The Present in the Past and in the Future: On the Exhibition Conflict.Time.Photography

Author│Tai, Ying-Hsuan 2015/04/30
Translator│Wang, Sheng-Chih


It was a dozen of hours before the end of 2014 when I began to write the first paragraph of this article. Every year at this time, I tend to review and reflect on the photos and videos shot in the past year, through which my memories of the happenings in the past year rush back to me. Image resembles a vessel made of time. It contains not only memories but also our present attitude towards the past and even the future.

2014 was a year of “anniversaries” of several major events in the history. Firstly, it was the centennial of the First World War on 11 November. The tower of London was adorned with eight hundred thousands of ceramic poppy flowers, and each represented a victim of the war. People also wore poppy flower brooches to commemorate those who lost their lives in the great war. Secondly, it was the seventieth anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy on 6 June. This operation was the key to the allies’ victory in Europe. Germany occupied most of the countries on the European continent at that time. The allies’ forces advanced from the bases along the south coast of England to Normandy, France, wherefrom German forces were gradually repulsed and ended in defeat. Thirdly, it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 7 November. The Germans marked the original location of the wall with balloon lights stretching for fifteen kilometers to commemorate this historic event.

In fact, there are many uses of the innumerable opportunities a modern life supplies for regarding—at a distance, through the medium of photography—other people’s pain
─Susan Sontag

Sontag elaborated on the relationship between war and image in her book Regarding the Pain of Others by treating Virginia Woolf’s reflection on the cause of war as the central theme. “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” A London-based lawyer raised this question to Woolf in a letter regarding the Francoist Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1939-1975). Woolf did not reply this question until several years later in her book Three Guineas. She not only mentioned her feelings evoked by the photos of war scenes, but also proposed a hypothetic common experience, that is, the viewers astonished by the gruesome scenes may feel deeply compassionate for the victims. As far as the viewers are concerned, the realities recorded by photos are absolutely harsh and painful. They cannot refrain from imagining that some people at somewhere are suffering. The war photographers who took these photos are the only “spectators” who witnessed these cruelties. They owe the obligation of shooting “realities” to the whole world.1

News photography emerged in the 1940s during the Second World War. War photographers revealed the true colors of wars to the public by virtue of images. They were famed for their great valor. No one is more renowned than Robert Capa as a war photographer. He had photographed the Spanish Civil War, the Invasion of Normandy, the first Middle East War, and the First Indochina War. The photo Fallen Republican Soldier is Capa’s most famous work which captured the “moment” when a soldier was shot during the Spanish Civil War. These stunning images that recorded conflicts and wars not only serve as a mine of information but also leave us with impressions of compressed historic events.

Time has been an indispensable component of photography, since a photographic image per se is a powerful incarnation of time. With regard to photography and time, Tate Modern staged a retrospective exhibition titled Conflict.Time.Photography at the end of 2014. This exhibition ingeniously traced more than 150 years of conflicts in the world occurred after the invention of photography, displaying the scenes of conflicts and the concomitant destruction, survival, and reconstruction captured by camera lenses. It featured not so much the comprehensive review of war photography as the efflux of time and the relationship between photography and the time-points when the conflicts erupted. This exhibition was distinctive for its flashback-based arrangement of the photos. In other words, each photo was categorized according to the time span between the time-point when the event took place and that when the photo was created, such as instant, days, weeks, years, and decades, which was an approach rarely employed in other chronicle- or timeline-based photography exhibitions.

The category of Moments Later prefaced this exhibition, which encompassed a riotous profusion of instant images ranging from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima to the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. It was the only category that represented “the present” of events in this exhibition. Toshio Fukada photographed the scene after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. At that time, he was a student who worked at an arms depot located a miles away from the detonation point. He ran to the second floor of a building and photographed this horrifying moment when the mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb covered the sky. The viewers may tremble with fear when seeing “the present” captured by the camera and feel a tremendous sense of awe at the beauty of this image. War photographers tend to manipulate the bloody composition of their works in order to achieve their desired aesthetic effect. It refers not so much to the mise-en-scène of the conflict sites as to the demonstration of photographic skills. The photo taken by Fukada in the immediate aftermath (less than twenty minutes) of the explosion showed an unexpected aesthetic quality because of its impeccable composition that focused on the variation of the mushroom cloud layers. Generally speaking, the visual appeal of this photo downplayed its moral implication. Besides, the caption of “mushroom cloud” closely paralleled those in Western mainstream media, because the aesthetically pleasing visual code varnished the ugliness of war.2

(Right) Toshio Fukada, The Mushroom Cloud-Less than twenty minutes after the explosion, 1945
(Left) Don McCullin, Shell-shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue, 1968 (source: the official website of Tate Modern)

The category of Moments Later concerned over the “now and here” of events. The categories of the follow-up weeks, months and years focused on how people coped with the aftermath of war, including the post-war reconstruction, the lives of the war survivors, and the ways as to how photographers recorded the scenes of conflicts. These photos vividly revealed the psychological traumas of the people who had suffered during the war years. These photos were as aesthetically appealing as Fukada’s The Mushroom Cloud: Less than twenty minutes after the explosion, while the last three categories – 92 Years Later, 96 Years Later, and 99 Years Later – were more imagination-inspiring. The three categories contained the photos taken by contemporary photographers on the war scenes almost a century later.

99 years after the outbreak of the First World War, British photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews photographed the place where British, French and Belgian deserters were executed by the British Army during the war. The first deserted soldier being executed there was a 17-year-old youth named Thomas. The prolonged suffering in war became unbearable for many soldiers who therefore deserted before a battle. The British Army had executed more than three hundred soldiers by shooting during the war years. The execution regularly took place at dawn, which was why the photographer titled this series as Shot at Dawn. The photographer spent two years on finishing this series. It visually reminded us of the tragic story with a subtle touch of tranquility. To create this series, the photographer systematically recorded every location of execution. Different from the bloody “gun-shot” 99 years ago, the “shot” in this series referred to the clicking of the camera shutter. The photographed moments seemed to become an alternative commemoration and a sacred ritual that summoned the ghosts of those soldiers who were unable to speak of their bitter suffering. Shot at Dawn represented the story unfolded in that time and space, setting us out on an inner spiritual journey on the eve of the centennial of the First World War.

Chloe Dewe Mathews, Shot at Dawn, 2013 (source: personal website of the photographer)

The exhibition Conflict.Time.Photography delicately arranged “the true present” and “the imaginary present” respectively at its outset and its coda in an attempt of reviewing the wars and conflicts occurred throughout the past 150 years by virtue of the locations and the moments captured by the photographers’ camera lenses. Time and history have long been the vital issues addressed by photographic theories. The intricate relationships between photography and the two issues are indeed worth our contemplation. Photographs count as a type of historical documents, since they constitute a wealth of information for us to remember and imagine the past events at the same time. The images per se further give photographs additional aesthetic quality. In this sense, this large-scale exhibition of photography ingeniously presented the exhibited works in a post-event context, which was climaxed by the contrast between Moments Later and 99 Years Later. The photos in the former category may be classified as war photographs, while Mathews’ works belong to the systematically pre-arranged photography. By way of comparison, these images commonly reflected the silence and tranquility that inspired awe among the viewers, and therefore seemed equally fascinating in result yet different in approach.

These exhibited images carried the viewers on a fantastic journey through a hundred years of “the present” in Tate Modern. However, the Internet-based media and social network services have dramatically accelerated the distribution and circulation of news and information with the feature of instantaneity, which makes yesterday the “moment later.” Conflict, time, and photography alternate with one another rapidly. The stunning images taken every day seamlessly combines “reviewing the past” with “envisioning the future” without the need of waiting for 99 years. As a consequence, “the imaginary present” is turned into “the true present” in the blink of an eye, which further compresses the timeline of our memories.

While people around world held celebrations in 2014 to review and commemorate the anniversaries of historic events, they seemed never acting upon any lesson they might have drawn from these tragic histories. The old demons of Cold War confrontations returned with the Ukrainian crisis. The Middle East remained in turmoil, and the fifty-day armed conflict in the Gaza Strip caused heavy civilian casualties. The Islam State (IS) has grown in strength after four years of the Syrian Civil War. The U.S.-led allied forces launched punitive air raids against the IS, and the leaders of many countries also pledged their support to the campaign. Many self-proclaimed jihadists have joined the warfare of the IS, and turned their blind fury on the Occident. This unpredictable political and military entity has revolted in many places since the end of 2014, which not only constitutes a real security threat to other countries but also exacerbates the tensions between Islamic and Christian civilizations.

Another terrorist attack happened in Paris, France during the days when this article was finished. The gunmen forced their way into the offices of the French weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris and killed twelve people, putting people on tenterhooks. We may predict the future by reviewing history, yet people have never learned anything from history. The possibility of total wars has been reduced, while the protean terrorist threats have become a thorny issue against which it is impossible to take precautions. Even though we keep erecting monuments for the victims of wars, we are still trapped in a world of ceaseless conflict, from which escape is nowhere on the horizon.

1. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).
2. Peter B. Hales, “The Atomic Sublime,” American Studies, vol. 32, no. 1 (spring 1991).