Taking Responsibility

IWM Film, David Cotterell on making art in Afghanistan

The Gateway series documents a nighttime handover. It's the transition from people that have been profoundly injured being med-evaced out of theater so...and what they the majority of them show is a handover at Kandahar. At Kandahar there was a shift from the back of a Hercules, which was filled with dust, that was used for transporting everything from bulldozers through to ammunition, and had become an intensive care bay for a nighttime flight there. As they went from one ramp to the next of the C-17 going out, they were going to an environment which was slightly more conducive to maintaining their, their lives as patients, rather than as patients being in the wrong place in the military. 

I felt there was a, there was a shift where the gravitational pull to a place where they're gonna get treatment was overwhelming the gravitational pull back to the impossible aspiration of getting back to the front. For me it felt that this was something which was probably not the most traumatic aspect of war, but was a poignant and important moment to recognise that from the the dynamic, kind of panicky moments of violence that happen in conflict, through to the mundane and inexorable process of recovery and rehabilitation, there was a pivot point there and it just felt like I was there at a moment of transition between two worlds.

The C-CAST crew - the critical care air support team - which is like an intensive care team in the RAF, that takes people out of theater back to civilian care, they wanted to have a witness to what they were doing, because they knew it was extraordinary. A very small team nobody else knew what was going on and it wasn't something which was as exciting as watching people being scooped up off the battlefield, watching patients that were sedated being taken home in military aircraft. And initially it was unlikely they were gonna get permission, so they wrote me down as a crew member, and I travelled from the tented hospital out with the Land Rovers to the aircraft and then on to Kandahar. When I got to the aircraft I had a pony tail and I clearly wasn't really your average crew member, and the loadmasters, which are famously kind of grumpy people, but there... he was deeply sceptical about my right to be there. He thought I was a journalist because I was carrying cameras, and initially it was like 'you can't come on, if you come on you can't take a photograph' and that kind of thing. And the noise of engines and military planes is overpowering, because they're not soundproofed, so everyone gets earplugs and you have to shout at each other if you want to be heard. But during the flight people had had a word with him and said 'actually, he's a war artist and he's with us', and somehow that had caused him to soften his position of me. So I documented the surgeons and people working with their finger torches, trying to look for vital signs in an environment that's so far removed from the intensive care ward, it's the absolute opposite. It's an industrial environment. And when the plane landed at Kandahar and the ramp went down and we reversed, and saw ahead of us the C-17, he said 'you can get off here if you want to take pictures, you can you can do that' and he kind of tapped me on the back and I was like 'okay, thank you' ... he clearly he'd decided that he'd been a bit over the top. 

So when I stood out there it's a very strange thing because throughout all of this experience you're thinking 'I should be carrying, helping carry the stretcher, I should be doing something useful'. Of course I wasn't really useful, and they had a quite adequate number of people. But as I step back from the two planes it was a there was a sense that I was witnessing something extraordinary. If I had been useful I would have been concentrating on the patient. As it was I was kind of overwhelmed by the spectacle of it, watching Toyota pickup trucks driving forwards to illuminate the path between two ramps and one exhausted critical care team handing over a patient to a fresh team that was about to go back to civilian life. I took photographs that were 10-second exposures and kind of like you know with a not very impressive camera, just feeling that somehow if there was any possibility of keeping this a record, I didn't want to forget this moment. And sometimes actually looking through a lens, and those that used to use film cameras who may have remembered the experience of forgetting to load the film, you do remember the photographs you've taken even if you don't actually have the images. And there was some attempt to try and frame this and make it digestible for memory. And when I came back, a few of the images made sense. 

It's not easy to feel useful as an artist when you, when you see people that are struggling to protect their lives and property in the face of kind of incredible pressures of conflict, and it seems very arrogant for any individual to claim authorship over a narrative. What I came to realise through a lot of self-doubt and kind of angst about this, that actually there was something profoundly useful about having lay witnesses. There are military historians, and there are journalists, and there are a range of different forms of witnesses to conflict. There are politicians, and there are kind of charities, but all of them have frames they work in. There are certain messages that fit those frames, and there is a need to try, if you can, to translate the experience into the frame you are given. So for journalists, they may be given a thousand words, or a three minute clip, they might be allowed to use a single stream in a single channel video, they might be... they might be allowed to get to certain places or to speak with certain people, they might have an audience that can relate certain kinds of stories more than others - but also they probably had to form stories and I think the problem with that is that it belies the fact that most conflict involves chaos. Moments that don't make sense and it's right they don't make sense - part of the trauma is the fact that there isn't meaning and it doesn't, not all things lead to a conclusion and the problem is it's very hard to represent those. 

The ambiguity and the fear before something happens, some people talked about that as having more of a profound disturbing effect than the actual moment of fear and violence, and it's really hard to show that, you can't show 36 hours waiting for something horrible to happen to you on Channel 4 News, so what you do is you show that 15 seconds of the explosion afterwards, but that means that we don't really understand anything of the actual experience of suffering that people might have had by being there not knowing when it was going to happen, and feeling that fear continuously, pervasively. Artists can't solve that but artists can offer something where they champion the subjective experience. We have, we take ownership and responsibility for our voices which means that we don't claim it's the voice for everyone else, but we say this is a legitimate experience that I have had or that I feel I understand, without the objective aspirations of a historian or the journalist.

David Cotterell went to Afghanistan in 2007, spending time with British forces and documenting the medical treatment of casualties and their journey away from the frontline to medical treatment back in the UK.

Upon returning from Afghanistan, he experienced mixed emotions and felt “slightly haunted” by what he had experienced. He made a return trip to the country, spending time in Kabul, and also gained access to Selly Oak and Hedley Court in Birmingham to continue documenting the journeys of soldiers who had been injured.

At the time of taking the photographs, he had been aware of the “problematic” nature of taking photographs of people who had been injured and were in a vulnerable position. Although military personnel had been briefed why he was there and consent was sought, David decided to track down the people in the images:

“When I came back I had a thousand pictures and I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for any of them to exist. It feels uncomfortable to have images that potentially are beautiful but represent life changing, horrific images in other people’s lives. And it wasn’t clear if these should exist on a hard drive or whether they should be anonymised or destroyed. So I tracked down the people that I’d seen in the images, went to visit them.”

He asked them if they wanted the images destroyed or anonymised – all of the soldiers he spoke to at that point said they wanted the pictures to be seen.

Gateway II, which is on display at Age of Terror: Art since 9/11 at IWM London, depicts the treatment of casualties as they begin the journey back to the UK.

He believes there is a role for artists that is different from other people, such as journalists or historians, who may document conflicts.

“We take ownership and responsibility for our voices, which means we don’t claim it’s the voice for everyone else, we say this is a legitimate experience that I’ve had or that I understand, without the objective aspirations of the historian or the journalist – it does mean that while that’s limiting, it does mean that possible to show things that may be more idiosyncratic, which may be more complex.”

Image: David Cotterrell, Gateway II, 2009 Courtesy of Danielle Arnaud Gallery and the artist

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