This exhibition brings together recent images by Larry Towell and Donovan Wylie, two acclaimed Magnum photographers who have explored the consequences of the armed conflict in Afghanistan from very different perspectives.Larry Towell’s black and white photographs reveal the devastating effects of war on the citizens, soldiers, and landscapes of Afghanistan. Donovan Wylie’s colour photographs document watchtowers and operating bases built by the Canadian military for surveillance and defense of the surrounding terrain.
Donovan Wylie’s (b. Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1971) recent series of photographs, Outposts, centres on the idea of vision as power, and is a continuation of his study of the architecture of conflict. From 2006 to 2011, Canada sent nearly 3,000 military personnel to Afghanistan in support of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Serving alongside infantry and artillery, military engineers designed a network of outposts throughout Kandahar province. Built on natural promontories with multiple lines of sight, these outposts formed a protective visual architecture. They were frequently positioned on defensive locations established during earlier conflicts, representing reincarnations of past histories under new political powers.
Wylie’s photographs look at the specific nature of military architecture and reveal the relationship between these structures and the landscape they control. Wylie created Outposts over a six-week period between December 2010 and January 2011, while embedded as the Imperial War Museum (London, UK) official photographer to the Canadian ISAF contingent in Afghanistan.* This series typifies his practice of engaging in concepts of history, transience and landscape.
Larry Towell (b. Chatham, Ontario,1953) has worked in areas of conflict from Central America to the Middle East since the early 1980s. Between 2008 and 2011, he made five trips to Afghanistan focusing on landmine victims, increased drug addiction, poverty, dispossession and exile. He also embedded with the US military in Kunar, West Paktika, and Kandahar provinces. During his 2011 trip, he commissioned an Afghan journalist to photograph a Taliban cell.
Since 2001, the beginning of the current conflict, 9,000 Afghan military personnel and 2,600 coalition troops have been killed, with more than 30,000 wounded. The number of insurgent deaths remains unknown. Civilian casualties number over 12,000 in the last six years alone. “Although there are approximately 700 military bases in Afghanistan, the US-led counter-insurgency campaign has become mired,” says Towell. “The collusion between foreign occupiers and a government perceived as self-serving, which includes war lord ministers, has helped fuel the insurgency engulfing the country. The conflict has roots and dynamics that go deep into historical and tribal grievances.”
Both Towell and Wylie capture the impact of the war on the people and place. Their photographs can be understood as both historical record and artistic interpretation. Seen together, these dramatic images reflect the troubling social, political and environmental realities of present-day Afghanistan.
*Outposts was a collaboration with the Imperial War Museum (London, UK) and the National Media Museum (Bradford, UK). The photographs were produced through the Bradford Fellowship Award, a partnership between the University of Bradford, Bradford College and the National Media Museum.
Organized with the Institute for Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum.