Geological layers as human history

Photography used as archaeology of human life
Words by
© Simon Norfolk | Shroud, in collaboration with Klaus Thymann

Serene, mysterious and melancholy sheets are draped over ice in the Alpine mountains. The morbid scene seems like a graveyard for the last glaciers of the world, the final remnants of the Anthropocene. The shrouds are dramatically lit in the gloomy dusk emphasizing the eerie atmosphere. The project Shroud by the prolific British photographer Simon Norfolk emerges organically from his earlier works in which the passing of time, captured in an archaeological way, is the leading motive. His work is presented at the Belfast Photo Festival.

Shroud is a project about an attempt to preserve an ice-grotto tourist attraction at the Rhône Glacier. Local Swiss entrepreneurs wrapped a significant section of the ice-body in thermal blankets. The photos Simon Norfolk took of the blankets have a mysterious atmosphere as signs of a geographical funeral. "The way I photographed them emphasized the way the ice-blankets looked like marble tombs. I wanted it to look like Carrara marble, like Michelangelo's Peter Pietà in the Vatican. That was the kind of inspiration and the leading metaphor for the whole project. I lit the cloths from above. A giant helium balloon was carrying the flash, and so we could exactly produce the flashlight at the right angle. With this light, you can see every ripple in the cloth, which is what I wanted to show".

© Simon Norfolk | Shroud (in collaboration with Klaus Thymann)

In this project, Simon Norfolk collaborated with the Danish environmentalist, activist, photographer and creative director Klaus Thymann and his organization ‘Project Pressure’. The title Shroud refers to the melting glacier under its death cloak. Norfolk: "The blankets were completely battered by the weather; it looked like the glacier was being made ready for its own funeral."

The Rhône Glacier is continually sliding downhill and melting every spring. Every year the entrepreneurs have to dig another grotto for their tourist attraction. Simon Norfolk explains: "They take another underground tunnel and charge seventy Swiss francs for entry. The entrepreneurs have done this business for over a hundred years, but in the last thirty years, the glacier has kind of disappeared from view. They had to try and preserve the grotto. So, they put blankets over the cave to reduce the melting of the ice. To replace the blankets every year costs ninety thousand Swiss francs. You need a helicopter to get the material on the glacier. But it's worthwhile for them, financially, because they have tourists paying to go inside the glacier".

© Simon Norfolk | Shroud, in collaboration with Klaus Thymann

Norfolk didn’t think it was important to show the glacier's disappearance in his project because everybody already knows that, and he had done it before in his project When I am laid in Earth. "I think the interesting thing now is not to talk about places that are disappearing. We need to talk about what on earth we are going to do about it. What is going to be the cost? Wealthy countries will probably be able to address these problems. We will build higher sea walls, and we will have electric cars. But in developing countries like India and Brazil, that will not be affordable. It's kind of cynical".

© Simon Norfolk | Shroud, in collaboration with Klaus Thymann


The project When I am laid in Earth by Simon Norfolk was also made in collaboration with Project Pressure. For this project, he photographed pyrographs, fire lines that he drew on the Lewis Glacier of Mt Kenya. The pyrographs represent the front of the glacier at various times in the recent past. This project was a new development in the work of Norfolk because his earlier work had warfare as the central theme, and this was his first project with the environment as the theme. "It was not a big rupture. I invented the pyrographs three years before because I had the idea to draw borders where the fighting was in Sarajevo, but it didn't work there. But now, I could quickly adapt it to this project".

© Simon Norfolk | When I am laid in Earth

© Simon Norfolk | When I am laid in Earth

In his previous work, Norfolk had focused on ruins as witnesses of the passing of time, and in this project, he could recognize the glaciers as geological ruins. "As soon as I realised that it wasn't just about disappearing ice, but about photographing ruins, I could give it a go". The organization Project Pressure provided the scientific data. "The entire scientific part of the job was handled by Klaus Thymann, so I could say with confidence that the borders of the glaciers were indeed where he calculated them." The fire lines looking like magma are appropriate tools linking it to the fossil fuels, the main cause of climate change. Norfolk wrote about his pyrographs on his website: "The 'Fire vs Ice' metaphor I employ is especially delicious for me. My fire is, by design, made from petroleum".

