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What can photography do? Famine and the photograph...

Grain destined for export stacked on Madras beaches (February 1877) I've started writing a series of posts on photography  on World...

Friday, 18 January 2019

What can photography do? Famine and the photograph...

Grain destined for export stacked on Madras beaches (February 1877)
I've started writing a series of posts on photography on World Press Photos Witness site. It's a series where the ideas of what photography is, and what it can be are examined through the lenses of history, theory and practice. It's a series where I seek to iron out my own confusions about what the purpose of photography is, how we see it, how we understand it, and how it can, just possibly, might be able to change the way we see the world. For the better... That's an optimistic hope, but I think it's one that's realistic, and I think a lot of people are working in that way already. 
 The first post looks at famine photography and the idea of photography fitting into a spectrum of awareness and activism. The post focusses on this image of Amal Hussain by Tyler Hicks, an image that fits into a familiar famine trope - except it's a trope we haven't seen for a long time and it can be seen as a first step in a course of visual based action. (I'm not sure that the New York Times is consistent in its use of images, but that is something that will be written about more later - consistency is so important.)
The images below are by William Willoughby Hooper, of the Madras Famine of 1877, part of the collective visual memory of famine and made . The illustration above shows grain stored for export on Madras Beach during the famine, part of the ecology of famine. And that perhaps is really what the whole series will be about. How can we extend photographs out from what's in the image.
The medical aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières have the idea ‘témoignage’ to justify their use of images and reports of suffering in their promotional materials. These are the ideas of giving voice, speaking out, advocacy, legitimacy, and resource mobilization. Seen in this light, Tyler Hicks’ image of Amal Hussain becomes a different proposition because it is an example of speaking out, part of the notion of advocacy often found in the tradition of concerned photography. There was also resource mobilization with many messages of ‘How can we help?’ from concerned readers. It is an example of photography, at some fundamental level, doing something good.
With the New York Times publication of the Hick’s photography, I felt two sides of an argument. Depending on which way I looked at it, both made perfect sense. Rather than being a clear-cut case of, in crude polarised terms, being an exploitative image we should be outraged by, or a heroic bearing of witness, it was a little bit of both. Or actually, it was neither of those. It was somewhere in the middle. It was the beginning of a process, not the end of it.
I wondered at this and thought about the absolutes we use to think about, write about, and talk about images. For something so uncertain as photography, we use the definitive language of absolutes, and we get outraged as though outrage is the only response we have to images that we find questionable.
The example of Tyler Hicks’ image does serve a constructive purpose, though. It made me think about the thought that had gone into the picture (the making, the publishing, the captioning, the intent). I thought about the history of images of famine, how the starving are portrayed, whether their voices are ever heard, whether pictures of suffering really do ever have an effect, or if they just serve as a salve for wealthy voyeuristic consciences....

Willoughby Wallace Hooper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Li Zhensheng and the Cultural Revolution

 Over the holidays I got Ma Jian's massively enjoyable China Dream as a Christmas present. It tells the story of a party official who wants to fulfil the China Dream of Xi Jinping. To this end, he imagines a way tapping into the dreams of Chinese citizens to make sure they are spiritually and politically pure so the China Dream will be realised.

Unfortunately for him, his own dreams, and then his waking life, a life where he juggles mistresses, corruption and the eviction and destruction of a village  for commercial development  are infested with his memories of the death of his parents, mass graves, and extreme violence during the Cultural Revolution. However much he tries, he can never forget. The memories are always there.

It's a satirical novel that works on the themes of how we remember the past, how we reinvent the past, how we forget the past. And then do the same with the present.  It's about forgetting then. But also about how we can't forget. We can try to shut the memory down but up it will pop in some unexpected place.

I read the book and then saw this story on Li Zhensheng's brilliant Red Color News Soldier - an amazing series of pictures shot during the Cultural Revolution and his troubles on showing them in China. Again, it's a story about forgetting, about obliterating the past. But luckily we have Li's pictures to remind us. And what pictures they are. This is why photography matters. 

And this is an interview I did for The Far Eastern Economic Review when Red Color News Soldier was first published. 

When Chinese photographer Li Zhensheng was at film school, his teacher Wu Ying Xian (the respected Chinese photographer) told him, “Photographers are not only witnesses. They are recorders as well.”

“It made me realise,” says Li in an interview in London, “that when we record history, we have to record it completely - not only the positive images but also the negative ones as well.”

