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The Legacy of War Examined in New Exhibition at Tate Modern

09/12/2014 17:20 GMT | Updated 08/02/2015 10:59 GMT

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Timed to coincide with the First World War centenary, the Tate Modern has opened a new exhibition that examines wars and conflict in photography. But this is not a simple display of photojournalism.

Conflict, Time, Photography brings together work from many photographers who have looked back at moments of conflict, from seconds after a bomb is detonated to 100 years after a war has ended. And it is this focus on the passing of time, the gap between time of conflict and time of photograph taken, which brings a different viewpoint from the more usual war reportage.

The exhibition opens with Don McCullin's iconic image of a shell-shocked US Marine involved in fighting the Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968, and words from author Kurt Vonnegut who witnessed the bombing of Dresden in 1945 but struggled to finish his book on the experience - Slaughterhouse Five.

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The Tate uses this as a starting point - those moments just after the heat of battle - when chaos and scars are immediate and visible and from here it examines how that damage fades and disappears over time, as well as taking into account Vonnegut's commentary on needing time to fully comprehend and detail that experience.

There are other iconic images in this exhibition, including Susan Meiselas' photograph of a Sandinista throwing a Molotov cocktail which, 25 years after it was taken, was adopted as the official symbol of the anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution. And the Tate has also brought together many images of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, including many that were suppressed by the Americans for decades after the blast.

The big global conflicts are of course heavily represented but regional and local conflicts and violations are also represented, including photographs from the Republic of Congo, Lithuania and the American Civil War.

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Photographers Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin have a few pieces in this exhibition including a stunning roll of photographic paper that was exposed to the Afghanistan heat for The Day Nobody Died. But it was their extrapolation of images from Northern Ireland that intrigued me most.

Belfast Exposed was a local project during The Troubles (I hate that term but just go with me here) where local amateur and professional photographers preserved images of life in Northern Ireland. Broomberg and Chanarin revisited this archive in 2011 and selected fragments of these images, random parts of the photographs that had been covered by archival stickers, and collated these in a single display.

The collection is arresting in its composition - a wall covered with circular excerpts from larger images - but it's a fascinating insight into everyday life in Northern Ireland during this conflict.

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Diane Mater's photographs from Libya are a stand-out collection for me. Similar to Hrair Sarkissian's Execution Squares series from Syria in the Tate's other galleries, these photographs were taken in 2012 of sites where Gaddafi had thousands of his political prisoners and opponents executed.

As Diane says in notes accompanying her images, for human rights violations "there are rarely any physical evidence of the crime, no body, no marked grave and no forensic proof." And that is evident in her photos of a town squares and abandoned buildings. Her photo of the Mediterranean Sea, where Gadaffi disposed of the ashes of 1270 political prisoners he had executed and then pulverised in cement mixers is particularly poignant.

At the conclusion of the exhibition are those images where the time lapse between conflict and photograph is 100 years and more and there's an eerie sense of ghostly shadows and the weight of history in them.

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In 2013 photographer Chloe Dewe Matthews revisited sites across Western Europe where British, French and Belgian soldiers were executed for cowardice and desertion. She deliberately took her photos of woods and fields in early morning as this was the time the executions were done.

Similar to Diane Mater's photographs of Libya, these photographs are powerful in their silence and in their absence of any visible scars, as if the irrepressible passage of time is wiping away all evidence of these crimes. And I sensed something of the Anselm Kiefer in her photograph of the snow-covered woodland scene in Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaandern.

This is certainly a very heavy exhibition. As you'd expect from the subject matter, there's no joy to be found in these photographs. And the exhibition is vast, filling many galleries. But there's such power in the weight of these images, and it's so important that as these physical scars of war heal and survivors pass on, that we remember wars and those who fought and died in them. Never forget.

Tate Modern, London to March 15, 2015

Admission: £14.50 (concessions available)

Image Credits:

1. Don McCullin, Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968

2. Toshio Fukada, The Mushroom Cloud - Less than 20 minutes after the explosion 1945

3. Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin The Press Conference, June 9, 2008, The Day Nobody Died 2008 Courtesy of the Artists © Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin

4. Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Kurchatov - Architecture of a Nuclear Test Site 2012

5. Chloe Dewe Matthews, Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013