wed 30/09/2020

Burke + Norfolk: Photographs From the War in Afghanistan, Tate Modern | reviews, news & interviews

Burke + Norfolk: Photographs From the War in Afghanistan, Tate Modern

Burke + Norfolk: Photographs From the War in Afghanistan, Tate Modern

Photographs taken 120 years apart ask age-old questions

How easy is it to stage a dialogue between two artists when they are, in fact, separated by over a century? And is it really an artistic conversation that takes place or merely an imposition of values by the living over the dead? This pertinent question confronts the viewer in an exhibition of two photographers of war-torn Afghanistan. The first, John Burke, took sepia-toned documentary photographs of the second Anglo-Afghan war, from 1878 to 1880 (the first having taken place in 1839-1842), while the second, Simon Norfolk, takes artfully constructed contemporary photographs that blur the boundaries between art photography and documentary.

Norfolk first took pictures of Afghanistan soon after the UN-backed invasion of 2001. He returned last year, when all the pictures here were taken. In a film at the start of this exhibition, which takes place in Tate Modern’s Level Two Gallery – a space the Tate promotes as a focus for “experimental ideas and collaborations” – Norfolk explains his affinities with the forgotten Irish-born photographer: they were the same age when they first both visited Afghanistan and he feels certain that Burke, as an Irishman, must have felt a certain kinship, just as he does, with a people crushed by the great imperialist wheel of the British Empire.

However, such a kinship isn’t exactly evidenced by Burke’s stilted group portraits. These portraits, of labourers and landholders, members of the Afghan military and ordinary Afghan women, each with rigid faces turned to an unremittingly long-exposure lens, do little to draw you in with either speculative curiosity or empathy. Though they undoubtedly have historical interest – they are among the first images, perhaps the very first, ever taken of the country and its people – they are, one would surely have to admit, uniformly dull.

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Pictured above: Jellallabad [sic], the main street showing covered bazaar, 1879 (© Kodak Collection/NMeM/Science & Society Picture Library)

Doing nothing to break free of the conventions of Victorian ethnographic photography, the grainy prints also lack the clarity to do justice to these huddled groups: with their grainy, imprecise features, we cannot view these individuals as anything other than indistinct types, and not particularly interesting indistinct types. In other words, though they epitomise the “other”, and thus deflect engagement, the depictions are resolutely prosaic rather than exoticised.

Norfolk, in turn, seeks to replicate these images, carefully stage-managing his sitters’ poses. He tells his closely clustered groups exactly how to sit and where to look. Using members of the US and British military as well as ordinary Afghan citizens – stiffly posed members of an Afghan women’s basketball team, Western members of the diplomatic service with their carefully concealing clothes, US troops in a pose that might suggest a painting brimming with the patriotic fervour of the American Civil War – Norfolk recreates these Victorian ethnographic images.

Although they offer an ironic comment about depictions of the “other”, they - perhaps necessarily, though frustratingly - give little insight into what it might actually be like being a US soldier in the desert, or a member of the women’s Afghan basketball team, or a civil servant in an inhospitable environment. We are struck by Norfolk’s gift at composition, but these are still portraits without any sense of a natural group dynamic. These sitters could be actors.

Norfolk clearly feels these are not tales he wants or needs to tell. He explains that his photographs are an expression of disappointment: he sees a country laid to waste by 10 years of futile occupation, and he sees the violent imposition of imperialist values. For him, this is no less than a continuation of the war that was fought in Burke’s time. Yet by appropriating Burke in his single-minded project, Norfolk's imposes his own imperial will upon his silent "collaborator".

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And yet they are not just expressions of disappointment. Many of Norfolk’s landscape pictures are extraordinary in their arresting beauty. Taken either at dawn or dusk, the light is ethereal, and often we find a veil of misty blue cast over this vast landscape. (Pictured above: Afghan Police receiving shooting training from US Marines, Camp Leatherneck, Helmand 2010 © Simon Norfolk.) Colours are heightened, and there is a sense of disquieting stillness, a sense of timelessness, even when it’s just an image of a pizza shack, an arrangement of boxes, a ferris wheel, or a security guard’s booth with its prison-like bars.

The large-scale pictures are the most arresting: a desolate, snow-covered cemetery with a scattering of disused huts; a panoramic vista, shot from above and saturated in that bluish light, our eye picking out details of the craggy landscape. Everywhere we witness Norfolk’s sharp antennae for patterns, repetition, rhythm – we follow a snaking line of troops marching through the desert and their metal helmets undulate like scales in a musical score.

But even this visual appeal is forcefully dismissed as necessary ammunition in conveying Norfolk’s political message: if the images are beautiful, then people will listen to what these images really have to say. And the exhibition does indeed flounder as a conversation between two artists. Each is speaking a language foreign to the other, after all. Moreover, Norfolk’s greater talent contrives further to silence a photographer who was not particularly eloquent in the first place. However, what the arrested dialogue does manage to do is bring Norfolk’s singular talent into sharper relief.

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Comments

Great piece, I'm interested to go see this display and the contrast between the two artists.

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