FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

War Photography at the Tate Modern

London.

If photography is a record of suspended death, a suggestion that the subject is both frozen in time and rendered lifeless in the broader sense of things, then the nature of war is, in many ways, a perfect medium to capture it. It delves into a grim subject more fitting of the dry morgue than the lively art studio. At the Tate Modern’s Conflict, Time, Photography, the pictures are gathered from a concept where, in the words of the reviewer of the Financial Times explains, ‘war recedes into memory.[1]

Such photography suggests a predominant theme: that of the atrocity, the state of cruel emergency that takes blood rather than spares it. The victims may well be remembered, but even these photographs can only ever allude to their existence by means of furtive hints. General Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted that recordings be made of the dead at the Buchenwald concentration camp at its liberation German guards, but such photos are never conclusive. They remain fragments to be memorialised, or, in some cases, to be purposely forgotten. (The Shoah only becomes a matter of significance in the 1970s – the Holocaust was bad propaganda fare for a newly formed Israeli state.)

This is the most striking paradox. This is noted in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, which recalls a discussion between Franz Kafka and his interlocutor Gustav Janouch. For Kafka, ‘We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds.’ Such behaviour constitutes a means of shutting one’s eyes. (A neat aside here is that Janouch was himself prone to shutting his eyes, or at least his ears, when it came to recording his conversations with Kafka.)

Such images worth driving out can be found in Don McCullin’s brutal capturing of a shell-shocked US soldier taken during the Battle of Hue in 1968. Such pictures did not launch ships so much as petitions and protests as to the US role in Indochina. They also suggested to military strategists that photo journalists would never again have the same raw access to the subject of war. Those who control the narrative, win the war.

Shellshocked-soldier-001

Shell-shocked soldier, Hue, Vietnam, 1968. By Don McCullin.

The nature of the atrocity lies precisely in its destruction of awareness and particularity. While the prejudice may well be towards a minority or a group for its special features, the killing of such people is based upon an idea of enforced anonymity. At all costs, remove any sinister element to the torture and ultimate crushing of the individual. Make sure that local homes, some of them even stately, can be used to break the spirit of the individual. (How could you be tortured in a place as homely as this?) This point is made by the Lithuanian Indre Serpytyte’s examination Former NKVD-MVD-MGB-KGB Buildings – the terror here is that domestic homely retreats can become places of state sponsored terror. Torturers tend to have a rather large gene pool.

The theme of shattered buildings and the architecture of war proves as powerful, if not more so, than the distant faces that have ceased to live. Simon Norfolk’s Bullet-scarred apartment building and shops in the Karte Char district of Kabul places destroyed buildings in the Afghan moonscape. There are various reminders of the bunkers of Fortress Europa on efforts by the Third Reich to fortify France against invasion during the early 1940s. The Nazi regime is gone, but the heavy, cosmic looking structures linger like primordial references. ‘One of the essential characteristics of the bunker,’ Paul Virilio asserts in his opening to Bunker Archaeology, ‘is that it is one of the rare modern monolithic architectures.’

008-simon-norfolk-theredlist

Bullet-scarred apartment building and shops in the Karte Char district of Kabul. By Simon Norfolk.

Then comes the gory cult feeling – commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is done via images of artefacts. The owners of these pieces were vaporised, but the products remain, a haunting echo like shadows burned into buildings by the bomb’s blast. It is also achieved through such singularly striking works as Kikuji Kawada’s The Map (Chizu), deemed one of the finest photobooks to be made in that specific genre. He certainly had a degree of competition, with such works as Shomei Tomatsu and Ken Domon’s Hiroshima-Nagasaki Document 1961 being central to remembering the destruction of the cities at the hands of atomic weapons.

The overwhelming force of destruction suggested in the collections provides no context about how the memories themselves become subordinate to political goals. The suffering of others always provides a basis for political gain. Victimhood, in that sense, floats effortlessly into theories of state-financed victomology – the authorities can never admit that their own war policies resulted in the deaths of civilians. In an age of total war, people were mere units to be pounded, mashed and delivered.

Some of the experiments in photo memorialising are less evocative than others. The collection of Chloe Dewe Matthews named 99 Years Later covering places where deserters were shot during World War I does little to bring the lives of shattered men into view. The pictures feature country settings at dawn, when the executions would take place. The theme, while interesting, is executed with unconvincing blandness. Given the distance between photographer and event, such effect is unsurprising.

