Photography as passion, seduction and a moral imperative. Photography as an eco-system, hatred and an after-feeling of the unwritten play. Photography as a thing you cannot keep unsaid. Simon Norfolk talks to «Bleek Magazine», and the interview results in the most emotional long read aimed at those full of hatred and a need to take action
Simon Norfolk is a landscape photographer whose work has been themed around probing and stretching of the meaning of the word “battlefield” in all its forms. As such, he has photographed some of the world’s worst war-zones and refugee crises, but with equal enthusiasm, he photographs supercomputers used to design military systems or test launches of nuclear missiles. Norfolk’s work has been widely recognized internationally: he has won Le Prix Dialogue at Les Recontres d’Arles (2005); The Infinity Prize from The International Center of Photography (2004); the Foreign Press Club of America Award (2003) and was the winner of the European Publishing Award for Photography (2002). In 2003 he was shortlisted for the Citibank (Deutsche Börse) Photography Prize.
Simon Norfolk has produced four monographs including ‘Burke+Norfolk; Photographs from the War in Afghanistan’ (2011), ‘Afghanistan: chronotopia’ (2002), which was published in 5 languages; ‘For Most Of It I Have No Words’ (1998) about the landscapes of genocide; ‘Bleed’ (2005) about the war in Bosnia. His works have been collected by The Museum of Fine Art, Houston and Deutsche Börse Art Collection in Frankfurt and the collection of the British Council. Simon Norfolk lives and works in Hove and Kabul.
Bleek Magazine: The visual language you use to speak on one of the most burning issues of nowadays, namely wars and conflicts, is often described as “slow” and “beautiful”. To many people this may sound as a paradox if we bear in mind that you are a war photographer. Apart from showing your discontent and anger towards the existing imperialistic order, can you agree that your projects actually challenge the “traditional” photojournalism?
Simon Norfolk: My projects do not challenge traditional photojournalism and they are not meant to do it either. I would not say that my work stands outside traditional photojournalism or opposite it. I rather see photography as existing in a kind of eco-system. For I do not think that for people who had not seen pictures of Afghanistan and soldiers, my own pictures would make any sense at all.
The way war is being photographed is partial and untrue and does not represent its real nature. It is always about a kind of heroism of the soldier, particularly the American and British soldier.
So I set myself as being in counter-opposition to that. And if you want to be in counter-opposition to something, you cannot dismiss the opposition, because you exist in symbiotic relations with it.
When I say “eco-system” I mean existing alongside with all other kinds of photography that come from Afghanistan: pictures by Afghan photographers, video, film, poetry, all the things that we read in newspapers, all the pictures that we see there. These all are a part of the stream which creates a certain understanding and this understanding can be false, partial, confused and the rest of it. Any artists that think they arrive and can sweep that away are idiots. You cannot overthrow it just by making some photographs.
On the contrary, photographers can try and change this situation – alter it, mess with it, play with it but not just sweep it away just because they do not want it. You have to take it on and I hope that is what I do with my own photography.
I hope that when people see my photos of Afghanistan they react like this, “Hey, wait a second, what the hell is this?” That is what I meant to do.
I would not use the word “challenge” because that suggests I want a defeat. And I do not want to defeat photojournalism, I want to confuse and contradict it. I want to be in opposition to it and make people think on what is going on in Afghanistan, try to find it out for themselves.
Bleek Magazine: Some critics say that the epoch of the “decisive moment” in photography is coming to an end. Do you agree with this statement? Or will it just continue to exist in a universe of its own, parallel with other trends in contemporary photography?
Simon Norfolk: A lot of photojournalism is really interesting and great. It describes and tells our world for us and shows us the things that are happening at places we do not go to, places we do not experience. You can challenge those later on or you can say that you want to change the emphasis, but in no way just dump photojournalism. Neither do I want to dump decisive moments. I judged World Press Photo this year and the works I saw were extraordinary strong.
Every three years I read an article that says, “Oh, photojournalism is over!” and then it goes quiet for another two years. I think the answer is clear, “No, it is not over! It is moving elsewhere, but it is not over!” Certainly, we do not expect “The New York Times Magazine” to publish the same articles and pictures they made 20 years ago. Nothing about it is the same, because it is developing and moving on. And obviously no silly little art-school fashions can really have an impact on photojournalism and photography.
