I just read a great interview with Simon Norfolk from last year, which includes photos. Norfolk is a photographer whose work I've included in Middle East Report a couple of times (and once on my blog) and who uses a large format camera to capture how landscape is shaped by war (broadly defined). The interview is by Geoff Manaugh, who writes a fascinating blog called BLDGBLOG, about architecture (also broadly defined). Both interview and blog are also quite funny at moments.
Here are some excerpts:
Norfolk: So I started off in Afghanistan photographing literal battlefields – but I'm trying to stretch that idea of what a battlefield is. Because all the interesting money now – the new money, the exciting stuff – is about entirely new realms of warfare: inside cyberspace, inside parts of the electromagnetic spectrum: eavesdropping, intelligence, satellite warfare, imaging. This is where all the exciting stuff is going to happen in twenty years' time. So I wanted to stretch that idea of what a battleground could be. What is a landscape – a surface, an environment, a space – created by warfare?
BLDGBLOG: And that's how you started taking pictures of supercomputers?
Norfolk: Those supercomputers – big BlueGene, in particular – those are battlegrounds. BlueGene is designing and thinking about a space that is only about 30cm across and exists for about a billionth of a second, and that’s an exploding nuclear warhead. BlueGene is thinking about and modeling that space very intensely, because what happens there is very complicated.
That computer is as much a battlefield as a place in Afghanistan is, full of bullet holes.
All of the work I'm doing, I might even call it: "Toward a Military Sublime." Because these objects are beyond: they’re inscrutable, uncontrollable, beyond democracy.
On why there are rarely people in his photos:
I think people kind of gobble up the photograph. They become what the photograph is. For me, people just aren't that important; it's about this panoptic process, it's about this kind of eavesdropping, it's about this ability to look into every aspect of our lives. And I think if you put people into these pictures, I don't know – it would draw viewers away. It would draw viewers into the story of the people. It's not about, you know, Bob who runs the radar dome; it's about this thing that looks inside your email program, and listens to this phone call, and listens to every phone call in the world in every language, and washes it through computer programs. And if you say plutonium nerve gas bomb to me over the telephone, in an instant this computer is looking at what web pages you've been to recently, it's looking at my credit card bills, it's looking at your health records, it's looking at the books I check out of the library. That's what frightens me – it's not about: here's Dave, he works on the computer systems for Raytheon...
So I've always tried to pull people out of the pictures – and, if they're in my pictures, it's usually because they represent an idea, really. I think if you're going to talk about Dave, or Bob, or Wendy, you have to do it properly. You either do it properly or you don't do it at all.
BLDGBLOG: It often seems like the most interesting thing about these places is what cannot be photographed.
Norfolk: Absolutely – absolutely. That's why, whenever you see warfare now, it's photographed in that same dreary, clichéd way: it's metal boxes rolling across the desert. Every time you switch on CNN, or buy a newspaper, you see guys in metal boxes – because that looks good. These photojournalists, and these TV crews, they don’t explain the process: they show things that look good on TV. A satellite orbiting in space doesn't look good. A submarine – you know, the greatest platform we've ever built for launching nuclear weapons and for surveillance – that has no presence whatsoever in how most people understand what the military does today.
The same is true of electromagnetic stuff – information warfare, cyber-warfare – and I wonder what photojournalists of the future are going to photograph? Are they still going to photograph guys with guns, shooting at each other? Because quite soon there aren't going to be guys with guns shooting at each other. We're quite soon getting to the era of UAVs and stuff. People aren't even going to know what shot them – and there will be nothing to photograph.
I mean, I didn't get fed up with the subjects of photojournalism – I got fed up with the clichés of photojournalism, with its inability to talk about anything complicated. Photojournalism is a great tool for telling very simple stories: Here's a good guy. Here's a bad guy. It's awful. But the stuff I was dealing with was getting more and more complicated – it felt like I was trying to play Rachmaninoff in boxing gloves. Incidentally, it's also a tool that was invented in the 1940s – black and white film, the Leica, the 35mm lens, with a 1940s narrative. So, if I'm trying to do photojournalism, I'm meant to use a tool that was invented by Robert Capa ?
I needed to find a more complicated way to draw people in. I'm not down on photojournalism – it does what it does very well – but its job is to offer all its information instantly and immediately. I thought the fact that this place in Afghanistan – this ruin – actually looks a little like Stonehenge: that interested me. I wanted to highlight that. I want you to be drawn to that. I want you to stay in my sphere of influence for slightly longer, so that you can think about these things. And taking pictures in 35mm doesn't do it.
So the content of photojournalism interests me enormously, it's just the tools that I had to work with I thought were terrible. I had to find a different syntax to negotiate those things.
The thing that pisses me off about so much modern art is that it carries no politics – it has nothing that it wants to say about the world. Without that passion, that political drive, to a piece of work – and I mean politics here very broadly – how can you ever really evaluate it? At the end of the day, I don't think my politics are very popular right now, but what I would like to hear is what are your politics? Because if you're not going to tell me, how can we ever possibly have an argument about whether you're a clever person, your work is great, your work is crap, your art is profound, your art is trivial...?
For instance, I'm doing a lot of work these days on Paul Strand – and Paul Strand is a much more interesting photographer than most people think he is. The keepers of the flame, the big organizations that hold the platinum-plating prints and his photogravures, or whatever – these big museums, particularly in America, that have large collections – they don't want the world to know that Strand was a major Marxist, his entire life. He was a massive Stalinist. That just dirties the waters in terms of knowing who Strand was. So Strand has become this rather meaningless pictorialist now. You look at any description of Strand's work, and he was just a guy who photographed fence posts and little wooden huts in rural parts of the world. If you don't understand his politics, how can you make any sense of what he was trying to do, or what he photographed? These people have completely laundered his reputation – completely deracinated the man.
What I like about his comments is the way he describes trying to photograph large political processes that are usually invisible to us but are evident as traces in the landscape. His explanation of why, in order to do this, he needed to shift to using different tools from what photojournalists use resonates with my interest in the structures of photojournalism, how news photographs are constructed and why they look the way they do at different times in history.
I also appreciate his thought that to evaluate and understand what a photographer is doing you have to understand their politics or views on the world. The example of Strand made me wonder, then what did he see in the fence posts? What was he trying to convey? Did it really relate to his politics or did he also have aesthetic interests that were to him separate from his politics? My hesitation with this idea is that one's political beliefs don't determine how you photograph something, but can inform it. Too many people are skeptical of, for example, Palestinian photographers covering Israel/Palestine because they assume their politics (which critics presume to understand) influence their reporting. But in reality there are many more factors than personal beliefs that influence a photojournalist's way of telling a story. [I have an essay on this subject coming out in the Jerusalem Quarterly in mid-October or so.]