Author Archives: Alice König

Young People’s Voices on the War in Ukraine

What do children and young people have to say about the war in Ukraine? And what can we learn by listening to them? 

In June 2022, the Visualising War project teamed up with the charity Never Such Innocence (NSI) to invite young people from all around the world to share their reflections on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and their hopes for an end to the conflict. Children from Ukraine were joined by young people from South Korea, Russia, Lithuania, Canada, China, Sri Lanka and the UK. A panel of adult respondents included academics (Prof. J. Marshall Beier and Dr Helen Berents) and policy-makers in military and humanitarian roles (Lieutenant General Tom Copinger-Symes and Dr Sean Loughna). 

Since 2013, NSI has been giving children and young people a voice on conflict. Via an annual competition, schools workshops and high-profile roadshows, NSI provides opportunities for young people aged 9-18 to reflect on different aspects of conflict and conflict-resolution, and to share their views with politicians, policy-makers and other adults in influential, decision-making positions. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NSI has received many works of art, poems, songs and speeches from children and young people all around the world, expressing their horror at the unfolding conflict and their concern for everyone involved. This webinar featured the work of ten young people from eight different countries – all very powerful and thought-provoking in different ways. Many focused on the impact of the war on children themselves, depicting their loss of close family members, reflecting on the upheaval of forced displacement, and discussing mental health impacts and disruption to schooling, among other topics. But they also represented children as sources of hope and strength, highlighting their resilience as well as their need for protection. There were images of destruction and desolation, and words expressing pain, division, anger and sorrow; but also paintings infused with light and positive symbolism, and speeches and poems expressing pride, encouragement, gratitude and optimism.

Children from other parts of the world, with different histories of conflict, shared their experiences of displacement and survival, reaching out in solidarity to those affected in Ukraine. Their empathy and care for each other was powerful. Equally impactful were their insightful critiques of adult decision-making, both before and since Russia’s invasion. Their understanding of history stretched right back to antiquity, and their warnings and calls to action for the future demand our attention. As one panellist (Marshall Beier) observed: the adult-child relationship is often conceived as that of expert-novice or teacher-pupil. But another way of understanding it is to see adults as guardians and communicators of established knowledge, and children as askers of challenging, even ‘heretical’ questions, disrupting and stretching that established knowledge with new perspectives. Participants at the webinar learnt a great deal from the diverse reflections and thought-provoking questions which our young speakers urged us to think about.

In their responses, the adult panelists reflected on what these young people can teach us about the impacts of war in both time and space. Their contributions powerfully showed how war disrupts people’s experience of time, sometimes establishing strong divisions between ‘before’ and ‘after’ even as people try to hold onto continuity amid change. As Tom Copinger-Symes underlined, this brought us to questions of dreams and reality: one young participant asked ‘are we ever after conflict – or is that just a dream?’, while others depicted a mix of memories, hopes and fears, as they wrestled with what this war in the present means for the future and how it might change the way we look at the past. Helen Berents noted that, while news coverage tends to focus on global politics, desolated cityscapes and men in suits, the contributions submitted by young people to NSI draw our attention to the local: to everyday impacts of war in ordinary people’s lives and on people’s families, to local examples of survival, to personal acts of resistance and resilience.

Sean Loughna was particularly struck by the insightfulness of young people’s criticism of bodies like the UN, and also the implicit (not just explicit) reflections which their contributions encouraged into war’s impacts: for example, the painting of a crutch, which gestures to the huge challenge ahead of clearing land mines, a source of so many childhood deaths and injuries after conflict. Marshall Beier joined the other adult panelists in stressing the huge contribution that young people’s voices have to make to global politics, if only we are willing to listen and support. As he and Helen both stressed, children are the authorities on their own experiences, with unique things to say about people’s efforts to survive, resist and built peace in the long term. It is not enough to give them the microphone every so often: adults need to do more to validate and recognise their expertise and to make room for them routinely in discussions of war and peace.

You can watch a recording of the webinar below. Two Ukrainian participants recorded additional speeches which can be found here and here.

This webinar is part of a wider collaboration between the Visualising War project and Never Such Innocence to develop new mechanisms for involving more children in conversations on conflict.


Peace from Pieces

In January 2022 a team of twelve undergraduate students at the University of St Andrews were selected to work on a ‘Vertically Integrated Project‘ called ‘Visualising Peace‘. Directed by Dr Alice König and supported by PG Mentor Jenny Oberholtzer, this project seeks to extend the work of the Visualising War project by examining how war’s aftermath, conflict resolution and peace-building are conceived. Our aim is to study different habits of imagining, understanding, representing and working towards peace, and we are particularly interested in analysing how different narratives and ideas of peace have evolved and gained influence over time. 

Part of studying how others visualise peace involves being mindful of the stories and images that we ourselves amplify and project. For this reason, we thought hard about the kinds of imagery we wanted to use in our outputs and on social media. Our conversations inspired one student, Harris Siderfin, to design a logo for the project that captures many of the elements of ‘visualising peace’ that we have been talking about. In this blog, Harris explains the ideas behind his design.

There were several inspirations for visualising peace in this graphic which I tried to incorporate into the piece. 

The first came from Frank Möller and his research into visualising real 'everyday' peace. Möller's particular focus is photography, and he argues for broad understandings of and approaches to 'peace photography', discussing the power of images which represent 'everyday' peace, even during times of war (Möller, Peace Photography, Palgrave Macmillan 2019). Möller states that images of 'everyday' peace can help frame and address the reality of conflict, which in turn can support mediation and peace-building processes. 

Some 'realistic' images of peace include military equipment abandoned in post-conflict zones. In the image below, for example, a tank has been abandoned and subsequently taken over by nature. I wanted to incorporate this idea of abandoned instruments of war, which help us to visualise the ugly realities of peace in a post-war landscape, so I included two guns in my design - a modern assault rifle and a traditional single-shot rifle - with flowers growing from their barrels. The flowers show that the firearms can no longer be used for war as they have been taken over by nature. However, the guns serve as a reminder that peace often comes post-war. We may celebrate when peace flourishes, but we should not forget that it can often have violent roots.  
The flower-sprouting guns also represent the 'flower power' movement of 1960s America, where war protestors placed flowers on soldiers' guns. This transforms the guns from being objects of killing and war into something natural, peaceful and beautiful, as they act as vessels for the flowers to grow.

