Simon Brann Thorpe / Toy Soldiers
June 2016 Interviewed by Anna McNay
In 2004, Simon Brann Thorpe was in Western Sahara working on a documentary project about landmine victims. Appalled by the political situation and taken by the refugees he met, he determined to return. Thus Toy Soldiers was born. Published to great acclaim in book format last summer, Brann Thorpe is now looking to exhibit the images internationally. Anna McNay met with him to discuss the project.
Anna McNay: Your first experience of the war in Western Sahara was in 2004 when you did a project about landmine victims. How did you get from there to your Toy Soldiers project?
Simon Brann Thorpe: The landmines project was my first ever experience with conflict. I never even played with toy soldiers as a child. I was completely taken by the people in Western Sahara. The region is a former Spanish colony. Now it is a disputed territory, sandwiched between Morocco, to the north; Mauritania, to the south; Algeria, to the east; and the Atlantic on the west coast. When the Spanish left, Morocco laid claim to the territory and invaded from the north and, at the same time, Mauritania invaded from the south. The indigenous population of Western Sahara – called the Sahrawi – was effectively split and half of the population fled into Algeria, where they still exist. Mauritania withdrew in 1979, which left the Polisario, or political resistance movement against colonialism, fighting the Moroccans. There was a ceasefire in the 1990s, but over 100,000 refugees still live in refugee camps in southwest Algeria. When I visited the region, I visited these camps. A 2,700km-long sand berm divides the regions. It was built by the Moroccans and is heavily landmined on both sides. The region to the east is known as the liberated zone and that is where Toy Soldiers was shot.
I was really taken by the invisibility of the situation and the fact that the West has been entirely incapable of any form of resolution. The UN has a mandate in Western Sahara and they monitor the ceasefire. They are meant to be bringing about a referendum, but nothing is happening. The refugees have been there for 40 years now, struggling for self-determination. My reaction to the situation is visceral. Toy Soldiers came about because I really wanted to go back and do another project on this issue, but I didn’t just want to go and do portraits of refugees, as that has been done millions of times, as have landscapes. I came up with the idea one day in the shower. I knew I wanted to work with the military – not because I wanted to give the issue a military context, but because it’s very symbolic of the struggle.
AMc: How did you make the project happen?
SBT: The project would never have happened without collaboration with the military commander. I pitched the idea to him and went out there to meet him. We travelled to the military base and location scouted the whole project well over a year before it was shot. He bought into the idea of what I was trying to do, even though conceptual art is not really a part of their culture. He greenlighted it, but through the back door. I travelled back out there in 2010 and produced the work over a five to six week period.
AMc: How did the soldiers react to your wanting to turn them into toy soldiers? Did any of them respond negatively, perhaps seeing this as trivialising their experiences?
SBT: Not to my knowledge! I had several meetings in which I explained the project and showed them some toy soldiers. There’s a language barrier, so it was all done through an interpreter. The soldiers ranged from 18 to 80, and there was some – I won’t say ‘mutiny’ – but some complaints about carrying the heavy bases around, that we’d made from oil drums. And, towards the end of the project, it was Eid, so they just wanted to go home. It was difficult, it was hot work, standing outside in the middle of the day. A lot of the young guys, in particular, wanted to stand a bit like Rambo, so it meant going through a lot of training exercises to get them to stand in ways that mimicked the positions of the toy soldiers. It was the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken. It was a bit like directing in many respects. And it was supposed to be provocative. I’m sure some people would say I’m just playing. And yes, I am, as an artist. But I’m trying to draw attention to something serious. There’s so much war-gaming now, with computer games, etc., that it’s becoming hard to tell the difference between grotesque violence that is fantasy and grotesque violence that is reality. The way that images are digested is “next, next, next!” It’s about trying to arrest someone’s attention for more than five seconds. I think there are a lot more projects out there that are blatantly more exploitative but seem to be ok because they are in black and white, using established photographic clichés.
AMc: Are the poses of the toy soldiers natural poses that real soldiers might do?
SBT: Not really. At least, they make the soldiers appear quite Western. I suppose that was deliberate for me as an artist though. It speaks of how we relate to what’s familiar. Also, I didn’t want to portray them as a clichéd Muslim, Middle Eastern, Guerrilla, terrorist outfit, which they are not at all.
AMc: Alongside the images of the soldiers as toy soldiers, you also made a series of portraits of the soldiers with their eyes shut.
SBT: Yes, the project is in three chapters. First, there are the landscapes, which act as an introduction to the region and show the soldiers disguised as toy soldiers. I wanted these group shots to be representative of the number of refugees, but I couldn’t have that many soldiers posing at once, as I would have needed permission from the UN to have a gathering of soldiers above a certain number and that would have completely killed the project. Plus I didn’t have the budget to move 100 men around the desert in trucks or to create 100 bases. So I worked with a locked off camera, a large format digital, and the landscapes are made up of stitched images. Every element is shot in three exposures and then stitched together, and then stitched together again, and then layered. The majority of those landscapes are orientated westwards, playing towards our cultural aspirations. For the Sahrawi, of course, that’s also the direction of home.
Each chapter progressively moves in. The second chapter consists of single portraits of the soldiers in classic poses, where you can see that they’re actually real people. Then the last chapter is close-up headshots of them all individually with their eyes closed. This offers a voyeuristic look at the refugees and signifies the entrapment of their invisible situation. It humanises the project. I’ve deliberately left everyone unnamed and the colour palette is also deliberate to remove it from that kind of documentary reality. This final chapter also exists as a set of images with the soldiers’ eyes open, but I’ve shelved these pictures for now – perhaps until such a time as they get their referendum.
Toy Soldiers is published by Dewi Lewis (£35).
For more information on Simon Brann Thorpe’s work, please see: simonbrannthorpe.com