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Carlos Sanchez and Jason Sanchez, Misuse of Youth (2007), ink jet print mounted on Dibond, 155.2 x 226.2 x 4.8 cm framed. NGC
Photography’s relationship with the subject of war began in the nineteenth century when photographers such as Roger Fenton, Félice Beato, and Timothy O’Sullivan created now-iconic images of conflict. In the century to follow, photographers Robert Capa, Chim (David Seymour) and James Nachtwey used their camera to bear witness to the disruptions and destruction of battles. Canadian photographers have also engaged with this subject. Some have created extended documents as part of a personal quest; others are driven by a need to reveal injustices.
Clash: Conflict and Its Consequences draws on works from the collections of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (CMCP) and the National Gallery of Canada to investigate the personal legacy of war and trauma, as well as the effects of mass media on depictions of conflict.
Clash presents Sam Tata’s chronicle of the fall of Shanghai in 1949. His images capture the chaos of panic, the celebration of victory, and the grim reality of social cleansing as the fleeing Nationalists quickly tried and executed certain “undesirables.” Examining the impact on civilians, Michael Mitchell — who was sent to Nicaragua in 1984 by the CMCP in conjunction with the Nicaraguan peace organization CONIPAZ — focused on the tumult in the lives of Nicaraguans as the Sandinistas and Contras struggled for power. Rafael Goldchain looked at the political struggles of Central America from a personal perspective. The Chilean-born photographer attempts to recreate his own history through another land and its peoples. Larry Towell, a celebrated Magnum photographer, is regularly drawn to conflict zones such as those in Central America and the Middle East. As he engages directly with the populace Towell documents the struggle for basic rights in a climate of terror and repression.
Larry Towell, Palestinian Boys Throwing Stones at Israeli Soldiers. Ramallah, West Bank (October 2000), gelatin silver print, 32.5 x 48.2 cm. NGC, CMCP Collection. © Larry Towell
In addition to these overt depictions of conflict and violence, Clash will also explore the legacies of wars and the role of remembrance and commemoration. Peter MacCallum and Bertrand Carrière have photographed World War I battle sites, each artist scrutinizing the residue of history, which, like collective memory, is fading. Absence is very much their subject — palpable through our communal knowledge of what has occurred there. The strong sense of presence of what has disappeared is also at the heart of Hiromi Tsuchida’s photographs of artifacts that survived the devastation of Hiroshima. His work, like Robert Del Tredici’s photographs of Cold War culture, points to the limits of bearing witness to absence and attests to photography’s capacity to conjure what is, in fact, unrepresentable: total annihilation.
The legacy of war’s destruction for survivors and future generations is also important in Jack Burman’s photographs of Birkenau and Auschwitz. His images testify to the reverberation of conflict through the generations and remind us of our responsibility to remember. Jin-me Yoon also grapples with the trauma of past wars in the present. Acutely aware that the Korean War dramatically shaped Korean consciousness, divided families, and left many with painful memories, Yoon herself was raised in an atmosphere of silence; her family members rarely spoke of the conflict. She presents her subject as she experienced it indirectly: by performing imaginative scenarios of conflict for the camera. Similarly, the Sanchez Brothers’ image of two soldiers struggling on a battlefield is a creation inspired by a soldier’s account of the experience of the invasion of Iraq. Their work however is further informed by — and finds larger public meaning through — Hollywood depictions of war that exploit the spectacle of the battlefield. Like all photographs, the images in Clash mingle document and fiction to varying degrees, yet they remind us of the relation of photography to memory, and what we understand as history.
Clash: Conflict and its Consequences is on view at the NGC from 1 February until 21 April.
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