Featured post

Buy All Quiet on the Home Front here.

All Quiet on the Home Front is almost sold out. You can buy the last copies from ICVL STUDIO. It is also available now at the wonderfu...

Monday, 22 October 2018

Exploded Views and Story Arcs, Let's Start at the Very Beginning


It was lovely to go to Brussels and be, with Emilie Lauwers, Maroussia Prignot and Valerio Alvarez, one of the first speakers at the new Recyclart of the brilliant and super-lovely Vincen Beeckman  and many others. The setting was a room in an old printworks on the edge of Molenbeek, just across the canal from the West African car market (where cars are bought and sold and shipped off to West African ports). It's a great location with a great feeling.

I talked about my work, from Sofa Portraits to My German Family Album, and the dilemma of how to tell a story. And it's a dilemma I feel along with everybody else. It's the dilemma of having a mass of choices and having to make a choice. It's a problem I experience all the time - choosing is difficult.

That's a particular problem for the German Family Album. About 5 years ago, I casually mentioned to my mother (who was born in Germany) that I remembered these family pictures with Nazis in and did they still exist. Six months later she came back to me with a back with a bunch of albums and pictures in - from the 1920s through to 1943. From Sander and White Ribbon through to Leni Riefenstahl and Stalingrad. I looked at them and was stunned. They're great pictures, at a very different level to most family albums of the time because a) most of albums were destroyed or at least censored in after-the-fact visual revisionism and b) they're great pictures in a way most family albums simply aren't.

So what to do with it. In the Sound of Music, there's the doh-ray-mi song which goes,

'Let's Start at the very beginning, it's a very good place to start. When you write, you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with doh-ray-mi...

And it is a very good place to start. It keeps things simple. And simple is good. Start at the beginning. Start with the best pictures, start!

Starting at the very beginning is what Gerry Johannson does with his books. He sequences them chronologically, and it seems to work very well for him. It's easy, quick and people understand it.

It's all very linear and easy to understand. And in a world where understanding is at a premium, maybe that clarity of understanding is something we should aim for.

So this picture could be, and has been, the first picture in My German Family Album. It's a picture of my grandparents. It shows them apparently in love but they're not. Or if they are, it's one-sided. He's in love and she's disappointed. He's too old, too serious, too political (conservative with a small c), uninterested in the arts. She's the opposite.

That could be the starting point then. Here she is enjoying the sun - and I could show her in the sea, or the garden or at the zoo.

And here to hammer the point home is my grandfather, altogether different. The pictures back up the stories that are told. The pictures are true then (pictures have no truth value, let's clear that one up). The stories? Let's take them as being reliable.

Then it becomes a kind of love story in decline that flows down in a chronological manner as the two of them grow even further apart as she finds solace in the secret, platonic love of Bund, an army officer fallen on hard times who now tends the gardens of the local water castle.

It's even got an end point, written on the back of a picture - get food - which sums up where we are going and the gradual decline not just of a relationship, but of the very essence of being.

But chronological can be dull, linear can be dull. Last week I read this passage by Robin Wood on Satyajit Ray on the making of the Apu trilogy.

'In the West, we are conditioned primarily either by the classic Amecian cinemma with its taut narrative structures  in which when a sccen has made its point, we are carried swiftly on to the next, or by the European 'art' cinema with its tendency to intellectual thematic structures. We may feel, with Ray that we have already got the point when we are in fact continuing to miss it, for 'the point' may not be an extractable themastic or narrative issue but the total experience a character is undergoing.'

And so there's a cinematic way of looking at the story, with different characters (my grandfather, my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, or my uncle, perhaps most of all my uncle) in it, different voices, different points of view, different ways of telling the story.

You have those possibilities and they appeal because the pictures are very cinematic. That's embedded into the images as are photographic references. You get the feeling my grandfather, who took most of the pictures, was channeling a little bit of August Sander at times, or was influenced by neue sachlichkeit.

He worked for Siemens too, so you start seeing some Germaine Krull in there (and he would have seen them) and the pictures take on a very different sheen with the whole metaphor of family, power and Naziism making for visual and political overlaps.

