A photographic canvas stretches across a wall in the Tate Modern. Slowly fading from black to white, the only discernible shape is in the centre, what looks like the leaves of a palm tree. Having come to the Tate for their Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition (running until March 2015), this was not an image I expected to see. Intrigued, I explored the accompanying text. Here, the photographer in question explained that as an embedded journalist, assigned to a specific military unit, he was not allowed to take photos of what he would usually have documented – colleagues kidnapped and killed, communities destroyed. Instead, when each of these events occurred he exposed a piece of photographic paper to sunlight, a memento of the images never captured, producing the work in front of me.
Creating this sense of ‘absent presences’ made this one of the most successful war exhibitions that I have seen. All artistic explorations of conflict run the risk of aestheticising violence, but Conflict, Time, Photography manages to avoid this by making broader philosophical and political comments about representations of war. It is an unusual exhibition in many respects: gone are the iconic images of Vietnamese children, emaciated refugees, soldiers embracing their lovers. In their place hang a diverse set of artworks that, for the most part, are devoid of people. The photographs document the landscapes of war, rather than the souls that inhabit them. Stretched across the entirety of the Eyal Ofer Galleries, the images are arranged according to time since the conflict in question, from seconds after the bomb at Hiroshima, to one hundred years after the First World War.
At face value, it seems difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions about conflict from these often tranquil landscapes. Look closer, however, and these images powerfully question how accurately war can ever actually be documented on film. What happens to those stories that do not become photographs which define a generation, the people whose faces we do not see? These absent perpetrators and victims are at the heart of this exhibition, often represented in the texts that hang with each image. Perhaps the most effective of these was the set of photographs from Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, where the texts form part of the installation itself. Next to each photograph is an explanation of the atrocities that occurred there twenty years previously: a deserted square saw the public execution of a young man, an empty building housed the remains of the regime’s victims. These people will never be part of our visual history, despite their suffering being as great as those who are remembered.
Perhaps the most disturbing point raised throughout the entire exhibition was that of journalistic embedding, dramatically announced by the image described above, and by Don McCullin’s shell-shocked US soldier in Vietnam. One of the rare images of people included in the exhibition, it is in the first room dedicated to photographs taken minutes after conflict. The sightless eyes of the young man are shocking in a visceral way that the landscapes are not, but perhaps more striking in the context of the exhibition was McCullin’s comment in the accompanying text stating that it would be impossible to take this photograph now due to media embedding. Journalists such as Patrick Cockburn have raised concerns about the biased nature of reporting produced by this technique, but this exhibition brought home the highly politicised nature of media representations of war. This was particularly apparent for the photos from Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts which most visitors to the exhibition will probably think themselves familiar. Having a new perspective that focused upon absence raised disturbing questions about what was not allowed to be documented in Western media portrayals of the wars.
My main criticism of the exhibition would be that it did at times risk becoming monotonous which slightly dampened the impact of some of the images (such as the entire room dedicated to Sophie Ristelhueber’s photos of Kuwait). Thankfully the predominantly monochrome prints were punctuated often enough with splashes of colour and contrast of tone to prevent this becoming a significant problem. Chloe Dewe Mathews’ Shot at Dawn was such an example. In the series, she revisited the sites where deserters were killed during the World Wars, at the same time and day as the executions, one hundred years later. The landscape’s indifference to these events is chilling, a stark reminder that the scars created by war run far deeper in cultural memory than in geographical. A more hopeful outlook was provided by the images of old Nazi buildings in Berlin which now house a music conservatoire: above the bullet-riddled basements, a young woman practices the harp in what used to be Hitler’s breakfast room. As one of the few humans bodily present in the exhibition, she provided a poignant contrast to Jim Goldberg’s Open See, taken one year after the Congolese civil wars, whose subjects still bore the physical scars of violence.
Conflict, Time, Photography is a bold reconfiguration of war photography. By removing much of what one expects to see when one thinks of conflict photography, it allows these events to be viewed in an entirely new light. It reminds us that there are so many voices that are never heard in the public discourse on war. As Dewe Mathews writes of her installation, ‘these places have been altered by a traumatic event. By photographing them, I am reinserting the individual into that space, stamping their presence back onto the land, so that their histories are not forgotten.’ But more critically, it suggests that whether due to the restrictions of embedding or photographers dimly being absent from sites of conflict, the true human impact of events like Nagasaki and Hiroshima cannot be captured on canvas. All that remains are shadows burned on to buildings, as in Matsumoto Eiichi’s images, or melted belongings, photographed by Shomei Tomatsu, that allude to the children destroyed by a single atomic bomb. These fragments that echo across time remind us of these forgotten souls, and it is what remains absent from these images that truly bears witness to the horrors of war.
‘Time, Conflict, Photography’ runs at the Tate Modern until March 2015, tickets £14.50/£12.50. For more information, please visit the gallery’s website.