Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan
I visited Tate Modern specifically to see the work of Simon Norfolk.
Mr. Norfolk was present and gave up some of his time to talk about his exhibition.
In 1994, Norfolk turned from photojournalism to landscape photography, publishing ‘For Most of It I Have No Words‘ in 1998; a book about places that had witnessed genocide.
In Afghanistan: Chronotopia 2001, he examined the layers of physical evidence left by thirty years of conflict in the country.
In 2010, he returned to collaborate posthumously with Afghanistan’s first ever photographer.
- John Burke (1843?-1900).
Catholic Irishman John Burke had accompanied British forces during an invasion that would become the Second Anglo-Afghan War from 1878-1880, going on to produce exquisite photo albums for sale. These albums and the unusually honest photographs were the trigger for Norfolk’s interest in Burke.
Photography’s ‘truth effect’ has been used throughout history to harness public sympathy/document/propaganda.
(Flag raisers/Iwo Jima by Joseph Rosenthal; Nick Ut/Vietnam Napalm Girl; Roger Fenton/Crimean war; Alexander Rodchenko/Soviet agenda photomontage; Edward Curtis/native Americans etc.)
In the 19th Century, colonialism and photography have had a close and troubled relationship. One use was to document the expansion of the European Empires of the English, Dutch and French.
Photography as record. A way for ‘primitive’ lives to be civilized, and racial categories to be ordered.
- Romanticised, idealistic postcard images were made for the citizens of the homeland to keep and collect. Reinforcing a moral high ground to the masses… and superiority. (N.B. Photography was used by the Nazi’s to categorise racial sub-types/demonstrate the inferiority of the Jews/blacks etc. vs the white master race – only 70 years ago.)
“The development of mass-circulation photography and the heyday of colonial expansion were contemporary with one another. Photography was integral to those processes, being used to map and control, Photographs were part of the vast flow of information on which the colonial project depended. “
[Source: Oxford Companion to the Photograph: Colonialism and Photography]
Burke had been a commercial photographer. Tough and determined, he had travelled from County Wicklow in Ireland all the way to India, becoming possibly the first celebrity photographer. Today, a relatively unknown photographer until this recent resurrection. He commissioned himself to photograph the Afghan people during the Second Anglo Afghan War in 1878. This lead to a change in Burke’s photographic style and a new wave of creativity. 130 years later, Simon Norfolk retraces his steps in the romantic tradition and even mirrors a change in style himself during what Norfolk calls, the Fourth Anglo Afghan War.
A case of history repeating.
Copyright © Simon Norfolk
Norfolk is not a ‘war photographer’, If anything it is Imperialism that interests him more than anything else. Through researching the elusive John Burke (no single photograph exists of the man’s face) and retracing his journey; he found his own voice.
Using mountainous ridgelines and Google Earth for reference points, he made beautifully lit photographs of the twin cities, Military Camp Leatherneck with reference to the nearby Afghan city. Money flows into the camp, only to be siphoned off by the local population.
A stark warning for any future withdrawal.
At the time of writing, the Afghan war has cost approx. $400 Billion taxpayers money.
[Source: Cost of War]
Wonder where the money is going?
Corruption, drugs and organized crime. That’s right, currently you can rent a gaudy faux neoclassical ‘Poppy Palace’ from $12,000 – $47,000 a month. Complete with bars, jacuzzi’s and swimming pools [Narcotecture]. Something akin to Brian De Palma’s movie Scarface.
[Images: Washington Post]
This wealth of course is minuscule to the ‘legal’ white-collar profits being made by big arms suppliers and contractors in the West.
[Slightly too close with senior government executives for comfort.]
- Conflicting interests?
It may be remembered, that the fascist dictator Mussolini invaded 3rd World Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) in 1935, simply in order to prop up a failing Italian economy; to direct public attention away from unemployment at home and whip up nationalist prestige for the lost Roman empire. George Orwell wrote about perpetual wars in the dystopian novel, 1984.
After 10 years in Afghanistan, are we actually any safer? Good question.
The result, an artificial vacuous economy with little infrastructure supported only by foreign powers, terrorists and the opium trade. At least Mussolini managed to crush the Mafia while he was at it.
I mentioned ‘beautiful’ photographs, and indeed Norfolk mentioned the colour palette was a conscious connotative tool; used to convey his sadness/sorrow at the events unfolding before him. The useful video at the exhibition start also provides much context to the uninformed viewer. Norfolk stated that he used beauty as the vehicle of accessibilty to get his message across.
- His anger at ongoing 21st Century Imperialism.
“If I thought I could get across the points I want to make without beauty, then I would dump beauty tomorrow.”
- Simon Norfolk
[This ties in with my recent views on art/photography and accessibility - See previous blog post.]
The portraits in the exhibition I noted had:
“..an inky quality, with purple blacks and creamy yellow highlights.”
This I learnt from Simon, is due to something called an ‘Orthochromatic‘ response. [Photographic emulsion used was sensitive to only blue and green light, making reds darker.]
Colonial photographers were aware of this effect, as white skin appeared lighter/angelic, and Afghan skin, which contained more red – darker and more ominous.
Burke being an Irishman, was considered ‘low status’ by the British. Burke was unique, and what really interested Norfolk was how he went against the grain – beyond reportage; making images that weren’t reinforcing British colonial values, yet simultaneously not denigrating the British.
By coincidence, I have been reading ‘Ulysses’ by Irish novelist James Joyce recently. In the 1930′s, banned by the British and Americans on ‘obscenity’ charges. In reality for being insightful (inciteful?) and subversively anti-imperialist in it’s groundbreaking narrative structure. The novel was simply the mechanism for the message.
Excerpt from Ireland’s English Question by Patrick O’Farrell.
“… In fact, the two searchings, the British for an answer, the Irish for a meaning to their question, interacted on each other to their mutual frustration. No proposed external solution could ever satisfy the Irish, or calm their troubles, for they as a people neither knew who they were nor what they wanted – these were problems they would have to solve for themselves, themselves alone.”
Perhaps we don’t consider ourselves imperialist anymore, but there are some troubling analogies with the present situation.
It is telling, that according to Norfolk most of the British and American soldiers had no real historical grasp of the previous wars, the Afghans however have remembered every single war.
They have only ever known the fight.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it..”
- George Santayana
This is the message I took away from the exhibition.
‘Democracy Village’ – Parliament Square, London
Whilst leaving London to go back to Coventry, I photographed this from the window on Parliament Square, opposite the Houses of Parliament. Joyce would have agreed.
The quote is from Brecht’s play, Galileo.
Andrea: ‘Unhappy the land that has no heroes!
Galileo: ‘No, unhappy the land that needs heroes.’