‘Photography as Rehearsal / Rehearsal as Photography’

Staging Disorder, Black Dog Books, 2015

‘Photography as Rehearsal / Rehearsal as Photography’  is an essay written for the book Staging Disorder, published by Black Dog Books, edited by Christopher Stewart and Esther Teichmann.

Staging Disorder cover 2


Photography as Rehearsal / Rehearsal as Photography

 by David Campany

What happens when we look at images of preparation? How might we respond to photographs of the behaviour and spaces of rehearsal? The answers to these questions are complex, and for two sets of reasons: the first has to do with photography itself, the second to do with the nature of preparation.

Firstly, might we not say that on some level all photographs prepare us for what they depict? They get us used to things. They are a psychical ‘dry run’. Advertising, family snaps, photojournalism, pornography, even the humble still life. Does not our experience of such imagery prepare us for these things somehow? That preparation might ‘soften us up’ and ready us, or it might steel us for resistance. As much as they are retrospective – documenting what has been – photographs are also prospective, introducing us to what may come. And there is much at stake in the fact that photographs might affect our future relation to the world.

Secondly, preparation or rehearsal is a kind of experience at one remove in which behaviour is converted to, or experienced as, an image of itself. Preparing for war, or rehearsing to give a public speech we ‘go through the motions’ in relative safety. It is not the real thing. We experience ourselves experiencing in order to get ourselves ready. We do things at an estranged and heightened level of representation before we do them ‘for real’. That’s what rehearsal is.

So, in significant ways photographs are prospective images and rehearsal is imagistic prospecting. Combining the two, in the manner of the kinds of photographs of rehearsal we have in this book, we get images with very particular sets of qualities, temporalities and affects.

This may sound a little abstract so before I come to the photography at hand let me consider two historical examples. Coincidentally both are representations of rehearsal for North America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The first is Stanley Kubrick’s well-known film Full Metal Jacket, 1987. The second is a photo-essay shot and written by Eve Arnold, which appeared in The Sunday Times Magazine in 1968.

Publicity still, Full Metal Jacket (dir. Stanley Kubrick), 1987

Publicity still from Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)

Full Metal Jacket is a realistic fiction film of two halves. The first half takes place in Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot, South Carolina: an American ‘boot camp’. It follows the rigorous training of a varied bunch of conscripts. The young men live together, wash together, eat together, train together and sleep together in an open dorm. We see in forensic detail how they are prepared for combat, from having their heads shaved upon arrival to passing their final tests. In between there are hours and hours on the assault course, cleaning and re-cleaning rifles, folding and refolding uniforms, repetitive days of parade drill, shouted recitations of what is expected in the war zone. It’s a relentless depiction of a relentless process. The drama focuses on the experiences of two very different characters. Private ‘Pyle’ (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) is overweight, slovenly and uneducated. Private ‘Joker’ (Matthew Modine) is smart, middle class, educated, physically fitter, and cynical about his circumstance. Pyle is bullied by the sadistic drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermy). Pyle is also bullied by the rest of his squad who beat him for letting them down. Joker participates in these beatings but also takes his time to help Pyle get better at fulfilling his duties in order to pass the tough tests.

Once training is complete they are assigned their war roles: Pyle is to join the Infantry while Joker is to be a military journalist. But Pyle has given himself up so completely to his military existence, has learned to identify with its aims with such totality, that he cannot cope emotionally and undergoes a profound mental breakdown. In a state of psychosis he shoots the drill instructor and then himself. Clearly it’s a bad outcome for both Pyle and the military. By contrast, Joker passes through his training at an ironic distance, keeping back an important part of his sense of self. He performs his military obligation without fully identifying with it.

The film’s second half follows Joker’s experiences in Vietnam. He wears a peace symbol on his vest but also has the words ‘BORN TO KILL’ written on his helmet. A colonel asks: “What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?” Joker replies:

“I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.”

“The what?”

“The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.”

“Whose side are you on, son?”

“Our side, sir.”

“Don’t you love your country?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then how about getting with the program?”

The colonel doesn’t get the joke. It’s not all that funny and anyway it’s intended to be shared with the audience: the nightmare of war can be endured if you recognize its absurdity and don’t let it get to you. It’s too dangerous to identify with war completely, as Pyle did. Although working as a journalist (a role at one remove from combat, in which he has to convert his experience into written representation) Joker finds himself caught in a hellish battle in Hue City, during the Tet Offensive – a key turning point in American attitudes to the war. But Joker finds he is able to kill a North Vietnamese sniper in cold blood.

