If you were in the audience for last year’s brilliant Photographer’s Lecture, you’ll want to try and get to Simon Norfolk’s exhibition at Tate Modern. Characteristically, Norfolk’s message is the futility of war and the outrageousness of imperialism. This exhibition explores the current situation in Afghanistan by revisiting – or as he puts it, re-imagining – the subject matter of John Burke, whose photographs of the Second Afghan War (1878–80) were among the earliest to have been taken in that country.
Norfolk has engaged in what he terms a collaboration with the earlier photographer, exhibiting his own digital work alongside modern prints of many of Burke’s wet-plate collodion images to demonstrate that Plus ça change, plus ç’est la même chose. And rather than making exact modern versions of Burke’s images, he has sought echoes or equivalents – what Burke might have photographed had he been in Afghanistan in 2010/11.
Thus where Burke captured a view of an expanse of tents – a British army camp – Norfolk shows a concrete and metal moonscape megalopolis constructed by the occupying American forces. And whereas Burke lovingly shows glimpses of the traditional culture of Afghanistan, Norfolk identifies the fake and vulgar architecture of the country’s new rich – the heroin-traders and gangsters – and the huge defensive structures built with American money, while the normal infrastructure and economy of a city are almost non-existent and the ordinary people struggle to survive.
In the video at the entrance to the exhibition, Simon Norfolk explains that he chose to use the blue light found before dawn or after sunset to symbolise his own blue, disillusioned view of Afghanistan as it now is. This contrasts with the optimistic golden hue of Burke’s albumen prints and indeed of Norfolk’s own previous work in the country. His images in the exhibition – mostly larger than Burke’s, but not huge – have an almost unreal beauty, and he has explained that he’s used beauty to seduce the viewer so that he can then make his powerful political and humanitarian points. Importantly, however, neither Norfolk nor Burke shows the carnage of the battlefield. Their points are made in terms of materiel, structures, the effect on the landscape.
Now the good news – from a SSHoP perspective. We normally publish material from the previous year’s Photographer’s Lecture in Studies in Photography, but this year, instead of an extract from his 2010 lecture, impressive though that was, Simon is generously allowing SSHoP to publish an edited and illustrated version of an interview that he gave to Paul Lowe on this Afghanistan exhibition.
So if you can’t make it to Tate Modern by 10 July you’ll still have a chance, at the end of the year, to see something of this outstanding show and to read Simon Norfolk’s powerful commentary.