Burke and Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan

Simon Norfolk’s new project on Afghanistan opens at the Tate Gallery in London on 6 May, and comprises new work exhibited alongside the nineteenth century Irish photographer, John Burke. There will be a book forthcoming from Dewi Lewis and – full disclosure – I was commissioned to write a short essay for this publication. As a result, I’ve seen some of the new work and think it will be an important show.

The Tate’s press release provides this summary:

John Burke was one of the first people to take photographs of Afghanistan, having travelled there during the second Anglo-Afghan war of 1878 to 1880. His images of landscapes, cities and inhabitants provided a cue for Simon Norfolk to begin a new series of photographs in October 2010. Norfolk’s work responds to Burke’s Afghan war scenes in the context of the contemporary conflict. Seeking out the original locations of these images or finding modern parallels with their subject matter, Norfolk’s new body of work depicts bomb-damaged buildings, local communities, soldiers and embassy workers, as well as uniquely contemporary sites such as internet cafés and wedding halls. Within the exhibition, these images will be presented alongside prints of Burke’s corresponding photographs, bringing history into close proximity with the present and drawing comparisons across a century of British involvement in the region. Also on display will be two original hand-illuminated Burke portfolios.

Amongst the new photographs Simon Norfolk has produced are contemporary portraits that echo nineteenth century pictures. One of them shows the intersection of war and image:

Media Ops team including a Combat Camera Unit, Camp Bastion, Helmand. Copyright Simon Norfolk

Top photo: Afghan Police receiving shooting training from US Marines, Camp Leatherneck, Helmand. Copyright Simon Norfolk


3 replies on “Burke and Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan”

I admire Simon Norfolk as a photographer and like his work from Afghanistan, bringing as it does a different perspective on the situation there. I also like the way he works, slowly and deliberately using large format and the equivalent in digital.
I have seen a film clip of his latest project ‘Burke and Norfolk’ and would disagree with his statement that ‘nothing has changed, nothing, nothing, nothing’ – in respect of Afghanistan.
If he had been with the British Forces in Lashkar Gar or one of the outposts in that area he would have seen plenty of changes all of a positive nature. Roads, Schools, Sanitation, Police Training, Afghan Army Training. In the north of the country there has been fantastic progress in clearing mines and the debris of war and around Bagram and Kabul. I have been there myself, seen it, and photographed it.
All warzones are complex and difficult – Afghanistan the more so given its violent history and geography. Sure, mistakes have been made (NATO bombing of civilians) and Afghan soldiers/policemen murdering British soldiers. Its a war zone – people get killed.
What happens in the future is anyones guess. If and when NATO depart (say 2015) will the country hold together then? That is the time for the photographer. If the country slips back into chaos, which is entirely possible then Norfolk will be justified in saying that ‘nothing has changed, nothing, nothing’.

Malcolm MacGregor

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