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Buy All Quiet on the Home Front from ICVL STUDIO. It is also available now at the wonderful  Tipi Bookshop in Belgium, at Photobookst...

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Archivo Muerto

  Marijuana dealers (originally captioned cocained dealers in El Espacio)

The dilemma of the archive is how do you make sense of it. You can regurgitate it in its original form, you can recontextualise it through new captions, editiing or fabrication, you can reconceptualise it through the terms of how you make and show it. You can add voice,  narrative structure, voice to it, you can accentuate certain elements, ignore certain elements, turn chaos into order, or order into chaos. You can bring it forward in time or move it back in time. An archive is like anything, a movable feast. You can do what you will with it, just do it with a straight face and people will believe you.  That's the secret of the archive.

In Archivo Muerto, Andrés Orjuela has worked  on original press prints (which were saved by collectors from recycling for paper) from what was the archive of Colombia's El Espacio, a newspaper that for five decades published bloodstained gore from the 'prehistory' of the drug trafficking that has been immortalised, celebrated and glamourised in the Netflix series Pablo Escobar (which I haven't seen). 

The glamourisation of Escobar's a sore point with Orjuela. He believes it whitewashes the drug lord  (even phrase like drug lord, or drug baron confer a nobility that shields the reality of Escobar's crimes) and conceals the political and economic realities of the cocaine trade; Netflix, says Orjuela, and all the broadcasters and publishers who are involved in the glorification of Escobar '..maliciously conceal the relations among the CIA, the mafia and the dark regimes from Central and South America.'

So for Archivo Muerto, the dilemma was how can you remove the glamour, the spectacle, the impact of an archive which is .designed to have glamour, spectacle and impact. Oh, and gore... The black and white pictures which Orjuela uses in Archivo Muerto were colourised, all the more to emphasise the blood splatters. Topless women and blood, that was the order of the day for the back pages of El Espacio. How do you make sense of that.

Orjuela doesn't ignore the blood. It's there but is limited. His selection of images is designed to show the social exclusion, the creeping politicisation of the drug trade, the police brutality, the prehistory days of smuggling marijuana to the United States and beyond, the way drugs crept into law, into politics, into the very bones of civil society. And with that, there's an undercurrent of the social failures of Colombia to create alternative possibilities.  

It's an attempt to take it all down a notch in other words, to present a human face to trafficking that has some more subtlety than the sledgehammer machismo-cheerleading approach of a hyper-celebrated cartel of psychopaths and thugs.

You see that in the picture of a marijuana smuggler. He's standing in front of a blackboard, he's wearing a (colourised) brown jacket, his hands are behind his back (handcuffed presumably).  and in front of him is a sea-green expanse of marijuana. His face is sunken, sharp features on a head hung low, a picture that serves the function of shame. 

The pictures are reproduced at actual size, with the reverse of the page containing the original captioning and printing instructions. There are mugshots, covered bodies, and carbombings. There are minot criminals, delinquents and drug mules. A young man called Luis Aldana gets a kicking from the police for 'trying to escape'. We see him again later, lying on the ground with a companion whose blood-filled mouth is open in agony, the shiny boots of the police stretched out beside him. 

This picture is printed on a fullsize page. We see his face contorted in pain. Slipped into the middle of the pages are smaller images, folded over so we see the captions but not the face. These are of more serious criminals, criminals who are being 'punished' by scale in the design of the book. 'The Colombian criminal... does not deserve to be shown in the same way as the rest (the most representative of the colombian history),' says the book's designer, Veronica Fieiras. 'They are criminals that don't represent the country and they have to be "punished" in some way. Thats why the picture of Gacha (the closest person to Pablo Escobar) is upside down in the book.'

At times the book does look cinematic; the man in the back of a police car with blood stains painted onto his shirt looks like a still from some South American film noir, while the sailor deported from the USA for smuggling marijuana, all beard and sunglasses, is an advert for the 70s. That cinematic quality says something about the relationship between fiction, cinema, crime and photography. They do not stand alone but each is influenced by the other. That relationship is integrated into the sequencing of the book, a narrative that is fed by the captions and leads out into the broader social considerations Orjuela has highlighted.