    (Siemens workers)

The love story takes off too as my grandfather is increasingly absent, as children are born (my uncle, my aunt, my mother) as my grandmother spends more time away to be with her needy mother - and the understanding Onkel Bund - seen on the left below.

   (Onkel Bund with my grandmother and aunt)

And then tragedy. Bund is caught stealing a bag of potatoes from the water castle. He is publicly shamed and, virtually destitute, is forced to leave his most basic room in the castle.

Rather than face an uncertain future, he kills himself by laying his head on the train track outside the gateway to the Baron's property. His head his severed, there is blood on the tracks and my grandmother is heartbroken. When she dies in 1975, her children find an old box of her belongings in the attic of their rambling home. Included in the box is the bloodstained shirt that Bund was wearing when he died, still there forty years after the event.

That's not in the pictures, that's the story that is told. So how do you tell that, how do you incorporate that into the images so that the one riffs of the other, so there are gaps and pauses and arcs and a bit of emotional satisfaction going on. And everyone likes a love story, they're universal, so you know you're reaching an audience.

Things are complicated by the time. It's the 1930s and the Nazis are coming to power. That's in the album, it's the first thing you notice. It's there in the view from the window of my grandparents' apartment in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland), as Nazis march down the street on Hindenburg's birthday in 1932.

  (view from the family apartment window, 1932)

And it's there in salutes, swastikas and uniforms that suddenly tap into the visual and political history of the time - the map below is from 1933 and details the number of impromptu SA torture camps set up in Berlin in 1933.

The Nazi imagery seeps in everywhere. It's there in the company days out my grandparents took at Siemens, a company heavily supportive of the Nazis, it's there in the replaying of Olympic medal ceremonies that Leni Riefenstahl filmed in Olympia, it's there in the gymnastic displays my grandmother performed. It's in the oak trees, the mountains, the water, the games, it's everywhere.

And most of all it's in the way in which my uncle embraced the Hitler Youth from an early age, flicking what my grandfather called his 'Nazi paw' at all and sundry with his best friend Lothar (on the right below), son of the local SA chief.

    (my mother's christening)

My grandfather hated this. He wrote letters to the papers complaining about it, saying that the only good thing about a Hitler Youth uniform was that for the kid the lederhosen were made of thick material which protected their backside from the regular beatings they should all be getting.

There is a bit of redemption in the story. By the time he was 14, my uncle was reading books and taking self-portraits of himself as an intellectual. When the war started, he refused to fight and was signed up to the signals department and sent to the Eastern Front. He was at Stalingrad, but caught measles and was on the last plane out. So the story goes.

  (the Siemens Boat)

So there's that. There are pictures and stories, and there are the things that people bring to the pictures.

No picture is innocent, we bring our global knowledge, our library of images to them when we read them. So in the German Family Album, a train is not a train anymore, a row of low barracks in winter is something altogether different, a leather coat is as sinister as you want it to be. We've seen these things before, we think we know what they are, they infest our thoughts.


And that's interesting. Where do those images come from (the answer is fairly modern cinema), how do they pop up in our minds, how do they create memories of something we have no experience or knowledge of?

Before you know it, a simple story of an unhappy marriage and unrequited love has become a story with all these multiple elements and multiple characters wrapped around them, tying in to the before, during and after of the rise of the Nazis and all that went with it.

To take it all in, you'd need to work at a  reflexive level like the Act of Killing or Pictures from Home, but with a meta commentary - so Meta Maus on a much smaller, less tragic scale - told from the wrong side. Then the project becomes about the making of the project, about the images and how they tie in with the rise of the Nazis, how fascist ideology was embedded into everyday life, wasn't something merely contained in the salutes and the uniforms and the swastikas, but was there on a daily basis. It becomes a didactic, educational tool where you lay everything on the line. It's good to lay things on the line, to take things back to square one.

But that makes for an even more difficult choice. I spoke about this with Andrea Copetti at his brilliant Tipi Bookshop and he gave me the exploded view as a solution to the problem, as a possible structure.

This an exploded view of a guitar.

Here you have multiple parts and multiple choices. The complexity can be endless but it is given a structure, links are made by the original blueprint which forms a overlying edifice which the viewer can navigate.

