Up until two years ago, the photography festival Les Rencontres d’Arles used to feature (too) heavily Martin Parr (and a few others…). I was therefore thrilled to start off the 2016 edition with Don McCullin’s exhibition in the Saint-Anne church. Why? Because, except for one glass case in the middle of the church displaying magazines, it is not about McCullin the great war photographer, but rather his “social” outlook –a facet I personally barely knew of. Contrarily to Parr’s snide and derisive signature approach to British middle class we have grown accustomed to, McCullin has nothing but tenderness and empathy for his subjects, even when he documents the daily life of homeless people in London, showing no trace of scorn or aloofness.
Consider this old couple enjoying a cuppa, and notice how the photograph is imbued with tenderness and respect. Witness McCullin’s empathy for the ordinary people of Finsbury: the Guvnors gang all suited up, marking their territory, or these blasé youngsters watching a low-grade striptease, beer in hand.
Virtually all these photographs are masterworks in terms of balance, composition, and interplay of light and shadow. Some are Somerset landscapes, showing the sky crisscrossed by fleeting clouds, the waterlogged earth, or solitary trees. Each and every picture from this series is remarkably composed, conveying a sense of serene, solemn harmony.
Another dimension of Don McCullin’s esthetics resonated with me: his playful use of bodies (maybe because of these choreographers). Some bodies are vertical, hardened, regrouped, blending together –like these policemen. Others are soft, loose, discarded on the ground, having lost any sense of structure or social status, having become thrash in the eyes of society –like this homeless person lying on the street (pictured below).
Two photojournalistic reportages are featured in the exhibition: one on the construction of the Berlin Wall, which focuses mostly on the reactions of Berliners on the spot. This image of East Berlin residents, looking at the West part of the city one last time before the Wall blocks out the horizon, evidences a melancholic empathy that is rarely seen among reporters (comparable to Gilles Caron’s).
For the other reportage, Don McCullin returned to the Middle East to take pictures of Baalbek and Palmyra in times of peace; yet the black shadows creeping up the temples look menacing.
Another conflict photographer, Yan Morvan, has also endeavored to go back to battlefields he visited under fire (he trumpets that he has “a soldier’s eye and a warrior’s mind”), as well as famous historical battlefields. The idea of “going back” was pretty good in itself, but it begs the question of “what for?” If it was about recreating a sort of nostalgia for battles and their glory, or reflecting on nature and humanity, then the (numerous) photographs would have sufficed, with straightforward captions (as in Paola de Pietri’s excellent work). However, Morvan has chosen to pair his photographs with lengthy texts describing the battles, full of references, forcefully trying to explain the tactical moves of the troops in play. Because there are no maps, this rapidly becomes confusing (where was the Austrian position on that mountain? where stood the Italian artillery?), and therefore boring, too hard to follow: the “pedagogical” effect vanishes.
Furthermore, Yan Morvan has an opinion, and he voices it: he will have us know that, during the Israeli conquest of the Golan Heights, the heroic Israeli soldiers bravely resisted the ferocious Syrians who had launched a surprise attack on them (overlooking the fact Moshe Dayan himself explained attacks were mostly provoked deliberately by Israelis –but Morvan seems to have certainties and a gospel to spread). As for the companion text to a photograph of Gaza in the aftermath of “Operation Cast Lead” (2008-2009), it does not mention in the slightest the war crimes inflicted on civilians –it reads like Israeli hasbara (“public diplomacy” or “propaganda”…) [In fact, I have been informed that the texts draw inspiration from our great national philosopher BHL]. It appears that, sometimes, photographs are enough on their own… instead of a pseudo-historical book, we would have had a beautiful photography book.
The photographer Alexandre Guikinger is also inspired by the traces of war in landscapes. He prowled around the Maginot Line: stopping short of entering its burrows, he documented its entranceways, its visible shapes, its relation to the landscape –like in this picture of a bunker hanging off a cliff.
I especially liked his photographs of “maisons-fortes”: houses that were bunkers on the first floor, dwellings on the second –a powerful symbol. It is a beautiful documentary work, free of overbearing discourses, but it would have benefited from a more conceptual, poetic or analytic approach (like Antoine Poncet’s, who tackled brilliantly the same subject). No need to uncover a political agenda here, however, to enjoy this visit of useless fortifications.
Finally –rounding up the 2016 Rencontres’ “After War” theme–, the exhibition focusing on 9/11 feels quite predictable (first pages of newspapers, Googlegrams, videos…), with the exception of Walid Raad’s work on the color of the sky, and Mounir Fathi’s display of videotapes silhouetting the Manhattan skyline, intact.
Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: July 12, 2016.
Translation by Lucas Faugère