The landscape of war

Observation Post. FOB Ma sum Ghar. Kandahar Province. Afghanistan

The current conflict in Afghanistan has been ongoing for 10 years, and in that time many thousands of photographs have captured every aspect, often in grim detail.

It's a country that has been the setting for many modern confrontations, from the Afghan-Anglo Wars of the 19th Century through to invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979, with many in-between; each has left its mark on the landscape.

It is these traces, or marks of war, many of which overspill from their own time zones, that drew photographer Donovan Wylie to the country.

As part of a collaboration between the National Media Museum and the Imperial War Museum Donovan was embedded with the Canadian contingent of the International Security Forces (ISAF) towards the end of 2010 in Kandahar Province, and in doing so became the first Imperial War Museum official photographer to work in a war zone since the end of World War I.

His pictures are sublime studies of the landscape littered with military outposts, and mix the notion of the observers and the observed, something much of his previous work in Northern Ireland has addressed.

Indeed, many of the bases in Afghanistan now occupy the same spot on which military camps from previous conflicts once stood.

"This project - Outposts - came about after the British military dismantled their bases throughout Northern Ireland as part of the peace process." Donovan told me.

"I had been working with the military, documenting these structures that dotted the landscape. As the structures came down elements of them were being sent to Afghanistan along with the many troops stationed in Northern Ireland.

"The idea of looking at how my history was, in essence, being transported into a new context stayed with me and grew until last year."

Observation Post. FOB Ma sum Ghar. Kandahar Province. Afghanistan.

Initially he was due to accompany the British in Helmand but the situation there at the time meant this was not possible so he joined a Canadian unit instead.

"In all, Afghanistan was an extraordinary experience and the Canadians could not have been more helpful," Donovan told me.

He added: "I first arrived at Kandahar airfield, home to some 30,000 coalition forces, and after a week or so was moving through Kandahar province with the Canadians. My focus was to concentrate on looking at their FOBs - Forward Operating Bases - which, similarly to Northern Ireland, dotted the landscape. I worked systematically and thoroughly, waking early in the morning, and walking through the mountain ridges till end of day, mapping the landscape. "

View.  FOB Ma sum Ghar. Kandahar Province. Afghanistan.

Of course to obtain these pictures Donovan had to leave the security of the bases and become just one of the figures in the landscape so closely observed by the watchers in the towers.

Donovan said: "It was winter, so the fighting season had not yet begun, however IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) remained a daily occurrence; their loud thud shook the landscape several times a day. I was lucky with light, again, because of winter, overcast, bright flat light was common. Temperatures at night would plummet to -11 or -12 and only became a problem because I had brought a pretty flimsy sleeping bag. Usually I would sleep in a simple tent, with camp bed, often in a compound in the middle of a desert. Sometimes soldiers simply dug a trench and slept in it. It became interesting for me to understand how in modern warfare, military technology and strategy is often adapted to fulfil the same needs of traditional warfare. Much of what I saw felt like the beginning of time."

Mountain Position.  Mas sum Ghar. Kandahar Province. Afghanistan.

To learn more about the work you can hear Donovan Wylie talk about the work in a video uploaded to You tube by the National Media Museum. Donovan is a member of Magnum Photos.

Canadian combat operations ended in July 2011 and withdrawal began. One hundred and fifty seven soldiers died in the mission.

Watchtower. COP Folad. Kandahar Province.  Afghanistan.

Donovan Wylie: Outposts, Bradford Fellowship 2010 - 11 is on show at the National Media Museum. This exhibition forms part of Ways of Looking, a new photography festival in Bradford, 1 - 30 October 2011.

Phil Coomes, Picture editor Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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