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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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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