“Even though the guns were not firing,” writes photographer Sean Sutton of the Angolan city of Luena in 1995, “the town was under siege by successive rings of minefields”. Until 2002, Angola had been occupied by civil war for nearly 40 years. The legacy of that extended conflict is a land contaminated by landmines that impede access to clean water and prevent agricultural and infrastructure development. A staff member of MAG (Mines Advisory Group), an NGO dedicated to working with local communities around the world to clear remnants of conflict, Sutton has photographed the immediate and ongoing effects of mines in Angola since 1995.
Angola: Journey Through Change is a narrative in roughly three acts, presented in an unbroken stream of beautifully printed and laid out black and white photographs. First we are shown, briefly, soldiers and mines being placed, and the lives of the internally displaced among the physical wreckage of war: children playing on a tank full of live ammunition, ruined railways, a downed bomber, and everywhere people walking on crutches. A second section describes weddings and funerals, witch doctors, scenes of the difficult everyday life in a post-conflict social order, and the work of MAG de-mining land and teaching residents how to carry away someone who has exploded a mine. The book ends with the return of refugees who had fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The population swells; they are reunited with relatives and given parcels of land on which to build and farm – but which often sits within active minefields.
Some of Sutton’s pictures present layers of information, while others are emotionally engaging, often joyfully so. Many are both, such as the serene image of two women in a refugee camp. These pictures foreground the gestures and details of everyday life in a place where the mines and their effects are omnipresent. Sutton is clearly engaged with his subjects as people attempting to reconstruct their social worlds, not only as the direct or indirect victims of landmines.
To his credit, Sutton does not attempt to create an illusion of transparency. He is clearly present, often in situations shaped by his being there, evidenced in the eye contact his subjects make with him or his camera. His remit is to report on the work of MAG, and this includes his own documentary interventions. If anything, the subjects’ engagement with being photographed make the images feel honest.
As strong as the pictures are, the combined effect of image and text is devastating. We learn that the 13-year-old boy in the book’s cover image who has lost a leg to a mine was wounded outside of his own house by a mine planted by his father, seeking to protect his family. With this knowledge the picture suddenly transforms from an image of a victim to a symbol of the impossible desperation that war invites.