Study Visit: Current Conflicts

I was not really sure what to expect from this study visit. The cover picture on the entry on WeAreOCA appeared to be of a soldier asleep, grabbing a few moments rest from the stress of warfare, the description spoke about the constancy of war, the essay linked from it had as its subject how the castration of war zone photojournalism has diluted its effectiveness almost to the point where it is merely part of the propaganda machine. What attracted me to the day, however, was the promise of the artist’s talks and the seminar.

The exhibition gave us a view of war from a number of different perspectives. None of the contributors were front line photojournalists but each had a contribution to make. Here is a summary of their exhibits and the talk they gave.

Matthew Andrew – Constructs

Matthew described how his interest in photographic truth has led his photographic journey. He opened with a slide showing this famous photo by Roger Fenton (was it or was it not staged?):

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He then went on to describe some of his staged photos, recognisable objects made from alternative materials. He showed a picture of personnel controlling drones, drawing an analogy to computer war games, then arrived at the subject of his contribution to the exhibition. “Constructs” is a project documenting war games, not the computer kind but real life simulations. He portrays the landscapes and people involved and describes how realistic they can be made to appear. To my untrained eye, they could have been from a front line war correspondent. He pointed out that some of the landscapes can appear boring but have a hidden and subtle meaning.

It was a trigger to consider how endemic war is hardwired into the human psyche, that adults can find war games and simulations so interesting.

Olivia Hollamby – Homefront

Olivia’s contribution was a collaboration with her partner. When he was posted to Afghanistan, she armed him with a camera and gave him a short briefing. He was to photograph his surroundings, simultaneously she was at home photographing his belongings. The result was captivating. She commented on the contrast between his snapshot aesthetic and her more considered staged works. She had published a photobook on the project and this was available for review.

I found, the more I looked at the pictures, the more I was drawn into the concept. As well as the obvious anxiety, there was estrangement on both sides.

Richard Monje – Bullets

Unfortunately Richard was not present to talk through his display of retrieved bullets from Afghanistan. These pictures of distorted ammunition had been photographed to be aesthetically pleasing. Being carefully lit against black backgrounds to an extent hid their brutal purpose and there was some debate about whether this was an effective way of showing them.

Les Monaghan – From the Forest

Les explained how he grew up in a forces environment and decided the regimented, institutional life was not for him. But he explained that you “shoot what you know” and showed us pictures of forces cadets that supported his decision.

In the project “From the Forests”, he followed services personnel on extreme survival training. The prints are very dark, the dark physical space leaves room for the viewer’s mental space.

In his talk he discussed the difference between photography for newspapers, where the subject has to be very obvious, and art photography, where the meaning can be ambiguous.

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Jamie Simonds – In-transit

Jamie is a commercial portrait photographer. It was while he was on his way to his honeymoon that he was grounded for 6 hours in Atlanta airport in company with some US soldiers en route to Iraq and Afghanistan. He only had a compact camera with him, but asked if he could take their portraits with it. The result is a set of pictures of a group of people on a very different journey to his own. Their faces tell their own story.

Jamie explained his approach to portraiture where he typically takes his subject against a plain background. In this respect he is heavily influenced by Rineke Dijkstra. This removal from context places the focus on the subjects and allows them to express themselves better.

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Christopher Down – Visions from Arcadia

Arcadia – a mountainous district in the Peloponnese of southern Greece. In poetic fantasy it represents a pastoral paradise and in Greek mythology it is the home of Pan.

Chris followed three real soldiers, either preparing for a tour or during rest and relaxation breaks. By contrasting these soldiers with idyllic pastoral scenes through four seasons, he is exploring the paradox of trying to obtain peace through war. Stylistically, it is a melding of two genres, landscape and portraiture.

I admit that at the exhibition I did not understand the message, but on researching what Arcadia means, I can now thoroughly connect with it.

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I had two main points to take away from this study visit.

Firstly, it showed that you do not have to be a front line photographer to picture war. There were 6 different photographers, all with something slightly different to say and all providing more background to the act of going to war, and what war can mean. Together, they showed a picture of war that is never reported in the media. At times, this was a much more personal picture, with an impact much closer to home, with a potential to carry more meaning to us who are so distant from the “theatres” of war.

Secondly, I found it most instructive to hear direct from the artists, their thought processes, their work process, explaining how they came to the particular project, what it means to them, what difficulties they faced.

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2 Comments

  1. I think its a good review Chris you’ve got the important bits in there, just looking at my notes in my paper logbook for what I’ve done – I seem to have missed this kind of overview out in favour of writing about my own feelings about selected parts of the work shown, how it seems to communicate with me and why. How it links with my own work. Also I get very interested in the kinds of ways people arrive at making the work they make and how that might link with work I could potentially make myself at some point. I was quite interested in all the diverse kinds of research Christopher Downs had used (mentioned on weareoca) and then how other artists talked about arriving at their work either by chance or by some ongoing intuitive process based on a personal inquiry/interest, or by personal circumstances in their lives. And the context they gave for their work too, I looked up some of that. Its all so interesting though:-)
    Anne

    Reply
    • Anne – Thanks for looking and commenting. This is a brief review which I realise does not really say all that I got from the day but that is because there was so much it’s difficult to verbalise!!! I’m honeslty still digesting it and plan to look at Siegfried’s videos which will help. The suibject matter aside, I found it so helpful to hear how the photographers arrived at the project and the one who resonated most was Mat Andrew. But I can’t explain why yet. I really did not get Chris Down’s contribution at the time but when I came away and researched Arcadia I could see what he was getting at.
      Chris

      Reply

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