David Pratt: Only With the Heart. Sogo, Glasgow – John McDougall
David Pratt’s exhibition “Only With the Heart” at the new SOGO Gallery in Glasgow has brought some of the highly respected war correspondent and photographer’s archive to public view. An archive which spans almost four decades of war and unrest.
Close to forty years of a planet desperate to tear itself apart.
This is the third time I’ve visited. Each time with apprehension brought on by the harrowing nature of the images and the emotions that bubble to the surface. Each visit highlights a new image, a new depiction of suffering and anguish.
I question the morality of displaying this work in such a fashion, contextualised only by newspaper style captions
“Girl in the desert after fleeing Mosul.
Iraq — 2016”
“Bosnian man approaches sniper alley, Mostar
Croatia — 1994”
Such photography, especially when taken out of a news context, can be hugely unsettling.
I question the ethics of standing there, looking at the faces of people torn apart by conflict. Watching through time, insulated by the understanding that I am unlikely to ever be caught up in such briutality. Although perhaps that understanding is becoming shaky, as we watch European states and cities become ever more uneasy with themselves.
An older couple walking through the gallery behind me comment that it’s “a reminder of how good we have it”. I hope that’s not the sole takeaway from the exhibition, I worry that their new found appreciation of their own lives as opposed to a sense of anguish of anger at human suffering is a damning indictment on war reporting and photography in general.
I admire the work ethic. The willingness of Pratt to place himself in danger in order to bring back stories of the world around us. Without that, how would we know at all? How would we be able to understand the world around us without the actions of storytellers such as Pratt who bring news of conflicts and humanitarian issues to our homes?
Of course, that is qualified by the understanding that everything we know has been viewed through a prism created by media censorship, designed to bring us to a conclusion which suits the political needs of the day. In his book “Love Thy Neighbour: A Story of War” American journalist Peter Maas writes plainly of the knock on effect that the political need to stop fighting in Bosnia at any cost coupled with the inability of UN generals to deal efficiently with an underpowered, barely trained Bosnian military led to the popular opinion that the Balkans conflict were a case of all sides being as each other. Not only where they hellbent on killing each other, they were actively shelling their own people in order to appeal to western forces. We see similar effects on cultural consciousness in Palestine currently.
Political inability to find a solution leads to powerful changes in what our media reports.
This is not the fault of Pratt. It is a far bigger machine than one journalist can change the course of and it is clear that as his career progresses through the decades, as he becomes more experienced and at ease with his own ability he begins to show us the human cost of conflicts more regularly. The images move from the frontline fighters in Afghanistan or Croatia, to the hospitals and aid centres, to the women in their homes and the children on the streets.
In his foreword to the exhibition catalogue Stuart Cosgrove compares David Pratt to the greats of war photography, Nachtwey, McCullin, Phillip Jones Griffiths. He’s correct to do so, Pratts eye for a human moment in amongst the inhumanity of some of the most brutal conflicts of the modern age is clear.
He speaks of the importance of talking about what we see in these photographs, this is true, although perhaps its what we don’t see that leads to more interesting topics of conversation.
Alexander Gardner’s much lauded photographs of the American Civil War only ever showed the casualties of Confederate forces, not wishing to scare supporters of the Union. With very few exceptions, most notably perhaps George Strock’s image of three killed soldiers on Buna Beach in 1943, this one-sided coverage continues until the present day. It wasn’t until 2009 that the US Military lifted a ban on media coverage of returning US casualties. Given how readily we are faced with horrific images of children dying at the US border, or on European beaches, of famine and of unrest in far flung countries one must question why we see what we see and what is just beyond the frame.
A woman lies stabbed in a Nairobi alleyway. I cannot tell if her wound is fatal however the fact the crowd are standing away from her suggests this might be the case. No one is talking to her or comforting her or even looking directly at her. I realise two things, that this might be the only direct image of death within the exhibition and that despite all of the suffering on show that there is a steely determination towards life.
A portrait of a man wearing a gas mask sits apart from the rest of the exhibition. I’m captivated by it.
I chuckle slightly at its placement, it’s a striking image set apart from the rest, his mask further separating him from the despair and trauma on the other walls. Of course, the reality is that he is defending himself from Iraqi scud missile attacks on Israel, but this image is different in its nature to the rest of the photographs. Its tight framing showing nothing of what is happening around him. Perhaps this is why I’m attracted to it, after all I have never witnessed the destruction of war first-hand.
“Nadehzhda Kaleshnikova lost her daughter and a leg in a shell explosion, Triokhizbenka
Eastern Ukraine — 2015”
She sits on the edge of a bed with an infant in her arms, her crutches laid out in front of her. It is a delicate portrait, devoid of any sense of exoticism that war photography can often bring. I wonder what she would want me to see. How she would want the story to be told.
I long for a world were the photography of David Pratt is looked back on as an illustration of how we were before. As it stands it is a warning, a depiction of just how easily humanity turns on itself.