As if lifted from a painting by Paula Rego a soldier guides seven blindfolded men across a desert waste. It looks like an illustration to the tale of the goose that laid the golden egg and it is is really big and it is very colourful – very rich saturated colours (printed by Chau Digital I notice). That’s the thing these days if you are going to exhibit then exhibit large. Thomas Struth at The Whitechapel is doing just that to different effect and everywhere you go if you want your photography to be accepted as art (or advertising), or even for it just to be noticed, then big is beautiful. Big is the antidote to the small screen that sits in front of us daily in our workplaces and our homes.
So how does this approach affect reporting from a warzone? The decontextualisation implicit in showing war reportage in an art gallery is nothing new: there have been plenty of exhibitions by Don McCullin and others to stimulate debate, but there is something different afoot here. No grimy darkness, these images fizzle with their brash seduction, they remind me of the large canvases that you would find in the renaissance galleries of the National Gallery. The size and the compositions draw you in and the richness of the colours tease the eye (they are far richer than they would appear in a newspaper or even here on the web). The images are not completely devoid of explanation – a caption sheet at the desk tells you that the blindfolded men are suspected insurgents in Iraq. There are statements lying behind each of the pictures, but here they feel stripped of their specificity and are pushed forward as icons such as in the image below which again is far starker and more graphic in the exhibition than the repro suggests (A woman is caught in the fighting between US marines and insurgents as part of Operation Steel Curtain, Ubaydi, Iraq, 2005):
There are nuances to them though – you pick up on details that a camera includes and a painter might leave out – such as the motif on the blindfolded prisoner’s sock suggesting that at some time those socks were bought from the Iraqi equivalent of Primark. The prosaic meets the iconic as if a laundry tag had been left on Christ’s gown in Carravaggio’s Supper at Emmaeus.
I like these photographs, I like them very much. I would put them on my wall and that worries me. I am certain that it was not Sean Smith’s intention when he was out there surrounded by horror and bullets. They are powerful in the way that they magnify our powerlessness, but what to do?