Reviewed by Robert McFarlane
This extraordinary exhibition may be one of the most intricately constructed displays ever seen at the Australian Centre for Photography Not only has photojournalist Stephen Dupont sought to encompass fifteen years of working in Afghanistan’s historically conflicted land, he has managed to display his photography in literally, a floor to ceiling, wall to wall tapestry of pictures.
Reminiscent of another legendary exhibition (which I didn’t see personally, but saw much of its documentation) – by acclaimed French war photographer – Raymond Depardon) Dupont seeks to populate his exhibition with cast members of this ancient, ongoing drama – Afghan citizens, both armed and members of the public – and of course, the soldiers – as ever, from elsewhere. In this, Dupont departs from the traditions of previous war photographers who simply amplify the drama of war.
Dupont clearly wishes to reveal which forces are in play and to understand, as much as possible, reasons for and possible resolutions to the conflict. To achieve this the Australian photographer employs an unusually varied visual grammar – from telling, almost 19th century style portraits of Afghan citizens using a medium format Polaroid camera to panoramic observations made with a Hasselblad camera that are remarkably cinematic in their sweep.
Dupont’s observations belong more to the tradition of the late Philip Jones-Griffith’s epic book “Vietnam Inc.” than even Don McCullin’s highly charged, epic war observations. “I am a great fan of Jones-Griffiths,” says Dupont, “he went beyond the bang-bang – going behind closed doors – and also into combat to uncover the soul of the U.S. military machine … and (finally) show what it was like to be a US soldier – giving a humanistic edge to something inhuman. Not just the power and the glory … he (also) uncovered the grit and the filth of what was going on in the villages. Jones-Griffiths was an activist who didn’t hold back … he was an inspiration (to me).”
Dupont has followed conflict in Afghanistan since that country’s war with the Russians. “After the revolution of the Mujahideen, I was inspired to go and see for myself,” says Dupont, “the (country’s) history had an impact (on me) even through Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” – but I had no idea (photographing) Afghanistan would affect me so much. There was nowhere in the world like it. Something … got into my soul. (And) I was achieving something historical that was not being recorded. I was photographing … history and doing it for the people – who did not have a voice.”
Even the U.S. Marines were given their voice by Dupont who asked individual soldiers to write in a small moleskin journal their answer to the simple question: “Why am I a Marine?” The pages of this journal occupy a large part of one wall at the ACP with Dupont adding that the original journal has now been acquired by the U.S. Library of Congress.
Afghanistan: The Perils of Freedom 1993 – 2009 was not an exhibition to simply walk through. It demanded the visitor arrive, and take the time to meditate on fifteen years of hard, remarkable work by this talented, tenacious photographer – pictures illuminating the timeless ability humanity has to seek the last option of government – war – as a solution to political differences. “You have this incredibly beautiful country that could be opened (up) if it was peaceful. (But) I don’t see there being a resolution soon … it seems that Afghanistan has never known anything but war. And it’s not just about Afghanistan anymore …”
Robert McFarlane is a photographer and writer with forty five years experience specializing in social issues and performance in cinema and theatre. He is based in Adelaide.