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.

Photo: Getty
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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem