“Before the Event/After the Fact” attempts to explore the quiet moments surrounding violent conflicts through photo-based media and documentary-like practices. It features photographs and two video projects, as well as an abstract work created on photo paper. The show is content-heavy, including a lot of description and background on documented conflicts and the technical practice used to create the pieces; however, the emotional impact is dulled by the unbalanced focus on the medium.
Most of the photographs co-created by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin focused on landscapes instead of actual people, and are purposefully posed. Their series, “Chicago,” explores a fake Palestinian village created in the Negev Desert and used by Israeli forces to practice military exercises. The concept is interesting, but it would be hard to get from most of the images. A series of everyday objects, including a duffel bag and fire extinguisher, are placed too cleanly on a white background, and look more like stock photos than personal objects. Their mundanity could work if mixed with intimate images, but the photos of the fake village are all landscapes. One in which we see colorful cardboard facades representing buildings is evocative due to its childlike fragility, and two images of practice target cut-outs of militants nearly cause a visceral reaction due to the bullet holes in the two-dimensional human forms, but even these latter pieces are too digitally sterilized to evoke anything besides an appreciation of technical expertise.
Much of the show faces this difficulty. The gallery is filled with beautifully crisp images printed with high contrast and saturation but lacking emotional content, possibly due to their high resolution and focus on the quality of the images and their hyperrealism which borders on too good to be real. The description of the show emphasizes that it aims to explore the abilities and the limitations of photojournalism, and perhaps purposefully it does not attempt to push these captioned photos into art. The show reads like the Time Photojournalism issue, and its greatest fault is that the artists served as unbiased reporters, their photos untainted by their own humanity or emotions.
An-My Lê’s two photo series are also purposefully stiff, one documenting a Vietnam War reenactment event in romantic black and white images (the only photos in the show that are not extremely crisp), the other hyper-realistic photos of the set of a Hollywood war film. The show attempts to explore the artifice of photography but does so by creating further artifice, and seems to be more focused on its medium rather than on its subject matter.
Peter van Agtmael’s photos are extremely photojournalistic, all paired with lengthy informative captions akin to those in the National Geographic, but at least some of his photos include softer colors and people living in Afghanistan, including local children and U.S. Marines, which gives a glimmer of humanity to the otherwise coldly stark gallery.
One of the videos created by the SITU Research team, members of a Brooklyn-based design studio, comes with a great story — it’s a compilation of clips from the extremely violent days of the Euromaidan protests in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2013, parts of which served as a reconstruction of the day for use in court to fight for the rights of civilians who were attacked and killed. However, the video’s inclusion by itself in the show is gratuitous with limited context, and the audience only sees the victims as just that — victims — instead of individuals or protesters, causing more of an intellectual than an empathetic reaction.
The images themselves were beautiful and the show is aesthetically pleasing, but the bridge between photojournalism and art is never fully crossed. The emphasis on technical elements shifted the balance between medium and content. Their skill as photojournalists is unquestionable, but the unbiased presentation obscured the artists’ humanity.
Carrie Mannino | firstname.lastname@example.org