Conflict, Time and Photography is a new exhibition at the Tate Modern. As the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War ends, it is a timely inquiry into the memorialisation of conflict. The collection promises to represent the aftermath of conflict in a new light, using photos taken seconds, minutes or years after bombs explode or historical archives are reopened. As Peace Direct celebrates 10 years of helping to build peace around the world, I visited the show to investigate how conflict is addressed through the camera’s lens.
Stepping into the first room, we are greeted by a wide-angle portrait of a peaceable landscape, but on closer inspection there looms an ominous cloud, hanging lifelessly, marking the aftermath of an exploded bomb in a Taliban controlled area in Iraq in 2001. Immediately drawn to a mass of text printed on the adjacent wall, our eyes meet the guiding theme of this exhibition: peace. In the text, author Kurt Vonnegut recalls the trouble he faced writing Slaughterhouse 5, providing a narrative for the ‘aftermath photography’ on show, united by a desire to address the legacy of war and conflict. The lasting message is decisively anti-war: this is a testament to man’s capability to destroy spaces, lives and histories.
The exhibition largely presents the physical scars of conflict. I expected it to be more positive, incorporating stories of resilience as well as destruction. Whilst focusing on brutality, the curation is markedly anti-war. From the twisted metal of decommissioned military equipment, to unrecognisable, seemingly alien landscapes in Kuwait, it documents towns, cities and vast landscapes permanently disfigured by war. Reflecting on her work in Angola, photographer Jo Ratcliffe accurately described these scenes as ‘medieval and post-apocalyptic simultaneously’.
Discussion on conflict photography often, and in my view correctly, concentrates on our society’s assumed ambivalence towards and steady depoliticisation of the violent image. What’s on offer in this show deviates slightly from the usual photojournalistic crop. We see varied ways of capturing conflict through a camera lens. Broadly, the exhibition reaffirms the position of photography as a medium of historical record, with the image-maker as witness.
By-passing this debate, the exhibition asserts the camera’s importance through its varied use of inquiry and documentation. Diana Matar’s photo-essay, ‘Evidence 2012-2013’, is a stark example of why the camera is essential. Documenting historical human rights violations, it covers architectural spaces that were sites of state repression, with witness testimonials. Alongside historical record, other photo-essays present a greater personal inquiry into lives affected, presenting intimate portrayals of families affected by conflict, presenting untold stories from Nicaragua to Northern Ireland.
The anti-war photographer Pierre Anthony-Thouret documents the ruins of Notre-Dame de Reims during WW1, serving as a stark symbol of the collateral damage inflicted on towns and cities. Juxtaposing historical and cultural centres that were, with what they had become after war ended in Versailles, the images are haunting. Corbey and Craonne, once bustling towns, are only recognisable through the captions.
Continuing with European wars, Richard Peter’s famous shots of Dresden, so often replicated in popular culture, take on a new and more sober relevance. As I stand in front of the photo, I feel as though I have seen this image in a different, contemporary context. Surveying the surviving foundations and the ashen grey consuming the city that once was, I recall photos of Syria today. It reaffirms the pattern and cycle of destruction.
But for me, the exhibition only captures one post-war perspective. Size is a clear limitation for the exploration of the aftermath of conflict, but it is striking that life in the aftermath of conflict has been presented in such bleak, desolate and drab forms. At the beginning, Kurt Vonnegut speaks of the urgency of reconciling with the past, finding a space where ‘everything [is] beautiful and nothing hurt’.
I certainly agreed with the over-arching sentiment of peace reaffirmed by the paths of destruction created by war. But working with Peace Direct has expanded my understanding of conflict-affected regions. The exhibition doesn’t present the capacity and courage of survivors to transform the post-conflict environment to which they return. From Congo to Pakistan, I’ve been introduced to the work of people committed to finding their peace through actively addressing and reconciling the past. From rebuilding infrastructure, to rehabilitating former soldiers, the memory of conflict is not static as these photos seem to suggest. Whilst photos serve to remind us of the horrors of war, the exhibition could have presented new beginnings: life lived after conflict. Perhaps that’s the difference that Peace Direct can make.