||Brighton Photo Biennial
Memory of Fire:
The War of Images
and Images of War
festival review and interview with
curator Julian Stallabrass by
The Brighton Photo Biennial offers an in-depth exploration of the photography of war. Ten exhibitions, in locations across the South Coast, examine various aspects of the production, use and circulation of imagery during wartime. At the heart of the Biennial is a comparison of photojournalism from the Vietnam and Iraq wars, featuring — amongst others — the work of Larry Burrows, Don McCullin, photographers from the North Vietnamese Army, Bilal Hussein and Stephanie Sinclair.
Harriet Logan’s photographs of women in Afghanistan are afforded a solo show; as is Philip Jones Griffiths’ Agent Orange project. Dutch photojournalist Geert van Kesteren presents edits from his books, Why Mister Why? and Baghdad Calling. Themes of censorship and obscenity are addressed in an installation by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn. The representation of war by contemporary art photographers — including Simon Norfolk, Paul Seawright and Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin — is the subject of a further exhibition. Julian Germain hosts a display of pictures made by military personnel based in Portsmouth. And separate shows of material from the First World War (by Frank Hurley), and the Mexican Revolution, suggest historical parallels to the more recent work.
The Biennial, titled Memory of Fire: the War of Images and Images of War is described as an opportunity for visitors “to experience a range of imagery and to reflect critically on the different elements and contrasts." It runs from the beginning of October for six weeks.
Below, curator Julian Stallabrass discusses some of the diverse issues and topics raised by the show.
GL: Could you expand on the concept of a "war of images"?
JS: The idea of a “war of images” is a means of trying to get at the way that images can be used as warfare in various respects: that the making and use of images can be a part of the conflict, as well as merely recording it. Incidentally, it is a phrase that Donald Rumsfeld has used. The most obvious examples are the "Shock and Awe" campaigns in Iraq — where the fact that the attacks are photographed and filmed is absolutely integral to the military thinking behind them. So the media depictions are what the Pentagon calls a “force multiplier” designed, in this case, to persuade the Iraqi army to give up before the battle.
Is this something that is particularly new, do you think, or has it been a recurrent feature of warfare?
No it’s been around for a while. Obviously, there's been a strong propaganda element to history painting, for instance. But — to stick to filmic media — Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, for example, was a great enthusiast of the cinema and would stage the timing and direction of attacks to satisfy the cameras.
Is there anything particularly distinctive to a 21st century war of images? Is there anything to distinguish it from previous incarnations?
Yes, definitely, and that’s some of the ground that is covered in the Biennial. For one thing, the media has changed. Concentration of ownership, and the pressures on journalists and photojournalists to produce copy — and to do so extremely fast without very much examination — mean that the media (even compared to the time of Vietnam) tends to be rather more conservative and sensation-driven. There is less critical material than there used to be.
And the embedding of journalists and photojournalists in the Iraq war was a rather brilliant strategy by the Pentagon to offer a good deal of access to writers and photographers, but at the same time to strongly encourage identification with the troops — and the conditions under which they laboured — above all else.
Further there’s a great deal more censorship now at all levels. Part of it is due to the army laying down rules about what should and shouldn’t be photographed. As a result there have been a lot of complaints from photojournalists in Iraq that the independent ones are not allowed to cover the war because there are so many things that they are forbidden to photograph. What comes out is very, very anodyne and doesn’t at all reflect the ghastly situation in that country.
And the other thing — and this is why Rumsfeld talks about the war of images — is that one rarely saw photographs taken by the other side, as it were, in previous conflicts. Now, with the availability of cheap digital cameras and the web, almost anything is available. So there’s a strange contrast between the conservative and monolithic character of much of the mass media, and the fact that you can see anything you want to on the web: from Iraqi resistance sites to beheadings, truck bombings and all the rest of it. If you wish to look, if you have the initiative and the strength to look, you can find it all on the web. One of the exhibitions in the Biennial is an installation by Thomas Hirschhorn of images he’s gathered that show what modern munitions do to bodies — some of the very worst images that you could find, which he’s re-presenting as a massive political banner.
On a related point, in considering material for the exhibition did you come across photographs which you considered, on moral grounds, to be unsuitable to display? I’m thinking of Abu Ghraib…
We are displaying Abu Ghraib pictures. We’ve chosen to do it in a particular way: they will be seen in a gallery along with others as part of a grid printed on vinyl, so I guess we’re trying to discourage the view of these things as artworks.
