Under the skin of conflict


When photographer Simon Norfolk embarked on a project grounded in the pictures of Irishman John Burke, who had worked in Afghanistan more than a century before him, he created a collaboration that spans space and time and is striking in its similarities

IN OCTOBER 2010, Simon Norfolk went to Afghanistan to take a series of photographs. He was following in the footsteps of the 19th-century Irish-born photographer John Burke, who had documented Afghanistan during an earlier conflict. More than a century earlier, in fact: the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880. Norfolk saw his project as a collaboration with Burke, extending across space and time, and their work is shown side by side in a major exhibition, Burke + Norfolk, which opens at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork next Friday.

There are clear differences between the images made by the two photographers. For one thing, Norfolk works in colour. But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the two bodies of work is not their differences, but their underlying similarities, and how they reveal what Norfolk terms “the circularity of history”. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, he is based in Hove in England and has built up a formidable reputation and a superb body of work dominated by what might be called landscapes of conflict that include Iraq and Bosnia as well as Afghanistan. Like Burke, he uses a large-format camera, making big, considered, extraordinarily detailed images.

“The thing I like most about photography, that you have to get out there and see what the world actually looks like, is also the thing that frustrates me most about it,” he says. “Because you’re dealing with appearances, with the skin of things. I don’t want to see a picture of a child starving. I want to know why that child is starving.”

Viewing Afghanistan in the light of Burke’s work, and showing his own photographs alongside Burke’s, allows Norfolk to penetrate that skin. He feels it adds a huge historical dimension, a depth and context to the images. “I wasn’t surprised that the American soldiers there in 2001 didn’t know anything about the history of Afghanistan, or even that the British soldiers there now don’t know the history. But I found the Afghans really know their own history. They know when and where the battles were, and what happened. For them, we’re just the latest wave of bandits and interlopers passing through.”

Norfolk feels Burke’s work has an edge that is missing from most colonial photography. “And I think that derives from his position as an outsider. He was an outsider on several counts: he was Irish, he was a Catholic and he was a tradesman. Perhaps even despite himself, that comes through in his approach. There’s a generosity to his view of Afghanistan that is truly exceptional.”

As Omar Khan put it in his book From Kashmir to Kabul, Burke “was very good at actually showing the local people as equals”. To elaborate, Norfolk says: “For example, when Burke arrived in Afghanistan, among his first photographs there were group studies of nine surgeons of Kabul, and portraits of policemen in Kabul. He was representing a highly advanced, organised society, not bandit country. He wasn’t looking down on the Afghans, as British photographers tended to do. And that comes across very clearly in his photographs.”

That continues throughout Burke’s Afghan work, which depicts every aspect of life and culture.

Norfolk spent a year and a half researching Burke, who he describes as “the greatest Irish photographer you’ve never heard of”. It was frustrating, because documentation is scant. He hopes more information might emerge as a result of the exhibition.

We know that Burke came from Co Wicklow and died in 1900, but we do not know exactly when he was born. “When he was in his early teens, his father enlisted in the British army and was immediately sent to India with the Royal Artillery Regiment.” There, the young Burke received some training as an apothecary, and may have been working with gunpowder. But, like many of those who went to India, Burke’s father died within a few years.

“Burke was taken under the wing of William Baker, another Irishman, and a photographer,” says Norfolk. “Within a relatively short time – and I think this gives us an idea of what Burke was like – it became Burke and Baker Photographers, and Burke married Baker’s sister. Then it was Burke, Photographer and finally, when he had become very well known, it was as Burke, Photographer Artiste.”

Norfolk found that Burke preoccupied him to a disconcerting extent. “You feel you’re getting to know someone when you’re studying them so intently. But there are huge gaps in our knowledge. He worked as a photographer for 40 years but there isn’t a single photograph of him. I figure he was fairly small, because he was in great demand as a jockey in India. I wonder whether he retained an Irish accent.”

Then Norfolk began to discover a less prepossessing side to his subject. “There was a lot of discord in the family. There were illegitimate children. I think Burke was socially ambitious and he wanted to leave his background behind him.

“When his wife died of cholera, he went on to marry a Protestant woman of a certain social standing. The evidence is that he was touchy, that he could be difficult. It’s odd to spend a lot of time researching someone and then to find out that, well, he may not have been a nice guy. I think he was a bit of a weasel. But that stems from his background, too, which also accounts for the remarkable quality of his work.”

IN 2001, NORFOLK was in Afghanistan to work on his series Chronotopia, depicting a blasted, damaged, ruined landscape in magisterially composed images. He does himself some disservice in saying photography restricts him to dealing with the skin of things. He is one of several contemporary photographers whose work nudges us insistently towards looking beyond appearances. It does so by eschewing pictorial cliche and conventions, encouraging us to think about the meaning of what we are looking at rather than presenting us with neatly packaged meanings.

In 2001, he says, he had been “looking at paintings a lot, at classical landscapes: Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. I photographed things in a golden light. There’s a kind of serenity to that classical view, a calm awareness that empires rise and fall.

“If you look at the more recent work, you’ll see the light is bluer. I made the photographs at a different hour of the day, earlier or later. I think it has to do with my view of things, which has become more bitter, more despairing of the way things are going. In 2001 I thought the Afghan war would be over quickly.”

Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan by John Burke and Simon Norfolk is at the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, until June 30th.

Norfolk will discuss the exhibition and his work at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Co Wicklow, on April 18th at 7pm and at the Crawford on April 19th at 5.30pm.

In partnership with Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh, Co Cork, Norfolk will give a four-day masterclass from June 28th to July 1st. See crawfordartgallery.ie/events; 021-4273377