The ability to control acts of "public disorder"—everything from a peaceful protest to more hostile civilian riots or even an act of terrorism—has been a concern of public officials across centuries, societies and cultures. But as security tightens once again in the wake of the attempted car bomb in New York's Times Square, we return to the inevitable question: is there ever an effective way for people to prepare for the unpredictable?
For Sarah Pickering, a London-based photographer who made her exhibition debut at the Tate Britain in 2007, the futility of trying to anticipate trauma is at the core of her work. In "Explosions, Fires, and Public Order" (Aperture, £25), a new book of work from 2002 to the present, Pickering offers a four-part chronicle of the meticulous planning involved when soldiers, firefighters and law-enforcement officials attempt to simulate scenarios of chaotic events.
The thoughtfully curated volume presents the viewer with a series of haunting images, all of them devoid of human presence but tinged with human violence. As an artist-in-residence at the UK Fire Training College, Pickering captures the rooms—complete with children's toys and bottles of mustard—that fall victim to intentionally set flames. In "Public Order", her opening series, false pub facades and propped-up scaffoldings stand in for an urban setting at the Metropolitan Police Public Order Training Centre; the sham city is almost absurd in its lifelessness. Throughout the book, each of Pickering's unflinching, indifferent images—as sterile as their artificial subjects—shatters the viewer's sense of security. If this is how society fosters order, then how safe are we?
And that's before anything actually explodes. Pickering's most sensational images, capturing detonations of everything from land mines to air strikes (all within the controlled world of British military training), are strangely beautiful in their capacity for destruction. Here the sense of foreboding that permeates the rest of the book is replaced by fireworks and theatricality. If war is too often treated as a Hollywood production, who can blame Pickering for injecting a bit of cathartic shock to go with her awe?
"Explosions, Fires, and Public Order" (Aperture) by Sarah Pickering is available now in Britain; an accompanying exhibition is on-view at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Photography through June 20th.