Fragments of History

Simon Norfolk, The North Gate of Baghdad (After Corot), from the Scenes for a Liberated Iraq series, 2003

Nigerian-born Simon Norfolk’s simultaneously unsettling and incredibly beautiful photograph depicts the north gate of Baghdad. The photograph was taken about ten days after the statue of Saddam Hussein came down. As an attempt to connect himself with the Babylonian kings, Hussein built these fake Babylonian ruins on the main roads into town. Apparently the arch is tiled, but looking under the tiles, the actual material of the structure, concrete, is visible. The reaching trees in the photograph resemble the impressionist paintings Corot, Poussin, or Claude Lorrain. “It looks like a painting–but this is a place in Iraq where people were slaughtered,” Norfolk says.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, The Saints Forest, 2005

Luc Delahay, Jenin Refugee Camp, 2002

Susan Meiselas, “Cuesta del Plomo,” Managua, Nicaragua, 1978

Susan Meiselas, Families return to the ruins of their homes after the Iraqi army forced them to leave in 1989, Qala Diza, Northern Iraq, 1991

For decades, critiques of documentary practice have been central to debates in photography. Our impression of the ways of life and events of the world, to a great extent, depends on methods and choices of representation and eventually the spectacle media provides within the circulation of images. In this regard, the two poles defining the spectrum of possible representations of war would be rhetoric of reportage and the rhetoric of the metaphorical.

By concentrating on the anti-reportage approach, contemporary photographers have utilized to attest to the turmoil of war. The images above reveal how a complex political situation can be addressed outside the tradition of documentary photojournalism. How does our perception of war alter if we only see “precursor signs” or “traces” rather than the “faces”?

The selected photographs project the shift from the study of image-making that suggests the loss of the documentary power of the medium to a specific form of practice which exploits conceptual strategies to maintain the social relevance of the photograph. In an attempt to apply the aesthetic rules to documentary, the immediate capture of circumstances as a reaction to what is ostensibly the archetypical subject of photojournalism is replaced with a contemplative manner.

The photographs elevate the events above the issues of the day as such the photographer sees the event becoming history in his/her lens. The use of medium and large format cameras instead of 35mm format at the sites of war has also contributed to the creation of these allegorical tableau photographs: slowing down the process, remaining out of the hub of action, and arriving after the decisive moment.

These historical tableaux make the materiality of traumatic recent history strongly resonant and haunting, as Val Williams articulates, “creating deeply melancholic documents which looks at the ways in which the human condition is dominated by blind faith, by the accidental, by fragments of meaning.”

Sina Haghani, ICP-Bard MFA 2012

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