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Monday, 2 May 2011

Waiting for the Barbarians and Restrepo

I enjoyed seeing David Spero's Churches at Bradford's anticlimactic National Media Museum. It's a series that features buildings in London that have been adapted to churches of various descriptions. I loved the series in book form but for some reason I felt something was missing in the gallery - that there was more of a story that was waiting to be told. I didn't watch the accompanying video/multimedia element provided because it was an accompanying video and sometimes one doesn't want the tag-on (and it is a tag-on) to provide the thing that is missing - lazy but so it goes. And the thing that was missing was the story.Perhaps I should have watched and everything would have been complete.

I had the same feeling across the road at the relaxing (but deserted) Impressions Gallery when I saw Zed Nelson's Love Me. Great individual pictures that were about vanity, ugliness and vacancy (that's what I think at least) but again, there was something in the story that was missing. Somehow everything didn't tie together under the catch all title - there was an arbitrariness, a greatest hits quality to it all. Again, I was probably missing something obvious.

This ties in with Foam's much-publicised, but rather inconclusive What's Next series. The best and most truthful and long-lasting snippet is Alec Soth's comment that "In the end what's next is what always was; the story."

Which cuts to the chase and helps vocalise the problem we have with so much of photography, art, film and literature - you need a story. If you have one, fantastic and if  you don't, well the little dissatisfactions we feel with so much of what we see and read are made apparent. And generally, the little dissatisfactions are simply that there is not a story, or it's not told well enough or is simply not interesting enough.

Broomberg and Chanarin also chipped in with What's Next by asking if there is a role for stills photographers in the future. They also touched on the question of how photography is intimately connected with power and the definite necessity to always question what we see ( and used a Call of Duty video as an example of this. Deliberate or not, it is a very illustrative and easy mistake to make. But considering the nature of the talk, it's one that shouldn't be made if it wasn't deliberate. Unless it was deliberate? Does anyone know?).

Which ties in with the late and very much lamented Tim Hetherington. The story is what Tim Hetherington was about - he despised the "endless wittering about photography" (that might be a paraphrase but it gets the quotes for blog purposes) and cut to the delivery of the story, by whatever means. And the place he did this most was in Restrepo, his (and Sebastian Junger's) documentary of American soldiers in a God-forsaken valley in Afghanistan. I am still curious about how the film got made, the choices that were made in editing it, the purpose it serves and how it is seen by different audiences, but none of that takes away from the fact that it is a gripping film with multi-layered narratives that managed to include the rank boredom of war. My stomach was tied in knots just watching it - for me soldiers are people to be avoided at all times, especially when they are being shot at, and Tim was well shot at in Restrepo. The highlights for me were Pemble - the soldier brought up by hippy parents, never allowed to play with guns or watch violent movies and all the rest of it - and he ended up in Afghanistan. Then there were the repeated assurances to locals given by the platoon commander that a road was going to be built, a road was going to be built, that this would provide jobs, that everybody needs a job, and when the road was built. The road was the magic mantra, but even the commander, a true believer, had trouble believing this one.. And the time when the platoon went into a village, killed five villagers, injured the children and the commander told the villagers that he was very sorry but if their locals did insist on getting paid $5 to enlist by foreign fighters then the US army came into their village and killed their people - well that wasn't the Americans fault but... It was a chickens coming home to roost argument, but that works both ways sad to say. But a road was going to be built...

It's a brilliant film that is very sympathetic to the soldiers but what it reminds me of more than anything is J.M Coetzee's novel, Waiting for the Barbarians. This tells the story of a colonial outpost in a foreign land where a new chief believes the local 'barbarians' are preparing to mutiny against the colonial forces. Imprisonment and torture follow and the colonials encroach into barbarian land. Lured out into the arid desert, they are devastated, but not by the barbarian who simply vanish into thin air, but picked off by the land, the desert and the odd barbarian skirmish. The colonial forces leave, believing a barbarian invasion to be imminent, but some of the townsfolk stay (led by the hero of the book, the local Magistrate) and no invasion ensues.

In Restrepo, the American forces eventually left. Did a barbarian invasion ensue? I don't know. It's a different place.


Anonymous said...

What about Vivian Maier's work? There is no text to accompany any of the images. I think they can stand on their own without a narrative. Is that what you mean? Or do you mean literally a supplemental narrative?

colin pantall said...

Good point. I think there are many photographers whose work stands on its own, including David Spero's and Zed Nelson - both of whom are marvellous photographers. It just didn't really engage me on that day in that particular setting. There was something missing.

I'm not as much a fan of Vivian Maier as some - but the supplemental narrative for her work is fantastic and helps support the work she made.