The Gregynog gallery at the National Library is big; enough to accommodate a thorough retrospective of Griffiths’ life and work. But despite the incredible collection of photographs, cameras, letters and notebooks, displayed here for the first time, this exhibition is just as much a biographical tribute as it is about our awareness of the anonymous civilians living at the centre of a warzone. As the story of his career unfolds, so does a darkly ironic relationship between the absurdity and reality of conflict in the modern world.
Amongst the drama of guns and tanks, Griffiths masterfully captures the expressions of naivety, hesitancy and inexperience of everyone involved. Soldiers are forced to suppress their instinct to help casualties of the opposition. Broken toys appear provocatively alongside heavy weapons. Enlisted infants dressed in camouflage and ammunition wonder to what extent this is all a game.
These iconic Vietnam photographs, exhibited alongside earlier and later work, reveal Griffiths’ lifelong concern for the absurd dehumanisation of society. Earlier photographs taken in Liverpool and Wales in the 1950s may seem nostalgic of the freedom of youth, but they also carry sinister implications of mechanical consumption and destruction in the modern world.
After Vietnam, Griffiths travelled to Ireland to record the conflicts during the 1970s. With an astute eye for capturing political warfare and the banality of everyday life in a single image, he addresses a challenging tension between humour and terror. We are left to question our awareness of the reality of it all. And at the core of his lifetime’s work is the ceaseless power of the photograph to rally a necessary response. The photographs in this exhibition are as relevant now as ever before.
Philip Jones Griffiths: A Welsh Focus on War and Peace is open until 12th December 2015. The National Library will also host the 2015 Lens Photography Festival on Saturday 7th November, 10am - 5pm, and will focus on this body of work. Admission is free by ticket. Contact the Library’s shop for more information on 01970 632 548.