Magazine article Art Monthly

Brighton Photo Biennial Memory of Fire: The War of Images and Images of War

Magazine article Art Monthly

Brighton Photo Biennial Memory of Fire: The War of Images and Images of War

Article excerpt

The third instalment of the Brighton Photo Biennial, curated by writer and critic Julian Stallabrass, is titled 'Memory of Fire: the War of Images and Images of War'. Ambitiously devised around ten exhibitions, as well as projects, education programmes and commissions, this year's biennale reaches beyond Brighton with displays at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhillon-Sea, Aspex in Portsmouth, Pallant House in Chichester, and various venues around Winchester. It has also mushroomed through a virtual presence through blogs, Facebook and Flickr galleries, podcasts and YouTube. This admirable though dispersed series of expansions also compensates, in part, for the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, whose participation was disappointingly withdrawn.

Stallabrass, who is best known for his publications such as High Art Lite, 1999, and Art Incorporated, 2004, and his critiques of cultural production and the market, makes reference in his title here to the Uruguayan writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano. Galeano's trilogy on the political history of Latin America blends fact and fiction, epically recounting stories about invasions, colonisation, native settlers and revolutionary uprisings. This reference announces Stallabrass's own position on the imperialist motives behind the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and his focus, in this project, on photojournalism and its discontents.

Presented at the University of Brighton, the principle exhibition in the biennale, 'Iraq Through the Lens of Vietnam', reflects Stallabrass's extensive research into image-making during the Vietnam war. The first of two galleries that make up this exhibition displays lesser-known North Vietnamese images alongside familiar imagery from western photojournalists such as Tim Page, Nick Ut and Philip Jones-Griffiths (whose project Agent Orange is also on show at Pallant House). Ut's famous photograph of the young Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked along a road, Route 1, near Trang Bang, June 8, 1972, which still resonates as one of the iconic images of wartime suffering, and Ronald S Haeberle's My Lai, 16 March, 1968, showing dead women and children from the Mai Lai massacre, hang alongside Don McCullin's Dead North Vietnamese Soldier, 1968. This is high photojournalism at its most confident, produced with the conviction that images could elucidate and communicate a message to viewers back home through the pages of news magazines such as Life and Picture Post.

The photographs taken by the North Vietnamese differ in many ways. Their resources were extremely scarce, as the few films they had needed to be stretched out over periods of six months in the jungle. They would also develop their film in situ and hang the images in the army camps. These photographer/ soldiers generally remain anonymous, although the exhibition features rare works by named photographers such as The Dinh and Van Bao. In these black and white images, North Vietnamese troops are shown welcomed into villages; moving supplies and weaponry on the Ho Chi Minh Trail by bicycle; and women soldiers are pictured on training exercises or playing music and singing. A collection of original North Vietnamese press photo books includes contact prints, which strikingly resonate stylistically with the French tradition of Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis, in contrast to their western counterparts whose work recalls US photographers such as Robert Frank and William Klein.

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The second room in the exhibition shifts its focus from Vietnam to contemporary Iraq, demonstrating the radical changes in photojournalist practices in the interim. Anonymous black and white prints are replaced by walls of anonymous digital images from the internet, as commissioned professional photojournalists have become increasingly usurped by cheap and easy (and seemingly 'authentic') citizen photojournalism. Photographers in this section are separated into two groups, 'embedded' photographers and 'unilateral' ones (who do not work within the western armed forces). …

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