Photographer Nathaniel Brunt talks art, technology, and representation
In his five visits to the disputed Asian territory of Kashmir, Ryerson Communication and Culture PhD student Nathaniel Brunt has sought to broaden our understanding of a distant conflict. As India and Pakistan continue to fight over the area, Brunt has used photography self-reflexively, showing how technology influences and distorts our perception of war.
In April, Brunt was external,awarded first prize in the Alexia Foundation’s Photography That Drives Change student award for his master’s research. He will use the prize to expand his photo project external,#Shaheed into a book, and spend a semester next year at Syracuse University. His work also won the external,2016 Portfolio Reviews Award at the CONTACT Photography Festival.
We spoke to Brunt about the evolution of his photography, and the changing roles of art and journalism in the 21st century.
Having been to Kashmir five times now, how has your perception and depiction of the conflict changed?
I went there as a photographer shooting in a classic way, looking for the events of the conflict. Over time, that really has changed more to trying to use the conflict to analyze much bigger changes: looking at the way war is represented through photographs in the 21st century.
The other thing in that project was trying to draw attention to the limited and simplistic way we look at militancy in the Islamic world, as this kind of black-and-white situation—whereas the guys who are actually part of these groups are complex individuals who do things for a variety of reasons.
My perception and approach of it when I went there was certainly one thing, and over time it’s definitely changed to taking a step back and looking at it as a much bigger picture.
A lot of your work is about the representation of conflict, which is moving at such a fast rate. With that in mind, is the work you did in the summer different from what you did before?
It was certainly expanding it outward. My interest is certainly at looking at the way conflict is being photographed in the 21st century and exploring it in a critical way. The body of work is representative of that, because I’m trying to look at the war from multiple perspectives, and now with the ubiquitous access to camera phones, not only are professional photographers shooting conflicts, but civilians and combatants are also documenting it. The project was looking at not only the way that I’m photographing the conflict, but also the way the militants themselves are documenting it. I was collecting those images and intermixing them.
I’m sure you’ve been following the conflict in Aleppo. Does something like that have any bearing on your practice? On Twitter, we’re seeing all of these people recording their last moments.
For sure it’s something I’ve been following—I mean, I think Syria is kind of the ultimate example of this trend that I’m looking at of the way that conflict photography is going. Our roles as professionals are really changing. Rather than simply taking images, I think our role is increasingly trying to make sense of the images that other people are putting up. Syria is the ultimate example of this, because it’s so dangerous to work there as a foreign journalist—we have virtually no people working in Aleppo now—so our only understanding of the conflict is coming through these amateur viewpoints of it. Certainly Syria is the biggest representation of this change.
Do you see any distinction between artistic and journalistic conflict photography?
I think it’s merging a lot right now. I certainly started as a photojournalist very much from a classic approach, trying to present an objective viewpoint of conflict. Certainly where it’s going is more about subjectivity, but I think the more interesting work is almost pointing towards a sort-of self-reflexivity of this subjective viewpoint. Not only are you not trying to present yourself as an objective journalist, but you’re also saying: ‘Look, no matter what I do, my viewpoint is flawed because it’s my own viewpoint and doesn’t represent everybody.’
Maybe a month ago, the World Press Photo—which is sort-of the bastion of traditional photojournalism—opened a new category, for ‘creative photojournalism’ or ‘creative documentary practice.’ I think that’s signalling a big change that’s going on in the industry where the boundaries between subjective artistic representations and objective journalism are merging into one thing.
Do you feel that advocacy plays any role in your practice?
I don’t know. I’m certainly not advocating either side in this conflict, whether it’s India, Pakistan, or Kashmir. I don’t have a political angle in that sense. It’s easy to get into the politics of it and have a specific viewpoint, but I think what’s changed in the activist angle is using it to point out the problems I see in the photographic world and the way war is documented. Whether it’s militancy or whether it’s the way Kashmir has been represented as a kind-of exotic paradise—trying to pick apart those tropes.
How would you like to see our understanding of Kashmir and the conflict improve?
I think good photographs and good artworks don’t provide answers—they should provoke more questions from people. That’s what I’m always trying to do. I’m always trying to make people question the way that they look at something, and try to expand their viewpoint of something. It’s about trying to make black-and-white things far more grey.
Nathaniel Brunt’s work will be exhibited at CONTACT Gallery (80 Spadina, Suite 205) beginning February 9.