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Monday, 17 February 2014

Escape from the Taliban and the World Press Photo

Another new arrival last week was the first Amc2 journal. It's basically a collection of different kinds of vernacular photography with the emphasis on visual pleasure and looking great.

There are pictures from the Book of Bread ("Not the book of bread!"), collections of cigarette cards, a Rock Hudson cut-out and dress kit and a series of Bollywood posters.

There is a text on what it was like to follow Bruce Gilden when he made his Middlesex series (more of which later) but overall there is minimal writing. The pictures take you one way and then kind of leave you there. They point the way in a certain direction but don't dictate what you should think when you get there.

The emphasis is on looking, on touching and taking pleasure in photography and I wonder if this is not part of a shift in photography into something a little more pleasurable than some of the hairshirt attitudes alive and kicking in photography.

Sometimes you get the feeling that a lot of people involved in photography don't really like photography or even looking at pictures (Susie Linfield wrote a book on this). To make a cooking analogy, it would be as if a food critic was only interested in the nutritional values or the source of the ingredients and was not at all interested in the taste, the smell or the texture of the food.

But photography is opening up and the mysterious Archive of Modern Conflict with its strange archives and eclectic range of publications is part of that. Last week the World Press Photo results were published and people got excited by the usual things - conflicts of interest and the question of whether the winning picture didn't resemble a mobile phone ad too much.

There was also the question of how relevant the World Press Photo awards are with the central industry of the press transforming so radically. I still buy and read a newspaper 6 days a week and get information and news that the internet simply doesn't provide. I also listen to the radio, but the idea that something like the radio can provide anything remotely comparable to the printed media is simply laughable. I do listen to Radio 4 and it has some great programmes on but for news! The Today programme in particular is a soapbox for corporate goons and Public Relations cyborgs. You have people on there who are responsible for poverty, pollution and misery across the globe yet the person who has had the biggest grilling on the programme this year was a guy who took food that was past its sell-by-date out of a supermarket bin. "But it's stealing," said the reporter. Corporate guests can make the most outlandish of claims and get off Scott free - it was Europe and its its failed experiment in multiculturalism this morning, the week before it was the apocalyptic scenario of bankers fleeing British shores if taxes for the wealthy were increased by five per cent and a month ago it was energy pimps saying why electricity prices would have to increase every year over the next twenty years if we didn't want all power to end of this moment.

But then you need to ask whether news or the press should be the main focal point for photography. I certainly don't buy newspapers for looking at photography (though I used to). I do buy books and magazines though and that's where people like Amc kick in; they are part of a shift away from a didactic, informational photography towards a broader photography that examines how images are made and consumed in broader culture; it's part of a move to question how we see images and the effect they have on us. And that question is becoming broader than ever before.

In that respect, it might be a move away from that painful documentary tradition, the discourse of sobriety ( as Bill Nichols said regarding documentary film, "The credo that a good documentary is one that draws attention to an issue and not itself follows from the documentary's epistephilic foundations. Engagement is the aim more than pleasure."). This is the discourse where pleasure in looking, in seeing, in understanding are denied, where the only things that matter are - well, go ahead, you've all read Susan Sontag - are the message.

Bill Nichols' said that if documentary (film) is the discourse of sobriety, then the musical ( film )is the discourse of entertainment. So the hope is to bring that pleasure from the musical or film-made-for-entertainment into the press, into documentary, into serious photography. I think that is why there is such a flourishing of photobooks, because it brings both visual and conceptual pleasure into the photobook.

It's the same in film. Pleasure in viewing, in the characters, in the narrative drive add depth to the ideas expressed and bring a story alive, even when that story is profound and deeply moving.

At the weekend I watched two films. The first was Escape from the Taliban, which is based on a true story of a Hindu woman who got married to an Afghan man and... well, you can pretty much guess the rest. I fell asleep after the first shouting man with beards/cowering women with veils scene. But my wife watched it to the end. So I asked

Me: 'Was it any good?'

K: 'Well there were more scenes of shouty men with beards and cowering women hiding behind their veils and the main character tried to escape lots of times but failed. But then in the end she picked up a machine gun and killed all the men with beards and got away.'

Me: 'So is it worth watching?'

K: 'No.'

Me: 'Even just for the highlights.'

K: 'No.'

Me: 'Even for the ending?'

K: 'No.'

So it's bad Bollywood and does a disservice to the experiences it is supposedly depicting. And that is shameful.

The other film I saw at the weekend was Wadjda, which was amazing. It is about a young Saudi girl who enters a Koran-reciting competition so that she can buy a bicycle. The film is  irrevent, witty and dynamic but is also about what it is like to live in a regime where if you are a woman, your body, your appearance, your language is controlled. The film examines how control comes both from male society, but also from within, through women who have internalised messages of conformity, shame, modesty and silence.

Wadjda is the first film made in Saudi Arabia and directed by a woman,Haifaa al Mansour. Which is a major thing (even if there are some strange political happenings behind the scene). But what really makes the film great is the main character, played by Waad Mohammed. She is wonderful. See a fuller review here.

Character and narrative drive come first in this film and the issues are secondary. So rather than being a worthy but rather tedious lecture on women's lack of rights in Saudi Arabia, we see those ideas come through the wonderful characters - characters like the hawk-faced school principal who tells Wadjda "I used to be like you" but has a 'handsome thief' who comes to visit in the night.

So it's the discourse of entertainment first with the sobriety embedded within it, something I find far more engaging than being preached at by hairshirted presbyterians who believe that if it isn't good for you if it doesn't hurt you.


christian said...

A fantastic post - a million thanks!

colin pantall said...

Thanks Christian - it's all about the movie!