What do you say to the argument that re-publishing them perpetuates the abuse, in a way, on the grounds that initially the photography was part of that abuse and torture?
I don’t really go along with that. Rather, my feeling is that they haven’t been seen enough, or remembered enough. They seem to have almost dropped out of public memory, in the West anyway, as if they were some kind of aberration rather than a photographic outcrop of standard US military policy. We’re juxtaposing them with other material — images from Iraqi resistance websites, and also official pictures taken by US Army photographers. So I think to re-present them in these circumstances, to use them against the US Army’s own propaganda, can have an instructive effect.
It's true that photography was used as a “force multiplier” in Abu Ghraib: the taking of pictures, the presence of women, the dogs in the jail – all functioned to terrify and humiliate prisoners. I think it’s one thing to say the act of taking a photograph in those circumstances serves that purpose; but it does not follow that to show the photograph in other circumstances re-enacts that abuse.
In the Biennial you are including a lot of wars that feature the involvement of the United States — that’s obviously deliberate…
It’s partly because of its role as the single world superpower — military superpower certainly — and also it’s to do with the continued British involvement in US military ventures. And of course it’s those wars which generally received the most media attention which are at the heart of the show — so that’s why there is the Vietnam: Iraq comparison. They are both wars which were covered with unprecedented intensity during their course.
How do you think that the fine art, or museum, photography stands up in contrast to the more traditional photojournalistic work?
Well, the lines between the genres are a bit blurry. The clearest examples of museum photography we’re showing is work by Simon Norfolk, Paul Seawright and Broomberg & Chanarin, all of which is included in an exhibition looking in part at the genre of aftermath photography made with large format cameras. The success of this genre of museum photography over the last 10-15 years is very striking, and that’s partly what this show would ask people to reflect on In a sense, aftermath photography developed as a critical reaction against various aspects of photojournalism, and it seeks to do different things. The use of a large format camera with a very considered and composed approach; the overt references (particularly in Simon Norfolk’s work) to painting; the reflection on the sublime in many of these works; all of these things are almost anti-photojournalistic, one might say. They are very much not about the quotidian need to produce daily images of spectacular horror. The critique that is offered of photojournalism by people like Broomberg and Chanarin is concerned with that daily need to come up with a horrific photograph of yet another bombing, for instance.
It’s not a critique that I would entirely go along with, obviously, but I think there’s a powerful charge there for photojournalism to answer.
Perhaps one could query the tendency to visit scenes of injustice and death, after the event, with a view to making something for a gallery wall?
Certainly you can raise questions about that. One thing to say about it is that some of these people, Norfolk is an example — Luc Delahaye would be another — are, or were, photojournalists. And one of the reasons they’ve moved towards production in the art world is because their work has been frozen out of the mass media.
For sure, you can ask questions about the museum environment — or the gallery environment — and what this work is doing there…but it’s a bit like the way radical political comment seems to have been driven out into comedy and theatre. It’s because this photography doesn’t get a place in the newspapers so much.
Is it fair, do you think, to suggest that to prioritise aesthetic concerns maybe compromises ethical or journalistic content?
Well aesthetics are rather difficult to get away from, I think. There’s an aesthetics to photojournalism after all, and it changes too. One of the striking contrasts we have in the work on display is that between the aesthetics of the North Vietnamese photographers and their Western counterparts. The former were very much influenced by the French humanist movement; their work has a very lyrical component which is rather reminiscent of the work of Robert Doisneau or Willy Ronis. But the Western photographers at that time — influenced by Winogrand, Friedlander, William Klein and Robert Frank — had much harder photojournalistic aspect to their work. It was a very different style — but still an aesthetic style.
I’m not sure that the pure, unaesthetic document exists. So it’s a question of asking whether the aesthetic the photographers use is an appropriate one; and it’s a complicated question because the aesthetic that Seawright used in his Afghanistan pictures is actually quite different from that of Norfolk…
But with regard to the question, Norfolk’s defence of his own work, for instance, is that people are drawn in by the beauty of it. Later they realise, as they continue to look — because these photographs encourage sustained looking — that another, more political message emerges.
© Guy Lane, 2008.
Full listing details, blogs, video feeds and essays about Memory of Fire and the Brighton Photo Biennial are available at www.bpb.org.uk/2008/
This article and interview first appeared in Foto8, and is reposted here with the kind and generous permission of author Guy Lane and Foto8.