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Hoda Afshar, Refugees and Moving beyond the Demon-Angel Paradigm

I love Hoda Afshar's portraits and  videos from Manus Island (it's Australia's Refugee Devil's Island - you go in but you n...

Thursday, 2 May 2019

What is the photography of now?

So I have been working on a couple of interviews today and these two passages popped up.

Cristina de Middel for this series for Magnum

“It’s quite a new thing to assign veracity and truth to things. We’re right at the moment where we are going back to  a more creative understanding of what truth is. It should open up the debate between truth and reality and what is the link between them. And I don’t think photographers can answer that question because it’s a huge problem and essentially it’s metaphysics. And photographers aren’t metaphysicians.”

Aaron Schuman for the BJP

“Slant is about telling the story gradually, revealing the truth gradually in a manner that doesn’t shock or overwhelm people. It’s the idea that truth is malleable, ever-changing and diffused in a way. There are truths on the surface but there are other truths that lie behind that and beyond that.”

They made me think about a couple of things that came out of the excellent talks at the Martin Parr Foundation on British 1980s photography last week. These talks by Anna Fox, Karen Knorr, Paul Graham, Jem Southam and Chris Killip were super interesting. They talked about the shared interests, backgrounds and ways of seeing of the photographers, their different roots in photography, the struggle to get paid, published and generally make a living. 

They also talked about what changed their way of seeing, from the straight documentary and photojournalistic approach of the 1970s to something freer and more creative. And it was American photography. If you want to simplify things not too greatly, the 1980s saw the Americanisation of British photography through the work of Bill Owens and Robert Adams in particular. 

It's an unfair simplification but then again why not? Simplifying anything down inevitably involves creating a myth, a myth that serves a particular agenda.  The agenda is Parr's and it is to elevate a particular way of thinking about photography. That's not a bad thing. It's how myths are made. 

The question that lots of people were asking is if  the day encapsulated the essence of what 1980s photography, what would encapsulate British photography today?

I'm not even sure British photography can be so clearly delineated anymore. 

So we can extend it out, to what encapsulates photography today. And perhaps, just perhaps, contemporary photography in the present day can be summed up by those two quotes. Multiple truths, multiple layers, multiple meanings, multiple voices. It's just what you do with it that matters. 

Friday, 26 April 2019

Leica's Tank Man Ad: What they got right

   Still from Leica's Tank Man Ad

I know the recent Leica ad perpetuates ideas of the macho photojournalist as hunter, witness and purveyor of the truth with all the imperialist world views that come with it. It's a bit like seeing the unreconstructed sides of every photo agency ever blended into a giant photo-macho smoothie that will make your lens grow longer and your motor-drive move faster. On that level, it's not great.

The real noise came from China and didn't give a flying fuck about any of that stuff. What was objected to there was the idea that the Chinese Communist Party might be a torturing, massacring, oppressive force of  corrupt evil. And that  Leica's phone partners, Huawei might suffer because of it. Here are a few comments picked out in response to the ad.

“Has Leica gone insane? It’s free to look for trouble for itself, but does it want to throw Huawei into a hole too?” one user wrote on Weibo.
“Do you even deserve to collaborate with our patriotic Huawei?” another user said of Leica.
And here is an alternative response. 

“It captured the spirit of 30 years ago,” said Zhou, a student leader in the protests and once No 5 on Beijing’s most-wanted list. “I was in tears watching it.”

Zhou said that the Chinese government would be unlikely to openly address the advert to avoid drawing attention to the subject matter. But if Leica’s position in the Chinese market suffers as the result of any retaliatory action by the government, Zhou said he hoped the “international market would [stand] up for them”.

Learning later that Leica had sought to distance itself from the promotional video, Zhou said it was “a shame”.

“They could do better.”

So I can't help but feel that in the big scheme of things (and despite the racist tropes that you see all over the place in photojournalism. Let's lose those) Leica got it right in the big picture. And Tiananmen is the big picture here - the ad coincided with the 30th anniversary since the protests began (and if you want to know what the man might be carrying in the bags, watch Chimerica, another flawed, but sometimes fascinating, depiction of  the photography-Tiananmen overlap).

I mean Leica  are making enemies in Chinese government over Tiananmen, they're kicking up a fuss over Chinese human rights, something the world is massively silent on. Almost no-one in photography ever kicks up shit about China. And here's Leica doing it. Leica? Surely that's a good thing right?

