Debbie Lisle


Debbie Lisle, [04/01/12]:  One of the common tropes in ‘Late Photography’ or ‘Aftermath Photography’ (a category which applies to some of your work like Soviet Legacy) is that it often doesn’t include humans in the frame. Certainly human figures are spectrally present, often quite actively (I’m thinking especially of the disused buildings in 41 Gymnasia), and of course there is the figure of the photographer and the more general figure of the audience. But can you say something about the absent presence of humans in your photography? Do you feel an obligation (if that’s the right word) to those who are now absent in your frames? Does the possibility of photographing human figures cause anxiety, or is it just uninteresting for you?

Angus Boulton [09/01/12]:   I wouldn’t say there is an overt obligation to the past inhabitants themselves, but I’m certainly trying to infer how their presence affected the spaces they once inhabited. While engaged with the Soviet Legacy project, clues to a previous use were often apparent the instant one entered the different locations and buildings within them. Items of clothing, instructional signage and murals remained alongside everyday detritus. Occasionally one came across letters which, although in Cyrillic and therefore largely unreadable, would inevitably recall who the recipient might have been. Initial guesswork became deduction as the number of bases I visited increased and my familiarity with their layout developed. Often the most puzzling interiors I came across were those in which the access and layout had been mysteriously altered but these subtleties usually proved less interesting to photograph. Although some artists use the title to give an explanation, I avoid this and feel that if an interior isn’t visually interesting to me at the time, while standing there, I’m more inclined to exclude it from a project. Having said this, past use might appear self-evident; the bare padded cell in the Potsdam prison complex was a case in point, it’s blood red ceiling adding an extra macabre layer of meaning to any interpretation of the image. One’s thoughts would inevitably turn to who might have been incarcerated there, and for what reason.

Successive visits to installations that revealed little new led to the series 41 Gymnasia, the creation of a typology, a collection of images that can also stand apart from the whole project, experienced as oases of colour within the routine grey and camouflage of most military installations. Almost everyone has been in a gymnasium at some point in their childhood, whether actively or reluctantly, so a degree of instant recognition exists within the viewer, and it’s these distant memories that perhaps allow the viewer to imagine the soldiers who once frequented these spaces. To my mind there’s something about the unusually vibrant colours with which the gymnasia were painted, the 70s Olympic symbols and accompanying murals, that seems to engender clear memories of the Cold War era.

It’s been said by numerous photographic artists, myself included, that the presence of figures often distracts the viewer from the overall scene but it has caused anxiety in my own practice for another reason. I began photography quite young but left it behind until I was able to purchase equipment while studying geology at university. Then, a camera was used merely to record unusual rock outcrops or landforms and as fellow students had cameras it was normal behaviour. In subsequent years I did some landscape photography, which was a largely solitary pastime. It was only while undertaking a short photojournalism course that I encountered a problem. The first assignment was to capture stressed commuters so I duly stood on London Bridge at rush hour. However, I was unable to remain there mid flow, pointing my camera at the steady stream of workers heading towards me, I felt quite awkward and it seemed my career as a photojournalist was over before it had started. Fortunately this personal handicap later proved to be an important factor in how I approached the homeless project; not portraying the people directly seemed wholly appropriate behaviour as it diminished any accusations of exploitation. After a few weeks spent seeking out and photographing various homeless ‘landscapes’ it was apparent that the material remains of homelessness were of most interest; the type of spaces they sought out, the possessions and bedding proved more telling than actually portraying the individuals concerned. I felt my obligation was not to intervene, just to capture what I had found.

DL [10/01/12]:   You seem to have a deep ethical engagement with the objects you photograph (and indeed, with the subjects you choose not to photograph). This does not seem to be about your own feelings towards the detritus you encounter, but rather about your capacity to imagine that these seemingly banal, grubby and disused things might have once held meaning and value for others. This suggests not so much an instrumental plan of visually ‘capturing’ a site, but rather something much more haphazard, messy, and intuitive. Would it be fair to say that yours is a more modest approach to photography? That you allow the objects and remnants you stumble across to compose your photography rather than the other way around? Or does that make your role as ‘the photographer’ too passive?

AB [18/01/12]:   I chose not to interfere or adjust the homeless sites possibly out of respect for those in that predicament. Although out in the open or within public spaces, these sites felt private, the bedding and clothing were possessions so certainly held value to someone. But I’m not alone in thinking that way, it’s just that I chose not to walk past but instead paid them attention, albeit initially for my own ends. I recall coming across ‘Untitled II, 19.4.95’ and couldn’t quite believe that the mattress and bedding were neatly made up with hospital corners. Revisiting later with my camera, it had been slept in and although initially disappointed, I realised that this particular site would have appeared so unusual it might have been interpreted as staged. This reactive way of working has to a larger extent remained in my practice but, more importantly, it’s the straight forward photographic approach to composition that I adopted at the time that has lingered through subsequent projects. In one sense the objects do perhaps compose the photograph but I chose the subject matter in the beginning and, although refraining from intervention, I wouldn’t see it as that passive.

Much of the time I’m either trying to take an oblique look at what has become familiar or, in the case of the Soviet work, reveal a subject that I felt was overlooked or forgotten. My approach to photographing that legacy was more modest because the military environment is so alien to most people that it works for you itself. I undertook lengthy research in the evenings to find the military chain of bases, and then had to negotiate access prior to each visit. In most of my work, although the resulting photos may appear similar in style to the viewer, the work involved in actually arriving at the final image has invariably differed. Once I began to work in series, say the gymnasia or homeless sites, it became an exercise in collecting different examples to create a typology. Many of the Soviet images resulted from single visits to sites of on-going dereliction, often awaiting demolition, so I had a brief window of opportunity in which to decide what to photograph. By contrast the Berlin work was created over a longer period. Time spent marking suitable locations of interest on maps, criss-crossing the city on the S Bahn and wandering around on foot. Although undergoing the upheaval of unification, this cityscape usually allowed more time for repeat visits and the luxury of working when the light was flat, frequently on Sundays when no one was around and vehicles were absent etc. There is a methodology therefore; it’s just when I’m at the point of thinking about and looking for new projects that the process feels far more haphazard.

DL [20/01/12]:   This idea of a ‘window of opportunity’ in which to photograph a soon-to-be-demolished site introduces an important tension between what we might call a ‘documentary’ and an ‘aesthetic’ frame. Some of your work photographing the Soviet bases in East Germany and also RAF Coltishall seems to be driven in part by a documentary ethos – to faithfully record these buildings before they are demolished. The time pressure of impending demolition and reconstruction makes this role as ‘recorder of history’ even more poignant. But, of course, your work is also driven by a highly developed aesthetic sensibility – your technical use of light, angle, framing, etc.  I know this is an old argument raked over by many photographers over the years, but can you say something about how you reconcile these competing desires to document a site for posterity and to create a site through artistic practice? I’m particularly interested in whether that negotiation feels different when you are situated in sites of temporal limbo – in decaying military bases that evoke complex histories that are soon to be destroyed.

AB [23/01/12]:   I mentioned earlier how the style of photography I adopted was more out of necessity, or rather the result of my inability to perform well within recognisable photojournalistic rules. The Homeless project appeared in a Sunday supplement, was then exhibited and two years later earned the DG Bank art prize in 1998, at which point I had to view it from a different perspective. I didn’t wholly embrace the notion of the work as art, the aim of the project was to approach homelessness differently, but I wouldn’t object if that label was applied to it.

Therefore I was still slightly unclear exactly where I was heading when I began the Soviet project. Although immersed in Berlin I was really struggling to understand what the photos depicted. I would develop the films on periodic trips back to London but there was no apparent thread running through them. I had begun negotiating access to the Soviet bases, thinking it might be pertinent to my survey of the city or perhaps I could produce a traditional photo story for a magazine back in London. I soon began to spend all my time in these empty spaces, working Monday to Friday for weeks on end as it proved easier and immediately rewarding. Some images were indeed included in Richtung Berlin but they were subtle comments on the Soviet presence and how it affected the city. So my initial aims were a bit confused and, although hindsight always allows analysis of our aims, I imagine many artists don’t always think something through before embarking on a new work. At best I had a subject I wanted to look into and then gradually worked my way through it.

Providing a document of the Soviet sites before demolition or conversion was an underlying aim but over time I realised that the ever-present dead atmosphere I was encountering might be further explored with a move into film. I still maintain that although I was creating what would become a historical document, it could also be something more complex. This might be confirmed with regards to the RAF Coltishall commission in 2006, which was actually to capture the drawdown and closure of the base through film alone, working alongside the artists Gair Dunlop and Louise K. Wilson. Indeed, English Heritage utilised the skills of a staff photographer to create an accurate record of the site, as it was expected we would all produce different results.

The images I have made evoke a range of reactions. Mysteriously, one observer asked if I’d tidied up Berlin as he couldn’t see any rubbish on the streets. The Soviet bases elicit a broad response, everything from surprise at the vibrant colours of the gymnasia to a troubling nostalgia or misguided sense of melancholia for the past as, in essence, they depict the death of a belief system. I just felt rather fortunate to have been able to spend time within these ghostly places; but as I hadn’t been commissioned it’s that personal journey while creating the images that had to be rewarding or I wouldn’t have undertaken it.