Soon after Li began working as a photographer at the Heilongjiang Daily. It was 1963 and Li’s brief was to capture glowing images of the party, peasantry and workers of China’s most northerly province.

Then in 1966, Mao Zedong announced the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s aim -  to halt China’s slide towards revisionism and re-establish Mao as the nation’s unquestioned leader.

For 600 million Chinese, the next 10 years were a nightmare of persecution and paranoia. Purges of ‘class enemies’,  capitalist roaders” and ‘counter-revolutionary’ communist party leaders led to fighting between rival groups of Red Guards that claimed millions of lives and brought the People’s Republic to the brink of collapse.

There to record it was Li Zhensheng. Acting outside his brief of presenting only the positive side of proletarian China, he captured the violence and chaos in an archive of images that constitutes the most important body of Chinese photojournalism ever created.

As the Cultural Revolution gathered pace in 1966, temples, churches, monasteries and mosques across China were destroyed in part of the campaign to destroy the ‘Four Olds’ - old thought, old culture, old customs and old practices. In Harbin, Heilongjiang’s provincial capital, Li photographed the desecration of a Buddhist Monastery, and the humiliation of monks forced to stand before the mob holding a banner that reads ‘To hell with Buddhist Scriptures. They are full of dog farts.’

The real aim of the Cultural Revolution, however, was to purge Communist Party officials suspected of reformist tendencies. In one incredible sequence, Li shows Heilongjiang’s Provincial Governor, Li Fanwu, being denounced. Head bowed, and standing on a chair, his head is shaved by zealous Red Guards, their eyes full of ideological fury.

Other Cultural Revolution photography does exist, but it is almost all of a propagandist nature. What makes Li’s archive unique is he was perhaps the only photographer to record in detail the violence that was happening during the Cultural Revolution. Shooting such material was regarded as both politically suspect, and, with film supplies extremely limited, a waste of film.

“When I took these images,” explains Li, now aged 63, “photographers from other newspapers just stood there. They said, “what’s the use of taking these photos - you will be criticised for wasting film”, and would only shoot the positive propaganda images.”

To get better access to political events, Li formed a rebel group and got his rebel armband - with Red Color News Soldier emblazoned on it. As a Red Guard, Li soon became the target of rival groups - as did his growing archive of politically suspect negatives.

“Before I realised it was risky to take these photos,” he says, “I only put the negatives away so my colleagues wouldn’t see them. In 1968, when our rebel group was about to be criticised, I realised I had to do something about the negative images. I transferred all the negative images from my office to my home. Had they been found, they would have been burnt.”

Li’s images became grimmer as the Cultural Revolution descended into chaos. He shows us factional fighting between rival groups and, in some powerful portraits, the resulting injuries and deaths.

Most moving is a sequence showing eight people being executed. One of the condemned is a ‘counterrevolutionary’ technician. As he is taken to the place of execution he closes his eyes for the last time and cries out, “This world is too dark!” Then he is led away to be shot, his eyes closed tight against the world he will never see again.

Li also suffered personal tragedies. His girlfriend and first love, Sun Peikui, left him after her mother was denounced as a ‘dog landlord’ and killed herself.  ‘It’s because I love you that I don’t want to destroy you,’ wrote Peikui in her farewell note.

Li’s personal journey through the Cultural Revolution is revealed through an incredible series of self-portraits. Filled with Li’s charismatic presence, they have a theatrical tone that contrasts the harsh realism of his photojournalistic work.

“The reason why I have so many self-timer pictures is I was a soldier,” says Li. “I always left one negative in my camera in case something surprising happened on the way back to the office. If nothing happened, I’d take it back to the office, and not wanting to waste the film, I’d do a self -timer. I had 2 cameras, I had a medium format and a 35 mm camera, and many of the pictures are number 12 from a medium format camera.”

These self-portraits also reflect Li’s personal fortunes. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Li portrays himself as a true believer in Mao’s cause, posing in imitation of a movie hero with bared chest, his blazing eyes ready for the ideological battle to come. In May 1967, he stands behind Sun Peikui, his face beaming as he photographs her in a mirror. Two months later, Sun Peiku has left Li and we see Li holding his Rolleiflex, his face strained by the tortures of the love he has lost. In August, Li photographs himself with a new girlfriend (and future wife), his smile and natural vigor gone, a touch of bitterness intruding on his normally animated face.