What's good about this way of looking at things is that you can include everything if you want, as long as it fits into the broader structure and makes sense. you can have stratas, you can have a hierarchy of comprehension and meaning, you can make things opaque, you can make them transparent. And then you can redesign as you go, streamling your structure to make it as functional as possible.

The other thing is you can take things right back to basics and start at the very beginning. There are plenty of people who don't know who Hitler is, who have no idea of the Nazis, of the Holocaust, of any of it. So you can address the assumptions we make about what people know or don't know.

The problem with the exploded view structure is that it does limit the audience. It's a very structured, ordered, initially emotionally distant view. So it doesn't exactly draw people in. It's a view that preaches to the converted in some ways because it is meta..

The emotional story, in contrast, is universal, it draws more interest, it gets a much bigger audience and it does get the curiosity going. It's got the immediate recognition factor of a boy meets girl story arc. That appeals. The Sound of Music has a basic boy meets girl crossed with a man in hole story arcs. It's boy meets girl (with the complications of kids, a convent and Nazis). Mines boy meets girl, with complications of kids, Nazis and Siemens. But no happy endings.

So we're back at the beginning again. And that's a very good place to start... again.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Home is not a Place

Always the Guest by Wendy Marijnessen is a delightful but curious book. It's a mix of text, archival images, and photographs from Pakistan, with some from the particular the Koohi Goth Women's Hospital, a place Marjinessen advocates and fund raises for (5 euros from each book sold goes to the hospital).

The text kickstarts the story, bridging from one kind of domestic to another, mixing the personal image with the photojournalistic, mixing genre and voice as she goes. Marijnissen tells the story of her childhood, of her mother's struggle with cancer, her death, and that of her father some years later. It's a hammer blow to her heart, one that leaves her lost and reeling.

Where, she wonders, is home.

Faded snapshots of a distant life punctuate these thoughts, a dreamlike reverie of what once was - though even here the cracks appear, her mother and father standing together, united in life as they became in death, as a child (even Wendy or her younger sister) stand back to the camera to one side.

Confusion reigns in her life until she crosses the border from India into Pakistan and makes her way to the Women's Hospital. There she witnesses birth, she experiences death at close-quarters, in the vacuum of cultural expectations she finds herself again. The flow of life in Karachi, the food, the smells, the easy familiarity create a space for her. Even the crows become symbols of life.

And amidst that explosion of life, she finds a little corner of herself.

It's a story of rebirth, of finding a place in a country where she has no place, which is a vacuum to her, but where life, with all its celebrations, its sufferings, its failings, is all around.

It could go wrong in all kinds of ways here but it doesn't, there is a genuine sense of Marijnissen grappling to express her loss, her self, her idea of being through the images she makes, the images that have been bequeathed to her, the way and the roles those images play in the defining of who you are. That's a very unusual thing to do.

The family photos are mixed with what look like polaroids from Pakistan, parallel images that make the case for this new life morphing into the old, so that genre is serving a purpose and is part of the narrative in itself - not explicitly, but embedded into the story telling.. Also mixed in are larger black and white images, the realities, both harsh and pleasurable, of life folded in the visual flow.

I don't know if it's always successful (what book is?) in the telling of the story, but who cares? It's tells a personal story and it doesn't  follow all the conventions that you get in the telling of those stories. It's a bit odd in other words.

And that fits the theme of the story, an idea of never finding home that is common to so many yet never really expressed. For Marijnissen, the question of whether it's in Karachi or in Antwerp is never quite answered. In Always a Guest, Home is an emotional state where emotion happens, where human contact happens, where you are a person.

Or perhaps, as James Baldwin states at the beginning of the book, it's not a place at all, it's an irrevocable condition.

Buy the Book here.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Hoda Afshar's Acceptance Speech

                   picture by Hoda Afshar

This is Hoda Afshar's portrait of Behrouz Boochani, a writer turned refugee living a half-life on the Pacific Island of Nahru won the Bowness Prize in Australia.

This what Afshar said about the portrait.

 “I sent this portrait to Behrouz after I returned from Manus in April 2018, and called him. I said, ‘This is you, Behrouz, with your passion, your fire, and your writer’s hands. It symbolises your resistance.’ He heard this, and paused. ‘You are right,’ he said. ‘But I do not see myself in this picture. I only see a refugee. Someone whose identity has been taken from him. A bare life, standing there beyond the borders of Australia, waiting and staring.’ He fell silent, then said, ‘This image scares me.’”

