By accident not a news item that shook the world
Of course he could have had a seat next to a journalist, the young American sergeant
R. who had been given two weeks furlough from Iraq. Or next to a politician, an
Amnesty International staff member, a cleric, a pop musician. But he had a seat next
to an artist, a politically committed artist.
For ten hours Penny Allen listened to R.’s horror stories. In the 70s and 80s Allen
was active as an independent film maker, and she later was known for her photo strips
criticizing American society.
R. showed her pictures of his friend’s death the day before, and a film he and his
comrades had shot of an Iraqi suicide bomber whose body was totally torn apart by
At first Allen just listened, because she felt that R. needed to tell his story.
Later because she couldn’t do anything else, because his story became her story as well,
she began to feel responsible. They stayed in touch, R. regularly sent her packages from
Iraq. And Allen put the photos and his stories in the only format she could think of: a
photo strip. A strip without humor, and without the usual onomatopoeias that one sees in
strips, like KABOOM! or CRASH!
War is Hell (the words are R.’s, who remains anonymous for security reasons) is only four
pages. The strip was presented last year in a gallery in Portland, Oregon, and has been
traveling the world since that day, the world of journalism and the world of art.
It appeared for instance in Mother Jones, a critical American monthly, in the French morning
paper Líbération and in Exit Art, a politically engaged New York gallery. Those who see
the strip are shocked. But so far it hasn’t become a news item that shook the world. Can
war become art? Or: is it necessary that war becomes art? Would R.’s photos have been
talked about as much if they would have had a different outlet? And: what reactions would
the pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison have caused if not CBS but Penny Allen would have
published them first?
In the TV-program Wintergasten Kristien Hemmerechts (Flemish author; tr.) asked writer
Jonathan Safran Foer whether it was wise for an artist to turn recent events into literature.
She was referring to his novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, that partly deals with the
WTC attacks. Shouldn’t he have waited a little longer?
Foer didn’t understand her objections. He writes, he said, from his own view of the events,
his vision as an artist. To wait until they’ve become history, or to research their
authenticity - that’s not something he is interested in.
Foer’s books however are not any less true. And sergeant R.’s story is not less real because
he had a seat on the plane next to a visual artist instead of a journalist.
Also see www.pennyallen.info
(From de Volkskrant, Netherlands; January 20, 2006)