Only With The Heart – David Pratt
October – December 2019
There is something distinctly human about David Pratt’s photography. Among the bombed-out ruins, the Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades are glimpses of the everyday – a smile, a blinking eye or a random moment of motherhood caught on camera.
One of his images is rich in untold back-stories. It is a composed portrait of a wooden shelf in a Kabul hospital in 1995, where a row of prosthetic limbs sit waiting to be fitted to an amputee. This is documentary observation at its very best: a raw, emotionally arresting account of the reality of war.
But within its frame are so many unspoken subtleties, not least the battered trainers fitted to the foot of a prosthetic stump. It is a still life of the many foreign invasions of Afghanistan, the stoic resistance of its people and the horrors that has been visited on them.
Those trainers – who owned them, who took them to Kabul and what tragic gifts were they bearing? We are left to think not only about the suffering but the global powers that have brutally rained down on the region.
David Pratt belongs in the pantheon of great war photography and what is truly remarkable is the sheer range of his work, in Cambodia, South Sudan, the Balkans and Somalia.
He shares with the great Vietnam War photographer, Philip Jones-Grifﬁths an effortless capacity to seem embedded with military units in the intense heat of battle.
For Jones-Griffith it was the US 9th Division in the Battle for Saigon, for Pratt it is the ragged fortitude of Afghan mujahedeen guerrillas as they overwhelm Russian tanks in Sanglakh Valley.
Like the brilliant US photographer James Nachtwey, there is artistry in his work too. These are not flat historic records but often have a composed and loving creativity. In one photograph, an amputee mother in Eastern Ukraine is sitting on a bed holding her baby while reflected in a varnished door behind her in subtle depth of focus, is their small household in mourning
In another image a brutal chiaroscuro frames a man in Jerusalem wearing a gas mask in the midst of a Scud missile attack, while in one picture a shaft of light scythes through the frame as an Afghan ﬁghter navigates a bombed out building in Kabul.
Like the legendary British war photographer Don McCullin, he reminds us that great war photography is not always about battle and weaponry but rather about portraiture and faces, lined with the disbelief that war can visit on small communities.
Abdul is a 95 year old refugee from the war in Syria, his long swollen nose reaching down to a deep grey beard as if a nose can cry. A younger, unknown man caught up in the brutal anonymity of war waits for humanitarian aid in South Sudan. A proud matriarch from the indigenous Embera people of Colombia, whose very existence is threatened by illegal gold mining, stares at the lens in deﬁance.
Drawing on a wider history of photography, Pratt’s portrait of a Salvadoran woman and her swollen-bellied baby is a powerful reminder of Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936) the Oklahoma migrant mother ﬂeeing starvation in dust bowls of Depression America. It is ‘Madonna and Child’ in a modern secular age.
Like the very best war photographers, David Pratt’s work is deﬁant and principled in its pursuit of human decency under duress. Some of his photographs are difﬁcult, others are graced with gentle humour and many are so piercingly beautiful that they deserve their place at the forefront of modern photography.
I’m sure you will have your favourites, but please do not keep that to yourself, turn to the person next to you and tell them what inspired you about a photograph. These are photographs that were never intended to be studied in silence. They are there to provoke your conscience and to open up a dialogue about the causes and consequences of war.
Stuart Cosgrove is a writer and broadcaster based in Glasgow. He is the author of the Soul Trilogy, three books that document the history of soul music and social change – they are ‘Detroit 67: the Year Than Changed Soul,’ ‘Memphis 68: the Tragedy of Southern Soul’ and ‘Harlem 69: the Future of Soul’ all published by Polygon.
Photographer, journalist, broadcaster and author, David Pratt has spent almost four decades working as a war correspondent and covering foreign affairs. In that time his work has been published and broadcast worldwide. Among the many media outlets to which he has contributed are the BBC, The Herald, Sunday National, The Scotsman, Sunday Times, The Independent, Daily Telegraph, The New York Times, Svenska Dagbladet, Channel 4 News, Reuters, Agence France Presse (AFP), Al-Jazeera, The National (Abu Dhabi) and Sogo Magazine.
Educated at Glasgow School of Art, from where he graduated with a BA (Hons) in Fine Art, he then taught art and design history at the famous school before beginning to focus full-time on documentary photography and journalism.
Among many accolades for his work, he has been named Journalist of the Year in the Scottish Press Awards. He has also twice been Reporter of the Year and twice Feature Writer of the Year and is a ﬁve times ﬁnalist in the Amnesty International Media Awards for human rights reporting.
He is author of Intifada – The Long Day of Rage, a reportage account of the Palestinian uprisings. A memoir about his boyhood and years as a war correspondent is currently near completion and he is compiling a book of documentary photography of the Soviet – Afghan war and its aftermath. A BBC documentary ﬁlm looking back over his life and work will be broadcast later this year.
Only With The Heart will be shown later in the year at Summerhall in Edinburgh and then at The United Nations Palais des Nations in Geneva.
Only with the Heart