Not only was last Friday’s trip to Ffotogallery in Cardiff the OCA’s first photography study visit in Wales, but it was also a different take on our regular outings, by combining a visit to an exhibition with a group tutorial.
Voices of the South Atlantic, which is a partnership between Ffotogallery, Photofusion and Autograph ABP, shows about eight years of Adriana Groisman’s (b. 1959, Buenos Aires) investigation into the aftermath of the war in the Falkland Islands. The show comprises multiple viewpoints of the conflict, from commanders to conscripts, as well as civilians who were caught in the crossfire. Albeit a distanced, ‘longer view’, the work provides a pertinent and much needed visualisation of the conflict, the image of which was carefully and deliberately excluded from our collective consciousness, and has been managed into a few, often-repeated snippets of video footage and sound-bites.
One of the most moving pieces of the show is a giant memorial to the 504 personnel from both sides that died at sea during the conflict. Groisman has created an enormous panel of tightly cropped monochrome seascapes, each inscribed with the name (just the name) of each serviceman. In quite a stark contrast to this evocative, yet somewhat anonymous work are the giant close-up portraits of the British and Argentinean military commanders, hung at opposite ends of the first floor of the gallery. In both of these pieces, Groisman adopted deliberately egalitarian, democratic visual strategies, and in this sense, the work overall is very diplomatic.
Bringing together the different strands of Voices of the South Atlantic is a video which includes some of Groisman’s other photographs, not hung in this show, of particular interest is the inclusion of many more portraits like those of the two commanders, as well as recordings of eye-witness testimonials, and other landscape images.
Ffotogallery kindly provided their exhibitions officer, Helen Warburton, to talk a little more about Groisman’s work, as well as some of the logistics of putting on a show like this, and collaborating with other organisations. Perhaps inevitably, much of our discussion around her work focussed on contemporary representations of combat and conflict. As Helen pointed out, Groisman’s approach is typical of an established, yet rapidly developing sub-genre of documentary, known as ‘Late Photography’, whose practitioners include the likes of Simon Norfolk, Broomberg & Chanarin and Paul Seawright. (For anyone interested in this, you must look at David Campany’s essay ‘Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on Problems of “Late Photography”’, published in The Cinematic, as well as elsewhere.
Groisman’s intertextual approach was reflected in the diversity of the work brought by the students for the tutorial. (I say ‘tutorial’, but it was really more of a seminar, where we discussed various issues around contemporary practice, as well as important aspects of the modules, and studying with the OCA more generally.) The fact that students were studying at different points on different modules didn’t appear to be an issue at all. I’ve a diverse teaching background, but never been in that situation before, but as I expected, everyone had something (helpful, I think) to say about each other’s work.
“What should I bring to show?” was a question I heard several times ahead of the study visit, to which my response was “don’t bring anything too finished”, the point being that the aim of the event was to help with the direction of student’s projects. Not everything that was brought was being made, strictly speaking, with OCA assignments in mind, and for me, I found this one of the most exciting aspects of the day: Whilst I put a great value on briefs (I have found even the most uninspiring or restrictive commercial briefs have forced me into re-thinking my initial ideas, often for the better), I’m a strong believer that students should make their programme fit their approach to photography, not make work purely for it. Or in other words, it should work for you, not the other way around.
Another thing that seemed relevant to everyone was the importance of research into the subject you’re dealing with. That means not just looking at what other photographers have done with a similar subject, or thinking about the most appropriate way to photograph it. Thinking back, we actually talked very little about Groisman’s actual photography; for instance, picking apart how she addresses themes of loss, reconciliation and uncertainty within her landscape photographs. I apologise if we missed an opportunity here, but what I think this does show is that good documentary work should make us think – and of course talk – first and foremost about the subject, not the mediation of it.
Thank you to those students who came and shared their work. I hope this was a valuable and rewarding experience that we can repeat very soon.