Landscape Stories: You are a photographer, but also writing is integral to your practice. Could you introduce yourself?
Lewis Bush: Normally I would say I am a photographer and a writer, the two are equally important to me and take up more or less equal amounts of my time. I originally trained as a historian and worked in healthcare and international development before retraining as a photographer, so I come from a background which is very focused on research and writing. Where most photographers perhaps write about their work after they’ve made it, for me the writing often occurs in tandem with the process of gathering photographs, the two inform and shape each other in important ways. Often my projects arise from issues I have discussed on my blog (www.disphotic.lewisbush.com), and in turn I often discuss problems there which emerge in the course of my photographic projects.
Landscape Stories: Vietnam Deprimed explores trends in news and entertainment depictions of conflict, principally that of displacing attention away from the violent physical effects of war on living people and towards to the technological pornography of weaponry, a process termed ‘techno-fetishism’. The first half of the book consists of a text exploring these themes and several others, including the role of the Vietnam war in shaping the way conflict has been depicted since. Can you tell us about it?
Lewis Bush: The concept of compassion fatigue is a relatively familiar one in the media, that idea that repeated viewings of sights of suffering diminishes the effect of such things on us as viewers. I was interested in exploring other related concepts which suggest ways in which media like photographs come to shape our relationship to, and our understanding of, the things they depict. I became focused on the fact that in order to avoid alienating or offending viewers, the military and mass media outlets often avoid publishing photographs which show acts of violence, and tend instead to use images which focus on apparently more neutral things like the machinery of war. The theory of ‘technofetishism’ as articulated by Roger Stahl suggests that this is just as damaging, creating a worship of advanced military technology and a false view of war as basically bloodless. Equally Stahl suggests that it promotes the idea that it is somehow legitimate for strong, technologically advanced nations to prey on and destroy weaker, less advanced nations, a strange form of techno-Darwinism. Vietnam Deprimed sought to explore these ideas through writing, and by visually reconnecting these photographs of military hardware and technology, with images which showed their very violent consequences.
Landscape Stories: How much Vietnam influence in a negative way our imagination?
Lewis Bush:It would be easy to talk about the nightmarish psychic legacy of the Vietnam war, just the phrase ‘Agent Orange’ already conjures up a huge number of terrible mental images. However I think in some respects the Vietnam War has also influenced our imaginations in a positive, rather than negative way. By showing the scale and brutality of modern conflict in an unprecedented, unfiltered way the conflict perhaps helped break with some of the old clichés about war as a noble enterprise, undertaken for morally justifiable reasons. Instead it perhaps helped to sow a sense of public discomfort with war which remains to this day. In my view this cultural, political and military fear about going to war again, and the fear that each new war might turn into ‘another Vietnam’ is one of the few positive things we can perhaps take away from the conflict.
Landscape Stories: Can you tell me about the second half of the Vietnam Deprimed book?
Lewis Bush: The first half of the book is an essay exploring the ethics and implications of looking at acts of suffering and horror, and an attempt to balance these dilemmas with the equally worrying alternative of simply not seeing them. The second half of the book attempts to address these issues more directly, by placing photographs of Vietnam era weapons opposite photographs of injuries caused by them. The idea behind this was to attempt to reconnect the two things in a very direct way. These photographs I should add were not taken by me but were sourced from archives in various senses, from traditional physical archives to the meta-archive of the internet. The project was inspired by a number of other works, but perhaps most important was Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 book Krieg dem Kriege which I first encountered shortly before I began the project. Working rather in the tradition of artists like Goya, Friedrich compiled dozens of shocking photographs of horribly wounded soldiers, destroyed villages, corpses, with the intention I suppose of demonstrating definitively how awful war is and turning anyone who saw his book into a pacifist. As we know now he was unsuccessful in his aim, and as time passes and I look back on my own project I feel it was also not a success, but it was an interesting experiment at the time.
Landscape Stories:Can you tell me about Teleologies of War?
Lewis Bush:Teleologies of War is an ongoing project which grew out of Vietnam Deprimed. Where my work on Vietnam looked specifically at one conflict, and explored one tendency in the media, the idea with this new project is to explore a range of tendencies in the way conflict is shown on television (in a broad sense of the word, from traditional TV channels to Youtube). In the end the goal is to explore and ask questions about why we view these things, and what effect they have on us. The source material and the strategies employed will also be much wider. I am harvesting images from news, documentaries, fiction films and so on, depicting conflicts that are real and in some cases imagined. Similarly where Vietnam Deprimed used one conceptual tactic, that of juxtaposition, to arrange the images and create meaning, Teleologies of War will use many more. As the project is still at quite an early stage I would prefer not to say more than this.
Landscape Stories: Many of your projects are conceived as books. Can you explain us your choice?
Lewis Bush:I think this partly reflects my background as a writer, this format just suits the extended texts I often utilise better than most others. But also I like books, I enjoy handling and working with them and I enjoy the narrative possibilities they offer. That said most of my projects have also existed in other formats, as exhibitions, multimedia pieces, mail art, websites, and so forth. I’ll use whatever final format seems appropriate to showing the work and transmitting an idea most effectively.
Landscape Stories: What about emergencies today?
Lewis Bush:It’s difficult to talk about on-going conflicts from the standpoint of photography and media, on the one hand there is so much that could be said, on the other these emergencies are too raw to just reduce them to case studies. That said I find it interesting that conflicts are more and more evidently becoming media battles as well as physical battles. I think it’s very telling that so much of the discussion around the Syrian conflict and the question of whether other countries should intervene has referenced imagery, video, media. Politicians speak of being moved to action by the footage of chemical weapons attacks, as if the knowledge of those things alone would not be enough to motivate action. Equally I find it interesting that media platforms are becoming targets of war in new ways. In the wars of the past a military forced would perhaps attack and destroy physical media infrastructure like radio stations or telecommunications masts, now if you look at a group like the pro-Assad Syrian Electronic Army they are attacking social media platforms like Twitter, news websites like the New York Times.
Interview curated by Camilla Boemio