In 1969, Li was criticised and spent 2 years’ hard labour at a ‘rectification’ school near the Chinese-Soviet border. Li survived -  and so did his negatives, wrapped in oilskin cloth and hidden under the floorboards of his one-room home.

The Cultural Revolution came to its official end when Mao died in 1976. China moved away from revolutionary communism and reform began. Even so, Li’s photographs were not made public until March 1988 when 20 won first prize in an exhibition in Beijing. “In December that year,” says Robert Pledge, cofounder of Contact Press Images and editor of Red Color News Soldier, “I met Li and he told me his story. I still hadn’t seen his images, but he was so convincing that I agreed there and then to work with him on a book and exhibition.”

The 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing postponed proceedings until 1996 when work finally began with Li placing 50 images with Contact Press in New York.

“They were very impressive,” says Pledge, “but Li’s images were cropped. I was intrigued to see more, but uncropped. So Li made a selection and showed me them in New York. They were quite extraordinary, but I wanted to see more. He said how many more. I said everything. He said that’s not possible - I’ve got over 60,000. Well, he edited them down to 30,000, and brought them over bit by bit.”

But even this wasn’t easy. “The first time I went to New York,” says Li, “I didn’t dare to bring negatives for fear they would be confiscated. The next time, I carried a small amount of negatives each time, which I hid in my wife’s feminine products. After two times, there had been no problem, so I became bolder and carried more.”

The 30,000 negatives Li carried to New York were gradually edited down to the 285 featured in the book, all of which are shown uncropped and in chronological order.

“It’s very exciting,” says Pledge. “I don’t know if in the history of photography there has been a single photographer who has covered a series of events over such a long period of time. Li represents those events in such a coherent form, and it’s the only such record.”

“I’m hoping that when Li’s photography is published, any other material that might exist will surface. Sometimes photography can stimulate ideas, debate and bring out new material. It shows photography can be used as an important historical tool.”

As for Li, his main goal is to show young Chinese what happened during the Cultural Revolution. “I hope this book will show what happened in that period,” he says, “in order that this tragedy will never happen again.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Qajar Gurning, Ugly Laws and the Censorship of Images

I really love this picture from the Qajar court (in Iran) showing members of the harem gurning for the camera. It was made in the 1880s by Doust Mohammad. Ingres it is not.

Doust Mohammad was the son-in-law on Nasir al Din Shah, who took a huge number of pictures to document the women in his court, women who are visually defined by their moustaches (often painted in) and monobrows that make Frida Kahlo look like a wannabe model from the 1990s.

There are many readings of why he did this; to further subjugate the women by having them eternally within his photographic gaze, or as proof of his virility. At times there were long gaps between chidren and his use of the camera may have been a way of proving, via the photographers the vast number of women in the harem, his virility.

There are multiple readings and multiple functions, but just because you operate a camera doesn't mean you have control of it. Pictures live beyond their making and the relationships contained in it. And beyond any of that, the pictures are full of life and provide hidden clues to life led that go beneath the surface of the images. They have a life and a soul in other words.

And they give a visual life to people who would not otherwise have one. Staci Gem Scheiwiller writes how a photograph of these women in the 19th century '...was able to transform one from being meaningless, one whose story could not be told, to one of a face etched in time.'

This individual look fed into political life Scheiweiller argues, creating a consciousness in which women's faces, bodies, emotions, lives were visible. But that changed and women became invisible, deliberately so. These women of the harem have personality and soul and that was a problem for a male society which sought a less vocal and visible feminine identity.

There's the idea here that simply by showing these faces, by having these photographs exist, by having representation they are making something a statement, they make what was invisible visible and that can (and did in 19th century Persia) lead to political change. You don't want women to be active, you don't show them. You don't show them, they don't matter, they cease to exist.

That idea of having people visible or invisible, of what people should look like and the moral failings of those who fall outside that look is also apparent in my last post of 2018, a post which looked at the Ugly Laws and how appearance and wealth are conflated with social usefulness and the provision of full citizenship (and there's definitely a link to Azoulay's idea of the flawed citizen here).

Photography can be very prescriptive about what we can and cannot show, it is quite astonishing how often ugliness is used as a pejorative term, is used at all, the idea that to photograph somebody respectfully one must not show their physical flaws. It's an idea that has embedded within it a very particular idea of how we should look. It has an almost moral idea of what should be shown, what should be seen. Very often this prescription comes dressed up in the language of ethics but really it is reactionary in the same way any censorship is reactionary. it is a kind of Ugly Law in its own right.

