Aesthetica Alumni:
Meet Edgar Martins

Edgar Martins is an International Sony World Photography Awards Winner known for documentary work on conflict, war and testimony. In 2024, he was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Art Prize for the series I’m Still Here. Martins developed the research project with organisations such as prisons, legal medicine institutes and human rights groups based in conflict zones. The series shows red and yellow geometric shapes hovering over headshots and high drama film stills from bygone eras. These elements were inspired by suicide post-it notes that Martins found through research conducted by the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences. Now, the image-maker shares with us his latest project, Anton’s Hand is Made of Guilt. More than five years in the making, this poignant project is a tribute to his late friend Anton Hammerl. We interviewed the lens-based contemporary artist to learn more about the series, its launch in photo book form and his current reflections on the nature of documentary photography.

A: Anton’s Hand is Made of Guilt is a deeply personal project that revolves around the death and disappearance of your close friend and photojournalist, Anton Hammerl. Can you tell us a bit about the background for the series? 
In 2011 my close friend, South-African photojournalist Anton Hammerl, travelled to Libya with three colleagues to cover the conflict between pro-regime and anti-Gaddafi forces. On 5 April 2011, a few days after arriving in the country, they were forcefully abducted by government backed militia on the front line, around the city of Brega. When Anton’s 3 colleagues were finally set free two months later, we discovered that he had been shot dead on the day of their capture and his body left in the desert. He’s mortal remains are missing to this day. Over the past 10 years Anton’s family and friends have lobbied the UK, Austrian, South African and Libyan governments, as well as the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions to launch an inquiry into his disappearance. Frustrated by the lack of progress, I decided to travel to Libya in 2019.

A: How did your experiences in Libya shape this photography series?
EM: From the moment I entered the country, I recognised the immensity of the challenge ahead. I recognised that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to carry out an independent and thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding his disappearance in such a fragmented and volatile place. So I set out to produce a project inspired by his plight as well as this very simple premise: how does one tell a story when there is no witness, no testimony, no evidence, no subject, no referent? Moreover, how does one grieve in the absence of all these things?

By retracing Anton’s steps and engaging with the myriad people involved or affected by the conflict (freedom fighters, militias, Gaddafi loyalists, civilians, etc.) and by finding meaningful intersections between both our journeys and understanding the motivations behind his, I was able to step into his shoes, even if momentarily. This project is about much more than honouring my close friend. It portrays a complex story, warped by absences, that talks of the difficulty of documenting, testifying, witnessing, remembering and imagining whilst addressing the information/misinformation ecosystem surrounding war and conflict.

I describe the project as a research-based documentary project based on actual events, a lipogramme and an imaginary anthropological study in one. The project finds a methodological and theoretical framework in the ideas of Georges Perec (La Disparition) and Georges Didi-Huberman (Images in Spite of All), both works that deal with absence and testimony, albeit in different ways. It seeks to develop new visual representational methods to interrogate conflict and enable innovative approaches to respond to war, photographic ethics and dealing with bereavement trauma and missing persons.

A: The project is five years in the making. What were some of your considerations before beginning?
The project was fraught with logistical and ethical challenges. I asked: Am I the right person to tell this story? How does one represent trauma and loss? How does one construct a story and carry out an investigation when none of the things one requires is at one’s disposal? How does can one engender an ethical remembering of a slain person? How can images talk about the difficulty of documenting and testifying? These were just some of the questions that I had to answer. And then there were some very practical ones, such as: how to carry out a project in a pseudo war zone? How to access the country? How to manage the logistics of shooting with an 8×10” camera and film in such a place? How would I seek out my subjects? How would I protect them from the gaze of others and Photography’s inherent apotropaic nature? Also, how would I fund a long project such as this? Needless to say, it took a lot of planning and preparation and assembling the right team of people. It also required a steadfast commitment to return again and again to the same places. Lastly, it also took resources and patience.

A: How did the series develop? Did your ideas and approach change over time, and how do you feel about the outcome?
The project itself evolved over the time. But I was quite surprised at how the structure I devised for it and many of the goals I established right at the beginning remained very close to what I set out to do. For example, the sonic component of the project (All the Violence, All at once – an album of palliative and probing soundscapes exploring the everyday experiences of a war correspondent) is an integral part of the exhibition and the book itself; Will Self’s text – produced right at the beginning of the project before the images were even produced – a challenge I set myself and Will – remains the text that each chapter of the book is constructed around (only a few adaptations were necessary); the archival element of the project continues to be an important part of the work (although in this case my focus shifted from historical imagery to the research of private Islamist and Gaddafi loyalist forums on the dark web), etc. As to my own photographic work, I’d say that from the 18-month mark onward, I felt I was in the right direction.

Every project is but a specific response in time to a specific idea or set of circumstances. I feel that right now the book and the exhibition comprise the best possible response I could come up with for the very particular set of circumstances. In other words, I’m happy with the results. It was a long time in the making. The book alone went through a 9-month editing process and the exhibitions will evolve with time as I continue to explore new ways to respond to the subject matter, from show to show.