The message of Full Metal Jacket is chilling in its subversion of received ideas about how an effective soldier is produced. The effective soldier is not the one who gives his all, who gives his very soul to the army. Rather, it is the one who is able to separate himself from his circumstance so he can function without letting the reality of it pierce him. It is the one who carries out his duty as if it is not really he who is doing it. It is not the one who has his resistance or cowardice broken down: it is the one who finds a space to hide those feelings and find a persona, an image of himself, that can do what is demanded of him. He can act in war as if he was still in training, still in the world of artifice and representation. (As Immanuel Kant suggested, the brave soldier is simply the one whose sense of safety lasts longer than those around him.) In other words his fantasy life is structurally integral to his success. And this undermines all the commonplace notions of military duty, clear-headed soldiering and professionalism. Moreover, as Joker’s actions suggest, ironic rebellion is not rebellion at all: it is really the ultimate conformism. The military doesn’t care what you ‘really think’ as long as you find a place to put those feelings and carry out your duties (a similar argument is made by Slavoj Zizek in his 2012 film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology).

These days, fiction movies about the psychological effects of war tend to invert Kubrick’s structure by beginning with the brutalising battle scenes, then moving to the surviving soldiers’ experience of trauma back home and their difficulty assimilating to civilian life. (What we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is really just trauma: the symptomatic return of feelings that just couldn’t be dealt with when they were first experienced – physical pain, the sight of death, the cracking of the protective carapace of irony or fantasy). That is an honourable way for filmmakers to approach the subject and there are many examples. But Kubrick’s insight is at least as powerful. The systemic psychological dysfunctions of warfare begin in the rehearsal.

Full Metal Jacket is set in 1968. That year, the March 24 issue of the The Sunday Times Magazine (UK) carried an unusual photo-essay about preparation for the same war. Eve Arnold travelled to North Carolina to document one of the three fake North Vietnamese villages constructed by the American military for training.  Recruits would be sent to one of these camps for assimilation before being shipped out to the war zone.  Arnold’s opening spread shows two young men who have been asked to attempt to camouflage themselves. In the fake hospital one young man smears his face with white cream and ties a pillowcase around his head. In the bushes outside, another young man puts leaves in his hair and rubs grass into his cheeks. Here are two innocents being encouraged to enter a fantasy of Vietnam before they enter the ‘real thing’. Adopting their guises, they pose for Arnold and her camera. On the following pages the photographs are just as upfront about the layers of artifice. Soldiers clutch their guns while coloured smoke billows around them. Arnold’s caption reads: “Two marines are backed by red signal smoke which indicates U.S. troop positions to prevent their air force bombing them by mistake.” There is no apparent danger here, just enactment. But the soldiers are clearly also going through the motions for Eve Arnold too. Elsewhere we see a fake chaplain and even a fake Buddhist temple, all shot like production stills for a stage show, or maybe a documentary-cum-fashion editorial.

Eve Arnold, 'Vietnam, North Carolina', The Sunday Times Magazine, March 24, 1968 1Eve Arnold, 'Vietnam, North Carolina', The Sunday Times Magazine, March 24, 1968 2Eve Arnold, 'Vietnam, North Carolina', The Sunday Times Magazine, March 24, 1968 3

Eve Arnold, ‘Vietnam, North Carolina’, Sunday Times Magazine, March 24, 1968

 Don McCullin, This is how it is', The Sunday Times Magazine, March 24, 1968 1Don McCullin, This is how it is', The Sunday Times Magazine, March 24, 1968 2

Don McCullin, spreads from ‘This is how it is’, Sunday Times Magazine, March 24, 1968

What are these fake camps for? Is their realism intended to prepare soldiers for the realities of war, or is their not-quite-realism intended to help instil the double-consciousness that will permit a trained civilian to be an effective soldier?

Eve Arnold’s photo-essay is almost forgotten. However that issue of The Sunday Times Magazine is actually famous for another photo-essay: Don McCullin’s ‘This is How it is’. In its opening image a soldier is throwing a grenade. In another, a soldier lays dead in the mud with his possessions spilling out (McCullin arranged the possessions). These are among the most reproduced images of that war.It’s a stark if fairly conventional photo-essay, although it’s always revelatory to see photojournalism in its original context rather than in coffee table books, hagiographic exhibitions and bad histories. It’s also interesting to see that McCullin wrote the accompanying text and that several of his images were shot and reproduced in colour. It wasn’t all ‘gritty black and white’.

On the contents page of that magazine, the photo-essays by McCullin and Arnold are paired under the heading “America in Vietnam, Vietnam in America”. Two photographers; two visual strategies; and two incongruent but equally valid ways to represent the Vietnam War early in 1968. How smart of the editor. And how respectful of the intelligence of the reader who is invited to move between the two and negotiate their own precarious critical distance.

In the years since, McCullin’s pictures have been recycled endlessly as populist ‘icons’ of the Vietnam War. Arnold’s pictures have never been republished and do not appear in any histories of photojournalism. Why should this be? Perhaps it is because McCullin’s pictures fit the narrow and largely retrospective idea of what photojournalism should have looked like and how it functioned: urgent pictures close to the ‘real action’. Arnold’s photographs are quite the opposite: measured, calm, reflective, and fully aware of their own absurdity. Plus of course there’s nothing conspicuously ‘heroic’ about Arnold’s pictures or their making. Arnold never blathered on about her troubled soul the way McCullin seems to do whenever a camera is rolling in his presence. Even as documents of military training facilities Arnold’s photos have an uncommon theatricality and an open acceptance of the dangerous idea that training is a kind of anticipatory fantasy. But it’s quite possible that the soldiers in McCullin’s photographs were once in the kind of facility photographed by Arnold. No serious army sends troops into battle without rehearsal. It’s been going on for millennia.

