The idea is a simple one: photographs of moments of conflict arranged according to how long after the event they were created. In the first room, accordingly, we see the atomic cloud in the sky above Hiroshima, taken by Toshio Fukada some twenty minutes after the explosion. Nearby, Don McCullin's iconic image of a shell-shocked US Marine moments after the heat of a battle at Huě. Unmissably, a seven-meter strip of photographic paper that was exposed to the sun by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanrin one day in Afghanistan's Helmand Province in 2008. Soldiers and civilians had been slaughtered on the previous four days but not on this day, hence their title "The Day Nobody Died."
Later on, we encounter photographs taken after longer periods of time, divided into periods of weeks, months and years, culminating with scenes relating to events that took place 80-100 years ago. One of the final images—rows of shelves holding archival material from Turkey relating to the 1909 Armenian genocide—is complicated. As we cannot view the material itself , the viewer is left only with dark spaces. Thus, the content of the photo is really an absence—a gap that confirms, and denies, the history of the genocide along with our ability to represent conflict at all.
Returning to the first room, we see both the strengths and weaknesses of this exhibition. There are compelling images, disturbing reminders of the past and inventive ways of recording past conflicts but also an undue focus on military engagements at the expense of other fields of conflicts. Battles and struggles can also take place in peace time—within families and between social classes for instance—and even when restricted to war, Tate Modern's exhibition has a tendency to return to the same theaters of war. There is also a reluctance to highlight the human casualties of war, with scenes of devastated buildings and scarred landscapes repeating themselves in various formats while hardly showing the human lives destroyed. For example, we see Hitler's war headquarters photographed by Jerzy Lewczyński and KGB buildings by Indre Šerpytyte but we do not feel the pain they signify.
This is not the case with all of the photographs in this exhibition. While aestheticized conflict—such as Sophie Ristelhueber's aerial views of the Kuwaiti desert after the first Gulf War—can have the effect of erasing the human cost of the conflict, there are a few photographs which manage to evoke the plight of those who have to live with the consequences of war. Don McCullin's stunned subject will always come to mind when thinking of the subject of war.
Thus, this is an imperfect show on a very complex subject. Although it doesn't quite hit its mark for me, it does offer an inventive look at a subject as old as mankind itself.
Editor's Note: The exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography will be showing at the Tate Modern in London until March 15, 2015.
Sean Sheehan is a freelance writer and the author of Jack's World, with photographs by Danny Gralton and Ciaran Watson.