The Best Photography Exhibition Of 2015: ‘Conflict and Consequences’ at Beloit College
Looking beyond the act of war to its many aftermaths
Small-scale, barely-promoted and relatively obscure as photo shows go, I can admit that Conflict and Consequences: Photographing War and Its Aftermath isn’t an obvious pick for this “Best Of 2015” accolade. But size isn’t everything and Conflict and Consequences reminds us that blockbuster shows at the major institutions in the major cities don’t have a monopoly on thoughtful photographic discourse. Great images, laudable methods and bristling curatorial nous are nurtured far-and-wide.
Exhibited on the walls of Beloit College, a small Liberal Arts School in the heart of Wisconsin, throughout September and October, I doubt that many people outside the Badger State saw Conflict and Consequences.
I hope that neither the staff at the Wright Museum of Art, nor the curator Todd Tubutis, take umbrage at my characterization of Conflict and Consequences as an underdog. I see it as a David to the Goliaths of New York, Toronto, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and the like. It is important to acknowledge the modest resources of this small but perfectly-formed exhibition in order, in part, to appreciate its significant contribution.
Conflict and Consequences includes the work by Dima Gavrysh, Tim Hetherington, Jason P. Howe, Vera Lentz, Jim Lommasson, Susan Meiselas, Suzanne Opton, Louie Palu, Luke Somers, Andrew Stanbridge, Allison Stewart and Sara Terry + Mariam X.
They are fourteen image-makers as those who allow considerable space in their work for the stories of those caught up in war … and caught up in the images. Conflict and Consequences deconstructs the image-maker’s role in the international circulation of war imagery and curator Tubutis, who is Associate Director of the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln Nebraska, is doing his part to help us get over the myth of the heroic war photographer.
In the past, even lauded photojournalists have asked we don’t put them on a pedestals; pleaded that our need for a hero’s narrative does not distracted us from the events they have depicted. Turns in conversation away from the photographs (and the people in the photographs) isn’t always a bad thing if the turns are toward reality, not toward fantasy. For example, it is healthy to talk about the wheels and cogs of the photojournalism world; less helpful to impose superlative adjectives and genius-status to image-makers for the sake of promotion. Many photographers, editors, publishers, curators and other gatekeepers tread firmly within the boundaries of modesty. Indeed, many of the most vital self-reflexive conversations about the photographic industry begin with image-makers. Tim Hetherington, who died in Libya in 2011 would be first among them.
Conflict and Consequences includes images from Hetherington’s Sleeping Soldiers series and other candid shots from his time at a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan are included int he show. Hetherington’s oeuvre and legacy is too vast to be dealt with summarily in a group show or even this review, but let’s just say it is in his spirit that Conflict and Consequences finds its roots. War photography is not about bravado nor thrill-seeking but about accurately describing (through a variety of media, in Hetherington’s case) the nuance and emotion of armed conflict. It is significant that Hetherington was as willing to image his own emotional yo-yo, as he was the fortifying and dark fraternal psychology of war, as he was to make searing verite documentary film Restrepo, as he was to install meditative gallery experiences.
Tim Hetherington’s presence in the show underscores the huge stakes of making photographs in conflict zones. Unfortunately, he is not the only photographer in Conflict and Consequences that has left this world.
Luke Somers (1981–2014) was a young freelance American photojournalist, kidnapped in 2013 off the streets of Sana, the capital of Yemen, by Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula. Somers was killed by his captors during a raid by U.S. military to rescue him and a South African teacher from a remote compound in the south of Yemen.
Somers graduated from Beliot college in 2008. When Tubutis, also a Beliot alum, heard of Somers’ death he proposed the show to his alma mater.
“My curatorial approach was to not memorialize Luke but to put his work in context of other photographers like him,” explains Tubutis.