In Afghanistan photographers are trying to show decisive moments, to be photojournalists and portray their world with urgency and bravery and I am very proud of that. Two years ago one of them [Massoud Hossaini] won the Pulitzer Prize, and I think that is fantastic! The picture that won the prize was shocking, raw and crude – all the things you have seen before but it still surprises you!
Whenever somebody says that photography has lost its power, something even more terrible happens in the world and I see photographs that once again make me feel angry, engaged, impassioned and afraid! So I guess the answer is “no”, photography is not losing its power, it is just moving to other places. Maybe it just tells the story in a slightly different way.
But at the same time I do see fresh series of clichés… Last night I spent four bloody hours judging some crap competition in Croatia and what I saw there was so clichéd!
High contrast black and white pictures of people having sex or injecting heroin, soft focus pictures of “I went to Grandma’s house and I photographed the dust on the window-sill”; boring pictures of places where battles happen with long captions telling why it was meant to be very interesting and I actually find it really boring just because photography is terrible. All the same kind of art clichés are being repeated over and over.
Bleek Magazine: And why is it happening?
Simon Norfolk: There is no institutional memory. Often when you see a photograph you realize that it was actually made 20 years ago or so. There is no caring of the memory.
Another problem is the quality of education in photography. The teachers of photography are failed photographers and now there are so many of them lecturing all over the world! The way photography is taught in the UK is very academic. You get a photography degree not for being a good photographer but for writing about photography. They do not study the history of photography. And nor do they learn any technique, either. The problem is that nobody is making A GOOD PICTURE. They produce pieces of work that might make an interesting thesis or possibly a mildly interesting installation but they do not contain any good images.
Bleek Magazine: Is it because everybody wants a quick result to become immediately famous?
Simon Norfolk: No, everybody wants a result they can test. You cannot give a degree unless you can grade it. But because the people teaching this degree do not really know much about photography and they can hardly see the difference between a good and a bad photograph they prefer an easier way. They give degrees in photography for writing, since it is not so difficult to read a thesis and say “Well, that’s a good piece of analysis” and “That’s a badly written piece”. Liberal Arts degrees have been doing that for a long time.
Bleek Magazine: It is true that people do not react any more with the same emotional response as they did a century ago when looking at images of suffering and death?
Simon Norfork: Probably you remember the image of the little boy that drowned on the beach in Turkey. His name was Alan Kurdi. In this country it caused a complete change of attitude to immigration. Even the ruling conservative party had to rush through legislation. On Friday they were talking about immigrants as scum and as a horde – and on Monday they were talking about sending battle ships to Turkey to do something about this.
One picture of one little boy has completely changed the way most people were thinking about immigration in the country.
When I saw that picture I was unbelievably upset, just like everybody in the UK, I think. It made me feel completely different about refugees – it made me feel that they were real. I thought I needed to say something about it, too and I probably will.
My wife does not enjoy me going to places like Afghanistan. But when we watch TV news and there is some fucking liar telling lies about what is going on and I start swearing at television the next thing she says is just “Go! Go and do it!” So, I do not walk away from it and I do not feel dead about these things – on the contrary. I am 53 years old and I still feel that fucking rage about the world when I see something like a dead 3-year old boy on the beach! That is what I felt when I was 19… Nothing changed in me.
You and I are storytellers and it is our job to find new and interesting ways to start telling stories. We cannot begin all our stories with “once upon a time a long, long time ago…” Audience would be bored! We are professional storytellers and our job is to come up with really good stories, which is not so easy.
So, when people do not react to our story, it does not mean that something is wrong with them. It just means that the story is boring and we have to improve at what we do.
Photographers should not be blaming the audience just because they do not know how to connect with it. The task for you and me is to CONNECT! Otherwise we are wasting our time, aren’t we?
There are some art forms that do not go through all these existential crises. People writing novels do not stand up saying, “Novels do not work anymore, we should do something else”. People just say, “Come up with a new novel. Come up with a new and exciting way that would make people want to read books!”
When people see my photos of Afghanistan they say, “Wow, it is beautiful! But I don’t understand, what is that?” and this is how I get them hooked! After that they will listen to all the rest of the story. I would not get them interested in those things if I were photographing soldiers running in the battle field, or a wounded kid in the hospital, or a Muslim woman crying at a grave. If I did that, it would mean that I was not trying really hard to engage with them.
Bleek Magazine: How can more photographers aspire to “penetrate the superficial skin of what photography has to be”? Will “non-Capa images” ever prevail among the World Press Photo winners?
