The sharp end, Les Cleveland

On the Way to an Ambush
Bruce Connew
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0 86473 376 3

So far there have been about 150 wars this century. Some are big-budget affairs like the recent imbroglio in the Balkans, others are relatively minor scuffles that also resist the attempts of governments to impose solutions. One of the most obscure is the war between the Burmese government and the Karen, a hill tribe near the Thailand border who resisted the Japanese in World War 2 and subsequently conceived the unrealised ambition to join the British Commonwealth. These days they defy the Burmese army’s attempts to subdue them.

Enter Bruce Connew, a New Zealand professional photographer, who tags along on one of their jungle missions, takes photographs, gets back to NZ and puts together a rather convoluted account of this exploit. The work is described by the publisher as a traveller’s story, but I think it is also an identity quest in the form of a photographic essay.

Who is Bruce Connew and how does he see himself? He invites such questions because at the outset he draws his children and their well-being into the narrative, along with the moral concerns implicit in stereotypes of maimed victims and child soldiers toting murderous weaponry instead of cricket bats and CD players.

Because of the death of his wife in a car crash, Connew suddenly found himself a solo parent on welfare. Fragments of letters from his children are incorporated in the book, perhaps to ground it in a framework of domestic actuality, perhaps to acknowledge worries about his absence, or even to hint at possibilities and alternative pathways.

After all, why not busy oneself with social documentary right there in the home backyard? There are several nasty little wars in Aotearoa. There’s solo parent versus society and state; the young versus the old; the class war between rich and poor; and gender wars and race conflicts raging in our streets.

The narrative text is crisp, economical writing – about 62 pages, the length of a longish essay. The remaining space in a 175-page book is taken up with Connew’s photographs. Jungles are difficult. Contrasts range from tomb-like blackness to vivid splashes of violent sunlight, sometimes on the same negative! Then there is rain, mud, fungus, disease and possible sudden death or injury lurking along the line of march.

Apart from the technical difficulties of combat photography under such conditions, the problem with journalism of this kind is to contrive a fortunate integration of text and illustrations. Very few writers succeed. This attempt owes a lot to Catherine Griffiths, a highly talented designer and typographer. The typeface is elegant, and Connew’s photographs are fed into the text as an extension of it. But because of the designer’s fondness for white space, and the format (210 mm by 150mm) some images are so drastically reduced as to be difficult to comprehend. Colour shots have reproduced with the best tonal quality, but unfortunately the general muddiness of the reproduction of some black and white images makes them barely decipherable. The strange combination of jungle operations and fighting from fixed emplacements is difficult enough to handle, but I can’t help feeling that the insides of trenches look about as visually exciting as the murky interior of an old boot.

Equally obscure is the enigmatic Colonel Travis who flits through these pages like a sinister revenant from our complicated military past. He is an ex-member of the New Zealand SAS, who describes himself as a “freedom fighter” as he stalks through the jungle with his boy soldiers. Perhaps more could have been done with him.

Another problem is the author’s struggle with himself in his brief encounter with jungle warfare. The ambush is a failure and he regrets that he didn’t experience the “sinister randomness of killing”. In other words, like most of his readers, he still doesn’t know what it is like up at the sharp end and how he might perform in an attack. But he drops out of further self-scrutiny and reflection by succumbing to a dose of malaria, leaving unresolved questions about his future.

On the Way to an Ambush is an unusual report on an obscure political backwater with some memorable images of military operations and village life in the shadows of war. The front-cover illustration of a young soldier having his face smeared with black camouflage paint is a brilliant image of the apprehension and danger that penetrate this disturbing work. Other images of doomed Karen youth trapped in a hopeless struggle are a lesson for the times had we the wisdom to accept and apply it.

Les Cleveland is a documentary photographer and a former soldier.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Photography, Review
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