DL [24/01/12]:    I’m curious about how you describe your total immersion in these sites Monday to Friday as ‘easier and immediately rewarding’. Elsewhere you’ve talked about ‘the ever present and overwhelming dead atmosphere one encounters while picking through the detritus of other peoples’ lives’ (Restricted Areas, p.36). Indeed, one of the reasons you shifted into film was to capture the ambient sound of such emptiness as a compliment to your visualizations. It strikes me that the questions you are asking through your photographs, and the sites in which you operate, render your work quite a lonely enterprise. Can you say something about this solitude? That is to say, when you are photographing or filming such emptiness, do you see yourself ‘in conversation’ with others?

AB [25/01/12]:   These sites proved ‘easier and immediately rewarding’ places in which to work because, at that time, they came as a welcome distraction from my ongoing work in Berlin. I was constantly on the lookout for something of interest in the city, making extended walks and constantly analysing my surroundings. For months I’d often return home without having taken a single photo, and those I had accumulated didn’t seem to be leading anywhere, so I was becoming fairly demoralised. It was some months later that I realised my intention of avoiding the Wall was a mistake, the effects of its presence were everywhere. The images appeared to illustrate a process, that personal journey towards a familiarity and ease with the city, something I evidently had to earn. I think I had actually shown how perceptions of our surroundings alter over time and we begin to see the hidden layers, especially present in a city such as Berlin.

I had tried to access a British Army base in Münster but was turned down flat, so it felt rather strange to be given the gate key for a Red Army Barracks in Potsdam. I travelled there from central Berlin, walking to the periphery each day to sign in, so it felt like a regular work shift. I viewed this as fairly privileged access to an installation that had previously been totally off limits to the public and even now had very restricted access. Having seen inside a few airbases in the UK, this was somewhat different, empty and free from the usual MOD restrictions. I was left to my own devices and the absence of any plans meant it took a while to explore each site, working methodically through each building room by room, gradually building up an understanding of the layout. It’s inevitable that a kind of conversation would develop. Entering the ‘History of the Unit’ museum in Forst Zinna and observing the relatively recent black and white photographs that depicted soldiers stood right outside was quite startling. To then walk across rough concrete, cracked and obscured by birch saplings, recalling the neatly tended parade ground it had been, my thoughts would often turn to where those soldiers were now. As I was nearly always unescorted there was ample time to contemplate such questions. The task was then to work out the best way to make an image that to my mind accurately conveyed the scene at that point in time. On subsequent visits to the more remote locations, the security guard might pick me up from the train station, and recount amusing or slightly macabre stories of what went on where while taking me around. But even when I have worked alongside a colleague, we would split up, meeting later to swap notes and point out different points of interest or any curious idiosyncrasies that the location exhibited.

DL [05/02/12]:   Your account of being a stranger / foreigner in Berlin brings up the question of whether you ‘see’ a place differently if you did not grow up in its culture. You’ve spoken here about your time photographing sites in Germany (e.g. the urban landscape of Berlin, the abandoned Cold War military bases in East Germany) and more recently in the UK (RAF Coltishall). While the decaying infrastructure may be similar, do you feel there is something different in the way you approach these national contexts? To put it another way, do your larger interrogations of history, memory and materiality change if you are on ‘home’ soil or if you are ‘away’? This is not, by the way, a reductive question about the importance of your identity as a ‘British’ photographer – although that may be part of the logic. Rather, it is a question about how you traffic between different polarities: the dislocated ‘eye’ of the photographer vs. the microscopic ‘eye’ of the archaeologist; the ‘generalist’ desire to reveal connections between abandoned military infrastructures around the world vs. the ‘documentary’ impulse to provide a careful, detailed and specific history of each site; and the pressure to contextualize these images in national histories of militarization vs. the need to let them signify in their own manner.

AB [09/02/12]:   I think there is an accepted notion that the outsider is able to see with fresh eyes, something that has probably contributed to why I’ve done so little work of late in London compared to Berlin, but obviously it’s more complex than that. Familiarity with where I live now means that I perhaps fail to notice the details or nuances which exist in the cityscape. This may appear to contradict what I believe the Berlin work showed, that transgression from ‘visitor’ to ‘inhabitant’, but I’m suggesting that it’s more of a phase. One reaches a point of familiarity with a city that remains so, even if away for an extended period, one can’t return to that unknowing state you once had. Cultural difference is another factor that can affect the outsider, but that varies depending on the country. In Eastern Europe I found it interesting that although the people appeared similar to me, really we aren’t, whereas when I visited China everything felt immediately very different. Lastly, regarding the two cities I’ve lived in, there’s the fact that one can eventually get a grip on Berlin, and see the layers of change it underwent in the 20th century. However, it is quite a compact city compared to London. Here the sprawl and multitude of different urban landscapes that London exhibits seem much more difficult to quantify and perhaps too varied to create such an all-encompassing survey.