Simon Norfolk: I do not want to take any more pictures that show the way the things look. I have been doing it for 20 years. But at the same time I do not expect Afghan photographers to take pictures like mine. I think they should take their own pictures. They are on their own journey.
I am not very happy about the contents many photojournalists produce, but I do not have a problem with photojournalism per se.
The way I found to penetrate the superficial skin and the look of things was to think about history, about time and the time’s passage and the time moving through that landscape.
For example, the project that I did with John Burke who was in Afghanistan in 1878… I could have said, “OK, project… Let’s go to Kabul and photograph the way the new city looks, its hot shopping centers and luxury apartment buildings!” But it seemed to me that it was much more interesting to put my vision next to that of John Burke’s, using him as a guidebook to show me around the town and by looking at his vision try to copy it and look at those things he was interested in. It was much more interesting because of who he was – a photographer who came to Afghanistan as a part of the British imperial missions. And so immediately the work was talking about imperialism.
In this way you get connected with that period and start reflecting: what was in common with that time, what has changed since then, what is being repeated? Once it was the British and now it is the Americans. Something is different but a lot of things are in common.
For me the only way to get through that “skin thing”, the plastic wrapped around the surface appearance of things was by placing those kinds of contexts and trying to dig up forgotten histories. I was trying to paint histories back into that landscape like it was with the glacier of Mount Kenya. It was the method I have chosen but there are many other photographers with methods of their own who work in that industry.
I do not expect to overthrow photojournalism and drop it into the garbage bin of history. But for photojournalism, I would not know what my world would look like. We need to have a view first and then we need to correct it. We cannot do the correction in the laboratory and then apply it to the world.
I can still say that I hate photography produced by a particular photographer, but I hate it not because I dislike photojournalism. I hate what it represents – that political opinion or bias about the world. It is like you meet a politician whose opinions you do not share. Are you going to kill him then? There is no point in doing it, because the reason why he has these opinions is because they are shared by millions of people behind him. If I assassinate the politician all these people would not change their minds. All I have to do is to challenge his politics and prove him that he is wrong as well as to prove it to the people behind him.
The problem is the idea not the man. You have to kill the idea and that’s a lot harder.
Bleek Magazine: How do you see the future of “war photography” in general? And the future of big photojournalistic contests, like World Press Photo?
Simon Norfolk: World Press Photo has got its challenges and ethical problems of truth and manipulation. But I hope it will not go away, because the competition is great. I really like what World Press Photo stands for and it has been doing its job quite well for 50 years.
I see that war photography is changing radically. And I think the era of sending «a white guy»-photographer at the other side of the world to the war zone to capture «the truth» is over and it is good. This strategy has proven itself to be untruthful, stupidly expensive and producing a very garbaged view of the world – absolutely colonial and imperialistic.
It turns out that the first thing those «white guy»-photographers do when arriving to Kabul is asking, “Well, what is happening here?” So, he has come all this way and he does not know what the fuck is going on!?? And he can’t speak the language! Why can’t your magazine get me, an Afghan guy, to photograph this? Because I am a good photographer, you just don’t know about me! But not only am I a good photographer, I speak the language and I really know what is going on here. And probably I can make better pictures than that guy who is coming here for 2 days and then flying away.
That model is completely absurd!
So, if that era is dead, then it is good. It was colonial and arrogant and produced the views of the world that were dominated by the agendas of big news magazines and news organizations. And when some English photographer comes up to me and says, “I’m going to Afghanistan!” I ask them not to. I tell them, “Please, don’t go. You have nothing to say and nothing to contribute. Why don’t you take those 2 000 dollars and send it to an Afghan photographer and get him do it? The pictures he would make would also be much more interesting”.
Unfortunately, this practice is not really very much wide-spread. Magazines and newspapers do it because it is cheaper and some of them face huge financial problems now. A lot of big agencies also hire Afghan photographers because it is a lot cheaper if they get killed, apparently – a couple of thousand dollars for the family and they can forget about it. Whereas in case they employ some English guy and he gets killed – it would cost them millions.
Bleek Magazine: And under what conditions do you believe the situation might change?
Simon Norfolk: I remember one episode that generated that sort of change. It was “Operation Cast Lead” – one of the Israeli attacks in Gaza that really opened my eyes. The Israelis attacked Gaza in 2008, they started bombing the place and the field all and off and foreign photographers just could not get in. They were all standing on a hill, locked out, watching the bombing from 3 miles away. All the news organizations had to get local photographers to photograph the spot and those turned out to be really great! They were not only good picture makers but mainly really brave! And it made many news organizations change their attitude. I think they learned a lot from that.
