Friday, 27 February 2015

We Always Lie to Strangers


from Antone Dolezal and Lara Shipley's Spook Light Chronicles Vol 3 ( We Always Lie to Strangers)

Petapixel posted more detailed complaints on the World Press Photo Winning series on Charleroi yesterday. In the Petapixel account, the series is accused of manipulating the audience through rather imaginative captioning and indeed editing. The complaints centre on the role of Big Phil - he's presented by Troilo  as a man hiding in a doorway in his home in an area ridden with crime. But then the mayor says he lives in a nice house and is the life and soul of the party. Well, he would say that wouldn't he. Who know's, maybe both accounts are 'true'.

So as well as technical manipulation in WPP - which I think is really quite clear and simple as far as it goes - there is now the question of false representation and truth.

Take me out and throw me in the River Tiber in a sack with a mad dog and a lobster now (When in Rome and all that). Whenever philosophical mumblings about truth in photography come up, you know you are in for a rough ride of circular arguments, contradictions and a special photographic perspective.

I manage to get by in the rest of my life without worrying too much about truth. This morning, I look out of the window and see the sun shining on Solsbury Hill and somehow don't worry that the weather will change and it will be pissing down with rain later. It doesn't stop the direct joyfulness of the experience from being direct and real. When I have my dinner tonight, I enjoy it and don't worry too much about whether it is really a fish - or even why I am eating a meal that has been done before. I still enjoy it. Truth doesn't come into it. It could if I was of a certain bent. But it doesn't.

And actually truth doesn't come into photography either. It's the wrong word to use. Maybe misrepresentation, bias, propaganda,  dishonesty, venality, corruption, denial would be better? Or maybe not? Who knows? Not me.

One of the things I've written this week is a book review of the final volume of Dolezal and Shipley's Spook Light Chronicles for Photo Eye (read a review of the first volume here). This is a fictional narrative that uses text, pictures and the archive to examine the phenomenon of the Spook Light in this Missouri/Kansas/Oklahoma corner of the Ozarks.

I really, really like the series. More than that, I enjoy the series and the way each volume builds on the previous one to create a whole. The first volume looks at the phenomenon of the spook light, the second volume looks at the industry built around it, and the final volume goes beyond the actuality of the spook light to look at what it is like to live in the Ozarks.

Nothing is ever pinned down. Things are left open and unexplained and we are never quite sure where we stand. Stories are told and loosely attached to images that have different levels of the theatrical about them. But we are left with a feeling of what it might be to live in the Ozarks and the way of thinking that exists in a place where history, myth, religion and the land merge into one. It's a documentary in other words - one that hits all of Bill Nichols documentary (film) modes mixing happily together but in a manner that does not have the 'this is true?' question at its heart.

The other writing I've done is a feature on Lina Hashim (who is my other favourite of the month and beyond) for the BJP. Her work (see this post on Unlawful Meetings here) examines her identity and how it is affected through the rules that are imposed on her through community interpretations of Islam, She fuses photography, religion and the way in which photography is made, disseminated and read within that same community.

Some of the time she is a Sophie Calle, sometimes she's a Kohei Yoshiyuki, sometimes she's a Wendy Ewald. She flits here and she flits there between the mixed up messages and the confusion of ideas that are part of her everyday life. And she wants to know where these ideas (why wear hijab, why can't you photograph a face, why is unmarried sex forbidden when so many young muslims do it, why do people pretend it doesn't exist, how can a suicide bomber be a martyr, why is there a market for their photographs, where does all this stuff come from!) originate. It's independent thinking that questions why so many people don't have an independent thought process (or pretend they don't).

The methods push the boundaries and involve a large amount of subterfuge, but that is central to the work and the way it examines where images and ideas come from, and why they are so readily accepted. At the same time, Hashim is quite brutal in her quest for what is not 'true' and it probably doesn't make comfortable reading for lots of people - the stupid, the cruel, the apologetic and the racist for example. But that doesn't stop her. Again, at the heart of her projects there is a huge sense of documentary. Not a documentary of 'truth', but a documentary of belief and where it comes from. And embedded in that work are the beliefs of those who believe. Which makes for a really nice symmetry.

Both  Dolezal and Shipley's work, nor that of Hashim is 'true', but it does represent in the most considered and honest of ways the worlds of which they are part. And they help me to understand those worlds and know, in a small way, what it is like to be in those worlds.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Sex in Car Parks and the World Press Photo Disqualification Season

     Bath: The deathbed of ambition where Londoners go to die

Oh gosh, it's World Press Photo Disqualification Complaints Season again. This happens every year but at least there seems to be a nearing to some clarity on why various unseen pictures were disqualified. David Campbell put this post up on Tuesday, and this echoes these examples from 2014 of what could be disqualified. Absolutely no cloning or healing brush seems to be the answer ( except for cleaning up dust and scratches). No painting, or excessive masking The bottom line is nothing should be added and nothing taken away (or even concealed).

But then entrants also got disqualified for making their picture 'too dark' (excessive toning) or did I imagine that. In which case, what entrants from the past would be disqualified for excessive dodging or burning, or retouching for that matter - the examples on Campbell's website show relatively minor retouching in places and surely that level of retouching must have happened on many occasions.

There are numerous digital tools aimed at detecting manipulation on images - and this points to guidelines on manipulation that are more, not less, rigorous than those in the analogue darkroom days. It seems counterintuitive but winners did not need to show a negative back in the day. Now raw files are mandatory once you hit the shortlist and you will get found out. So in some ways, the rules are more transparent than they were in the past. Or maybe that's because in the past there were no rules.

Campbell points out that perhaps there needs to be a re-evaluation of what constitutes truth in an image, in the cultural sense. These are some of the questions he thinks we should consider.

(and please note that these are Campbell's personal views that are not connected to the World Press Photo. This is me linking his thoughts to the World Press Photo )

How travel to a photographic location was enabled and funded raises a series of questions. Once on location, the composition and framing of scenes necessarily involves choices that shape representations. The editing, selection, tagging, and captioning of images for potential publication adds more layers of decision. Which images are then distributed to media clients for purchase, and how those clients present, sequence and contextualise those images, is another realm of creative choice that shapes the representation of events and issues. As David Levi Strauss has observed, “the truth is that every photograph or digital image is manipulated, aesthetically and politically, when it is made and when it is distributed.”

It's all constructed in this view. Everything is staged, but despite this, we need to consider what constitutes a 'document'. Despite this, Campbell recognises there are different standards for images that aim to 'entertain or please us.'

For them, we can have more relaxed standards. However, if we want some pictures to be able to function as documents and evidence, we have to ensure certain things so those pictures can function as documents and evidence. 

 I think that those standards are already extremely relaxed and that the World Press Photo consists of images that do 'entertain and please us' in disparate generic ways - photographic genre is at the heart of the World Press let's not forget - and it's to its credit that it has extended the generic possibilities in recent years. But maybe this generic/entertainment centre is part of the problem. Both the fact that it is at the heart of many categories (maybe more than we care to imagine) and the fact that we don't like to recognise it.

But Campbell sees this and thinks that:

We need to focus on the process of photography rather than just its products, and consider the issue in terms of what images do rather than what images are...

I think, following Ariella Azoulay, we also need to understand an image as being one statement in a larger regime of statements, so that we dispense with the idea that pictures alone can testify to all they show. Images can be powerful documents and evidence, but they require other statements, other information, to be truly effective.

So as well as verifying the relationship between the camera and the subject, there's the production and the dissemination of the picture stories to consider - captioning, sequencing, layout and juxtaposition all matter and all need to be considered. As is who funds the work, who publishes the work, who funds the publication and who advertises as Campbell points out.

It's a darn tricky menu of verification especially considering the venality of the owners of most newspapers, magazines and online sites. Ethics are easily overruled in all kinds of ways by even the most superficially respectable of publications. The party line is there to be toed - and now that you have a global ownership of media with shared interests that line does tend to be a one-party line.

So what would be interesting is if someone kind of humourles smile-free press overseer was seconded to the World Press Committee to judge on the places where the winning work was published, consider how it was published and then left free to disqualify that which was not deemed worthy along the holistic lines that Campbell mentions above. But then everything would be disqualified and you'd end up with no winners. You wouldn't even be able to have a bathroom break (as the paraphrased saying goes) so stringent would the ethical considerations be; humourless, smile-free ethicists-over-us are tiresome to put it mildly so let's scrub that idea.

Anyway, the other question is that of the poetic interpretation. The latest controversy to hit the World Press Photo Winner is the Charleroi letter. Italian photographer, Giovanni Troilo  won the Contemporary Issues prize for his portrayal of Charleroi as some post-apocalyptic Belgian wasteland where Bladerunner meets Coronation Street with a dose of Pulp Fiction thrown in. It comes complete with heavy lighting and a bit of creative staging. One picture is of a couple having sex in a car park, which has this caption for the World Press Photo: “Locals know of parking lots popular for couples seeking sexual liaisons.”

Sad to say, the photographer put this caption on his website: "My cousin accepted to be portrayed while fornicating with a girl in his friend’s car. For them it was not strange.” But still, that doesn't contradict the world press caption. But the car lights are on so you can see inside which is not quite the way it should be.

The mayor of Charleroi didn't like the work. This is what he said

Troilo’s work should be reevaluated, the mayor concluded. “Charleroi is not, on any account, the black heart of Europe,” Magnette writes. “You will not find one single inhabitant who will recognize his city in these pictures, not to mention the captions that look more like a settling of scores than a reportage.”

But isn't that true of just about every photo essay of anywhere. It's a selective rendering. I'll happily take Bath as a timeless Georgian toytown of elegant crescents and high tea at the pump rooms. Or I'll take it as a city funded by dirty thug-money with a piece of  prime real estate that wouldn't look out of place in Ceasescu's Romania. Or I'll take it as muggy valley swampland, the death bed of ambition, a kind of elephant's graveyard where people from London come to die. And many more things.

But for Charleroi, if you can't take Troilo's work, then you shouldn't take the equally fantastical pieces that might have pumped up the city over the years and have appeared not just in city advertorials but also in serious publications around the world. There's not too many of these pieces around I guess, it is Charleroi after all, but I bet there are some.

Campbell also says this covers the more creative possibilities or personal interpretations such as Troilo's vision of Charleroi.. He talks about:

...the exhausted, incoherent and unsustainable position that photography could be objective and true, which is a commitment still so strong we see traces of it every time an image’s status is questioned.

And that is something we need rules on. It is the biggest cliche to say that photography is staged or photography is real. Most people flick between the two visions depending on what side of bed they get out of bed in the morning. Only those in serious denial about either the world or their own independence of thought stick solidly to one interpretation. Yes, we know that pictures are staged, but they still have a huge truth value that is absolutely central to how and why they are made and understood. They belong to that wider regime of statements and we do see them and take them as fact at a very basic level without even realising it; in photojournalism, in documentary, in advertising, in family albums, on phone apps, everywhere. We know it's nonsense but we're not smart enough to not feel that  it's nonsense. Maybe because it's not nonsense after all.

And the problem is the ways in which we take pictures as true do matter - and are both far simpler and far more sophisticated than the Platonic, Kantian, semiotic, psycho-analytic, aura-centred, authenticity-based, existentialist, intertextual interpretations that we tend to look at them through in photographic theory god help us.

I'm currently writing about Lina Hashim for the BJP and her Unlawful Meetings work is a case in point. Hashim negotiates that difficult area where what people think, what they say and what they do - and how that affects her multiple identities.  It's work made in very difficult f circumstances, but it is work that acts as evidence. It shows young muslims having sex in cars. And as such it shows that young muslims do have sex. And that is visual evidence that goes against the rather stupid rhetoric of lots of people. It makes something visible. And within the context of that 'larger regime of statements' it is accepted as truth.

So today, for me, as I write about Hashim, photography is truth. That's the side of bed I got out of this morning.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Photographer Anxiety Dreams: Deny, Deny, Deny!

                                     Off to class I go! Good job I've got my pants on

I like dreams, but not anxiety dreams. They are a pain in the brain, but we all seem to have them and they are always variations on a theme. I remember when my daughter was about six months old, I dreamt about where we lived; it was the upstairs bar of a pub and my daughter was crawling around on the floor. We had a Christmas tree. It sat in a bowl of acid for some reason. It was a very dry tree so of course it had candles. There were electric lights as well but no plug; bare wires were stuck into the socket instead.

Photographer anxiety dreams are pretty basic. In the days of film, it was the old film that doesn't wind on dream. Or the film gets lost, or it all turns out blurred. Or it could be your lens falls off (and that has other interpretations), or the batteries go, or someone starts kicking up shit about you photographing. Digital anxiety dreams are nowhere near as interesting. The camera becomes secondary and it all revolves around laptops, hard drives and wi-fi. And I am sure there are many, many more depending on what gear you use or how challenging your work is. Technological failure and fear of discovery loom large in dreamworld.

Writer's anxiety dreams? Lost papers, lost files, Sysyphian writing, a never-ending edit, getting your facts hopelessly wrong, missing a year on your deadline and getting discovered for the imposter that you undoubtedly are.

I asked a gallerist about anxiety dreams and he reeled them off most effortlessly; leaving the door to the gallery open and someone strolling in off the street and nicking all your art. Or leaving the paintings out in the rain overnight. Don't do that. And of course the imposter thing gets multiple look ins.

I remember when I used to teach ESOL students, I'd get the same anxiety dreams at the start of every term. I'd wouldn't find the room, I wouldn't have my trousers on, there'd be a fight, I'd have a nightmare class. That kind of thing. The funny thing was, I once had a first class that was exactly like the dream (apart from the trousers) only worse.

My wife works in the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector anxiety dream is incredibly dull mainly because with this UK government your anxieties are reality on a daily basis. Not completing your annual monitoring form is pretty much as good as it gets.

And then there's the big one, the psychoanalyst's anxiety dream. You'd guess it would be something like the couch collapsing, or Freud popping in the room and judging you, or the transference going too far and you getting caught with the sex-addict patient. But when I asked an analyst, they completely swerved the question and all the options I offered them. Deny, Deny, Deny!

Monday, 23 February 2015

Sunset Pictures: For or Against?

Sunset Stencil: "It's not a Banksy, is it!"

Jesse Alexander got a great audience at IC Visual Labs for the launch of his new book on landscapes, Perspectives on Place. I chaired the panel discussion (with Celia Jackson and Gawain Barnard) and the temptation for my simple brainwas basically to reduce everything to a series of for or against questions.

We did have one yes or no question - on Salgado. And the audience was, on the whole, for, which is nice to know.

It's terribly stupid and binary, but sometimes the for and against format nails things, especially in the field of landscape - the exhausted field. And the challenge is how you can reinvigorate that 'medium'.

So if there had been other for and against questions, these might have been some of them, al connecting in to the chapters in Jesse's book. I think they might be a simple way of summarising people's approach to landscape - a kind of landscape compatibility questionnaire.

So what are you for and what are you against? And where (on postcards, biscuit tins, white cubes etc)

Sunsets? (for, but only for personal use)

Pastoral Landscapes? (for - but only for jigsaws and biscuit tins)

Travel Landscapes? (against)

Ansel Adams? (against, no for, no against, no for, no against, no for...)

Robert Adams? (for, no against, no for, no against, no for, no against...)

Macho Landscapes (High Viewpoint, Big Camera) (against - it's travel landscapes)

The Engendered Landscape (is it an idea worth exploring)? (for)

The Psychological landscape? (against, it does get tiresome most of the time)

Edgelands? (against. Boring!)

Technological Landscapes (made from your desktop, /GSV stuff)? (against. Boring!)

I'm pretty much for all of this stuff, except for when I'm against it, but then it's only because it's been done too much or done too badly. There are great GSV projects and great psychological projects. It's never clear cut. That's the problem with for and against questions.

And then I saw the piece on Peter Lik in the New York Times. And there could be a whole for and against section on him - but here it would be against all the way. The piece covers how he sells his pictures in Caesars Palace and gives a particular perspective on him as a (ten-thousand) pound-shop photographer.

My first thought was at the absurdity of it all, and the smoke and mirrors of his sales technique, a technique where nothing is quite as it seems. We can all get terribly snotty about it, but ultimately isn't he just doing what many, many galleries do; sell atrocious work at absurd prices to ridiculously wealthy patrons with no taste. Isn't that the art market in general, and if we substitute Chelsea or Mayfair for Caesar's Palace, aren't we left with the same thing as Peter Lik's Gallery, albeit with a better secondary market and clients, gallerists, publicists and critics who fancy themselves as operating at a higher level of cultural sophistication.

Except of course, Peter Lik's pictures are truly dreadful, a reminder of what landscape really shouldn't be.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Hijab, Headscarves and Freedom of Choice

pictures from Amak Mahmoodian's Shenasnameh

I used to teach ESOL to 16-19 year olds in Bristol; it was a mixture of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers with the full spectrum of difficulties you can imagine. It was the most difficult job I've done, working in institutional, organisational circumstances that were far from ideal. But they were also the nicest, most lively people and it was often a joy to teach them and the people I worked with directly were all committed, hard-working and transparent.

We had people who were literally just off the boat, and we had people who had been in the country for years, but various things (like the education system as it stands) hadn't worked out for them. Identity politics was live and real at the college, but wasn't quite like you read about in books. It was confused, mixed up and had a hundred social, cultural, religious, political, national and regional reference points.

Dress was always a key thing, especially among the girls, many of whom were of muslim background. I remember one girl in particular, who had spent five years at Cary Grant's old school, Fairfield High. She told me of how she used to wear 'Western' dress to school - and how she got harassed by both her Somali friends and other students. She'd be getting told what to wear by everyone.

In the end she went to school in hijab because that made life easier for her; she was who she was expected to be and she could sit at the back of the class and be ignored by every side, including those people who would tell her that wearing hijab was a foreign thing and those who would tell her that wearing a skirt was a foreign thing.

It was fascinating to see the politics of dress and how girls would influence each other. There would be those who would gradually loosen their headscarf or take it off altogether when they did sports- and if one took it off, then the others would follow. But then in other years you'd get the ones who would toe the party line and berate anyone not doing likewise- and then even getting girls to do sport was an effort in itself. There was always an unofficial power struggle going on with some people trying to impose views that had come from outside; from siblings or parents or the mosque.

Reina Lewis writes about this in her essay Hijab Stories: Choice, Politics, Fashion (in Fashion Cultures Revisited) Lewis talks about the complexity interweaving of identification connected with wearing the hijab, in both the positive and negative sense. It identifies it as both a positive choice and a generational choice, and talks about how hijab-wearing can be generationally 'upward' as well as 'downward.'

Lewis also touches on the idea of the idea of a non-consensual wearing of the hijab which is hugely relevant in countries where there is a compulsion for women to wear a particular type of dress, where it is enshrined into law and punishable by sanction.

(picture above from a demonstration against forced wearing of Hijab in Iran, 1979, I think)

Picture above from National Hijab Day in Pakistan. Er, yes. Read about it here. 

One of these countries where Hijab is compulsory is Iran, which is where Amak Mahmoodian comes from originally. Now she lives in Bristol (it's Bristol week on the blog) and has used different strategies to record how Iranian women preserve and express their identities beneath the head scarf, how control is enforced and resisted. Shenasnameh (see above) looks at collected passport pictures (and these are really impressive as a collection - his project is still developing) and how identity is presented on a photographic, individual and state level. The project below is called Gereh and looks at the tying of head scarves and what is expressed through that.  .. and the one below.

I also asked Amak a few questions about her projectsThis is what she said.

Photography is the most pertinent medium for me, because of its relationship to reality, its indexicality and its traditional links to documentary.

The photographic and the video content of my project explore the cultural and the social life of   Iran, with an emphasis on religion, gender and identity.  Using a structure that evokes the classic Middle Eastern collection of oriental stories, my project explores the subtleties of everyday life in contemporary Iran and specific codes of conduct that influence a person's behaviour, relationship and sense of self.

I am trying to examine the modification that had taken place in Iran since the revolution in 1975, the condition of women, social censorship and diversity. My main theme is the visual representation of feminine identity, and in particular the notion of double identity as evidenced by the strong contrast between the presentation of the feminine in public and private spaces.

Therefore I show a woman's photo to you, you see her, the same woman that I am seeing. Her secret is at least penetrable by someone, for me and for her. You can also get to know this woman through the photographs.

This woman could be my mother, my teacher, my friend or even me, myself. In fact my subjects are the ones with whom I have been living for years and this project is the narration of my life too.

The woman who I represent in different projects ;  False face, seal, Determinate, knot and videos,  she is not voiceless, she talks without using a word,with her scarf's knot, her fingerprint, her necklace and her silence. A small part of her being can show how different  she is from the others.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

'Landscape is Boring!'

     The Engendered Landscape: Jane Austen's Walk  #1, Charlcombe Valley

'Landscape is an exhausted medium, no longer viable as a mode of artistic expression. Like life, landscape is boring; we must not say so.'

That is a 'thesis' from the introduction to W.J.T. Mitchell's Landscape and Power. On Thursday, I'm at IC Visual Labs in Bristol for the launch of another book on landscape, Jesse Alexanders Perspectives on Place and a discussion on landscape and I'm sure that quote will come up.

Perspectives on Place takes that inflammatory Mitchell thesis as its point of reference in some ways. It looks at the different strategies that have been used to drive our understanding of the landscape forward. It's a Users Guide to Landscape.

So there are sections on the sublime, the exploratory, the synthetic and the contested landscape. What's great is that you can think of any landscape work and the how and the why of its making will be covered in some way.

So Marc Wilson's Last Stand comes under Landmarks or Contested Territories, Paul Gaffney's We Make the Path by Walking is Wilderness/Exploration, and Nicolo Degiorgis's Hidden Islam would be in transient Spaces and you can go on and on with virtually any landscape-based projective. Perspectives on Place is a really clear way of reading landscape photography and putting it in a historical and contemporary perspective. It's a way of stopping it being boring.

I don't normally put up blog posts on people I work with, but I'll make an exception for Jesse for lots of reasons, and because I can advertise his book and an IC Visual Labs event at the same time and it's a bit of a Bristol promotion week on the blog this week. So there you have it.

Come to IC Visual Labs in Bristol on Thursday 19th February, 7pm, for the book launch of Perspectives on Place and Panel Discussion with me, Jesse Alexander, Celia Jackson and Gawain Barnard. 

Buy Perspectives on Place Here

Monday, 16 February 2015

Kirsty Mackay and Pink Fascism

My Favourite Colour Was Yellow's video poster

Timing is everything and Kirsty Mackay has got it with her Kickstarter project, My Favourite Colour Was Yellow. This project looks at the prevalence of pink in girl's clothing, toys, bedroom furniture and all the rest of it.

It's all part of that lack of choice when you go into a store and everything is pink and shite. I don't know, I think pink is almost preferable to what boys get in the UK - a dour procession of navy blues and greys that makes British boy toddlers look like refugees from 1970s China. All you need to do is stick a bunch of Mao caps in there and your Brit department store boys department would be like the Chengdu Number 1 Department Store circa 1979 in miniature. But pink is part of that same colour hierarchy.

Pink is in the news in the UK because of the pink Labour Party Bus that went around the country looking for votes. As a result, pink has surged into the public consciousness again. This is from Zoe Williams on the pink bus. 

'A woman who didn’t want to give her name said: “I don’t want to be bought over by a pink bus.” “Is there anything the Labour party could do to buy you over?” I asked. “No. I’m voting Green. They just want to be nice to each other and not be complete dicks to everyone else.”'

Anyway, Kirsty's project has been on Fotografia, on Develop,  and I'm guessing it will be on more sites this week as the subject hits peak topicality. It's got a way to go before it hits its target, but I get the feeling it has got a final burst in it.

This is what Kirsty says about the project:

Photographer Kirsty Mackay set out to photograph girls with their pink possessions as a way to understand how this one colour has become dominant. Working over a five year period, making portraits of the girls in their bedrooms and on the High St, combined with research; Kirsty has created a document of this time for girls growing up in the UK.

You can back the project here.