There is the sense of the historic in a particular photograph from the series War and Forgiveness by Ryan Lobo, that leapt out of its frame and clung to me for a while after I'd seen the exhibition. It was one of ‘General Butt Naked', known to have killed 10,000 people in the Liberian Civil War. Now calling himself Joshua, a Christian evangelist, he has come to ask for forgiveness from the Liberian people.
The photograph in question has Joshua in an ordinary checked shirt and pants, suspended mid-air as he jumps, a wild gleam in his eye, amidst the grass and earth that surrounds him. The image is not just evocative; it is overwhelming. It tells a story in which morality has been blurred: here is a man in a brief moment of what seems like unadulterated abandon, but he has been a brutal dictator, a source of grief for thousands of families. In this childlike portrait, one can't help but feel he is redeemed, if only for an instant.
Beside this photograph is one of Joshua being baptised, with the sea coming at them. It's an intense picture; you can believe that Joshua feels insurmountable guilt at this moment, or he feels fully absolved of it. Says Ryan, “It doesn't matter. The stories are never black or white — they're almost always grey.”
In War and Forgiveness, we see photographs from Iraq, Afghanistan and Liberia, of everyday life in war zones. Tracking the opium trail in Afghanistan was closer to danger than Ryan imagined. But he is also careful not to exaggerate the danger when he's back home. “I don't know exactly how dangerous or not these trips were, because there is also so much spin around the danger element, when you're far away and there is no way of corroborating what ‘those people' are really up to.”
‘Those people' are often who we think are the monsters, he adds. A photograph of a little Afghani girl, standing in a rundown building, pretending to a monster only turns this idea on its head.
In a photograph from Iraq, a man is being frisked by someone in uniform as he walks down the road. You can't see either face, but the humiliation is evident even in the man's lower body.
The images at the exhibition come from far away places, but they're a reminder of the different kinds of war that continue to wage in many parts of India — Kashmir, the Northeast, Orissa or Chattisgarh. It is perhaps important to see these stark black and white photographs to remember who we are and what we believe.
War and Forgiveness is on at Tasveer Art Gallery, Sua House, 26/1 Kasturba Cross Road till March 19.