Bill Putnam's war photos are faces of battle, not in battle. | Pittsburgh City Paper

Bill Putnam's war photos are faces of battle, not in battle.

Bill Putnam would like you to look at the face of war. It's not always dramatic or violent, but it's often exhausted. Putnam, a 36-year-old former military photographer, spent two months in the summer of 2010 in Afghanistan. There he was embedded with Abu Company, which he had previously followed and photographed in Iraq.

Now the Silver Spring, Md.-based Putnam has a new exhibit of 40 photos from that summer in a show at Point Park University, co-sponsored by the National Press Photographers Association. But Faces of Battle, Afghanistan is not the expected high-intensity war photography. Half the shots are the real everyday of war: going on patrol, endless waiting. The other half are shoulder-level portraits of the soldiers of Abu Company: Mostly, they give tough stares; a few crack little smiles. Many look like they could use a nap. Putnam shot them with the now-extinct Kodachrome film. He used digital photography only to back up each shot.

Putnam says politics influences not only war, but war photography. And he's in the center: The right usually doesn't want the bloody, honest pictures of war ever to be taken, he says, while the left focuses too much on questions of embedded reporters' potential conflicts of interest.

Putnam dismisses the idea of a properly detached journalism. "Those arguments defy human nature, because if you spend enough time with people you're going to not identify with them, but understand them better," he says in a phone interview. "It's going to come across in your work. It's not Stockholm syndrome, but it's definitely a deeper understanding of people." Plus, his photography is not just capturing news moments. "The thing with portraiture is there's this give-and-take with people. I'm having a conversation with them," he says.

After Point Park, Putnam hopes to show his photos elsewhere. (They've also been exhibited at St. Vincent College, in Latrobe.) He'd love to return to Iraq or Afghanistan as well. And he wants to keep following the feeling that portraits can help people empathize with, or at least think about, the faces they see.

Putnam would love to shoot a series on the Taliban, he says. "Yeah, a portrait of 10 or 15 Taliban would be illuminating for people."


BILL PUTNAM'S FACES OF BATTLE, AFGHANISTAN Reception and lecture: 7 p.m. Fri., April 8. Thayer Hall, 201 Wood St., Downtown. Free. (Exhibit, in Lawrence Hall Gallery, continues through April 25.) [email protected]

Bill Putnam's war photos are faces of battle, not in battle.
Photo by Bill Putnam
Abu Company's Jesse Appleton