© Simon Norfolk | Full Spectrum Dominance

Destructive energy

Another intriguing project Simon Norfolk developed is Full Spectrum Dominance, a project about rockets, missiles and satellites. This is one of his previous projects that have warfare as the central theme. Norfolk photographed rockets, engines and actual launching of missiles in the night. The first answer to what aroused his interest in these mass killing weapons is short, puzzling and surprising: "I was interested in the energy". But when Norfolk elaborates more on the background of the launching pictures, it becomes clear what he means to say.

© Simon Norfolk | Full Spectrum Dominance

"I left the camera for two hours, resulting in the exposure of the night sky and the stars, and then suddenly across the night sky comes that missile like a scratch, with the energy at the launch. This jet engine rocket comes across the sky like a knife scraping across the cosmos. I was not interested in the rocket and all the smoke, but the energy people put into this. It looks like a neutral thing but is a very destructive energy. It is a rocket that can kill millions of people. There are ten or more nuclear weapons aboard the device. There has never been a more destructive capacity in a weapon in human history. What I find intriguing is the intellectual storage which is inside that thing, used only for destruction. At the same time, there is no cure for cancer and no clean drinking water for many. All great scientists are busy working on nuclear weapons. Inside the energy of that weapon is the lost hope of humanity, the things that we could have done instead. It is madness".

The landscape itself is the culture of Afghanistan, cultivated in the same way as hundreds of years ago.
© Simon Norfolk | out of: Time Taken

Time that passes

The project Time Taken is remarkable and distinctive, consisting of a kind of 'super time-lapse' photos, presented as a video of different seasons in Afghanistan. In one of the 'time-lapse' images, we see mountains with a big vertical hole where the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 once stood. The location is photographed in four different seasons, creating dramatic changes of light, sky, and landscape. "A lot of photographers do time-lapse. You see many sunrises and sunsets, but I wanted something more profound. I saw the differences in seasons when I travelled to Afghanistan and wanted to show them. I would have big arguments with my Afghan friends, jokingly, about the Afghan culture. I used to ask them what the most important expressions of Afghan culture was, compared to our western culture. Where is the Afghan playwright? And the poets? But in our discussions, it appeared that the main object of Afghan culture is not opera or plays but the landscape itself. The Afghan landscape is handmade. It is a desert, and to cultivate the land, you need very precise hydrological engineering. The farmers are engineers on a tiny scale. My fascination for their skill was the origin. The landscape itself is the culture of Afghanistan, cultivated in the same way as hundreds of years ago".

In Time Taken, it seems as if the camera was open the whole year long. But how did Norfolk manage to put his camera on precisely the same spot after so many months? "I put a cross on the floor and made other marks. Then I compared the previous picture on the screen of my camera with what I actually saw at the moment. It took about one hour to get the camera on the right spot, so I took a chair with me during the shoot and compared the images on my laptop. This project is best viewed on a screen. In a gallery, you have to put the prints beside each other, and that does not work as well".

© Simon Norfolk | Afghanistan: Chronotopia


The conversation delves deeper into the works of Simon Norfolk, like an archaeological journey, and that is precisely the way he sees his work. "I feel more like an archaeologist than a photographer". In maybe Norfolk's most well-known project Afghanistan: Chronotopia, we see ruins of the war in Afghanistan: an old aeroplane, a Stonehenge-like pillar construction, bombed-out buildings, a completely destroyed district and a heap of cluster-bombs in the playground of an elementary school. Which idea was behind this odd collection of war remnants of the many Afghan battlefields? A similar cryptic answer as before follows: "Paintings!" But immediately afterwards, Norfolk elaborately explains what he means by paintings. "The romantics understood the concept of the sublime: beauty of greatness combined with terror. The painters like Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin were the ones that painted these kinds of landscapes. When I saw the aircraft of Ariana, the Afghan Airlines, in this high grass, I suddenly had the idea of how to photograph Afghanistan. When you see the ruins of war, you understand the metaphor of the passing of time. The ruins are the traces of time".

© Simon Norfolk | Afghanistan: Chronotopia

When you see the ruins of war, you understand the metaphor of the passing of time.

