Memorialization & Narrative: “Conflict-Time-Photography” at the Tate Modern

                        Memorialization & Narrative:                             “ConflictŸ-TimeŸ-Photography” at the Tate Modern, London

“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Robert Capa’s oft-quoted maxim on conflict photography still shines as the diamond standard for most people shooting such images. Capa was certainly speaking to being physically very up close. His few surviving D-Day images, and his most famous [and contested] “Falling Soldier” photo of a Spanish Loyalist at the instant a bullet apparently felled him, testify to this.

So does most conflict photography that reaches wide audiences. It is typically of the “decisive moment”, often “viscerally visual”, intended to hit you in the guts and sometimes showing the same.

ConflictŸ-Time-ŸPhotography”, now on at the Tate Modern in London, offers a quite different approach. It is much more about how photographers can record memories of conflict—and craft narratives to embody them—than moments of violence themselves.

“From the seconds after a bomb is detonated to a former scene of battle years after a war has ended, this moving exhibition focuses on the passing of time,” the curators explain, its images “ordered according to how long after the event they were created from moments, days and weeks to decades later.”

Post the Decisive Moment

Nearly every image displayed distances us not only in time from acts of violence, but from its gory impact on living bodies. The first large photo is by Luc Delahaye: a broad and empty Afghan plain, smoke pluming at center just over a horizon of rising mountains. It is a powerful image. We know something has happened. Extreme violence has been visited on… an empty landscape, perhaps? Only in our imaginations may we conjure what such explosions would have done to people… were any there….

This separation from representation of the physical effects of violence on its victims and survivors runs through the exhibition. Even a copy of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 stunning and deeply discomfiting collection, WAR against WAR! [discussed here, with attendant horrific photos] is opened to one of the volume’s more innocuous images.

There are a few exceptions. Another Delahaye photo shows skeletal remains of people executed during the Spanish Civil War. Yet even these are literally bare bones, the cleanest of the long dead. There are no references to uses elsewhere of such bones; impressively formal ossuaries memorialize war and genocides from France to Cambodia to Rwanda. In other post-conflict areas, informal local memorials have been raised, as in Uganda in 1987 [see photo].

Something Happened Here

The preponderance of this exhibition’s images—and there are more than just photos—are thus recollections of conflict and its impact. A set of photos and models by Indre Serpytyte of houses in Lithuania once used as KGB interrogation centers depicts buildings whose “resolutely ordinary” appearance, she says, challenge us to recall them as “containers of memory” of the evils performed within. Here, as with some striking photos of Hiroshima, photography seems a therapeutic tool to help address individual and collective trauma of horrors past.

But some photos fail to convey clear connection to conflict. Landscapes and cityscapes [such as Berlin], utterly absent human form, seem to indicate little more than “conflict once happened here”. Jo Ratcliffe’s images in Angola’s capital Luanda signify nothing related to that country’s long, brutal—and now in memory for many receding—liberation struggle and ensuing civil war. They are interesting photos, but to Angola’s past conflicts essentially irrelevant—streets and markets and a rubbish tip like many in any number of developing countries where once there was war. Guatemala City, Kampala, Manila, I have seen, offer comparable scenes. Similarly, Stephen Shore’s closely observed lives of holocaust survivors in Ukraine tell us little save that [quite happily] these particular people are still alive. Their existence as witnessed in these photos is likely very much like their neighbors, who might also have suffered terribly the vicissitudes of World War II and the Soviet era.

Sophie Ritselhueber’s roomful of grand color prints offer varied perspectives of the scars and detritus of war in the Kuwaiti desert and better evidence of the impact of conflict. Also evocative are large and recent black and white prints of immense German fortifications in Normandy now tipped by time and tide onto beaches they were meant to defend; concrete memories that are quite literally disappearing, melting into the sea. And even more compelling are the exhibition’s closing photos, a set of images of places in France where during World War I soldiers were executed for desertion or perceived cowardice. From a series “Shot at Dawn” by Chloe Dewe Mathews, these moodily—dare we admit hauntingly?—capture the same time of day when those men were killed.

Iconic Faces of Fighters

Only a few fighters are on view. Very early on, one human face is prominent: Don McCullin’s rightly lauded 1968 iteration of the “two-thousand-yard stare”. It was made during a lull in intense urban combat in Hue, Vietnam.