That idea of a picture scaring the subject is so poignant. That fear is not because of the camera but because of what has been done to the man by his confinement on an island with no hope, because of a policy that treats people as less than human.

You don't often get to read the reactions of people to how they are photographed (Larry Sultan's father springs to mind here) and perhaps that's not a bad thing. Here Boochani's response adds  to the image, to the spectacle of the image. And it is a spectacle, it is theatre - of fear, of terror, of despair.

You can read more about Manus, and about Behrouz Boochani's writing on the island (written on a mobile phone). Here is a snippet..

Refugees are not angels and are not devils. Both ideas of refugees come from the same framework, and it is a dehumanising one … In Western culture, there is a deep desire to see refugees ... devoid of complexity. What I am saying is that there are two main discourses around refugees: as terrorists and dangerous people - an overtly racist representation - and a romantic image that many refugee supporters construct and perpetuate. I hope that my book confronts this.

And this is Afshar's very moving acceptance speech. There is no room for ambiguity.

2018 Bowness Photography Prize acceptance speech by Hoda Afshar 

"In March this year, I travelled to Manus Island, where today nearly 600 asylum seekers remain after having spent four grueling years in an Australian government detention centre. 

I spent a week there with some of the most gentle, and fragile men I have ever met. Men who made the decision to flee war or other circumstances in their country, to seek a better life, but instead found themselves on Manus, stripped of those rights which, more and more, we regard as the privilege of citizens, just because they were born into a world of unequal geographies. 

Behrouz was one of them. But in one sense at least, he is a bit different from the rest. His training as a journalist taught him the power of communication, and his tireless efforts to get the news out has given him a kind of resolve, and purpose. 

I got to know his circle of friends, too—a group of Kurdish men who share a language, and an experience of stateless-ness that binds them as a community. They have each other, at least, and the fact that we grew up in the same country, speaking the same language, meant that we could work together more easily. 

But I met other men, too. Men who lacked even those fragile bonds. And I would struggle to tell you in words just how broken they are. Each day, they retreat further and further into a darkness which they lack the will, much less the words, to communicate. … 

We are not islands. We are social beings, and all of us depend for our well-being on the safety and bonds of a community. But in the last decade, we have been made to think that men and women like those on Manus and Nauru represent a threat to the sanctity of our own community. We have been told that, in order prevent the loss of lives, it is necessary to sacrifice a few; that we should be careful not to care too much. We have watched politicians invent monsters for the sake of convincing us of the need for stronger borders. 

But I was born in Iran at a time when a terrible war was being waged on the border with another nation, so I know what it feels like to live in fear because the enemy is waiting at the city gates; to be told to hide in the basement because the planes are overhead. Here in Australia, we have been made to believe that the men and women we have placed in offshore prisons represent a coming threat like that. But they do not. … 

This is not just about Australia. This is about a new world that we are seeing come into being before our eyes—a world in which the defense of borders depends on the drawing of new lines between the included and the excluded. Between citizens and bare lives. But these are very dangerous times, for what is being redrawn here are the limits of our human community. And the very fragility of those shifting lines means that, one day, any one of us might find ourselves on the outside. 

I dedicate this prize to all the men, women and children on Manus and Nauru."

Friday, 5 October 2018

School Projects continued

I wrote a post bemoaning the fact that there are so few 'authentic' school or college photography projects. I think by authentic I mean ones that look or feel like school or college look like. In the original post I've got Ivars Gravlejs' Early Works down as the most important and truthful school project of all time, so that tells you a bit about where I'm coming from.

Anyway, these are some of the projects that were suggested and there are some great ones in there

Ian Macdonald

George Plemper

Florian van Roekel - le College

Joseph Szabo

Chin Paochen

Dawoud Bey 

Megan Chloe Lovell

James Mollison Playgrounds

Mark Steinmetz - 'Detroit Schoolteachers

Julian Germain

Colin Combs

Nico Young

Inside Santa Monica High

Portraits of Hazleton Public Schools

These are all great projects and present very positive or nostalgic views of school - very empowering views.

