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Conflict, Time, Photography

28 November 2014 | Jessica Johnston

Every photograph in the exhibition is imbued with a potent sense of absence. Whether one is looking at empty vistas or images of those who have lost their lives, it becomes immediately apparent that desolation dominates.

Capturing ravaged landscapes and decimated homes, traumatized civilians and shell-shocked soldiers, a powerful exhibition at Tate Modern considers the impact of conflicts across the globe, through 160 years of war photography. Staged to coincide with the centenary of the First World War, Conflict, Time, Photography brings together the work of forty photographers and artists who have looked back at moments of conflict, from the seconds after a bomb is detonated to the haunting desolation that resides in a society decades after war has ended.

Offering an alternative to familiar notions of war reportage and photojournalism, the exhibition reflects on the passing of time to create, what Curator Simon Baker aptly describes as ‘a theatre of memory’.  Rather than taking visitors on a historical tour through past and present, Conflict, Time, Photography focuses on how soon after the event the photographs were taken. Spanning eleven haunting rooms, images made moments after a conflict are followed by those made days, then weeks, months and finally years later; from Hiroshima and the Somme to Dresden and Afghanistan, the works capture conflicts ten, twenty, fifty, even a hundred years after they have taken place.

In a show so vast, moods, subjects and approaches vary. From gritty photojournalism to conceptual art and poetic representation, here photography is presented in an almost infinitely diverse form with artists confronting the challenges of responding to the brutality warfare in stark and unexpected ways. The immediate trauma of war can be seen in the awestruck expression of Don McCullin’s iconic Shell-shocked US Marine, Luc Delahaye’s Ambush depicting a thick cloud of dust enveloping a deserted street in Central Iraq appears deceptively calm, whilst the colourful abstract work by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, entitled The Day Nobody Died, has a surreal beauty. In the final section of the exhibition, meanwhile, visitors are confronted with the ghostly landscapes of Chloe Dewe Mathews’ Shot at Dawn, a poignant series of images marking the spots where allied soldiers in WWI were executed for cowardice or desertion by the British army, taken 99 years after the event.

Despite clashing ideologies of representation, every photograph in the exhibition is imbued with a potent sense of absence. Whether one is looking at empty vistas or images of those who have lost their lives, it becomes immediately apparent that desolation dominates. Bullet scarred buildings and war-damaged landscapes littered with scenes of debris and devastation are documented by Sophie Ristelhueber’s floor to ceiling series Fait and Simon Norfolk’s Afghanistan: Chronotopia. Alongside these evocative works, other photographers explore the human cost of conflict, from Kikuji Kawada’s epic project concerning personal memorials constructed by the families of Japanese Zero pilots who fought in the Second World War to Taryn Simon’s intimate portraits of those descended from victims of the Srebrenica massacre. 

As poignantly shown through the images taken in more recent years,the catastrophic consequences of war continue to infiltrate humanity far beyond the bullets and the bombs. The devastating aftermath of battle is long-lasting and continues to effect people, places and our understanding of the world. This is not an exhibition about photojournalism, which ordinarily casts the viewer into wartime chaos and strife, as much as it is about remembrance and how artists and the societies they depict come to terms with the atrocities and traumas of the past. A far cry from this year’s Sainsbury’s Christmas ad, Tate Modern delivers a sombre and deeply affecting exhibition that echoes war’s relentless human cost, without the rose tinted lens.

Conflict, Time, Photography is on at Tate Modern from 26th November – 15th March 2015. Tickets cost £12.50 - £14.50, available here.

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