Photographs 2011 copyright of the various photographers
Most of the photobooks that I review on this blog are usually authored by a single photographer who investigates a concept in relative depth. Other than featuring a photographic magazine that I feel warrants attention, I tend to avoid photobooks that attempt to investigate a thematic subject explored by a large group of photographers.
So I am making an exception for this socially engaging photobook edited by Nathalie Herschdorfer, Afterwards, Contemporary Photographs Confronting the Past, as I have for the Aftermath photobooks. I believe this subject does warrant a broader dialog.
Afterwards is a very broad thematic survey adapted from an earlier exhibit, Stigmata at the International Red Cross Museum in Geneva, which was curated by Herschdorfer. The original exhibition included the photographs by six photographers who interpret the social aftermath of historical events. In this photobook, Herschdorfer expands the scope and range of to include the projects of thirty photographers, who examine the fate of people in the midst of horrible events or long-term upheaval, such as refugees, political prisoners, or survivors of natural disasters.. Herschdorfer’s curatorial question: is it still possible for contemporary photography to question events, to connect us emotionally with our fellow humans, and to provide an opportunity to understand and find answers?
Although I find this to be a very noble question and a worthwhile quest, I am not sure that she answers her own question adequately with this book. I found the weakness lies with the inability to really create an emotional connection by the few photographs of each project that she provides. I liken this to the jam spread thin on a piece of bread; you do get a taste of the jam, but usually that one piece of bread is not enough to satisfy your appetite. I will confess that for a few of the projects, the limited number of photographs provided did create an emotional connection with me, thus warranting this review.
Herschdorfer draws from a broad range of conceptual projects, which does provide a wide diversity of food for thought. The conceptual subjects range from NYC’s 9/11 (3 projects), 20th Century Battlefields, Rwanda, WWII Holocaust (2 projects), WWII Hiroshima, Stasi Jail, Soldiers (4 projects), Gaza (2 projects), Argentina detentions (2 projects), Bosnian war (3 projects), KGB in Lithuania, Siberia, Iraqi prison, Iraq war, false imprisonment, Angola war, Hurricane Katrina, migrant shelters, Iran in turmoil, domestic slavery, sex trafficking, and military training (2 projects). The photographers include Robert Polidori, Suzanne Opton, Raphaël Dallaporta, Taryn Simon, Guy Tillim, Simon Norfolk and Pieter Hugo.
Likewise, the photographic projects range from an almost direct reportage, such as the tattered clothing from individuals who were interned in mass graves to projects that are so ephemeral that without any text, most of these projects, if not all, would be incomprehensible. That in turn may be one of the underlying strengths of this photobook that the extensive diversity of the projects provide a broad intellectual menu to choose from, to look at, dissect and subsequently debate about the underlying social issues. Regretfully, because of this same diversity, there will not be any easy answers.
Hershdorfer’s stated desire was to draw photographs from projects other than the “news photography” genre that is someone who attempts to immediately enter the fray of news worthy events in order to capture the essence of that event while it is in progress. I could argue that Frank Schwere’s photograph of the still smoking NYC ruins following 9/11 seem very news worthy.
Perhaps due to the broad diversity and the few photographs per project, usually three to four, ranging upwards to nine on one occasion, I found the thinness of each photographer’s concept unfulfilling. I consider this book a teaser, that if intrigued by a specific project or concept, then further exploration is merited.
The book layout for each photographer’s project has an introductory statement prepared by Herschdorfer, which is facing one the photographs, then usually followed by two, and on occasion four, pages of supporting photographs from their project.
The photobook object has a large trim size, but not monstrous, sufficient to adequately view the interior photographs, the largest of which are 8” x 10”. Both the printing and binding are very nice, and the book includes a dust jacket. The interior photographs are displayed in a classic design with at least a half-inch of white margin around each photograph. Nathalie Herschdorfer, formerly on the staff of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne,Switzerland, is a photography historian and curator. The are eight commissioned essays by members of the Swiss Center for Affected Sciences (University of Geneva) that address this same subject and provide additional insights into the underlying issues presented.