It is not the mandate of Conflict and Consequence to unpack the particulars of every conflict (violence in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nicaragua, Peru, Yemen, Sierra Leone, and the United States) featured in the show. Instead the show breeds curiosity about consuming conflict. Through photography, war sometimes becomes less about “them” and more about us — specifically, our reasonable response. Tubutis does not draw historical or rhetorical parameters around these moments, nor any heavy-handed moralizing. The focus is squarely on the images as manufactured objects and the function they serve as entry points to the war-image-industry.
“As I see it, it’s a primer on conflict and aftermath photography,” says Tubutis.
Aftermath photography? Is ‘aftermath photography’ a genre? Maybe. Given the need for close consideration of the long-tail of war, I hope it IS a term, or if it is not we can resolve to make it part of our lexicon. The concept of aftermath photography relocates images from violent sites elsewhere and dissolves it into our society. Soldiers bring war home and our communities build bombs and bombers. Photography can play an active role in informing us all of the inseparable ties between violence abroad and violence in the homeland.
“Thinking about a campus community, my primary thought was that many students probably had not considered conflict and aftermath photography as a distinct endeavor and very likely didn’t encounter such images in a museum setting,” says Tubutis. “I wanted the project to be a springboard for departments beyond art and art history.”
The show balances heavyweight names (Terry, Hetherington, Meiselas, Lentz) with emerging and mid-career photographers nicely. Suzanne Opton’s collaboration with silent, lain out U.S. veterans grows stronger and more haunting with every year — Soldier is proof a simple concept expertly executed can carry a sustained force.
Jason Howe, a photographer who has spoken publicly about his PTSD, witnessed 25-year-old British soldier Private Stephen Bainbridge step on an IED which blew off both his legs. Six months after the incident and with Bainbridge’s permission, Howe’s photograph of the immediate aftermath was published — it was the first image of a wounded British soldier on a battlefield in 30 years.
Dima Gavrysh grew up in Kiev in the 80s under the weight of Soviet propaganda about its war in Afghanistan. Fast forward a quarter of a century and he’s working as a photojournalist documenting conflict in Afghanistan, only this time it is American soldiers with boots on the ground. Gavrysh’s personal history made objectivity impossible and, ultimately, it probably pushed him toward something more truthful; his truth.
His project Inshallah is a “dark fairytale filled with fears and dreams” and surfacing from Gavrysh’s childhood fascination with the military might and control.
“Mesmerized by the complexity of the Afghan chaos, I strive to better comprehend my personal relationship to these wars: two empires, two mentalities, same battlefield, twelve years apart.”
Andrew Stanbridge’s relatively orthodox images of destruction in Syria are balanced with his shots from a Conflict Photography Workshop at which he taught. He was an instructor alongside Jason Howe and Louie Palu.
Especially with the increased number of freelancers, more and more photographers are taking it upon themselves to organize best-practice training for fellow shooters heading into the field. Basic emergency medical training, especially that to effectively stem massive blood loss, will save lives. Friends say Tim Hetherington may have lived had his hemorrhaging been inhibited in the immediate aftermath of his injury.
Louie Palu has two bodies of work in Conflict and Consequences. The first is Garmsir Marines, a series of head-on, no-nonsense portraits of U.S. soldiers — black and white portraits that feel like the young cousins of Don McCullin’s character studies during the Vietnam War.
Palu’s second inclusion GUANTANAMO: Operational Security Review is totally different. Pointing more to the control and dissemination of war imagery Operational Security Review is a newspaper made to be distributed among high school children.
“Users” can pull the leafs apart and reorder as they see fit, but as much as they can control the sequencing (and maybe the story?) the images at hand are ultimately only those approved for exit from the secretive base by Guantanamo’s Joint Task Force (JTF).
Between 2007–2010, Palu made six trips to Guantanamo. He had photographed in Afghanistan and it made sense to document America’s *homeland* site for its Global War On Terror (GWOT).
Guantanamo contains and less flash-bang than any theater of war, but it is no less violent. Inside Gitmo, coercion and so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques do the damage, replacing mortars and EIDs. After every visit, all photographers are required to hand over their DSLRs to a officer of the JTF who will look over all images and delete any that don’t meet military rules. In each case, the photographer is given a form with the file name of each deleted digital file listed individually. The procedure is called an “Operational Security Review.” These forms alongside Palu’s Gitmo photos are an exercise in visual literacy; they reveal the power by delineating what falls within its standards and what exists without.
Allison Stewart’s crafty diptychs, from her series American Anthem, put together historical photos of civil war battlefields with scenes of contemporary war reenactment. The drama of war and the narratives we attach are as seductive as ever. Through performative memorial we attain closure to, and comfort with, histories chapters of violence. We can see 19th century Americans dead on the battlefield but we are not allowed to see 21st century soldiers torn limb from limb.
Inevitably, the associations photographs carry change markedly over time, but why is that? And who controls those associations and meanings? Do our attitudes toward images reveal anything about our shared attitudes toward war?
Of all the photographers in the show, perhaps none more than Susan Meiselas has pursued, over a period of decades, what images do, and how they are appropriated and bent to politicized narratives. Meiselas’ iconic image Molotov Man is in the show.
The man ultimately identified as Pablo “Bareta” Arauz was photographed on the day before former President Somoza was ousted and would flee Nicaragua forever in July 1979. Meiselas photographed Bareta throwing a molotov cocktail at one of the last remaining Somoza National Guard regiments.
In the months and years that followed, this image evolved into a symbol of the Nicaraguan revolution and was appropriated into popular culture — commemorative matchbooks, t-shirts, ads, murals and more besides. Meiselas returned to Nicaragua regularly including on the tenth anniversary of the revolution, when she tracked down the subjects of her photographs with filmmakers Richard Rogers and Alfred Guzzetti to make Pictures From a Revolution. And on the 25th anniversary of the revolution, when Bareta’s likeness was adopted as the official symbol of the Sandinista revolution. On the 30th anniversary too.
When Molotov Man has been appropriated into western (marketable) art, Meiselas has respectfully debated with artists on the take the veracity of their riff and their fair-use claims. Molotov Man is the example par excellence of an image that entered the cultural bloodstream and ascended above object into an shared consciousness. So complex is this image as a case study, I’d have appreciated a wider consideration — something akin to the expansive presentations at ICP and Winthurmuseum, but we can assume the Wright Museum didn’t have the space, resources or inclination to loan a significant part of an existing and recent exhibition.
What Can We Do, Outside Of War, With Photography?
Photography has a long and complicated relationship with war. It is a medium that has been employed to both humane ends (bearing witness, spurring social action, prosecuting war crimes) and vile ends (propaganda, reconnoissance, bombing campaigns mapping, codifying genocide) during and after conflict.
In the opinion of this author, we don’t think often enough about how photography can be used in the aftermath of war to heal, connect and bring us closer.
Jim Lommasson’s What We Carried and Sara Terry + Mariam X’s In My Life are two projects that show there’s much more to be done with the camera than just point it at the action; these photographers actively seek to uncover and revisit personal histories.
Lommasson partnered with two communities of Iraqi refugees, first in Portland, Oregon and later in Boston, Massachusetts. He asks them what they brought with them from their homelands. Lommasson photographs the object they select and then gives them a print onto which they write their personal stories.
They are writing history. Their history.
Lommasson honors the refugees’ choices and emotional attachments. He repeats and affirms the value they have placed in the objects. In so doing he draws out, for he and us, an understanding of the refugees’ thoughts, whereabouts and possibilities. In the immediate aftermath of their escape or evacuation, how very important might it be for displaced persons to talk about their experience with a friendly (artist’s) face in their new home nation? At some point it stops really being about photography. Photography is an excuse to talk. The photographs hang around for the secondary audience, who is us.