I favour a more open approach and enjoyed reading Frances Hatherley's thesis on recovering the grotesque, and celebrating the body in  photography. It's basically the idea that ideas of ugliness, feminine ugliness in particular are class based and the aesthetic judgements that we make (and the ethical conclusions we draw from those judgements) are part of a moralising hypocrisy based on control of minds, bodies and souls by institutions of power.

And by extension we as photographers very much direct that power in the judgements we make. We turn people who are full citizens in non-citizens. We deny their existence and we become our own censors. And aren't there enough censors in the world as it is

 Here's a snippet of hte intro and you can read more here

This thesis’ reclamation of negative stereotypical images of working-class femininity, described as grotesque, ugly and shameful, hinges on an argument that aesthetic as well as gender categories are classed constructs.
Designations of “ugliness” are not neutral. Ela Przybylo writes in “The Politics of Ugliness” (2010) that, ‘ugliness is political in at least two ways: it denotes and bookmarks inequalities and hierarchies, serving as a repository for all that is “other” in our culture and ugliness is a necessarily contingent and relational, it is never an individual concern but rather exists because bodies are compared to one another, and because they are evaluated in accordance to the “norm”’. (Przybylo 2010, p3).

Monday, 7 January 2019

The Face of 2019

This is how I spent the first minutes of 2019 and for some reason I'm reading it as some kind of portent for  the year ahead.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Thank you 2018: Be Kind and Thoughtful 2019

I often wonder about the work of people like Bruce Gilden, Diane Arbus or a bunch of other people, the interplay between who they are, how they make their work, how they frame their work, how (if they're dead) their work is framed. It's something Joerg Colberg talks about here in the curation of Diane Arbus's show, a show where her pictures came with no captions or supporting information. this is what he says about it.

'So a photographer goes to social events at “residences for people with developmental disabilities” and photographs the clearly very unsuspecting subjects in ways that at times find an almost perverse pleasure in what the camera can do to people. Diane Arbus obviously wasn’t/isn’t the only photographer to go about this game (for example, a new Bruce Gilden book just came out). But well into the second decade of the 21st Century, that ought to be the topic for some serious conversations.'

Colberg's ultimate call is for a degree of  kindness in photography and I can wholeheartedly agree with that.

But at the same time, I'm simply not sure about anything in portrait photography. I'm torn between different ideas. I've come to embrace that idea of uncertainty in photography, especially when things get so polarised into clear and definite absolutes.

When I posted the picture above of the Bruce Gilden pictures at the Manchester Art Gallery on my Instagram account, I got a mix of reactions, most of which had a degree of anger.

The size of the pictures, the spectacle, the vulnerability of the subjects, the poverty of the subjects all came up. They were 'the most brutal, ugly and disrespectful pictures' one commenter had ever seen. He was defended by somebody who described Gilden as an insider rather than an abuser, while one great comment, deleted as soon as it went up (why did you do that SR?) laid into Gilden fanboys as 'sausages' - and you get the feeling that's very much linked to the weird machismo of his street photography as featured on old videos of Gilden flashing his thing on youtube.

I interviewed Gilden and some of the people (including Laura Dicken who was fixing for him) about the pictures a few years ago about the portraits above, all made in West Bromwich for Multistory. His basic line is that these are the unseen, the invisible people of Britain, and he's showing them because he comes from that kind of working class community. He could be one of them is the idea (and you can read the entire text below).

Whether I buy that entirely I'm not sure, but I do at least part of the way. I also have a visceral reaction to the control of images, especially when it comes with some kind of moral imperative that is unevenly applied.

There is a huge control of particular forms of representation and sometimes this is a good and necessary thing, but precedent also shows us the converse can be true.

Just this week, following the Raheem Sterling racism case, I saw this story on Sterling and the portrayal of  race and people with  learning difficulties in the UK press. It read, 'At the same time, it is not always easy to defend the newspaper industry. There was another jarring moment for me in those early years when it was pointed out that the red-tops didn’t tend to run photographs of people with learning difficulties'.

