The Imperial War Museum's research curator of photographs discusses images of conflict, the legacy of war, and the dangers of snap judgements, in an interview first published in BJP's June issue
I saw a rough-and-ready exhibition about events during the Prague Spring. It was 1977, and I was a student visiting the Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakian capital. The show was very basic in its curatorship and design; what we’d now call a pop-up. But it made me realise how photography can transcend language barriers.
Photography has the ability to tell a story on multiple levels. The Prague exhibition complied with the state messages of the time, and yet, when you looked at the photographs, there was a subtext telling a very different story.
The exhibition was about the reassertion of law and order. But it was also clearly an exploration of popular protest and a demand for democracy and freedom of expression.
I joined the Imperial War Museum in 1980 as a junior curator. I’ve worked here ever since. I thought two years would do it, but then The Falklands conflict happened. At that point, the subject leapt off the pages of the history books and into the present day.
The role of a photography curator was very much in its infancy. The museum was a different place. There were no computers. There were a mere five million images in our archive [there are now 11 million]. And very few people had any interest in who the conflict photographer was, or how they did their job. That has completely changed.
Our focus was almost completely the story of the two World Wars. There was little interest in subsequent events. I met some extraordinary people who were veterans of both World Wars. The memories of many of them remain with me today.
People often think they know more than they do about war. After all, our understanding of, and access to, information has never been better. But many people of my generation had family members who had been there, so we heard first-hand experience of the war.
For quite some time there’s been the belief that no photographs were taken of the Falklands War. Actually there were, but they couldn’t get back to Fleet Street in time for publication.
The invasion of Iraq was the first digital war. But there was little in place in terms of procedures and standards that would allow us to collect and preserve the photographic material that came from that war zone.
It’s difficult to try and make sense of the Cold War, let alone events in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria. It takes a lot of time to collect the resources we need to be able to properly tell the story of these conflicts. So we have to be honest about the limitations of information available to us.
Information moves around the world faster and in greater quantities than ever before. But is it fact or fiction? That’s a key question in a conflict.
Even for documentary photographers, you have to consider the controls they were working under. This could be geographical or practical, such as their ability to be mobile in a war zone, or they could have been censored. But there’s also publishing imperatives to consider.
When facts are not known or disputed, or when an artist uses photography as way of expressing opinions, then it’s the curators job to communicate that. You act as a bridge between a photographer’s work and their audience.
We want to encourage people to engage with, and not turn away from, images of conflict. That means we have to try to tell a story. I’ve learnt a lot about narrative and design techniques; about how to contextualise and understand the story behind image.
War is one of the most intense human experiences. It doesn’t end with a surrender ceremony. The legacy of war lives on, and we have to be aware of the lasting affects of conflict.
Photographs of conflict have a particular power. They have the ability to create an instantaneous and lasting impression, but they can also be extremely misleading. The question for anyone looking at modern images of conflict is – can I believe what I’m seeing?
People tend to equate the genre of war photography with a small number of frontline combat or press photographers. It is much broader than that, and it’s a big mistake to equate the genre with a small number of individuals.
When all is said and done, a photographer is defined by his or her mind. Your personal experience of life can’t be separated from your photography. And that’s particularly true of looking at any image of conflict.
Hilary Roberts curated the exhibition Sergey Ponomarev: A Lens on Syria, on show at IWM London until 3 September 2017. www.iwm.org.uk This interview was first published in the June issue of BJP, which is available from www.thebjpshop.com