Review: Riley and His Story: Me and My Outrage, You and Us by Monica Haller


Book Reviews, Photobooks


It doesn’t happen very often that the first and only thing that really bothers me about a photobook is its cover. But that’s the case with Riley and His Story: Me and My Outrage, You and Us by Monica Haller. You can visit the dedicated microsite and see/decide for yourself. It’s not even that I mind text on the cover. But not this text, on the cover of this book. It’s too bad since the rest of the book is so amazing. In fact, it’s a book that deserves to be seen more widely. (more)

The photographs in the book were all taken by Riley Sharbonno, who served as a nurse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Just to make this clear, this is not a book about the Abu Ghraib photos you have all heard about. It’s a book about Riley’s photographs. No, it’s a book featuring Riley’s photographs - and writing - about what war is and what war does to people. Since we haven’t learned enough from previous wars to prevent new ones from happening we are condemned to look again.

During his stay in Iraq, Riley took a lot of pictures with a simple digital point-and-shoot camera. The first photos shows the camera in Riley’s hand reflected in the rear-view mirror of some military vehicle, pointing outwards (just like the barrel of a gun in the bottom right of the frame), snapping a picture (kind of Lee Friedlander style). The photographs alternate with text spreads, the text contained in a white container against a black background, narrating the story. It’s a simple device, and it’s used beautifully.

Repetition plays an important role in the book. For example, image looking out of some vehicle while driving across some barren landscape are repeated in ways that probably will have you think “OK, I get it.” But you don’t get it unless you’re willing to look some more. This is not a pretty photobook, designed to make some photographs look good. Because, let’s face it, the photographs aren’t that good, photographically speaking, but that’s totally besides the point. The book really is not about the photography, it’s about the act of seeing and experiencing - both for Riley (who had no choice) and for the viewer (who has that choice).

Unless we see we won’t get it. Riley and His Story is a book arguing against all those who think that photography’s power lies in the individual image. Granted, it’s nice to have that one image that sums up what we’ve been thinking or feeling already and that we then can take as the presumed impetus for how our opinion somehow (magically!) changed. In the absence of that one photo we might simply take hundreds and see where they take us. That’s this book.

At the end, there’s a short text that says

“No, these aren’t the photos that we’re going to find in family photo albums, but it would be nice if they could just sit somewhere like that.”
It would be nice. Not just for the soldiers sent off to fight some useless war, many of them returning home sick or wounded or, in the worst case, dead, not just for the thousands of civilians losing their lives, not for all the money wasted that could have been spent on healthcare or to fix schools instead, but for all of us. To learn a little bit about what war looks like and what it does, so that next time, we’re a bit more careful before waging one.

Riley and His Story: Me and My Outrage, You and Us; photographs and text by Riley Sharbonno; edit, concept, and cover text by Monica Haller, 480 pages, Onestar Press/Fälth & Hässler, 2009 (hardcover)/2011 (softcover)

See my presentation of the book here.