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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Writers might be better than photographers sometimes...

Ben Krewinkel's A Possible life is one of my favourite books on the uncertain migrant experience . The Mass of documentation overlaid with the personal is very familiar to anyore who has had any contact with less well-off migrants.

This is especially the case with asylum seekers; there is a constant stream of dealings with officialdom, a sea of letters, photocopies and correspondence with official agencies of all sorts; the kind of thing that Krewinkel lays out so intelligently in his book - or rather that the designer Annette Kouwenhoven lays out so intelligently and elegantly in her book.

Add to that the incredible stress and uncertainty of not having any definitive status and you can understand why Krewinkel's book is so very, very strong. It's multi-faceted and busy, but with an underlying and constant narrative that provides a backbone that is neither patronising nor rosey-eyed. Gualbert has made a choice and he is stuck with it, but it's a choice that he made without the trauma and duress of conflict, violence or loss. He's an economic refugee.

It's much more modest in scope, but I rate Krewinkel's book right up there with Jim Goldberg's Open See or Wendy Ewald's Towards a Promised Land project - the project isn't really about the book, but it does  capture the disorientation and displacement the young refugee experiences.

The problem is why aren't there any photographic projects by refugees/asylum seekers that capture the tone of their experiences in quite such an expert way. Of course there are the PhotoVoice kind of projects, which have that engagement aspect and provide a visual outlet for young refugees, but these lack the sophistication of books such as Krewinkel's.

And even if there are people who have a sophisticated visual language, the sheer poverty, drudgery and stress of daily life preclude the possibility of producing a incisive and coherent body of work. If you're worrying about the Border Agency coming to take you away at 4am every morning because you've just turned 18 and that's the way the cookie crumbles in the UK, the likelihood of being intrigued by how to fold your book pages are minimal.

In the same way, I wonder why I couldn't think of more top-notch, innovative Nigerian photographers when I was doing the Innovative (not the best..) photographers thing a few weeks back.

I've mentioned several Nigerian novelists on this blog, I've touched on vernacular Nigerian photography, I've looked at a white South African photographing in Nigerian, but innovative Nigerian photographers - I'm not quite there.

I don't know - given the economics of both photography and Nigeria, I get the feeling that there might be some barriers to innovation in the country. I have often quoted How to write about Africa on this blog; as a lesson in How not to Write about Africa. But at the same time I do sometimes feel that the essay could also be titled How to Write About Africa.

I recently read a book called I do not come you by chance, by Adaobi  Tricia Nwaubani. It was about a man who got sucked into selling 419 scams around the world. How stereotypical can you get? Yet it had a vibrancy, urgency and ambivalence to it. It reminded me of when I shared a house with a Nigerian man (He was from a wealthy family - "In my country you'd be washing my dishes" ) who was constantly fielding calls from relatives trying to get him to middle-man their latest sugar deal, something he did, but hated. His ambivalence and the way he was torn between two worlds and twelve moralities was quite something to behold.

 Similarly with the rest of the world. I touch on film from India, China and Africa, I've mentioned novelists with a Somalian, Dominican and Pakistani heritage, but not necessarily as much photography by domestic photographers as I would like. But from what I know about Somalia, I am making a guess that being innovative, inquisitive and celebrating the kind of liberal visual values that I am interested in, are going to be very difficult avenues to pursue in Somalia. Even if someone were to have the interest and passion in pursuing those kind of values in the photographic sphere.

But when it comes to writing, that's a different matter. Writing ties in with both written, oral and folk traidions. Which I suppose is why there are so many great writers who describe the immigrant experience in novels. And I feature them on this blog because they are there and I read their books and they are great. And they interest me much more than insipid books about the English middle classes and their tiresome neuroses. They have more vitality and energy and ideas.

But how about photography...

Well, how about photography? Sometimes one needs to take a broader approach that expands to wider cultural areas. Diversity is not an even playing field.


Stan B. said...

"...the sheer poverty, drudgery and stress of daily life preclude the possibility of producing a incisive and coherent body of work."

My god, yes!!!

It's late, I'm tired (have some other issues at hand)- so forgive me if I've misread, misunderstood... Where does one begin when such a large portion (if not majority) of people in many of these countries are wondering where their next meal is coming from- let alone their next roll of film? Where are their MFA Photography programs- shit, where are their cameras and equipment? How can anyone be talking "innovative" art when the everyday norm of standard, minimum nutrition, health and housing, have yet to be met- let alone higher education, or the most basic history of whatever art they hold interest in? How many grants for the arts are there in third world countries where they barely afford to feed themselves? Innovative Art? The very concept is a ludicrous obscenity in a country without sewage disposal!

What is the percentage of innovative to non-innovative artists in wealthy, Western countries (where people constantly, and often rightly, complain of the former's absence)? Photography has always been an art, and a technology- and the latter has always been a costly one at that. I live like a king compared to a large portion of the people on this planet, yet I've literally lived check to check for the past ten years, have not been able to afford making prints in those ten years and have gotten much of what I need, like the most basic work clothes (and the occasional photo book and movie), thanks to my ever growing credit debt. And I've never gone to bed hungry- the fact that people can even think of art, even in its most basic of forms, when they are going to bed hurting and hungry is practically inconceivable- and yet, they do. Most, of course, will never realize those dreams, the reality of day to day existence being the most pressing and overwhelming of life's considerations.

Still, the most exhilarating innovations can happen in the most dire places, times and circumstances- it's true. But usually as a result of and response to the most urgent of basic needs, where the history and raw materials have already existed to achieve what perhaps no one has dared before. Original and innovative writers, thinkers, leaders, performers and folk artists have arisen in such oppressive conditions throughout history- but scientists and tech based artists cannot without the required background, education and training. And it is naive, ludicrous, and more than a touch arrogant for us to expect otherwise. It requires the necessary investment, it requires the necessary $$$.

It is late- and I hope I have not misread...

colin pantall said...

Thanks Stan - I don't think you have misread.

Photography is a precious place in lots of ways. Writing is more democratic. We can try to make photography more democratic and diverse (thank you Fototazo, because you do a very constructive job of this) but innovation and experimentation applied to the dubious fields of photography that I like don't emerge out of a vacuum.

Energy, dynamism, ideas and vitality can come out of anywhere. So how to harness that?

Thomas said...

I once asked an Argentine artist who was the Walker Evans for Argentine photography. He replied, "Borges."

simon anstey said...

Have you read Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx? A story of immigrants wrapped into the bellow folds of an accordion, and the history of the US following families over 100 years or so. And, hey, its' Proulx - doesn't get much better.....

colin pantall said...

I haven't yet but I will - it doesn't get much better than Proulx. Grouchy and great!