garfield's work, “Pod,” provides a witty counterpoint for the exhibit: Her video installation shows her creating a cocoon for herself, transforming her into a rock in a park in Brooklyn, painted an unnatural green. Garfield's video critiques the inverse of the movement advocated by the other artists, whose work pushes for a complex and critical regard of the external world. In the context of the exhibit, “Pod” seems to show the absurdity of trying to hide, of hibernation, of a willful ignorance of reality -- the rock seems to want to disguise itself with its nasty green coat, but it just stands out further, jarringly out of place and out of time with everything else around it.

“Heroes” also features Perkins's video work, a visual counterargument to the punditry and talking heads that dominate media coverage of conflict. He shows a screenful of commentators flapping away -- they are speaking about Iraq, he says, “but not the war I had witnessed … not the [Iraqis] I met.” For that last statement, he cuts away to a picture of a young woman, her face blazingly radiant with hope under her veil. Juxtaposing the pundits with an image of an Iraqi child -- and gun-toting Iraqis with a vibrant young woman -- is broad-brush, to be sure, but done with the conviction of someone dedicated to showing the dignity of his subjects, amplifying their humanity and rich dimensionality to viewers a world away.

“We Could Be Heroes” -- the title of the exhibit, like its content -- is both accusatory and hopeful. “We could be” marks the potential of future bravery, the possibility of moral courage and action; implied, however, is the statement that at present, we are not, indeed, heroes. But optimism seems to weigh the equation for these artists; their art is predicated on the belief that they can move their viewers, shake off their inertia by showing them one snippet of time or a piece of art imbued with equal parts criticism and compassion. “Heroes” captures that embattled hope, harnesses it: the unsettling power of a picture to document, to comment, and to capture the human faces and moments that are the strongest rebuttal of all to those who would seek to forget them.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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