But that doesn't correspond to the way most people experience school or talk about school - think of the great school movies, from If and Clueless and Lord of the Flies to Fame and even massively romanticised films like Mr Chips - they thrive on that dysfunction. I think back to when I was at school and everyone was either a psychopath, clinically depressed, abused, or a religious freak. It was genuinely and deeply shit. And I never see that view represented in photography. Some of the projects touch on those elements (click on Ian Macdonald to see the kid in detention) but there does seem to be a lot missing.

People have written about school, they've made films about it, or tv programmes about it, you get that representation in comics, but photography, no. And that's for school which nearly all of us have been to. There's an absence that is quite apparent.

As I said, some of the projects above are fantastic like Joseph Szabo's brilliant, brilliant portrait os his pupils. Or Florian van Reukel's Le College, which gets a poetic sense of what school is, but it's poetic and it's stylised and it doesn't match the nauseous scuzziness of it all.

Perhaps it's the politics of format and framing of photography, and the more suffocating ideas of collaboration, empowerment and consent that are so overwhelming that they have rendered anything more emotionally valid almost impossible. And I suppose for my conditions to be met, and they are entirely arbitrary conditions, then the project would have to be photographed by a schoolkid. Which is what Ivars Gravlejs was when he made the pictures for Early Works.

I would love to see more student-made education projects, both at a high school level and a university level - and Andrew Moisey's American Fraternity is a kind of side-example of this. It's a mystery why they're aren't any emotionally valid projects on studying at university. I've suggested it in the past and I suggest it again. I would love to see photography students do a project on being a student in contemporary Britain or anywhere, complete with pictures, emphemera, notes - from the student loan company, emails, texts, student feedback, university messages, room changes, doctor's notes, food bank parcels, blackboard pages, facebook group messages (that's the killer), notes from fellow students, assignments and all the rest. It's all really basic stuff, and it's fascinating but it doesn't get made. So if you're a student, why not make it, it would be fun. It would be hard. It might be nasty. But you could do it in your spare time. Go for it.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

School, Race, Advertising, Mamma Mia and the sickly taste of Krispy Kreme Donuts

This French art school was in the news over the summer. It was trying to recruit US students and to make its student body a bit more diverse somebody changed the picture above to the one below. 

There's a variety of techniques in there, including what looks like the retro felt tip effect being used. It's incredibly bad.

I somehow watched Mamma Mia - Here we go Again over the summer. It begins with Donna graduating from the most incredibly diverse Oxford, something quite at odds with the reality of the intake of Oxford University which you can read about here, or here for a more nuanced analysis or here for a student perspective from Cherwell magazine. This includes the incredible statistic that  Oxford admitted more pupils from Westminster School than black students in 2017.

I found this incredibly annoying and did wonder at how and why this was included. My paranoia made me wonder if this wasn't some kind of attempt by Oxford to redefine its student body. And why not. I know people who have photographed literary festivals in the UK and been told to go for the 'ethnics'.

My wife and daughter didn't care about the Oxford element in Mamma Mia. They cared about the film starring Cher and Andy Garcia in and the pointlessness of the endgame. But we all enjoyed it after a fashion (Greek islands - what's not to like about that) and left with a rather sickly aftertaste in our mouths, kind of like the one you get after eating a 6-pack of Krispy Kreme donuts served by a 16-year-old doing an unpaid trial run, all sugar and fat and more sugar and more fat, topped off with a dribble of unpaid teenage sweat.

I was thinking of this (the French school photo) the other week when I chanced upon a copy of the Bath Magazine in the dentist waiting room. Bath is a lovely place, it's very Jane Austen in parts, it can be claustrophobic. It comes with its own stereotypes. I get people who live in 2 million pound houses in the snottiest part of Bristol telling me how wealthy, how snotty, how privileged I must be to live in Bath. It is nice, I am lucky, but fuck off already thank you very much.

Well the Bath Magazine is a reflection of that privileged perception of Bath, especially during schools month and it presents a picture of Bath that is yuck...

The schools issue is when the schools have open days and try to attract students. And it's not just the private schools. It's the state schools as well. Even state education is a market in the paradise that is Britain. Come and live here. It's great!