The exhibition’s accompanying caption says such images are not possible today because of the system of “embedding” correspondents in military units. But they certainly are, for example this or this by the late Tim Hetherington while he and Sebastian Junger were embedded with US forces in Afghanistan. This sort of image embodies embedding’s intent to encourage emotional identification. It creates conditions for highly sympathetic portrayals of forces with which reporters are embedded; see Hetherington’s and Junger’s very human depiction of American fighters in the book War and their documentary Restrepo. Embedding’s core problem is that it limits correspondents’ intimate interaction to fighters on only one side of the conflict. But embedded reporters, unless censored, can also produce far less flattering images of the forces they travel with, as the late Chris Hondros did in Iraq.

Another of the exhibition’s rare combatants is found in Susan Meiselas’s 1979 photo of a Sandinista fighter launching a firebomb. It demonstrates how an image can be appropriated to support a particular memory and narrative of a conflict: this used as emblematic of heroic resistance, appearing In Nicaragua as graffiti, on t-shirts, as posters supporting Sandinista politicos—and sometimes elsewhere as an iconic and now decontextualized image much like the omnipresent “Che-chic”.

Meiselas’s photos certainly were close, in time and space, to the fight. It is the sort of reportage needed for news, supplying information that people require to reckon the conduct, costs, and consequences of current conflicts. Offering the public at least the opportunity to witness the impact of conflict is an immensely important public service, especially to citizens of democracies in whose name blood is spilt and treasure spent—even if some commentators despair of even terribly graphic images’ efficacy in averting future conflicts.

Look Back in Trauma

Robert Capa, and later Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, produced remarkable images of people engaged in or affected by violent conflict. Each died while getting [sorrowfully, too] close to intense but ephemeral moments of combat. But again, it is not the intent of “ConflictŸ-Time-ŸPhotography” curators Simon Baker and Shoair Mavlian to show us this. The exhibition’s starting point is as the bang-bang of conflict photojournalism fades to echo. It opens with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, who said of the 23 years it took him to produce Slaughterhouse-Five, his novel about the 1945 firebombing of Dresden that he survived as a prisoner-of-war: “People are not supposed to look back.”

Yet we of course do. As Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim found, looking back on conflict can be deeply traumatizing—and this for journalists as much as anyone. And as an American Iraq combat veteran wrote in a new book on post-traumatic stress, “The war happened in collections of seconds, but the memories of it echoed forever.” The exhibition depicts this “forever”, processes through which a myriad of post-conflict photographers have sought to interpret past violence, reconstructing and recording memories, crafting new visual narratives and proximities of remembrance that shape our understanding of what, perhaps, happened. ###

Further reading:

A very useful slideshow and commentary from the Guardian.

Reviews from the Guardian, the FT, and Daily Telegraph.

Susan Sontag’s masterful 2002 essay “Looking At War”.


Addendum, 21 January 2015

The Archive of Modern Conflict

A side room to the exhibit reveals a quite separate and utterly different display by the privately-owned, London-based Archive of Modern Conflict [AMC]. One is greeted by series of 15-foot high photos of “warriors”, ranging from a very sepia 1920 Gold Coast [now Ghana] Horseman to a 1950 female member of the US Navy in fluoride bright dress whites. Inside is an ambitious—or perhaps just amiably ambiguous—mélange of photos and objects related to sundry conflicts. AMC says its exhibit “explores the psyche of conflict”. And like a psyche in conflict, it is all over the place. Eclectic is an understatement. Even eccentric, perhaps—and certainly, wonderfully, fascinating.

There is more than just a scent of the well-ordered anarchy of Oxford’s magnificent Pitt-Rivers Museum here. On the AMC books website, a few pages offered from the stand-alone catalogue of the AMC exhibition, A Guide for the Protection of the Public in Peacetimegive just a taste of its vast appetites. There are ephemera: a World War II flyer on how to use your “fat ration”; newspaper clippings; posters. There are interesting objects: a cabinet filled with 70-odd examples of horseshoes from the days of caissons and cavalry; a colorful New Guinea shield; a German stick hand grenade [presumably rendered  harmless, but guarded still by a sign imploring ‘Do Not Touch’!]. There are many photographs: early aerial reconnaissance photos of World War I trenches; a picture of Miss Naval Aviation 1957, Maureen O’Hara; an almost hidden Robert Capa showing US paratroops preparing to drop on Germany; facing each other across the room—perhaps suitably—portraits of Native American Lakota leaders Running Antelope and the less poetically-named Low Dog. Hugely, one wall is covered with a comic book poster of the Cuban Revolution. There is much, much more….

AMC proclaims it is presenting “the landscapes of war as viewed by those co-opted, blighted, disrupted, demented, excited, uplifted, corrupted, dumbfounded and unbalanced by its process.”

And overwhelmed, surely. I bet that would be about all of us. ###

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