The question that arises is: are the ruins metaphors for the war or metaphors for the passing of time? The answer is a mix of both. "I have always been interested in archeology. I see my job as a photographer is much more archaeological. My job is go to the landscape and brush trough the dirt and pull something out. What appealed to me about Afghanistan was that it was so clear where the fighting had taken place and the different technologies in the different areas of the war because the war was so long. You could see where the Russians had fought just using tanks, and you could see where the Mujahideen had fought, just using Kalashnikovs. And then, across the road, you could see where the Americans had dropped a bomb. Every one of these different technologies left behind a different crime scene, a different kind of forensics. So, it seemed to me that the history was like archaeological strata, like layers of time laying on top of each other. Afghanistan was like a landslide where suddenly land fell away and you could see exposed all these layers. You could see the castle that was built by Genghis Khan and British fortress of 1870 and you could see where the Mujahedeen built their embankments in the 1990s; and you could see where the Americans dropped a bomb with a F16. And all of those pieces of evidence, all of those archaeological artefacts, all of this crime scene evidence was lying in the landscape, waiting to be picked out by an archaeologist. To me, that's the most magical thing about photography; it is that kind of archaeological process of pulling stuff out of the landscape and saying, look, from this little piece of evidence, I can tell you something about how they lived. Human memory is incredibly slippery and unreliable, but landscape itself holds these truths more reliably than any human".

© Simon Norfolk | Afghanistan: Chronotopia

Aesthetics and politics

As an artist, Simon Norfolk has a clearly defined idea of the relation between aesthetic and politics. The short version of his vision: "Photography is art and politics at the same time". Hereafter an elaboration follows: "Beauty as a vehicle to show what you want to show, is essential. Beauty is a tactic, a kind of honey. The aesthetic part, which some photographers might try to avoid, is essential, not essential as the message itself, but essential as a piece of art. Because it's art. It's not a thesis that you write for a university. And for art, you've got to build an audience. So, for me, the first task is always making my work beautiful and seductive. If the work is just a theory or is very painfully politically aware or is very boring, then you're just talking to yourself".

For me, photography is just a method of talking about politics.

In the end, for Norfolk, politics is much more important than aesthetics: "I don't even like photography very much. I am not in love with photography", he remarks briefly, and adds: "I certainly don't like photography with a capital P, but I think if I was clever enough to work out a better way of talking about the things that I want to talk about, if I could do this through grand opera or poetry or I could write the great Afghan War novel, or I could write poetry about war experiences, the way British soldiers were about their experiences in the First World War, or if I was a filmmaker or if I was a playwright, if I was clever enough, I could come up with a way of talking about these things that would be better and more effective".

The photographer is, in fact, a visual storyteller. He uses photography as a vehicle to reach his audience. "For me, photography is just a method of talking about politics. I want to tell the stories that are not told in the newspapers, like the New York Times or the Guardian. I like to photograph what the Afghan farmer is doing instead of showing what American soldiers are doing. That has always been important to me. I don’t believe in observing and just collecting pictures. Why would you just take ‘objective’ pictures? We need great metaphors and good opinions. We don’t need more information but a good filter of that information, to select what is important. I am not politically neutral, because that is pointless. If I could find a better way of talking about it, I’d become a playwright, opera singer, musician, or something. But right now, photography is the best thing I've got".

Simon Norfolk (Born: 1963 in Lagos, Nigeria) is a landscape photographer whose work over twenty years has been themed around a probing and stretching of the meaning of the word 'battlefield' in all its forms. As such, he has photographed in some of the world's worst war-zones and refugee crises, but is equally at home photographing supercomputers used to design military systems or the test-launching of nuclear missiles. Time’s layeredness in the landscape is an ongoing fascination of his.
His work has been widely recognised: he has won The Discovery Prize at Les Rencontres d'Arles in 2005; The Infinity Prize from The International Center of Photography in 2004; and he was winner of the European Publishing Award, 2002. In 2003 he was shortlisted for the Citibank Prize now known as the Deutsche Börse Prize and in 2013 he won the Prix Pictet Commission. He has won multiple World Press Photo and Sony World Photography awards.
He has produced four monographs of his work including 'Afghanistan: Chronotopia' (2002) which was published in five languages; 'For Most Of It I Have No Words' (1998) about the landscapes of genocide; and 'Bleed' (2005) about the war in Bosnia. His most recent is 'Burke + Norfolk; Photographs from the War in Afghanistan.' (2011).

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