Anyway, this one gets the message across at the loveliness of Bath. We all live in houses like that here, honest.

This is the ad for Beechen Cliff School, a school which had an incident of a racist nature recently ("it was only bantahhhhhhh!"). It's trying to send a message.

That's one message, this is another one. You learn something from these ads; like a nine-month old baby is not a baby, but a child


Or that fencing is an real-life aspiration.

Much of the private school photography is quite flat (see above) and focussed on creating an image of the good character of the students and the opportunities that will open up for them (and remember it's not about the results, it's about the networks).

Photography is about choices. You choose what to include. You choose what to exclude. So you also get adverts where absence, not presence, is what matters, that the lack of diversity is the assurance you will be with people like you. They will wealthy, powerful and if they do have problems, they will be rich person problems not lived out in Asda track pants.

And then you get the outliers where that lowest common denominator of school advertising, Harry Potter (I had an anxiety dream last week where I was in Hogwarts filled with Chinese students in shorts and caps.) features. You get the feeling that this is one that works.

Don't forget to invest your money wisely! From the father to the son, from the son to the grandson, not the girl and definitely not the wife who has been disappeared.

There's a whole mass of articles (in journals and generally availbable) on various aspects of race in advertising - in car ads, fast food, fashion, finance, consumables, from the US, in the UK, in Canada, in Japan, etc. This is from South Africa, on the lack of diversity in the South African advertising industry and how that links to the surfeit of cliches  of dancing black people in South African television advertising.

Which isn't too different from colouring in faces with felt tip pen really.

Last month, September, was also the time when school pictures get put on Facebook and  Instagram: 'Little Josie's first day at school, hasn't she grown, I can't believe she's at secondary school already, where has the time gone,' that kind of thing. I do it, we all do it.

They did it back in the distant mists of time. These images are from my German family archive, printed from a glass plate. They show my my relatives starting school. And if you think there's anything new about a series, there isn't. They were making series back in cave-dwelling time.

I cried on my first day at school. I still do the same every year. I wish there were more pictures of kids crying on their first days of school. You're entering this government-controlled, highly regulated environment where even the most free-wheeling of teaching individuals are humdrummed in conforming to a corporatist pattern of performance targets related to the successful completion of meaningful tasks. You have something to cry about.

So we all do those first day of school pictures. We also all do school group photos. And the curious thing is how much they look the same. it almost doesn't matter what era they are taken in, your class ends up looking the same as someone else's class. I have looked through other people's class photos and had a weird kind of picture blindness where I can't differentiate between their class and my class. It all becomes a mass of undifferentiated bad haircuts, dimpled grins, dodgy collars and weird jumpers.

That's the essential problem of school pictures. It's difficult to make them look different. How do you emphasise the individual within that institutional setting. Aside from the genius of Ivars' Gravlejs' Early Works, I can't think of too many projects that really capture the individual joy, sorrow, boredom and torment of school, its lesson, its teachers - oh, and the kids themselves. 

Gravlejs' work was done from the perspective of a schoolboy and that's what makes it different. It's puerile but also a little bit savage in a surreal kind of way. It's harsh on the teachers. I'd love to see more work done from a student's perspective. 

For years I've been telling university students for years they should do a project on being a student in contemporary Britain. But nobody's quite got there. Which is a shame because it would be absolutely fascinating, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a slow car crash kind of way, to see where their £9,000 a year is going to in words, pictures and a mix of achievement, realisation, disappointment, and joy that make up the typical student life.

And I'd love to see a project done from a teacher's or lecturer's perspective. Which wouldn't necessarily be harsh on the students, but might rather be harsh on the management. But that's terribly difficult. As a teacher or lecturer, you're either you're part-time or on an hourly contract, so live a marginal life, or you are full-time and have a comfy life. Either way, you have something to protect. Combine that with the fact that academics might be hyper-critical but will never piss in the bed they are lying in, and you can see why it doesn't happen. There are easier targets out there. But it would be nice to see from sometime who's not a coward like me. 

