Conflict-Time-Photography – Tate Modern

Wars and battles leave long-lasting impressions not just on the people involved but also on the land in which they take place. And that effect varies from conflict to conflict or from country to country. Go back to northern France now and those inhuman trench systems and up-churned piles of earth that were ‘visions of hell’ for servicemen in the First World War, are now ordinary fields, as though nothing ever happened. This broad-ranging exhibition at the Tate Modern takes you on a walk through the effects of conflict from moments after events occur to the weeks, months and decades that follow.  The concept is a very interesting and unusual one which could give interesting insight into the process of recovery and reconstruction, but sadly this exhibition’s lack of focus falls short on meaning.

Let’s start with the positives. The idea is a good one, showing how the effect of war continues, dissipates and / or becomes fundamentally bound-up with subsequent conflicts is an important tool to understand why countries look the way they do today. And to use photography as a way to document that process, making it social commentary, political insight and a form of artistic expression, can really bring these effects to life for the viewer. A lot of the pictures are also very beautiful, which somehow seems quite wrong given their subject matter. Simon Norfolk’s images of Afghanistan, also on show at the Barbican’s Constructing World’s, are truly beautiful capturing a light and sky reminiscent of Constable. A few rooms in, and Sophie Ristelhueber’s pictures fill the room from floor to ceiling with images of the debris of war months later. It’s overwhelming in one sense, yet the display balances perspectives and scale placing long aerial shots of ramparts next to close-ups of broken machinery scattered across the desert. She also mixes the military with the personal with touching shots of civilian blankets, long abandoned, dangling into craters and covered in dust – a stark reminder of the displacement of war.

The diversity of this collection is interesting in one sense, encouraging you to think about the enormous number of wars in the past hundred years as well as the experience of those living with the varied long-term consequences of conflict afterwards. But the down-side is that diversity loosens the focus. Most people won’t know enough about all the conflicts represented here to find the odd picture of them at all insightful, and it’s impossible to draw meaningful allusions between the various conflicts on offer. 9 months after Hiroshima, 9 months after the American Civil War and 9 months after Afghanistan are not the same thing. Partly that’s because the context is so different in both these cases and partly because the nature of warfare today is not the same as it was even 70 years ago. Technology has played a huge role in disrupting traditional forms of warfare and in some cases actually removing the individual from the combat moment. These photos don’t tell you anything about that changing nature of warfare, except that it has long-lasting effects, which we know. It’s rather disingenuous of the Tate to even suggest that any of these conflicts are the same, have the same effects or heal at the same rate – just looking at the images all herded together as ‘9 months later’ or ‘10 years later’ shows that they clearly don’t. Perhaps they should have offset this by adding information boards explaining why these conflicts were chosen for each section and what they’re supposed to have in common (if anything) x-number of years later.

One other point of caution here is that almost all of these photos are taken by people not involved in the conflict, giving it a more documentary feel. Had it included more images taken by combatants or civilians caught up in these events, then at least the Tate could make some interesting points about the lasting effects of conflict and how some people spend the rest of their lives searching for meaning. There is a considerable difference between the social effects of conflict on individuals which can last generations, and political expediency which sees formally warring nations trading again within a very short time-frame, which this exhibition makes no account for.

And, I’ve made this point before, but where were the depictions of the UK’s experience of war; there may not have been recent land warfare here but the effects of aerial bombardment have had a considerable effect on the social and geographical make-up of the ensuing years. The creation of social housing projects and the great glass skyscrapers that dominate the London skyline are arguable an enormous part of the regeneration process since the two World Wars.  There are more than 10 rooms of photographs here, with one entirely devoted to Berlin, so surely a couple of snaps of the capital could have been squeezed in for local relevance.

It would have given the exhibition greater focus had it confined itself to covering a smaller number of conflicts and then attempting to show their change over time. Then you would be able to draw a clear developmental line from moments to years later, while simultaneously comparing that with the rate of progress / effects of other wars. The Tate, given its hefty ticket prices this year, could also have commissioned some original photography and sent someone to all those battle sites now. How powerful would a shot of the Last Post played at Ypres on 4 August 2014 have been as an ending to this? The art critics may have loved this but as it stands, and despite the beautiful pictures, all this exhibition has to say is that wars are messy and their consequences last a long time. For anyone growing up in Britain alone, the effect of conflict is all around us, and most of it is far older than the 100 year glance back offered here. Look at the Roman roads, the people with Anglo Saxon genetic heritage, and the castles that have stood for almost a thousand years, that’s over two millennia of conflict history, still standing. So yes the effects of war last a long time, and you don’t have to pay £14.50 to find that out.

Conflict-Time-Photography is at the Tate Modern until 15 March 2015. Tickets start at £14.50 (£13.10 without donation) and a concession price is available.


About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 350 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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