I have inverted the colours of some of the flowers to represent different aspects of peace. For example, I have used white to represent pure and peaceful intentions, but I have included streaks of red to show the bloodshed that often occurs before peace and stability are established. The black also signifies the darker sides to peace and memories of war which we often fail to see. The bright flowers catch the viewers’ attention whilst the black stems are understated and can easily be over-looked. This is to illustrate how the public can hyper-focus on specific aspects of peace and it success, often overlooking the reality of day-to-day peace-making and the sacrifices required for getting there. The withered nature of the stems further illustrates the fragility of peace: without healthy stems and maintenance the flowers of peace will die. 
On the far right of the logo, the flowers are more colourful, demonstrating that beautiful things can happen when peace flourishes. You might notice a bee on one of the flowers. This is a reference to a story told in Emily Mayhew’s book The Four Horsemen and the Hope of a New Age about the city of Mosul’s post-conflict recovery (Mayhew, E., The Four Horsemen and the Hope of a New Age, Riverrun 2021, 240-41).  As she explains, a year after the end of ISIS’s bloody occupation of Mosul the local bees and their beekeepers produced record amounts of honey: ‘hope in a jar’, as she puts it. Bees (like flowers) can flourish in the wild, but they benefit from good care and attention; and they are social creatures, working collectively. Bees remind us of the hard work and co-operation that goes into producing something sweet. They can teach us important lessons about peace. 
The green roots represent the 'grassroots' peacebuilding efforts which are often critical in achieving sustainable peace (Hamidi, M. 2018. Peace Insight. Accessed March 28, 2022). However, they also look like lightning bolts which demonstrate how peace can occur and disappear rapidly – and sometimes violently. The dark blue field the graphic sits on symbolises hope and apparent horizons. However, I decided to use a darker blue to signal that, while there may be hope for brighter days, darkness and conflict are never far away. Finally, you might notice a white feather helping to bind one bunch of flowers together: a symbol which brings to mind the conscientious objectors of WWI. The white feather evokes pacifist movements, but it also reminds us of the stigma which some pacifists have faced for standing against war. In Britain, men who did not sign up to the war prior to the introduction of conscription in 1916 were verbally attacked by women on the street, and had a white feather pinned onto them. Although from the perpetrator’s perspective, the feather was representative of cowardice, for the conscientious objectors it often became a symbol of pride, showing their pacifist nature. Thus, the inclusion of a white feather also shows the importance of positionality when considering peace, as the differing symbolism highlights how personal interpretation is key. Finally, the white feather raises thoughts of historical interpretations of peace, and how this has changed throughout the eras. 

Overall, this graphic visualises peace through imagery of hope, nature, beauty and growth. But it also evokes the fragility of peace, through references to the violence that often precedes it and to threats that persist when peace starts to flourish.   

Harris Siderfin, April 2022

Human Nature and the Potential for Peace

What can Modern History and Social Anthropology teach each other – and us – about past and present peace building?

Peace is a concept that many feel familiar with – and yet clear-cut definitions are hard to pin down. Our research has shown that peace gets visualised and studied in very different ways both within and across different disciplines. As a result, the complexities and contradictions of the notion are rarely addressed, resulting in lack of clarity and understanding. The University of St Andrews ‘Visualising Peace’ project is working to challenge and stretch traditional habits of visualising and idealising peace. Dr. Alice König, Postgraduate Research Mentor Jenny Oberholtzer and a team of twelve students from a variety of year groups and academic departments have been investigating how peace is studied and represented within their respective disciplines, and how these discussions translate into wider peace-building efforts.

The team’s first major publication was an online bibliographic resource, gathering together over 175 different articles, books and other publications which represent different trends in peace studies. Between us, we conducted an extensive literature review on this material, comparing different disciplinary approaches to constructing and studying peace. We identified significant gaps in existing scholarship, and discussed suggestions and solutions for future studies, to enhance the inclusiveness both of academic and of real-world peace-building strategies. 

This presentation by third-year student Claire Percival describes her selection for our online bibliographic resource, particularly focusing on the subjects of Modern History and Social Anthropology. Within the presentation, Claire underlines the importance of de-centring heavily theory-based, ‘standard’ Western narratives of peace, as simply the opposite of conflict. She  also problematises tendencies in some anthropological scholarship that promote indigenous people and belief systems as ‘models’ of peace/peaceful practices which Western initiatives can simply adopt/utilise. Taking case studies from both Modern History and Social Anthropology, Claire identifies some common threads that connect both disciplines; but she also reflects on what more they can learn from each other and the challenges they both face in deepening our wider understanding of peace itself and of the various ideologies that different communities attach to it. 

‘Blessed are the peacemakers’: international relations, peace and the way forward

Few concepts are seemingly as basic yet as contested as ‘peace’. A coherent understanding of ‘peace’ and ‘peacebuilding’ has remained elusive in academia, with efforts to form an all-encompassing understanding of both hindered by a lack of inter-disciplinary communication and research. The University of St. Andrews Visualizing Peace project is seeking to change this. Alongside Dr. Alice König and Postgraduate Research Mentor Jenny Oberholtzer, a team of 12 students drawn from across university departments and year groups is investigating patterns of representing and narrating peace in their respective fields of study, as well as the role that these conceptualizations play in peacebuilding efforts.  

The group’s first output was a 175-source literature review which compared different disciplinary approaches to the construction of peace, highlighted existing gaps in scholarship, and outlined potential steps to ensure that academic research and practical theories of peacebuilding are indeed reflective of the challenges they seek to address. This presentation by student Mathias Katsuya summarizes a portion of the literature review with an emphasis on the field of International Relations and the dominance of the ‘liberal peace’ narrative within it. Beyond explaining the theoretical underpinnings of ‘liberal peace’, the presentation highlights the consequences of assuming the universality of particular visualisations of peace on both academia and real-world peacebuilding efforts. Finally, this presentation outlines alternative conceptualizations of peace and illustrates instances of success through contemporary case studies ranging from post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland to present-day Somaliland.

‘Blessed are the Peacemakers; international relations, peace and the way forward’, Mathias Katsuya

How can children and young people help us re-visualise war and peace?

Regular listeners to the Visualising War podcast might remember that our first guest interview was with Lady Lucy French, the founder of Never Such Innocence, an organisation which gives children and young people a voice on conflict. We have been really inspired by their work, and as the podcast series has developed we have been nudged again and again to think more about the forces that shape children’s habits of visualising war and peace – and also the power of children and young people’s voices to influence how all of us think about war, its aftermath, conflict resolution and peace-building. 

‘Eyes Wide Shut, Mind Wide Open’ by Vasko Stamboliev, 2018

Building on this, Alice König has begun collaborating with a wide range of researchers in childhood studies, critical security studies, peace studies and futures thinking, to develop an extensive network of academics and practitioners to ask some of the following questions:

  • What kinds of war stories are children of different ages most regularly exposed to in different parts of the world (through films, gaming, school curricula, local folklore, graffiti, news reports, and so on)? What aspects of war dominate the narratives that children are exposed to? And what narratives about war’s aftermath, conflict transformation and peace-building tend to circulate in the media they most regularly engage with?
  • What do children and young people think about the dominant modes of representing war and peace? How do they describe the impact which different narratives of war and peace have had on them? And how differently might they represent or narrate war, conflict transformation and peace if they were in charge of the storytelling themselves? 
  • Finally, what impact can children’s voices have on entrenched adult habits of visualising war and peace?

Alice will be working with lots of different storytellers in different fields (the museum sector, the world of comics and anime, journalism for young people, gaming, and the publishing industry, among others); but above all, she will be involving children and young people in the project, so that we can learn directly from them.

For this reason, she decided that the 50th episode in the Visualising War podcast series should bring young people into the conversation, kicking off this new project as we mean to go on. She invited three recent Never Such Innocence competition winners to be guests on the podcast: Molly Meleady-Hanley, Jasleen Singh, and Vasko Stamboliev (all of whom now serve as inspiring Never Such Innocence Ambassadors). They shared their memories of the war stories they grew up with, and they also reflected on how war and peace were taught in the different school systems (in Greece, Serbia, Australia, Ireland and England) which they were part of. They talked about the writing and artwork they have done themselves, to express their own views on conflicts past, present and future; and they explained how empowering it has been to have their voices heard, thanks to the opportunities which Never Such Innocence has given them to speak with many different young people from all around the world and to address world leaders in lots of different places, from Buckingham Palace to the Bundestag.