A: Conversations surrounding documentary photography, and its ethics, are always evolving. How do you see the relationship between photography and conflict developing moving forward?
This is a very pertinent question and one that I will not be able to answer in a satisfactory way here due to it’s complexity. Moreover, the goal posts are forever changing. My views on this have evolved from believing that Photography’s apotropaic, aesthetic and fetishistic proclivities, made it a poor medium to engage in ethically charged topics (i.e. war zones) ­­– as I was brought up on a staple diet of Postmodern literature that only talks of Photography’s violating powers of disclosure – to believing that it has a role to play, providing one can model a way of seeing that addresses six key questions:

These are: How can images talk about the situation of agency and the difficulty of testifying at any precise moment in history? Georges Didi-Huberman talks about this in his book Images in Spite of All. How can images create the conditions that enable us to Imagine for ourselves? How can photographs engender an ethical remembering? How can images reveal and resist at the same time? How can image-makers use the constrains of operating in challenging environments to their advantage? My thinking here is that representation doesn’t always have to equate with clarity and “absoluteness”. There is such thing as lacunary representation – the part-image, the “image-lacunary”, as Didi-Huberman calls it. After all, trauma is often recalled through fragments and details. How can images point to a ‘’beyond’’ (a process, an idea, language, our relationship with images, an emptiness in a Lacanian sense)?

A: Have you been able to come up with any answers to these questions?
I have spent the best part of 6 years thinking of a methodological framework that visual practitioners can draw on when operating in these kinds of environments. One that would demand a conceptual reorientation from the viewer: the renunciation of its automatic predisposition for certainty and clarity to continually challenge his/her/their convictions and expectations. My conclusions are that photographers should: acknowledge and creatively navigate the limitations of visual representation; engage and embrace the power of ‘’negative space or aesthetics’’ to evoke the absent or the unrepresentable and to talk of the difficulty of testifying and documenting at any given moment of history; embody an ethical stance at all times, both in documenting a difficult subject matter and in the treatment of a subject; accept a position of extreme ownership of  your images (meaning do not allow them to become ‘orphaned’ after their conception and leave them to their own devices… in the hands of others, including photo agencies and news media); encourage active, thoughtful engagement from a prospective audience, underlining the viewer’s responsibility to interrogate and understand the context; be aware of the historical and symbolic weight of images and how these images will contribute to collective memory and trauma narratives.

Above and beyond this, and because there is a certain indignity in speaking for others, whenever possible empower local voices and parties to tell their own stories (through open-source, citizen journalism) and invest in developing a local and wide-reaching fact-checking network. Through this framework, I believe image-makers might produce work that is both a testament and a challenge — bearing witness to reality while acknowledging the complexities of perception, memory and representation inherent in their field.

A: Following the book launch, you are also presenting a series of exhibitions in Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Lisbon and more. Could you tell us more about the multi-media installations set to go on display?
The project will be presented as an immersive audio-visual exhibition comprising new photographic and archival work (organised as single images, diptychs and triptychs), sound installations (which will be present in near total sensory depravation), a short film (where Will Self’s text is performed by one of the fighters featured in my photographs), a book of drawings and installation (including synchronised slide projections on “hacked” media such as mobile phones recovered from the conflict). I have worked closely with a German engineer to not only to extract images from mobile phones recovered from the conflict but also enable us to program and synchronise complex displays using them as the display source. 

A: Your series I’m Still Here (2023) was on display at the Aesthetica Art Prize exhibition this year. What was it like to be shortlisted, how important are prizes like this for artists’ careers?
I am philosophical about awards and have come to believe that whilst it should always be a huge honour to be recognised, one should also be modest enough to realise that it is always someone’s subjective choice, on a given day, within a very particular set of circumstances. Saying this, it is of course always very humbling and validating to have one’s work selected. And anything that can bring “eyes” to a project can only be a good thing.

A: What is one thing you would like readers – and visitors – to take away from your work?
We live in a culture where Photography has become inextricably aligned to Techno-capitalist doctrine. It is all about constant upgrading & optimisation (the latest lens, the latest camera, the latest app, the latest operating system), often to the detriment of the creative process and our relationship with images. In fact, I think we don’t know any longer what an image does or is supposed to do. We always ask too much of it or too little. As Didi-Huberman rightly points out, when we ask too much of it we ask of it the whole truth, which cannot be exact; when we ask too little of it, we relegate it to the sphere of the simulacrum which is also not right.

I believe that Photography has already reached a singularity of sorts with Technology. I see Photography as a kind of Trojan horse. We accept it as a free gift but, when we do so, it colonises us. This has been responsible for steadily exacerbating a well know neurological phenomenon that occurs with abundance and choice. When people are overwhelmed by choice, they choose nothing in the end or are never happy with their choices; when people are overwhelmed by excess information, excess detail, “32k content”, excess visuality, brought about by technological possibility, they see nothing in the end. So I think it is vitally important we can model a way of seeing that addresses this.

Edgar Martins, Anton’s Hand is Made of Guilt | The Moth House

The Aesthetica Art Prize spotlights trailblazers in contemporary art. Participants have gone on to win prestigious awards, such as the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize and Prix Elysée, as well as exhibit at stellar international galleries, including Centre Pompidou, Guggenheim, Tate Modern and Serpentine Gallery.

Read the Success Stories to learn more and meet the 2024 Shortlist and Longlist here.

The Aesthetica Art Prize is now open for entries until 31 August. This is your opportunity to share your work with the world and win £10,000, exhibition and publication. To find out more, click here.

Image Credits:

  1. © Images courtesy of the artist.