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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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue