It is January 16th, 1991, the Gulf War has just begun, "Operation Desert Storm", and I am watching CNN. On the TV are pictured various satellite images of Baghdad and "targets" being bombed at that very moment. The satellite image is static as Bernard Shaw does a "play-by-play" of the bombing runs, as if at a football game, while a live audio track plays in the background of the sounds of war - explosions, sirens, whistles. The still satellite image and the live audio feed are haunting representations of humanity, at once a world away and far too close. And then the play-by-play, as if we, the viewer, are playing a video game while unseen people are dying in the streets, and it strikes me how far removed we have become from the actual consequences of war.
Such is the power of the media. Iconic images are burned into our memory, our psyche, our soul. Who cannot remember the Vietnamese monk burning in protest, the allied soldiers buried by the tide on the beaches of Normandy the day after D-day, the stills of the Kennedy assassination from the McGruder tape? The iconic image of the personal, the political, all have an untold affect. Such images not only have a personal impact, they shape our collective consciousness.
Since coverage of the Vietnam war fueled public outrage against the war, it has become clearer how various powers would want to have a stake in the influencing of public policy and perception. One has to wonder to what extent the Media, Government, Corporate America and Big Business engage in the influencing of public policy and perception through spin, manipulation, censorship and propaganda. Is the sanitizing of war a corporate or political move? By whom? What effect does this have on us personally? As a society? And are we complicit? Am I complicit? My fear is that we are all responsible.
Today, it is now 20 years later and we have been at war for over 10 of those 20 years, longer than WWI & WWII combined. An anonymous photojournalist for the New York Times and Corbis discloses to me that since he has been covering this war the US Government has required every embedded photojournalist to sign a "no shoot" clause, agreeing not to photograph any injured or killed American soldier. He adds, "they say it's to protect the families of American soldiers', but it completely alters how we can depict the war." He further laments his position, "They say that pictures don't lie, but that's not really true any more."
My work is most fundamentally about the politics of seeing. The personal, social and cultural constructs of how we see, what we choose to see and how we act as a result, personally, as a country and as citizens of the world. In our modern digital age we are inundated with images - images in the news, TV, internet, magazines, newspapers and billboards - images of war, strife, poverty, politics, natural disasters, uprisings around the world. Even half a world a way, the images come into our living room.
We all want to believe that what we see in photographs and the news is the "truth". There is a perception that photographs and, by extension, the news, are an objective depiction of reality, a visual account of the truth. But as Wim Wenders reveals, "The most political decision you make as a filmmaker, photographer or documentarian is where to direct people's eyes. What you decide to show people; the subject, the context, the composition are not just personal. They are political."
My work walks the bridge between photojournalism and Art, for if photographs claim to portray reality then Art, as Picasso said, "is the lie that enables us to see the truth." As Picasso said of ‘Guernica', "The importance of the painting is not the illustration of an event. The artist does more than document. It should have the same value to a blind man, for an artist paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen."
Similarly, for me, art is not the illustration of an event as much as the dynamism of visual forces. In my work I want to go beyond the representation a photograph provides. I want to create an experience of perception, perception that is as much psychological, spiritual and metaphysical as it is physical. For it is that process of perception, that path from seeing to understanding, that truly offers enlightenment, for if vision is "seeing", then perception is "knowing," which reveals the intangible element and transformative power of history's greatest works of Art. That is the goal to which I aspire in my work, and why I find Art to be vital in today's climate, for the transcendence of Art lies in its ability to bypass the mind and touch the soul.
As a kid I used to wonder, "why does it always take war to get to peace? Why don't we just go straight to peace?" We are willing to go to war at all costs. Why not peace? Just imagine if we adopted the attitude of peace at all costs? Imagine how that would affect how we function and act every day. Imagine what that would do to how we approach the world and our fellow man?
Peace at all cost. It is a concept so foreign to us it's almost impossible to conceive. But that is my hope for my work, that it offers by example a process of enlightenment, an opportunity not just of sight, but vision – the vision to see beyond borders and boundaries, to move toward personal peace and to embrace a vital and necessary sense of openness, understanding, tolerance and commonality in the human experience. I hold up a mirror to humanity so that we might see ourselves in a greater light - Peace at all cost.
- Perry Burns