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Thursday, 4 November 2010

The Day Nobody Died and The Warsaw Ghetto

Who is the audience and who is looking at your pictures? I think that is one of the questions that might be at the heart of Susie Linfield's collection of writings; a collection where she attempts (I say this but I haven't read the book, only snippets here and there - I'm guessing in other words) to reclaim photography criticism from the critics, to say what photography actually might be rather good at.

I think one key element of photography that is ignored is what assumptions are you making when you show somebody a picture (or text or film or anything). Show it to a person who looks at the kind of photography you get on this and other blogs or people who might seek out pictures of misery, death and destruction and there is not the same reaction as you get from the audience who just catches pictures in passing, the people for whom Nachtwey, Smith or Salgado mean nothing - the vast majority in other words.

This makes me think of Broomberg and Chanarin's Afghanistan project and The Day Nobody Died. Who is the audience? It is fair to say that inasmuch the project  is a critique of photojournalism and some aspects of documentary practice, it also has an assumed knowledge of its history and background at its heart. Its foundations are the essence of Concerned Photography, and a Sontagian view of it at that.

So for people who know nothing of the war in Afghanistan, or the role the British army or media play in it, the project serves no purpose - it is not for that type of person. And if you think people don't know about the war in Afghanistan, that there is even a war of some kind there, well you are making some assumptions there to begin with - they are definitely not part of the audience. So who is the project for?

This in turns reminds me of another Holocaust film, this one called Warsaw Ghetto: The Unfinished Film, a documentary about archive footage of an intended Nazi propaganda film on the Warsaw Ghetto. This featured interviews with both a cameraman and some of the people in the film. It is amazing footage and a direct line to how propaganda films are staged and to what purpose. One of the scenes mentions how the people of the ghetto are assiduously recording their lives, how they are writing about their daily existence and the way the Nazis are attempting to grind their humanity into the ground. Somebody asks why they are bothering, when their words may never be read, their voices never heard, their stories never told. But their words were read and their stories were told and in films like Warsaw Ghetto, their voices were heard again and their stories told again. Some of those stories might not have been the most poetic or elegant, some of those words may have lacked a certain grace or might have been repetitive, but they were told and they will be told again and again. And that is the right thing to happen and a good thing to happen.

Here's a positive review of the Broomberg and Chanarin project from foto8.

This is from the Paradise Row Gallery.

In June of this year Broomberg and Chanarin traveled to Afghanistan to be embedded with British Army units on the front line in Helmand Province. In place of their cameras they took a roll of photographic paper 50 meters long and 76.2 cm wide contained in a simple, lightproof cardboard box.

They arrived during the deadliest month of the war. On the first day of their visit a BBC fixer was dragged from his car and executed and nine Afghan soldiers were killed in a suicide attack. The following day, three British soldiers died, pushing the number of British combat fatalities to 100. Casualties continued until the fifth day when nobody died.

In response to each of these events, and also to a series of more mundane moments, such as a visit to the troops by the Duke of York and a press conference, all events a photographer would record, Broomberg and Chanarin instead unrolled a seven-meter section of the paper and exposed it to the sun for 20 seconds. The results - strange abstract passages and patterns of black, white and variegated hues - all modulated by the heat and the light - deny the viewer the cathartic effect offered up by the conventional language of photographic responses to conflict and suffering. Instead the viewer is, by default, invited to question their relationship with images of violence and the true nature of the relations between culture, politics and morality.

Working in tandem with this deliberate evacuation of content, are the circumstances of works' production, which amount to an absurd performance in which the British Army were, unsuspectingly, playing the lead role, co-opted by the artists into transporting the box of photographic paper from London to Helmand, from one military base to another, on Hercules and Chinooks, on buses, tanks and jeeps. In this film, the box becomes an absurd, subversive object, its non-functionality sitting in quietly amused contrast to the functionality of the system that for a time served as its host. Like a barium test, the journey of the box became, when viewed from the right perspective, an analytical process, revealing the dynamics of the machine in its quotidian details, from the logistics of war to the collusion between the media and the military.

The Day Nobody Died is the expression of a considered position informed by the last ten years in which Broomberg and Chanarin have followed, to quote Janet Malcolm, "...the camera's profound misanthropy, its willingness to go to unpleasant places where no one wants to venture, its nasty preference for precisely those facets of our nature that we most wish to disown..." Their work has focused on zones of conflict; Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, Palestine… but has always forsaken the easy production of shock or pity and so has found itself in opposition to the traditional role of the photographer as a professional witness who serves as a moral proxy for the spectator back home. The Day Nobody Died, takes this position to an extreme point - its series of radically non-figurative, unique, action-photographs, comprising a profound critique of conflict photography in the age of embedded journalism and the current crisis in the concept of the engaged, professional witness. 


Stan B. said...

One can theorize ad infinitum about the "liberating" aspects of what Adam and Oli's project symbolizes, portrays and represents. But ultimately, one is left with the parting feeling that this was more about their journey, their quest, their vision- their own truly unique and artistic brand.

This is the most narcissistic and exploitative abstract I've ever witnessed.

Very Conservative Anonymous Reader

colin pantall said...

Hi Stan - well, I don't think it liberates anything.

I sometimes think one's view of a work, a project, a political view (anything almost) depends on how the protagonist presents it - if it's in a nice voice filled with grace, honesty, charm and open-mindedness, then that thing can seem to be the most wonderful thing in the world.

Stan B. said...

Colin- Didn't mean to imply you were stating that. And I agree totally with your general synopsis.

In this case, I just see ego vastly overwhelming the subject at hand, and the resulting art so distantly removed from any relevant association, or insight. It's an abstract representation of a very abstracted concept.

Abstracts are well and good- but to equate it with journalism?? I've seen better alternatives to "traditional" journalism (eg- Eva Leitolf).

colin pantall said...

I get you Stan. I don't know them so I'm not in a position to say anything about their egos - it is all terribly, terribly abstract which is good - but, as you mention...

colin pantall said...

And I get where you are coming from with Eva Leitolf -


great work.

Stan B. said...

The thing that got under my skin about this art quest considerably more than the abstract representation itself was the utter solemnity of ... "the box itself being part of the performance of war."

The Holy Box of Paper, The Box of Boxes, it has seen all, felt all- the living box of man's inhumanity and suffering. The 21st century photographic Ark of the Covenant.

It would be one thing if this was the abstract representation of two lovers' lost holiday weekend. Certainly much could also be made of how the same abstract patterns symbolize the highs and lows of their tumultuous relationship on that sunny beachfront turned dark and stormy.

Instead, this icon of a box and its mythological parchment are mentioned in the same breath with the deaths of several human beings. But it's destiny lies even beyond that. Lo! How it has suffered in our stead!

"...the camera's profound misanthropy, its willingness to go to unpleasant places where no one wants to venture, its nasty preference for precisely those facets of our nature that we most wish to disown..."

And that makes for one truly obscene abstract.

Anonymous said...

The Eva L work is nice though very close in format to seawrights sectarian murder sights

colin pantall said...

Thanks SA - I think it's close in format to lots of work including Paul Seawright's. Here's a landscape, here's a caption - but I like Eva L's better than Seawright's - the cleverness is more pronounced and more delicate I feel.

Being sanctimonious doesn't work for me either, Stan. It doesn't matter what kind of photography, wherther it's concerned photographers in desert scarves making oversized claims for the changes they are making or people without desert scarves making oversized claims about how they are not the people with desert scarves.

We're singing from the same hymn sheet, I think, Stan.