Below you can see the poems by Molly and Jasleen, and above the painting by Vasko, which were awarded first prize in their age groups in the 2018 Never Such Innocence competition. We strongly encourage readers to visit the Never Such Innocence website to look at many more winning entries from their annual competitions – it is a mind-opening experience! A small sample of work is available here. And of course, please do listen to the podcast, where you can hear directly from Jasleen, Molly and Vasko themselves. The podcast we recording with Lady Lucy French at the start of our series is available here.

Me Brother Dan by Molly Meleady-Hanley (Written in the Sheffield Dialect)

Me brother Dan went off to war, marching down Duke Street with his pals.
Heads held high, while the Sheffield crowd clapped and cheered them so!
Me Mam wept and me Dad said:-
“Gi’ore Molly. Be proud. Be happy for our lad. He’s serving his King and Country in a just war.”

Six Weeks later, we got a fancy Can Can card from our Dan.
Reet chuffed we were. Dad read it out, puffed up chest, loud and clear.
Dad said, Dan was doing well and our Dan wished us all good cheer.

Tucking card in’t pocket, he went off down road to get hisen a beer.
Ten weeks later, on Skye Edge Fields, a neighbour came calling us from play.
Saying :- “Come quick Lizzie, yer Mam needs yer - reet away!”
Opening our door, on Talbot Row, we heard Banshee screaming.
Our Mam, paper crumpled on’t floor, sobbing and rocking, hands to heaven.
“Why did he have to die? Me son, me son, me only son!” she cried.
Dan’s body never came home.

He lies without us, in some distant land.
In a place me Mam will never be able to go.
And so she trudges every day to Norfolk Row.
Saying prayers and lighting holy candles for our Dan and other mothers' sons.
These other boys whose lives too will never grow.

And me, well… I keep asking mesen
“Why do they kill caterpillars and then complain that there are no butterflies?”
Me Dad said:- “Listen up our Lizzie. Them there caterpillars and butterflies have
died to keep us all safe and free
You’ll learn that one day me love, when you’re wise from being worn with care.
Until then me Liz, be proud and thankful for the sacrifice our Dan and is pals made for thee."

The Indian Soldier by Jasleen Singh

Home is where the heart is 
I heard a British Soldier say that here 
If that is true my love 
My home is a long, long way from here
My heart is under the mango tree 
Where its sweet blossoms smile almost as wide as me 
Instead shells are pouring like the rains in the monsoon 
Only we don’t know for certain that these will ever stop 

My heart is wandering somewhere far away from this God forsaken land 
Where night is never silent and stars are never seen 
Our richly spiced food is traded for a cold hard bread 
It impales my teeth like the bullets struck in the walls back home
My heart longs to fly away from here and join the flock of migrating birds 
They are escaping the smoke that plumes like wispy ghosts 
For a brighter land with silks of red, yellow and orange 
And a sun that beams just as vividly 

My heart longs for freedom, freedom and peace 
I have a wish that my children can live in a world with more justice than me 
I do this for a promise, my love 
A promise to own the soil beneath our feet 

My heart belongs to the corn fields 
And a warm breeze running free 
Instead the corpses cover the fields 
Like sheaves of harvested corn

My heart belongs to the children, hold them tight my dear 
Tell them whatever happens, Papa will always be near 
Tell them funny stories, make them laugh from ear to ear 
I shall be able to hear their laughter, even from a place as far as here 

Our hearts long to sing 
Instead they are silenced 
Hidden amongst the millions of white crosses surrounding our graves. Why? 
We too gave our all when it came to the cry of the fight 

Molly Meleady-Hanley has been writing from the age of 9 and is now a published playwright, having had several plays professionally produced and performed at the Sheffield Crucible. She has been commissioned to write and present poems and art installations for major events, including for the opening of the Invictus Games Trials in Sheffield in 2019. Her poem ‘Me Brother Dan’ was included in the official Battle of the Somme Centenary commemorations in 2016; it was read out at the Menin Gate, and carried by serving personnel from the U.K. and laid on the graves of every Commonwealth armed forces member who died in WWI.

After winning first prize in her age group in the 2018 Never Such Innocence competition, Jasleen Singh has recited her winning poem, ‘The Indian Soldier’, at the Guards Chapel in the Wellington Barracks, Buckingham Palace and the House of Lords. She was chosen as one of three young people to read a prayer at the Westminster Abbey Centenary Remembrance Service in 2018; and she was selected to represent the UK at the German Remembrance service to mark 75 years since the end of WWII, held in the Bundestag in 2020.

Vasko Stamboliev is an undergraduate art student at Athens School of Fine Arts in the department of painting. Currently based in Athens, he was born in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and also spent time living in Perth, Australia, as a child. He is a Young Ambassador for Never Such Innocence and was one of the judges in 2020 for their art competition’.

Visualisations of War in Online Gaming

In a recent Visualising War podcast, Alice and Nicolas talked with Dr Iain Donald, a Senior Lecturer in Game Production at Abertay University. Iain works with talented colleagues, postgraduate researchers and undergraduates to explore what games and interactive media can achieve. He has been involved in several award-winning Applied Games projects, and has written and presented on creating and developing games for digital health, education, cybersecurity and social change. His research looks particularly at commemoration and memorialization in video-games.

A still from a game which Iain is developing, based around the battle of Loos (image credit: Iain Donald)

In the podcast we reflected on the opportunities and challenges of representing war in video games. Iain discussed the complex question of historical accuracy in games based on real conflicts, and the risks and consequences of representing real-life wars or battles. We talked about player agency and immersion, the interplay of technical, aesthetic, economic and historical interests in game creation, and the ethical problems that many games run into as they represent injury, trauma and death. We also discussed visualisations of peace and reconciliation in war games, as part of a wider conversation about the more experimental side of the industry. Iain himself has been pushing at conventional boundaries with his development of games based around commemoration.

A still from another game which Iain is developing, based around remembrance (image credit: Iain Donald)

During the podcast, Iain mentioned some little-known games alongside bigger names. The following list may be useful for listeners who want to find out more:

Iain also mentioned the following better-known games:

  • Grand Theft Auto V 
  • Red Dead Redemption 2 
  • Warframe 
  • Call of Duty Series 
  • Battlefield Series
  • Civilisation Series
  • Age of Empires Series
  • Total War Series

To complement our interview with Iain, our postdoctoral research assistant Katarina Birkedal interviewed Taliesin and Evitel, the couple behind the YouTube and Twitch channels of the same name. They offer commentary on the game World of Warcraft, as well as giving regular news updates on everything related to the game. Through a combination of humour and deep dive analyses, they enrich their viewers’ experience and understanding of the game, drawing on their backgrounds as an actor and an art historian to pick apart the references and narrative devices the game uses to tell its story. Katarina draws out a fascinating conversation with them about the overlaps and differences between how we visualise war in the real world and in game worlds, and how representations of conflict in World of Warcraft might influence as well as reflect real-life mindsets and behaviours. You can listen to that episode here.

Alice König, 2.2.22

Painting Invisible Threats with Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox

In one of our recent Visualising War podcast episodes, Alice interviewed award-winning artist Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox. Kathryn started painting as a child, selling her first piece of art at just 14 years old, winning her first major art competition at 16, and holding her first exhibition at 17. She has since exhibited not just in her native Australia but in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, South Korea, Norway London and New York. Her art takes inspiration from nature and the cosmos, and in recent years she has focused particularly on the existential threats posed to us and our world by emerging technologies. This has led her to look at military technologies – something which she is exploring academically as well as artistically through a PhD. 

Kathryn uses the powerful analogue medium of painting to ask huge questions about new media, especially those that use the electromagnetic spectrum: a natural phenomenon which we can’t see with the naked eye but which many different organisations are using for scientific, commercial or military purposes. Fundamentally, her art is a powerful exercise in visualisation, inviting us to look deep into the past as well as into the future, and to pay attention to phenomena that threaten our landscape and human existence. In particular, she focuses attention on the ‘everywhere war’: the increasing blurring of military and civilian technologies and activities, a development which challenges our long-established habits of visualising (and separating) ‘war’ and ‘peace’.

Theatre of War-Spectrum Gouache on paper 56 x 76 cm 2021

In the podcast, Kathryn described her approach as ‘imaginational metaveillance’ – a term she has come up with to capture the critical, analytical observations that her art performs by taking us to places we can only go in our imaginations and getting us to look critically at things we cannot physically see. In her paintings, she invites us to fly, so that we can look down from above earth’s atmosphere like a scoping drone – or a bird, a speck of star dust, a pilot in an aircraft, a drone, a moon beam, a solar ray, Voyager 1 or 2, an intergalactic space traveller, or even a multiple of these! – seeing natural clouds but also online/digital ‘clouds’ that swirl everywhere, and the invisible grids that criss-cross earth and sky, measuring our every move and harvesting our data.

Kathryn also explained why she uses age-old symbols like the Tree of Life to help viewers connect with the whole span of human history as they visualise future threats and possibilities, both military and civilian – or a combination of the two. We discussed her artistic style, which draws readers in with lots of colour and beautiful aesthetics, and also the responses which viewers often have to her art: most are enthusiastic, until they look closely and grasp its worrying ‘revelations’ about the threats that lurk in our present and future.

That got us talking about the impact which Kathryn wants to have with her art. Among other places, Kathryn has exhibited at the Australian Defence College, and she has enjoyed the many reflective conversations it has opened up with lots of different visitors. She believes that the critical and imaginative visions of past, present and future which art can prompt us to engage with have much to contribute to policy-making, strategy-making and futures thinking, and she describes her own work as a form of quiet activism, opening up dialogue and inviting people to engage with big questions. 

Below are some of the artworks we talked about in the podcast. You can find more – and more of Kathryn’s analysis of them – on her blog

 Follow Me, Says The Tree Oil on canvas 60 x 76 cm 2017  

Kathryn discusses this painting on her blog here:

Follow Me, Says the Tree combines my interpretation of a tree-of-life with a few of my other interests. These include thinking about how landscape is mediated in the 21st century – the age of cyber and digital technologies, drones, perpetual war and the ‘everywhere war’. The tree-of-life is a symbol of life – for the existence of life. But, how is human existence affected by accelerating developments in technology, particularly surveillance technologies and weaponised [or weaponisable] technologies? In other words, those technologies that deploy scoping capabilities to monitor, surveil and target.  SCOPING: I attempt to reveal invisible scoping signals, transmitted and received by airborne drones. I do this to demonstrate that landscape is insidiously mediated by new but unseen signal topographies. These new topographies not only mediate landscape, they also influence, to a greater or lesser extent, how humans operate and live in the landscape and environment. For example, in some places in the world – war and conflict zones – loitering airborne [often weaponised] drones create a persistent fear of the sky. This fear is fueled by a drone’s ability to quickly turn from monitoring and surveillance to scoping to target – for a kill. FALSE EYE – FALSE CLOUD: In Follow Me, Says the Tree I have depicted an eye painted in the sky. Its pupil in a shade of night vision green. It is an unblinking false eye, with ‘lashes’ that appear to be more like components from a computer circuit board. The signals that radiate from the eye penetrate through a surveillance net which is scaffolded by a night vision green CLOUD* – a false cloud. The eye is clearly not an eye, with all the connotations of human sight, insight, imagination, vision, dreaming, tears and laughter. The eye is a subterfuge – it is not an eye-in-the sky – it is a SCOPE-IN-THE-SKY. It targets its prey with a precision that is aided and abetted by persistent surveillance. TREE-OF-LIFE: However, what of the tree? It also penetrates the net of surveillance and the CLOUD, by reaching upwards towards the stars. It re-establishes perspective – the kind that can take humanity’s endeavours into interstellar space. The tree’s branching appearance contrasts with the clean lines of surveillance and targeting signals. Randomness, or seeming randomness, is presented as a complex decoy – but isn’t that just LIFE! The tree not only erupts through the surveillance net, it also send roots underground. Where there’s life there’s hope it seems to say. Follow me, and life and existence will be ok.”

 Anomaly Detection Gouache and watercolour on paper 56 x 76 cm 2017 

Here’s what Kathryn has written about another of the paintings we discussed, Anomaly Detection: “The term anomaly detection is a technical one. It is an automatic system for detecting unusual behaviour, patterns or occurrences in, for example, live or stored data, such as film footage. Anomaly detection can allow preemptive actions. Regarding military drones the identification of anomalous behaviour, for example multiple vehicles moving at speed from different directions towards one destination, can trigger an alert for increased surveillance and readiness for potential attack. A drone’s wide area surveillance capabilities mean expansive areas can be surveilled, and sophisticated detection and recognition algorithms are employed as another layer of surveillance monitoring. In civilian arenas anomaly detection systems are useful for a variety of monitoring requirements that range from security to environmental protections and more.

In Anomaly Detection I have turned drone surveillance on its head. Here, I have painted the drones as if pixelated, as if a detection and recognition algorithm has detected the anomalous behaviour of three armed drones converging on the tree-of-life hovering at the center of the image. The viewer of the painting could be monitoring the drones from the ground, looking up – or – from the sky/space looking down. In this way the viewer becomes aware of the power of perspective, even in imagination. 

COSMIC PERSPECTIVE: Cosmic perspectives implore us to seek distance, both close and far, as a way to examine ourselves and the planet. From vast distances it becomes obvious that planet Earth, despite discoveries of possible habitable exo-planets, is our only home for the foreseeable [and beyond] future. We need to look after the planet and ourselves. By exploring perspective and engaging with multiple perspectives maybe we’ll discover more anomalies that highlight risk in ways that trigger precautionary, preemptive, restorative and pro-actionary activities?”

Drone Show oil on linen 122 x 152 cm 2020 

As Kathryn says on her blog, “Drone technology – civilian and militarised – needs our attention!” In her painting Drone Show, weaponise-able drones are seen in a formation, as if performing. As she explains, “There are three types of drones – Reapers, Predators and X47Cs. It’s like a parade of drones! I choose the word parade deliberately, its connection with military parades acting as a provocation.