Back to school. I still get a lot out of Raimond Wouda's School. This looks at school with a high view surveillance perscpective that takes in both the architecture but with a focus on how the individual fits into the spaces. It's supremely effective and one which people engage with on a visual and personal level. I've sat with students who used to attend Dutch high schools and they've gone through the ethnic make-up of the people in the pictures, the way they wear their clothes, and how that feeds into the national geography of the schools. And these are non-photography students, yet all those visual elements are still in there. 

They are great pictures.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Broken Camera Pictures

I'm delighted to get into the Taylor Wessing Portratit Prize with this Broken Camera Picture of Isabel in a field in Kent in February.

The camera that was broken was an old Hasselblad. Everything was broken on it - the shutter, the back, the viewfinder. This picture is from a roll where half the pictures were completely black. The next roll was all completely black.

It was the lastest in a long line of broken cameras I have. I used to buy old Rollei 6000 series cameras - the backs would be hanging off them. I had one that I kept together with a piece of string. this is what happens when you keep a back on a camera with a piece of string:

I don't have a broken camera at the moment but I do have a broken flash that I keep together with sellotape. It sits on a broken trigger that is stuck on top of my camera. This is what it looks like.

And that's Tito Mouraz trapped in the screen. Let's release him...

The great thing about having broken cameras is you get these happy accidents that are a product of your poverty. Let's be quite clear about this. I would much rather have fully functioning cameras that don't break, have lens and shutters that work and are predictable. But that not being the case, I will glory in the happy accidents. You can buy those. They have personality. You can't buy personality.

I went to the excellent Tish Murtha (and Alex Prager) exhibition at the Photographer's Gallery last month.

Included in some of the emphemera is a letter from the college in Newport telling her what to bring when she came to study. It didn't amount to much: '...a couple of developing tanks, film clips, and if you have the money buy a Kiev or a Seagull for a tenner.' That's the gist of it.

Oh and her university fees were paid, a maintenance grant was paid, a travel grant could be claimed, you could (and people did) sign on in the holidays. Studying at university was accessible for her. That's how she got to make the work she did, work that she is almost a part of.

Now when you study it's a Macbook (I love it when you get twenty individuals sitting round a room, all with Macbooks. I wish I was an individual too and had one of those nice shiny machines but alas), a massively expensive camera, phone, contracts, subscriptions and all the rest of it.

God help us, God help me, my daughter will be studying an Arts degree in a couple of years. Oh and £9,000 a year. And a student loan because there are no meaningful grants. But just to help out a little, a travel grant from the local council to pay for your bus fares...? Get outta here!

So there's that. It's expensive to study to be a photographer now in a way that it never used to be. And then after you study, it's expensive to be a photographer. Of course if you have money it's much easier. If you are wealthy, it's much easier.

If you're rich and want to make work, you make it. You don't worry about cameras, or film, or sd cards that write fast enough. You don't need to wait for grants, for sales, for an invoice to be paid. You don't have to juggle money around, you just make it. And if there's too much time involved in teh making, or there is something you are technically unable to do you can pay for assistants to make it for you.

Then when it comes to showing work, you can print it, you can frame it, you can use light, sound, film, VR, get a troupe of performing monkeys in to liven things up when it gets a bit dull, and pay for people to help you make it good.

You want to print something, you can choose whatever ink, paper, printing technique you can imagine. You want to sell books or prints, you have a ready made network of people with just the right money to buy it.

There's an opening or a talk or a festival you want to go to. You can go. You don't need to think too much about work, or worry about accomodation or airfares. you simply go.

And because you're going to all these festivals, you're meeting all the other people who go to them. You're part of the networks, at one with the publishers, the gallerists, the curators, the buyers
 - and they are in some ways self-selecting. You know what's hot and what's not (and it changes very quickly) so you're up to date with the latest trope (should your hand be holding a rock, a stick, an owl or a stick of asparagus? )Not everybody who is there is minted, but if you're minted you are. You are literally buying access, buying the social and cultural capital that will match so nicely your economic capital.

You get lots of wealthy people in photography who support photographers, writers, publishers by buying work and generally helping people out. They recognise their advantage and use it for the common good. Very rarely do you get a photographer who says, yes I'm minted, it has been an advantage to me. You get the same lack of social awareness repeated again and again. I have friends who send their three children to private school at a cost of £40,000 a year (the grandparents pay), then pretend it gives them no advantage. It's not too different from the Monopoly Effect, an experiment where some players were given a massive advantage in the game, bankrupted their opponents, ate all the snacks, took up all the table space, then said the advantage was nothing to do with their winning.

