Photojournalistic series “Nothing Personal – the back office of war” by Nikita Teryoshin
This article is not just about one photo, but about an explosive photojournalistic series by Nikita Teryoshin, created since 2016: “Nothing Personal – the back office of war” was recently awarded with the 1st prize of World Press Photo 2020 in Contemporary Issues and shows the global defence business from unusual perspectives and provocative angles.
The images document fairs and exhibitions in the defence business in Poland, Belarus, South Korea, Germany, France, South Africa, China, Abu Dhabi, Peru, Russia, Vietnam, USA and India and are to be continued until the photographer will have taken photos on every continent. The series has been nominated for World Press Photo 2020 Picture of the year, awarded with First Prize Kolga Tbilisi Documentary Festival Documentary, and the first prize at the Miami Street Photo Festival 2019, VG Bildkunst Research Grant 2018 and PH Museum Grant 2019 – thus the photos received far-reaching, mainly affirmative reactions in the field of professional photojournalism and artistic photography. Teryoshin’s photographic style is a unique mix of elements in street style, documentary and photojournalism, with a strategic choice of image details to enhance a slight sense of sarcasm – and probably even criticism – within this extremely severe topic, with an emphasis on its globally interconnected properties.1 In the following article, some specific aspects of the image series are selected that illustrate the visual framing methodology applied by the photographer, and analyse the resulting consequences of the image representations.
The distinctive feature of the main image above lies in the fact that it almost seems meaningless at first glance, since nothing is shown completely – it is taken from a weird angle that shows partly the floor and mainly the walls, but only to some extent. Even the colours in the photo are light, friendly and almost a bit trendy, regarding the blue wall unit. A person in a grey suit is carrying two long objects, apparently he is taking them into another room. They look a bit like baseball bats, but are actually handy mortars in light yellow and green colors – a tool of war, dipped in friendly, inconspicuous colors. The choice of this photo is justified as the main motif as it unimposingly shows an impersonal person, carrying ammunition in modern, unsuspicious surroundings. Is the person actually walking into “the back office of war”, as the title of the series suggests? We do not know for sure – but on a meta level, it cannot be argued that defence business and war are unrelated areas …
Here is a selection of more photos of the series:
In all those images, the topic of war is illuminated through the lens of seemingly pleasant events in modern, bright and suspiciously normal surroundings, underlined by a well-lit flash aesthetic, in which fabrics shine and colors appear very rich. Through an ostensibly naïve approach whose core, however, is exposed by the specific image details as criticism of the business with weapons, we are allowed to see what the photographer has seen and become witness to his personal experiences. The sarcastic undertone in those seemingly almost too perfect motifs is even conveyed through the weather conditions – even reminiscent of propagandistic imagery. Due to the predominantly fragmentary nature of the images, the viewer is prevented from seeing the big picture. Instead, she*he is invited to small, bizarre moments like a hostess with glasses of wine and juice in front of a military helicopter … thereby a very subjective perspective evolves.
At this point it becomes clear that the style of the pictures and their strategic impetus exceed those of a neutral photojournalistic documentation2, since the use of sarcasm and the choice of unusual, cut image details already imply a personal valuation – thus these photos head in a rather free artistic direction with a socially critical intention. But one could also argue that this is exactly the strength of the photo series: to show by means of provocation the ambivalence of a business that presents issues like dead bodies as mannequins in simulators and uses advertising slogans like “engineering a better tomorrow”.3
In order to highlight some aspects of the image series related to communication science and sociopolitical theory, there are various “media image-centered approaches [which] focus their interest on the cultural and social construction of reality through (photo)journalism, on the motifs and their meaning, their way of design and presentation in the context of the medium. The focus is thus on visual representations, which are analysed from a variety of theoretical perspectives […]. They share the observation that journalistic image communication is strongly conventionalised and always recurs to comparable image motifs.”4
From a communication science perspective, the strategic positioning of the entire imagery refers to Visual Framing as “the selection and emphasis (salience) of certain aspects of perceived reality that promote a particular problem definition, attribution of causes, moral evaluation and recommendation for action.”5 In this context, there are several levels of framing happening within the imagery of the series:
- By observing exhibitions and fairs of the defence business, the viewer is invited to enter real buildings with seemingly normal surroundings like carpets, tables and the impression of a business fair at first glance: e.g. grey or blue carpets, an international audience in formal wear and typical marketing materials such as flyers, roll-ups and stools with big posters. Only while looking further into the photos’ specific details, one can see obvious traces towards a connection with war and defence. The stark contrast between the mundane commonness of business fairs and the steady disturbance through distinct defence objects therein strengthens the series’ force of expression.
