|John Burke, Timur Shah's Mosque, 1879|
|John Burke, Khyber Pass, 1878|
Contemporary British photographer, Simon Norfolk returned to Afghanistan in the footsteps of John Burke, a nineteenth century apothecary who smuggled himself and his camera onto the battlefield of what was the second Anglo-Afghan war between 1878-1880. Burke’s photographs are dreamy: a wet plate collodion process that produces creamy browns and reds, a spectrum of color and movement in the photograph that has no equivalent today. The image is textured, detailed, and yet, soft and silken. There is no way to reproduce the delight of Burke’s images and Norfolk doesn’t try. Instead, what fascinates Norfolk is that Burke does not take photographs of the battlefield itself, perhaps because he does not want to show the British in a bad light, decimated by the Afghan army. Perhaps Burke shows no dead bodies and no exploding bombs because the expense of the labor intensive photographic process and prints meant there was too much to lose by taking a camera to the frontline. In the end it is not important why Burke photographs the Afghan war beyond the battlefield such that there are instances when (as my friend James pointed out) we could be looking at images of nineteenth century Texas. What is important is the immense and unending vision of the nineteenth century apothecary’s camera.
|Simon Norfolk, A dumping ground for an abandoned Russian-era bomber|
that has now been incorporated into the car park of "Shamshad TV", a new media company
supported by American money, 2010-2011
|Simon Norfolk, Afghan Police Trainees, Camp Leatherneck, Helmand, 2010-2011|
When there is a perspective, as in an image such as one that shows “Afghan police trainees being taken to the firing ranges by US Marines, Camp leatherneck, Helmand” the line of vision goes nowhere. In this example, the column of trainees walk into the distance, across the desert, with no purpose, for no apparent reason. As is so often the case in Norfolk’s depiction of Afghans, added to the irony of an image that echoes the structure of a nineteenth-century composition, and empties that composition of all significance, the Afghans here are configured like prisoners. The visual language in Norfolk’s image is identical to that depicting trains of prisoners herded across Europe first by the Nazis and later by the Red Army in World War II Europe.
|Simon Norfolk, Internet Café, Herat, 2010-2011|
Groups of people, both Afghans and contemporary British, are proud and made regal by Burke’s camera, against backgrounds of nature that expressed their dignity. Today through Norfolk’s viewfinder, groups engaged in the war effort are awkward in their poses, disinterested in the fight they are waging, performing in a play whose script they don’t believe in. Even though they take on poses familiar from nineteenth century representations of official groups, Norfolk’s actors are placed on a stage that might collapse at any moment, and clearly have no notion of what they are doing. Norfolk’s work functions on so many different registers: it is ironic and poignant, in places revels in the absurdity of what it can see, in others it is tragic. Even though they never show the war, the photographs look its tragedy and futility in the eye, making it both innovative and highly political.