Landscape as Witness - A Short Post on Aftermath Photography
…from a documentary photography perspective, I was drawn to the idea of arriving somewhere 100 years afterwards. It's almost the opposite of war photography. So, instead of the photographer bearing witness, it is the landscape that has witnessed the event and I who am having to go into that landscape in the hope of finding anything tangibly connected to the event. It was almost like having to find a new language or way of seeing – Chloe Dewe Mathews (O’Hagan, 2014)
If anyone has ever had a discussion with me about my practice, the chances are that the term 'Aftermath Photography' has been mentioned. This genre of photography consists of “…the documenting of places and things connected to often awful events”, after said events have taken place (Bush 2013). In the case of Landscape as Witness, these “places and things” were the remnants of the Public Works Scheme constructions from the Great Irish Famine (1845-52), as well as the landscape that surrounded them in North Clare, Ireland. Early examples of the genre can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century (Tello 2014: 555), however it is in the 1990s that it was first utilised to photograph ruined buildings and mundane landscapes in which conflict or suffering had taken place (Tello 2014: 555).
Naturally, one might question the reason behind choosing to photograph these 'mundane' scenes, as at first glance they appear a lot less engaging than a more 'active' image in which the conflict/suffering is currently taking place. Paul Virilio observes that due to the excess in imagery and the rate in which it travels around the world, humanity is struck by “a foreclosure of the perceptual vision”: myopia (Carville 2014: 72). Virilio believes that to avoid this myopia, society is required to start viewing images from another angle, to take a step back and create distance from the rate at which all this imagery is distributed globally (Carville 2014: 72). This is what the genre of Aftermath Photography is successful at doing. By arriving after the event has taken place, it is taking a much more measured approach. The resultant images are taken in an aesthetic style that is made to “studiously avoid” the aesthetics of imagery that are found circulating in the media, instead opting for a more mundane and less dramatic look (Campany 2003: 44). These images are not created to be seen and then forgotten about in an instance, they are meant to be considered over time. The ambiguity of the imagery may provide for “an active reading” (Carville 2014: 74), where other genres of photography may be limited. By being so ambiguous, viewers are forced to interact and project their own meaning onto the image, as the image is without a set meaning.
Chloe Dewe Mathews’ Shot at Dawn is a body of work that has influenced my practice greatly, and is a good example of contemporary work within the genre of Aftermath Photography. The work itself documents the execution sites of deserted British and French soldiers during the 1st World War, a project that Mathews was commissioned to create for the commemoration of the event in 2014. The project's name derives from the fact that Mathews’ photographs were taken close to the time of day that each execution took place, which happened to be primarily at dawn (Mathews 2013). The images are dark, de-saturated, and the landscapes depicted are often barren and desolate (Figure 1). When exhibited, a book containing the entire body of work accompanies the images. Each image has text describing in detail the subject matter of the photographs (name, time of death, location, etc.). As well as this there is a separate body of text discussing the subject matter of the work in general, explaining how the deserters would often be traumatised after facing the horrors of war, and how this was not seen as a valid excuse for desertion.
Figure 1 'Shot at Dawn', Chloe Dewe Mathews (2014)
Mathews’ work is an example of Commemorative Photography, a subgenre of Aftermath Photography. Work under the term of Commemorative Photography involves the photographing of dark events that occurred years/decades/centuries ago, as opposed to Post-Violence Photography that involves the documenting of an the event a matter of seconds/minutes/hours/days after the event in question has taken place. The time between the event happening and the photograph being taken is significant, as can be shown in Shai Kremer’s Innocent Landscape. From 2008, Kremer’s project utilises Post-Violence Photography to document the Israeli landscape, portraying the wounds and scars that recent conflict has dealt to it (Figure 2). As this conflict occurred in living memory, this affects how the subsequent images are ‘read’ by the viewer. In all likelihood, the viewer may have already come across information on this conflict in a newspaper or some other form of news outlet. This results in the viewer having preconceptions about the subject matter before engaging with the work. However, this is not the case with a commemorative work such as Mathews’ Shot at Dawn. Considering the event occurred over 100 years ago, the chances are that the viewer has only come across information on the 1st World War in a historical text, or a textbook at school. However, as the information of the soldiers' deaths only went public in the 1990s, there is a strong possibility that they viewer has not come across this particular microhistory at all. This greatly affects their reading of each image, as they have less preconceptions than if they were to view an image of a modern-day battleground in Israel.
Figure 2 'Infected Landscape', Shai Kremer (2008)
The specific genre of photography utilised in Landscape as Witness is that of Commemorative Photography. Throughout both field trips I deliberately attempted to capture images that appeared quite “banal” at first, but contained more information on further inspection (Figure 3). This was to encourage the viewer to delve deeper into their respective meanings, as the answers are not initially provided to them. In the book, each image will be accompanied by some text detailing the location in which it was taken, as well as excerpts from interview transcripts and ethnographic notes that were kept during the field trips. Similar to the micohistory explored in Mathews' Shot at Dawn, Landscape as Witness represents a microhistory that would be unknown to the majority of people who view it, allowing them to observe the work with a minimal amount of preconceptions. To maintain this, I have made the decision to leave the majority of the project's context towards the end of the book, allowing viewers to experience the work in its entirety first.
Figure 3 'Landscape as Witness', Seán Laoide-Kemp (2019)
Bush, L. (2013) On Aftermaths. http://www.disphotic.com/on- aftermaths/
Campany, D. (2003) Safety in numbness: some of the problems of “late photography”. Green, D (ed.), Where is the Photograph? Brighton and Maidstone. 123-32.
Carville, J. (2014) Violence of the Image. Violence of the Image. I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, London.
Mathews, C. D. (2013) Shot at Dawn. http://www.chloedewemathews.com/shot-at-dawn/
O’Hagan, S. (2014). Chloe Dewe Mathews's Shot at Dawn: a moving photographic memorial. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/29/chloe-dewe-mathews-shot-at-dawn-moving-photographic-memorial-first-world-war
Tello, V. (2014) The Aesthetics and Politics of Aftermath Photography. Third Text,
Volume 28, Issue 6. Routledge. 555-562.