Larry Towell, El Salvador, Magnum Photos

Ideas Series: Picking Flowers in the Midst of History

Magnum is known for its harrowing images of war around the world. Destined for newspapers and magazines, documentary photography is required to make an impact and be memorable.

But what about all the other images – less direct and iconic, taken before or after key events – which tell a more oblique story?

A large proportion of the Magnum archive is organised geographically by zones of conflict. The photographs themselves, however, connect with each other beyond and across geography and archival classification – drawing a rhizomatic map of associations, a network of visual and affective correspondences. My selection tries to trace this invisible map that connects moments when the everyday re-emerges during or after a conflict. It is also a map where nature becomes witness to human history.

Take this image by Larry Towell. At first glance we see a bucolic scene of three young women in a tropical landscape. They are surrounded by lush vegetation. The sun, invisible in the image, is high above. The camera, our own gaze, is just behind the women who are in the foreground, occupying a large part of the lower right half of the image. Two of them have their backs to us and the third is turning back towards us to check the contents of a bag one of others is carrying. She herself is holding a bunch of flowers. They all wear their hair up, using identical white hair clips. It looks like they are on a day out, collecting flowers and perhaps fruit. They have stopped on a narrow path that stretches out in front of them, a line drawn in the trodden undergrowth winding through the plants and crossing the image diagonally. Our gaze follows the path and is drawn towards the bright patch of sky on the upper left of the image.

A little further up on the path, in the middle distance, we see two figures who we assume to be men walking ahead of the women. And then we notice the large shotgun, probably an AK-47, slung across the back of one of them and suddenly everything changes. The peaceful scene of the three young women tumbles; the image becomes heavier and darker. The image turns into a question mark. Why are the men carrying guns and who are they? Are they together with the women? The caption answers some of these questions, at least on a superficial level. FMLN Guerrilla, El Salvador, 1991. We are a few months away from the end of a twelve-year civil war during which guerilla groups of the Salvadoran left joined forces under the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front to fight the U.S. supported ruling junta.

What interests me here is how the image is turned upside down, thrown from one narrative into another, exposing the darker underbelly of an overtly pastoral scene. Nature itself somehow becomes a silent, oblique witness to what is going on in the image. History is not just a human affair. We are not in the middle of a ‘newsworthy’ event; nothing worth reporting seems to take place. We see no actual violence, no scene of death and yet both are implied. The arc of tension running diagonally across the image from the flowers to the gun becomes a kind of vanitas, pointing to the transient nature of life and the potential of its abrupt, violent ending. But we also see an everyday scene, where, after eleven years of civil war, picking flowers and carrying a gun go hand in hand.

Survival and living are part of war and trauma. In this sense, the image’s temporality is not contained within the narrow and often voyeuristic close-up of the decisive moment famously proclaimed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the elder of photojournalism and Magnum co-founder. Instead, we are seeing an image that gives us access to a temporal wide angle, an ongoing moment, an extended situation. Here, the image does not so much tell us what has taken place but rather what is still going on. Here, history is played out as something that seeps into the everyday rather than something that happens in key moments. Because the photograph avoids the singularity of the event it is also freed from the straightjacket of the past and enabled to connect to a more universal present. As witnesses of the image and the lives of the people in it, we are asked to consider the implications of this scene which is still taking place somewhere in the world today.

This article was commissioned as part of the BPB14 exhibition Magnum: One Archive, Three Views at the De La Warr Pavilion on display until January 2015