2016 Winners - Sean Thomas Foulkes
The purpose of the Aperture Portfolio Prize is to identify trends in contemporary photography and highlight artists whose work deserves greater recognition. When choosing the first-prize winner and runners-up, Aperture’s editorial and curatorial staff look for innovative bodies of work that haven’t been widely seen in major publications or exhibition venues.
For more information about the Aperture Portfolio Prize, please visit aperture.org/portfolio-prize.
The visual language of war, violence, and terror has been directly yoked to technological innovations that mirror and propel mass media and its funhouse-mirror twin, propaganda. While this has historically been the case, the increasing speed of technological innovation has rendered porous the boundaries between targeting enemies, documentation or bearing witness of damage, and guilty pleasure. Can the bursting of bombs be enjoyed without collateral damage? Sean Foulkes’s Fragments of Engagement brings us directly into this line of questioning. Do you love the smell of napalm in the morning? Or do you just enjoy the Francis Ford Coppola-esque celluloid evocation of it?
Foulkes walks a willfully razor-edged line that both seduces and appalls. These are seemingly familiar images, floating just out of reach of identification. You might think you remember them from video games, movies, or television. Actually, they are composites made from video frames shot by both U.S. soldiers and insurgent groups engaged with coalition forces. They waver between fiction and the most undeniable of facts—death. The fact that Foulkes served a twelve-month combat deployment for the United States Army in Iraq both authenticates and compellingly destabilizes the work. Do these images reenact memories of the battlefield or are they “real” captures of the world at war? Fragments of Engagement underscores the fact that the difference between the two has been flattened to such a degree that it’s not only difficult to tell but also difficult not to feel a chilling degree of thrill at the spectacular explosions and the cool digital rendering of fleeing figures in night-vision monotone. In accomplishing this sequence of reactions, Foulkes pulls us all into a shared moral quandary, offering a reflection on the surreal and slippery nature of mediated violence. Ultimately, tragically, we are reminded of the incommunicability of the first-hand experience of war—we see it, we recognize it, and consume it almost unthinkingly. It is both—as is Foulkes’s work—the making and unmaking of the world.
—Lesley A. Martin
About Sean Thomas Foulkes:
Foulkes, an Iraq veteran, explores how our understanding of modern conflict is shaped through mass media. His first body of work was created during a twelve-month combat deployment to central Iraq, and since then has been searching for innovative ways to understand and question the experience of war. Foulkes received his BA in film and photography at Montana State University in Bozeman, and his MFA in visual media and photography at the Massachusetts College of Art & Design in Boston. He lives in San Francisco.