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Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern. Photo © Graham Harrison

Don McCullin's photograph of a shell-shocked US marine taken moments after a fire fight during the Vietnam War, part of Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern. Images of war with such insight are rare today. All photos and text © Graham Harrison.

The Trace of a Trace

As the exhibition Conflict Time Photography opens in Essen, Germany after four months at Tate Modern in London, Graham Harrison considers some big prints with obscure titles with the help of The Violence of the Image, a book that examines the impact of war photography on modern society.

“There was a tiny plume of smoke at infinity. There was a battle there. So it goes.” Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five.

“I dropped on my knees and photographed this man. I shot five frames, each one singularly: one, two, three, four, five,” said Don McCullin in the 2012 film McCullin. “There’s not one blink of an eyelid. There’s not one change, all those negatives are exactly the same”.

The veteran war photographer was talking about how he took his iconic picture of a shell-shocked American marine during the battle of Huế in 1968. Huế was the bloodiest battle of the Tet Offensive, a turning point in the Vietnam War. McCullin was in the eye of the storm producing work, he said, that’s “going to hit ‘em hard at the Sunday morning breakfast table”.

McCullin was “so drained, used and crushed by two weeks of people dying that photography didn’t come into the picture,” he said about Huế. “It’s not about photography, it’s about humanity”.

McCullin’s traumatised soldier is extraordinary in its directness and is a rare press photograph in the exhibition Conflict Time Photography which opens at the Museum Folkwang in Essen this week after a four month showing at London’s Tate Modern. The exhibition moves to the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, in Dresden, cradle of the German photographic industry, in July.

In terms of the history of photography the human condition seems all-but forgotten, the personal view diminished but the twin shadows of Marcel Duchamp (anything can be art) and of the Neue Sachlichkeit, the formal realism of 1920s Germany, linger as “Late Photography”, a persistent concept defined in 2003 by writer and artist David Campany in his study Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of “Late Photography”.

Unlike photojournalism, like McCullin’s work, “which records the spectacle of conflict as it happens”, late photography is the “pictorially still depiction of its aftermath”, explains lecturer Justin Carville in the title essay of the book The Violence of the Image: Photography and International Conflict published in 2014. [1]

The Violence of the Image edited by Liam Kennedy and Caitlin Patrick. The cover photograph is The Baloon Seller, Kabul, from Simon Norfolk’s 2001-2 work Afghanistan: Chromotopia which is represented in Conflict Time Photography. In the book Afghanistan: Chromotopia, Norfolk wrote of the “bizarre layering” of different destructive eras in Kabul which reminded him of Schliemann’s discovery of the remains of Troy. “Digging down, Schliemann found nine cities layered upon each other, each one in its turn rebuilt and destroyed,” wrote Norfolk.

Among the exhibits in Conflict Time Photography is a series of large gloomy prints by the British documentary photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews called Shot at Dawn.

Almost a century after the events happened, Dewe Mathews photographed fields and outbuildings and various nondescript sites in Northern France and Belgium – the exact locations, the captions explained – where soldiers were shot for cowardice or desertion during the First World War.

At first light on a day as near as she could manage to the anniversary of these executions, Dewe Mathews positioned herself where the firing squads stood, pointed her camera in the same direction they aimed their rifles and pressed her shutter. 

“Photography has the power to reflect on the passage of time,” writes Chris Dercon, the Director of Tate Modern in the exhibition catalogue, “photographs can sustain deep reflection on moments in the distant past”.

In The Violence of the Image, Justin Carville urges caution. Late photography, writes Carville, “Has become de rigueur for an art world obsessed with global conflict”, its practitioners emphasis on “the trace of a trace” leaving their work so open to interpretation that it has “the potential to result in a collective apathy towards making sense of the political circumstances of conflict.” [2]

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin with ‘People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground’, their 2011 work on found images from the Belfast Exposed archive, Tate Modern, 25 November 2014. Photo © Graham Harrison.


Press freedoms enjoyed by McCullin and his contemporaries during the Vietnam War proved to be an anomaly. So conscious were the US military of the perceived role of the press in their defeat in South East Asia that during the invasion of Grenada in 1983 the Pentagon enforced a total media black out.

The Pentagon Pool – a select group of different media working under the close scrutiny of Public Affairs Officers – fared little better in December 1989 when it was kept out of the US invasion of Panama until the heaviest fighting was over.

Similar restrictions were applied at the start of the Gulf War in 1990 and during US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. During the Iraq War of 2003-11 embedding was the only option for news organisations seeking close-up images of US soldiers in action, an unsatisfactory compromise for journalists looking to provide independent reporting.

