My reflections this week are about my photographic approach to ‘aftermath’.
Christian Schwager, a Swiss photographer, made a series My Lovely Bosnia (2003 – 2005), around the still-present land mines in the landscape.
Some of the images are specifically illustrating the landmines ‘in situ’, with demarcated areas for clearing. Others show the beautiful countryside. The overall effect is engaging, almost poetic, leading the viewer to consider the impact of war on landscape.
Somehow, though, I feel the need to be closer, to make the viewing more personal, from the viewpoint of the local inhabitants. At times, Schwager’s work is more indexical (and less personal / intimate) than I am striving for.
Christian Schwager, My Lovely Bosnia, 2003-2005
Almost at the opposite extreme, Adam Broomberg and Olivier Chanarin created a series on The Red House a prison and torture facility for the Baath Regime in Iraq, in 2006. They focused on the graffiti.
This is very much in the ‘traces’ genre that I am exploring. Again, engaging, and also more personal. Who were the people that made this graffiti, and what happened to them? Yet, somehow it lacks the context of the prison. Taken out of that context, some of the images could be almost anywhere. I am also aiming to tell more of a story, without falling foul of ‘photographic storyboarding’.
Adam Broomberg and Olivier Chanarin, Red House, 2006
Sophie Ristelhueber in some ways ‘defined’ the concept of Aftermath photography, with her work in Iraq, in 1991, published in Fait. Her work is compelling, moving from large scale to close in, from aerial to details on the ground. taken together, the work has a clear narrative. However, whilst graphically strong and with a very clear narrative, again I find this somewhat observational.
I am seeking to create a body of work which somehow connotes the individuals involved in a more direct fashion.
Sophie Ristelhueber, Fait, 1991, images #44 and #46
I also find Paul Seawright‘s Hidden work inspirational. His clean, simple aesthetic examining a response to the war in Afghanistan (2001, commissioned by the Imperial War Museum) exhibits a subtly complex approach to narrative and image making.
His image Valley also seems to reference Fenton’s classic photograph, putting this modern conflict into historic context.
Paul Seawright, Valley, 2001
Roger Fenton, Valley of Shadow of Death, 1855
Willie Doherty‘s work is also very relevant, as he covers a range of imagery, depending on the project. This includes landscape, urban, details and the combination of words and images. I find his eclectic approach instructive, and each series always has a very clear ‘photographic language’.
This subdivision of the overall body of work into appropriate sub-series could be a key to my Final Project.
All of these exemplars are inspirational, with strengths and weaknesses in my view, as noted.
I also find that part of my challenge with the Cambodian work is the time that has passed after the Genocide.
On one hand, examples of the physical impact on the land of the war and the genocide have to some extent disappeared. For example, most mines have been cleared today (I do have old images of this), although shallow graves still are visible in many places.
Preah Vihear, 2004
And, on the other hand, the artefacts of that time are generally housed in museums (Tuol Sleng, for example) and can fall foul of ‘dark tourist’ interpretations.
Tuol Sleng, 2018
So, in parallel with the more overt, narrative (and people-oriented) documentary work, I am pursuing a dual strategy on ‘aftermath’. In my recent visit to Cambodia, I shot against these strategies.
First, negative traces, using digital negatives, and as exhibited in Landings. I would consider these to be ‘contextual abstractions’.
And, second, walking in the woods, details in the forests, to create a modern-day narrative.
I have been discussing this with Cemre, and her comments on more ruthless editing were well taken. In particular, she warned of making Sarath some kind of ‘anchorman’ in my work. Whilst a large part of the motivation in this project is to tell his and other’s stories, that should not be part of every photographic series. In fact, using video is probably a better strategy to tell individual stories – hence my comment about not simply ‘story boarding’ these with still photographs.
The ‘aftermath’ work may well be best executed with implications of people rather than direct documentary imagery.
HERSCHDORFER, Natalie. 2011. Afterwards. London: Thames & Hudson.
RISTELHUEBER, Sophie & MAYER, Marc & LaADD, Jeffrey. 2009. Sophie Ristelhueber: Fait (Books on Books). New York: Errata.
SCHWAGER, Christian. 2007. My Lovely Bosnia. Zürich: Edition Patrick Frey.