11 February 2012

Simon Norfolk on Politics & Photography

"I can't stand the kind of news photography that's coming out of Afghanistan - photographs of 'our boys' bravely defending our interests despite the fact they don't have enough helicopters. It makes me really angry. The thing I love about photography is that it gets me out of the house and looking at the world, but that's the thing I hate about it too - it makes me look at the surface of things and how they look.

I couldn't give a stuff about how things look, I want to know why things happen, and why they happen again and again. The photojournalists who go to Afghanistan may be very brave, and their photographs may be very good, but I think their politics suck." ~ Simon Norfolk

Afghan Police being trained by US Marines, Camp Leatherneck (2010).
Photograph © Simon Norfolk.

Norfolk is right to want to know why things happen and why they recur. And he is right to think that photography can help us ponder such questions. But, if that is so, he is merely being polite about the other photographers he mentions. Insofar as their work remains at the surface, it cannot be "very good," not for contingent political reasons but for basic photographic ones. In other words, if it simply tells us how things look, it fails in the basic task of depicting reality and so of inducing reflection. Photographs that remain on the surface may illustrate, but they will not amplify our ability to see and imagine and so dampen our political capacities. This is not a contingent matter but is central to the task of depicting.

Norfolk won third place in the "portrait" category of the World Press Photo competition for his series Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan by John Burke & Simon Norfolk in which, as he points out in the same interview from which the above remarks are drawn, he is "trying to make people think about British Imperialism." He pursues this by contrasting his own images of Afghanistan with images made of the same country by the 19th Century British photographer John Burke. A quick look at Norfolk's larger project will make one wonder how, at least absent Procrustean measures, it falls within the "portrait" genre. This is terrific work, giving revised meaning to the notion of collaboration.

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