Lewis Bush’s War Primer 3 is one of the more Punk Rock photobooks I’ve ever come across. I’m not sure how he would take the characterization, but there’s a precedence for interventions like this in the Punk canon, and I applaud him for it.
The originalWar Primer is a sort of photobook/antiwar treatise by Bertolt Brecht. Brecht cut out photos from newspapers and other media while in exile in Switzerland during World War II, penned short poems, epigrams really, to accompany them, and published the book in 1955.
In 2012, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin published a limited edition update they called War Primer 2, with images from the “War on Terror” pasted over the original images. (War Primer 2 was recently reprinted by Mack. More on that below.) War Primer 2 won the 2013 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize.
In 2015, in a sort of response to what he saw as problems with the production and distribution of War Primer 2, in particular, Broomberg and Chanarin’s use of “unpaid, uncredited intern labor” in its productions, Lewis Bush created War Primer 3, pasting in a third layer of pictures over the first two, as well as Brecht’s “A Worker Reads History” in place of the original epigrams, and reordering the plates to match the new text.
So why is this punk? Well, in 1990, NOFX rereleased their “the PMRC can suck on this” 7″ EP on Fat Wreck Chords. Then, in 1993, Propagandhi’s “How to Clean a Couple O’ Things.” For the cover, they took NOFX re-release and reworked it, mostly obscuring the original. Then, in 1996, NOFX responded with “Fuck the Kids,” adding further alterations to the Propagandhi cover.
I have the “Fuck the Kids” 7″ and always wanted to collect the other two, not so much for the music—for which I have a deep love, appreciation, and nostalgia—but for the covers and the DIY, back & forth, collage aspects of them.
So that’s partly why I see War Primer 3 as a deeply Punk work. But in other ways, in particular, the activist, power to the people, stance from which it sprung is largely what I got out of my Punk phase.*
The images Bush chose for War Primer 3 feature factory workers in far-away lands and their living quarters, child laborers, migrants, wealthy-looking westerners, and most of them are matched up with both the image in Broomberg & Chanarin’s and Brecht’s books, so that the aforementioned wealthy westerner talks on a cell phone and holds a leash that runs out of the frame, and into the famous picture of the prisoner on a leash from Abu Ghraib, or stock market fluctuations emerge from a flag-waving arm.
As a photobook, it’s interesting enough, I guess, but as an intervention, a statement against power and market forces, War Primer 3 is solid, and right in line with Bush’s project.
Overall, War Primer 3 rates 4 middle fingers.
You can view the book, download a pdf, or order yourself a copy at Bush’s website. Brecht’s original is available at fine used bookstores, and Broomberg & Chanarin’s update is available new from Mack (in a softcover reprint) or from used bookstores at a variety of price points. I’m tempted to order up both, but I probably won’t. After all, I only have the last of NOFX/Propagandhi/NOFX back-and-forth. Why gather the other War Primers?
I should say here that I don’t know much about War Primer or War Primer 2. Both seem to be more or less in line with my (and Bush’s) politics, though Broomberg and Chanarin’s use of unpaid, uncredited interns is, indeed, deeply problematic. I also understand the issue some people have with the outrageous prices some limited-edition photobooks fetch, but at the same time, I don’t personally have a big problem with it. Sure, I’d like to have copies of some photobooks that are just way out of my league, wallet wise. At the same time, I own a couple of photobooks that I either bought new or found for stupid cheap, that have more than quadrupled in price in recent years. I bought one of the last copies David Alan Harvey’s (based on a true story) direct from Harvey for, what was for me, a huge amount of money ($140, if I recall, it may be more). Copies go for close to $2000 now. And I found a copy of Paul Graham’s A1 – the great north road in a used bookstore for $8. Used copies of it fetch $400 or more online. Sure, it would be better if both books were more widely available, and sure, I’m unlikely to sell either anytime soon. But the evil little capitalist in me still gets a little thrill when I think about it, and the crusty little Punk bristles at the thought, and may Allah forgive me.
So I don’t know… maybe I owe it to Broomberg and Chanarin (and Brecht) to do a little compare/contrast between the three War Primers? I don’t know.
If you’d like to see that, let me know. It might push me over the edge, maybe.
*Deep inside, I remain a spiky haired punk rocker with a safety pin in my face, but I left that world long ago due to the hypocrisy: several of my punk buddies and role models joined the Army after 9/11. Apologies, but Punk is Anti-Authoritarian, Anti-War. You can’t be a Punk Rocker and join the fucking army.