Shooting Pictures, Shooting People: A Challenging Perspective on Military Training Grounds 

This year witnessed the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Sadly, war and military sabre-rattling have anything but vanished from the global sphere. German photographer Herlinde Koelbl spent six years capturing army shooting ranges around the world, testifying to a contemporary military culture and the ingrained readiness to kill. A selection of images from her book Targets[1] has been published in 2014 in the German Zeit Magazin,[2] alongside an interview with Koelbl. This condensed photographic collection raises urgent questions about ways of looking, fiction, and gender – both on military training grounds and beyond.

Koelbl’s photographs are alienating. The shooting grounds they show are propped up as ordinary private or public spaces from bedrooms to streets, and peopled by dummies. One German training area consists of a meadow fitted with hand-painted wooden cows and persons – the latter heavily armed but not in uniforms. These spaces in and of themselves have shock value as they carry warfare into the quotidian, civilian realm. But Koelbl’s camera multiplies the effect because it offers a civilian perspective on the targets and the spaces in which they are embedded. Soldiers’ lenses on the grounds feature hairline crosses. These military devices make objects state-sanctioned targets, visually legitimising the act of shooting. The training grounds are built for this type of vision, not for civilian eyes.[3] Photographs taken through camera lenses such as Koelbl’s are the customary iconography through which we are used to seeing people in the press, adverts, and personal collections. We inadvertently take it for granted that shooting the picture did not kill people and that they were not physical targets. It is different with the shooting ground. The contrast between the habitual, harmless way of looking and the irregular, hazardous space creates a heightened sense not only of alienation but also of perversion regarding the military training ground. In her interview, Koelbl refers to the existence of catalogues where different styles of targets can be purchased.[4] Glossy advertisement pictures are another customary form of visual representation in civilian life. They are meant to entice, or at least facilitate, shopping. The idea of advertisements for targets is disturbing as this type of representation turns the procurement of materials into “enemy” shopping.

The allusion to firing ranges as playgrounds further fuels the sense of perversion. The South Korean shooting simulation, where soldiers navigate through virtual space, is reminiscent of today’s popular video games. The childishly hand-painted setting of the German meadow suggests playfulness. As Koelbl points out, Hollywood designers have created a mock city for military exercise in the United States.[5] Soldiers literally play out the fiction of killing in these environments. Yet, while these spaces do not see real killings, they are also not identical to Hollywood fiction or video games. They are in-between. In films and games, a shot person and the scene of the crime quickly vanish from sight, or “site,” to use film theorist Giuliana Bruno’s terminology for film as space.[6] Out of site, out of mind.[7] It is almost as if no real harm is done. Death and its physicality are played down. Koelbl’s photographs reveal that the shooting grounds, by contrast, register lasting signs of violence, because they are permanent material sites continuously serving changing actors and exercises. A setting in the Emirates integrates stone dummies in painted-on civilian dress strewn with bullet marks. A German training ground includes a bedroom wall dotted with bullet holes above a mattress that is itself nearly shot to pieces. By capturing these material traces, the shooting ground photographs act as disturbing warnings to perceive neither violence as play nor its effects as fiction.

These warnings apply to any of the photographed firing ranges. But ideas of the enemy’s identity differ. In the opening essay to Targets, Koelbl points to the different concepts of the enemy that the training grounds mirror depending on culture and era.[8] She gives the example of targets on an American training area that now carry oriental dress instead of the formerly used Soviet red star. She further expresses her interest in gender questions. This concern registers astutely in the Zeit Magazin series. Repeatedly, and throughout different countries, the targets are women while Koelbl explains that still today the majority of combat units consist of men.[9] The female targets’ appearances suggest that they are here for men’s eyes and guns. One target displays a curvy woman in tight top and jeans, with sensual lips. Another dummy, in mini skirt and with a large bust, shows extensive bullet marks where her nipples would be. A French target features painted bare breasts and an oversized string. Between, it reads: “C’est ta mère” [That’s your mother]. These targets might be intended to lower inhibitions in male soldiers and to stir ferocity by appealing to both their sexuality and sense of honour.[10] The implication would be that the men are training to overcome their conscience. Koelbl’s photographs, by contrast, become direct appeals to the beholders’ conscience by capturing these stark manifestations of disrespect toward women in all their overtness.

The Targets photographs themselves turn into a training ground for spectators by challenging the viewers to engage with alienating and disturbing views.

[1] Herlinde Koelbl, Targets (New York and London: Prestel, 2014).
[2] Herlinde Koelbl and Christine Meffert, “Feuer frei,” Zeit Magazin, no. 19 (2014): 11-32.
[3] Koelbl went through sometimes difficult application processes to be able to access and photograph the spaces (Koelbl and Meffert, 28).
[4] Koelbl and Meffert, 31.
[5] Koelbl and Meffert, 29.
[6] Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (New York; London: Verso, 2002), 15-16.
[7] Television shows such as CSI that dwell on the space of the crime scene turn it into the investigators’ playground before replacing it by a clinically sterile laboratory where the evidence is examined out of its spatial context.
[8] Herlinde Koelbl, “In the Cold Morning Light,” in Targets, 9-12 (9).
[9] Koelbl and Meffert, 28.
 See Koelbl’s essay for an explanation of how the shooting ranges in general contribute to lowering inhibitions and to “desensitisation” (Koelbl, “Morning Light,” 10-11).