The Image of Soviet-Afgan War in Dead Troops Talk

In this large colour transparency entitled, Dead Troops Talk, Jeff Wall, a Canadian artist, fuses discussion of the Soviet-Afghan war with conventions of horror movies and subtle critiques of history from previous eras to drive a conversation of the relevance of the war, and the ramifications of its violence. 

The photographic image depicts the Red Army soldiers risen-up from the dead, engaging with one another but responding differently to their surroundings. Some seem more distressed with the situation, others react comically. This image, as grotesque and horrific as it is, in some ways desensitizes the subject of the Soviet-Afghan war through it is humorous tones but Wall is trying to give these troops a voice, to show us how we go straight to war whenever we cannot come to a consensus regardless of the ramifications. As Susan Sontag said in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, “The figures in Wall’s visionary photo work are “realistic” but of course, the image is not. Dead soldiers don’t talk. Here they do.” The particular way that the photograph is created, and its historical context, gives the viewer something tangible to talk about. The thirteen soldiers in their uniforms look pale and worn down from the war. Bloodied and wounded, all on the ground, unable to stand, they give the viewer an insight into what the war potentially looked like. There is blood splattered on the ground and bits of shards everywhere. The atmosphere is disturbing and horrific. One of the soldiers on the right has been struck in the head, and his open head wounds are visible. Three men in the centre of the photo, look to be messing around, laughing and smiling amidst all the destruction. The soldiers in this photograph are depicting Soviet troops ambushed in Afghanistan. At the top of the path, we can see two sets of legs cut off as if they are walking away from the scene, and Russian assault rifles and ammunition by the Afghan soldiers. As well, in the lower left, there is an Afghan boy with a backpack collecting the last of the dead Soviet soldiers’ weapons. Each soldier is looking everywhere but at the viewer. As if they don’t care about the viewer because they have lost so much. As well, what would the viewer know about their pain and what they have gone through, they do not owe the viewer anything. 

There is something interesting about trying to analyze a photograph. Ideally, photographs depict what we actually see unlike paintings and writing because there is more to look into with the brushstrokes and words. Photographs are ideally meant to literally capture a moment in time, but there is always a reason that the artist chose to capture a particular moment and that is what is important to read into. Wall is showing us his interpretation and commentary on the war by capturing his reimaged perspective. He does this so effortlessly by making the scene look so real and natural. At first glance, one would not doubt that the photo was taken at its factual location with people actually injured. As one gets closer the only sign that this might be a staged photo are the three men in the centre because their humorous actions are not what we would expect to see at such a place. It is possible that the figures were on a break and were just messing around but with Wall’s attention to detail with the staging, it less likely especially due to the name of the work, Dead Troops Talk which is very direct and specific for when and where this took place. There is such attention to detail and the image is very well balanced with every rock, shrapnel, and position of each troop. It is clear that careful time and consideration went into creating this image. The blasted hillside that was re-created by Wall was completely reimaged through research he had done; he had never actually been to Afghanistan. Research through books, articles and photos is sometimes enough but for such a loaded subject as the Soviet-Afghan war was around 15,000 people were killed and 35,000 wounded, it comes into question whether this type of research was enough. It’s interesting for an artist to dive into a subject that they have no first-hand experience with because you have to do a ton of research to ensure that you understand the historical context of the Soviet-Afghan war. 

What is most intriguing is why Wall choose to talk about this particular war? As a Canadian artist, Canada had no part in this war. Maybe it was just timing or maybe he was possibly critiquing being Canadian, and that most Canadians will probably never see a war in their everyday lives except through the news and photography. This critique by Wall on the Soviet-Afghan war is very grotesque and harsh at a first glance, but when really engaging with the work, the faces of the thirteen soldiers become clearer. What is most noticeable are the three soldiers in the middle of the image. They seem to be “clowning around” in a moment that would seem very inappropriate to do so. This diminishment of emotion questions whether Wall is desensitizing the discussion of the Soviet-Afghan war. Specifically, regarding the three men who seem to be laughing and having a good time, this depiction takes away the fear and threat of the situation. They are not portrayed and terrifyingly as the other soldiers. Maybe it is because they have nothing to lose now or maybe the viewer wouldn’t understand the feeling of being in a situation like these men, so they have no right to question what they choose to do. Nonetheless, with a conversation such as war, it is difficult to elude as to what one might feel or do. 

This photograph, even though it tells a story of a war in 1986, is still very relevant today because war has always been a form of human expression in that humans will sometimes go to unnecessary lengths to deal with disputes and conflicts regardless of the innocent lives at stake. Wars today look just the same as the one in the photograph which questions our ability to learn from our past and make better decisions. It’s not easy to look at difficult photos that show us violence and suffering, but it is the reality of our world. These things happen and people have been hurt. It’s important to discuss these subjects and not be oblivious to what happens in our world. Frank Möller discusses the issues of confronting images that depict war and forms of human suffering in his article The looking/not looking dilemma and critiques photography of war vs photography of war for aesthetics. Möller argues that it’s impossible to not look at these images but are these images actually getting a message across and what morals must go into creating these images. He argues that Wall’s work comes across as more of a shock to the viewer because of the figure’s nonchalant reactions to what is happening but in using actors instead of real victims this prevents from ridicule. It is plausible that the reasoning behind Wall’s decision have these actors react the way they do is simply because the situation itself of being at war is ridiculous and humankind should try to resolve conflict in less traumatizing and destructive ways. 

In critiquing Wall’s work, it is clear that the Soviet troops represent the fact that war, in all its disaster and terror, will always be prevalent in our society because any form of reconciliation or peace is just never good enough. So, the cost of that is utterly dreadful and it’s sad that we’ve let war become a regular part of conflict instead of trying to resolve issues peacefully. Therefore, at the end of the day, we can look at works like Wall’s Dead Troops Talk, look at other works and even read about a war on the news but we will never understand what it is like to be affected by it and to be in it. 

07 July 2022
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