Perhaps it could form part of a wider advertising campaign that moves Leica beyond being a plaything for the crazy  to becoming a real force for political openness and change, for an applied concerned photography.

What next? Perhaps Leica could get their cinematic photographer-character (drop the machismo hunter rhetoric, maybe broaden who that photographer might be) photographing in the concentration camps of Xinjiang, maybe they could do a piece on state torture, brainwashing and organ harvesting,. perhaps they could sneak into the low-level violence that China is involved in in Africa.

That's the Chinese marketing campaign done.

So let's balance that out with the British side. Our Leica photographer could cover the suffering of people killed by our bombs in Yemen, they could train their lens on the secret meetings where those arms are sold, they could infiltrate British security services, their photographers serving to make people care about the role they played in torture, rendition and murder, and there could be so much more.

They could go to the US and photograph black lives not mattering (oh wait, that's already been done), they could go to Istanbul and see exactly how Adnan Kashoggi was murdered (oh wait, that's already been done), they could, well there's so much they could do. Every country could have its own campaign. The rich and powerful of every country could be offended by Leica's outside interference in their internatl affairs, by their exposure of corruption and cruelty. The Tiananmen ad could just be the start.

So really Leica should be praised for their advert and use it as a starting point for a wider politically engaged campaign that directly addresses human rights around the world. I think it would be a great idea and I really sincerely admire whoever came up with the broad idea of the advert. I mean it fucked up Leica's China market, but so what, it's Extrinction Rebelllion week here in the UK and making markets smaller is what we need.

(See the full ad here)

And if you want to read about Tiananmen, Ma Jian's Beijing Coma is a great start. And if you want to read about contemporary China and forgetting the past, Ma Jian's China Dream is the place to go.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Jonathan Jones reviews Harry and Meghan Markle's Pictures

Jonathan Jones continues to surpass himself. I don't know what to say so here are some snippets. I've done this before so I'll include some old ones.

I reckon his latest offering was a quick order for 400 words sharpish that he wanted to get out of the way before settling down for the snooker.

Prince Harry v the Duchess of Cambridge: who is the better photographer?

'Harry’s nature portraits show someone trying too hard. Kate’s portraits of Louis, on the other hand, show true artistry'

 'No longer content to spend hours posing for professional snappers as their predecessors did, today’s young royals publish their own efforts.'

'As an ecological image, this is eloquent. The only trouble is, Harry’s aesthetic ambitions are too obvious. Black and white always smacks of pretension unless the photographer is a true artist.'

'In this case, it’s all too clear the photographer is emulating one artist in particular: the great SebastiĆ£o Salgado, who travels the planet photographing endangered nature and oppressed humanity. But Harry isn’t Salgado.'

'Good for the Duchess of Cambridge. Her new photographs are simply portraits of her son Louis. Any parent would be proud to have taken them – as would many professionals. Each picture has an intense focus on Louis himself. This not only exhibits technical excellence, but communicates feeling.'

 'The duchess is an active patron of the National Portrait Gallery. I reckon she looked closely at its exhibition of masterpieces by the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, for her concentration on her child’s face is a poetic technique that Cameron pioneered.'

'Harry is play-acting at being a great photographer. The duchess takes family snapshots and shows they can be little works of art.'

'Kate Middleton is rightly honoured for her photographs – they are full of love'

 'I would much rather look at these honest documents of familial love than Mario Testino’s fake flattery of royal glamour.'

'If you want to take a great photograph you need to discover something unique.'

'Kim Kardashian looks at what she loves, too, and so does SebastiĆ£o Salgado. If you want to take worthwhile pictures, concentrate on what really matters to you, be it your bum or the lost peoples of the Amazon. It is the scene that is wondrous, not the snapping of the shutter.'

Flat, soulless and stupid: why photographs don’t work in art galleries

'It just looks stupid when a photograph is framed or backlit and displayed vertically in an exhibition, in the way paintings have traditionally been shown.'

'It’s amazing how long some people can look at a photograph. I observed the observers, rapt before illuminated images that I really can’t look at for more than a few seconds.'

That is because when you put a photograph on the wall I cannot help comparing it with the paintings whose framed grandeur it emulates, and I can’t help finding photography wanting.

'A photograph, however well lit, however cleverly set it up, only has one layer of content. It is all there on the surface. You see it, you’ve got it.'

