So many photographers and journalists have embedded with combat units in Afghanistan since 2003 that the country has earned the nickname “Embedistan.” A controversial (albeit not new) practice, some believe that embedding serves the military above all, giving them an extra tool in their war for information and opinion. But what happens when a photographer truly collaborates with an army? Simon Brann Thorpe worked hand-in-hand with a military commander in Western Sahara and his troops to develop his conceptual photography project, “Toy Soldiers.” The relationship depended on trust and a willingness to invest oneself in the artist’s vision. The result is an exceptional body of work, which will be presented to the public this week for the first time during Photo London. The book “Toy Soldiers” will be published in June and is available for pre-orders now. Simon Brann Thorpe joined R&K from London.
Photo by Simon Brann Thorpe.
Roads & Kingdoms: Why set this project in Western Sahara?
Simon Brann Thorpe: In 2004, I did a project about landmine victims there. It was my first project to try to bring awareness to the issue of landmines, which are as invisible in the area as the conflict itself–both physically and metaphorically. That was what introduced me to the bizarre, absurd nature of the conflict and how and why it’s remained invisible for so long. Fairly soon after that, I knew I wanted to go back. But I didn’t want to cover the conflict with traditional reportage, I just didn’t think it would do it justice. Something that has been so invisible isn’t going to become suddenly visible with the regular means of communicating those issues. So it took me a while to come up with the way I really wanted to express the situation and my own narrative on war. The concept was born in the shower one evening.