This idea of people being too poor, too disabled to show also finds a parallel in the American Ugly laws

'So-called “ugly laws” were mostly municipal statutes in the United States that outlawed the appearance in public of people who were, in the words of one of these laws, “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” (Chicago City Code 1881). Although the moniker “ugly laws” was coined to refer collectively to such ordinances only in 1975 (Burgdorf and Burgdorf 1975), it has become the primary way to refer to such laws, which targeted the overlapping categories of the poor, the homeless, vagrants, and those with visible disabilities.'

Add the category of protest to those laws and could find it in action recently at the Lianzhou Photo Festival where photographers like Mark Neville had any image not of happy wealth censored from the show. They didn't fit the China Dream by all accounts.

That kind of censorship has parallels Ukraine where both the work of Boris Mikhailove and Sergey and Victor Kochetov (as seen in the excellent photobook Kochetov) made work that was in direct response to Soviet censorship and control of representation. This didn't just include the content, but also included how you framed an image  along with ideas of the body and going beyond ideas of Soviet respectability. Freedom of expression here, showing something that went beyond the politically respectable, was part of the process.

Some of this might be relevant in the criticism of policing. There is definitely a conflation of disgust that runs between Gilden and the people themselves. There is the idea of the correct photograph, the right photograph, the authentic photograph.

On the other side you could add negative representations of  the marginalised, the ways representations of poverty have been, and are, used to debase human beings who aren't wealthy, who fit into some kind of Nazi anti-social element category (and the Ugly Laws link comes from this site on Eugenics survivors  in Canada).

There's a history to this, a truly horrific history that crosses over from anthropology to eugenics and complicates matters further. How one can be clear cut in one's thinking, so polarised that one can dismiss with absolute certainty this picture or that one with no nuance or doubt is beyond me.

One thing I am very much looking forward to (though also with some dread) is unravelling some of these ideas this in a series of posts for World Press Photo over the coming year. I don't think I will have any answers, that's not the point of it.

Rather I'll be looking at some of these questions of how  photography, history and ideas overlap, how contemporary photographers can address the problems of how their work is made, shown and disseminated. It will also look at how voices can be heard in different ways. It's about the powers that are embedded in the practices of making and looking at pictures, and how we can challenge those a little. It's about collaboration, agency and consent. It's about what pictures do, and how they work.
Ultimately, I think it will be about being thoughtful and kind. That's a very simple but very difficult thing. But sometimes it matters more than anything else.

Happy Holidays wherever you are. Be kind for 2019.

Bruce Gilden's Black Country portraits 

Bruce Gilden’s Black Country Portraits are direct in the extreme; close-ups of faces that have the hardships of work, life and family etched into the skin. These are pictures that do not pull punches and are not designed to be decorative. Some people don’t like them. Gilden, however, is unapologetic.

“These people that I photograph are out there,” says Gilden. “I didn’t invent them, I didn’t put make-up on them. They are who they are, pimples, warts and all. When you take a little camera, it becomes a threat. When the photographer takes a picture, it can go further, it becomes a document. But there’s something beautiful in how these people look, their soul, and I don’t believe you can change anything in the world that’s not right if you don’t look at it. It can’t stay invisible.”

The idea of making people visible is something that resonates with Laura Dicken, a locally born researcher who accompanied Gilden on his photographic rounds in the Black Country borough of Sandwell and beyond.

“You get some people and it’s harrowing what they’ve been through especially the drug users, the homeless people, and prostitutes,” says Dicken. “And then you’ve got single mums who are struggling to feed their kids or people who’ve been made redundant. It’s tough stuff all the time.”
“But they deserve to be represented, they are a part of a society, they deserve to be seen and they deserve to heard and the fact that these type of people exist and are struggling and strive for more and can’t get a better life needs discussing. And I think that Bruce’s images are a very powerful tool to open up those discussions.”

The question is how you make portraits in a way that is visually powerful and doesn’t rely on Benefits Street type polarisation.  It’s a tough call for a photographer who is best-known for an in-your-face form of street photography that connects directly to photographers such as William Klein and Daido Moriyama but also has roots in a childhood where his father was a gangster and his mother an alcoholic who committed suicide.

“I had a tough emotional upbringing with my family. You don’t realise how tough it is until you grow up because you think maybe everybody had the same upbringing but they didn’t so I guess that’s  what separates me from others in my photography.”

