Conflict, Time, Photography

Toshio Fukada’s series of gelatin silver prints, ‘The Mushroom Cloud – Less than Twenty Minutes after the Explosion’ (1945), show Hiroshima’s cloud in close-up, from almost within the cloud itself. Occasionally punctuated by trees or telegraph wires, the soft folds of the cloud obscure the devastating impact of the bombing by almost filling the frame. Nearby, is a large c-type by Luc Delahaye. ‘US Bombing on Taliban Positions’ (2001) contains smoke rising from an otherwise tranquil desert landscape. These works form the introductory room of Tate Modern’s ‘Conflict, Time, Photography,’ taken moments after significant acts of aggression on civilians and soldiers.

Don McCullin, ‘Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue’ 1968, printed 2013 © Don McCullin

While Fukada and Delahaye’s works are perhaps more abstracted depictions of conflict, the clouds and smoke rendered rather beautiful, Don McCullin’s ‘Shell-shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Huế’ (1968) reveals something further about the cost of war upon those who fight. The marine’s hands, impossibly large, are locked on to his rifle, his eyes glassy and fixed. What specific violence has caused his trauma remains unclear. These works begin to open out ideas of warfare on a variety of scales: the ways in which the tendrils of war reach into individuals, into communities and into places, ripping through the hearts of those in the wrong place at the wrong time. Containing an enormous range of lived moments captured photographically, the resonance and emotional impact of the images in the exhibition stretches far beyond each frame.

‘Conflict, Time, Photography’ is expansive in its geographical and historical remit but it is also highly nuanced. Instead of being sectioned according to region or time period, the photographs relate to the timing of their being taken, either moments, days, months or years after conflict in that site. This curatorial decision enables unexpected connections to be made between disparate global events, more broadly contextualised by the First World War Centenary this year.

Photographs by George N. Barnard were originally taken to aid map production and record strategic targets during the American Civil War. Barnard later returned to these sites to re-document them. Multiple perspectives on one site or one conflict run throughout the exhibition. In the well-known Crimean War photograph by Roger Fenton, ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’ (1854-5), the road is strewn with cannonballs (a version without the cannonballs exists). Controversial in its probable staging, this is a good example of the use of photography for a political agenda and of the ways in which such images are ingrained upon the popular imagination.

A later room is filled with Sophie Ristelhueber’s ‘Fait’ (1992), sixty photographs of the traces, patterns and debris of the Gulf War on the Kuwaiti landscape via aerial and ground level views. Another expansive installation by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin questions the tagging of contact sheets that document aspects of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in relation to photographic archives. Other works in the exhibition pertain to conflicts in Lithuania, Nicaragua, Angola, Bosnia, Libya, Spain and Lebanon. The list continues.

Conflict, Time, Photography
Simon Norfolk, ‘Bullet-scarred apartment building and shops in the Karte Char district of Kabul’ 2003 © Simon Norfolk

Simon Norfolk, whose detailed photographs of ruined public buildings in Afghanistan are on display in several rooms, notes that ‘different moments of destruction [lie] like sedimentary strata on top of each other.’ Although meant in reference to the configuration of Afghanistan, his words are also an apt summation of the exhibition. Photographic images are stacked in the mind of the viewer: images of terror, atrocity and suffering that weigh as heavy as rocks upon the shoulders.

Conflict, Time, Photography
Tate Modern
26 November 2014 – 15 March 2015

Commissioned and published by Photomonitor, 10 December 2014


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