Another condition can be a newspaper’s total bankruptcy. In this case they just would not be able to afford themselves to pay for a foreign photographer.
Bleek Magazine: By the way that can be one of the tendencies for possible future change of World Press Photo, cannot it? If we assume that photography is becoming global in a way that there are more local photographers coming into the light, no?
Simon Norfolk: Yes, and it would really be great! The best thing about World Press Photo and the reason why I admire them as an organization is that many years ago they started asking themselves: “Why are there no Nigerian photographers? No Cuban winners of World Press Photo? No Mexicans?” And when they sent people to ask these questions they got to know there were no eco-systems in these countries. For example, in Vietnam there are no magazines, no art schools, no galleries, no photo clubs…
You cannot be a photojournalist in Nigeria because no one will pay you to do the pictures, no one will want to publish them, there is no prize for it, no galleries for it, no magazines. You have to make it all, to generate all of it, if you want to have a thing called “a Nigerian photojournalist”. It is very complicated.
World Press Photo builds that background to raise money, establish entire photo schools and send people like me in those places for a year to kick off and start a photo tradition. They have already implemented such a program in Nigeria, in Armenia and in the whole load of countries around the world and now we are gradually starting to see the results. The students from those schools are starting to do quite well but only due to the fact that World Press Photo went out and created eco-system in their countries where everything had been missing.
Sometimes, it appears to me that the education program of World Press Photo is even more important than the prize. It shows a very intelligent thinking! It is very Dutch, very smart! The English would never do that.
Bleek Magazine: Do you consider the landscape to be a more reliable witness than a person? Why did you decide to photograph landscapes and not people? Is it because of the beauty, or a larger freedom and room for interpretation that a landscape gives us, a more abstract scale? Why cities and not people?
Simon Norfolk: The issue of reliability, in my opinion, is quite interesting. You know one of the first landscape places I went to photograph was Auschwitz. After the Second World War it became a place of quite intensely contested political memory. When I first came to Auschwitz, I realized that what happened to the Jews there had been left almost unmentioned; it was entirely missing from the narrative of the place!
So, it seemed to me from the very beginning that human memory is a manufactured object, it depends on time and the politics, and the things that are being remembered are those that are politically useful to remember. Thus, I could remotely rely on humans and on human memory.
But when I looked at landscapes around Auschwitz, it almost seemed that they wanted to vomit out the poison of what they had witnessed. It was as though they could not bear to hold it and if you had bothered to equip yourself with a little bit of history of what had happened, you could spend some time in amongst those landscapes and understand that they wanted to tell you their story. When I was putting my camera on them, it felt uneasy because the fog would come in and it would look like gas, and then your eyes would fall on the bare wire and it would look like tears…
As a photographer it was almost easy to photograph that because it was so resonant.
I have always felt something like that about landscapes. What attracts me as a photographer are those layers of history lying on top of each other. And my job is to find stuff out there in the field, blow the dust off, put in on the ground, clean it out and then show it to you saying, “Look, look! Look, what I have found!” That is what I do as a photographer, although in this regard my job looks more like that of an archeologist.
So places that interest and excite me most are those which have many strata visible in their landscapes. One of them is Afghanistan. London can be like that too. Standing on a street corner, sometimes even without moving your eyes, you can see a brand new bank building across the street, a church built 400-600 years ago and some remains of a Roman fortress under your feet. That kind of depth of history interests me most and a lot of landscapes I come across want to show those strata.
But also I am obsessed with beauty! I have to admit that I really worship it. What I was always using to engage the audience was… seduction. When people come into the galleries, they see my pictures from 30 meters away and they go like, “They look nice!” But when they walk over and read the caption they exclaim, “Fucking hell! What the hell is it?? I didn’t know it was like that!” Well, that’s the seduction! So, I am a good picture maker and I know how to seduce people. I can use lights and landscape and make a beautiful picture because this is my way to bring the audience in, get hold of them and begin the conversation. Beauty has always been my best tactic in bringing the audience in.
How do I get to you otherwise? It is even not about photography, it is about our lives. You need to go shopping, go to work, go to see your friends and so on, you do not really plan to have time to think about Afghanistan! How do the hell I get hold of you and say “Stop! I want you to think about Afghanistan”?