But with his recent conversion to colour close-ups and a focus on faces, new influences have emerged; Gilden is more personally involved in the people he photographs, and more interested in how they wear their lives on their faces and in their eyes. Now Gilden’s current work links in to the work of artists such as Henry Tonks or Lucien Freud. But where Tonks captured the facial scars made by weapons of war, and Freud used the intimacy of the studio session to capture the reality of his sitters through the texture of their skin, Gilden photographs the marks left on the face by living in a world of austerity; these are faces that wear the fatigue of hard labour, the fatigue of poverty, the fatigue of what can happen when redundancy, abuse or addiction strike.

These are not everyday people with everyday faces in other words. These are faces that know the meaning of hard work; they are weary or exhausted and sometimes spent. And they are not always easy to look at.

“I might also think that people don’t want to look at the pictures because that is something that might happen to them. For example, there’s one picture in West Brom. It’s the lady with one tooth. That’s a great picture. And the funny thing is I showed her the picture and said “What do you think?” And she said, “I’m beautiful.””

“Now I’m not a humanitarian in that sense. I’m human, but I’m not a humanitarian. But the thing is, if you look at that picture and you know that is the response that woman gave to me, you can see all about that woman. Because if you look, that lipstick she tries to put the lipstick on very neatly but she misses; I think it’s on the bottom part of the lip. But there’s an effort made to look good. She must know in her head that’s she’s missing teeth. She was probably a nice-looking woman at one point and now she’s lost it and is having trouble to deal with all that, but there is still that effort made. And she said, “I’m beautiful.” “

Dicken also recognises that effort to look good in Gilden’s pictures, in particular in the image of a lady with rollers in her hair. “She’s got quite a round face and she’s got ruddy cheeks and that is so Black Country. I grew up on a council estate round here, a really really rough one and all of my family are working class. And she reminded me of my Nan. She doesn’t look like my Nan but she reminded me of how my Nan would go to the hairdressers and get a perm, and the type of older women that I grew up around.”

As with all the pictures in the series, this lady is photographed frontally. The picture is made personal. By forcing the viewer to look into the whites of his models’ eyes, Gilden makes the viewer think about who they are and what has happened to them. And because Gilden is selective in the people he photographs, the stories are selective, told through faces that Gilden picked out from the anonymity of the crowds; this is not the Black Country, this is Gilden’s Black Country, a Black Country that echoes the toughness of his own Brooklyn childhood.

“All the people I photograph I’m comfortable with and I assume they’re comfortable with me because I do position their head and I’ll tell them you’re not good or you’re great or you have to do this. For example there was one guy in West Brom, he’s got veins in his face, a big nose. I mean, I thought about him and it breaks my heart. I see this guy coming and it’s relatively cold, maybe three degrees Celsius, and he had bare legs, very, very thin. I’m assuming he’s got cancer, and I took his picture. He could have stayed with us 3 days because what has he got to go back to his room, no-one’s there, no-one talks to him, and you see in his eyes the terror. Here’s a person who doesn’t have that long to live, he’s afraid and I captured what he is.”

“And that’s what struck me, because I’m afraid to die. At the end of the day, I’m photographing me. All these people are me. If you make the wrong choice, this is what you can become, this is what can happen to you. And lots of time it happens to people who are nice people, who aren’t bad people.”
The people represented in Gilden’s portraits have one thing in common; they are working class and they not wealthy. You can find the same people with the same problems in all parts of the UK; people who work hard but are struggling, people who have made mistakes, people who have been let down. But you will rarely see them represented in the press, on television, in novels or even in film or photography. There is no contemporary Cathy Come Home or Boys from the Blackstuff. There is a gap in representation here. Except as figures of scorn, poor people have become invisible in Britain. According to Dicken, Gilden and his Black Country portraits are a way of beginning to fill this gap, to begin a representation of what it means to struggle in contemporary Britain.

“Because of the area and the area’s history, it had been very industrial with very hard work when there was work. And now there isn’t very much work. And things are different. So I think it’s important because it shows people who have been left behind and they are important. They deserve a narrative, they deserve to be represented because they are people with hopes and dreams. They’re strong but they struggle and they’re doing the best that they can.”

“They’re very beautiful pictures about a very difficult subject and I think they do challenge you. It’s pretty close to the bone because you can see yourself in those people. And I found that. I found some of the pictures difficult, especially of the women who are of my age. And I thought, that could have been me really easily. Really easily. They went this way, I went that way. You can just see it makes people uncomfortable because it’s celebrating the all-encompassing human experience that we all have, but some of us have it better than others and it’s really easy to slip.”

