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War’s long half-life

Photographs of the aftermath at Tate Modern

Simon Willis | November 28th 2014

“Conflict, Time, Photography”, which has just opened at Tate Modern, begins shortly after a big bang. On the wall as you go in, there’s a large photo of rural Afghanistan by Luc Delahaye, with flat dry fields, low mud buildings and mountains in the background. In the middle of the picture a cloud from an explosion hangs in the air: an American bomb dropped on Taliban positions. The explosion itself is dispersing and the scene is recovering its calm. As in every picture in the exhibition, something violent has already happened. This isn’t a show about the clamour and crash of war itself, but the atmospheric disturbances and deafening silences that follow.

As you move through the rooms, that silence becomes more and more insidious. The show is organised chronologically, although not in the usual sense. With each room, the photographs are separated from the events they relate to by longer and longer stretches of time. At first it is a matter of seconds. Delahaye is joined at the beginning by Toshio Fukada, who captured the mushroom cloud blasting into the sky at Hiroshima in 1945. Seconds then turn into minutes, with Don McCullin's famous portrait of the American marine in Vietnam with the thousand-yard stare, frozen by what's just happened. Minutes then become months, months become years, and by the time we get to Chloe Dewe Mathews' photographs at the end we're looking back a whole century. Her subjects are fields and woodland in Flanders on hushed winter mornings, at the exact spots where soldiers were executed for cowardice during the first world war—a suite of chilling memorials. 

Mathews' pictures show us the aftermath as a series of grim particulars, where the precondition for remembering is knowing exactly what happened, to whom, where and when. You see it too in Taryn Simon's piece about the massacre at Srebenica in 1995, which is full of rigour and restraint. In a large frame she has arranged photographs of people from the same blood line alongside the evidence of lost lives: portraits of an old man and woman, and then photos of a small skeleton, a single tooth and a shard of bone—the remains of their men and boys sifted from the grave. Elsewhere even less is left over. A set of pictures taken in the Eighties and Nineties by Hiromi Tsuchida show simple objects from Hiroshima. There's a metal lunch box with carbonised peas and rice still inside, a torn jacket, a small glass lens. The belongings remained, the bodies did not.

Fragments, though, aren't just subjects; they are organising principles. In room after room you see photographers working with large collections of images gathered into one work, which gives you a feeling for the sheer extent of the damage, of obsessive retrospection and of brokenness. The French photographer Sophie Ristelhueber, who gets a room to herself, went to Iraq in the months after the first Gulf war for her project "Fait" (1991), which mixes aerial shots of tank tracks in the sand and burning oil fields with close-ups of used ordnance, broken boots and the remains of blown-up vehicles—debris great and small wherever you look. In Diana Matar's series about Libya after the fall of Qaddafi, the power comes from what you can't see or what remains hidden. There's the causeway that led to the torture chambers in Benghazi—presumably behind the faceless concrete doorways—and a simple shot of the Mediterranean, into which Qadaffi's henchmen threw powdered bones. They are pictures with a searching sense of violence which has been secreted away.

In the end, what is most potent is the idea of war's long half-life. Often that is horribly literal: the bodily scars on the faces of burned men and women photographed decades after the bombing of Nagasaki, or the white-eyed faces of blind children in Hiroshima. We see the architectural scars, too, like the wide open wounds in Berlin shot in 1980 by Michael Schmidt. But what the exhibition gives off most powerfully is the stink of war as a pollutant which can hang for decades over a stretch of water or a tranquil grove of trees, radiating unease.

Conflict, Time, Photography Tate Modern, London, to March 15th

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