Tate Modern exhibition turns the camera on conflict and the ways we remember – and forget
The camera is perhaps the single greatest tool humans have ever invented in their ongoing struggle against forgetting. We have always told stories about the way things were – telling tales about our ancestors orally or by writing them down. We have painted pictures and built models, monuments and memorials to commemorate our experiences, and to show the way we lived and died to generations yet unborn. But the photograph – though its message may often be a half-truth, or an outright attempt to mislead, though it can be just as flawed and malleable as any other form – trumps all. A major new photography exhibition at London’s Tate Modern gallery, staged to mark the 2014 centenary of the start of the First World War, catalogues the medium’s three-way relationship with war and time.
The distinction is an important one: this is not simply an exhibition of war photography, or reportage, but an ambitious work of curation that selects photographs of sites of conflict over time – looking at the dust settling, the ruins crumbling – ranging from visceral shots of recent carnage to scenes that now contain only the faintest clues that once they hosted great violence and tragedy. It is ingeniously arranged, so that each room is themed not by a particular war, or region of the world, but by how long it was since the conflict in question: starting with photographs taken moments after an attack, and then days, weeks, months, and so on, until the final room, which hosts photographs taken 80-100 years after a conflict ended.
One of the collections that hits the hardest is Simon Norfolk’s Chronotope series from Afghanistan, taken in 2001-2, during the American war with the Taliban. His photos are categorised by the Tate as “days after” – because the US bombing was basically going on around him – yet they are layered with historical pain, owing to the country’s uniquely tortured 20th century history, the Soviet invasion and the subsequent civil wars. It is not simply the case that everything in each photo had been perfect, and peaceful, just before Norfolk picked up his camera – if he is urging us to remember, which conflict are we supposed to be remembering? “The sheer length of the war,” Norfolk wrote of his time in Afghanistan, “means that the ruins have a bizarre layering; different layers of destruction lying like sedimentary strata on top of each other.”
The metaphor is an appropriate one – his subjects, mostly ruined buildings or piles of broken military hardware, sit in Afghanistan’s rock-strewn, sandy landscape, being worn down by wind and time. A bullet-scarred outdoor cinema and an empty swimming pool gathering weeds sit amid the rubble under peachy skies, devoid of life; natural debris and highly unnatural debris side by side. But when were these scars left, and by which army? We can only make educated guesses.
Catharsis and commemoration can only really be achieved if a conflict is followed immediately by openness and forgiveness. People cannot begin the process of moving on, the negotiation of forgetting and remembrance, if a society still essentially without peace and freedom. This is clear in Don McCullin’s photos from Berlin in the 1960s: almost two decades after the Second World War, but with army boots (belonging to several nations, of course) still visible on the ground across the German city. The uneasy atmosphere of the Cold War is obvious as Berliners try to go about their lives, with the bizarre physical intrusions of barbed wire and military command posts obstructing them. In one striking photo, the Berlin Wall is slowly going up in front of us, as if it is creeping upwards to take over the frame entirely and block our view, and just beyond it we can see East German guards milling about – former friends and neighbours disappearing behind the arbitrary iron curtain.
In an exhibition containing a few very well-known shots (mostly from Vietnam, Hiroshima and Dresden), what is most striking is the final room, the most time-distant reflections. This focuses on very recent photos of First World War sites, a welcome contribution to our understanding of a historical conflict whose narratives are calcifying fast, as those who experienced it first-hand have all passed away. Chloe Dewe Mathews’s series Shot At Dawn revisits the locations on the Western Front where British, French and Belgian soldiers were executed by their own commanders for desertion or cowardice. Dewe Mathews takes us back to the exact spot, at the exact time of day – usually dawn – and marks the names of the soldiers, many of whom were teenage conscripts, executed there. Ostensibly, we are seeing the silent mist and frost settling on a northern European hedgerow, or a spindly collection of trees leaning in the half-light under a light dusting of snow – but with context, we are as close as possible to knowing the last things that these young soldiers saw, 100 years ago. It is eerie and incredibly poignant.
Half a world away, the same can be said for Ursula Schulz-Dornburg’s sun-bleached shots of the Hejaz Railway line that linked Damascus and Medina – it was one of the great engineering projects of the Ottoman Empire, completed on the eve of the First World War, and then destroyed in the conflict, like the Empire itself. By the time Schulz-Dornburg retraced the route through the desert in 2003, only the empty brick shells of the intended stations remained in the otherwise featureless desert, along with occasional streaks of track peeking out from the sand. Sitting alone in an empty landscape, these photographs of distant ruins tell a story, and are a spark to collective memory – about the individuals who built them, about the people who died when they were destroyed – and, like all ruins, more than anything they are reminders of our own mortality.
In cultures wealthy enough to clean and refurbish buildings when they grow old – or to replace them with shiny new ones – ruins are reminders of what we have been through, every bit as much as a gleaming memorial plaque.
• Conflict, Time, Photography runs at Tate Modern, London, until March 15. Visit www.tate.org.uk for more information.
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.