Although overall similarities in military infrastructures certainly exist, the fact that this type of landscape possesses an unfamiliar yet logical layout, pronounced differences between East and West eventually became apparent. I didn’t set out to be overtly political, and rather than navigate between a different approach whether on foreign or home soil, it was a case of finding more of interest to engage with on the Eastern side. Although I present what I find in a certain way, it’s merely a visual agenda rather than anything deeper. As I rarely embellish the titles, and can’t have ultimate control over how the images are perceived by the viewer, they remain free to contextualize the different layers of meaning and come up with equally valid interpretations themselves.

By the time I visited the Soviet sites, occupied after WWII and usually extended, their condition varied from empty to derelict. They had housed a standing army, the majority of which was made up of conscripts who remained confined to their barracks on a permanent state of readiness around the clock, so every kind of facility necessarily had to be on site. Due to their political history these sites were often seen as tainted on two levels as Soviet use had followed on from Nazi, and being both numerous and no longer strategically important they served no useful purpose. Financial constraints inevitably played a significant part in the lengthy process of refurbishment, reuse or even demolition, and the East has the poorest regions of Germany. Although a similar downsizing occurred in the West, in general the fabric of the sites I visited was far superior, if only because I arrived sooner on the scene. Indeed, knowing they were to vacate in 1990, the Soviet Military carried out minimal upkeep in subsequent years, stripping them of anything valuable towards the end in 1994. By comparison, sites like RAF Coltishall appeared too clean and somewhat clinical once empty, almost devoid of any traces or memories, and had become real estate more suitable for re use. Perhaps it ultimately comes down to land values, so a huge barracks or bunker installation in rural Brandenburg is uneconomic whereas the MOD bunker complex on Marsham Street in London was demolished, despite it taking 6 months to grind down the reinforced concrete.

DL [10/02/12]:   Unlike many of your contemporaries creating ‘Late’ or ‘Aftermath’  Photography’ (I’m thinking here of people like Simon Norfolk and Paul Seawright), you’ve focused on visually capturing the echoes and traces of historical conflicts such as the Cold War. Have you been tempted to photograph the immediate aftermath of more recent conflicts such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya?

AB [10/02/12]:   I would be tempted but there are already numerous photographers engaged with the present and their output is varied. I’d also question whether these conflicts have actually ended. It seems that some practitioners, previously viewed as war photographers in the classic sense, have begun to move towards an artistic approach; I’m thinking of Luc Delahaye and his recent work undertaken in on-going conflict zones. As the days of roaming freely seem to be over, following the carnage of the Balkans when reporters often became targets too, much of the work emerging from recent wars has come at the cost of agreeing to embedding and general corralling by the military. I imagine there would be little time to work, without the apparent freedom I’m accustomed to. It’s got to the stage where artists Broomberg and Chanarin elected to focus on these new limitations and obligatory chaperoning by the military as one starting point when creating their thought provoking piece The Day Nobody Died, the result of a commission to visit Iraq in 2008. But to reiterate, my original intention was to explore the Cold War legacy, a global state of tension that had been eclipsed and largely forgotten by the late 1990s, so I’m not confident I could add anything particularly insightful to what has already been undertaken.

DL [12/02/12]:   That leads nicely to my final question: have you finished scrutinizing the Cold War in your work? If so, what are you working on at the moment, and can you say something about how it links (or doesn’t link) to the themes your work has addressed up to this point?

AB [12/02/12]:

A deep interest in the Cold War will remain and, although there are increasingly fewer sites left to visit, a small number remain in less accessible locations which could be worthwhile exploring. I attempted to visit what remains of the Cuban missile launch site completed in 1963, but a considerable degree of anxiety was evident amongst my host at the prospect of driving me there. This was despite the fact that enough information to locate it had been openly broadcast on the BBC to coincide with the 40th anniversary.

At present I’m continuing with a project begun almost a decade ago looking at landscape. Although viewed today as somewhere pleasurable or uplifting to visit, it’s interesting that the word ‘landscape’ derives from the 16th century Dutch and a time when people rarely ventured far from their neighbourhood. Then their surroundings were often perceived as a place to be avoided, viewed instead as possibly slightly threatening. Having occasionally experienced that latent uneasy presence one sometimes comes across, often for quite inexplicable reasons, it’s this aspect of landscape that I find intriguing. I am mindful however that images portraying the sinister may arise from a wholly personal perception of a particular location at a specific time, and therefore prove difficult to convey through photography alone. Consequently, this project has taken longer to realise, proving difficult to work out in advance where the sort of places that could prove fruitful may lie.

In one sense this work resembles Richtung Berlin as I’m once again exploring something altogether less tangible. Having begun what I thought was a straight landscape project in an effort to move well away from all things Military, it’s transpired that many of these charged places were militarised at some point in the past, so perhaps it’s a natural progression.


Debbie Lisle is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queens University Belfast.
Her work explores the conjunction of visuality, war, culture and travel.


This article first appeared in ‘Society & Space’, Jan/Feb 2012. LINK