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Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Conflict, Time, Photography and The Narrow Road to the Deep North

"I so much wanted to be ugly. They ugly girls they quickly sent away. I had to stay." Emah (83)
 picture from Comfort Women by Jan Banning

I saw the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition at Tate Modern last month. The exhibition is organised on a timeline that starts at just after a conflict event (an exploding IED in Afghanistan, the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima) and then got more and more distant, ending up with Chloe Dewe Matthews' Shot at Dawn series - pictures of sites where British soldiers had been shot for desertion in the First World War. I liked these. They were dirty dawn pictures and had a poignancy to them, a human poignancy that was absent in most of the rest of the show.

Perhaps this was due to the imbalance in the type of photography used in the exhibition. 'Photojournalism' (a very broad genre I know) was deliberately avoided and, with a few exceptions, the photography on offer was quite distant from the human elements of conflict. The work focussed more on land, buildings  and artefacts than people and often featured more conceptual works that are more to do with the photography of war than war itself. And in being more about the photography, they end up being more about the photographer so you end up in this closed circle.

So most of the work was photography about the photography of conflict, or photography about the photography of the photography of conflict. These works were strong in themselves but there wasn't really enough of a focus on the why or the how of photography that was needed to punch things through. And even if there had been, it would only have been a show about the photography of conflict.

Photography is not really that interesting. What is interesting are the worlds, the places, the people that it relates to. The world outside our window is what invigorates photography and keeps it going. The more photography looks at itself, the less interesting it becomes. It's a bit like inbreeding. If you keep on breeding only within your own circle, eventually you become diseased, freakish and stupid. You might wonder at your own power and glory in your self-importance, but unless you get some new blood in you will die.

Photography is a tool that helps us understand our place in the world and how we make that place; and the way we see the world is not a given, it changes with time. So of course examining how photography works can be interesting. But Conflict, Time, Photography was trying to do so much that it didn't really attach to this or anything else.

It remained unattached. It didn't commit, it didn't make a statement, it was anaemic. It revolved around this concept of time (which I'm guessing, with the 100 years of the start of the First World War happening in 2014, was what sold the show in the first place), a concept that was limited to after. After what? A bomb, a conflict, we don't really know what the pictures came after. What is conflict? I'd be really interested to know. And if there's an after, why not a before and during too? I'm sure all this was considered and there are great reasons for having only the after, but for such a landmark show, I'm not sure that it was a wise choice.

The interesting thing is the hostility (which is not reflected online) that it has received. It's a hostility that is frustrated at both the insularity and incestuousness of what is on offer, but also regards the exhibition as a missed opportunity. And that makes the show a success in a perverse way; there is enough going on for people to latch onto and wonder what might have been. It is the kind of exhibition that everyone should see, not because it's terrible, but because there are so many good ideas in there that have someone not found the fullest possible expression; they run into incestuous dead ends, they look inwards into a small world of photography rather than outwards into the greater world of the human experience of conflict.

The selection of pictures was odd too, with at least five references (and three complete walls - maybe more, I don't know. I have probably got this all wrong because I am writing this after the fact. So forgive me if I have missed something that I shouldn't have missed.) to do with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I love Domon, Tomatsu and Kawada and I know that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific events, but giving us one perspective of Japan's role in the war does rather conform to the view that Japan was a victim of the Second World War and only a victim, that it only sought to help its colonized neighbours and that people like Emah (in the picture above - not in the show) were necessary victims of the need for discipline and esprit des corps in the Japanese army. There are plenty of people who still think that.

The horrors of Japanese rule in Asia are not well-recognised in Japan (though there are people who are struggling to change this attitude - Michiko in this post for example), and in fact are denied by many - in a similar way to which the horrors of Nazi rule were not recognised in Germany for some time. I know we all have a fetish for Japanese photography and photobooks, but some balance is urgently needed otherwise we're just taking part in a deceit.

But then again, maybe it doesn't matter and I'm just being picky. Or maybe I missed something. I don't know.

In the weeks after seeing the show I saw at least three references to Japan and the Second World War, all with asides that Japan hasn't really recognised at a government level the acts it committed in Asia; one mention was in a film review in a manga magazine, another was in an article on T.S. Eliot, and the final one was in Richard Flanagan's novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a fantastic book that, like Charlotte Delbo's Auschwitz: Before and After or Art Spiegelman's Maus, looks at the whole sequence of events that led up to and beyond the experiences of the main character, Dorigo Evans, on the Thai-Burma Railway in the Second World War. It's a book that wouldn't be welcome in the Yasukuni Shrine. And that's a good thing.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North doesn't only look at the brutality of the Japanese Imperial Army and the suffering of the soldiers who died (even the ones who lived died in some ways) who worked on the line. It also looks at the Japanese soldiers who also worked on the line, and tries to get into their way of thinking, their way of being, how they were before, during and after this life-defining event.

Flanagan's father was brutalised by the Japanese on the Thai-Burma Railway, that's why Flanagan wrote the book. It's a book for his father. But in the book, he recognises that many more Asians suffered and died at the hands of the Japanese, were exploited in every way that could be imagined; for labour, for sex, for medical experimentation. Their fate is just not recognised.

Flanagan makes the effort to recognise these fates, to recognise and try to understand the complexities not just of suffering, but of making people suffer. And the result is a superbly crafted book that extended my understanding of what life was like for his father on the railway, and why people abused him so dreadfully. The book touched me, it educated me, and it was a great read. It was written to be a great read, to be beautiful or entertaining or whatever terms you want to use to describe what a gripping book can be.

It hits all those spots that the Tate show doesn't. That's disappointing in itself. What's even more disappointing is that the Tate show doesn't even try to. It shows the kind of photography where telling a story well, engaging people in a very direct, emotional way, a beautiful way that goes straight to the heart does not even apply because it's seen as a bad thing. Ultimately, Conflict, Time, Photography is an anaemic show about an idea of photography for people who are interested in that idea of photography. For a show on that scale, can't it do better than that?

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