Interestingly, in Basra in April 2003, Daily Telegraph photographer Eddie Mulholland, who was working unembedded, found British forces allowed him to take pictures that embedded photographers were not permitted to take. “We also tried to get to Fallujah,” said Mulholland, “the Americans blocked us and then threatened to kill us.”

In 2008 the Deutsche Börse Prize winning art photographers, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin decided the time had come to comment on the practice of embedding. [3]

During the press view at Tate Modern in November 2014, Chanarin, a World Press Photo juror in 2008, spoke of the dangers that the pair encountered in Afghanistan that year while exposing lengths of photographic paper to the sun with the help of British forces. They did not take a camera, said Chanarin, in protest at the restrictions placed on them by the Ministry of Defense.

“We lied to them” to get there admitted Broomberg in an interview published on Chopped Liver, the artists’ web site. “When we got to Afghanistan the whole thing became a performance. But the point is that lying to power is part of the project itself,” Broomberg said. Among the works the artists created was The Press Conference. June 9, 2008. The Day Nobody Died, which at six meters long is the second largest single print in the exhibition. A caption explains the intentions of its creators to the viewer. [4]

Another large print with an obscure title is the work 25-36 by the Polish-born artist Agata Madejska. Further reading reveals the numbers refer to the years 1925 and 1936 between which Canada built a war memorial to its dead of the First World War on Vimy Ridge in Northern France.

Slowly discernible, Madejska’s mist-shrouded memorial echoes a dust-blown scene depicted in an even larger digital print called Ambush, Ramadi, 2006 by French photojournalist-turned-artist Luc Delahaye, which was hung at the beginning of the Tate Modern exhibition. 

In the expanse of Tate Modern, Madjeska’s comment on pictorial space and absence – once understood – succeeds where Delahaye’s work seems lost in transition between photojournalism and art.

Stacked copies of the Conflict Time Photography catalogue at Tate Modern. The traditional colours of mid-twentieth century magazine publishing and photojournalism – black, white and red – accompanied Richard Peter’s famous 1945 photograph of a stone figure high above the devastated city of Dresden on the cover of this twenty-first century Tate Modern publication. Photo © Graham Harrison.


If sublime images “pull something out of the ether of nothingness”, in the words of art photographer Paul Graham (who produced the similarly light-infused series American Night over a decade ago), then the work of photographers from Germany and Japan, coming midway through Conflict Time Photography, give the show an altogether darker, troubled heart. [5]

In a Tarkovskyeske world of decay and memory, the Japanese photographer Kikuji Kawada, now 81, scrutinises the scars left on his homeland by the Second World War and its subsequent occupation by American forces, the first time in history that Japan had been occupied by a foreign power.

Taken primarily in the early 1960s, Kawada’s heavily printed monochrome images brood over litter dropped by the occupying army, stains spreading through the remains of the nuclear dome at Hiroshima and shrines to kamikaze pilots “who’s absolute dedication to a failed state”, the exhibition catalogue tells us, “came to symbolise both pride and futility to the postwar generation”.

On 6 August 1965, exactly twenty years after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Kawada’s photographs were published as The Map, which is recognised by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger as “The ultimate photobook-as-object. Scientific record, memory trace, cultural repository, puzzle and guide”.  [6]

Kawada’s contemporary, Shomei Tomatsu, with images from his book 11:02 Nagasaki, named after the exact moment the atomic bomb exploded above Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, conveys a silent scream of grief that requires no explanation.

If the standing of Kawada and Tomatsu seems certain then the pair Harry Shunk and János Kender were the discovery of the Tate Modern show. The German Shunk and Kender, a refugee from the Hungarian revolution of 1956, documented the contemporary art scene in postwar Paris and New York. Little known until recently, their work, notably the 1960 montage Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, was distributed widely, often uncredited.

Shunk was a recluse and hoarder who’s body remained undiscovered beneath a pile of his accumulated possessions for ten days following his death in his New York apartment in 2006. Kender died in a welfare hospice in 1983.

Their moody series on the Berlin Wall, World Tour, is a gift to the Tate from the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation which saved the Shunk Kender archive in 2013. The sense of menace in World Tour trumps the work of a young Don McCullin who’s crafted prints of Berlin hung opposite at Tate Modern.

Another series on Berlin, Michael Schmidt’s Berlin nacht 45, a document of dead-ends created by the construction of the Wall through the Kreuzberg district of the city where he lived, echos the Barthes observation that “ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks”.

“1+1=3” was the self-taught Schmidt’s way of describing the power of sequenced images. Using a 35 mm camera he shot many pictures on film then edited hard, sometimes years later, to create his photographic narratives.

Michael Schmidt died in 2014, two months before the Sudeten-born film maker and video artist Harun Farocki, who is not represented in the show. However, Conflict Time Photography is dedicated to both artists. They “showed us how to portray and how to remember,” said Tate Modern Director, Chris Derkon at the opening of the exhibition in London.

