Photography: Simon Norfolk & Afghanistan

In the small Level 2 gallery at Tate Modern – a space I’d not seen used before – there’s a compelling exhibition of contrasting photographs of Afghanistan, some taken by the Victorian photographer, John Burke, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-1880, the others by Simon Norfolk in 2010. The exhibition’s there till July 10th and I urge anyone interested in photography or what’s happening – politically, militarily –  in Afghanistan, to go and see it if they can.

Norfolk has photographed in Afghanistan before, in 2001, and there his work, as he says, was “informed by romantic paintings of the 18th century, with their golden light of progress. The, despite the destruction, there seemed to be some kind of opportunity, a better future perhaps; rational, perfectible. A liminal moment at the close of one thing and the beginning of something new.”

This is different.

Taking as their starting point – and their inspiration – the albums of photographs that Burke made towards the end of the 19th century, Norfolk’s images – through the way they often mirror or comment upon the Victorian originals – place the current conflict squarely in the line of British imperialist endeavour, an endeavour which, Norfolk suggests, will fail in part due to a lack of historical awareness.

“The lack of an historical perspective on the part of the West allows them to blunder back for the fourth time thinking that you can turn Afghans into western liberal democrats and feminists by bombing them.”

As he explains in the excellent little film which accompanies the exhibition – and which gives him ample opportunity to make clear his attitude, vent his anger – Norfolk uses the beauty of his photographs – and they are, some of them, strikingly, if astringently beautiful – to lure us in, to capture our attention for long enough that we might consider what is actually being photographed – evidence, for instance, of the vast spread of military bases – Kandahar  is the biggest NATO airbase in the world, with more air traffic that Gatwick Airport – and consider its implications.

Which are bleak, indeed.

As Norfolk says …

‘The war in 1878 was based in false intelligence about how popular our presence would be; all our money was pitched on corrupt politicians who were less popular than they promised; lies about the efficacy of our military technologies and methods – and all this driven along by colonial politicians in the grip of an ideology that was more important that reality. Does any of this sound familiar?”