Taking Responsibility

IWM Film, David Cotterell on making art in Afghanistan

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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