Study Visit Review: Conflict Time Photography

Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. 2012 Ursula Schulz-Dornburg

Students from far and wide attended this… shall we say mixed exhibition at the Tate Modern. A few had already seen it, yet visiting it on mass generated some interesting dialogues throughout which carried on to the large group discussion at the end.

With work from photographers such as McCullin, Norfolk, Schmidt, Shore, and Tomatsu, you were assured to see some dramatic and moving images. However, it seemed like the focus of the exhibition was not so much about the strength of the individuals pieces but more so the curatorial consideration.

In the show there is no obvious placement or categorisation of the work, no chronological flow of the images in terms of when they were taken. Instead, throughout the ten rooms the images have been arranged according to their ‘lateness’. It is the passing of time that is the focus, the duration between the points of incident and when the scene has been captured that is the reflective element.

The exhibition starts with a room titled ‘Moments Later’; straight away you are confronted with Don McCullin’s iconic image, the ‘Shell shocked US marine’ from Vietnam. This tender image of human emotion is juxtaposed with the somewhat delicate vista ‘Ambush, Ramadi‘ by Luc Delahaye of a street scene that is covered in dust and debris from a terrorist bomb attack in Iraq. You would think that these images set the tone of what is to follow, but the exhibition is largely devoid of the graphical tone of modern visual journalism that we are desensitised to in today’s media.

There are battles of old and recent conflicts, international confrontations and regional skirmishes all fused together. There are eras and events that hold more dominance in the show, like with Sophie Ristelhueber’s series ‘Fait’ that consist of mixed aerial and ground shots of the Kuwait desert. Displayed in a grid from the floor to nearly the ceiling you walk into the room and are almost overwhelmed by the presence of them. Perhaps this was the intention, yet it was about here that I felt a little disconnected with the theme and notion of the show being about time.

These grand displays of key moments in our violent history are however complimented with interesting documentaries that lie on the periphery of being captured with a ‘late’ intention. There are series that almost hold no poignant singular moment, but are associated with the conflicts of that particular period. Ursula Schulz-Dornburg’s work, the ‘Architecture of a Nuclear test Site’ shows the remains of buildings from a former USSR nuclear testing site in Kazakhstan that have witnessed the destructive release of power that took place between 1949 – 1991. Schulz-Dornburg produced the work in 2012; does this date hold any significance, or was it the first time anyone could gain access to this scarred and surreal landscape.

With the work in the final room, which is marked as ‘85-100 Years Later’, you are entirely reliant on the text in being an important key in decoding the images. Two pieces of work that stand out are Chloe Dewe Matthew’s ‘Shot At Dawn’ and Hrair Sarkissian’s ‘Istory’.

With ‘Shot At Dawn’ the work explores the sites where world war one soldiers were executed for cowardice. When looking at these subdued and almost monochromatic shots there is no strong obvious compositional element that holds your attention; but once the gravitas of what has transpired settles in, you start to piece together a cold and long narrative that took place almost a 100 years ago. But without that defining text you could be looking at a scene that has witnessed numerous events over the years, both horrific and beautiful.

Now Sarkissiann’s ‘Istory’ catalogues the history sections in public and private libraries in Istanbul, recording the records of an old empire. I’ll admit, that at the exhibition my mind was focused on work that exhibited strong notions of aftermath and its revealing visual evidence; so I gave this series a sweeping glance. However I feel compelled to revisit this work, as the rich layering, although subtle, is very interesting. By photographing the physical records and documents it gives realism to the data that in our digital age almost seems lost. Though, its inclusion in the show, I feel is a little tenuous and did not encapsulate the themes and visual presence of the other works on display.

Overall I viewed ‘Conflict Time Photography’ quite positively, although I would not look at it as one successful show, but a collection of smaller exhibitions, with some being quite unconvincing in their representation of the titles suggestive themes.


  1. Alan 9 February 2015 at 3:12 pm

    Ironically I went to see Public Image Ltd on the same day as this exhibition, a famous quote from John Lydon sprang to mind; ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’. All the way through the exhibition I was acutely aware of a financial exchange having been made at the start. That said, the helmet converted to a colander was good!

  2. Vicki M 9 February 2015 at 6:53 pm

    My feeling with many of the Tate Modern photography exhibitions is that somehow the curator feels the need to fill the immense space available to them—and the result is gargantuan exhibitions which often overwhelm—this one did the same to me. There were highlights—seeing the McCullin image referenced above was particularly moving. It was a chance to get up close and personal with the image. I’d seen it before at the Imperial War Museum in McCullin’s “Shaped by War” exhibition, but the sheer size of it at the Tate made me feel differently about it.

    Some reviews I’ve read have suggested that the entire exhibition may have worked better if the chronology had been in reverse order—we’ll never know. But towards the end, I felt tired and jaded. Fewer exhibits, stronger ties/flow may have made it work.

    Peter has an interesting thread going about curation on the OCA student site—maybe some comments there about the curation of this show would cause interesting discussion?

  3. Dave 15 February 2015 at 9:01 am

    I found it really involving, couldn’t believe the time went so fast whilst we were in there and for once the catalogue/guide was very good value for money. I thought the time line idea made you consider the long term impact of conflict, as we are all very familiar with the immediate impact through news media.

    I’d like to say thanks to Sharon for stepping in at the last minute and both tutors for promoting discussion and insight. Good move on getting the meeting room at the end.


    1. Russell Squires 8 March 2015 at 10:25 pm

      Nice shot, you caught me just about to fill my mouth with some pastry… 😉


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