Things Left Unsaid at Ulster Museum – photographer Paul Seawright’s take on contemporary conflict and journalism

Things Left Unsaid - the back of Paul Seawright looking at the back of a newscaster24 hour news channels promote themselves as bringing the news to viewers whenever and wherever it happens. But in reality, their output is not quite so simple or opaque.

News bureaux are thinner on the ground [read Jane Ferguson’s thoughts on foreign reporting in a post earlier this week] than they once were. News channel schedules are bolstered by pre-recorded interviews, tech shows [which I like], and repeated segments that reduce the cost of maintaining galleries, satellites and reporters to produce live content.

Paul Seawright’s new photographic exhibition Things Left Unsaid at the Ulster Museum deconstructs the news machine by displaying large scale images of US television news studios from which the war in Iraq was reported. I spoke to Paul Seawright about the exhibition, which has come to Belfast via Paris and Sligo, and he explained to me that conflict has been the focus of his work for many years, previously looking at Northern Ireland as well as Afghanistan and Africa.

I’ve been making work more recently in North America. I did a show and a book called Volunteer about military recruitment in America. And I was looking for other ways to talk about how America engaged in world conflict … and how do you do that without going back to the battlefield – I’ve done that in work about Afghanistan which was about battlefields – and of course you can’t escape the mediation of the conflict.

In Northern Ireland I’ve always been very interested in how we represent what’s going on and quite often how it as represented, certainly in the early days, by people outside Northern Ireland and how what went on over those 30 years was often told from without rather than from within.

Things Left Unsaid - NvTv camera in front of paintingPaul began to look at the idea of how news about the war in Iraq was constructed in America, found himself in TV studios and realised that much talk of war was unsaid.

Do news outlets tell the full story of war and conflict? Or do they sanitise the more grotesque results of war (that are unsuitable for visual broadcast and unlikely to be verbally explained in any detail) and suppress the less heroic actions of troops and their superiors? Has the theatre of war been extended to use weapons of mass communication?

If you’re in America, at the heart of American culture it’s impossible – forbidden almost – to say anything negative about the military.

Things Left Unsaid - jibcamThe language of television is quite militaristic. The TV gallery director calls shots and barks orders into other people’s earpieces like a commander directing an military operation. Remotely controlled cameras and jib cams sweeping around a studio on long arcs evoke the ideas of surveillance and drones.

Things Left Unsaid - green screenEven the green screen is a reminder that artifice is a key pillar of modern television: what you see and hear is not what was there or what was said. It’s all happening elsewhere.

The large dark images that adorn the walls of the fourth floor Ulster Museum gallery draw you in towards them. In an age of high definition and 4K programming, you forget the extraordinary detail that old-fashioned film captures. The textures in the black drapes that surround the studios. The marks on the floors and dents in the sets.

Things Left Unsaid - wide shot across exhibitionPaul says that the work “doesn’t resort to the drama of violence it’s about not showing that easy image but trying to find strategies to engage with those things that are difficult but quietly and showing us things that we don’t normally see”.

What I’m trying to do in this piece of work is acknowledge that contemporary warfare is a strange animal. It’s driven by technology, it’s quite often remote. It’s not about soldiers fighting man to man on a battlefield. It’s about drones and unmanned vehicles. It’s about high-level bombing, cluster bombs, all of that. When I was in Afghanistan in 2002 if you were on the ground during that time in a Taliban stronghold, you never saw your enemy. You maybe heard a buzz in the air, but it was all high level bombing.

Paul Seawright is Professor of Photography as well as the current Head of the School of Art at Ulster University.

Things Left Unsaid will be on display in the Ulster Museum from Friday 18 September until 3 April. Paul Seawright will be talking about the themes of contemporary conflict and journalism in a lecture at the museum at 7.30pm on Thursday 1 October [bookable soon on the museum website]. And if you’re in the building, Colin Davidson’s exhibition of portraits Silent Testimony is well worth a visit in the gallery next door.

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