Perspective and Imaginational Metaveillance: As with many of my paintings, the viewer could be below the drones looking up at a wild cosmic sky, or the viewer could be above the drones, looking down upon a turbulent but beautiful landscape. Once this play with perspective is realised, the viewer can ‘fly’, in imagination, soaring above, below and around the drones. I love to play with perspective by inviting viewers to ‘fly’. It turns a unique human kind of surveillance back onto the drones. I call this an act of ‘imaginational metaveillance’. It is uniquely human because it involves imagination – something machine learning and artificial intelligence are not capable of – yet. I argue that imagination, or a simulation of imagination, are capabilities no-one should aspire to enable an AI or an AGI with. If this is an aspiration then its more about creating an artificial human rather than an artificial intelligence.

Light Shows: I also called the painting Drone Show to reference displays of civilian drones programmed to perform mesmerising light shows. These kinds of performances are, for example, great substitutes for fireworks. Although the drones in these performances are pre-programmed they represent a basic form of drone swarming technology. A sophisticated drone swarm will have more autonomous functions – geo-locating, orienting, target identification and so on. While militarised drone swarming technology is still being developed in a number of countries, a drone swarm could, among other things, be armed, be used as a swarm of weapons, act as a surveillance net or scaffold signal transmission to other assets. Suddenly the idea of a ‘light show’ becomes more ominous.

Aesthetic Seduction: I have painted each of the drones in Drone Show withdifferent colours. I have painted the drones in a pattern, a diamond pattern. This pattern, the colours and the wild beauty of the landscape/skyscape draw the viewer closer. Once close, the drones becomes more apparent. Why are they there? I am using aesthetic seduction to create a shock, to garner attention and to stimulate questions about drone technology. A militarised drone’s function stands in sharp contrast to the beauty which is evident in the painting. This is a deliberate means of arresting the viewer’s attention. I know many people are critically interested in drone technology, but I have noticed that many others are either in awe or indifferent to it. Both awe and indifference are potentially dangerous. Awe and indifference are risks.”

Theatre of War Gouache and watercolour on paper 56 x 76 cm 2020 

The final painting we discussed on the podcast is one of a large series of paintings entitled Theatre of War. Kathryn explains the concept here: “Theatre of War was inspired by thinking about Derek Gregory’s idea of ‘everywhere war’. If war is everywhere, then the whole world is a ‘theatre of war’. Everywhere means just that – geographical landscape, cyber and digital worlds, space and everything in-between. It can also mean time. This is possible if you think of everwhere as being about space/place as well as time/history. 

Readers of General Carl von Clauswitz’s famous book On War will be aware that he writes consistently about the ‘theatre of war’. Written during the early nineteenth century and published posthumously by his wife in 1832, it is clear von Clauswitz’s theatre of war differs from twenty-first century ideas of war operation. For von Clauwitz the theatre of war was a defined geographical situation or place. Depending on offensive or defensive actions, landscape and topography played important roles in strategising, preparation and battle.

In the twenty-first century war has morphed beyond earthly geography and topography into discrete spaces of the cyber world, algorithms and light speed signal transmission. It has also extended into space, where orbiting satellites are now drawn into war’s network. The network helps to blur the lines between military, policing and security activities. As civilian activities collapse into militarised zones, war insidiously infiltrates everywhere. The signalic character of contemporary war operation allows for escalation or de-escalation, a war of degrees, not of a duration between declaration and end.  

In Theatre of War I have set up a global stage with a sky/space backdrop. The lines painted over the landscape ‘speak’ to computer geolocating graphics. The real and virtual become one stage. In the distance an array of different types of drones act as both audience and actors. This kind of dual witnessing draws everything onto the everywhere war stage. It is a place where networked systems direct everything and everyone in tragic complicity. With war’s duration consumed by the everywhere, a curtain is no longer needed. Do not be fooled by what might seem beautiful.”   

If you want to find out more, please do listen to the podcast. We hope that our discussion gets you visualising war, human history, the cosmos and its/our future in fresh and thought-provoking ways. As Kathryn urges, we should all practice a bit of imaginational metaveillance when we can!

Conflict Textiles

As part of a mini-series of podcasts looking at artistic representations of and responses to conflict, we recently interviewed Roberta Bacic, a Chilean collector, curator and Human Rights advocate, about the ‘Conflict Textiles‘ collection which she helped to build and now oversees.

¿Dónde están los desaparecidos? / Where are the “disappeared”? Chilean arpillera, Irma Müller, 1980s. Photo Martin Melaugh, © Conflict Textiles

In 2008, Roberta was involved as guest curator at an exhibition called ‘The Art of Survival’, commissioned by the the Tower Museum and hosted in Derry-Londonderry. The exhibition was focused on different women’s experiences of survival, and it was inspired in part by a Peruvian arpillera (a form of tapestry) which Roberta had brought to a meeting, to illustrate how women on both sides of the long-running conflict in Peru during the 1980s and 1990s represented their experiences and used the stories they had sewn as testimony at the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

From there, the idea of curating a physical and digital collection of Conflict Textiles grew – and today the collection comprises arpilleras, quilts and wall hangings from many different parts of the world, including Chile, Argentina, Northern Ireland, Croatia, Colombia, Germany, Catalonia, India, Zimbabwe and Syria. A digital version of the collection is based at Ulster University. These works of art not only depict conflict and its consequences. In many cases, they embody the resilience of the people who created them, and they can be read as acts of resistance too: fabric forms of storytelling that advocate for justice and promote alternatives to conflict.

In the podcast, we discussed what these Conflict Textiles can teach us about habits of representing and visualising the consequences of war; and we also reflected on how different art forms, including sewing and making, can help promote, envision and engender peace. Roberta explained the history of the arpillera tradition and its often communal dynamics, with women coming together in real life as well as on canvas to protest against armed violence and human rights abuses. The process of making is often as important as the finished product, helping those involved to build community, raise their (often marginalised) voices, process trauma and find some resolution or healing. Some Conflict Textiles have been crafted by first-hand victims of war; others have been crafted by others in solidarity, to remember, to stand alongside victims, and to encourage others to take a stand too.

Over the course of the podcast we talked about a number of specific textiles, including the one pictures above, ¿Dónde están los desaparecidos? (‘Where are the “disappeared”?). Created in the 1980s by Irma Müller, it depicts what many people experienced under Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile, after he seized power in a coup d’etat in 1973: the forced disappearance of their loved ones. It is made from pieces of colourful material sewn into a picture on a hessian (burlap) backing. A group of women in colourful dresses are protesting in front of the Courts of Justice. They hold a banner reading: ‘Where are the detained and disappeared?’ On the right-hand are silhouettes of two armed police, identified by their green clothes and their car, but the women ignore them and continue with their protest. The sun is in the sky (as often in arpilleras), but two large clouds sit in the centre, perhaps symbolic of the troubles below, and the women’s colourful clothing is set against the slate grey of the court buildings. There is menace as well as resilience in this picture, which embodies the power of victims and marginalised groups to raise their voice and demand justice.

This arpillera below is called La Cueca Sola (‘They Dance Alone’). La Cueca is a traditional Chilean Dance, normally danced in pairs with women wearing colourful skirts. In the textile, however, the women wear black, and instead of a flower in their shirt pockets there is the silhouette of a loved one who was ‘disappeared’ by Pinochet’s regime following the military coup in 1973. Groups of women took to performing La Cueca Sola in front of Pinochet’s headquarters as a form of protest, and this inspired a number of conflict textiles on the theme – as well as the song by Sting, ‘They Dance Alone’.

