Richard Mosse’s recent photographs of palaces belonging to the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and members of his family now occupied by US military forces, present what appears to be a new development in the genre of photographic practice described by David Campany as ‘late photography’ (David Campany, ‘Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on problems of “Late Photography’’’, in David Green, ed., Where is the Photograph?, Brighton: Photoforum and Photoworks, 2003).
The typical late photograph pictures damaged buildings, or other kinds of detritus that attest to something having happened in a particular location before the photograph was taken. Their lateness involves the lateness of the arrival of the photographer on the scene. As he observes, these photographs are ‘not so much the trace of an event as the trace of the trace of an event.’ Such events are usually acts of violence of different kinds, from the destruction of the World Trade Centre to the burning of documents.
Vilém Flusser has observed that the still camera allows us ‘to “take” something from the stream of history’ (Vilém Flusser, ‘Image and History’, European Photography, 27:79/80, 206, p. 6), yet the sites pictured in late photography already seem removed from the continuum of history in terms of their stillness and quiet. Even before the taking of the photograph these sites seem to be of the past, defined as they are by the remnants of something that happened in that location; a sense of being of the past that is reinforced by the photographic act itself. The capacity of photography to attest to something having been there adds another layer of distance between the viewer and the original event.
Although some of the photographs in Mosses’ series ‘Breach’ are of palaces that have been damaged by US bombardment (for example the images of Saddam’s Palace in Jebel Makhoul), many break with the standard late photographic representation of the aftermath site by showing us the former residences of the family Saddam in conjunction with the structures that US forces have built and continue to use within the palaces. In this way the photographs are both ‘late’ in that they represent locations that were sites of a now defunct order and current in that they are now sites of the installation of a new power structure in Iraq. The photographs show the rooms of Saddam’s Birthday Palace in Tikrit, for example, filled with makeshift dormitories and offices for US forces, or gym equipment, sandbags, and a barbecue in the Al-Faw Palace (now renamed ‘Camp Victory’) in Baghdad. In this way the photographs are more complex in pictorial terms than standard late photography, presenting an explicit dialogue between past and present through actually depicted material forms. Such a dialogue between past and present is only implicit in most other examples of the genre.
What might this dialogue between past and present in these photographs tell us? Is it possible, for example, to read the photographs in terms of Simon Norfolk’s suggestion that images of aftermath sites, with their remnants and ruins, bring the ‘vanity of Empire’ into visibility (Daylight Magazine, number 4, 2006)? Can we suggest that both the grandiose palaces of a fallen regime and the makeshift structures that have been constructed in the palaces by the successor to Saddam’s rule point to the folly and temporary nature of even the most seemingly secure military and political power? Is the fall of Saddam in the past something that is suggestive of the future of the US in Iraq that is already being played out in the present?
There is an interesting interview with Richard Mosse on his photographs of Saddam’s palaces at BLDG BLOG that is worth looking at.