A little bit of history repeating? Some thoughts on Burke+Norfolk in Afghanistan

Simon Norfolk’s new exhibition at the Tate Modern, entitled Burke + Norfolk: photographs from the war in Afghanistan by John Burke and Simon Norfolk, has just opened this last week, and I thoroughly recommend paying it a visit (it’s actually free). Tate’s excellent film about it is presented above.

Norfolk is a celebrated British photojournalist turned landscape/art photographer. He photographed in Afghanistan in 2001, shortly after the beginning of the US-led miltary campaign there, having previously published For Most Of It I Have No Words to widespread critical acclaim. He is an outspoken critic of the conflict in Afghanistan.

John Burke was probably the first person to ever make photographs in Afghanistan, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878-80, where he was working for (or perhaps in today’s parlance, ‘embedded’ with) the British Army. Little is known about him, except for the legacy of his photographs. Norfolk heard about Burke’s work in 2010 and decided to return to Afghanistan, inspired to revisit the country and look at it through a filter of 130 years. The resulting exhibition, book, film and website  is a fascinating illustration of history repeating itself, albeit it a selective one.

Burke produced several extraordinary albums of photography during the 1878-80 campaign, containing scenes of landscapes, group portraits (of British military officers, Afghan tribal leaders and ordinary citizens), and scenes of military and cultural significance. Norfolk uses Burke’s work as a starting point, and borrows from both his locations and the conventions of his time. Norfolk’s photographs aren’t direct copies of exact scenes and set-ups, 130 years on – rather they are informed by Burkes. In the exhibition some images are presented as pairs, and there are easily recognisable aliterations between Norfolk’s images and Burke’s, such as in the images below, Landholders and labourers and A de-mining team from the mine detection centre in Kabul.

Landholders and labourers, Kabul, Afghanistan. John Burke, 1879-80

A de-mining team from the Mine Detection Centre in Kabul, Afghanistan, with a member of the German police who is mentoring them. © Simon Norfolk

Other obvious ‘pairs’ include Norfolk’s photograph of the current UK ambassador to Afghanistan, posed with his private secretaries and Nepalese guards, and Burke’s shot of then British envoy in Kabul, Major Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari. These pairings of group pictures also reveal some interesting insights into Norfolk’s thought processes and approaches, as he explains in an interview with the photography writer and lecturer, Paul Lowe, that accompanies the work,

“I’d never tried to make group portraits before and there are few modern reference points… I decided to follow Burke’s lead and make a portrait of the city by making portraits of the citizens of the city.”

In Tate’s film that accompanies the show, Norfolk is shown at work in Afghanistan, directing his sitters to look in different directions, mimicking the (seemingly occasionally haphazard) group photos by Burke. Norfolk also describes the work (either slightly inadequately, imho, or in a masterpiece of deadpan art-waffle) as ‘an artistic partnership, in the fullest sense of the term, except that Burke is dead’. Brilliant..

An Afghan man and his daughter in front of the ruins of Daluman Palace, Kabul. © Simon Norfolk

Norfolk also presents many new landscapes in this series, of Kabul and its surrounds. These would stand on their own regardless of Burke, but also work as a companion piece to his 2001 series, Afghanistan: Chronotopia. The new cityscapes are haunting, beautiful images, mostly shot in the misty blues of pre-dawn and dusk – as opposed to the golden sunrise and sunset glows of Chronotopia. But there are also more overtly political images, showing some of the coalition military bases in Helmand, and the concrete barriers and Hesco blast walls that make up much of the security apparatus in modern-day Kabul. And again, there are obvious comparisons to be drawn here; Burke photographed military garrisons and the sites of British compounds, often from an elevated position, and Norfolk has followed suit, sometimes using Google Earth to locate mountain ranges and work out where Burke photographed from. Norfolk acknowledges that he and Burke had completely different aims: “my opinion and Burke’s opinion about the war [in Afghanistan] are completely different. But I think that doesn’t mean that I can’t move in his shadow.”

