*initially published in Dnevnik daily newspaper in Slovenian language
Almost endless number of acclaimed photographers who have in the past 150 years documented direct or indirect consequences of armed conflicts are presented at the extensive group exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography at Tate Modern in London. Despite that fact the viewer is confronted with fairly incomplete topography of wars, pogroms and man-caused disasters that took place during turbulent history of the modern world. But it seems the history has always been turbulent and the world has never been a peaceful place with the exception of limited periods in limited geographic contexts. One of this improbable combinations happened in the West over the past 70 years after the World War II. And maybe people from the so called developed world therefore perceive current period as fairly stable and calm and therefore museums and galleries are able to put up shows displaying history of conflicts with a certain distance – temporal and geographic. The key element of this exhibition is thus chronological sequence that classify works according to temporal distance of particular photograph from the event whose consequence it documents.
The work of Luc Delahaye shows completely deserted and barren field, surrounded by distant mountains, above which still fresh and slowly dispelling smoke clouds are swirled. On the first glance everything seems to be absolutely fine, only the smoke and sinister emptiness remind a viewer of the actual context. The title of the work US Bombing on Taliban Positions (2001) is eloquent enough on its own. Beside it stands the iconic image of Shell-shocked Marine (1968) shot by legendary photojournalist Don McCullin during the battle for the city of Hue at the peak of the Vietnam war. The image has became one of the most significant motifs of immense anti-war atmosphere in the USA in the period of cultural revolution at the end of the 1960s. After media debacle in Vietnam where relative freedom of press has contributed to the civil revolt at home, the US war machinery decided to never again let journalists and photographers close enough and enable them to capture (and publicly reveal) the true extent of horrors of war and frequent moments of despair (in their own ranks of combatants). Both photographs were shot almost immediately, only few seconds after the (invisible) decisive moment. They both display war but not the event itself as documentary and war photographers would normally (strive to) do. The motifs at the exhibition are therefore not sensationalist. Most of them are actually taken with a great temporal distance that puts artists in a fairly unladen relationship with this emotionally and ideologically charged topic. But wars have always been extremely sensitive subjects where beside the armed clashes warring sides would also battle to prevail in propaganda war and, in a long run, struggle to control the history.
The exhibition begins with the pictures depicting moments immediately after the event, and it continues with those recorded few days, weeks or months afterwards. Japanese photographer Matsumoto Eiichi documented haunting silhouette of a soldier on a wall of military headquarters in Nagasaki (4 kilometers from the epicentre of the atomic bomb explosion) whose body has been carbonised and evaporated. The same year, few months after the event, Richard Peter has photographed Dresden after Allied Raids (1945). The image shows completely destroyed cityscape of this German city where tens of thousands of people were killed in one single night of air raid. From the current point of view both pictures show the horrors of war from the universal and humanistic perspective, without obvious ideological connotations. That is maybe because, ultimately, their authors were citizens of the defeated nations while their photographs were shot shortly after the downfall of the empires they lived in. The question that these photographs pose is whether they have, as the former invaders (undoubtedly responsible for the war) who were defeated, the right to talk about their own victim? Could these images in given circumstances incite any compassion at all? In frames of this exhibition whose curator himself endeavours to take up universal position, referring to famous anti-war credo that number of photographers of the 20th century (especially the Magnum photographers) followed and appropriated, the photographs of more or less renown artists and photographers are juxtaposed. There are eerie images of the Crimea war by Roger Fenton (1854), and metaphorically abstract images of Broomberg & Chanarin who were – embedded with British troops in occupied Afghanistan – refusing to report from explicitly but with words. There are photographs of George N. Bernard showing consequences of Sherman Campaign in the American civil war (1866) and photographs of ruins caused by the fighting during Paris Commune (1871) by Jules Andrieu. There are pictures of aftermath of Afghanistan war (2002) by Simon Norfolk and aerial photographs of the first Gulf war (1992) by Sophie Ristelhuber. All together, a great collection of amazing photographers and photographs.
While most of the works follow classic photographic principles some of the artists have managed to create lucid deviations. With her work Life after Image (1979-2004) Susan Meiselas decided to follow and monitor the path of one of her most notorious and repeatedly published photographs from the revolution in Nicaragua – the image of the Sandinista rebel on the barricade who is throwing Molotov cocktail. For its visual attractiveness and associative strength this photograph became a symbol of resistance against the repressive dictatorship and imperialism, and therefore the artist returned to the place where the scene took place 25 years ago and filmed an interview with the man on the photograph (yes, she apparently kept in contact). She thus highlighted the background and (independent) life of an iconic image.
However, number of works displayed at the exhibition unfortunately could not reach beyond the surface of its immediate (apparent) contexts. They are often trapped and deeply rooted in the political discourse of the West, the discourse of the domineering white population, and subjected to highly determined perception of global conflicts. Most of the photographs were shot by European, American and Japanese artists who very often document conflicts on the margins of the world, i.e. so called third world. Museums, galleries and media in the Western countries are not interested in what people who were affected by conflicts, war and pogroms have to say about it from their own, first hand, perspective. And, it could get even worse, if one thinks of it. Commonly, one could say, the West has caused or at least sponsored number of conflicts in the third world countries and at the same time it has been often moralising about their cruelty and savagery through images. In a way it could even be understandable that central British institution for visual arts do not oppose and do not openly criticise national and global interests of its own government and other rulers and that the exhibition with such a sensitive subject is largely wrapped in politically correct discourse. However, by having such a pompous title viewer could legitimately expect much more than that.
© Miha Colner, 1 February 2015