A shocking image of Syria's brutal war – a war that will continue regardless

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Reinventing archives: The Past isn't fixed and nor is the Present

                      image from Amak Mahmoodian

My latest post on World Press Photo Witness is Remembering the Past, Remembering the Present. It looks at how archival images are redirected, remodelled and reinvented, at the idea that images are never fixed.

Their meaning changes and as their meaning changes so does our understanding of history. You can see this in her reinvention of 19th century Iranian photography where Qajar women, women confined to a harem living under the gaze of the camera-wielding sultan, are given a life that is renewed in her masked interventions.

image by Amak Mahmoodian

And you can see it in the work of Andres Orjuela, who uses Colombian press images of petty criminals and drug dealers to deglamourise the drug cartels, to act as a small brake on the Netflix-fuelled celebration of Escobar.

I like that idea of the past not being fixed, of something redemptive being found in photographs, in images being used etrospectively to build a story and add character, shape and nuance to something that is so often represented as fixed in stereotyped meanings.

I think both Mahmoodian and Orjuela do that in their work. I think you can also see older images being reinvented and gaining new shades and depths. It's when images are set in stone that they die a little, when their maker fails to change and engage with the times and the ways in which they were made and bring out new dialogues from those engagements. I think that's what I like about the Through the Lens of History exhibition that is also mentioned in the piece - it was quite a simple exhibition of historic and truly iconic original press images, but there was also the start of an examination of where they came from and how they were made, both in photojournalistic and physical terms. And as a whole the exhibition gave an overview of the changing imperatives of press photography. I think that's interesting.

You can read the whole article here. 

Here's a snippet from Andres Orjuela from his Archivo Muerto work. You can buy the book (and it's a great book) here. 

image by Andres Orjuela

“The tension is focused on the violence in this image” says Orjuela, “we empathise with the criminal as we put ourselves at the moment of pain of this person who is going to be the victim of a brutal police beating.”
In Archivo Muerto, the criminal becomes the loser, the state the oppressor, and the popular press is a tool of the state; and so a different social nuance is brought to the affairs. And that is the point of the project: the idea that beneath the superficial use of images, there are darker stories waiting to be revealed, stories where drugs, terror and the CIA overlap, where the notion of the state fighting crime is simplistic and absurd. What happens when the state is the criminal, and the archive upholds that view? This is what Orjuela is trying to counteract in his work.
“What is absent in this selection is triumphalism,” says Orjuela, “the mythical criminal or raised to the level of superstar as nowadays is done with criminals like Pablo Escobar or Chapo Guzman with international series and films.”

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Why we care about Notre Dame, Why we don't care about Yemen

Why do we care about Notre Dame? The fire in Notre Dame kicked up just about the biggest load of whataboutism I found at  times infuriating, but with some examples such as the Grenfell fire, incredibly pertinent.

Why do some disasters gain financial attention, and others not.

In this carefully worded text, Carl Kinsella doesn't engage in charmless whataboutery, but states the obvious in a direct but thoughtful way.

He states why Notre Dame is of such importance; spiritual, historical, economic and as an urban and national symbol. But he also wonders why it gains so much financial attention and what that says about our national, political values as a whole. Again he does this with not a whiff of whataboutery, with a certain amount of persuasive charm. I think that matters. His conclusion is quite simple - Notre Dame gets the money because that's what rich people value. But it doesn't have to be that way and to pretend it is in major bad faith.

The next time someone tries to pretend like you need to choose between homelessness or immigration, nurses' pay or a tax cut, a children's hospital or a motorway, remember this moment. The money is there at a click of a finger. It just isn't in our hands.

I wondered about this, and then thought about the countries that matter in the world, the people that matter in the world. the current affairs that matter in the world. I thought of Xinjiang in China, I thought of the Rohingya, and I thought of Yemen. 

I thought of Yemen in particular because of this excellent radio programme, Why don't we care about Yemen, presented by Kavita Puri.

It is a simple breakdown of why people don't care about Yemen, why it is so underreported. It's a kind of flipside to Notre Dame, a place where millions visit every year, which has featured in stories and films and is a symbol of Frenchness and religious power, which has a history of patronage that both absolves their souls and through the power of art absolves their money. There are no barriers to caring about Notre Dame. There are plenty of barriers to caring about Yemen.

The reason we don't care about Yemen, according to Why don't we care about Yemen, is few us have been there or anywhere near there. Unlike Syria it doesn't have neighbours like Jordan or Turkey or Israel which we might have visited.

