Late Photography

‘Late photography’ is a term that seems to have been coined by David Campany in his essay Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’.  According to Campany (2003), late photography is ‘photographing the aftermath of events – traces, fragments, empty buildings, empty streets, damage to the body and damage to the world.’ It comprises ‘not so much the trace of an event as the trace of the trace of an event.’  In my delving to the understanding of late photography I have looked at David Campany’s essay as well as two journal articles: one by Debbie Lisle entitled ‘The surprising detritus of leisure: encountering the Late Photography of War’ and one by Simon Faulkner entitled: ‘Late Photography, Military Landscapes and the Politics of Memory’. In my analysis I will only touch briefly on some aspects of these articles, as I found in my readings that the more I read, the more I wanted to delve deeper into the subject and the temptation to veer off track was very great.

In this type of photojournalism, the photographers turn up after the event has occurred and document the resulting aftermath. One of the key differences between late photography and photojournalism is the contrast between the photograph of the aftermath and the photograph recording or freezing a human action. As Faulkner (2009) states ‘late photography appears to be marked by an avoidance of instruction; it seems to ‘present’ and ‘record’ rather than ‘comment’.

According to Debbie Lisle (2011), late photography contains a certain ambivalence which can frequently be seen through a common motif: ‘the juxtaposition of leisure and war.’ In her journal entitled The surprising detritus of leisure: Encountering the late photography of war, she explores two themes. The first being the manner in which ‘viewers are invited into a space of contemplation where their familiar emotional responses of pity have no immediate purchase’ (Lisle 2011, p 874).

The late photograph is one that is aesthetically pleasing, often rich with compositional elements of rules of thirds, horizontal and vertical lines, leading lines, light and shadows and muted tones – what Lisle terms ‘formally anachronistic’. However, photography has long lost the race to “break news”. That role has been taken over by video feeds, which are more immediate and action driven. Campany states (2003) that:

The photographs taken come not just in the aftermath of the event, but in the aftermath of video… Today [photojournalists] are as likely to be at the scene of the aftermath because photography is, in relative terms, at the aftermath of contemporary culture.

Thus there are three components to ‘late photography’, namely ‘temporal, technological and formal belatedness’, all of which focus on ruin and absence. The theme of absence is central to late photography as it is the very absence of people and the openness of the scene that invites the viewer to contemplate the image and come to his/her own interpretations. ‘These pictures of the detritus left behind by conflict refer to absence as much as presence and, because of this, are inextricably linked to issues of memory’ (Faulkner, 2009).

In her essay Lisle remarks on the traces of war on the leisure industry. Frequently during war times, hotels, and stadiums are used for various conflict-purposes. Hotels become targets for terrorists groups (Mombasa, Mumbai and Bali), as do shopping centres (Kenya). Hotels are frequently used as detention centres, or billets for soldiers, while stadiums have been used for marshaling refugees or ethic cleansing sites. I had not thought too deeply about this, but in thinking back I do remember history teaching that. Germans seized hotels and even private dwellings to house their troops. Lisle refers to Simon Norfolk’s series “Liberia: Welcome to the Hotel Africa“. Norfolk’s use of light and dark in most of the series depict a sense of the layered histories mentioned in Joseph Conrad’s book “Heart of Darkness”. According to Lisle, Norfolk’s ‘Wrecked Restaurant of the Hotel Africa’ photograph is a perfect example of ‘late photography’. She states (2011, p 880):

it shows a complex, symbiotic, and parasitic relationship between what is inside the Hotel Africa compound … and the surrounding tropical jungle … so that the restaurant’s mimicry of the surrounding jungle blurs the boundary between the ‘man-made’ inside and ‘natural’ outside.

This kind of image by Norfolk does not allow for a speedy resolution, as there are no quick motifs to be decoded by the viewer. There is an encroachment of nature upon the building – moss and mould are growing inside the building and tree branches stretch inside the building through broken window panes. The overall tones of the image are similar to that of an army’s camouflage. There is no invocation of pity involved in this image as the viewer is not in a position of privilege. See also Norfolk’s image of Bratunac Soccer Stadium in Bosnia in his Bosnia: Bleed series where 700 boys and men were held prisoner and where ethnic cleansing took place. Instead, without reading the caption, the viewer is left with an impression of familiarity – the Bosnians also play basketball, just like the Americans do – an attitude of ambivalence. But with the caption stark reality sets in and our view changes.

Another photographer who has photographed leisure and military sites that have fallen into decay and disuse, which attest to the fall of the Soviet military power is Angus Boulton. See his Gymnasia and A Soviet Legacy series.

As previously stated, the absence of people is a central theme to late photography, but in the very absence of the people we expect to see, we are acutely aware of their past presence. The ghosts of the slaughtered men and boys in Bratunac Soccer Stadium, the spectres of former guests in the Hotel Africa, the invisible swimmers in Boulton’s 41 Gymnasia seem to haunt the images by echoing their presence off the walls of the enclosures.

The value of late photography is not in what it tells or does not tell us about conflict zones, but rather in the way that it is able to generate multiple ways of holding one’s attention and by providing the space for a variety of interpretations, some of which will encourage political points of views (the critical stance), while others might favour that of boredom or indifference (the uncritical stance). Lisle (2011, p. 883) argues that ‘ambivalence offers more critical potential as an ethical viewing relation because it does not automatically privilege the viewer … ambivalence … is politically compelling precisely because of its unruly, open, and contingent character.’

Ambivalence in late photography is important because it holds open the interpretation of the image for a long as possible ‘by deferring the moment of closure when meaning becomes totalised and viewers assume a privileged position’ (Lisle, 2011, p.883). I tend to agree with Lisle on this point. As a person not particularly fond of politics myself (or maybe it is the hypocrisy of politicians that puts me off), I would not classify myself as having an uncritical stance. I don’t see myself as the type person who will be off to join every possible cause out there either. Its a little too late in life to start that now. No, I’d put myself in Lisle’s ambivalent grouping, where I can look carefully, mull things over and draw my own conclusions.

References

Boulton, Angus [online]. Available from: http://www.angusboulton.net/ [Accessed 1 June, 2015]

Campany, David, (2003). Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’. [online] Available from: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [Accessed 17 April, 2015]

Faulkner, Simon (2009. Late Photography, Military Landscapes and the Politics of Memory. [online] Open Arts Journal, Issue 3. Available from: https://openartsjournal.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/faulkner_v3_p121-136.pdf

Lisle, D. (2011). The surprising detritus of leisure: Encountering the late photography of war. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 29 (5), 873–890.

Norfolk, Simon [online] Available from: http://www.simonnorfolk.com/pop.html [Accessed 31 May, 2015]

Bibliography

War/Photography: An Interview with Simon Norfolk [online]. Available from: http://bldgblog.blogspot.ca/2006/11/warphotography-interview-with-simon.html [Accessed 31 May, 2015]

Administrative Structures of the German Occupation [online]. Nord Pas de Calais. Available from: http://www.remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com/history/the-department-of-nord-and-the-coal-basin-under-german-occupation/administrative-structures-of-the-german-occupation.html [Accessed 2 June, 2015]

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