Chris Santa Maria


Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.

Paul Valéry, 1934


A few years ago I met a man who had just returned from a stint as a private contractor in Iraq. Formerly an Army paratrooper, he worked security for a range of clients after the 2003 invasion. During that time, a soldier gave him a disk filled with images of Iraqi corpses. He passed the disk on to me, expressing hope that I would do something with them. Some of the bodies were fresh, the blood and tattered organs still glistening; others looked as though they had endured several days in the sun. Titled sequentially (“DEATH_001.jpg,” “DEATH_002.jpg,” etc.) and shorn of all the niceties of professional photojournalism, like depth of field and compositional harmony, these pictures were raw in every sense. Though they are documents of war in the age of digital photography, they baffle journalistic standards of objectivity, indifferent to the ubiquitous but silent aesthetics of those standards.

I looked at the images only once before placing the disk in the bottom of a box, where it stayed for almost four years. I recently dug it out and began a series of dark, cartoonish drawings based on them. As I sat drawing night after night, I recognized my absolute distance from the events the images depict. It became apparent to me that I was engaged in a critique not just of the war that produced the bodies, but also of a regime of images, a metalanguage of war, and ultimately, of my own compromised position. Conversation about war gets subsumed beneath talk of debt, talk of budget, when these are in truth codewords that obscure the ways in which the U.S.'s foreign policy apparatus chooses to engage in imperial activities. The images on the disk present “excesses” of war, excesses which are in fact the events of the war itself.

Through these drawings I sought to exalt the amateur’s authenticity by deliberately rearticulating the accidental qualities of the images. Much in the same way that the contemporary soldier is mesmerized (and perhaps even turned on) by the ease of his documentation, the purpose of these drawings is to establish a kind of evidence that
occurs (and is hidden) beyond our daily gaze, masked even by those professional images that purport to offer it to us in the most direct possible manner. In this stated purpose we can hear the echo of any number of naive intentions: to unveil the truth through art, to give a reliable account of a stable reality, and so on. These goals are untenable, yet they offer cover for a sub-rosa aesthetic, one founded not on postmodern epistemology, but on the meeting of metal and viscera.