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The Camera Never Lies: Challenging images through The Incite Project

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels' Art Correspondent


Richard Mosse, Poison Glen, 2012. © Richard Mosse


Like many, I’ve found myself shying away from, or at very least managing my exposure to the flow of negative news coverage that’s been our recent lot. So, why did I go out of my way to see an exhibition of some the most hard-hitting news images of the past 100 years?


It was partly I guess the strength and inherent challenges of the title, The Camera Never Lies that drew me to the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, and partly the list of legendary photographers included in the show. Together with, to be frank, a wish to see the award-winning Norman-Foster designed Sainsbury Centre building at the UEA campus and its eclectic art collection.


Featuring over 100 works by photographers such as Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), Robert Capa (1913-1954), Don McCullin (b.1935), Stuart Franklin (b.1956), as well as modern practitioners, The Camera Never Lies exhibition “charts a global century of iconic documentation and manipulation” – and crucially, joins the Sainsbury Centre’s six-month-long interlinked investigations into What is Truth?


It opens with a wall of iconic images of conflict and combat, suffering, famine and fire, that were quite hard to take. Mostly black and white, with no words to distract – no picture labels, or not on the day I visited before the show opened to the public - the impact was distressing, but also thought provoking. There’s no chronology to the juxtapositions, the arrangement seems more about visual impact than time or shot location. History, dating, all but deserted me anyway as I began to take in the images. It was all about memory and reaction. I wrestled with the simultaneous desire to shy away from them and to look at them – after all, why was I there? - these single moments in history, captured or created by photojournalists that because of repeated use in print journalism had come to represent an event or period, had become synonymous with the memory.


Sainsbury Centre Director Dr Jago Cooper said: “The photos on our phone have become the memory bank of our lives - this incredible exhibition brings to life the memories of the world. But are these iconic photos a true reflection of history or merely the images that form our perception of it?” 


Robert Capa’s famous image of The Falling Soldier (1936) depicting a soldier being shot during the Spanish Civil War is one of the most debated images, due to the limited information given by Capa at the time and the loss of negatives either side of the image. Over the years, many have believed the image to be staged. Famously, using the topography visible in the picture to identify where Capa stood on the day he took the photograph, in 2009 Professor José Manuel Susperregui claimed that on that particular day the front line was 35 miles away.

Few of the images on show were free of complications.


Shell-shocked US marine, Hue, Vietnam, 1968. © Don McCullin



The earliest here is a 1920 image of Lenin addressing a crowd in the early days of the Russian Revolution. Thereafter, the display ranges from, for example, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother image from 1936, from the Great Depression era in America, to one of the most notable war photographers Don McCullin’s portrait of a shell-shocked US marine in Vietnam (1968), and other horrifying pictures of imprisonment or conflict in Bosnia, Sudan, Iraq, Ukraine…  and to, occasionally, a more uplifting image such as Alfred Eisenstaedt’s, VJ Kiss, Times Square, New York (1945) of a sailor and nurse embracing at the end of World War II, or the young Afghan Girl with her unforgettably piercing eyes (Steve McCurry, 1984) - an image that apparently, on the positive side, sparked an interest in the plight of refugees, yet was not without controversy. Like others here, questions of consent or exploitation hang over them.


Climate activist Greta Thunberg would have had no idea that her photograph would soon come to represent the global climate youth movement – nor would Adam Johansson when he took the picture of the young 15-year-old student sitting on the pavement outside the Swedish parliament building on his way to photography school back in 2018. Her banner reading ‘School Strike for climate’, it was the first of her weekly climate crisis protests.


The second part of the exhibition presents research related photography. Investigations by 21st century photographers include themes such as domestic violence, the poor or marginalised in society, the politics of control and incarceration(for instance, Edmund Clark’s unsettling image of a chair that although no longer in use, had been used in the controversial interrogation processes at Guantanamo Bay), civil war as in Richard Mosse’s pictures from the DRC, and Simon Norfolk’s large scale pictures of the central highlands in Afghanistan through different seasons of war (2013-2014) where among snow-capped mountains or tranquil trees a tank here or there draws attention to the impact of humans and mechanised warfare on landscape.


One standout image, for me, was Matt Black’s photograph (2014) of an unbearably careworn arm resting on top of a fence post. Part of his American Geography series documenting the grim realities of extreme poverty in California’s Central Valley, this simple image somehow tapped into a deep-rooted empathy.


Stuart Franklin 'The Tank Man' stopping the column of T59 tanks. Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. 4 June 1989. © Stuart Franklin. Courtesy of Magnum Photos



The exhibition continues with a foray into the incredible potential of AI with American artist Trevor Paglen’s work. Known for launching his own satellite into space with the sole objective to be looked at, some of his space photography is on display plus a video he made of a string quartet playing, overlayed with information collected by artificial intelligence.


Reaching saturation level, I went down to the lower ground floor to seek the other What is Truth? displays. Ah! what a relief, a relaxing space to sit! A sofa and table placed enticingly in front of a TV set in a 1960’s sitting room with an invitation to sit and watch the TV. So, I did. And even with a degree of foreknowledge, that In the Event of Moon Disasterwas an Emmy Award-winning interactive installation piece by digital artists Halsey Burgund and Francesca Panetta, it was easy to be taken in by the deceit. On view until 4 August 2024, the AI version of President Nixon’s television broadcast apparently has him giving an alternative speech about the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, lamenting a disaster, not the actual success. The video lip-synchs a real speech prepared for the president in case of just such an event. Contextual clues like the vintage television, the décor, lava lamp, and mock-up newspaper with headline ‘Astronauts Stranded on Moon’ coax us towards believing the false premise.


It cleverly demonstrates how deepfake can cast doubt on the facts of even well-known events.


One doesn’t expect answers to the questions posed in an exhibition of this kind. But the question of truth grows ever more pressing in today’s climate, especially with the rapid growth of artificial intelligence - and this exhibition lays the groundwork for re-evaluating the pictures we see – and accept - in the media, both historic and present-day. On top of that, there’s the multi-faceted experience of the extraordinary Sainsbury Centre to enjoy.


The Camera Never Lies is curated by Harriet Logan and Tristan Lund, with the exhibited works drawn from The Incite Project, a private collection of photojournalism, documentary photography and photographic art with a remit to support contemporary practitioners.


Time Taken 2, High Summer, 2013-2014. © Simon Norfolk



Tristan Lund said: “The relationship between truth and photography remains one of the most pressing concerns for us at The Incite Project, so it is a privilege to be invited to exhibit the collection at The Sainsbury Centre on this topic.


“We care deeply about the photographers we work with and the concerns they are addressing. ‘Truth’ is inherent, underlying, or blatant in all of their work.


“The exhibition asks what truths we can really expect to extract from a photograph. Is the succinct and objective sharing of facts the thing we remember most from a single image, or rather is it the emotion triggered by the composition and creativity of the photographer that tells 1,000 words?”



 

The Camera Never Lies

Sainsbury Centre

Showing until: 20 October 2024


For more information, visit www.sainsburycentre.ac.uk  


 

Please note:

Jeffrey Gibson also has a site specific exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre until August 4th. His first solo exhibition in UK museum, it is noteworthy as he is the first indigenous solo artist to represent the USA at this year’s Venice Biennale.      

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