THE THING ABOUT REMEMBERING
In fall 2017, Ken Burns and Lynne Novick aired their eighteen-hour series The Vietnam War. It was clear over the ten-part story not only that an unfathomable number of lives were lost, but also that the war went on for an excruciatingly long time. Matt Zoller Seitz reviewed the series on Vulture, writing, “As you read this, the War on Terror has been going on longer than the totality of America’s involvement in Vietnam: Next week marks the 16th anniversary of U.S. troops entering Afghanistan, a conflict that’s been fought for so long that sons in uniform are walking the same trails that once bore the bootprints of their fathers.” And yet, in contrast to the protest and outrage of the Vietnam era, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan is largely unseen; it has slid off the front page and out of America’s consciousness, especially since November 2016. This is where photographers and photographs can, and should, help redirect public attention away from the most sensational and toward the most important.
That’s just what Philip Cheung’s series The Thing About Remembering accomplishes. Cheung’s work draws the viewer into the daily life on the Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, reminding us that the United States is still in the midst of a war. From 2008 through 2014, Cheung examined the landscape and subculture on the base. He avoids the visual tropes of war photography, focusing more on the administrative duties of those managing combat operations and infrastructure. His portraits are surreal, as are the product pictures of ordinary objects he found on base. A knockoff Hard Rock Cafe Afghanistan
mug sold in a gift store at “The Boardwalk,” the social center of Kandahar Airfield, is presented as if it’s an artifact worth close examination.
Such images of T-shirts and souvenirs offer evidence of a military that has, quite literally, set up shop. They are included alongside portraits of soldiers, who often appear either frozen in the lethargy of administrative tasks or shell-shocked, stiffly going through the motions of war—we’re not sure which. A figure stands in front of a photocopier, in a darkened room, while pink light illuminates her blank face. A young woman looks determined as she works on her service rifle, reading the manual as if trying to assemble IKEA furniture.
The core of this work—and the connection between the images—lies in its overarching sense of calm, one rarely associated with war. The very banality of the tasks, the people, and the objects hints at how this conflict has become routine to society. We are bored and disconnected when we should be concerned and engaged. And yet, carried within each image is Cheung’s subtle reminder that this everyday is currently happening, today.
By Amelia Lang / Aperture Portfolio Prize 2018