FotoFest Exhibitions

Christopher Sims

Selected By: Pippa Oldfield, Curator, Impressions Gallery,
Bradford, United Kingdom

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Theater of War:
The Pretend Villages of Iraq and Afghanistan

Christopher Sims’s images reveal a surreal world that is at once fake and also disturbingly real, a world both Western and Islamic, banal and horrific, high-tech and tawdry. These simulated Afghan and Iraqi villages, located deep within the forests of the American South and the deserts of California, are used as military training environments to orient U.S. soldiers prior to deployment. Remote sites of war have been spectacularly relocated from “over there” to “over here.”

Mr. Sims eschews both the conventional war photography of the Capa-esque heroic photojournalist close to the action and the more contemplative approach of “late photography” depicting the aftermath of conflict, exemplified by photographers from Roger Fenton to Simon Norfolk. Instead he takes the viewer backstage to the “war on terror,” revealing how it has been reframed as a dramatic entertainment with actors and audience. In these fictitious lands of “Talatha” and “Braggistan,” scriptwriters work behind the scenes to dramatize training scenarios in which a suicide bomber detonates herself outside a mosque and American soldiers negotiate with a reluctant mayor. The only blood spilled here is fake, and participants wear halters with electronic sensors that monitor hits, transforming combat into a kind of paintball-type game without consequences. Recent immigrants fleeing Iraq and Afghanistan are employed to play displaced and fictitious versions of themselves, while amputee veterans from U.S. wars in Vietnam and Korea take the roles of the wounded. At times even Christopher Sims himself is obliged to play a part, acting as a photojournalist for the fictitious “International News Network.”

A former photo-archivist for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., Christopher Sims is acutely aware of the importance of collecting images for the future, and his work anticipates the “missing” subjects of a war archive yet to be created. His object is to reveal “manifestations of the American understanding of what it means to be at war” and to consider how they might be articulated photographically. Theater of War dramatically calls into question the status of the war photographer as an objective observer, as well as the canon of war photography and the authenticity of the photographic document.

- Pippa Oldfield


Christopher Sims was born in Michigan and grew up in Atlanta. He received a B.A. in history from Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, a M.A. in visual communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a M.F.A. in studio art from the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore. He worked as a photo archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and currently teaches photography at Duke University. His work has been exhibited at the Griffin Museum of Photography, Winchester, Massachusetts; at the Houston Center for Photography; in North Carolina at the Light Factory, Charlotte, and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem; and at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, South Carolina. His recent project on Guantanamo Bay was featured in The Washington Post, the BBC World Service, Roll, and He is represented by Ann Stewart Fine Art in Chapel Hill and Civilian Art Projects in Washington, D.C.