La Cueca Sola / They Dance Alone Chilean arpillera, Anonymous, 1980s. Photo Colin Peck, © Conflict Textiles 

This arpillera is also from Chile, and it depicts one manifestation of the violent aftermath of the military coup in 1973: executions in the national stadium. It was made by Maria Mendoza some years after the events it depicts. A note tucked in the back explains: ‘The biggest of all concentrations that I think the dictatorship had was the National Stadium. There, many friends and companeros died. That’s why I don’t want pardon or forgetfulness.’

Executions in the National Stadium Chilean arpillera, Maria Mendoza, 1990. Photo Martin Melaugh, © Conflict Textiles

Violar es un crimen (‘Rape is a crime’) was made in 2008 by a woman who lived through the civil war in Peru from 1980-2000: “In October 1985 many people were killed in Ayacucho and women were raped, but nobody protested. Two groups of us decided to demonstrate in front of Comando Conjunto (Joint Military Command) in Lima since the people … living in Ayacucho felt too vulnerable to do so …. We displayed a banner … ‘Rape is a crime’. .. Five of us decided to make an arpillera of our action to show we do not condone such brutality.”

Violar es un crimen / Rape is a crime. Peruvian arpillera, MH, Mujeres Creativas workshop, 2008. Photo Martin Melaugh, © Conflict Textiles

This Quilt of Remembrance is the work of a cross-community group of WAVE trauma centre participants. Spanning four decades it depicts life before The Troubles in 1969 and key events during The Troubles; it closes with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 which, suggestively, is hanging by a thread from the bottom of the piece. As Roberta explains on the podcast, it blends local quilting techniques with the aesthetics of the arpillera tradition, mixing the two textiles ‘languages’. Participants involved in making it talked of the role it played in their ‘journey of healing’.

Quilt of Remembrance Northern Ireland quilt, WAVE trauma centre participants, 2013. Photo WAVE archive, © WAVE archive

The House we had to leavewas stitched by a group of women refugees from Croatia in 1995. As the text on the Conflict Textiles website explains, Ariadna is a women’s project where, since July 1993, women from Rijeka in Croatia, together with refugee women from Bosnia, have created a centre of mutual help and self-help for women in need. Having abandoned home and hearth in utter haste, these women’s only asset in the alien land of their refuge is their skill to manufacture traditional handicraftsthe women decided to create a piece with a house of their own, made out of cloth so that grenades and bombs could not destroy it. As the house began to take shape, the work awakened memories of old customs, songs, and traditions… The women even designed a garden, their own private sanctuary. The piece provided each woman with a sense of home and belonging, though she was miles away in a strange new land. 

The House We Had to Leave Croatian quilt Women refugees, Ariadna project, 1995. Photo Colin Peck, © Conflict Textiles 

Un corazón como el de todos (‘A heart like everyone else’) was stitched in 2019 by a young ex-combatant of the demobilised guerrilla group FARC. He took part in a project called ‘(Un-)Stitching Gazes’ – an idea which resonates with what the Visualising War project is interested in, because it speaks to the idea that looking differently at things can help reconfigure the world around us. This project gave ex-combatants the chance to reflect on the transformation process they were undergoing, and he wrote about his work: ‘When I’m embroidering, I concentrate. There’s even a moment when I don’t think about anything. I focus on the stitches, that I do them well… And it’s like a good feeling. As in one way or another, with each stitch, it’s like letting go of those burdens that one carries, so to speak.’ He also commented: ‘I always hear that guerrillas are not human beings, that we are demons, they portray us as monsters. I chose a heart because it is a synonym for life, it is the most important organ.’ With this piece, ‘Edwin’ is processing his own experiences and also asking others to visualise him in new ways.

Un corazón como el de todos / A heart like everyone else. Colombian embroidery on fabric. Jhonatan/Edwin, 2019. Photo Laura Coral Velasquez, © (Des)tejiendo miradas. 

Mi Guernica (‘My Gernika’) was stitched in 2017 by a women whose family suffered when the German air force bombed Gernika in 1937. It uses an old family pillowcase (a family heirloom) as backing, and depicts a reworking of Picasso’s Guernica. It reminds us that prior representations of conflict always hover in the background of our own attempts to narrate it, but also that individual makers can personalise influential, canonical representations to tell their own story.

Mi Guernica / My Gernika. Basque Country arpillera Edurne Mestraitua, 2017. Photo Martin Melaugh, © Conflict Textiles

One very new arpillera in the Conflict Textiles collection is The word caused the outbreak of war – ‘Freedom’. It was made in 2020 by Sabah Obido, in response to an online exhibition she saw took part in during lockdown. Sabah is a refugee from Syria, and this arpillera was a chance for her to explore and process her experiences of conflict and displacement, and also to raise a really important question. The piece depicts scenes of peaceful demonstration which Sabah herself witnessed in 2011 and which ultimately triggered the long-running civil war in Syria. She uses a bright, cheerful image (the sun has a smile!) that shows women waving banners in English and Arabic, calling for freedom, to ask how those peaceful protests resulted in so much conflict and displacement. This arpillera captures the powerful work that Conflict Textiles can do, not only in giving makers an opportunity to process and articulate their own experiences but also in empowering them to ask difficult questions.

The word caused the outbreak of war – “Freedom“. Syrian arpillera, Sabah Obido, 2020. Photo Martin Melaugh, © Conflict Textiles 

Some items in the collection have been made by protesters who are not direct victims of conflict, such as this banner by Thalia and Ian Campbell. “It’s No ******* Computer Game is our ‘drone for peace”, state Ian and Thalia. Made of light materials, it can be sent off and used worldwide.

It’s No ******* Computer Game!! Welsh banner, Thalia and Ian Campbell, 2012. Photo Lydia Cole, © Conflict Textiles 

We hope you enjoy the podcast, and urge you to browse the Conflict Textiles website further to find out more about the moving and powerful collection.

In 2019, colleagues at the University of St Andrews co-hosted a Conflict Textiles Exhibition called Threads, War and Conflict, inspired by some previous ‘Stitched Voices‘ exhibitions. You can find out more – and about the Visualising War project’s involvement – here. Some new creative work and publications are emerging out of this collaboration, so watch this space!

A collaboration between the Conflict Textiles project and the University of St Andrews, co-ordinated by Dr Lydia Cole, with Dr Faye Donnelly, Dr Laura Mills and Dr Natasha Saunders.

Drawing as War Reportage

'The Paul Nash of our era. No one has captured in art the destruction and suffering of modern warfare as powerfully. With his pen and brush he tells the stories of the suffering of the refugee and the migrant wherever the wars are in this turbulent world. There is terrible beauty in his drawings. He means what he paints, opens our eyes and hearts to the suffering, tells the tale of our fractured humanity, helps us to know more clearly the lives of others caught up in conflict, so that we can begin to mend shattered lives, to give shelter and homes and hope where there is so little.'

Michael Morpurgo, writing about award-winning artist George Butler.

As part of a mini-series on the representation of war in visual media, we recently interviewed artist George Butler for the Visualising War podcast. George draws in pen, ink and watercolour. His art covers a huge range of topics; but he specialises in current affairs and his visual reportage from conflict zones like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria has won plaudits from the likes of Jeremy Bowen. As George has said himself, his work often takes him to places which other people are trying to leave. In August 2012, for example, he walked from Turkey across the border into Syria where, as a guest of the Free Syrian Army, he set about drawing the impacts of the civil war on people and towns. Over the last decade he has been to refugee camps in Bekaa Valley (Lebanon), oil fields in Azerbaijan, to Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Mosul, and to Gaza with Oxfam, among many other places. His drawings have been published by the Times, the New York Times, the Guardian, BBC, CNN, Der Speigel, and a host of other media outlets; and they have also been exhibited at the Imperial War Museum North and the V&A museum, among other places. George has also recently published a book, Drawn Across Borders: True Stories of Migration, which tackles one of the many ripple effects of conflict and shines a spotlight on some of the humans behind the headlines.

In the podcast, we talked about drawing as a dynamic process: one in which the artist invests time – and during which, the people being drawn might come and go, shift position or mood, fade into the background or come into focus. George’s drawings capture the rhythm of a place over several hours, enabling him to convey a context and set of experiences that are less easily observed through the fast shutter speed of a camera lens. Another aspect of drawing that George relishes is how approachable and unthreatening an artist often seems. While a cameraman’s equipment might act as a barrier, a simple pad and pencil often gets people coming closer to look and ask questions, sparking conversations. Drawing on location involves listening to many different people and what they want to share; and what George hears then finds its way into the drawings as they develop. 

George reflected on the combination of aesthetics and storytelling in his reportage. While he strives to make his art beautiful, he sees little point in an attractive image which is not telling an interesting story – one that uncovers less visible, ignored or forgotten aspects of a conflict. One thing that motivates his work is the desire to balance and round out our habits of visualising contemporary wars. We discussed the push and pull of media organisations and NGOs, who sometimes want an artist to focus on particular aspects of a conflict – and also the challenges that artists and photographers often face in deciding what is or is not appropriate to depict in any given context. Like another of our podcast guests, the photographer Peter van Agtmael, George clearly sees his drawings as fulfilling a documentary role, setting down a record for the future; but he is also interested in myth-busting, in particular when it comes to documenting different people’s experiences of different kinds of migration, as in his book Drawn Across Borders: True Stories of Migration. As reviews of this book have underlined, it is ‘a work of art, compassion and activism, with journalist and illustrator Butler using his craft to bear witness to and build awareness of the effects of war on civilians whose lives are treated as mere collateral for those in power.’

Featured below are some of the images which we discussed in the podcast, not just from Drawn Across Borders but from George’s wider portfolio of work. 

'I sat to draw Yusef Fateh, whose home had once sat at the bottom of the mosque minaret. Yusef told me, "In April 2015 I was accused by Daesh of smuggling people out of West Mosul, which I admitted. I was blindfolded and spent eighteen days in a Daesh prison. I was thrashed 300 times." He showed me a tattered copy of his Daesh court paper. "They released me at 11 am on a Friday. They threw me onto the street and said "If you look round we will kill you directly." At 12pm I packed and left for Syria without my family." Yusef returned in October 2017 to find his home destroyed by Daesh, along with the al-Nuri mosque. He told me he cannot find work because of the wounds on his back, but like many others sees this place as his home.' Drawn Across Borders, p. 47.
' the town square I drew children playing on a burnt-out government tank as two old men examined the total destruction of their town in bewilderment. Their homes would continue to be the target of government air strikes for years to come.' Drawn Across Borders, p. 8. 

The image below (drawn in Azaz, Syria, 2012) perfectly captures George Butler’s style: a rhythmic drawing that keeps pace with the changing scene as people come and go; some features fleshed out in detail and colour; but also plenty of blank space that poses questions, reminds us of the incompleteness of any image, and gives our eye and mind time to wander and reflect.

'I wandered through the town with Muhammed and saw the bakery. I had to draw quickly because of the pounding Syrian sun. People queued in the heat for up to three hours and, as Muhammed explained, each person was only allowed three flatbreads a day'. Drawn Across Borders, p. 10.

In the image below (Azaz, Syria, 2012), some individuals are depicted in detail, others as silouettes – bringing the individual and universal together in one picture. The red tractor is a reminder of the distance some have travelled to join the queue; the man in the foreground evokes the weariness of many.

Bakery queue, Azaz, Syria 2012. Credit: George Butler
'That evening a member of the Free Syrian Army called Firas took me to visit one of their prisons in Azaz. One man behind the bars looked at me intimidatingly. I assumed he was cross that I was drawing him. He held my gaze, unflinching, as I drew. Then after fifteen minutes or so he asked if he could move. All along he had been posing for the strange illustrator.' Drawn Across Borders, p. 11.

This image below got us talking on the podcast about the relationships which an artist can strike up with the people he/she is drawing, and how what you think you are seeing may be rather different in reality.

Prison in Azaz, Syria 2012. Credit: George Butler
'Bassam's father sat at the foot of his bed, in black, occasionally putting a reassuring hand on his son's foot as he struggled through the painkillers. "Art cannot change anything," he said to me, and in this moment I believed him. My instinct was to leave without finishing the drawing. But another man in the corner said passionately "These are the sorts of scenes that the world should see. They are important to show the people what is going on here." Perhaps it was these contradicting opinions that led to the unfinished nature of this picture.' Drawn Across Borders, p. 36.

This image below (Syria, 2013) got us talking on the podcast about the power and limitations of art, and how artists like George manage the often very difficult decisions about what of war and other people’s sufferings to capture (or not) on the page.

'...I spoke to fifteen-year-old Ahmed, who described his journey here: "Life in Iraq was fine until armed groups came. We left our homes - what else was there to do? We fled to the mountains. I stayed for eight days without food or water - nothing was there. Children died of hunger - nothing was there. We crossed into Turkey on foot. It took us one to two days' walking. Yes, we were scared. We walked at night - and it was scary on the boat too. It was difficult - the sea waves were a metre or two high. We had children on the dinghy... 150 people on the boat." Drawn Across Borders, pp. 20-21.

These drawings below reflect on the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, which became very visible in Europe in summer 2015. One of George’s aims is to address some of the pernicious myths that exist around refugees, to get us thinking differently about what they are queuing for, and to humanise their experiences.

'These families showed us the belongings they had carried with them from their homes. They were the belongings of people who had not planned to leave Syria. They were the items they picked up in a rush, or as the lights went out, the items that were left in the rubble of their homes or that they had in their cars when they abandoned them at the border. These were people who thought they would be going home very soon.' Drawn Across Borders, p. 48. 
‘Leaving everything behind’: possessions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 2011. Image credit: George Butler, Drawn Across Borders

Yemen, one of the less visible conflicts in the world at present, but one of the most destructive:

You can listen to the podcast here. More images are available on George’s website and you can buy a copy of his book here. Following his experiences in Syria, George and a group of friends set up the Hands Up Foundation, which funds health and education programmes for victims of conflict. 

‘Sorry for the War’: Peter Van Agtmael photographs America at War

USA. New York. 2010. A sign outside Arbor Ridge Catering and Banquet Hall advertising a 1970s-style Disco Night. An ad for the event promised: “Dress your retro best and boogie on down!” Break out your bell-bottoms and polish your platforms!” There will be prizes for Best Dressed and Best Dancer.
"Nearly twenty years after September 11, America’s recent wars are all but forgotten, though their consequences continue to reverberate. For the past fifteen of those years, I’ve documented the dissonance between the United States “at war” and the wars as they really are." Peter Van Agtmael, Disco Night Sept. 11.

