Last week I visited two outwardly similar exhibitions: Conflict, Time, Photography at Tate Modern, and Human Rights, Human Wrongs at the Photographers’ Gallery. They had different approaches to the subject of human suffering, and both had flaws; however, together they gave some extremely valuable viewpoints on conflict, injustice and cruelty. The Photographers’ Gallery presents their photos with little or no explanation, in chronological order. The Tate Modern “looks back” from different vantage points in time: seconds after an event, weeks, month, and finally years, up to a century. An exhibition of war photography wouldn’t be complete without Don McCullin, and the work chosen by Tate is his famous shot of a shell-shocked marine moments after a battle in Hue, Vietnam, in 1968; reproduced on a large scale, it is as arresting today as it must have been when first released, and all the more valuable for the fact that such proximity between photographer and soldier moments after combat simply would not be permitted today. This is due to a practice known as embedding, a means by which the army can control the way war journalists portray conflict, which leads to the highly sanitised reports we receive back in the West in our media. Made as an attempt to resist such restriction, Adam Broomberg’s & Oliver Chain’s work hanging nearby is one of the more surprising and imaginative works on display, The Day That Nobody Died. Made in Afghanistan, the artists took a large roll of photographic paper and exposed a section of it to the light for 20 seconds every day, in response to 5 solid days of deaths before a respite. The result is an expanse of blue fading into white, tinged around the edges with a sinister dark red, and the viewer feels as though they have been denied some explicit portrayal of action – in some ways, much the same result that conventional embedded photojournalism creates.
Perhaps the opposite of such a postmodern approach, and yet equally moving, were the photos from the 19th century, such Roger Fenton’s The Valley of the Shadow of Death, a rubble path in the hills bestrewn with cannonballs, taken during the Crimean War, or George N Bernard’s photos of landscapes devastated by the American Civil War; there is an unexpected poignancy to seeing a photograph (a scientific document) of a pre-modern conflict, something which our subconscious has consigned to the almost-fantastical world of historical battle. Similarly, Pierre Antony-Thouret’s photos of Reims (a small French town) after the Great War are quite beautiful in the Romantic Sublime sense of the word: vaulted columns stretch into the sky, the roof they supported blown away, and archways stand lonely amongst the rubble. Destroyed French towns like this bizarrely became busy tourist sites directly after the war, with guidebooks and postcards of the ruins manufacturers.
Unfortunately about half way through, the exhibition seems to start repeating on itself. Berlin, 15 years after the war: a series of black and white photos of street views with missing buildings. Hiroshima, 20 years after the bomb. Berlin 10 years after the wall goes up. Some more generic street scenes. Hiroshima. Again… I do not want to undermine the importance of these photographs as historical testament to appalling human suffering, or to detract from their validity to be in this exhibition. However, the sheer volume of them itself does this, as we are already halfway through a massive exhibition at this point, and the more saturated the eyes get, the more stupefying this repetition is. By the end, one gets the feeling that the curators simply found it too difficult to pick, and decided to just stick everything in, or that they felt pressured to carry out their theme of looking back with regular 5 year intervals between 0 and 100 years. Either way, for me it slightly detracted from what began as an innovative and effective way to theme an exhibition
Because Human Rights, Human Wrongs is not confined to wars as a subject it has a larger scope. It is much more straightforward photojournalism, and visually more shocking: a corpse lying on the street in the Warsaw Ghetto; a sign issuing a warning to black people on a segregated South African beach; graphic images of unspeakable violence in Africa as its individual countries struggled to throw off colonialism; or shackled slaves in a Pakistani market. The surprise of this exhibition was the absence of interpretive text (with the exception of an introduction) and because these photos almost exclusively have human subjects (unlike the Tate exhibits), in some ways we feel more need for extra information. We see the savaged (literally) bodies strewn across the scarred landscapes of different countries, or the eyes liquidly speaking of suffering beyond our imaginations, and we want, we crave, to know their story – what happened to them both before and after the photo was taken? Nowhere did I feel this lack more strongly than when contemplating the picture of 3 American GIs standing in a Vietnam field smiling, one of them holding a baby like a packet of sugar. Whose baby is this? What are they going to do with it? Is it even still alive? The carelessness with which the man holds up the tiny body is in some ways a hundred times more shocking than photos of dead adult bodies, distressing though these are.Human Rights, Human Wrongs doesn’t examine war specifically, but looks at injustices which cause, and are symptoms of, wars, as well as atrocities committed during wartime. It gives a more complete picture of conflict photographically, but the total lack of information, narrative or interpretation, whilst on the one hand liberating, was also problematic. I could only make sense of pictures where I already had some knowledge of their historical context. In fact, this is an interesting question which the exhibition raises: do these pictures stand alone? As expressions of human wrongs, they speak for themselves; but to understand the world in which they happened, some kind of back story would have been welcome.
Conflict, Time, Photography is unfortunately finished. Human Rights, Human Wrongs is on at The Photographers’ Gallery until 6 April 2015. Copyright Disclaimer: I do not own any of the images published in this article.