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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...

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.