Next, it's difficult to report on . There are no civilian flights, you need permission to film to get in and you need permissions from local militia to report. Reporting is difficult - fighting happens at night, so you travel during the day. And of course it's dangerous.

There is also no tradition of citizen journalism in Yemen. That's in contrast to Syria - where you also had a verification process. From Yemen, the limited material that does come out is difficult to verify.

42% of Brits had no idea there was a war in Yemen. It comes after wars in  Iraq, Syria, Libya and the rest so there's the idea that there are so many. And the war is further complicated by our de facto involvement in it via our arms sales to Saudi Arabia. You'd think that would increase consciousness but it might be that it does the opposite. There's the ghost of commerce floating around there somewhere.

Add to that the fact that there are no obvious good guys (even by proxy - Saudi Arabia v Iran.), and the conflict is confined within its borders both in terms of fighting and in terms of refugees. Three million people have fled their homes. They are not living in camps but are living with other family members so the refugee crisis is not  visible.

Perhaps most significant of all is the fact that there is a divided diaspora  so there is little mobilisation, absence of a unified diaspora to act as a voice to influence policy makers and there you have it. The people who do have a united voice are the arms lobbyists, and that's a voice that is not going to help anyone anywhere anyhow.

There are limited voices all round then, both in Yemen and from overseas. I am not really sure how you can make people more aware of the war, how you can bring voices out on a large scale. I wonder if in these cases the retrograde 'raising awareness' cliches of photography might actually be valid points to make. It's something I wrote about in this piece for World Press Photo Witness on Tyler Hick's image of a starving Yemeni girl, Amal Hussain. I wonder if sometimes photography does need to take a backward step to make its presence felt above and beyond the limited world of photography.

And after listening to  Why don't we care about Yemen, I also wondered about that retrograde  idea of the photographer or the journalist as some kind of witness, going out there and bringing the news out. Because behind the programme there is that idea that if nobody is reporting an event, it simply isn't happening in the eyes of the world.

And that reminded me of a couple of Susan Sontag's great quote from Regarding the Pain of Others. I'm never quite sure about Sontag, but she does great quotes. This is one on the pain of the observer, the journalist, the aid worker, and the idea of the privilege of 'witnessing'

"We" - this "we" is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through - don't understand. We don't get it. We truly can't imagine what it was like. We can't imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can't understand, can't imagine. That's what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.” 

And then I thought about another quote which is in opposition to that in many ways and is more in keeping with a Rosleresque idea of images being a projection panel to salve our middle class consciences.

“Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it - say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken - or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”

So which one's right? Both of them probably. And it's the same with the whataboutery of Notre Dame, a one-night historical disaster where the conditions for caring are in complete opposition to Yemen, but where the enormous shared consciousness of the fire puts it on some kind of parallel, if lesser, level to that of experiencing war.

But here, you still have the whataboutery, the Notre Dame v Grenfell/Yemen/Palestine/Xinjiang /Planet Earth comparison, which is both unfair and relevant at the same time. But which sides's right? They both are, because there not really sides.

I wonder if what matters isn't the approach, and if there is a right approach and a wrong approach, because Kinsella had an approach that recognises the world that we live in and extends the debate beyond the immediacy of the pain felt at the burning of Notre Dame. It's the approach that makes it the right side.. The right side is the side that looks at everything and understands it's not an ideal world, that recognises we need to make it better, but still has the ability to recognise that some things are incredibly cheap, and devaluing Notre Dame and the heartfelt pain and loss felt by millions of people is one of those things. And if you do devalue it, you devalue every event of destruction and loss, because the whataboutery can never stop.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Chris Killip's Brilliant Pony Box Newspapers

Some snippets of my review of Chris Killips four newspapers published by Pony Box.

These images are from the 1970s but the message of globalised manufacturing, cheapened labour, the disposability of a community, and marginal citizenship could be from the present day. That contemporary relevance is given added weight by the design and printing. Newsprint can have a cheap, disposable quality, and that can be used to its advantage. But it’s not the case here. Printed on a slightly grey paper to give added luminosity, the pictures have both a wide tonal range and a depth that brings the images out of the page. And size matters here. The images are huge, printed on black with Niall Sweeney’s graphics providing a modernist nod to the historical economic and metaphorical power of steel.


They are not still images. They are quietly made, but have an energy that lives beyond the moment; the turns of the mouth, the looseness of the cheek, the drop of the head are expressions of a real self. They are pictures where the camera is, in true Victorian fashion, an evidential recorder of the physiognomic and bodily self.


