Tate Modern’s new show looks at conflict through photographs taken seconds, days, weeks and years after the event. We asked curator Simon Baker to explain 

  • Chloe Dewe Mathews
    Chloe Dewe Mathews
    Six Farm, Loker, West-Vlaanderen
    Private Joseph Byers
    Private Andrew Evans
    Time unknown / 6.2.1915
    Private George E. Collins
    07:30 / 15.2.1915

What is the concept behind the show?

We wanted to think about the way photographers have photographed moments of conflict after they have happened, thinking about their long-term effects. So rather than having a chronology of many different conflicts one after another, the works are grouped together depending on how long after the event they were made: moments later, days later, weeks later and so on up to a hundred years later.

Why have you organised the exhibition like this?

The original idea came not from photography but from literature, from great writers who have written about conflict and how they’ve dealt with that problem of looking backwards in time. I was very interested in Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse-Five, which is a key book about the Second World War. Vonnegut makes the protagonist come completely unstuck in time, so the book is completely achronological. We quite like the idea that the viewer of the exhibition will have the same experience as the reader of Vonnegut’s book –they will be jumping around in time.

What kind of photographs are included in the exhibition?

There aren’t the kinds of war photographs people might expect to see. There are some very famous images – such as Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean war – but there are also photographers finding different ways to represent conflict through different kinds of photographic image. Some are almost abstract: there are lots of aerial photographs of the desert after the end of the first Gulf War. Or photographs that deal more with the effects on buildings or people.

Don McCullin Friedrichstrasse Berlin 1961
Don McCullin Friedrichstrasse Berlin 1961

So there is no photojournalism?

Very little. Having said that there are amazing works by one of the most famous photojournalists, Don McCullin, throughout the exhibition. He’s an interesting character because he has changed from somebody who always wanted to be right there in the action to somebody who’s very contemplative about war and how it affected him and the people he photographed. He has almost had the journey of the exhibition, going from photographing soldiers fighting in Vietnam to visiting the Somme 85 years after the battle and photographing the peaceful landscape.

Which other photographers are in there?

The thing that is nice about the show is that there is a real range of artists at different points in their careers. So we meet some very big names such as Stephen Shore or Michael Schmidt and then there are younger contemporary artists in their early 30s such as Chloe Dewe Mathews for whom this is an opportunity to be shown alongside those more established figures. She has made an amazing series in which she photographed sites where soldiers were executed in the First World War.

Conflict, Time, Photography is on display at Tate Modern from 26 November until 15 March 2015