I disclose two special interests in Burke + Norfolk at this point. Firstly, as a picture editor working in international development. Norfolk contends that “nothing, nothing, nothing has changed” in Afghanistan, but I think that this is a little unfair. Admittedly I haven’t been to Afghanistan myself, so maybe I’m not best placed to comment. But, fantastic piece of work that it is, I’d argue that Norfolk’s is still only another view of Afghanistan. I’ve blogged previously about other very different photographers who’ve worked there over the past few years – such as Jodi Bieber, Martin Middlebrook, Paul Seawright and of course, Tim Hetherington – all presenting very different views of the same country. So Norfolk’s take is a cheap shot in some ways; after all, don’t we all love ‘then and now’, ‘before and after’ photographs? Don’t get me wrong – I love Norfolk’s work and I have the utmost respect for it. I just mean that Afghanistan is a complex country, with a complicated history. Yes, there are undoubtedly many challenges in Afghanistan today, but I do know that there are many good people working incredibly hard there, working with ordinary Afghans, to try to make a change for the better, and not just repeat the past.

Secondly, a more personal, geeky disclosure; I worked on the digital preservation imaging of Burke’s albums at the British Library, back in 2001-02, at about the same time that Norfolk was first in Afghanistan. It was a fantastic privilege to work with such delicate material – to preserve in digital aspic some of Burke’s original albumen prints, which are slowly, imperceptibly, fading away. So it’s particularly fascinating for me to see Burke re-interpreted in this way (even though the copies of Burke’s albums that Norfolk has worked with are from the National Media Museum’s collection in Bradford).

The Tate video about the exhibition features John Falconer, the curator of photographs at the BL – who points out that Norfolk uses Burke’s approach to “create a more nuanced view of behind the scenes in a war zone [...] that places him much more in the tradition of slow, considered photography than what we generally think of as war photography”. In some ways both Burke’s and Norfolk’s photographs could be argued to fall into the category of photography that the writer and critic David Campany has coined late photography – broadly speaking meaning the photographic genre of examining the sites of newsworthy events by revisiting them some time after the event and photographing their ‘ordinariness’.

Some of the Media Ops team including a Combat Camera Unit, Camp Bastion, Helmand. © Simon Norfolk

Some of the Media Ops team including a Combat Camera Unit, Camp Bastion, Helmand. © Simon Norfolk

One final thought. There is one particularly powerful image from the exhibition that stands out for me, entitled ‘Some of the Media Ops Unit, including a combat camera team, Camp Bastion, Helmand’. As David Campbell has already pointed out, it’s an extraordinary photograph, depicting modern British soldiers armed with guns, Nikon digital SLRs and a Panasonic HD video camera. In the exhibition it is paired with one Burke’s images depicting members of the then British Army’s royal signals regiment – the 19th century equivalent of today’s ‘combat camera teams’. Both images speak volumes about the role of communications, photography and propaganda in conflict, then and now, as Norfolk clearly knows.

Norfolk is an excellent time-traveller, one of the most interesting photographers working in Britain today. For anyone interested in the photography of Afghanistan, its portraiture, landscape or history, Burke + Norfolk is a must-see. The exhibition runs at Tate Modern until 10 July 2011.

If you can’t get to London, you can see Norfolk’s online version here (slightly different selection of images) and there are many more of Burke’s images available on the British Library website.

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About russellphoto

Photographer and video multimedia producer/editor working in international development. Also on Twitter @russellphoto
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Exhibitions, history, landscape, photography, photojournalism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A little bit of history repeating? Some thoughts on Burke+Norfolk in Afghanistan

  1. Pingback: Vietnam, Afghanistan and the sphere of legitimate aesthetics: developing a critical photographic practice | David Campbell

  2. Pingback: 24 posts later: a year of blogging on Developing Pictures | Developing Pictures: photography+development

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