It’s the high Thatcher, high unemployment years, when the Falklands War and the Miner’s Strike had been won, and her record disapproval levels of the early 1980s had evaporated in the face of repeated sell-offs of state assets and the rise of the cult of the financial markets. But this is the north-east and it’s a time of industrial decay and high unemployment – and in terms of regional intensity, Thatcher’s disapproval ratings are at record levels. The people you see in The Station are part of that world and these are rituals of rebellion. They seek escapism in Friday nights in the mosh pit. Killip shows kids with faces knotted in the concentration to escape, lost in the music and the sweat and the energy.

Read the whole text here.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Vincen, Claude, Lilly, Eva and Sol: Don't worry about cool, make your own Uncool...

It was one of my great writing pleasures to write the text for Vincen Beeckman's Claude and Lilly (which you can see here on Vogue Italia).

The project isn't really a project. It is simpler than that. It's a series of pictures that Vincen made of Claude and Lilly hugging and kissing in the final years they were together, now published as a book by APE.

See a video of the book here.

It doesn't tick the boxes of collaboration especially. It's not complete, it's not life changing, there's no staging or performance,  no high-minded statement, there's no reflexivity, it's not challenging the conventions of anything. It's not distant or cool, it doesn't fit into any kind of meta-narrative, it's a love story of two people living on the margins of society. It's something you don't see very often presented in a direct and simple way..

It simply is and it's kind of beautiful for that. Writing the text was about matching that simplicity and beauty. It was very difficult until it became very easy.

I read Sol LeWitt's advice to Eva Hesse (via Robin Cracknell) this morning and it made me think of Claude and Lilly.

Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping,…Stop it and just DO!…

Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you – draw & paint your fear and anxiety…

You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO!…

Try to do some BAD work – the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell – you are not responsible for the world – you are only responsible for your work – so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be…

So there you go. Claude and Lilly is a love story, so it's not very cool. It makes its own world, it makes its own uncool. Which is cooler than any cool could ever be. The story of Claude and Lilly begins like this.

“I met Lilly when I was working at the Foire du Midi fair in Brussels,” says Claude van Halen of his late partner, Liliane Maes. “I met her on the 14th of July 1995. The boss of a bar asked me, ‘Claude do you want to go with her, because her man is beating her?’ I said yes. I even left my job for her. I went with her and we stayed together for so long, for 23 years.”

Thank you Alessia Glaviano and Francesca Marani for featuring it. I like that it fits into Vogue Italia, a magazine centred on fashion. But fashion is body, subcultures, it's sex, music, emotion, it's political. It's love.

And that's what Claude and Lilly is. A love story.

Buy the book here. 

Friday, 22 March 2019

Some thoughts on the Accusatory Mode in Photography

'The most common critical positions on the Ray’s a Laugh series are those that accuse Billingham of producing “artless” work or complain of its grotesque subject matter, those that accuse Billingham of exploiting and/or fetishizing his family, and those that worry about class tourism and poverty porn. 

This overwhelmingly negative middle-class art writing is so hegemonic that alternative counter-readings are needed to address its failure to acknowledge that Billingham’s photographs might actually contain beauty, or that there might be other viewers of his work besides the middle-classes.'

There are serious points to be made here on both sides, but the point made here by Hatherley is that the accusatory mode in photography, the shorthanding of images as exploitative and ugly, is a form of moralising that has its origins in middle class views of the body and the working class. It's a form of control in other words, an example of a moralising patriarchal/colonial/male gaze if you like, and you get it everywhere.

There are more ways of seeing than this.

From Frances Hatherley's phd on the work of Billingham, Jo Spence and Carol Morley.Sublime Dissension: A Working-ClassAnti-Pygmalion Aesthetics of theFemale Grotesque

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Hoda Afshar, Refugees and Moving beyond the Demon-Angel Paradigm

I love Hoda Afshar's portraits and  videos from Manus Island (it's Australia's Refugee Devil's Island - you go in but you never leave). They're not about honour or dignity or posing people as heroes when they are not. 
These pictures open the world up, though not in an easy way. They expose grief, pain, frustration, they present a view that doesn't romanticise or deny what people have been through. I write about them, and many other things, in my latest piece on World Press Photo Witness. Here's a snippet of her views of her portrait of author, Behrouz Boochani.

