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How Images of Trauma Help Photographers Cope with Darkness

Four photographers at the SFMOMA explain why they seek out terror.

by Francesca Capossela
08 June 2016, 4:10pm

Photo by An-My Lê.Screencaps via

From post-Katrina New Orleans to post-war Vietnam, images of darkness and trauma help photographers explore their own fears. In San Francisco MOMA’s film, Art is...Going to a Dark Place, artists Robert Adams, An-My Lê, Naoya Hatakeyama, and Richard Misrach explain why they have chosen to photograph images that disturb them. The video is part of SFMOMA Shorts, a new series that aims to depict artists sharing their goals, process, and ideas about what art is.

Lê, who left Vietnam in 1975, says that she is “trying to understand the affect of war on [her] life” and uses “landscape photography to try to answer those questions. Her images of war-torn Vietnam are startling in their violence as well as their potential for beauty. The series of black and white photographs combines chaos with horror but always leaves room for the natural beauty of the country; war, Lê asserts, “can be beautiful.”

Photo by Richard Misrach

Similarly, Misrach combines images of devastation with breathtaking landscapes from New Orleans. In many photographs, graffiti covers abandoned homes with messages like ‘I’ll miss you’, ‘I am here I have a gun’ and ‘Michael where are you’. This mark of a human presence, in the otherwise deserted photographs, is harrowing.

While Lê and Misrach work with traumatic events, Adams and Hatakeyama find their dark places in nature. Adams photographs the American West, depicting its starkness and poverty, as well as the affect of people on the land, in a series of black and white photographs. Meanwhile, Hatakeyama explores the “collapsed ceilings of underground quarries” which he explains make him feel “totally alone” and like he is “looking at the end of this world.” All four artists search these various landscapes of fear to find moments of sublime beauty.

Learn more about SFMOMA Shorts here. You can also check out SFMOMA’s website to explore the work of these artists, and others.

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