Worth a Thousand Words?

by lowepj33

As I’ve spent much of the past year researching the forms in which past wars are memorialised in art and literature, a visit to Tate Modern’s ‘Conflict. Time. Photography’ exhibition was pretty high on my pre-Winter term checklist.  I’m happy to say, having visited yesterday, that the exhibit more than met my expectations.  It is one of the most thoughtful, and thought-provoking displays I’ve seen there in recent years.

With photography a mid-19th century invention, the scope of the ‘conflicts’ covered is wide: from the Crimea and the American Civil War to two World Wars, Vietnam, Afghanistan (in multiple contexts) and Iraq.  ‘Conflict’ is also used to cover civil wars and on-going tensions in Ireland, the Balkans, and a host of African states.  In the recurrence of key events and locations, revisited at intervals as time moves on but memory, perhaps, does not, the viewer sees each set of images as another attempt to record and respond to a moment of horror no less vivid because of time’s passing.  The initial exhibition room is devoted to images produced ‘minutes’ after an event, and as each subsequent room provides a further temporal remove (months, a year, five years, fifty years…) it becomes clear that like the debris of an explosion, each photograph is a reminder of a rift in the world that does not heal with time.  Series of photographs like Sophie Ristelhueber’s ‘Fait’, taken seven months after the end of the 1991 Gulf War, show the detritus of battle scattered across the desert landscape: tanks abandoned and burnt out; earthwork defences left like pieces of landscape art; shell-cases and television sets placed in a surreal landscape.  As one might expect, too, the legacies of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be documented simply at a fixed point and declared ‘complete’.  Each image shows a further twist to the explosions, with the deformities of radiation poisoning becoming visible years after the flash of the bombs burned the ‘shadows’ of the dead onto the walls of their surrounding buildings.  In some locations, from Berlin to Kabul, each layer of debris is an accretion on a landscape already made up of rubble from previous battles – the photograph not so much an image of one act of destruction, but rather of a point in a cycle where past and present are interwoven.

For me. highlights were Luc Delahaye’s ‘Ambush, Ramadi’ (2006), where the dust still hangs suspended in the air of Iraq after the explosion of an IED covered the street in debris and left a US military vehicle a wreck, and the ‘Bunker Archaeology photos of Paul Virilio in the 1960s and Jane and Louise Wilson in the 2000s.  In these, the concrete remnants of Nazi fortifications on the French Atlantic coast loom like the relics of a past civilisation, as enigmatic as the closing scene of ‘Planet of the Apes’ or Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’.  It is hard to imagine the circumstances in which such things would have been necessary and yet, on some level, we know that they were once considered so.  Such is the surrealist world in which each image frames the war that gave rise to it.

It is, perhaps, fitting that the final images should be focused on events a century ago, whether documenting the stations on the Hejaz Railway that now stand in the desert shorn of the tracks that Lawrence of Arabia was so often involved in blowing up or as in Agata Madejska’s image of the Vimy Ridge Canadian WW1 Memorial seemingly shrouded in a mist that all but obscures its architectural substance and turns it into an ethereal abstraction.  The work’s title ’25-36′ alludes to the 11 years that the Memorial took to build, and reminds the viewer that whilst a photograph can be taken in a instant, and a World War fought in four years, the effects of war last beyond a lifetime.  To this debate about the nature of remembrance, given new life by the WW1 centenary, this exhibition has made a very valuable contribution, and those involved deserve much credit.

‘Conflict. Time, Photography’ runs at Tate Modern, London, until 15th March 2015.  For more information see: