Simon Norfolk is one of the better known war photographers of the present time. I attended this talk at the suggestion of another OCA student and was glad I made the effort because it did turn out to be an excellent occasion and a welcomed departure from the more academic discussions and events the college arranges for us.
Simon Norfolk studied philosophy and sociology at Bristol University and then became a photographer. His reason for taking a large format camera with him to Afghanistan was simply because it was the cheapest camera he owned; he reckoned that there was a chance his camera might be stolen from him. Working in the capital, Kabul, is possible but far from safe and he is concerned that his guide might suffer reprisals for helping him since threats have already been made towards him.
What was refreshing about this talk was the way Norfolk did not focus on himself or try to sell us anything. He began by referencing his work to the paintings of Claude Lorraine which shows similar motifs of ruined monuments, the marks of civilisations that have risen and fallen. In fact, Norfolk talked about Empire in general terms much of it focusing on the British Empire in the days when it occupied a quarter of the world’s land mass and ruled over a third of it’s people, a remarkable accomplishment for such a small country. Yet Norfolk did not gloss over the days of Empire but also exposed it’s inherent racism evident in the many drawings and paintings as well as photographs that show the white man in positions of domination and superiority over the dark man. A member of the audience later commented that he had not come to the talk expecting a history lesson yet Norfolk reminded us of what an excellent historical tool photography can be as long as the photographs are read with insight rather than being used as the exercises in propaganda they often were.
One particular war photographer from the early days is of interest to Norfolk; his name was John Burke and he operated somewhat off limits by not being the official war photographer during the 2’nd Afghan War of the late 19’th century and as a result capturing many realistic scenes that were made with knowledge of the place and his subjects without the need to represent them formally as glorious men of Empire. In fact, in war there are no winners only losers, a point that Norfolk made not directly but by example.
The evening finished with Norfolk showing us a photograph of a group of people in England in which John Burke is said to be featured; he asked whom we thought was Burke among them.Various ideas and suggestions were put forward but not even Norfolk himself knows which Burke is.
Simon Norfolk talked a little about his way of making a living from photography from the various ways his work is communicated; there are exhibitions, the sale of prints,books,use of his work in publications and of course his website where anyone can see his work particularly in Afghanistan.
It was only after the talk, while writing this blog, that I came to know about the book Norfolk has done about John Burke. I had already heard about Norfolk’s book “For most of it I have no words”, an apt title for a book of war photographs yet also an appropriate title for a book about photography in general; a photographer’s images are there to record what words can not.