From the series British Watchtowers by Donovan Wylie. Image © Donovan Wylie/Magnum Photos.
The Ways of Looking photography festival is running a conference called The Architecture of Conflict, on Thursday 27 October. Organised in collaboration with The London College of Communication, the event will be at the National Media Museum and will include a talk by Magnum photographer Donovan Wylie, who is currently showing a large solo exhibition at the NMM called Outposts. BJP caught up with Wylie at the exhibition opening to find out more about his attitude towards photographing conflict.
British Journal of Photography: This exhibition shows some of your earlier work, from projects such as Maze and British Watchtowers, as well as the new project Outposts [which was shot in Afghanistan with the Bradford Fellowship]. How does it feel to show these images together?
Donovan Wylie: What was exciting, and maybe even important, for me was to show the context of the work I made in Afghanistan. The Maze informed the watchtowers, and the watchtowers informed the Afghanistan work. I wanted to show this evolution.
When I was making the pictures of the watchtowers, they were coming down [being dismantled] and many of the soldiers working on them were going to Afghanistan. Elements of the structures were being taken to Afghanistan. Modern warfare is very transient, it is built to move, but basically it’s the same idea regardless of nationality or politics or whatever – take the high ground and use vision as a method of strength and protection. Ultimately what I think is fascinating is how we use landscape as a tool of war.
BJP: When did you start working on Outposts?
DW: The idea began with British Watchtowers, which is about six years ago. But the actual reality of taking it on probably started about two-and-a-half years ago, and the researching took about a year-and-a-half. I was in the Kandahar province four about six weeks, and I finished it a year ago. I went through the official programme of embedding, working very much with the Canadian military. They were wonderful in the way that they accommodated me and facilitated me.
One thing that was interesting for me was that this work was turned around in less than a year, and it was a very difficult project in terms of logistics. It was only possible because of the people who worked on it, and I would like to give credit to the Canadian military, the National Media Museum, the Imperial War Museum and all the individuals involved. Photography today is much more like a film business, where you have teams of people who make things work for you. You’re not just this guy going out and making images.
BJP: Did you have any problems with embedding with troops?
DW: The only problem I would say about embedding is that it doesn’t equip journalists or photographers for real conflict, so when real conflict does happen, like Libya, they’re very vulnerable. When you’re embedded you’re much safer, so young photographers, who have only known an embedded programme, think that’s war, but it is not. Embedding isn’t very good for understanding how dangerous war is. But I think embedding is much more about safety than anything else, the military is very scared journalists will get killed.
BJP: What can you do through photographing structures and landscapes rather than the action?
DW: I don’t intend to do anything, I just like looking at it.
BJP: Do you think photography has the power to change events?
DW: I do, but I’m nervous of the idea that photographers can be missionaries who can change things. I think photographs can do it, accidentally sometimes, but I’m nervous of the idea of the photographer as activist. I respect it, but I’m truly nervous of it.
BJP: Do you see yourself as fitting in with a new wave in documentary photography, along with photographers such as Simon Norfolk and Luc Delahaye?
DW: No, and I don’t like the idea of a ‘new wave’, although I am very proud to be part of a generation of photographers equally interested in similar subject matter. We all have our reasons for making work; I enjoy looking at things I find fascinating, and it’s an obsession that comes from childhood. Growing up in a conflict has profound effects [Wylie grew up in Belfast] but that’s a long conversation we don’t have time for. Ultimately, I do it because I enjoy it.
I make the work for myself because I want to do it – I’m grateful that people enable me to do it, and I hope it’s of use and value. Where I go forward, where I develop, is by taking something I’ve known from childhood but following it to a place that I don’t know. I want to see things differently, but I want to see them in the context of the language I understand. Hopefully I can learn.
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