The book itself feels fantastic. It's cardboard covered with black paper and a red trim, ring bound, the leaves holepunched and loose inside, like an archive but not quite. 

And that's what it is. Not quite an archive, not quite a redefining of history, more of a place where the tectonic plates of how images, history and mythology grind up against each other. Archivo Muerto asks questions which can't really be answered but it does in quite a transparent way. 

It's an archival treatment that brings order out of chaos, but it's an order that is chaotic in nature, that asks us to examine the interconnectedness of things, the way crime ties into civil society and our daily life, and the extent to which we avoid taking responsibility for that, to which we are blind to that even when it is there right in front of our eyes.

Read about about how the pictures for Archivo Muerto were rescued from destruction here

See Andrés Orjuela' previous book, Muestrario, here. This book is a re-representation of blood in Mexican newspapers. 

Read my review of James Mollison's Pablo Escobar here. 

Veronica Fieiras and Chaco Books will be showing work as part of the Panoramic Arts Festival in Granollers, near Barcelona from 27th - 30th September. Free entry for everything which is the way it should be.

Chaco's next book is  "SOBRE LA RESISTENCIA DE LOS CUERPOS" from Mexican author Jose Luis Cuevas in co-edition with Cabeza de Chorlito

Monday, 17 September 2018

Kopi Susu, by Rosa Verhoeve

One of the stranger things about the internet is you meet people online, you get to know them, and things happen to them, but at that strange distance where everything is like a muffled underwater echo, the kind of thing that is so faint that responding to it with a couple of taps, a like or a retweet doesn't seem as dyfunctional and sociopathic as it should.

Every now and then somebody dies and you respond with a sad face and it's quite inadequate. There's a genuine sense of loss that somehow finds expression through the automated mass of responses that is Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. I like to think it's a sign of the victory of humanity over machine, that there is something beyond the algorithm. I like to think that because if I don't, then it's a sign of the victory of the algorithm over humanity. But somehow I don't think we're quite smart enough to make something that can do that yet.

Anyway, I never met Rosa Verhoeve in person, but I saw her posts on Facebook, I chatted to her, I swapped books, I reviewed her book on the PH Museum website. And then she died so I pressed the sad face button and typed some words of condolence. It wasn't much.

I knew her through Kopi Susu, which is a quite beautiful book, a luminous book that shines with an intensity that is both comforting yet searching. It's a good way to remember her, and that idea is embedded within the book. Here is my review.

                      Photo by Daphne Wagemans

Kopi Susu by Rosa Verhoeve

The Dutch colonisation of Indonesia was not a benevolent affair. It came to a premature end in 1942 when the Dutch East Indies (as it was known then) was occupied by the Japanese. This was a brutal occupation in which Indonesians were starved, tortured, raped, murdered and an estimated 4 million were worked to death in Southeast Asia.

With the defeat of the Japanese in 1945 and the Dutch still reeling, an Indonesia free of colonists declared independence on August 17th 1945. The liberation didn’t last long. The Dutch (with some British help) reoccupied the country, another quarter of a million Indonesians died in the ensuing fight for independence before finally the Dutch accepted defeat  in 1947 and returned to the Netherlands.

One of those Dutch soldiers who came in 1945 was Rosa Verhoeve’s grandfather. He met and married a Javanese woman and remained in Indonesia before being forcibly repatriated to the Netherlands in 1957. Verhoeve never knew these grandparents but heard about them through the stories of her mixed-race ‘Indo’ mother, and felt their presence in the décor of her home and within herself and the Dutch community of people with Indonesian heritage to which she half-belonged.

But as she grew up, this heritage remained a mystery shrouded in the nostalgic romanticism of the Tempo Doeloe (Old Times) of the Dutch East Indies. With a background set in two worlds, Verhoeve set out to discover the contemporary reality of her heritage, a heritage personified by Verhoeve as the kopi susu (of milk coffee) used to describe Indo skin colour, the kopi (coffee) being the Indonesian side, the susu the Dutch.

Kopi Susu is Verhoeve’s visual investigation of that heritage. It’s a small book, a fragile book, where images of domesticity and the symbols of Indonesian-ness are paired up in short sequences that coalesce into a search for identity.

It’s a search that is creates a partial picture of Verhoeve’s heritage, and that partial picture is ultimately the complete picture; everything is slightly out of reach, a finger’s breadth away, sensed but unseen in the shadows.  And that partial vision is what makes the book so successful, because that is what an Indonesian identity (which like all national identities is one that doesn’t really exist) is like.

There are archival images of her grandmother and grandfather, family album snaps of good times at the lake and by the sea. The contemporary images are matched in pairings that have an otherworldly element to them; giant lily pads paired with a circular pond, a wormhole to the world that lies beneath and beyond Java’s physical exterior. A leg on a wet tiled floor is matched with a tree standing in a mud-scuttled bay, a bag on a palm goes with two girls hanging off blue coloured swings, the sun setting in golden hour glory that will end suddenly and lead to the abruptness of an equatorial night.

The book gets closer as it progresses, Verhoeve’s mother and grandmother echoing in locket photographs and faces being made up. There are white women and brown women and we are never quite sure who is who. The images work like rhyming couplets, one playing off the other, leading you into a new world. It’s fragile, and it’s beautiful and eventually it all merges into one. Just like the title, just like the drink; Kopi Susu.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Holiday Reading: Everyone's an Imposter

We went on holiday to Crete this year to do very little except lie on the beach and read books. I went through Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler which was fantastic; a bunch of crime writers at the top of their game and all interlinked in various ways. Jim Thompson stars in the film adaptation of Farewell My Lovely, the one with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe, Raymond Chandler wrote the script for Highsmith's Stranger on a Train and they all died alcohol and smoking related deaths.

They're all massively hardboiled too. If they were eggs, they'd be bubbling away for a couple of hours. Highsmith was probably the hardest-boiled of them all, ending her life holed up in Switzerland hating everyone (as shown in the brilliant play Switzerland). Chandler, by contrast, was a lovely man, with a loveliness that comes across in Marlowe, a man who, for all his hard-boiledness has a socialist nostalgia for a time when corruption and greed didn't define his Los Angeles settings.

But then I ran out of genre novels to read and all I was left with was Martha Quest by Doris Lessing. It's the first in the Children of Violence series and I'd read it before but it's literary fiction and I'd been in the world of Raymond Chandler, and 1940s LA. Farewell My Lovely was all corrupt cops, instutional racism, dysfunctional drinking, sex used as a weapon of domination and oppression. There are struggles for identity and daily life is a grind to get through with only small glimmers of human hope to get you through the phoniness of daily life.

And then I read Martha Quest (which is essentially an autobiographical novel telling the story of Martha growing up in 1930s Rhodesia) and it was essentially the same. There  is corruption and racial injustice, Martha Quest struggles to find a life worth living just as Philip Marlowe does, alcohol and casual sex (both given and withheld) feature largely, as do  the dysfunctional social structures of 1930s  Southern Rhodesia.

The broad themes are basically the same, the only difference being that Philip Marlowe has a gun and Martha Quest doesn't. The big difference is Raymond Chandler is crime fiction and Doris Lessing is literary fiction. I wonder what it would take to slip Chandler into Lessing and Lessing into Chandler. I quite like the idea of Martha Quest (and why do so few people read the Children of Violence series?) being a hard-boiled private eye. It would completely work as well in terms of character but perhaps not in other terms. And Doris Lessing did do the crossover into Science Fiction so she had that ability to slip in and out of genres not just convincingly, but with the whole hearted conviction that made it work completely.

Chandler and Highsmith and Thompson are all brilliant writers so there is some slippage into the literary world. They have been allowed in to an extent, reluctantly and behind times, but allowed in. It's an allowing in that removes their genius from the genre world and places it into a literary field. It's an annexation of their talent if you like. It's a hostile act, hostile to the original world in which the work was placed. Or if not hostile then selectively forgetful, a wilful amnesia of how, why and where the work was written and published.

I was thinking about this generic slippage in relation to photography. It's the kind of thing where Robert Capa tells Cartier Bresson to be a photojournalist and not a surrealist (when he's not either). You can self-identify in photography in a way that you can't in literature. And you see it all the time, people who in all seriousness suddenly decide that they are an artist and not a photojournalist, that they are a poet of images and not a documentary photographer, that they are somebody engaged in conceptual, sculptural, physical, abstract, metaphysical investigations that are altogether more important than whatever it was they had been identified with before.

It's strange because most functional photography is pulp - in the very best meaning of the word - it's easily digestible, it has a visual hook, it serves emotional narratives, it's spectacular, it answers to your basic needs, it's comforting, it reinforces your prejudices (in both a good way and a bad way), it's beautiful, escapist, addictive, familiar. It's also produced under demanding conditions, in circumstances where security and power are firmly in the hands of other people.

Photography isn't complicated in other words, and photographers are powerless - and at the heart of it all mercenary in a pound shop kind of way (or is that just me). But we like to pretend we have power, and one way of doing that is by making photography complicated. It's almost as though we are ashamed of the basic attraction of photography in the first place  - it's accessibility. And you can double that shame up with the essential powerlessness of the photographer. So we distance it, we make it academic, we project our fantasies of what we would like to be onto it. So photography becomes a tool of witnessing, of salvation, of resistance and change. It becomes an intellectualised weapon in our arsenal of understanding, a tool of science and logic that serves the discourse of sobriety.

It's not always convincing but it's fine as long as you know that the recipe might not work out quite as you planned - that the easily digestible suddenly becomes the indigestible, that what was once engaging and entertaining becomes incredibly laboured and tedious, that our claims to change the world are far-fetched or delusional.

You do get the feeling sometimes that there is a panic-loaded bead of sweat dribbling down the photographer's unconscious, that fear of being found out for the little trick they are trying to pull, that fear of being found out for being an imposter as they dig their fingernails onto the bandwagon that they imagine will pull them onto the first class carriages of the gravy train that lies somewhere there out of sight, just beyond their grasp. But that's fine as well, because everybody is in the same boat, struggling along pretending to be somebody we're not, looking to find the definition that will set us above the rest, that will press the buttons that will earn us money, get us critical acclaim and make us popular and give our images a value above and beyond that sly, slippery surface of an image. We'll no longer be photographers, we'll be artists, messiahs and philosophers. Except we won't. We'll be imposters, but that's in keeping with the world around us. Everybody's an imposter.

And that's really what both Chandler and Lessing were writing about, people trying to live a decent, fulfilled life in a world where corruption, grandstanding, lying and fakery abound. And ultimately Martha Quest is as hard-boiled as Raymond Chandler. They are the same, but different. And the same but different is always good. Except where it's bad. But it's not bad here.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Photography Fratboys!

I interviewed Andrew Moisey this week about his fascinating The American Fraternity project. It's very much about toxic masculinity and the way fraternities are part of the hegomonic masculinity industry. You can read all about it in next month's BJP.

I've only seen the pdf, but it looks like being a great, and much-needed book. It comes with lots of things, but I especially love the undergraduate anthropology essay by a fraternity member that is slipped into the book as an insert. I've marked lots of bad essays in my time, but never one that has the so-bad-it's-good-no-actually-it's-fucking-terrible-ness of this one. It got a B- by the way. The sentiment is that the TA who marked it couldn't be bothered with the paperwork of failing it.

Here are a couple of excerpts.

'I've Iearned that the stereotypes that exist about "frat-boys." are not true... It is not about womanising, being intoxicated, and being masculine or prioritising parties over academics. There is more to this life that most people do not realize. Fraternities are the essence of what is to be a man. 

Everything we do is in the hope that it will make us more masculine and thus a bigger person. All the activities such as excessive drinking, hazing and womanizing can all be seen as trying to make ourselves a more masculine man.'

(from How to be a Man Amongst Brothers – Anthropology 3 essay)

Womanizing next to drinking is the most popular activity. You can often hear comments about having sex with women in almost every conversation. At parties the only concern is what girl will you get with during the party. There are some girls that are always at the house. These girls are often treated in the most sexist fashion. They are called by derogatory names and are often the center of jokes. There are numerous occasions when at a party you can see a brother picking up a girl and throwing her over his shoulder and bringing her to his room. These acts toward woman are done in order to achieve this high masculine status. 

(from How to be a Man Amongst Brothers – Anthropology 3 essay – graded at B-)

Any photography student who's done an essay on masculinity will know the idea of hegomonic masculinity. Hegomonic masculinity is the idea that a misogynistic masculinity in which women are reduced to sex objects is perpetuated by organisations(?) such as fraternity houses, legal, political and cultural institutions, each layer creating and reinforcing a distorted heterosexual form of masculinity that is diminishing to everyone.

It's been interesting to follow Kristen Chick's special report on sexual harassment  because it might be that the relative lack of outrage (and photography does outrage very well - as long as it comes at no personal effort beyond that of being outraged) and, more importantly, action that met her report is indicative of deeper structural faultlines within some parts of photography.

This is from the original article by Chick:.

Women interviewed by CJR say two well-known photographers—Antonin Kratochvil and Christian Rodriguez—engaged in serial harassment and that VII, a prestigious collective, and the Eddie Adams Workshop ignored complaints of harassment.

Many women in the industry say the behavior is so common that they have long considered it simply one of the realities of working as a woman in the profession. They say the problem is rooted in a number of factors: The field has historically been male-dominated with a culture that glorifies macho, hyper-masculine behavior; there is an increasing reliance on freelancers, which affects accountability; workshops and other events for young photographers are often exploited by older, established photojournalists.


The complicity of men who witness harassment or abuse and simply look away or laugh is one of the most disheartening facets of the issue for Taylor-Lind. “As a woman in this industry, the thing that is most challenging for me is not having my vagina touched in a work environment, but it’s knowing that I exist in a community where my sense of self, and where my permission for touching my body, is not respected by my colleagues,” she says. “That’s what hurts the most, is the silence and the complicity of, not men who behave like this, but of all the ones who allow it to happen.”


The effects of sexual harassment are wide-ranging, pushing some women out of the field and causing others to stop attending photo festivals, workshops, or networking events. Some women say they stopped seeking out mentors because they experienced so much harassment when they did, even as they described a dearth of female mentors in the field. Others say they’re disgusted by the hypocrisy of working in a field that claims to shine a light on abuses or wrongdoing in the world, while protecting predators in their own industry.

To join the dots, photography (and photojournalism in particular), is part of hegemonic masculinity. It's not too different from a big fraternity in other words, with young women photojournalists, interns assistants and workshop participants being the sorority fodder for the fratboy photographers to prey on! It has its secrets, it serves an aggressive heterosexual agenda, it is accepted that there are excesses but it's best not to talk about them for all the reasons Chick mentions. There are defensive structures in place that will excuse the abuses of fraternity members and it's best not to challenge them. The worrying thing is you still get the feeling that is the case despite Chick's article.

There have been some strong responses from some agencies to this, but it's not always enough. VII allowed Krachovil to resign and made no statement which is a statement in itself. I know of at least one organisation that hasn't implemented a harassment policy because it they're so nice and cool they'd never employ somebody who harasses people.  This despite the fact that they most definitely have employed people who harass people. There's the idea that harassment happens in other places and when it happens here it's because of something else like misunderstandings or high jinks or generational miscommunication. Which of course is exactly the way that hegemonic masculinity works. You think like that, you're not just part of the problem, you are the problem.

You get the feeling some of the responses are based on the need to be seen to be doing something, that these complaints are an inconvenience and wouldn't it be better if things could just get back to normal Again, that's just a feeling and I might be wrong. But you get the feeling.

Yes, we live in the #metoo generation but in a couple of years #metoo will be so last year and the deeper-seated institutional misogyny will rise again. It's absolutely guaranteed that some the photographic equivalent of frat boys will start popping up and saying how it's all just gone too far and actually, some women like being greeted with a hand between their legs. They used to like it that way back in the old days. Oh wait, too late, I've seen that one already.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018


Welcome back from the summer. The sad news was the arrest of Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh for exercising his right to freedom of expression (which essentially mounted to saying something that everybody knows on live TV).

The idea of the photographer as witness is flawed. But it's better to have a flawed witness than no witness at all. And Shahidul Alam is an example of this.

This is from Amnesty's Urgent Action Campaign to release Shahidul Alam. 

Shahidul Alam, photographer and outspoken social activist, has been charged under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act after giving an interview to Al-Jazeera on the current wave of school student protests in Bangladesh. Detained and charged solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression, Shahidul Alam must be immediately and unconditionally released.

And this is a call to write to the Bangladeshi authorities wherever you are. And letter-writing really makes a difference in so many ways even though it's just a small thing.

Please write immediately in English or Bangla or in your own language urging the authorities to: • Immediately and unconditionally release Shahidul Alam, who is a prisoner of conscience, and drop all charges as he has been detained solely for peacefully exercising his human right to freedom of expression; • Ensure that activists, human rights defenders, journalists, academics and members of the political opposition and other members of the public are able to peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.


Minister of Home Affairs Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal Bangladesh Secretariat Dhaka Bangladesh

 Mobile: +880 1 71 154 1569 Tel: +880 2 957 4800 Fax: +880 2 913 3498 Email: minister@mha.gov.bd Salutation: Honourable Home Minister 

nspector General of Police Mohammad Javed Patwary Police Headquarters Dhaka Bangladesh Tel: +880 2 951 4444; +880 2 951 4445 Fax: +880 2 712 5840 Email: ig@police.gov.bd Salutation: Dear Inspector General 

And copies to: Political Affairs Advisor to Bangladesh Prime Minister H.T. Imam Prime Minister’s Office Dhaka Bangladesh Tel: +880 2 912 9997 E-mail: advimam@pmo.gov.bd; htimam55@gmail.com 

Also send copies to diplomatic representatives accredited to your country. 

Essentially, Shahidul Alam got called out for vocalising the anger so many Bangladeshis feel at the wholesale injustice, corruption, theiving, torture, rape and murder taking place in the country with no recourse to justice or accountability whatsoever. He was saying what everyone knows. But still, you're not allowed to say it. You will be arrested, be tortured, and subjected to a potential 14 year jail sentence.

If you're interested, is the Amnesty country profile and there are a whole

The images above are from a fantastic series of projections mounted in Kathmandu for a summit of Asian leaders, including the Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina.

It's a reminder of how much people don't like seeing their actions laid bare to the world. Corrupt people don't like being told they are corrupt. It's almost as though they feel a little shame, though shame is probably not the right word.. It's also a reminder of how powerful photography still can be, how stating the obvious (in Shahidul Alam's case) or photographing the obvious (in this case) is so feared by the brutal and the corrupt.

I'm always very doubtful about the idea of the photographer as witness, but when you have an enforced absence of photography on a global scale, when photographers are shot, beaten, imprisoned, tortured, abused, it does give the idea that photography still does have some kind of strange evidential power.

Images also matter in journalism with the two Reuters journalists' Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo arrested for their reporting of the Inn Din massacre  during the Rohingya ethnic cleansing/genocide in Myanmar. You see them living, and lined up, and then you see them dead, throats cut, undeniably murdered as the photo of the bodies provided to Reuters by a Buddhist elder shows.

The Myanmar military couldn't deny the massacre - because of the pictures basically - but they could present it as an isolated example, as rogue elements working within the military. That's what militaries do when they get caught with blood on their hands. That's one kind of denial.

Coupled with that denial is the faking of history as this report shows, with images used to whitewash both the massacres of Rohingya and present an orderly return as a reality that is nothing near the truth, truth which this article in Guardian with pictures by Abbie Trayler Smith gives a good overview of.

It is astonishing how few images of the Rohingya etnic cleansing exist. I might be missing something but where are they? Photographs matter, and there is a bearing of witness in some ways, albeit an imperfect one that is less predictible in its effect than people imagine.

So though we may criticise photographers for their representation of this, that and the other, the absence of images shines a light on the power photography has to frame an event, or a series of events. The Cultural Revolution in China has powerful resonances for us because of the pictures and film footage that were presented to the world. It's used as a kind of template for the brutality of Mao's China with theatrical ranks of little-red-book waving Red Guards weeping tears of either love or hatred defining the extremes of the times.

But head back a few years to and you get to the Great Leap Forward, a famine manufactured by the incompetence and venality of Mao and the communist party in which 40 million people died. And there are no images of that famine. Well, no images? There might be one. In the book Picturing Atrocity, DJ Clark wrote an essay titled A Single Image of Famine. It focusses on a Li Feng image of poor peasants and how images were censored, how photography became something simply to serve the state. Forty million people died in the most man made, cadre led famine ever, there was the most horrific brutality - and no photos. None. Certainly you have oral testimony and histories such as Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine, but photographs cut an emotional short circuit that operates on quite a different level to text.

Given the prevalence of smartphones and the idea that everyone is a photographer, you'd think that images would be all over the place of injustice in the world. But you get the same visual gap in the representation of contemporary state oppression all over China but especially in Xinjiang, a place that in the last year has been

...turned into an Orwellian police state and hundreds of thousands of Uighurs were gradually locked away in concentration camps for what the state calls “transformation through education”. Others have been thrown in prison or “disappeared”. Witness reports of life inside the camps and detention centres have told not only of unhealthy living conditions, but also of regular violence, torture and brainwashing. Writing in the New York Times in February, James A Millward, a scholar who has researched Xinjiang for three decades, argued that the “state repression in Xinjiang has never been as severe as it has become since early 2017”

Again, it might be (and probably is) that there are images in the private sphere or on specific sites somewhere but at the same time something is missing when there are no photographs in the public sphere. The guilty feel like they've got away with something when there is no visual evidence. That's why oppressive governments, secretive organisations, and corrupt individuals don't like photographers. Is it because they are witnesses? I think that's not quite right. But at the same time, I'd much rather go with the idea of photographers being witnesses to history, human rights violations and injustice than the converse. There are many important things to be said about the impotence of photography, the deception at its heart, its unreliability as a tool of evidence, but I think if you do that to the exclusion of its more revelatory possibilities and its ability to strike at least some kind of fear and shame into the Bangladeshi, Chinese, Cambodian, Saudi Israeli, Turkish, Chinese, Nazi, British, American, corporate authorities, then you are rather doing the world a disservice. They don't like it up 'em, and if photography has some kind of power to do that in some way, then so be it.

Indian artist's petition for Shahidul Alam here

Kathmandu Post profile on Shahidul Alam by Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati here

Guardian report on British artists supporting Shahidul Alam here.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Photojournalism is dead. Long live Photojournalism!

This is my final post for the year and it is from a really great interview I did with Anastasia Taylor-Lind for World Press Photo on Witness.

Ostensibly the interview was about the eyewitness for Atrocities app - an app that ensures Smartphone images can't be tampered with and are time and place verified in a way that  goes beyond simple raw file data.

So it's about the verification of images, it's about truth values in the most fundamental sense; the when and where pictures are taken and whether those pictures have been tampered with. Are they indexically accurate in the sense that the data that shows corresponds to what was in front of the camera.

But there are more than one set of truth values in photography and we do sometimes get stuck in pointless circularities about what is true or authentic and what isn't.

And this corresponds to the ideas  of what photography is and can be, and the ways in which we (photographers, editors, readers, everybody) get stuck in genre and limited ways of working with photography. We close ourselves down rather than opening up.

Truth in photography is not just about indexicality, it's about how images fit together, how they tie into a sequence, how they work within a particular publication or website, it's about the ownership of that publication or website. It's about what came before and what comes after, it's about the voice, the mode, the narrative structure. And that narrative structure might be borrowing something from the language of film, or literature, or art, or advertising. It's about emotions and empathy, and about newworthiness and addressing an audience. It's about telling a story and telling it well.

It's tremendously complex in other words. In the article, Taylor-Lind talks about 'photojournalism' as well as photojournalism, the former being the rather limited and cliched ways we sometimes understand photojournalism - a fantasy of a mass magazine golden age in black and white, wide angle, with broken windows, and smoke and mirrors. It's still the way that most people talk about and understand photojournalism (in the same way that if you talk to most people about art photography they think you're talking about the kind of picture that appears on a jigsaw puzzle. Or when you ask them if they know who Martin Parr or Robert Capa is, they almost never do - they might recognise the pictures though). And that 'most people' are the people that matter.

Against that, there are all the new ways of photographing, communicating, collaborating, and creating work that is both challenging and accessible and meets the basic informative and emotional needs of storytelling and newsworthiness. It's work that where the story is what matters and the truth values of those stories go beyond what the app is all about.

It's about challenging lazy photography that exists in an echo chamber and really reaching deep into the heart of the matter and reaching the absolutely massive audience that does exist for photography, but which the really important, life-changing and life-affirming practices are not quite reaching yet.  Some examples of this are Anastasia Taylor-Lind's  Postcards from Donetsk, Kazuma Obara's work on the Second World War,  Chien Chi-Chang's continuing Escape from North Korea,  Laura El-Tantawy's In the Shadow of the Pyramids, Laia Abril's On Abortion, or Mathieu Asselin's Monsanto.

And that's interesting.

More of that come september. Have a lovely summer (or winter, or whatever time of year it is where you are).

My Best Photo-Text Award: On Abortion

I have been enjoying writing, reviewing and interviewing so much this summer. It is wonderful when the pleasure of writing comes from the ideas and energies of what you are writing about. Part of that pleasure has come from Laia Abril's On Abortion, which I reviewed here. It'sa chapter in a five chapter series on misogyny and it's my book of the year by a distance.

It's a timely book (books on misogyny have been timely for ooh, the last how many thousand years. But they're especially timely now) where text and image are fused, where the text is designed to be communicative, accessible, and (in a surprisingly low-key way) persuasive. It's backed up by in-depth research which is selectively presented - so it's interesting, informative and ties in to emotional narratives. It's of  quite a different level and the accessibility is a key element of that. We talk a lot about communicating effectively, of extending audiences, of making things accessible, but very often what we say goes hand in hand with doing quite the opposite. We obfuscate, we make things inaccessible, we limite the audience - but can't see it because all our immediate peers are working in the same realm of self-indulgent obfuscation.

On Abortion is absolutely not an example of that. It didn't win the Arles Photo-text book award last week, but then it didn't need to (even though lots of people are unhappy with the awarding of the book to Broomberg and Chanarin's War Primer, for a multitude of reasons - click on the link below).

The thing is that awards get awarded to surprising books sometimes. Or films, or books, or people.. So it goes. And so it goes.

And so it goes with On Abortion (published in an edition of 4,000 incidentally).  On Abortion gets my imaginary Photo-Text Book Award for 2018. And that aside, time will be the reward as I think it's one of the most vital books for a long, long time, an example of a new kind of independent, self-commissioning slow photojournalism that is emerging out of the ashes of the old.

And as for Akina books. I'll award them my imaginary prize for just taking chances, making quality books, not compromising and going their own way. There is a barrier there in other words.

Read the review here.