Conflict Time Photography: A Review

I recently attended an exhibition at the Tate Modern called Conflict Time Photography, which I think is worth a visit for any followers of this blog. It is an exhibition of photographs and artefacts from conflict, with a clever twist: they document the period following the conflict under discussion. As such they vary from photographs taken minutes after the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, through to 99 years after World War I soldiers were executed in a field by their own compatriots. There are many haunting photographs, though few thankfully are particularly gruesome.

The exhibition is cleverly laid out. It starts in a room called ‘Moments Later’ which features photographs such as the haunting picture of a shell-shocked Marine, taken during the Vietnam war, as shown below. The photographs each feature a caption which explains the context.

Shell Shocked US Marine, The Battle of Hue 1968. © Don McCullin

Shell Shocked US Marine,
The Battle of Hue 1968.
© Don McCullin

As you progress around the exhibition you come further forward in time from the featured conflicts, until you end up in the last room, ’85-100 Years Later’. This room features four photographs taken in 2013 of the execution sites of deserting World War I soldiers.

There are many conflicts covered, including:

  • World War II, including the devastation of Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Normandy defences and the holocaust
  • The war in Lebanon
  • The Congo
  • The first and second Iraq wars
  • Afghanistan
  • Libya
  • Namibia
  • The Cold War, including the partition of Berlin
  • Crimea
  • The American Civil War
  • Armenia
  • The Spanish Civil War
  • Northern Ireland
  • Angola
  • Nicaragua
  • Vietnam
  • Bosnia

The exhibition documents the aftermath of the worst of human atrocities against fellow humans, from the use of indiscriminate bombing of civilians (Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Aqa Ali-Khuja, etc.) through to targeted genocide in Bosnia.

This video here narrated by Dan Snow gives a brief tour of the exhibition, which is on until March 15th at the Tate Modern. It is a depressing experience, but I urge everyone to go to see it.

The only criticism I have of this exhibition is that it ignores the elephant in the room: the state. Violence by individuals or gangs cannot rival the state’s ability to wage war against local or foreign populations. This exhibition is really a testament to the violence that the state’s authority is built upon. This is demonstrated by the photograph below, which shows a devastated Dresden, where around 25,000 people perished in the bombing raid and subsequent firestorms.

Dresden After Allied Raids, Germany 1945  © SLUB Dresden / Deutsche Fotothek / Richard Peter, sen.

Dresden After Allied Raids, Germany 1945
© SLUB Dresden / Deutsche Fotothek / Richard Peter, sen.

As Kurt Vonnegut’s famous experience in the fire-bombing of Dresden is used early in this exhibition, as well as becoming the basis for his famous book Slaughterhouse Five, it is fitting to use the sign-off he used on texts and essays for the rest of his life:

PEACE.

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