Interview by Marina Caneve for CALAMITA/À
Simon Norfolk (born 1963 in Lagos, Nigeria) is a landscape photographer whose work over a dozen years has been themed around a probing and stretching of the meaning of the word ‘battlefield’ in all its forms. He has photographed in some of the world’s worst war-zones and refugee crises, but is equally at home photographing supercomputers used to design military systems or test-launches of nuclear missiles. Described by one critic as “the leading documentary photographer of our time”, Norfolk’s work has been widely recognized internationally. In 2003 he was shortlisted for the Citibank (Deutsche Böurse) Prize and in 2012 won the Prix Pictet Commission. He has produced four monographs including ‘Afghanistan: chronotopia’ (2002); ‘For Most Of It I Have No Words’ (1998) about the landscapes of genocide; and ‘Bleed’ (2005) about the war in Bosnia. The most recent is ‘Burke+Norfolk; Photographs from the War in Afghanistan’ (2011) that came with a solo show at Tate Modern. Simon Norfolk lives and works in Hove and Kabul.
CALAMITA/À: One of the most interesting challenges of photography is uncovering the often painful histories that surround us – their hiddenness, their unutterable nature and the wreckage the past leaves behind. You’ve worked in collaboration with John Burke’s archive. It is like to re-research in a certain way. You also said that good photography begins with good research. How important is history in photography and what do you mean with “photographing the past”? Would you agree if I say that the future is lost in the past? Tell us something more about this relationship.
Simon Norfolk: When I switch on the internet, I can increasingly find a million pictures of the way things look. The law of averages says at least some of those pictures will be good and I think a thousand out of a million will be pretty good. So how can I as a photographer compete with that and offer something new? It seems to me that the job of the photographer just going outside and taking pictures of their lives is now redundant, finished, not very interesting anymore.
I think what good photographers can do is to try to uncover hidden histories layered around us. Because that’s not only something worth saying but also something photography is really good at talking about. These histories don’t seem to be known by the people who own shops, run offices or sell apartments on, say, the street where I live. They don’t know what happened in this place during WWII or 500 years ago. All history is getting washed away. We live in a society which is in love with the new and only those things which are new appear on our TVs and newspapers. The job of the photographer is to stop that process and uncover. I always say that I think I am not a photographer, I am an archaeologist. Many of the places that I photograph are not just places with old histories that are hidden, but places where criminal activity happened. I go to these places maybe like an archaeologist, but also like a detective at a crime scene. For me the job of the photographer is the job of a forensic scientist: my job is to find evidence of the crimes that happened in these places.
At the time of John Burke (1838-1900), the British Empire employed a photography that was racist, colonial and arrogant. John Burke is not any of these things and that was very unusual at the time. I wanted to find out who this man was, why his work is so broad and why he is not repeating the clichés of any other photographer shooting at his time. Why was he so unusual? And why was he just so good? To try to uncover all those things was more like a piece of police work rather than anything else. That’s why I found it so exciting.
A/À: Which is the role of portraits in your research?
SN: I had never shot a portrait until I saw John Burke’s photography. I’ve always wanted to use landscapes to tell the history of places until I saw the way John Burke photographed. The way he arranges groups and the way people look in the groups, the way that he very tightly coordinates the sitting of people and the way that he uses carpets laid out on the floor to create a kind of a theatre where a photograph would take place: none of these would ever occur to me before. So the idea of photographing exactly in his style – a modern version of what he was doing in 1878 – really appealed me.
John Burke photographed Afghans in Afghanistan, because they controlled and held Afghanistan, Kabul in particular. If you make the same photograph in Afghanistan now, what you realise is that Afghans have no control over their country’s economy and politics anymore. The equivalent photographs as John Burke’s now are Afghans led by foreigners, from the American Embassy, from the United Nations or Save the Children or MSF. There’s where the power lies in Afghanistan, these people they call “the Internationals”, the new holders of the power in Kabul.
I always talk about the work I did with John Burke as an artistic partnership because I really feel he taught me how to shoot portraits. I am completely grateful to him for teaching me how to do that, even though he’s been dead for a hundred years.
A/À: What do you think about historical truth and the truth of photography?
SN: I don’t think I am particularly interested in something called truth because I don’t know what it is anymore. I don’t think I would use the word truth myself, the word is too difficult and it has become devalued and meaningless. However, I’m interested in honesty, morality – that a photography stands for something – and ethics: those things I look for in other people’s work, and I expect them in my own work as well.
A/À: Making reference to your For most of it I have no words. Genocide, Landscape, Memory. Landscapes are traces of a crime scene. How can landscape collaborate in the construction of a collective memory?