An-My Lê, 'Night Operations' 2003-2004 from the series 29 Palms




An-My Le, ‘Night Operations’ 2003-2004 from the series 29 Palms

In some respects we can see Arnold’s approach as a precedent for the more recent ‘conceptual turn’ in documentary photography (a horrible term, I know). For example, in 2006 Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin photographed their project ‘Chicago’ and described it thus: “Hidden from view by the topography of the Negev desert, Chicago is a mock-up Arab town built by the Israeli Defense Force for training in urban combat.” As part of the same project they also photographed thin strips of tree plantation that Israel has placed strategically along its highways to suggest it has made the desert bloom. An-My Lê’s Small Wars (1999-2002) includes images of U.S. military training exercises for future action in the Gulf. Sarah Pickering’s Public Order (2002-2005) is a suite of photographs that document “the ambiguous urban landscape of the UK’s Metropolitan Police Public Order Training Centre, an unreal constructed world of civic intransigence and imagined threat,” as her website put it.Obviously there is artifice in all this work, but it is not essentially of the photographers’ making.

At a formal level, it is worth noting that Full Metal Jacket, Eve Arnold’s photo-essay, and these recent projects share certain visual characteristics, notably their optical clarity and frontality. The photography is straight, rectilinear and in deep focus. The distances between the camera and the subject are kept fairly consistent, as is the light. This is to say most of these image-makers opt for the kind of photograph handed down from traditional architectural and topographic photography, secured in art via the work of photographers such as Walker Evans, Bernd & Hilla Becher and Lewis Baltz. All these pictures are ‘straight’ but the subject matter is not.[i] Questions of photography’s realism and claim to truth are displaced onto the world itself, or at least onto its misleading appearance. As records of the world’s appearance they are as effective as any still and mute rectangle can be. However rather than grounding a concrete reality, the extreme objectivity has an unexpected, inverse effect. It flips us into the register of hyper-real simulation of the kind we associate with the standardized aesthetics of ‘virtual reality’. It is no coincidence these image-makers frequently adopt the forced monocular perspectives typical of video game graphics with their surveying ‘point of view’ shots. Moreover they share something of the video game’s status as model, as fantasy of worldly control, as safe rehearsal in the arena of imaginary mastery.

To some extent such images signal a move away from the direct depiction of the singular, urgent, punctual event that once defined the idea of reportage. Images of rehearsals, along with photographs of aftermaths, place the event in a longer temporality, and longer social processes, that precede and follow it. The traumatic nowness of the event – its unpredictable action captured by the snap of the shutter – is placed in a larger context.

It seems to me that for still photographers at least, rehearsal and traces of events seem to be the most common ways of pursuing this kind of contextual enlargement. We might contrast this with contemporary documentary filmmakers who seem much more interested in re-enactment as a way of imagining the event. Recently the film theorist Bill Nichols has suggested that re-enactment is:

“[N]ot historical evidence but an artistic interpretation, always offered from a distinct perspective […]. Re-enactments contribute a vivification of that for which they stand. They make what it feels like to occupy a certain situation, to perform a certain action, to adopt a particular perspective visible and more vivid. Vivification is neither evidence nor explanation. It is, though, a form of interpretation, an inflection that resurrects the past to reanimate it with the force of desire.”[ii]

We might think here of Joshua Oppenheimer’s recent documentary The Act of Killing, 2012, in which unpunished and unrepentant men who were involved in the genocide in Indonesia in the 1960s volunteer to re-enact their atrocities in the style of the Hollywood movies they love.

For all the adventurous artistic success of staged still images in recent decades the staged re-enactment of historical events is much less common in photography.[iii] This may have something to do with the temporalities of still photography, which can only ever freeze a scenario rather than watch it unfold. It may also have something to do with the fact that most photographs of rehearsals and traces actually stay firmly within the boundaries of what is expected of the documentary image.

[i] I first explored some of the ideas that follow in ‘Straight Images of a Crooked World’, in Paul Seawright & Christopher Coppock (eds) SO NOW THEN, Ffotogallery Cardiff / Hereford Photography Festival, 2006,

[ii]Bill Nichols, ‘Documentary Re-enactment and the Fantasmatic Subject’ Critical Inquiry, Vol. 35, No. 1. (2008), pp. 72-89.

[iii]An-My Lê’s Small Wars does include photographs of Vietnam War re-enactments on American soil, but thestaging is not of the photographer’s doing.



  • Copyright © 2024