- In accordance with the title, there are no uncovered faces in the imagery, matching Teryoshin’s statement: “I deliberately don’t show you the faces of the business men. It is not my intention to fix everything upon a certain person.”6 This strategy of anonymisation and disguising identities results in additional uniformity and a reframing of people as functionaries and representatives on site – humanity recedes even further into the background with every suit that is being worn, “in front of a tribune full of high ranked guests, ministers, heads of states, generals and traders.”7
- The backdoor of war appears as an “oversized playground for adults with wine, finger food and shiny weapons”8 – therefore, a surreal backdrop of positivity and business-like professionality, even through celebratory activities of leisure, is intentionally staged through a distinct choice of motifs such as cake, parade-related elements and festive, bizarre decorations such as miniature panzers behind the buffet, or toy miniature soldiers which convey a strangely playful impression. Thereby, war-related severe issues such as death, injury, violence and conflict appear abstract and distant while a positive, joyous image is built by the defence business for its customers, just like any other industry aims to do concerning marketing regardless of the traceable negative impacts or serious consequences.
- One of the peculiarities of Teryoshin’s approach is the unconventionality of snippets while portraying stereotypes of war symbols, the appearance of officials and the usage of marketing materials. Their manifestation is scrappy and temporary and point at the absurdity of the businesses that are being conducted in this context – e.g. parts of a missile on an average carpet, an official reading through a respective ammunition flyer, a lavish buffet in front of panzer images. The normality of the image excerpts at large is rooted in their fragmentary, supposedly unexciting ordinary nature, which, by means of the various pieces as a whole, are nevertheless able to tell a major narrative that transcends the small parts – hence the series builds a coherent story of ludicrousness and surreality, and the photos build on each other.
- The critical breach of the awkwardly positive scenery is achieved in the choice of the respective image angles, so that, for example, a man on the toilet is precisely visible in the door cutout of a wall with huge tank contours. This sarcastic exaggeration of the situational humor elevates the seemingly normal everyday moment into a bizarre fundamental tone – and simultaneously, carries Teryoshin’s personal notion of such a global, complex and current issue: the defence business.9
Now there is one thing left to mention – Erik Vroons’s statement regarding the entire series is on point:
“Applying a bold aesthetic strategy, resulting in images that are both humorous and sinister, Nikita Teryoshin (1986, Russia) provides a distinct peek behind the curtains of the global weapon industry. His cheeky photographic documentation of highly exclusive defence trade fairs aptly reflects how the bureaucratic and commercial side of armed conflict is not only a lucrative private enterprise but also, in its essence, a perverse phantasmagoria of powerful entities.”10
Photos 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 11 by Nikita Teryoshin, Nothing Personal, 2016 – ongoing, via @worldpressphoto on Instagram, accessed February, 1, 2021, https://www.instagram.com/worldpressphoto/.
Photos 2, 3 and 9 by Nikita Teryoshin, Nothing Personal, 2016 – ongoing, via @teryoshi on Instagram, accessed February, 1, 2021, https://www.instagram.com/teryoshi/.
1. See the artist’s statement: “The final goal of the project is to make pictures on every continent and to underline the global aspect of this very specific business […].” Accessed January, 17, 2021, https://nikitateryoshin.com/nothing-personal.
2. Julian Rossig, Fotojournalismus (Berlin: 2013), 9: “Dokumentation: Bei einer Dokumentation handelt es sich um die wertungsfreie Darstellung eines Ereignisses. Interessant ist sie vor allem dann, wenn das Ereignis außergewöhnlich und selten beobachtbar ist – etwa die Geburt eines Elefantenbabys. Bei der klassischen Dokumentation liegt der Fokus auf einer möglichst wahrheitsgetreuen und neutralen Reproduktion des Geschehens; außergewöhnlich kreative Stilmittel sind somit weitestgehend verzichtbar.”
3. See the artist’s statement: “Nothing Personal shows the back office of war, which is the complete opposite of a battlefield: A oversized playground for adults with wine, finger food and shiny weapons. Dead bodies here are mannequins or pixels on screens of a huge number of simulators.” Accessed January, 17, 2021, https://nikitateryoshin.com/nothing-personal .
4. Katharina Lobinger (ed.), Handbuch Visuelle Kommunikation, (Wiesbaden: 2019), 134f. Translation my own.
5. Ibid, 185f. Translation my own.
6. See the artist’s statement, accessed January, 17, 2021, https://nikitateryoshin.com/nothing-personal.
9. See the artist’s statement: “Almost everyday on the news we are watching pictures of war and destruction and the expenditure on armaments is setting new records year after year. Well, let‘s take a look at the other side of the subject – behind the curtains of global defence business. […] Nowadays companies use slogans like, ‘70 years defending peace’ or, ‘Engineering a better tomorrow.’ It is hard to imagine, that some people in the weapons industry believe these things.” Accessed January, 17, 2021, https://nikitateryoshin.com/nothing-personal.
10. Erik Vroons, GUP Magazine, accessed January, 17, 2021, https://gupmagazine.com/articles/nothing-personal-what-is-really-happening-before-war-happens/.
Verfasst von E. K.
In all fairness and admitting that all above is correct, still AKK was the main person since she was inaugurated…