The Visualising War podcast recently interviewed award-winning photographer Peter van Agtmael. Over a career spanning 20 years, Peter has focused on representing different manifestations of the US at war. His first book, ‘Disco Night Sept. 11’, brought together images of America at war in the post-9/11 era, from 2006-2013.[i] His second, ‘Buzzing at the Sill’, focused on the US in the shadow of recent wars; it does not capture images of armed conflict, but examines aspects of American society that have been shaped by and helped to shape the wars that America has fought. His third book, ‘Sorry for the War’ explores the vast dissonance between how the US has visualised itself at war and how people on the ground (soldiers and civilians) have experienced those wars, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.[ii] Peter has won multiple prizes for these books, as well as being highly sought after by media organisations such as the New York Times and the New Yorker. For the last ten years he has also been working on capturing images of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

In the podcast, Peter talks about what motivated him to go to war as a photographer in the first place, and how his understanding of war and his approach to conflict photography have evolved over time. Aware that a single photograph can only capture one person’s perspective and a tiny slice of time, Peter underlines the importance of a multiplicity of images which together can build a sense of context, change over time and diversity of experience. He tries to document wars as holistically as possible, while still going deep and getting personal. He is particularly interested in unpicking the gap between our habits of imagining, viewing and understanding conflict and how it impacts people for real. There is a strong sense in his books that he is myth-busting, as he invites us to look critically at our own habits of visualising war and really stretches our understanding of war’s dynamics, impacts and aftermath. You can hear his reflections in more detail in the podcast itself. This blog shares some of the images that Peter talks about from ‘Disco Nights Sept. 11’ and ‘Sorry for the War’, along with some of the text that accompanies them in his books. 

The following images are from ‘Disco Night Sept. 11’, about which Peter writes:

"Despite all the death and confusion and isolation and impotence these pictures represent, I know they can only be a slender document. There are so many simultaneous existences and we can only be present in one. For every story that is recorded there are nearly infinite ones we’ll never know. The real weight of destruction is still happening constantly in anonymity across Iraq and Afghanistan and America, in endless repetition of all that has come before. If I found any truth in war, I found that in the end everyone has their own truth."


“A mock courtroom for soldiers deploying to Iraq. This training exercise simulated an Iraqi criminal trial. An American Army lawyer set forth evidence to prosecute an “insurgent” for ties to resistance groups. After hearing arguments from both sides and reviewing evidence, the Iraqi “judge” dismissed the case. During the war, American lawyers were rarely obliged to engage with the Iraqi criminal justice system. Many detainees were held for long stretches without trials. No American soldiers were prosecuted by Iraqi courts. In October 2011, President Obama announced that all U.S. troops would withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year. Although the American and Iraqi governments hoped to keep five thousand American soldiers to assist in training the fledgling Iraqi security forces, negotiations broke down after the Pentagon insisted that American soldiers retain full immunity under Iraqi law. The Iraqi government refused, the deal collapsed, and the last American soldiers left Iraq in December 2011.”

As we discuss on the podcast, this image captures the gap between how the US visualised their likely activities in Iraq prior to engagement and how differently events turned out. An empty set where men rehearsed for a performance they never ended up delivering.


“A Marine with a village elder from Mian Poshteh, a rural village in southern Helmand Province. The Marines were trying to build the Afghan Army. There were 240 Americans in the outpost, but only a few dozen Afghan soldiers. The local language was Pashto, but only a few of the Afghan soldiers spoke it; they were from other parts of the country. Relations with the local elders were tense. The Afghan soldiers were often accused of stealing when doing house searches in the village. Although Mian Poshteh was only one kilometer from the base, the Marines and Afghan Army were often attacked nearby. The Marines asked the elders if they would vote in the upcoming elections. “The Taliban will chop off our fingers,” was the reply (the index finger is stained purple after voting to make sure there are no repeats). The Marines asked why they wouldn’t reveal the location of the Taliban. The elders replied, “You go back to your base at night, while the Taliban are all around us. If we cooperate, they will kill us.” They went on to say that there was no fighting before the Marines came, and that they should just go away.”

This image perfectly captures the weariness both sides experienced at trying to keep some kind of dialogue going and build temporary bridges against all the odds.


“A U.S. Blackhawk helicopter lands at the Ranch House, a small American outpost deep in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. There were no decent roads and all medevacs, re-supply and transport were done by helicopter. 

Blackhawks were in short supply, forcing the U.S. military to turn to outside contractors. They rented ex-Soviet helicopters, rickety and ancient and known as “Jingle Air.” They came with pilots, some of whom had served in the Russian Army during the previous war in Afghanistan. They were storied figures, legendary for their bravery under fire and rumored to be heavy vodka drinkers in flight.”

As Peter explains on the podcast, this image captures some of the things we romanticise about war: life on the edge, moments of adventure, the seductive ‘beauty’ of an iconic war image.


“A child wounded in the abdomen by shrapnel from a car bomb. After surgery, several of the smitten medics posed for pictures with the semi-conscious girl.”

As we discuss on the podcast, without Peter’s text this image might strike the viewer simply as a tender moment between soldier and injured child; with the text, a much more complex and disturbing story emerges. The girl becomes a double victim, injured and then mauled about for the camera by soldiers who care deeply but also exploit her in their efforts to get in touch with their own feelings.

In ‘Sorry for the War’, Peter’s collection of images is even more diverse, capturing everything from a burnt-out classroom in Mosul, to a shrapnel injury that has begun to heal, to the in-between existence of children in a city that hangs somewhere between war and peace.

Qaraqosh, Iraq 2017

“The first Easter in Qaraqosh, Iraq, after it was liberated from ISIS. A few miles away, fighting continued in Mosul. Though the area around Qaraqosh was relatively quiet, the town lay in ruins. ISIS graffiti was scrawled on the walls of the church, ranging from the mundane (“Ahmad was here,” “Take off your shoes”) to the sinister (the ratio of ingredients for making car bombs). Shattered Christian religious artifacts used by ISIS for target practice had been swept into a corner, and a decapitated full-size statue of Santa Claus was sprawled in the courtyard. Most of those attending the church service were Iraqi soldiers and journalists, but a handful of local residents came, too, including a small girl in bright-colored robes who was a particular darling of the Iraqi soldiers. They cooed at her outfit and swept herup in their arms to cover her in kisses.”

At the end of ‘Sorry for the War’, Peter writes:

"There’s a feeling of fulfilment but also of emptiness when the complexity of my experiences inadequately collapses into the two dimensions of a photograph. When I began this work, my confused and naive desires mingled uncomfortably with a sense of duty to journalism and history. Somehow, the unexpected grace of these experiences has left me lighter, despite the horrors. Yet I am left with the understanding that the work is far from over."

You can find out more about Peter’s work on his website and instagram page. His reflections on the podcast shed fascinating light on the challenges and opportunities of conflict photography to challenge how we all visualise war.

Alice König, 29.11.21

[i] Readers can find two excellent reviews here: and here:

[ii] Reviews here and here