Photos of war have one critical, potential weakness. They can act as works of violent pornography, not so much remembering victims as wallowing in a sense of suffering. Such captured suffering risks blurring the line between sanctified memory and undue glorification. The scathing Viennese critic Karl Kraus noted, with a degree of pointed disgust, the proliferation of guide books published in France in the aftermath of World War I. Destroyed buildings became the subject of tourist visits. He could only see this as a grotesque form of voyeurism, a collection of ‘promotional tips to hell’. Images of terror, because they are both repulsive and enchanting, will always find their enlistment in the modern place of memory.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Notes. 

[1] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/8b91507c-755b-11e4-a1a9-00144feabdc0.html#slide0

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
July 19, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
The Blob Fought the Squad, and the Squad Won
Miguel A. Cruz-Díaz
It Was Never Just About the Chat: Ruminations on a Puerto Rican Revolution.
Anthony DiMaggio
System Capture 2020: The Role of the Upper-Class in Shaping Democratic Primary Politics
Andrew Levine
South Carolina Speaks for Whom?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Big Man, Pig Man
Bruce E. Levine
The Groundbreaking Public Health Study That Should Change U.S. Society—But Won’t
Evaggelos Vallianatos
How the Trump Administration is Eviscerating the Federal Government
Pete Dolack
All Seemed Possible When the Sandinistas Took Power 40 years Ago
Ramzy Baroud
Who Killed Oscar and Valeria: The Inconvenient History of the Refugee Crisis
Ron Jacobs
Dancing with Dr. Benway
Joseph Natoli
Gaming the Climate
Marshall Auerback
The Numbers are In, and Trump’s Tax Cuts are a Bust
Louisa Willcox
Wild Thoughts About the Wild Gallatin
Kenn Orphan
Stranger Things, Stranger Times
Mike Garrity
Environmentalists and Wilderness are Not the Timber Industry’s Big Problem
Helen Yaffe
Cuban Workers Celebrate Salary Rise From New Economic Measures
Brian Cloughley
What You Don’t Want to be in Trump’s America
David Underhill
The Inequality of Equal Pay
David Macaray
Adventures in Script-Writing
David Rosen
Say Goodbye to MAD, But Remember the Fight for Free Expression
Nick Pemberton
This Is Heaven!: A Journey to the Pearly Gates with Chuck Mertz
Dan Bacher
Chevron’s Oil Spill Endangers Kern County
J.P. Linstroth
A Racist President and Racial Trauma
Binoy Kampmark
Spying on Julian Assange
Rose Ramirez – Dedrick Asante-Mohammad
A Trump Plan to Throw 50,000 Kids Out of Their Schools
David Bravo
Precinct or Neighborhood? How Barcelona Keeps Rolling Out the Red Carpet for Global Capital
Ralph Nader
Will Any Disgusted Republicans Challenge Trump in the Primaries?
Dave Lindorff
The BS about Medicare-for-All Has to Stop!
Arnold August
Why the Canadian Government is Bullying Venezuela
Tom Clifford
China and the Swine Flu Outbreak
Missy Comley Beattie
Highest Anxiety
Jill Richardson
Weapons of the Weak
Peter Certo
Washington vs. The Squad
Peter Bolton
Trump’s Own Background Reveals the True Motivation Behind Racist Tweets: Pure White Supremacy
Colin Todhunter
From Mad Cow Disease to Agrochemicals: Time to Put Public Need Ahead of Private Greed
Nozomi Hayase
In Crisis of Democracy, We All Must Become Julian Assange
Wim Laven
The Immoral Silence to the Destructive Xenophobia of “Just Leave”
Cecily Myart-Cruz
McDonald’s: Stop Exploiting Our Schools
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Our Veggie Gardens Won’t Feed us in a Real Crisis
CounterPunch News Service
A Homeless Rebellion – Mission Statement/Press Release
Louis Proyect
Parallel Lives: Cheney and Ailes
David Yearsley
Big in the Bungalow of Believers
Ellen Taylor
The Northern Spotted Owls’ Tree-Sit
July 18, 2019
Timothy M. Gill
Bernie Sanders, Anti-Imperialism and Venezuela
W. T. Whitney
Cuba and a New Generation of Leaders Respond to U.S. Anti-People War
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail