Writing on photography

Review – Donovan Wylie: Vision as Power at The Imperial War Museum

“Alongside the ‘war machine’ there has always existed an ocular ‘watching machine'” argued the theorist Paul Virillio in his 1984 text War and Cinema. With the development of technologies that can deliver a missile thousands of miles with an accuracy of a few meters this watching becomes particularly significant. As Virillio goes on to argue, in modern war seeing and destroying become increasingly closely bound, to the point indeed that what can be perceived is already lost. Surveillance and observation, actual and perceived, have become even more important in the intervening thirty years since this book was written, and these form the subject of Donovan Wylie’s new show, Vision as Power at the Imperial War Museum.

Bringing together five bodies of work shot in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Iraq and Canada’s arctic north, Vision as Power documents an array of examples of what might be termed the architecture of military vision. Starting in Wylie’s native Northern Ireland, the first photographs show part of the vast network of British military observation posts constructed at the height of the troubles, with the purpose of turning Northern Ireland into what one resident described as a vast prison. These hill top towers form a strange mix of contrasting messages, at once camouflaged but also highly visible, secure but also isolated and exposed.

Following this, Wiley photographed the notorious Maze Prison, before and during it’s deconstruction following the Northern Ireland peace process. Photographed with a detachment reminiscent of the Bechers, the pictures included in this exhibition show the prison’s ‘sterile zone’, an empty space akin to a death strip between two high perimeter walls, overlooked by guard towers. Despite its name, the sterile zone appears increasingly populated with weeds and wild plants. Again what makes these images absorbing are the multiple contradictory layers at work in the architecture of this prison, which has to contain inmates, keep them separated and protected from each other, and protect itself from the possibility of attack from a hostile local population.

As is noted in the exhibition, surveillance in Northern Ireland was in some respects a large scale rehearsal for the way vision has been used in subsequent conflicts. Indeed following deconstruction of the army watchtowers many were shipped off to be reused in the new conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is where Wiley went next. The following room contains photographs of Baghdad’s ‘green zone’ showing the ancient looking concrete constructions of watchtowers, blast walls and other architecture intended to variously (and sometimes simultaneously) allow and restrict the vision of allies and potentially enemies. From these very solid, imposing structures Wiley then embedded with the Canadian Army in Afghanistan to document remote military fortifications that are quite the opposite. Often improvised with comparatively basic materials, the short term nature of these outposts is offset against the timeless mountain landscapes that surround them.

The final room consist of a series of photographs of LAB 1, a solitary unmanned radar installation in the Canadian arctic circle. These almost colourless photographs are the most peculiar in the show. They reveal a solitary cold war sentinel perched on an increasingly eroded ice ledge, waiting for an enemy that may never come, or indeed may no longer even exist (although the exhibition text is at pains to stress the growing possibility of conflict over resources in the arctic). LAB 1 also to some extent stands in place in this exhibition for the future of military vision. A future not so much of laboriously manned outposts, but of drones, spy satellites and other automated surveillance technologies. A future of military seeing which both allows vision on a new scale, and makes increasingly difficult any meaningful attempts at the type of counter-surveillance that Wylie is executing by making  these photographs.

And seeing these photographs as an act of counter-surveillance, I’d love to know more about the negotiations and machinations that must have gone on behind the scenes to make them possible. As is becoming evident in the unfolding NSA/PRISM saga, government agencies are often happy to intrude into the privacy of citizens (their own or someone elses), but less happy to find themselves on the receiving end of similar intrusions. As a different perspective on these current debates over surveillance then, but also as an inverted follow up to the Imperial War Museums brilliant 2011 exhibition on the art of camouflage, this show is highly recommended. Donovan Wylie: Vision as Power is on at the Imperial War Museum London untill Monday 21st April 2014.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography