War photography

· culture ·

I've just watched a wonderful short documentary about the photographer Simon Norfolk. He's a war photographer now, but not in the usual photojournalist sense. He goes into war zones after the battle is over and takes stunningly beautifulâ€"but also very humaneâ€"photographs of the effect of war on the landscape with a large format landscape camera. He consciously uses the language of Classical landscape painting: a beautiful landscape in the background, glowing light on the horizon, a ruined building, and an innocent shepherd boy in the foreground. The colours are rich, and he brings out all the detail and texture of these ravaged landscapes.

The photographs are shocking, but not because they are gory or graphic; they show the full devastion that war leaves in its wake, in all its beautiful, horrifying detail. I'm always fascinated by the way artists talk about and approach their work. In the film he visited a site in Bosnia where mass graves containing over 600 bodies had been found. Mounds and pits were formed by the excavation, and the water in the hollows had frozen over. Simon decided not to take the landscape — which would have been just documenting the site in a rather cold way — but focused on the air bubbles trapped in the ice. They made him think that people might still be trapped underneath, imprisoned, waiting to be revealed like the truth when the ice melted in the spring. The results were abstract and delicately beautiful, but when you know about the location, they are completely disturbing.

He also had a magnificent rant about the sterility and banality of modern art. Unfortunately, I didn't get an exact quote down, but he was saying that making a head out of your own blood isn't controversial or shocking, but the fact that human bones and body parts are uncovered when the villagers clear some land to make a football pitch is shocking.