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The aftermath of war: Conflict, Time, Photography

by Ros Brunt, Sheffield WILPF

It’s already looking like this year could hold yet more reminders of Britain’s imperial and martial past than ever 2014 did. Besides further anniversaries of both world wars, the death of Churchill and the build up to the Battle of Waterloo commemorations are already upon us.

So good to find a rather different perspective at the current Tate Modern exhibition: Conflict-Time-Photography. Despite its title, this is not at all a display of battles and violence. Rather it offers a reflection on aftermaths: what happens and what is left behind when ‘the action’ is over. The exhibition uses the simple but highly effective and moving device of taking visitors through a series of rooms that are labelled first, Moments Later, then Days, Months and Years Later ….right up to 100 Years Later. In the process, the aftermaths of most of the major conflicts across the globe have received some kind of photographic record of the various traces left behind.

The exhibition is introduced and framed by quotations from a novel: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). I’d previously assumed this was some kind of gung-ho, if satirical, celebration of American military adventurism in Asia. While I was right about the satire, I had no idea this was actually a powerfully moving anti-war novel. As others will know, it’s based on Vonnegut’s attempts to work through his traumatic experience of being a prisoner of war in Dresden during the Allied firebombing of February 1945 which, the exhibition tells us, incinerated an estimated 25,000 people. The huge photo commemorating the after-effect of what’s often been called a war crime has the image of an angelic stone figure, apparently the only statue still intact, looking down with a face of compassion upon an entirely pulverised and deserted city. This image is echoed later in a room showing pictures of the entire destruction of the cathedral in Rheims, North East France, a city, like Dresden, with no particular military significance,that suffered large civilian casualties in 1915.

Women photographers are well represented in the exhibition. For instance, a whole room labelled Months Later is taken up with large images of the Kuwait desert after the first Gulf War of 1992. The photographer, Sophie Ristelhyeber, is fascinated by perspective. Hence toppled tanks appear just like tiny ‘boys’ toys’ alongside other images of an abandoned tv set, shoes, an old blanket, giant bullet casings. She describes her project in the accompanying caption as ‘ a work about our scars’.

Many of the photos in the exhibition come out of extended projects where the photographers have maintained a long term involvement in the conflict zone, rather than, as the usual macho stereotype of war photographer has it, zapping excitedly in and out. Susan Meiselas, who took many of the defining images of the Sardinista struggle of the seventies and eighties, returned to Nicaragua in 2004. The exhibition shows how she displayed her earlier pictures on huge hoardings in the local streets as part of a memory project to connect the now-older revolutionaries with the new generations of their children and grandchildren through discussion and reflection about what the pictures might now signify.

What the exhibition highlights throughout is that the objects abandoned or destroyed after war and violence are often the most banal: just domestic detritus of the everyday. Yet it is also the everyday that those displaced by war may most want to recreate within a new zone of comfort. This aspect of ‘later’ is most poignantly demonstrated in a series of recent colour pictures of very old Ukrainians. Here they sit in brightly decorated cosy apartments surrounded by masses of household ornaments and mementos. They are the last survivors, 67 Years Later, of the Nazi genocide that killed three million Ukrainians and displaced thousands of others – and still resonates in the current conflict.

The exhibition is an overwhelming experience; the galleries are very quiet and the visitors are clearly awed and saddened. So much destruction and distress has been recorded you just want the images to stop coming. Where they do, 100 Years Later, is at a series of very tranquil countryside scenes in the early morning. Then you read the captions. These images of peaceful Northern European landscape are from a current project, Shot at Dawn, where the photographers have traced the exact spots where, and the very moments when, British French and Belgian soldiers were executed for ‘cowardice’ or ‘desertion’. Of the 300 British shot, we learn that the first was a boy of 17.

Pictures and captions can sometimes leave very little more to be said.

Conflict-Time-Photography exhibition: Tate Modern, London until 15 March 2015

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