The work of Lommasson and Terry are what are increasingly being referred to as Social Practice or Socially-Engaged Art. Broadly speaking, there’s an enthusiasm for projects the put process before product, put interaction before production, put flexibility before rigid design, and put collaboration before ownership. Photography with social practice tenets has been going on for decades, it’s just that now there’s some language to wrap around this type of work. (If you want to know more about photography and social practice, I recommend Photography As A Social Practice, a site to which I contribute; also the e-book Wide Angle: Photography As A Participatory Practice edited by Terry Kurgan and Tracy Murinik; the exhibition Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration, curated by Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas; and the work of recipients of support from both the Magnum Foundation Photography Expanded and A Blade Of Grass.)
Before the language of social practice emerged, Sara Terry was in Sierra Leone, in 2007, working with Mariam X, a former child soldier who was abducted by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) at the age of eleven.
Terry is no slouch. She is founder of The Aftermath Project and an advocate for photographers’ role in describing and healing traumas following conflict. In many ways, image-based artists are catching up to her way of thinking. She’s right up there with Wendy Ewald, Nina Berman, Gemma-Rose Turnbull, Nigel Poor and Martha Rosler in intuiting how photography can and should serve emotional ends.
The colour images of In My Life blur authorship. They’re made by both women but the distinction matters little when set against the captions written by Mariam X. You cannot unsee these images nor, unread/unhear statements such as “I gave birth to my baby in a swamp” or “This hole reminds me of the time we buried a woman alive.”
Mariam was raped by multiple soldiers. She was forced to kill or face her own abuse or murder. She was made the “wife” of a rebel commander and had a child. A decade after her capture, Mariam X escaped.
I’d like to know how Terry and Mariam X met, and I’d be interested to know how long they worked together on the project and indeed, if they remain in contact today. Mariam X helped Terry to understand her experience and Terry helped Mariam X to overcome the feelings of guilt that understandably hindered her from moving on from the unspeakable violence in her young, young life.
It is a privilege to be able to experience Terry and Mariam X’s trust and connection, albeit secondarily, through their images and texts. Do you think we, you, could repeat these methods? Without any doubt it is a huge commitment and potential minefield to delve into a stranger’s traumatic past and prod at emotional scars. But just because it is difficult and complex doesn’t mean we should shy away and keep a distance. Banish the telephoto lens and make pencil, paper and human touch compulsory. Look not for the aesthetic images but for the empowerment of subjects. Make subjects collaborators. Allow collaborators to guide, sequence and veto images included in the work.
These two projects by Lommasson and Terry are the highlights of the show for me. In them, photography serves people. Unfortunately, many times, people serve only to be a compositional part of a photograph. Lommasson and Terry provide a social space for connection facilitate our convening around victims experience. They spark dialogues instead of peddling mere depictions.
I feel that Conflict and Consequences passed without sufficient analysis nor adequate recognition for its inclusion of humbly responsible, very humane but, sadly, under-represented projects. It certainly passed faster than my writing schedule would allow.
There were other wonderful curatorial offerings that thrilled me in 2015. Data Rush (curated by Wim Melis and Hester Keijser) at the Noorderlicht Photography Festival was a watershed moment that dealt authoritatively with our relationship to the digital realm. With an award-winning catalogue, Images Of Conviction (curated by Diane Dufour and Xavier Barral) at Le Bal deconstructed notions of truth with 10 cases studies of legally-contested photographs. The artsy Re:Generation3 (convened by Musee Elysee) was a welcome overview of academically trained youngsters the world over.
However, no exhibition got to grips with the brutal realities of recent wars in the way that Conflict and Consequence did. Violence infects and rolls and batters its way through societies and psyches. It cannot ever be fully contained, only gradually countered. We see in this show that photography can both describe war and, crucially, help to spur dialogue with those most effected. In 2015, the West paid more attention to the fallout of conflict because it landed in its backyard. The refugee crisis is a signal to us all that we are a global village.
If we are to remedy ills, temper judgement and extend hands of charity and conciliation we must be very clear about what realities exist. We must listen to those effected by war. We must see those effected by war. The camera can help us see but only if we’re engaging our eyes and heart first. The camera cannot go before the eyes and the heart. Rather, the eyes and heart must direct the camera. Conflict and Consequences shows us how.