I was so confident that I had written about his work on this blog that I even suggested to some of the students working with me on my Justice In Pakistan project to do a search on this, The Spinning Head, blog and take a look at his work. When they came back a few days later and pointed out that their search yielded no results I was surprised, and embarrassed. It was inconceivable that I have never discussed Norfolk’s work in all the years that I have been writing this blog. It was later that I realized that I had planned on writing about him, in particular his recent work in Afghanistan, and had decided to wait until after I had reviewed his latest project. And then I never got around to it. I want to fix this terribly oversight and write about his work now.
About two years ago I received an email from Simon that said:
I’m a big fan of your blog and in particular your thoughts about embedding in Afghanistan. Which was why I went and embedded in Afghanistan! I’d like to show you the results, it’s following in the footsteps of John Burke, a photographer who was there in 1880; can I mail you a copy of my book? Can you send me an address? I’d love to hear your thoughts, good or bad.
It so happened that just a few weeks earlier I had seen a short documentary film about Norfolk’s new project in Afghanistan. He had decided to use the works of the British photographer John Burke, who produced a series of photographs from Afghanistan during what is known as the Second Afghan War (1878-1880), as a lose scheme for his own photographic exploration of Afghanistan under the American /ISAF military occupation.
There is no doubt that the images that Norfolk produced from Afghanistan were impressive. In fact, his earlier work in Afghanistan, Chronotopia, was perhaps his first really successful project and one that won him widespread recognition. It is quite spectacular work, and was in fact the project that first made me notice him as a photographer with a unique view and voice.
But when I watched the short documentary film, I was struck by his words, and his willingness to put his politics where his photographers were. He spoke with surprising honesty not just about what he thought of the work being produced by embedded photographers, but also about the entire war and its objectives. This is very rare to hear when it comes to working photojournalists. Most professionals prefer to hide their personal politics and opinions behind vague statements about ‘bearing witness’ or ‘asking only questions, and not offering answers’ and other such obfuscations that hide their fear of being marginalized in the rather small, cliquish and deeply conservative editorial world that is photojournalism. But when I heard Norfolk argue that:
For me, this war, this current war, is a tragedy. Its an imperial game. A folly. This is the forth Anglo-Afghan war as far as I am concerned. And its going as laughably, stupidly, misguidedly wrong as the previous three.
I was completely taken aback and immediately hooked! Here was a photographer who was clearly not going to two the line. Such a strong, dissenting political opinion on a war that has been sold to us Americans and to most Europeans as ‘the right war’, was surprising to hear. It was clear that Norfolk was not going to be just another guy with a camera taking generic images, and talking generic nonsense. Suddenly, Norfolk, as far as I am concerned, lifted himself from being a technically fantastic and complex photographer to being a complete intellectual and creative human being.
As I continued to watch this film, I was to hear Simon express the kinds of thoughts that are anathema to so many in the industry. I was also able to get a sense of strong independence Speaking about the many photographers sitting and working from behind the walls of their NGO or hotel compounds, he argued:
I was told that you could not go and walk around freely in Kabul. I was told that I would need to have security with me and I would need to pay to have security cars – to travel around in an armored 4×4. I spent seven weeks walking around Kabul. I know people in the British Embassy who have never been outside the compound because they think it is too scary. They cannot believe that I spent seven weeks with nothing more than a local Afghan guide and his car driving around Kabul and shooting on the streets of Kabul. It was hairy and on a few occasions it was downright dangerous, but it is possible to do it. And I would say that if you call yourself a journalist you are obliged to do it rather than come to Afghanistan, live inside some armored compound and a 5-star hotel and then tell me that you are reporting from Afghanistan. You are not. You are reporting from an armored compound.
This is not how a typical photojournalist speaks. There was an anger here, a clarity of thought that was refreshing. It was statements like this that revealed Norfolk’s working method as much as his use of specific cameras and a clear, thematic project report. It showed a very individual mind, one that had clearly defined certain principles that were worth adhering to and fighting to work with.
The film reveals a photographer unafraid of connecting with history, and working to get past the the hysteria and clamor of the mainstream. At one point Norfolk expresses his disdain for the mass produced embedded photojournalism work emanating from Afghanistan when he subtly argues the value and need for a slower, more considered and engaged photography from regions of war, using John Burke as a foil:
The comparison that really excites me is between the work that John Burke is producing in 1879 and the work that is pouring out like some kind of sewer pipe with a crack in the side of it, which is the billion-pictures-per-hour of modern photojournalism that is coming out of this country.
There is an individual dissent against the industry, and the machinery of generic imagery by which so much of our ideas of these wars, their impact and their execution are determined. Norfolk not only stands apart from it, but one can feel that he is repulsed by it. We see an individual mind at work; one that is evaluating and judging, comfortable in its subjectivity, and confident enough to find its own path through this morass of modern wars. We also see the images more deeply, and read them more clearly for what the really convey i.e we move past the aesthetics and the visible. These are not merely ‘pretty pictures’, but individual statements about a situation that deeply distressed Norfolk, and against which he is determined to speak.
I am trying to photograph my disappointment. I think when I came here in 2001 I was angry at what the American’s had done. I thought it was a mistake. I thought they should have done a deal with the Taliban if they really wanted Osama Bin Ladin. But at least I thought there was some kind of opportunity. But what I have seen of that opportunity…not just squandered, but taken outside and its head smashed in with a baseball bat again and again and again. Ten sorry miserable years have gone by, half a trillion dollars have been spent in this country, and it looks worse than it was!
The images become an act of resistance. In that they gain a past, and a future. They become, as John Berger argued in Another Way Of Seeing, something more than the traces on paper that they actually are. They gain a significance that goes beyond their aesthetics. They become political. One hears a photographer speaking out, speaking against, and resisting the stultifying, throttling mediocrity of mainstream media and its compliant photographers. His voice is in sharp contrast, and perhaps even a reprimand, to the vast majority of photojournalists who, in acts of great moral and personal pusillanimity, surrendered themselves not just to the restrictions of the embed, but to the very ideology of the wars themselves.
For various reasons I was unable to pick up the copy of the book that Simon so generously sent to me, but I did finally see it a few weeks later in a book store in New York. There is no doubt that it is a beautifully produce and complex piece of work, with a very fine and well designed website (click on image below). I have not really had a chance to review it as a book, but some day I will. Suffice it to say, I remain a huge fan.
I had always considered Simon Norfolk an interesting photographer, but his earlier landscapes from war zones had left me unmoved and largely indifferent. I could see and understand the intention, but it was never quite enough to really catch my attention. Regardless, it was obvious that he was not following the well trodden path and though I would occassionally look at his work, it was never something I felt I really needed to engage with. Not at least until I saw this new work from Afghanistan, and heard him speak and explain it. In the end that is what has remained with me – his voice, and how it completes him as an individual and his works as a photographer. It made me re-visit his earlier works and try to find another meaning in them. I have to admit that I need to spend more time doing that, even though personally I still think that it is this Afghanistan work that stands apart.
As new hagiographies about the Iraq war are published to ‘great’ acclaim and celebration, I often wonder if anyone will challenge these ‘monumental’ voices who not only monopolize how we see and think about the war, but also what we can say about it? I wonder if anyone even thinks it unconscionable that photographers employed by the very publications that helped lie our way into these wars, should even be taken seriously, and with any degree of journalistic credibility, for their experiences covering that conflict? I wonder why there has been no self-examination, criticism and a sense of deep intellectual and ethical failure on the part of these ‘monumental’ photojournalists for the ease and glee with which they subsumed their independence and critical thought simply to get to ‘the action’, and be ‘in the mix’? I wonder, given that there is absolutely no dissent, or contrary opinion about how photojournalists worked with the military, and how easily they became tools in these dishonorable wars, when we would open ourselves to hearing the voices, experiences and perspectives of the many Iraqi and other photographers who covered the same war, albeit from a more bloodier, brutal and horrifying side?
I have previously written about how there is little or no dissenting and critical photojournalism in the USA. In a post I wrote some two years ago called The Dissenting Photographer Or How American Photographers Turn To Intelligence In Times Of Intransigence, I had put a nice spin on this lack of dissent:
We are living in times where dissent is understood to be treason, a conflation that of course serves the interests of the powerful. And America – despite its self-proclaimed image as a land of free speech and individual liberty, has a long history of confusing dissent with anti-Americanism, and demanding allegiance to the political agenda and programs of the sitting government, and its apparatchiks, rather than to the institutions and values of the republic. In particular, the American media has repeatedly chosen to adopt the prejudices and rhetoric of populism rather than fight to maintain a determined adherence to the values of free press that challenges power, protects public interests and maintains a near-fanatical independence from the influence of the powerful. Today, we have a media that is absolutely beholden to power, so much so that its practitioners actually prefer to ‘represent’ the perspectives of power and ‘protect’ their idea of American values over all else. And so in this space American photographers concerned about the infantilism and militarism that continues to plague our nation have had to adopt subtle, tangential means of dissent which can create some wonderfully clever and complicated works. They can’t scream, but whisper ominously.
Today, I feel that I was perhaps too soft on the American photographers. After so many deaths, so much destruction, so many horrors inflicted on so many millions, I want to hear the scream. I can’t help but wonder why it isn’t there. Simon Norfolk’s work, his words, his voice, is a life line of sanity. It is certainly an inspiration. Perhaps I returned to it again after so many years because I just needed to be reminded that it exists.