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Simon Norfolk on war, imperialism and photographing both in Afghanistan

January 28, 2015 at 4:06 pm

Photographer Simon Norfolk‘s best known photograph is of the shell of a tea house in Afghanistan. A balloon seller is set against the back drop of the ruined building. Other work includes a photograph of an empty, cracked swimming pool in the grounds of the destroyed Afghan Presidential palace in Darul Aman; a bullet-scarred outdoor cinema in Kabul; and a crumbling victory arch built to celebrate Afghanistan’s independence from the British: all are fragmented reminders of past rulers, empires and wars.

Norfolk first went to Afghanistan in 2001, the year that the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban from power. Tired of the “standard” media response to what was happening in the country and other war zones across the world, his work is a much slower, more considered type of war photography. “I was interested in this idea of landscape as a metaphor for talking about conflict and the way landscape carries the scars of a conflict a lot longer than humans do, or even human memory does,” he explains.

Unlike Bosnia or Dresden, where the devastation has taken place within one relatively brief period, Afghanistan has had decades of war and he sees the ruins as having bizarre layers. “Different moments of destruction layering like sedimentary strata on top of each other,” is how he describes it. Norfolk draws parallels with Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of the remains of the classical city of Troy. Digging down, Schliemann found eleven cities, each one built in turn on top of its predecessors and later destroyed.

His photographs, which feature skeletons of buildings that hint at long-lost grandeur, can be seen in two ways, he says. “You can either see them archeologically, as fragments of some grand empire that passed, or you can see them forensically, as evidence of a crime.”

On returning from his first trip to Afghanistan, he sent his images to the photography editor at the New York Times. “Wow, I didn’t know that’s what it looked like,” was her response. “I was thinking, what have you been looking at if you didn’t know what it looked like?” Norfolk recalls. “Then I realised that what she had been looking at was a very narrow number of clichés: hundreds of pictures of kiddies in hospital; a Muslim woman crying by a grave; a guy with a turban and Kalashnikov; and that was Afghanistan. She hadn’t even seen what the capital city looked like.”

Norfolk is heavily critical of such images for which photojournalists “swoop” into conflicts and collect “dialogue-less pictures to take to New York”. His photograph of the tea house, which is hanging on his living room wall, deliberately places the balloon seller in a position that removes him from being the subject. “I didn’t want to talk about this man as the refugee, the archetype of a survivor,” he insists. “I don’t know anything about this guy and I am rather loath to propel him forward as a representative of these things.”

To make his point even clearer he recounts something that happened in a refugee camp in West Africa. He was taking photographs when a man approached him; he was from Coventry and shattered the image that Norfolk had been nurturing. “I had him down in a box; he was the classic refugee, everything I wanted him to be. I realised that all that I was doing was utterly illegitimate. I was absolutely imposing on these people what I wanted them to be; they were nothing other than the objects I wanted them to be, like putty waiting to be moulded.”

In October 2010, Norfolk returned to Afghanistan and began a series of photographs which took their cue from the work of the nineteenth-century British photographer John Burke, who was the first ever to use his camera there. He accompanied British forces during the invasion that became the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880). Norfolk’s photographs reimagine or respond to Burke’s Afghan war scenes in the context of the contemporary conflict. By 2010, Camp Bastion had been built as Britain’s main base in Afghanistan and an estimated 9,700 Afghan civilians had been killed over the preceding four year period. It would be another 4 years before British troops left the base.

“The British engagement in Afghanistan is not a one off event, it’s part of a cycle of events,” says Norfolk. “We have been here before and there are lessons that can be learnt, lessons we haven’t learnt. There are also lies we have been told over and over again. By comparing my photography with Burke’s, you’re automatically talking about imperialism.”

Britain, he believes, is still acting like an imperial power. “Not the same imperial power as we were when Burke was photographing; then we were the drivers and motors of imperialism, now we are this kind of lapdog of someone else’s imperialism. But this idea of us as global policemen, as global punishers, remains.”

While his first images of Afghanistan borrowed from paintings featuring destroyed gothic churches or the ruins of classical palaces bathed in golden light by artists like Claude Lorrain or Caspar David Friedrich, as the years went by, Simon Norfolk’s photographs started to use a light that was pre-dawn and post sunset. “I wanted to have a light that photographed by disappointment,” he says. “I actually thought the war was over in 2001. I didn’t know then that my government, my taxes, would suck this country down into another 14 years of war.”