SN: Take the example of Auschwitz. It’s almost an accident that the camp exists, because there were other camps like Auschwitz, but according to the Germans’ plan they were built, they did their job, and then they were completely erased. The only reason why we know about Auschwitz is because the Russian soldiers moved a little bit faster than the Germans expected, and arrived a little bit too soon to the camp, so when the German soldiers retreated they didn’t have time to get rid of all the evidence. This is opposite to what happened in places like Treblinka. In Auschwitz there is all that physical evidence of what happened: it’s been partly destroyed, but it’s still there, it still exists. Surely it is better that we have this evidence because it speaks, it can talk about the crimes that it witnessed.
In this way we can use the landscape as a tool, like something that we would show in court as evidence of the crime. That’s the reason why we need to have these landscapes and why we need to preserve them. It’s not just a kind of intellectual curiosity at play: Auschwitz is about one of the greatest crimes that has ever happened.
We have to know about these things, because they will repeat themselves if we don’t know about them. So it’s actually crucial that we know about these places and that’s why I think these landscapes need to be preserved as crime scenes.
A/À: You’re interested in war and conflicts, but you are not a war reporter; at the same time is not even possible to talk about photography just quoting Roland Barthes. I think you’re a militant artist. How can an artist of our century work with these topics? How can photography have a political meaning and how important are to you the political, economic and social aspects of your research?
SN: It almost sounds like militancy is optional, like being engaged with the world is optional, like I can choose to be a political artist, or I could choose not to be. I think this misunderstands how the world works. There are forces in the world which want me to not engage with the political, they want me to be passive and waste my energies photographing nude pictures of girlfriends, or trees or the sunset. They want people not to engage with the political process because they know they run the political process and they don’t want anyone else interfering.
So the real question, for me, is: how can you not be engaged with the political process as an artist? How can you ignore these things? It’s not an option whether you are or not: by not doing it, you’re still acting politically. That passivity, is what they want from you and I, and our job is to resist that and it seems to me that the question of whether or not you are engaged in politics is a non-question. I find it incredibly easy today to be engaged, because every time I think of switching off, some stupid politician says something stupid and I’m furious again, and I’m up fighting again and that doesn’t seem to be something that will ever end or fade away.
A/À: War is an evident problem but there are lots of questions at the source of it. Your work talks also about that, I mean Ascension Island and Echelon control system, the supercomputers or missiles, rockets and satellites in America and more other. Tell us something about these topics.
SN: The language that photographers use to talk about war, that way of photographing moments and events’ immediacy using lightweight cameras with small lenses, that being in the thick of action is something that was invented in 1930s by Robert Capa. It seems ridiculous that photographers are still using that same language to talk about war when war itself, the way war is fought has changed incredibly and unimaginably since the 1930s. When you look at the technology and the way war is being fought now, you realise it’s not just about men with guns shooting men with guns that they can see on the other side of the field anymore, and yet photographers are still using the same language that was used by Robert Capa in the 1930s and that to me just seems bizarre.
Some months ago the Americans bombed Syria with cruise missiles fired from submarines a thousand miles away. We can’t photograph a missile being fired from a submarine, a missile that travels through a thousand kilometres an hour. There’s no photography of the way electronic information is being sucked out of my computer, my mobile phone, and as I walk down the street my image is being taken by remote cameras and put through American computers to track me around, and tell about my life. We can’t photograph that.
We need to find a new language to talk about how war is being fought now, not how it was fought in 1938. So, to me the projects that I did about Echelon and Ascenscion, and the missiles and computers, are trying to find a new way to talk about war. For me, it has to be something which uses beauty to try and draw the viewer into looking and thinking about things which otherwise they wouldn’t think about.
All my work works with captions, and it works with text, so with a picture which on the surface might seem to be just about something very beautiful, when you read the caption and the text you discover that is a picture of a place where they are testing bombs or where a disaster or a catastrophe happened in the past. The caption is very integrated, there is a collaboration between the pictures and the text.
In the end I’m trying to find new ways to talk about war, because war is continuously new. All the new technology is first of all military technology, and then years later it becomes something that you and me can use. The internet for example was invented as a secret way for the American computers to talk to eachother in the event of nuclear war, and years later a version of it became something that you and I can use. Or GPS was invented by the US airforce for controlling missiles and for tracking tanks on the battlefield and years later, we get a version of it that helps me navigate with my car. These technologies are all military technologies first. We need to find a way to photograph these technologies to photograph what modern war really consists of.
