We’ve all seen the photos of heavily armed Western soldiers half-obscured in desert dust, shot by photojournalists, camera-toting citizens, and even soldiers themselves. Less common are images that tap the symbolic vocabulary of fine art to tell the tale of war.
Photographer Hector Membreno-Canales, a Sergeant in the US Army, does just that. His series Hegemony or Survival, visually intertwines the trappings and manpower of war-making with the spoils and symbols of riches that motivate it. The images evoke a wider and less visible narrative of colonialism and power underpinning our military excursions.
“I found it really interesting that regardless of whoever is in charge of the narrative, it’s somebody in power,” Membreno-Canales says. “It’s the almighty dollar that is basically deciding how we see these things, and the still lifes with military iconography is intended to echo the fruits of our labors.”
The title of the series takes its name from a well-known book by renowned linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky. It compellingly assesses global politics and war-making through the lens of the dominant global powers’ relentless consolidation of wealth and control. It reflects a particular worldview that’s not necessarily enthusiastic about US military adventures, but Membreno-Canales prefers not to explicitly endorse or condemn these notions through his images — for him, they’re a way of working out the complex relationships between himself, his passions and beliefs, and the superpower military he works with.
“The intention of the work isn’t to be an activist or an advocate, its just my personal perspective that I think I share with others, and [the work is] just trying to narrate that through the medium of photography,” he says.
Membreno-Canales joined the Army after a period of drifting through a post-high school suburban life in Allentown, Pennsylvania. By the time he’d wrapped up his first contract, helping to organize logistical convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan, he’d developed a passion for photography. After his tour, he took advantage of the GI bill to study art history at the School of Visual Art in New York. In this series, Membreno-Canales is trying to square his experiences in the military with a sense of global consciousness and his love of art and art history that flourished after he came home and began studying.
As someone still active in the Army, this time as a photographer, Membreno-Canales has to balance his expanding perspective with his proximity to his subject.
“I started to really think about what type of work I could make that is unique to me, that is unique to my experiences, that somebody could look at and say, ‘Oh that’s Hector’s photo,’” he says. “In order for somebody to debate on an intellectual level they need to be aware of what the other side is saying — so I don’t think that I’m a maverick in introducing topics that are taboo to the military, these are things that we are absolutely self-aware of.”
During his studies Membreno-Canales became interested in the history of fine art, and his aesthetic draws largely from the Dutch tradition of still life. Still life inspired him as a window into the times and ideas of dominant cultures, along with the definite class divide represented by portraiture (few conquered or poor people have been known to commission paintings in any era). It also allowed a means for setting apparently incompatible objects next to one another — there’s something unsettling in the image of a beautiful bouquet buttressed by a box of bullets.
The direct symbolism in Membreno-Canales’s photographs is sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. A horn on the table next to an American soldier originally from Sierra Leone is a symbolic reflection of the soldier’s own story. Further expanding the symbol is a tattoo of the African continent on his chest, referencing another “horn” with its own history of conflict and conquest.
Membreno-Canales remains in the military, most recently working with operation Atlantic Resolve. His photo represent the uncommon expression of a voice from within the military industrial complex. Even though he’s the first to say his point of view is but one of many and by no means authoritative, the more languages we can use to speak to the critical issue of armed conflict—be they verbal or visual—the better off we’ll all be.
“It’s hard to do objective journalism when you’re an active participant,” he says. “How do you trust the information you get from the military itself? That’s something I’m aware of and really interested in as well in my own personal work — the representation of war, who’s deciding how it’s represented, who’s reporting on it.”
All photos by Hector Membreno-Canales