War photographers follow their subjects into harrowing firefights, but Thibault Brunet only embeds with platoons stationed in the Uncanny Valley. You heard right: the eerily lifelike portraits in Brunet’s “First Person Shooter” series are all culled from video game screenshots taken from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. But their dead-eyed, masklike faces bear a chilling resemblance to real-world soldiers who’ve seen too many things that can’t be unseen.
Brunet names his synthetic “subjects” in portraiture just like real soldiers, and even the artist’s statement on his website reads like a dispatch from someone who actually shot photos in-country: “This series was conducted during a training mission in a camp in Afghanistan by U.S. forces. Far from the agitation of shooting and explosions, I surveyed the area in search of other soldiers,” Brunet writes. “The faces of the soldiers bear the marks of horror and suffering and yet… one senses a vague indifference.” [Note: translated from the French by Google.]
It’s easy to see how an actual war photographer — or soldier, for that matter — could take major offense at Brunet’s apparently ironic game-playing with their chosen line of work. But while “First Person Shooter” might make Brunet seem like an insensitive poseur at first glance, there’s a deeper current of anxious sincerity in his work. After all, in the early twenty-first century, more people are likely to know about war (if they know anything about it at all) through fantasized, synthetic mediations like video games than from news reports or real life. And the military itself is happy to play right along: have you seen the Air Force’s TV commercials and website lately? In this context, Brunet’s “photos” seem less like art-world showboating and more like an attempt to talk about the military in its own words. When games are marketed as war and war is marketed as a game, “First Person Shooter” may be as “true” a portrait of modern combat as any photos from the front.