This photographer takes on the insane, repetitive nature of war

Qayyarah, Iraq. November 2016. Islamic State fighters set fire to oil wells near Qayyarah to use the smoke as cover from Iraqi air force and U.S-led coalition airstrikes. (Lorenzo Meloni)

A quote shared on page 17 of photographer Lorenzo Meloni’s book, “We Don’t Say Goodbye” (GOST, 2022), really sums up any and all war coverage, past and present. In bold, black letters on an orange background, these are the words, “History repeats itself and the logic throughout the ages does not change.”

From the early days of photographic coverage of war to now, we have shown the same things over and over again, although much of our media coverage has become more sanitized and controlled over the past few decades after the very graphic coverage of the Vietnam War. One might ask, given the cyclical, insane nature of history that repeats itself over and over: “Why even bother?”

I’ll be first to admit that much war coverage these days leaves me numb. In my job, I see photos of unspeakable inhumanity on a more or less daily basis, so it would make sense that I would feel that way. Even so, I believe that war coverage hasn’t become any less vital for society at large. Our inhumanity, however cyclical, must be revealed through reporting like Meloni’s.

In “We Don’t Say Goodbye,” Meloni invites us to accompany him on a 10-year journey he took through Iraq, Syria and Libya that paralleled the rise and fall of the Islamic State as a territorial entity.

Meloni’s view, like that of the best war photographers before him, is flecked with an artistic sensibility. Through 162 pages and 91 images, Meloni presents us with beautifully and masterfully wrought images that belie the horrific situations they depict. In image after image and country after country, we are constantly reminded that — as another group of bold, black words in the book tells us — “People change, actors are changed, tools evolve, but the stage of events is constant and the story of the conflict is the same.”

Over the course of the 10 years Meloni worked on this project, he traveled extensively through Syria, Iraq and Libya, amassing thousands of images in which, when he began looking at them while making this book, he could see a common thread of fragmentation. As he says at the end of the book:

“The word that kept recurring in my mind was ‘fragmentation,’ because the countries where I worked were all deeply divided by ethnicities, faiths, tribal factions, territories and political affiliations. ‘Fragments’ equally seemed to evoke the violence of war, where people are often killed by shrapnel from explosions. ‘Fragmented’ also seemed to summarise my own view, and visual representations, of the events I had witnessed.”

“This inspired me to create a sequence where conflict photographs are interrupted by images of items found amongst the rubble of war and excerpts of writing by Islamic State members from letters, graffiti and publications. … The images form a loop — a constant repetition — throughout the book, reflecting my experiences in the field. Despite being perceived as action filled and adrenaline fuelled, war is actually very repetitive and, although working in different countries, I often found myself photographing similar scenarios.”

One image that springs to mind when thinking about Meloni’s work, and other coverage of war, is the ouroboros — an ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail. As Meloni has noted, in the images and in the words distributed among them, what he witnessed is not new. And, in fact, the idea that war is perpetual is insane. Why in the world do we continue to subject ourselves to it? Why can’t we stop? Why can’t we learn from the past? The question itself is perpetual. Maybe there’s no sufficient answer. Then again, there is the saying that goes something like: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Maybe we’re just insane?

You can find out more about the book, and buy it, here.