L-R, Siavash Bakhtiar; Alberto Marti; Miriam Grossi
L-R, Siavash Bakhtiar; Alberto Marti; Miriam Grossi. Pic: Joanna Olesków

Barbed World is a photographic exhibition showing barbed wire and its uses.

Three students from the University of Nottingham show us how the presence of barbed wire is being overlooked and that this seemingly banal object has a very strong meaning.

Why were the three of you interested in barbed wire?

Siavash Bakhtiar: “Everything started around a year ago. Alberto and I had a chat about my thesis, and I mentioned that I was thinking of writing my last chapter on barbed wire. He said: ‘Miriam and I have been taking pictures of a barbed wire for the last 2 years, so maybe we can do something together.’”

Why were you two taking pictures of barbed wire?

Alberto Marti: “We were at the Attenborough Nature Reserve and from one of the paths you can see a line of barbed wire and around 200 meters behind is a bird watch tower. When you look at it from this specific perspective it looks like one of the watch towers in a concentration camp. So we thought to take it more seriously and take a picture of this, with a specific filter on the mobile phone, and then we decided to take pictures every time we came across any piece of a barbed wire.”

Was it a random idea or is it related to your research?

Alberto: “My research is about the invention of the concentration camp in Cuba in the late 19th century. Barbed wire was used in Cuba to confine civilians and later became the universal symbol of extermination camps. Look for instance at the logo of Amnesty International: there is a candle surrounded by a barbed wire, it represents hope in a context of confinement and oppression.”

Miriam Grossi: “The other thing is that it is widespread, but you barely see it. The biggest challenge was to take a picture that would be meaningful and make people reflect about such an unnoticed thing.”

The Barbed World exhibition sits in a ‘secret’ tunnel connecting the Trent and Portland Buildings at the university campus. Courtesy of Joanna Olesków.
The Barbed World exhibition sits in a ‘secret’ tunnel connecting the Trent and Portland Buildings at the university campus. Image: Joanna Olesków.

What were the project’s challenges?

Miriam: “It was more difficult to take photos in a public space. When we went to private properties and asked if we could take a picture of the barbed wire, the owners were normally quite collaborative.”

Alberto: “We were questioned by a police officer in Beeston, for instance, and also by passers-by. Barbed wire makes a site sensitive, so if you take a picture of that you are somehow adopting a suspicious behaviour. A good example of this is the prison in Nottingham. We wanted to take some pictures of the fence and we asked for permission but they replied that it was a high-security prison and they could not allow anyone to take pictures of the perimeter. The funny thing is that if you go on Google Street View there it is, the prison and its surrounds with all sorts of details!”

You have travelled through many countries. Were there any where you could see barbed wire often and ones in which you struggle to find it?

Miriam: “In Brazil you can see barbed wire very often. Especially a 2.0 version of a barbed wire which is called razor wire and very often is connected to an electric line. It was more common in private properties. And also in very crowded places, such as the city centre of Rio de Janeiro. But I think there was no country where it would be difficult to find it. It is such a widely spread material.”

Sia: “I think that is definitely more visible in what we call ‘third world’ countries. It is very simple and very cheap; and that is why it is possibly more visible in those countries. But it is used in post-industrial societies too. Maybe just is less visible because of the infrastructures. In some of the pictures, the viewers will see that the presence of the barbed wire just seems useless. And you question yourself: why did they put it there? And then you can understand that it is more a visual artefact: it is not about the real use of it, it is rather about aesthetics.”

What do you think is the contribution of the exhibition to academic debate?

Sia: “I don’t see the exhibition as an academic work, although it is connected with our respective research projects at Nottingham. It all turns around taking a picture of a mundane, almost invisible object, and then asking questions about what barbed wire is doing there.”

The exhibition is the University of Nottingham’s University Park Campus until March http://barbedworld.org/.

Words: Joanna Olesków