I’ve written elsewhere about my own father going to work the morning after the Sheffield Blitz of 1941, walking through ruins, stepping over dead bodies as he went. The picture above is from the Sheffield Libraries archive but, need I say, that is not my father.
I’m never sure exactly what is we want from war photographs. We want the “truth,” of course, but we know that truth is war’s first casualty. We also know that certain war photographs are in fact “set ups,” sometimes in a “good cause,” sometimes not. And equally we do know that many war photographers have a good-enough and trained-enough eye that even in the midst of chaos their photographs can be surprisingly formal and well-composed.
When it comes to photographing the aftermath of war, photographers are inevitably confronted by ruins: piles of rubble and masonry which in themselves may be rather unphotogenic. In those circumstances, what photographer can resist putting a walker or two in the picture?
The images above and below come from the conflict in Aleppo, and I have been following things there with a special interest. A long time ago I did an MA in European drama at the University of Essex, along with (among others) a melancholy Syrian named Tarek. He was specializing in Beckett and had hopes of teaching English literature at Aleppo University. Occasionally we walked to the campus together, discussing modern European drama rather than the state of things in Syria, which even then seemed a very touchy subject.
I have no idea of what happened to Tarek, whether he fulfilled his ambitions, and in any case I imagine he’d now be about retirement age. Of course, I don't seriously expect to see him when I look at the news photographs from Aleppo, but if he is still there now, I feel pretty certain that he’s walking in ruins.
And speaking of modern European drama: those of you have been following the Nicholson “literary career” since its beginning (there may perhaps be three of you) will know that my first serious bit of writing was a play titled Oscar, a two-hander, less than an hour long, but performed in several different productions in Cambridge, Edinburgh and (improbably) Nottingham. We needed an image for the programme, so our designer dug out something from an underground magazine, and used the image below.
At the time I thought it was wonderful, but I’d more or less forgotten about it, had certainly forgotten the name of the artist. But recently, for one reason or another, I happened to be looking for images of the ruins of Hollywood, and there it was. The artist is Ron Cobb, who I'm sure I should have known more about. The image seems as terrific as ever. I had imagined that an updated version would have our protagonist carrying a computer rather than a TV, but who’s to say he wouldn’t be carrying a fan, like this man in Aleppo?