Photographers in the wake of war
Usually I am complaining about the negative images of sub-Saharan Africa: for the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition at Tate Modern my complaint is that there aren’t enough negative images of Africa.
The wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo get a look-in, but with a guesstimated 5.4 million deaths and 2.9 million displaced – one of the deadliest conflicts since the Second World War – it seems underplayed.
There are nods, too, in the direction of post-civil war Luanda (“the landscape appeared both medieval and post-apocalyptic simultaneously – as if Mad Max had collided head on with the Canterbury Tales”) and South Africa’s “Border Wars”. Of the latter, photographer Jo Ractliffe says, “The traces of war are being bulldozed off the roads, out of the way, literally disappearing before my eyes.”
Her comment runs against the flow of the exhibition, which generally shows how the scars of war, physical and mental, endure, whether in the faces of Holocaust survivors in Ukraine or in a series of pictures of war debris in the Kuwait desert.
“Conflicts don’t end when we think they end. They have a long-lasting effect on places and people,” says Simon Baker, the Tate’s curator of photography.
That effect is laid out in the exhibition’s brilliant organising principle: the photos are displayed in terms of time after an event. So the first room has pictures taken “Moments Later” — a mushroom cloud in Japan, Luc Delahaye’s mesmerising Ambush, Ramadi, 2006, where the dust is still flying after a US vehicle is caught in an IED blast, and the undiminished power of Don McCullin’s Shell-shocked US Marine 1968: the last room finishes on Chloe Dewe Matthews’ landscapes taken 99 years after “deserters” were shot there at dawn.
On the way through this “conceptual reading of how war is remembered”, this “theatre of memory” — Baker’s words: this is an art gallery exhibition, remember, not photojournalism — there are some interesting sidelights, including post-Great War mass tourism, excoriated by a contemporaneous critic as “one and a half million had to bleed to death in the very place where wine and coffee and everything else are included … in these Promotion Trips to Hell”; the layers of ruins in Afghanistan which speak of decades of war; the anti-war museum established in Berlin by Ernst Friedrich (author of War Against War!) which was destroyed by the NAZIs and became a torture chamber; and an installation, a giant cabinet of curiosities, which “presents the timeless subject of war through images of those co-opted, integrated, blighted, uplifted, disrupted, demented, excited, dumbfounded, corrupted and generally unbalanced by its process”.
Plenty to think about and discuss, including the omission of new trends such as photos and videos by war planners, combatants and civilians; plenty to like and dislike (I feel uncomfortable with art gallery displays of war, just as I recoil from the term “theatre of war”), and, as usual with global shows, I felt there was too much from the West, its perspectives and in this case its conflicts. I suppose I should be grateful for the reminder that despite the negative media images of African conflict, and the neglect of Asian wars such as those between India and Pakistan, when it comes to the mayhem of armed violence Europe and the US are top of the pile.
· Conflict, Time, Photography is at Tate Modern until 15 March.
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