This compelling book (Amazon, Powell’s) has German photographer Herlinde Koelbl focusing her lens on a sideshow of war and violence that speaks to the desensitivity required to fight at all — the training camps of soldiers around the world. From the U.S. to Afghanistan to Japan to Pakistan and loads more inbetween, Koelbl has captured images of the scenes of war games where fighters indulge in pretend killing for the purpose of getting damn good at the real version.
To illustrate these hidden worlds, Koelbl’s subjects can be put into three basic categories. One is the landscape, the actual abandoned sites that are made to look like villages and towns and outposts.
Another is the faces of the people training, which reveal the alarming truth that participants in this bit of violent surrealism are painfully normal looking, just one of us.
Finally, Koelbl takes portraits of the recipients of the gunfire — the targets in these places. Some are like oversized game pieces. Others recreate farm scenes with a crude folk art quality. Still more of them feature what can only be described as cheap commercial art, with characters that look like over-the-top villains on posters for exploitation movies. And then there are the mannequins, riddled with holes and often ravaged by the elements, but never giving up against the fictitious onslaught they face.
For all the darkness, Koelbl’s work is not without humor, particularly when capturing the targets. As rough as some of them look, they are also comical. However, the empty structures where the war games take place do serve up creepiness. No actual lives might take place in them, but much like the abandoned structures that now routinely attract decay enthusiasts scoping out American cities, there is a sense of life lived and abandoned, evidence of clutter, decay, and detritus that makes them jarring. Gunmen might just be shooting up flat, weird creatures that don’t look exactly human, but you couldn’t tell from the buildings.
Koelbl’s point is part obvious — look how we treat war as a game, look how much effort and preparation is involved in learning to kill effectively, look how we make the act of killing a work of psychological automation. I can’t argue with any of that, but at least book has the added bonus of piercing hidden circumstances in the world and revealing them with a keen photographic eye that transcends any subtexts.