 “A lot of the people we spoke to, they had a job and they had a family and now they’ve got nothing, and they’re on drugs, and they’re homeless. And then you’ve got the women who are my age,who have got 2 or 3 kids and they’re scrambling to do the shopping for the kids. They just want to do best for the kids, they’re going without food so the kids have got enough to eat. They’ve got these really difficult day-to-day lives and you just think: that could  really easily be me.”

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Best Books 2018

It's best books time. My selections range from the brilliant bijou small edition of Emilie Lauwers to the brilliant collaboration of Thomas Sauvin and Kensuke Koike. Click on the links to read more  and see more.

And for the meta-list, go here for Viory Schellekens meta-list.

Emilie Lauwers: Er is Geen Boek (There is no book)

It's both a classic collaborative project, as well as a form of mapping. It maps out the town of Zeldate in a literal sense, put also provides a place and a geography in which the people Emilie worked with are placed centre stage.

Most interestingly, it's a project that is in part about creating a sense of culture in a town that apparently has none, but is even more about bringing out the culture that is already there. It's a psychogeographic project that rethinks a place on the terms of the people who are living there, in terms of cultures that are suppressed within the institutions, expectations and organisations that are seen to dominate the physical and psychogical landscape. It's multi-layered and it's quite fantastic. It's collaborative but it also has a sense of direction and purpose. It's something to be proud of.

Sohrab Hura: Look it's getting sunny outside

‘Look it’s getting sunny outside’ is a love story, between Ma, Elsa and Hura himself. It’s an extension of his photographic struggle to come to grips with his mother’s mental illness, an illness detailed in his earlier book, ‘Life is Elsewhere’. In ‘Life is Elsewhere’, the story was a fragmented, psychotic rendition of Hura seeking external refuge from his home, his family, his mother, and the father that had left them. In ‘Look, it’s getting sunny outside’, as Ma’s condition improves, Hura photographs more in the home, capturing his mother’s relationship with her beloved dog, Elsa. 

On Abortion: Laia Abril

A History of Misogyny: Chapter One. That’s the title of Laia Abril’s latest book and it’s an important one. On the cover of the book On Abortion is erased with a black pen. Scrawled below in pencil is the subheading, ‘And the Repercussions of Lack of Access’.

Flick to the back pages and the very direct and transparent description of the book begins: ‘Every year 47,000 women around the world die due to botched illegal abortions.’

And that’s what the book’s about; the control of fertility, the control of women’s bodies, and the death, suffering and misery that results because of it. It’s a book that’s about something, a book that advocates and is part of a wider body of work on misogyny that Abril is making over a longer period of time.

It’s a book of substance then, and the substance starts with the cover and the endpapers. These feature old newspaper advertisements that feature pills, medicines, and treatments that promise to deal with “the cure of all cases where nature has been stopped in its effects.” It’s a double page spread of synonyms for pregnancy and abortion; “Irregularity, diseases peculiar to females, the most obstinate cases, diseases lurking in the system, cases where nature has stopped,” is some of the language used.

Sergiy and Victor Kochetov: Kochetov

This is pure visual pleasure, the hand-coloured luricki of Sergiy and Victor Kochetov, an example of serious don't-give-a-fuck photography when not giving a fuck was a political statement (of sorts).

Raymond Meeks: Halfstory Halflife

It’s Edenic, it’s ritualistic, and it’s threatening all at the same time. These young men (there are a handful of women in the book) walk along paths and throw themselves into the darkness of a nature that is far from benign. If it is Eden, it’s Eden after the Fall, which makes it a land where misogyny is written into the very soil. This is an American wilderness, half-Promised Land and Manifest Destiny, half Heart of Darkness. Fragments of grass stand in focus against blurred bodies, tightly wound torsos launching themselves into a dark unseen water.

Kensuke Koike and Thomas Sauvin: Three different editions of No More No Less, all wonderful (published by Skinnerboox, Jiazazhi, and TheM éditions)

“People think I make these on one attempt but it’s not true. I always apply the final decision on the original, but even though I try to make it as simple as possible, it takes 20 times to get it right.”

“We made an exhibition in Guangzhou, China. We showed this and at that moment we received many offers from publishers,” says Koike. Instead of going for a straightforward single edition however, Koike’s collaborator and manager of the project, Thomas Sauvin, decided to choose a more complex option; to have three different editions of the same book, to be launched at Paris Photo on the same day.