A/À: The impulse to commit genocide is ancient. The list of tribes which have been exterminated may be as long as the list of animal and plant species which we have rendered extinct. This exterminatory impulse is much misunderstood. It is actually a kind of longing for utopia, a blood sacrifice in the worship of an idea of paradise. Which is your approach to that question?
SN: I think that’s partly true and partly wrong. It does seem to be an impulse. When you are in somewhere like Auschwitz or when I was in Rwanda in 1995 you can feel something very animal, something incomprehensible, something overwhelming and very terrifing. These histories are hard to understand, therefore the suggestion is you shouldn’t bother trying to understand. And I really think that’s a mistake.
If your analysis of Rwanda is that these tribes have always murdered each other and you don’t have to try to understand it because it’s not understandable, you’re making a serious mistake about what happened in Rwanda. The history of what happened in Rwanda has very much to do with Belgian and French imperialism and European ideas of racism from the 1890s to the 1900s. What happened in Rwanda in the 1990s has very much to do with the history of the Catholic Church in Africa, with the way political parties in Rwanda have divided Rwandans against eachother and have used racism to divide people in order to maintain very weak leaders in power. The Rwandan genocide is not ‘just’ the result of ancient tribal hatred. It’s difficult, but you need to do the work to understand them because it could happen again. So I think that I agree with that statement a little bit but I disagree with it a lot more because I think the important thing is to analyse and understand what is different and specific about Rwanda. What is true about Rwanda is maybe not necessarily true about Auschwitz. Some things might be true, but not all of it is true because of the difference of circumstances and you need to unravel those circumstances and understand them. And that’s difficult, but worth doing.
A/À: Looking at your work it’s possible to feel the strange beauty of military presence and war scenarios. Making a reflection on beauty in photography I could not skip the work of Robert Adams. Which is the role of beauty in topics as war, natural and artificial disasters?
SN: I think of my photography as having an ecology, a kind of habitat in which it lives. Just like animals live in a pond, I think photography lives in a kind of habitat and there is competition in the habitat: why would you want to go to a gallery on a Saturday and look at my pictures from Rwanda when you could go shopping, or you could go see a film, or sit on the beach, or spend the afternoon on Facebook. I don’t think the competition for my photography is another photography exhibition down the road. I think the reason why people don’t go to a gallery is because there’s so many other ways they could spend their Saturday afternoon and most of those ways seem to be a lot more pleasant than watching pictures of Rwanda. So for me beauty is a tactic, it is simply a device: how do I persuade you to come into the gallery and waste Saturday afternoon looking at pictures of Rwanda when everything says you should find something more pleasant and happier to do with your Saturday. But I want you to use your Saturday to think about Rwanda and if I’m going to get you inside my gallery, then I have to offer you something to seduce you.
I think my photography works like a trap and beauty is a bait, just like the piece of cheese on a trap. It’s just a temporary tactic to get you in, inside my space, inside my idea. When you are inside my idea, then I can beat you up and slap you around, but first I need to get you inside it, and that’s all that beauty is for.
A/À: Our project CALAMITA/À is based on the natural catastrophe related to the Vajont dam, which occurred in 1963. What do you think about about photographing catastrophes? Is possible to you? If so, how?
SN: I spent 15 years trying to find ways of doing it. I think it’s really difficult, it has lots of problems and there’s lots of resistance from the audience to seeing it and you have to find a way around it, you have to find a map that will take you around people’s resistance, their borders and sense of cliché, people’s sense that they’ve seen all this already, that it’s boring. I think it’s not impossible, it’s just hard.
When it comes to something like the crimes of these engineers who built the Vajont dam in this valley of yours, and their stupidity, and their arrogance, it’s like the question you asked earlier: “is it optional to talk about it?”. No, it’s not optional!
So the idea of photographing catastrophes like any other of these important issues is crucial, not just because it’s curious but because they want us to be uninterested in what they are doing. This engineering company and the politicians want you to forget about what happened. They want you to imagine that everything is fine and they don’t want to be interrupted by you asking difficult questions. If you know about these things, then how can you stay quiet?
I’m a white guy with a British passport, and the permission to fly around the world, I don’t need a visa, I have money in my pocket, an ambassador who’d help me if I got into trouble somewhere, I’ve all of these reserves. The Afghan photographers, they don’t have any of that: they don’t have the ability to choose whether to photograph what’s in front of them or walk away, the choice of not talking about these things. These things are in their lives, every single day, 24 hours a day. And if they have the courage to talk about what they do, then how can I walk away from that? The world will conspire to never show their work and never hear their voice. So it seems that the job is for you and me to do those things that those people can’t do, isn’t it? How can we walk away from that?