War Photography: meeting Edmund Clarke and visiting a holocaust memorial

A talk arranged with the photographer/artist Edmund Clarke by the OCA yet it seems few students are coming; there is a women’s march in London and also an OCASA lead event for OCA students. When I arrive and make enquiries at the information desk, nothing is known about the scheduled talk. I text Gareth who is representing the OCA today, as CEO rather than tutor; he replies and sorts the matter out so that after spending almost an hour in the exhibition, I know where to find the meeting room which is on another floor.

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Edmund Clarke

We are going to be given a private showing of the exhibition and will have the chance to discuss it. The obvious question would be how much control was placed on the photographer by those who allowed him to photograph? Clarke later answers this question in full.

Clarke has produced a number of bodies of work including a series about Guantanamo Bay, a well known prison for terrorists that the previous president, Obama, tried but was unable to close down as well as a series about a control order house where people are kept in detention. I have seen Clarke’s work before and am struck by reference to yet absence of the human being. Other bodies of work on show are Negative Publicity about extraordinary rendition and Letters to Omar also a video piece called One Day on a Saturday.

Apart from photographs Clarke has made on location, there is a lot of contextual information.  A letter from a child to his imprisoned father for instance but also documentation relating to detention of people some of whom are being held without formal charges. Court documents for instance give a detailed insight into legal issues surrounding arrests.

Habeas Corpus means one has the legal right to challenge any kind of detention; this right has been ignored in the war on terror which is really the subject of this show.

Part of the  exhibition is said to be not suitable for those under 14!

We meet in Teaching Room 3 on Level 2. Edmund Clarke is already present with Gareth Dent and two other students, one of them being crazylady who I have not seen for awhile. By 13.03 all students have arrived apart from 1 who never shows making just 6 of us.

We start by talking about American politics, the 45’th president of America, Donald Trump.

Clarke talks about his work. Not a straight photographer because he also uses other media. Uses different cameras. The subject of his work is interesting, informative. He has done a few books with Aperture and Dewi Lewis a well as a smaller publisher. Works closely with designers of books. Draws on documents from official sources.

Using words to communicate images rather than the actual image. This body of work is called Orange

Negotiation process required to get access to make this kind of work. For instance, visiting Guantanamo took 6 months. Backing from British magazine, help from a lawyer, restrictions on work such as need to use digital cameras so the authorities can check what has been photographed. Photographed within certain parameters but this was not too much of a problem.

Took two years to get access to the control house he photographed. Needed a solicitor to help him get the permission to photograph.   Clarke does not have a big audience!

The authorities have not got back to him over any of the work he has done. Is Clarke helping terrorists? None of the people he has worked with have been convicted of terrorism offences. Clarke has played a part in exposing illegal activities by Western governments. So much about the war in terror is communicated through imagery.

Terrorism is going on in our midst. The war on terror has become part of our everyday lives.  Clarke is documenting this.

How did this exhibition come to the Imperial War Museum? At first, the idea for an exhibition did not work out but later two curators were involved. War not just about guns and tanks and men in uniform! New form of conflict. The Imperial War Museum shows consequences of conflict whatever kind.

Clarke does not really know why the Home Office allowed him to do the work he did. Owing to support from a solicitor, they could not in the end stop him.

Does Clarke feel he has been able to photograph enough? He does though is aware of subjects he could have covered more fully. His work is about secrecy and its implications.

I ask Clarke about the absence of the human image in his work which seems to be an important part of his work. He replies that is an essential part of his work and if he did show pictures of the people he is dealing with, then superficial notions would result of what a terrorist looks like and the main subject, terror, would be avoided.

How does Clarke protect himself mentally and emotionally? He manages to cope with the subject of torture also secrecy and terror, disorientation. About the lack of legal process around rendition of people.

Not trying to tell people what to think.

We visit the exhibition with the photographer.

He explains the large photograph of a wood with part of it digitised so as to obscure the dwelling of one of those people apparently responsible for torture. Clarke has censored part of the photograph in case the person who lives there feels it necessary to take action against him, claiming a freedom he has denied others.

Exhibition includes a film about the way the exhibition was put together. He worked with an investigator.

His imagery has a disorientating narrative to give the feeling of the disorientation that prisoners feel. Subjects photographed include a mobile force feeding chair, cell interiors, interrogation space, eating area, uniforms with helmets left standing outside a door.

A lot of this work refers to something other rather than photographing it directly. Everything from documents where the interesting material has been blacked out to locations devoid of people even though they are interiors some domestic.

Clarke gives more background to his work, explaining how he interacted with people. The documentation includes letters to prisoners notably Omagh; this provides an angle into his subject that photographs could not furnish.

Section 4 part 20 is a film Clarke made. Images blend into each other. An expressionless female American voice talks. There is also a man’s voice talking about how he is tortured for information. The images show none of this but are pastoral in nature, a counter balance to the voices.

Clarke also photographed someone under a control order or more specifically the environment! Details of the house for instance. Clarke interested in control and its’ relationship to personal space. There is also documentation on show about the control order. There are floor plans of the control house illustrated on the floor of the gallery and a wall. A light box is used to illustrate a photograph of a curtained window, a clever idea as it enhances the light coming in from the window. Another two screens show very short videos one of which does contain a small part of a subject (his hands, belly and upper legs) who suggests anxiety in the way he moves his fingers and breathes.

One whole gallery is taken up with detailed shots of the control house. JPEG images printed at about 9 by 6 inches. Someone presumably a child has used a pen to draw lines across some of the images.

Clarke presently finds himself moving more towards documentation rather than into photography. This is one aspect of his work I question since although I can understand the conceptual nature of his work I still see photographs that require explanation as somewhat problematic. However, photographs do need some kind of context even if they are beautiful landscapes!

The day ends with us leaving the exhibition and going downstairs to get a book signed by Edmund Clarke. He has three books for sale in the shop and I decide on the body of work about Guantanamo Bay where suspects relating to the bombing of the Twin Towers or 9/11 have been held, mostly without trial or charges brought, which is illegal under international law. The book is a chilling reminder of what goes on these days and an excellent example of a photobook.

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historic town centre Mechelen Belgium

Almost a week later, I find myself in Bruxelles and it is World Holocaust Day. This is surprising news because this was unknown to us when we booked to go and see Kazerne Dossin, described as a memorial, museum and documentation centre on the holocaust and human rights. We walked through the old part of Mechelen to reach the museum, a new building but constructed from an older one.

Of Mechelen, Wikipedia says the following, pointed out by travelling companion Hans Craen … “Most cities in Flanders have a mock name for their inhabitants. Since 1687, for their heroic attempt to fight the fire high up in the Saint-Rumbold’s Tower, where the gothic windows had shown the flaring of only the moon between clouds, Mechlinians have been called Maneblussers (moon extinguishers).”

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a willow growing outside the Kazerne Dossin

The museum stands on the edge of the old Jewish area and opposite the former army barracks, four rooms of which were set aside for holding Jewish people before they were transported to concentration camps where they were usually either gassed soon after arrival or forced into hard labour.

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entrance to the old barracks where Jews were kept prior to transportation

I do not find this an easy visit. The use of photographs with accompanying text is somewhat overpowering. The photographs are well made documents yet nothing more than that … they do the job of showing what is going on but do not touch one directly. There is audio and video to conjuring up a time when a different kind of terror ruled and a race was systematically persecuted.

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kind of carriage used for transporting Jews

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a video gives an introduction to the museum; it deals with anti-semitism

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photographs of Jewish victims on the museum walls

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