Saturday, February 28, 2015

Conflict, Time, Photography: How We Bear Witness

I popped into the Tate Modern to kill some time while a friend had a meeting and blindly wandered into the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibit.  And I'm glad I did.  It's a moving, artistic, and educational approach to looking at war and conflict in an unexpected way. 

Rather than a traditional exhibit on war photography (focused on photojournalists shooting the conflict as it happens--think Robert Capa) it was structured around how time informs artists who are photographing conflicts.  For instance in the first room, images were taken of battles, moments, and events happening as the conflict was ongoing.  As you moved through the rooms, the distance between the event and the photographs grew until the last room involved photographs of events that had taken place 100 years before. 

With this framing, the photographs showed a variety of ways in which we memorialize, remember, or forget conflicts.  Because of the concept of conflict over time, we saw a lot less of soldiers and the mechanics of war and more of the aftermath and damage on everyone and everything else--the wounds on people, the earth, families, or objects.  It offers a new different way of looking at those events.  By mixing the subject matter (not a singular war and in fact using multiple images of certain events over long stretches of time) it became less about the politics of any one conflict and more about damage inflicted, the recovery or permanence of that destruction.  Though I did notice there was a tremendous amount of photography from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a surprising lack of photography from Vietnam (well, surprising for an American who tends to think war and photography = Vietnam).  Then again Vietnam was a heavily photographed war for America and its impact was noted in more recent photographs with the change in US military policy with journalists now being embedded. 

The overall effect of the show was a grand scale approach to how we bear witness--how we memorialize, document, and make propaganda through images. But also in how we wrestle with comprehending complex and difficult events and find meaning from them. 

For me the most powerful moments were not necessarily inherent in the images themselves but in how the artists were framing their subjects.  One photographer, Emeric Lhuisset, upon the one year anniversary of the death of a Kurdish journalist, Sardasht Osman, used a light-sensitive photo of Osman and posted it all over town.   But as the sun rose and the day dragged on the image would disappear and just become a black square.  Suddenly you are experiencing the loss of this person all over again and all you are left with is the black square memorial. 

Taryn Simon photographed family bloodlines for victims of the Srebrenica massacre.  She had people sit for portraits and when a family member had been killed she photographed whatever she could find from that victim.  You see bones, or merely a tooth, that was used to identify a family member in a mass grave.  Simon did the same for the family bloodline of the living descendants of "Hans Frank, Hitler's personal legal advisor and the Governor-General of occupied Poland."  When family members refused to sit for portraits an empty photo was used or an object they had sent in stood in for them.   The Srebrenica photographs show families destroyed, eliminated, or irrevocably damaged.  For the Frank family photos, you see continuity of a family in the face of destruction. 

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin extracted images from the Belfast Exposed archive which preserved images taken by professionals and amateurs about life in the city.  Whenever someone requested an image to be used the images were tagged with round stickers. Broomberg and Chanarin reprinted the images that lay beneath the stickers. Through their installation of these circular images you get brief glimpses of faces and places.  Juxtaposing them all next to each other you can flit from joy to sorrow in an instant.  We see soldiers, people in the street, children happy and laughing. Kids playing. Effigies. Faces in grief. Crying. People playing sports. Hoods covering faces.  Without further context each individual image becomes a larger story when connected to all the others around them.  And leaving the selection process to random application of stickers over the years puts the power in the hands of the archives.  The archive is speaking for itself in a way. 

Some images showed nothing about the conflict because the events happened in secret and so only through an artist's commentary do we learn what happened inside certain buildings.  Or with the passage of time the evidence of prior conflict had been removed.  Nazi objects were removed but the pedestals where they stood remain.  Locations of where executed soldiers were shot are photographed at the time and place of those executions but 99 years after they took place.  The absence of evidence becomes as powerful as the existence of scars.  Forgetting can be damaging too. 

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