War's effect on peace is examined in new Tate show

Tate Modern curator Shoair Mavlian talks us through the new exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography
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Shomei Tomatsu Steel Helmet with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963 © Shomei Tomatsu - interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo
Shomei Tomatsu Steel Helmet with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963 © Shomei Tomatsu - interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

The Tate Modern’s new photography show focuses on war photography, yet it features very few images that you might find on a newspaper’s international pages. Staged to coincide with the centenary of the First World War, Conflict, Time, Photography looks at how artists have used the camera to reflect on moments of conflict, from the seconds after a bomb explodes, through to a full century after a truce has been declared. 

 

Luc Delahaye US Bombing on Taliban Positions 2001 C-print Courtesy Luc Delahaye & Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Bruxelles
Luc Delahaye US Bombing on Taliban Positions 2001 C-print Courtesy Luc Delahaye & Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Bruxelles

Beginning with images taken in the very fog of war, the show is organized in a chronological manner, progressing on to images taken or re-appropriated hours, months, and years after the white flags have been raised. From Nicaraguan Revolution to the Balkans Conflict, Conflict, Time, Photography doesn’t so much capture the immediate destructive power of war, but rather its lasting legacy. We caught up with one of the show’s organizers, Shoair Mavlian, assistant curator at Tate Modern, who told us more.

 

Toshio Fukada The Mushroom Cloud - Less than twenty minutes after the explosion (1) 1945  Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (Tokyo, Japan)
Toshio Fukada The Mushroom Cloud - Less than twenty minutes after the explosion (1) 1945 Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (Tokyo, Japan)

Where did the organizing principle for Conflict, Time, Photography come from? It started with Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel by Kurt Vonnegut, which is about the traumas of the Second World War, and is told in a non-linear fashion. We realized very quickly that there was something important about the length of time it takes for artists to deal with images of the past.

 

An-My Lê  Untitled, Hanoi 1994-98 From the series Untitled, VietnamCourtesy of the artist and Murray Guy, New York
An-My Lê Untitled, Hanoi 1994-98 From the series Untitled, VietnamCourtesy of the artist and Murray Guy, New York

Can you give me some examples? Well, the majority of the Japanese photo books about the Second World War appeared 15 to 20 years after that war ended. That seemed to be the period it took for artists do deal with the past. Time and trauma were closely connected.

 

Don McCullin Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968, printed 2013 © Don McCullin
Don McCullin Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968, printed 2013 © Don McCullin

It’s interesting you say ‘artist’, as we think of war photography as being a photojournalist’s medium. How many of these photographs were originally made as news images? Only the Don McCullin one [above], though there are a few artists who’ve used archives. Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg have used the Belfast Expose Archive, which is an archive of both press images and photos taken by local amateur photographers.

 

Chloe Dewe Mathews Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013 Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed 17:00 / 15.12.1914 © Chloe Dewe Mathews
Chloe Dewe Mathews Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013 Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed 17:00 / 15.12.1914 © Chloe Dewe Mathews

It’s also interesting you mention photo books. We know Martin Parr, the photographer and author of our Photobook anthology, has quite a collection of Japanese photo books. Are any volumes from his collection on show here? Yes, Martin has lent us most of the Hiroshima books for this exhibition. We generally show a lot of photo books in our displays, but the photo books are particularly important with reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg Kurchatov - Architecture of a Nucleur Test Site Kazakhstan. Opytnoe Pole. 2012 courtesy of the artist's studio © Ursula Schultz-Domburg
Ursula Schulz-Dornburg Kurchatov - Architecture of a Nucleur Test Site Kazakhstan. Opytnoe Pole. 2012 courtesy of the artist's studio © Ursula Schultz-Domburg

You cover a wide variety of conflicts, from the Congo to Northern Ireland. It sounds like a terrible thing to say, but do certain conflicts make for more obviously compelling images?  Not from our point of view. We really picked projects where an artist was specifically looking back at a particular event, that the artist feels the need to delve deeper into and re-contextualise.

 

Kikuji Kawada  The Japanese National Flag, Tokyo 1965 From the series The Map © Kikuji Kawada. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery and Photo Gallery International
Kikuji Kawada The Japanese National Flag, Tokyo 1965 From the series The Map © Kikuji Kawada. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery and Photo Gallery International

War reporters are often placed under certain constraints. Are there images in here that demonstrate how those constraints have changed over time? Yes. Take the 1968 image by Don McCullin, showing a shell-shocked marine. McCullin himself says that this image couldn’t have been taken today. He was on the ground in Vietnam, with these soldiers, unsupervised. He talks about being airlifted out in a helicopter with them, and experiencing the trauma as the conflict was unfolding. Photographers don’t have that close proximity any more. There’s a distance that’s there with embedding, and with new technologies that allow you to photograph things from long distances.

 

Jerzy Lewczy?ski Wolf's Lair / Adolf Hitler's War Headquarters 1960 courtesy Gallery Asymetria  © Jerzy Lewczy?ski
Jerzy Lewczy?ski Wolf's Lair / Adolf Hitler's War Headquarters 1960 courtesy Gallery Asymetria © Jerzy Lewczy?ski

What sort of material did you consider, but eventually choose not to show here? We made an early decision not to include any video or film. It was a photography show, and we could, of course, have done a whole exhibition of video and film. 

 

Simon Norfolk Bullet-scarred apartment building and shops in the Karte Char district of Kabul. This area saw fighting between Hikmetyar and Rabbani and then between Rabbani and the Hazaras  2003 © Simon Norfolk
Simon Norfolk Bullet-scarred apartment building and shops in the Karte Char district of Kabul. This area saw fighting between Hikmetyar and Rabbani and then between Rabbani and the Hazaras 2003 © Simon Norfolk

You’ve included Stephen Shore’s Ukraine series, where Shore photographed in and around the homes of Holocaust survivors now settled in Ukraine. What did you like about that series? In a way it’s like American Surfaces, as he shoots these wonderful images of people and the surrounding environment. The project itself is huge (and will become a Phaidon book in the new year). We’ve tried to be quite specific, showing just a variety of different people that he was in contact with. For Stephen it was really important to keep the images grouped together, so we’ve hung the shots in clusters, so the people’s effects are next to images of their local surroundings.

 

Pierre Anthony-Thouret Plate XXXVIII 1927 from Reims after the war. The mutilated cathedral. The devastated city.Private collection, Londo
Pierre Anthony-Thouret Plate XXXVIII 1927 from Reims after the war. The mutilated cathedral. The devastated city.Private collection, Londo

Conflict, Time, Photography runs until 15 March 2015. For more on Stephen Shore go here; for greater insight into Parr's photo books take a look at our extensive range of book featuring and compiled by Martin Parr; also, for great conflict photography, consider our James Nachtwey book Inferno, our Robert Capa book and our VII Agency book, Questions Without Answers.


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