'I see the AK-47 as a blank canvas', former soldier turned artist captures his memories of Afghanistan

Bran Symondson captures an Afghan boy holding an AK-47 in 2010

Bran Symondson captures an Afghan boy holding an AK-47 in 2010 - Credit: Courtesy of Bran Symondson

A Hackney artist will be exhibiting the moments he captured in Afghanistan as a member of the British Army Special Forces and, as a photographer embedded with the Afghan National Police. 

British artist and documentary photographer Bran Symondson, who lives in Hackney, is launching his solo exhibition, The Art to Disarm, this month at House of Fine Art in Mayfair. 

The exhibition takes a timely look back at Bran's personal experiences in Afghanistan as a soldier in 2008 and as a photographer in 2010. 

Bran said: "With the recent news, many ex-army friends were reaching out to me which inspired me to look through my hard drive.

"I was so shocked by how rich and diverse the images were, there were so many small and forgotten moments.” 

An image by Bran Symondson called Guns and Roses, from 2010

An image by Bran Symondson called Guns and Roses, from 2010 - Credit: Bran Symondson

The country hit headlines this summer when a hasty US and UK troop withdrawal led to the return of Taliban rule and the evacuation of thousands of Afghan people.

Some at the time, like Mohammad Hotak, the chairman of the Afghan Council of Great Britain (ACGB) called the move a "betrayal".

Bran's photographs capture the Afghanistan he knew a decade ago

Bran's photographs capture the Afghanistan he knew a decade ago - Credit: Bran Symondson

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Meanwhile, the photographer's exhibition will be his first solo show in the UK since 2011. 

It will also be the first time he has brought together his entire diverse body of work, which includes personal memorabilia from time spent in the army and photographs shot during the period.

Bran Symondson's photograph Pop Smoke from 2008

The artist's works explore war and violence and the impact conflict has on humanity and the natural world - Credit: Bran Symondson

Other pieces demonstrate Bran's work as a sculptor. 

Also on display will be the artist's new motion driven digital NFT works, which depict AK-47 guns with "ecosystems" depicted growing on them, symbolising "mother nature eclipsing man's mistakes".

Bran Symondson's work Blue (2020) shows an AK47 embellished with real butterflies

Bran Symondson's work Blue (2020) shows an AK47 embellished with real butterflies - Credit: Bran Symondson

Each AK-47 on display at the exhibition is adorned with various objects and bespoke handmade bullets.

The guns Bran works with are largely sourced from war zones, many have seen battle and are marked with the tell-tale scars of their former lives. 

Another piece, called Spoils of War Draco (2020) shows the weapon adorned with American dollar bills

Another piece, called Spoils of War Draco (2020) shows the weapon adorned with American dollar bills - Credit: Bran Symondson

Bran added: “I see the AK-47 as a blank canvas.

"I know the gun well, I’ve shot it, I’ve been shot at by it, I can strip it down, I can fire it but the only moment I get the realisation that it’s a weapon is when it arrives at the studio still covered in gun grease.

"Once I clean it and begin working on it, the fact that it’s a weapon disappears, and it becomes about beauty.” 

RPG and Tea (2010), shot by Bran Symondson

RPG and Tea (2010), shot by Bran Symondson - Credit: Bran Symondson

In 2008, Bran was deployed to Afghanistan, Helmand Province, as part of the British Army Special Forces Reserves.

The images he took during that tour culminated in his first show The Best View of Heaven is from Hell (2011).

His photographs of young Afghanistan boys holding decorated AK-47s inspired him to create later sculptural works.

Chai Boy on Duty (2010) by Bran Symondson

Chai Boy on Duty (2010) by Bran Symondson - Credit: Bran Symondson

During his last tour of duty, Bran was tasked with helping train the Afghan National Police (ANP).

He would later return as a civilian photographer to capture their work, as commissioned by The Sunday Times.

His work continued to feature the weapons of war and, after being awarded the 2011 Amnesty International Media Award for his photograph Lost Boys, Symondson began working on the sell-out show AKA Peace (2012).

For this exhibition, decommissioned AK-47’s were decorated by artists such as Damien Hirst, Gavin Turk, Sam Taylor-Wood, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, Antony Gormley, and The Chapman Brothers. The show raised more than £430,000 in one night.

Symondson's upcoming exhibition invites the viewer to try and understand his perception of conflict, war and violence, in particular his lived experience of the complex ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, as well as the impact of violence on humanity and the natural environment.

Bran Symondson, self-portrait from 2008

Bran Symondson, self-portrait from 2008 - Credit: Bran Symondson

Bran also recently exhibited a collaboration with photographer Terry O’Neill CBE on a body of works entitled Hollywood Re-Loaded (2019).

Bran shot photographs of famous actors and actresses with the same weapon portrayed in the film they respectively starred in.

“Artists might like to think when someone sees one of their pieces they are changed for life, for me I just want to strike a chord with people that inspires them to reflect on the work," Bran said.

The artist has also raised £580,000 for charities through donations of his AK47s.

The Art to Disarm exhibit will run from November 25 to December 9 at House of Fine Art at 11 Bruton Street, Mayfair. 

Learn more about Bran Symondson's art at bransymondson.com

Find out more about the exhibition at thehouseoffineart.com

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