Simon Norfolk talks Photography Festivals and Nuclear Missiles!

15 Nov

We have asked a few photographers what they have to say about HPF and the work that has been included in this years Twenty exhibition. Our first interview is with Simon Norfolk.

The Irish Defence Forces for Cork 2005
Simon Norfolk. The Irish Defence Forces for Cork 2005. From Liberia: Welcome to the Hotel Africa shown at the Hereford Photography Festival 2005

HPF: Do you have any memories of the Hereford Photography Festival? And also, what might have interested you in allowing us to show your work?

SN: I remember coming down once, and I really liked the Courtyard. As a venue, it’s very nice. I like the way it’s very open to the public. It allows people to just wander through. I like that. I like festivals a lot because you get a different kind of crowd to it. It’s not a sort of art crowd that you get in some galleries in the West End or in New York. I’ve never really been particularly interested in addressing an art audience. I’m interested in changing people’s minds about the things that are around them, like the war in Afghanistan for example.

HPF: Do you get to speak many of the people that see your work when you go to festivals?

SN: I get a lot of feedback all the time about my work. I get a lot of emails. I get a lot of emails about talks I do as well. I get lot of feedback, and its always very humbling, people are really sweet.

HPF: Would you say showing your work at festivals is attractive because the experience is in some way more genuine?

SN: You certainly don’t get the phoney bullshitness of the art world, that’s for sure. Which can be pretty tiresome. Critics say, “That’s great” one minute, and the next minute they’re praising somebody else and you think, “That’s rubbish! Why on earth are you saying that? You were the guy who was saying all those nice things about me and now you’re saying those about him. What it actually means is you’re an idiot.”

Another thing that’s nice about festivals is they can turn on a pin a little bit, whereas the art world is sclerotic. Talking about any of the venues in the UK, you actually have to put work into them 18 months before hand to stand any chance of getting a show when you want it. With festivals, half of that is sort of a normal period. If you are doing work that is about responding to events like Afghanistan, then you’ve got to show the work in festivals if you want it be seen. Time moves too slowly for you to get into an art gallery—into a poncy gallery, it’s going to take 18 months before they decide what they want.

HPF: I read in the So, Now Then book that the Hereford Photography Festival published- with your Welcome to Hotel Africa photos- about how the festival had tried to deal with documentary photography in a gallery space. Do you think festivals are better platforms for documentary photography?

SN: No, not because it’s documentary. I go to some festivals that are very arts based, the Arles festival in France, for instance, which is a purely arts based festival. For me, what is important is the political content of what I do. I make the pictures because I feel politically enraged about the stuff that I see. So, if that’s what you feel, you take the pictures because you want that feeling of rage to go away, because you want people to feel differently about it. There’s no point in me making an excoriating, impassioned plea about some piece of British foreign policy if it appears two years after the policy came to an end. You’ve just to be able to move a little bit faster.

HPF: And lastly, could you just tell us a bit about the work that appears in the Twenty Exhibition?

Full Spectrum Dominance

Simon Norfolk. Full Spectrum Dominance.

SN: It was a glorious thing really. It was something discovered by mooching about on the Internet, which is where I spend all my time messing about on obscure military websites—places where they are discussing weapon systems of the future. I spend a lot of time in those little dark corners, and I was astonished to find out just how often they launch nuclear missiles. I thought it hadn’t happened since the 80’s. It turns out they launch three or four a year in order to test the systems, to train the crews, and to qualify the crews. They launch them from Vanderberg Air Force Base in California and they fire them down about 5000 miles to the marshlands, which is now called the Ronald Reagan Nuclear Ballistics Missile Site, or something to that effect. The missiles get down there in 29 minutes. They get a real shift on. So, just the very thought that they were test firing nuclear missiles. These are minutemen nuclear missiles. They take the warhead off the top and fill it with concrete—there is no nuclear warhead on board but it is a nuclear missile. I’m very interested in anything that is to do with what I call the military sublime, that these things have an impossible and an almost unbelievable power to them. Awesome. Overwhelming. Awesome—not the California sense, but awesome in the original sense of the word—there is this completely humbling and belittling sense of raw power to these things. They don’t seem like big missiles, but when they went off I was three miles away from the launch site. The ground shakes, and the camera shakes, and your chest is vibrating. There is this kind of rumbling roar that reaches you. It’s quite extraordinary; an almost mystical, religious experience in a world where it’s nearly impossible to have any genuine mystical experience. I think it is because there is too much science that shines a light into the mysteries of our life. Watching these things roar in the sky, I remember thinking this is what it is going to look like when the world ends. This is what the end of the world will look like; and not in a metaphorical way, but in an absolute factual way—a “hair on the back of your neck” filled with a terrified awe moment. Those are rare things these days.

