Vision as Power at London's Imperial War Museum brings together five separate projects by contemporary British photographer Donovan Wylie. His main focus in each project has been the role of vision in law enforcement or military control. He examines this theme from several perspectives, including that of the observer, as well as the observed.
Donovan Wylie's upbringing in Northern Ireland has undoubtedly influenced his photography. Born in Belfast in 1971, he grew up under the ongoing conflict of The Troubles. He was a keen photographer from a young age, completing a photographic tour of Ireland in his teenage years, resulting in the highly commendable book, 32 Counties. He went on to become one of the youngest ever members of Magnum Photos in 1998.
In the project The Maze (2002), Wylie presents images of an abandoned prison in County Down. HMP Maze played a prominent role during The Troubles by housing paramilitary prisoners. Its inmates famously went on hunger strike in 1981 and staged the largest breakout from a British prison. Yet its history is not obvious from Wylie's photographs. Instead, Wylie is interested in the layout of the prison and its disorientating impact. He mimics this disorientation with repetitive images. This was reinforced through his production of many similar photographs, although not all are on show in this exhibition. It could be said that Wylie's images are a response to the name "maze", though the prison was in fact named after the local townland of Maze.
Deliberately shown alongside The Maze (2002) series are photographs of Baghdad's Green Zone (2008). This was the international administrative zone of central Baghdad, controlled by the Coalition forces during the Second Iraq War. These photographs are shown in the same room as those of The Maze (2002) because Wylie saw similarities in the way people were contained in the Green Zone and how they were imprisoned in HMP Maze. Wylie cleverly demonstrates the duality of the existence of Coalition occupants, who were both protected and imprisoned by their military structures.
Wylie's photographic projects also took him to Afghanistan. He had seen a picture on the internet of an army base in Kandahar Province that inspired him to visit and take photographs that formed the series Outposts (2010). These mesmerising images of the Kandahar landscape have an unnerving feeling about them. Wylie said he experienced the paranoia of the people being observed on the ground, as well as the sense of vulnerability from the perspective of those manning the highly visible outposts.
Wylie's interest in military observation stems from his childhood experiences in Northern Ireland. In 2005–6 he produced British Watchtowers to capture the atmosphere created by British Army surveillance in South Armagh. He took photographs from a helicopter, which gave him the power to look down on the watchtowers amongst their surroundings. His images convey the feeling of a sinister and controlling military presence in an otherwise normal landscape. Any housing estates are depicted as though they belong in a model village, with the army watching every move made by the residents.
Wylie's series Arctic (2013) is displayed in the final room of the exhibition. The full glory of the beautiful scenery of the Canadian Arctic is shown in this series. But even this hostile environment is home to man-made structures – cyber radar stations that appear ghost-like amongst the ice, fog and snow. They are unmanned and operate electronically to detect any presence seeking out lucrative natural resources along Canada's Arctic frontier. Wylie uses them as an example of surveillance with the potential to prevent future conflict.
Through documenting military observation methods, Wylie's work highlights issues that form part of a wider debate about surveillance in society. For centuries, visual structures have played a controversial role in the exertion of power over populations. In the late 18th century, social theorist Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon: a circular building with a central observation tower that would give prison occupants the impression they were constantly being watched. This inspired the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, to develop the term "Panopticism" in the 1970s as a metaphor for the enforcement of discipline upon society. Present day CCTV and data surveillance could also be regarded as panoptic mechanisms, hence the ongoing debate surrounding their use. Wylie's work is therefore important for the purposes of historical documentation and for providing a window on this continuing debate.
It would be nice to see more of Wylie's photographs in this exhibition, especially his intriguing images of the Green Zone (2008). In addition, a whole room full of The Maze (2002) series would create more of a visual impact, by immersing the audience in the prison setting. Overall, however, Wylie's work leaves a poignant lasting impression, making the viewer wonder where he will take his camera next...