“I asked the three publishers if they would be willing to be part of this adventure on the same day. I received three positive answers without negotiations on that same day! Three felt like the right number. Two would have been a bold competition. Four would have been redundant. Three felt right. Plus I wanted one in Italy, where Koike lives, one in France, where I live, one in China, where the original album comes from.”

“There were three rules; 1. Make a publication in an edition of four hundred, 2. Have it ready for Nov 1st 3. Don't exchange with us in any way.”

Carmen Winant: My Birth

"Very few people asked me about my birth… Most people… are uneasy at the topic. Voices lower, bodies lean out. It is difficult to address suffering, and for the most part I understand their silence as graciousness. Still, I want to say: anguish is only one in a range of dramatic physical sensations that occur; it was more than the pain endured. I want to reassure: my body split open and poured out in front of strangers. I shed any nervousness on this topic along with the solids and fluids. I want to beg: just ask me."

That’s the introduction to Carmen Winant’s My Birth, a book that provides a visual and written response to that "just ask me" plea, a response that came out of the birth of her first child. The book comprises images of birth; found photographs, anonymous photographs and images of "the artist’s mother in the process of giving birth to her own children."

In Belief is Power: Hristina Tasheva

Bulgaria is shown to be a contested country, a border country where identity comes from resistance to outside forces, in particular resistance against invasion by the Ottoman Empire, the subjugation of christianity and churches (which is very visible in Bulgarian chapels), the defeat of the Turks, the Bulgarian revival, Bulgaria's Communist period, all the way through to the present day where you still have a border country that doesn't quite know who it is or what it is or where it's going. Same as everybody really but with a history that is genuinely on the edge of everything.

 Chris Killip: Set of 4 Newsprint Publications

A brilliant set of 4 newspapers that puts old classics and unseen images into a new, affordable context. There are so many things that are admirable about this series - I'll be writing more on this in the New Year.

Read more in an upcoming issue of Photomonitor.

Andrés Orjuela: Archivo Muerto

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.'

Txema Salvans: My Kingdom (Special Edition)

That seems to be the case with Txema Salvans' My Kingdom, a book for which he made phenomenal pictures. It’s a pleasure to look at, but that for Salvans is not enough. My Kingdom is a book of images of Spanish holidaymakers enjoying a day at the beach. When Martin Parr made The Last Resort, he first and foremost made a book of great pictures. There’s a bit of The Last Resort, Spanish style, about My Kingdom.

But there’s a different edge to them as well, a political edge, a bit of Chris Killip if you like, mixed with Ricardo Cases and his Spanish perspective. My Kingdom shows Spanish holidaymakers enjoying their days off against these specifically measured examples of Mediterranean brutalism; flyovers, bypasses, power plants, cement works, pipelines, balconies, apartment blocks, rubbish bins, discarded mattresses, all the detritus of a despoiled, constructed landscape.

(This review is especially for the special edition - you buy this set of stamps and place them in the book at specific points - the stamps fit, the idea fits, it's a great idea. I bought the stamps and everything but then I lost them. They'll turn up)

Matthew Genitempo: Jasper

There is minimal text in Jasper. You read the landscapes, the interiors of the lean-tos and shacks, and they feed into the images of the people portrayed in the book. It’s a lyrical back and forth between imagined psyches, imagined histories, and imagined landscapes. There are no captions to pin things down, to render impotent the ambiguity of the images, the viewer is instead drawn into the resonances between one image and the next.

The theme of escape, and the partner idea of the woods as a place of refuge, a place to escape to, is apparent throughout the book, but the danger here is of romanticising the landscape and the people living within it. “That’s the thing I have to come to terms with,” says Genitempo. “The earlier photographs I took are a lot more romantic, a lot more idealistic, and the later photographs are more the reality of what living in the forest entails.

Read more in the January 2019 issue of the BJP

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Enlarge Magazine, the perfect Christmas gift

Ok, so this is one of those photobooks that everyone looked at in the house. It doesn't happen often (Showdogs, Early Works, No More No Less.... it's not a long list),

It's a magazine about penis enlargement. It's tongue in cheek, except it's not, except it is, except it's not.

It's a serious issue though, and it's dealt with in strange and interesting ways - and graphically it fits with it's full gloss everything and alternative uses for penis enlargers and cock rings.

The perfect Christmas gift in other words.

Buy the Magazine here. It's 10 euros.