Exhibition review: Bringing the War Home

An unconventional take on war photography at the Impressions gallery in Bradford.

Bringing the War Home is an exhibition that wants to get away from the conventions of war photography. Seeking to expand our concept of a genre that is traditionally the preserve of photojournalists on the frontline, it attempts not only to reflect the experiences of those not serving in combat - those left behind, civilians in the aftermath of conflict etc - but to question whether it's even possible to accurately document the experience of warfare.

This last may seem a hoary old path to go down , since it touches on the "truthfulness" of photographic images in general (the question of the authenticity of Robert Capa's iconic war image The Falling Soldier certainly comes to mind during this exhibition) but this is, in fact, a far more layered and conceptually ambitious exhibition than that opening gambit implies. 

The exhibition brings together 10 contemporary visual artists, and not all work directly in the medium of photography but rather as collators of "documentary" evidence, so we also have postcards, letters and emails. It was partly inspired by American artist Martha Rosler, whose series of photographic collages, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, from the late 60s and early 70s depicted images of soldiers in the Vietnam war inserted into idealised American homes, rather in the manner of Richard Hamilton's Just What Is It That Make's Today's Home's So Different, So Appealing?

Rosler's collages presented an agit-prop critique of a war that was, for the first time, fought out in living rooms, so that, in a very graphic sense, it was "brought home" to us via our television screens. In Rosler's work, heavily-armed soldiers had literally invaded the American home, the consumer dream trampled by the brute tread of American foreign policy.

This exhibition is preoccupied with neither politics nor protest, but rather representation. Embedded with British troops in Afghanistan, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin chose to completely reject the camera, mindful of the cultural saturation of images of suffering and armed with the notion that a "good" war photograph was a questionable criteria.

Instead, the duo present a large roll of photographic paper which has simply been exposed to light. So in a work entitled The Repatriation II, June 16, 2008 (from the series "The Day Nobody Died", 2008) all there is to see is a roll of film that goes from opaque black to swimming pool blue to shimmering white. The duo used the Snatch Land Rover they were driving (used to transport troops) as a makeshift dark room - just as photographic vehicles were used in the very early days of war photography - and, in response to dramatic events such as a suicide attack, they opened the vehicle doors at the appropriate location and exposed the paper to the sun.

It's interesting to note that in Roger Fenton's own photographs of the Crimea - the precursor of all war photography - images of the dead, the injured or the mutilated were all diligently avoided. But in this age of over-saturation, the avoidance of such images in Broomberg and Chanarin's work becomes a form of critique rather than sanitisation.

In his "Theatre of War" series, Christopher Sims simulates the carnage of war, but in a way that exposes its artifice. Using fake settlements in Louisiana, constructed by the US military to serve as training grounds for soldiers prior to deployment, Sims takes the viewer "backstage": a man casually poses for the camera with his guts poking out through the tear in his shirt; a woman in a Niqab, her eyes beautifully made-up, has explosives peeking out from her breast pockets. We're meant to engage with the incongruity of these images, not to be deceived by them. For the participants the theatre of war, is, for a while at least, literally make-believe.

This is war as experienced outside the warzone: mothers wait for the return of their sons, holding up pictures of their boys in uniforms; "care packages" from loved ones are photographed against a stark black backdrop; a child-like scrawl in a toilet of a US airstrip in Kuwait speaks of homesickness, while one piece of graffiti shows a hungry Pac Man facing the hooded enemy: an Iraqi woman and a "ghost monster".

But the most arresting work in this quietly compelling exhibition is Asef Ali Mohammed's "Stories from Kabul", in which Kabul residents from a range of professions are photographed in their setting of work and asked the question: "How has America influenced your life?" From lavish gratitute, to outright hostility to pragmatic concerns you really couldn't get a more disparate set of responses. The images might be two-dimensional, but little else is.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times