PEACE: A Degree South Collective Exhibition

Occupy Wall Street demonstrator Edgar Cancinos, 17 (from Elmhurst, Queens, NY) meditates in Zuccotti Park on November 16, 2011. Image via MGA

On Saturday (yesterday) I attended the opening of the exhibition ‘PEACE’. The exhibition comprises striking photographs from the eight Australian photographic journalists who make up the DEGREE SOUTH collective: Tim Page, Ashley Gilbertson, Stephen Dupont, Ben Bohane, Michael Coyne, Jack Picone, David Dare Parker and the late Sean Flynn. It was opened by legendary Australian actor Jack Thompson, who was a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in the 1990s, helping to establish a child protection agency called ‘Krousar Thmey’ (’new family’ in Khmer).

Underpinning the exhibition is one question: What does peace look like?

The photographers have spent much of their lives documenting conflicts around the world. The curator invited the photographers to go over their collections, this time in search of PEACE – images of peace that could resonate as powerfully as their images of conflict and war. Notably, the consensus amongst the Degree South collective was that this was a difficult theme. Whilst they found it quite easy to dive into their vast collections and emerge with ‘strong’ images of conflict (often the reason for being drawn to these locations in the first place), looking for reflections of peace captured in that same collection required signifcant reflection on their part.

And what the photographers discovered, upon reflection, was that the images of peace they captured were in fact personal photographs – “Rather than providing an overarching or grand narrative for peace” the blurb stated, the photographers found peaceful glimpses in their surroundings. Thus, they discovered that peace is often most profound in mundane circumstances. “This might help explain something of its elusiveness, both as a state of being and as a ‘story’ ”, it says. Indeed. Because that is what peace is – a state of being. And it comes in moments. Moment to moment choices to set aside the urge to argue, attack, defend, expand, conquor, strike, dominate, pay back… win.

“War is easy to represent” the ‘Peace’ exhibition press release said. “Peace seems much more difficult. The only images we have of peace tend to be clichés or pejoratives: hippies and daisy chains; olive branches and white doves; rainbows and peaceniks.” Yet I would argue we do know what peace looks like, because most of us living here live it, everyday. And it’s important to note that many – if not most – of the photographs in this collection, despite their diverse locations, are of that – of “everyday”, fleeting moments, inbetween the bloody insanity and pain-making of war, human conflict. Someone meditating in the middle of a protest. Romanian children smiling genuinely, and briefly, for the camera. Women in Herat waiting to cast their votes. Twirling dervishes, spinning in ecstatic trance states. Guns being literally cut up like litter in the Solomon Islands, post conflict. A man sewing up a hole in his garment.

Whenever I am at a photographic exhibition, I inevitably ask myself what it is I am actually viewing, no matter what the subject. Which is why Stephen Dupont’s words on his contribution really struck me: “my selection of photographs is intended to make you think about what you are actually staring at.” Dupont makes the point that someone merely glancing at his images of Afghanistan might think that they are “obviously” about war – when, in fact, they are captured moments of peaceful reflection in the midst of a war zone. In contrast, there is one David Dare Parker image that epitomises how sometimes an image that seems to be depicting peace, can simultaneously carry with it the pain legacy of a combative world. It is of a Romanian boy standing in a field, arms outstretched. When asked by Parker whether he was being a scarecrow, the boy said, “No, I am dead.” (There is an old Gypsy saying: “Bury me standing, for all my life I have been on my knees.”)

Similarly, Ashley Gilbertson’s images from the series Bedrooms of the Fallen 2007 – , taken of the now unoccupied bedrooms of recently deceased (and so very young) United States soldiers, depicts both peace and the ugliness of war at the same time. One of the images is of the bedroom of Californian Army Private First Class Karina S Lau, who died at the age of 20 in 2003, when her helicopter was shot down in Falluja, Iraq. Her lovely bedroom is unambiguously ‘girly’ – plush toys from childhood, patterned bed dressings. Strangely, it was this photograph of a female combatant that got me thinking about the dearth of the ‘Feminine’ in this exhibition. By that I do not mean a lack of women – there are female ‘subjects’ in some of the photographs (including Tim Page’s image of mothers in New York protesting against the Viet Nam War in 1967).

When I asked artist friend Taloi Havini (who’s paternal country Bougainville also suffered a bloody war last century – the background to her exhibition ‘Blood Generation’) about her impression of the exhibition, she articulated what I had felt. The collection is impressive. The photographers are male and so the photographs are taken from male perspectives –  Western male perspectives – by people who have an interest in covering conflict in their work for varied professional and personal reasons. Active combatants in wars tend to be overwhelmingly male. ‘Access’ to women by a male photographer would be affected by cultural restrictions and parameters, as well as the comfort level of a subject to be photographed. And at this point I am hungry for anti-war, pro-peace representations that embody what many regard, rightly or wrongly, as ‘Feminine’ values (nurturing, harmony with nature, et cetera), and perspectives.

In fact, whenever the subject of peace comes up, my mind continuously goes back to a documentary on the women-led peace movement in Liberia, which I wrote about in this post: Peace as a verb: being an ‘actionist’ of peace.  It is one of my favourite peace stories. The documentary ‘Pray the Devil Back to Hell’ was produced by Abigail Disney, and follows Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian peace activist awarded a Nobel Prize in 2011, and the amazing role Liberia’s humble (and largely overooked, certainly by Western media) market women played in the toppling of President Charles Taylor, the corrupt and ruthless warlord. You can read more about the role women and the ‘Feminine’ play in peacemaking here.


In opening ‘Peace’, Jack Thompson juxtaposed the way the original inhabitants of this land lived here for thousands upon thousands of years (in what he described as “equilibrium” with nature), with the European settlers – who carried with them the legacy of continuous territorial conflict, resource exhaustion, and aggressive expansionism. It was his segway into introducing his concept of peace: that is, peace is “the planet we inherit”. Thomson’s words ring true, and I would put it this way: that the nature of peace, is in nature. It is our natural state of being, in supposedly mundane moments, too often disturbed when outside forces compel us to react to preserve that peace, or when egoic thinking, vested material interests, obsession with power and ignorance compel us to engage in war. This exhibition reminds us of that.

‘Peace’ is being exhibited at MGA until 28 April 2013.


One Comment on “PEACE: A Degree South Collective Exhibition”

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