The reality of it all is that most people in photography exist in some kind of non-recognised, respectable genteel poverty. So many people  are really skint and can't afford all the things that have been mentioned above. They have family responsibilities, are carers, are single mothers, they might appear visibly successful but financially they're not.

I was talking to somebody (who appears extremely successful and makes genuinely great work. But is actually broke) a couple of months ago and she wondered if there shouldn't be a consideration of the wealth of the photographer in evaluating work. If you are stinking rich and can afford that army of assistants and those high production values, should there be a little cross against you was what she was saying. Should there be a red mark of wealth against you.

It's a valid question and one lots of people ask - but not too loudly. Because if you are wealthy, there is a definite advantage (and don't get me started on wealthy people crowdfunding. Don't be so tight!). Not only do you have the advantage of being able to make, install and show work at your convenience, with an army of assistants, and nary a financial worry in the world, you also have all the connections that make life go that much more smoothly. The rich are a different breed, they do look after their own and that's in photography too. That was the case in the past, it's still the case now. The difference was in the past, the rich looked different - they spoke different, they dressed differently, they lived differently. Now they have the ability to look, speak and act the same as everyone else. They live among us! Until it comes time where it is convenient not to live among us. You can pretend it's not the case, but it is.

Oh dear, I'm getting carried away there. I don't know if it should be the case or it can be the case that there should be a red mark against the wealthy. I'll do the same as everyone else and sit on the fence on that, wait to see which way the wind blows, pause a moment till the revolution gets closer.

What I do think is there should be much, much more of a balance for those who are not wealthy, for those who struggle to afford all the things mentioned above.

This post started with me congratulating myself on getting in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. I paid £28 for the privilege, then some money for printing, and then some more for getting it to London. I paid to enter two prizes this year, none last year, one the year before. I enter the Taylor Wessing because it's at the National Portrait Gallery which comes with highbrow cultural capital which I shouldn't care about but still do. And 2) there's a big cash prize and how come I'm not on the shortlist for that. How fucking dare you!

I'd enter more prizes if I had the money. Other people would too. Jim Mortram (who is genuinely poor) has written about the barriers in photography in relation to prizes, exhibitions and various opportunities. It's not just a barrier for him, it's a massive brick wall with razor wire fencing, so broad and wide it crosses, Mexico, the Atlantic, and the Sahara before ending up in an expanse of concrete somewhere on the West Bank. That's how big it is.

For prizes like the Taylor Wessing, there is a kind of transparency in the cultural arena you're working in, a transparency that is manifestly non-transparent. It doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't, it just hides it a bit. Or a lot. Or I'm just rationalising because I'm being exhibited. I think that's probably the case.

Paying for exhibiting, or publishing, or workshops, or portfolio reviews can be really destructive  when the payments become income generators for festivals, or organisations beyond all else. This is especially the case when that income generation goes hand in hand with the rhetoric of collaboration, witnessing, making-a-difference, and general concerned-ness.

The hypocrisy can be staggering. If you are charging solely for showing work, if you don't address equality of access or opportunity to any degree, then you are full of neo-liberal caca. Which is fine if you're honest about it. Don't pretend to be some kind of concerned, critically engaged, community-centred organisation. You're not.

Fortunately you do get some individuals, organisations and festivals that are beginning to have bursaries, free places, open access to provide opportunities for people who fall outside the totally minted categories. Gazebook festival used to be free and generous: free talks, free portfolio reviews, and even some free workshops. It's never enough but it's something. There's free mentoring, free places on workshops, bursaries, or even affordable workshops. It's more individuals  I think - I know Natasha Caruana has offered free mentoring, Laura El-Tantawy has offered free workshop places and Sohrab Hura is running accessible workshops in Kolkata - but I hope more festivals are going to follow suit.

Anyway, Broken Camera Pictures. They are in a strange way a celebration of being skint, of not having everything perfect, of being able to make something with personallity from a happy accident that no amount of money can buy.

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