Courting controversy: The novel Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut in a Perspex case at Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern in London in 2014 and controversial historian David Irving, at the Oxford Union in 2007. Vonnegut mentions Irving by name in his novel and quotes two forewords from Irving’s book The Destruction of Dresden, both of which claimed 135,000 had died as a consequence of the firebombing of the city in 1945. On 7 July 1966, three years before Vonnegut’s book was published, The Times published a letter from Irving in which the historian said he’d “no interest in promoting or perpetrating false legends” and that his Dresden statistic was “falsified, probably in 1945”. At a libel case in London in 2000 the judge said “Irving has, for his own ideological reasons, persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence.” In 2010 the Dresden Historical Commission estimated a likely death-toll of no more than 25,000. Photos © Graham Harrison.


How we remember is an idea explored in the satirical novel Slaughterhouse Five by the American author Kurt Vonnegut. A copy of the book was displayed in a Perspex case at the entrance of the show at Tate Modern like a sacred text.

The premise of Vonnegut’s book turns on the “unsticking of time” caused by the trauma inflicted on the main character by the firebombing of Dresden by British and American air forces in February 1945, which Vonnegut witnessed as a prisoner of war. Vonnegut calls the bombing “the greatest massacre in European history”.

The referencing of Slaughterhouse Five in Conflict Time Photography validates the deliberate non-chronology of the exhibition which jumps backwards and forwards in time like the book. So Delahaye’s ambush, shot moments after an IED explosion in Iraq which is not far from Roger Fenton’s The Valley of the Shadow of Death, taken a couple of months after the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, is at the start of the exhibition and Madejska’s memorial, taken 92 years after the battle of Vimy Ridge, is at its end.

Perhaps a series of early twentieth century photographs of Napoleonic battle sites hung towards the end of Conflict Time Photography would have carried the idea to its logical conclusion. Instead the exhibition ends entirely with recent works by Chloe Dewe Mathews, Agata Madejska and other contemporary photographers.

The shifting perspectives that we do encounter are there to encourage the viewer “to see through the now that it is showing us, into the then that pervades the now and gives it meaning” explains exhibition curator Simon Baker quoting the photographer and editor Leo Rubinfien. [7]

In 1967 Kurt Vonnegut returned to Dresden and, like Kawada in Hiroshima and Tomatsu in Nagasaki, sought ways to describe and explain what had happened there during the war.

They also looked to shed light on why “it was somehow still happening so many years later,” writes Baker. “Each was caught in the slowly diminishing half-lives of the original events.”

Vonnegut’s book was published in 1969, a quarter century after Dresden, as the post-Tet disillusionment over the Vietnam War was undermining America’s commitment to her ally South Vietnam. Slaughterhouse Five became a symbol in the antiwar movement and a statement about another war in which bombs rained down on civilian targets.

The photojournalism of McCullin and of many photographers covering Vietnam made a similar statement.

Simon Baker, Curator of Photography and International Art at Tate and Shoair Mavlian, assistant curator, (beneath Fidel Castro) in the installation Guide For The Protection for the Public in Peacetime, a part of Conflict Time Photography which seemed out of place at Tate Modern. Photo © Graham Harrison.


The opening of Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern on the centenary of the start of the First World War was presented as an act of remembrance. In the vast Eyal Ofer galleries on level 3 the impression for the visitor was at times distant, more like a bomber crew looking down than a civilian looking up. There were few individuals depicted.

The exhibition’s success at Tate lay in conveying Vonnegut’s message of reproach and in recognising the ability that the best photographers have of turning the short time that their camera shutter is open into a permanent statement about time and place.

In an essay by university course director Paul Lowe in The Violence of the Image, Lowe talks about “Secondary Witnessing” a more promising interpretation of late photography.

Again, the secondary witness does not record events as they happen but rather the traces of those events some time later. The secondary witness, says Lowe, attempts to give voice “to the inanimate landscape to reveal its evidence”.

In documenting the afterlife of war, Lowe believes such work can become an “accusation against the perpetrator, an act of moral witnessing”.

Kikuji Kawada and Shomei Tomatsu explored the trauma of individual suffering and of national humiliation and defeat in postwar Japan at a time when that trauma was being ignored as Japan embraced the economic miracle.

Tomatsu, who died in 2012, believed that the photographer should study his or her subject in great depth then confront it head-on. “Stare fixedly, turn the entire body into an eye and face the world”, he wrote. Which is what McCullin had done at Huế in 1968. [8]


In the first essay in Violence of the Image, Christina Twomey looks at the work of Alice Seeley Harris, the missionary whose photographs, taken between 1898 and 1904, revealed the horrors of King Leopold II’s Congo Free State. Harris’ images of horrific mutilations and loss of life in the Congo, shown at lantern-slide lectures utilised the visual culture of evangelising Christianity to help the campaign for reform in the Congo become the first humanitarian crusade of the twentieth century.

Leopold’s agents refuted the claims and discredited the missionaries. Harris was accused by the New York Times of manufacturing photographic evidence.

The use of photography to report on atrocity and counter accusations of fakery were in play before the First World War and long before the horrors of the Second World War were fully revealed.

“Undoubtedly, the Congo images are clear evidence that Holocaust images are not the ground zero of atrocity photography,” concludes Twomey. “That alone is an important fact to establish, because it makes clear that ostensibly irrefutable proof of abuse and violation and violence has never been enough to stop it.”

With a diminished media it is no longer possible to “hit ‘em hard at the Sunday morning breakfast table” as one veteran war photographer once strived to do but what photography can manage, in the right hands, is a prod at the viewer to take action online, or, through an exhibition like Conflict Time Photography, entice them to consider the slowly diminishing half-lives of original events, the traces of traces of inhumanity that we ignore at our peril.

Not every photograph in Conflict Time Photography achieves this and the photographs that do transcend categorisation.

• Conflict Time Photography is at the Museum Folkwang, Essen from 10 April to 5 July 2015 and at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden from 31 July to 21 October 2015.

• Exhibition curator Shoair Mavlian talks through Conflict, Time, Photography shown at Tate Modern, London between 26 November 2014 and 15 March 2015.

• Since 2010 Tate Modern has acquired nearly 3,000 photographic images including works by Nobuyoshi Araki, Harry Callahan, Miyako Ishiuchi, Don McCullin and Daido Moriyama. In Tate and Photography, a press release issued on the opening of Conflict Time Photography, Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota said “The importance of photography is greater today than ever before”.

• The exhibition Brutal Exposure: the Congo is at the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool until 7 June 2015.

• • •


[1] In The Violence of the Image: Photography and International Conflict editor Liam Kennedy references the 2007 blank">Photo Histories interview of Philip Jones Griffiths in his essay Follow the Americans. Griffiths believed “the critical role of photography is to reveal what is normally hidden”, writes Kennedy.

[2] In a recent interview novelist Kazuro Ishiguro (above in 2011), who was born in Nagasaki, talked about an article he wrote for The Guardian in the early 1980s about the “pornography of seriousness”, the exploitation of issues like the Holocaust or the atomic bombs by some writers to give a serious dimension to otherwise banal fiction.

[3] The artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, won the 2013 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize for War Primer 2. Published in a limited edition, the book is a critique of images of contemporary conflict and, the artists claim, a belated sequel to Bertolt Brecht’s 1955 publication War Primer. During the Second World War the exiled German writer used short poems to comment on newspaper cuttings about the conflict.

[4] The largest single print in Conflict Time Photography, at 51,982 sq cm, is Patio civil, cementario San Rafael, Málaga (2009) by Luc Delahaye. It shows part of a mass grave of executed Republican soldiers at one of the largest burial sites of the Spanish Civil War. Broomberg and Chanarin’s The Press Conference. June 9, 2008. The Day Nobody Died is second largest at 43,560 sq cm. The third largest single print is Delahaye’s Ambush, Ramadi, 2006 which is 39,960 sq cm.

[5] David Campany may well disagree with Paul Graham. “If the banal matter-of-factness of the late photograph can fill us with a sense of the sublime, it is imperative that we think through why this might be,” wrote Campany in Safety in Numbness. “There is a fine line between the banal and the sublime, and it is political. If an experience of the contemporary sublime derives from our being caught in a geo-political circumstance beyond our comprehension, then it is a politically reified as much as an aesthetically rarefied one.”

[6] The three volumes of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: A History maintain a subtle influence throughout Conflict Time Photography. “Tate Modern loves photobooks,” said Chris Dercon, Director of Tate Modern, at the press view on 25 November 2014. “Rediscovered by Martin Parr, they are one of the most important mediums of the century,” Dercon said.

[7] For Parr and Badger, Leo Rubenfien is one of the few photographers who can write as well as he or she takes pictures.

[8] Shomei Tomatsu wrote: “That’s good enough. Well, no, that’s all there is. A photographer looks at everything, which is why he must look from beginning to end. Face the subject head-on, stare fixedly, turn the entire body into an eye and face the world. The human who bets on looking – that is a photographer”. From Setting Sun : Writings by Japanese Photographers, Aperture Foundation, 2006.

The Trace of a Trace
All photos and text © 2015 Graham Harrison

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