Bleek Magazine: In the project on supercomputers you have already shown your skill of photographing “non-photographic” things from the world of latest digital technologies, physics and chemistry. So, are there any things left that you believe people are still not able to photograph? Are there any things that YOU would never want to photograph?
Simon Norfolk: Nothing is “unphotographable”. The problem is that to penetrate the surface appearance of things and talk about process, capitalism, militarism, imperialism, history, feminism or any of this kind of issues, you need to come up with a very good technique first. It is not impossible, it is just hard. The “unphotographable” things I managed to photograph were the retreat of the glacier, for example, or the relationships between what is happening in the streets of Kabul and what was happening there in 1878.
So, you can really photograph such things as capitalism or globalization, if you manage to find a really good pathway to get into them. A pathway would crack the story open. And it is not an optional thing for photography, it will die without it. That is the only way to remain useful and relevant.
If photography does not do this, if you photograph the dusty corners of your Grandma’s house or make self-portraits because you feel very depressed, then photography is doomed! Because that stuff is self-referential, narcissistic and just uninteresting to the wider world.
And the real apotheosis are those little handmade books when photographers deliberately make works aiming at only 40 or 100 of people. I hate it! How can I make something which has an influence on the smallest number of people? I did not become a photographer to talk to 40 people! I became a photographer to talk to the world!
What I like about photography is its openness and democracy! I can show my pictures in Congo or to my mother and they can get it. Photography is a universal democratic language and that is the best thing about it. If I wanted to talk to 40 people, I would write an opera!
Photographers are so much afraid of the new world, of the social media and the Internet that they are retreating backwards to handmade books as if we were living in the 1890s. It is totally regressive! As for me, I still think that the target audience for photography is everybody on the earth!
Bleek Magazine: The impressive visual dialogue you managed to establish in the “artistic partnership” with John Burke, an Irish photographer who photographed Afghanistan in the late 1870s, serves a good example of how time in the artistic dimension can be treated as a rather relative issue. Someone who lived more than a hundred years ago could teach “a landscape photographer” to shot portraits, to be “generous and gentle”, to approach the subjects with humanism and care. How important is this wider visual and historical context for a contemporary photographer, in your opinion?
What questions would you recommend a photographer to address at the initial stages of his/her involvement with the topic? Like does a good documentary photography start from the library or archive?
Simon Norfolk: I think that I started every project I have ever done with a whole series of negatives. What do I not know about? What do other people not know about? What is not being told? What other parts of the story are missing? How can I say something that other artists are not saying about that?
There is a playwright here in the UK called Lucy Prebble whom I find really clever. She says that when you want to write a play, you should write it backwards. You need to start by asking yourself: when people leave the theater, what is the feeling that you want them to have? So work out what this feeling is and how you can write a play that leaves them feeling that way. Thus playwriting will be easy because you know where it is going.
I meet a lot of people who say, “Oh, I am photographing in Palestine. I am really interested in this country”. And I would think – so what? It does not mean I should be interested in it just because you are, does it? I really do not understand photojournalists who would spend a week in Palestine while it is very violent there and then they would get on a plane and go somewhere else.
I remember that when being in Rwanda in the 1990s I was so upset by the things that I saw and the stories people told me. I did not want to hear those stories – I am a fucking landscape photographer! But somehow I got stuck in them and once you hear them you cannot unhear… you cannot think, “Oh, this is a very good story and I can get a prize for it or sell the pictures and get a lot of money!” Once you hear those stories you cannot just jump on a plane or walk away.
Your photography has to turn into a moral imperative. There is a sort of moral residue that sticks to you and you start thinking, “How in God’s name can I do something to make sure you don’t have to live that story again? What can I do for you?” You cannot look at those people and go… You cannot do that. I cannot do that. I hope I can’t. I wish I could…
I still feel very passionate about things I photograph. My passion is a kind of hatred and I try to feed it. It is hard, because everything says, “Come to terms with hatred, stop doing it, especially as you get older.” But I am sure that if you have this hatred, it must never be extinguished. Hatred is fire, and fire is fuel. And fuel is what gets you outdoors.
I could have got a fucking teaching job somewhere and repeat myself for the next twenty years making a nice salary. It might be my life if I wanted to.
Bleek Magazine: … but it would not be you?
Simon Norfolk: … I would not like me very much… Maybe one day when I am older, I will have to do this, because I will not be able to go off on the round. But definitely not now.
© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Olga Bubich
All the images courtesy © Simon Norfolk