When photography documents war crimes, human rights violations, and humanitarian crises, it can help bring perpetrators to justice. It can also be difficult to look at. Conversations on Conflict Photography explores the tension between the beautiful and the abhorrent, the need to know and the desire to not see.
This show offers a shift in focus from traditional war photography, emphasizing civilians, social conflict, and even stillness instead of only the oft-seen combatants, front lines, and bombast.
We are bombarded by visions of conflict every day: wars, natural disasters, genocides, and refugees in the news and on our screens. The growth of social media has accelerated and expanded images of conflict. They are inescapable.
The proliferation of platforms for conflict imagery leads to two major questions: one familiar and one very new. The decades-old debate centers on the motivations and ethics of the photographers who take the pictures. Why do they do it? What motivates them and how much do they question the morality of their work?
The new debates consider the influence of this work and its widespread impact. The visual documentation of suffering around the world is more prevalent than ever but does it deepen the knowledge or compassion of viewers, or result in fatigue or even apathy?
The body of work presented here grows from Professor Lauren Walsh’s recent book, Conversations on Conflict Photography, which lends its title to this show and invites readers to grasp these urgent concerns through conversations with award-winning photographers, leading photo editors, and key representatives of major human rights and humanitarian organizations.
For this special exhibition at the Southeast Museum of Photography, we have added a uniquely timely component from Dr. Walsh’s new book, Through the Lens: The Pandemic and Black Lives Matter. The work showcased in that title focuses on the conflicts and crises from 2020, namely the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Those photos make clear that suffering does not only occur far away. Visitors are encouraged to think through their own experiences of crisis and to consider how such moments look similar to, or immensely different from, those pictured on the walls.
Contemporary viewers interact with photography in ways vastly different than those of even a generation ago. This exhibition hopes to bring valuable nuance and depth to the images by including the words of the photographers about their experiences of the conflicts they cover and by showcasing equipment and other ephemera of the practice.
In a moment that operates at a more accelerated pace than ever before, Conversations on Conflict Photography asks visitors to slow down, think about the work, understand how it came to be, and consider their own responses to the many conflicts that exist right now and the varied forms they take. Conversations especially encourages viewers to glimpse the humanity that always exists at the center of strife.
— Keith Miller and Lauren Walsh, curators