You could find out when they were going to launch them, and you could get to California in time because they publicize it through the local newspaper. It wakes everybody up and pisses everyone off so they have to do a little announcement that they are going to do it.

I did them on very long exposures so they make these beautiful pictures, they kind of leap up into the sky. I’m very satisfied with them because technically they are very difficult as well.

HPF: So these are all taken in California?

SN: Now, I’m not quite sure which ones have been included in the Hereford festival. I believe one of the photographs is a nuclear missile test launch and one is a launch from Cape Canaveral of a satellite system—a GPS global positioning system for the US Air Force.

HPF: So you photographed different systems, not just nuclear missiles?

SN: Well, mostly I photographed nuclear missile tests, but it just so happens HPF chose one of they few that wasn’t a test launch.

HPF: These ideas are massive and a lot to take in. I’m at a loss for words.

SN: Well, I’m interested in the ideas of awe and the sublime. They are 17th and 18th century philosophical ideas, really, but the thing is in the 17th century you could still feel these things about, oh I don’t know, an avalanche or something. Whereas nowadays we have enough science that we don’t feel these things towards an avalanche because we know how snow compacts, we know how mountains work, and we know the scientific reasons why an avalanche would fall. There’s something about the brilliant evil genius that is embedded in really advanced weapons that is truly God like and—well devil like would be a better way of saying it—that these people are making these weapons that can kill a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million, a hundred million, that could kill the whole world five times over, ten times over. That requires a kind of evil that is beyond imagining.

HPF: Have you had a satisfactory experience of your photographs reaching someone and changing their opinion on the photographed subject?

SN: Oh, tremendously, yes. I remember when I first came back from Afghanistan, I showed the work to the picture editor of the New York Times Magazine. There was a woman whose professional job was to look at every picture that was made in Afghanistan. This was in December 2001, when the invasion was taking place. And she said, “My God! I never knew it looked like that.” It just shows you the disservice that is being done by traditional photojournalism that’s failing to really portray those things that are truly important in the way that modern warfare is fought. In the set that I did about rockets and missiles, I photographed some models of nuclear warheads. Every time I show that picture in a lecture, I ask people if they have ever seen a nuclear warhead and do they know this is what it looks like and everybody says “no.” I’m amazed that we don’t know what these things look like. I thought we had a visual culture and photography that poured into every part of our lives. And these objects that are meant to have hung over our heads in our stratosphere for fifty years with this three minute warning and completely eradicate us, changing our entire psychology about how we thought about the world. These things that exist and have hung over us for fifty years, I don’t know what they look like. And as someone who lives in a visual world, a professional visual image-maker, I find that a bit bloody pathetic. I’m a bit embarrassed on behalf of my people that we never bother to photograph the fucking important stuff. The stuff that we are photographing is pictures of our girlfriends’ bottoms or all that kind of self-indulgent stuff that you see in a student degree show. And it makes me quite angry. Because if you don’t see these things, you don’t think about these things, you can’t democratically say what your opinion is about these things. Some people just slide away from our democratic grasp and that worries me a great deal. But the military love the fact that all this stuff is invisible because they don’t get bothered by annoying civilians saying “hang on, I don’t want you to fight that war. Hang on, I find that weapon barbaric. Don’t use it.” So they love this situation—this state of affairs where most of this stuff is invisible, unknowable, and unphotographed by people who don’t do the work to go out and find what they haven’t photographed. I’m a bit ashamed for my trade really. I think we need to up our game. I thought we were the smart ones. I’m disappointed.

HPF: I’m sure people ask you this all the time, but have you ever come into any trouble photographing these things?

SN: I’m sure they’re giving me a good going over as going to finding out who I am. I wouldn’t be too surprised if they were listening to this phone call. Actually they’re listening to all our phone calls, but in a very special way with very clever computers. But I’m not going to lie about anything to get a photograph. I don’t need to lie. I say who I am, I say what I want, and I make it seem attractive to let me in. I don’t say I work for another company or that I’m a government buyer: you show me how the missiles work and I might buy one. I just go there and say I’m an art photographer, this is what I do, look at my website. It says “Simon Norfolk is collected by the Getty museum in California” and it is. And I think I have a damn right to see what these things look like. How dare they hide this stuff away from me! I have every fucking right in the world to see it. I would be angry if I didn’t get to see it.

I’m going back to Afghanistan next week. I was there last week teaching some students. And I go back next week and will be there until Christmas. I’m doing a new piece of work, the first proper piece of work since the first Afghan work. So I’ll be doing it over the winter, shooting a new project.

HPF: We will certainly look forward to that. Thanks for your time, Simon. Good luck Thursday at your wedding and congratulations.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: