It’s that time of year again. The leaves are glowing crimson, the air is crisp, and out have come the chunky knits and felt coats (and, to my horror, Ugg boots, again!). Autumn has made a welcome return, and this year she brings with her the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial.
The BPB is a high-profile event in the international photographic calendar. Showcasing images by profession and amateur photographers alike, the BPB comprises ten exhibitions held at various venues in Brighton and around the South-East coast (of England, not Guernsey, dear reader). The purpose of the festival is not only to celebrate international photographic practice, but also to provoke topical debate.
This year’s Biennial, guest curated by writer and critic, Julian Stallabrass, lives up to this aim. For the past few years, we have been bombarded by images of Iraq and Afghanistan; so much so that, in this age of spin, we have come to question the integrity of the photographic image. How much of war photography is about depicting a reality, and how much of it is heavily biased by political allegiances? Such questions are raised by 2008’s Biennial, which offers the public a look at a range of images taken and circulated during times of conflict.
The BPB’s focal exhibition, Iraq through the Lens of Vietnam, explores the idea that images of Iraq have conjured into public consciousness grisly memories of Vietnam. The layout of the exhibition leads the visitor to look first at Vietnam and then at Iraq. It urges the viewer to consider how the photographic documentation of how Vietnam has informed the images we now see online and in the mainstream press. One of the legacies of Vietnam is the ideologically-charged photo, and what is made its strong influence on the photographic representation of Iraq.
This is highlighted by the contrast between presentations of (apparently) heroic US soldiers in soft-focus, and horrifying snapshots of dismembered Iraqi civilians. The ‘image war’ spoken of by Donald Rumsfeld is starkly illuminated. It is made even more apparent by the depiction of children in each; on the one hand, kids are shown playing football with Western soldiers, and on the other, they are shown as the victims of cruel and indiscriminate warfare. The news editors on both sides certainly know how to attract the sympathetic public gaze.
It is this focus on how the images are used, as well as the obvious issue of what they depict, that makes the theme of this year’s Biennial particularly powerful. Rather than acting simply as a crusade against war, it probes deeper to show us how images are used by all sides to shape public opinion. Essentially underpinning this is a reflection on our own global culture, a culture saturated by image and the news equivalent of fast-food. We are forced to question our faith in the media – an act of independence which is, surely, a good thing.
Despite delving into the deeper implications of today’s images of conflict, there is one thing about the Biennial that really sticks: the undeniable horror and inhumanity of war. Photographers on the opposition may have been photographing with an agenda in mind, but their visual documentations of the ravages of war do not lie.
As the economic Winter draws in, such images are being replaced by falling graphs of the Dower Jones Index. Ultimately, in the face of this media shift, this year’s Brighton Photo Biennial is a crucial reminder of what is still tragically going on in the world. Its tone is sombre, and at times harrowing. It is also informative, and absolutely necessary.
The Brighton Photo Biennial runs until the 23rd November. For more information visit www.bpb.org.uk
XEROX Issue 3