picture by Hoda Afshar

'It’s not a dignified or happy image. Instead, it’s a troubling image of a troubled man. And when you see it, you wonder if the dignified Native Americans of Edward Curtis might not have been better portrayed in this way.
“I sent this portrait to Behrouz after I returned from Manus in April 2018, and called him,” says Afshar in the image caption.
“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.’”
It is right that the image should scare him, because it shows who he has become (but not, one hopes, who he will be forever). There is nothing benign about being forced to flee your homeland to expose yourself to the physical and psychological hardships of travelling over land and by sea to Australia, and ending up imprisoned under a hostile regime with no end of your torment in sight. There is no dignity in that.'

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Thought For the Day: The Civil Contract of Photography

'When the citizen's gaze is diverted from photographs, and direccted by the field of vision created by the ruling power, where, in facct, there are no images, individuals abandon their commitment to the contract and effectively colloaborate with the ruling power even whent they may be explicitly opposed to its actions.'

Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The story has to be real, felt, not contrived...

'She said the story had to be real—whatever that meant for her. I think it meant not contrived, not incidental or gratuitous: it had to be deeply felt, emotionally important. She told a student of hers that the story he had written was too clever—don’t try to be clever, she said. She typeset one of her own stories in hot metal on a Linotype machine, and after three days of work threw all the slugs back into the melting pot, because, she said, the story was “false.”'

Lydia Davis, from the introduction to "A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories,"  by Lucia Berlin, my current read.

I like that, the idea of emotionally real and not contrived and not being too clever because then you end up looking false. And so not clever at all. Soul is the goal.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Format: Soul is the Goal

Carolilne Furneaux

 “I want the story to exist somewhere so that in a way it’s still happening … I don’t want it to be shut up in the book and put away – oh well, that’s what happened.”

I love that quote from Alice Munro. I love that idea of the sanctity of the story and the ways in which its inherent storiness can be destroyed by the vehicle in which it appears - be that a novel, a photograph, a magazine, a film.

    Kensuke Koike

Read Alice Munro and you enter a world that goes beyond the page of the book, you feel characters who almost seem to exist as entities in themselves. The story opens them, they flow beyond the narrative, they carry their stories into that world where Munro's story "is still happening."

Maurice Broomfield's Cameras

You get the same in photography. I went to Format at the weekend and my favourites were those where you got the idea that something was happening beyond the simplicity of the frame or the slide-viewer or the magazine or the portfolio.

You also get the opposite in photography so sometimes there was a feeling that any story that was there was blurred and obscured, that things disappeared in a haze of ambiguity and possible meanings. You had to work hard (even when you had seen the work before) to eke out any possible meaning, and when you did, it really wasn't worth it.

Caroline Furneaux

But enough of that. There were also those where there was a visual distancing which came with some reward. I loved the slides (I love transparency - it is a superior film) of Caroline Furneaux. You viewed them through a slide viewer so had to work for your reward and the reward were these wonderful images of women her father had photographed in the days before he became her father. They were possible mothers. I'm not sure I entirely bought that but the pictures did the work for me. The girl with the cactus was just beautiful, and all seen through the four inch screen of an old-school slide viewer.

And Maurice Broomfield was wonderful, a series of industrial image where something else always seen to be going on. They're part industrial sublime, part socialist realism, and part sci-fi something or other. They have the speculative reflexion of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel's Evidence, but 20 years before its time. The great thing is you see them and you get them, and then you keep on watching and perhaps you see some more. It's a gift that keeps on giving.

The one exhibition I really wanted to see taken to a grand scale and expanded upon both conceptually and visually was the Cameraworks exhibition. I'd love to see how those key areas of community, political engagement, and activism have developed (and not developed). The political voice and directness of the writing and images was something to behold, above and beyond the repetition of black and white images albeit of a politically vibrant and destructive time - it's a similar time now but that kind of clarity and voice is notable by its absent. Instead we're hiding stories rather than telling them.

The direct and literal continued in the exhibition of the old Kassel Book Dummiy show with Rebecca Samson's wonderful Apples For Sale. This is a book on the lives of Indonesian maids in Hong Kong, an antidote to some of the really weird and delusional captions I've seen accompanying images of Southeast Asian Maids working overseas, captions which can be described as naive at best, or as an exercise of soft power at worst. There is a lot of visible soft power at play in photography.

Anyway, Apples for Sale is telling a story that is very apparent if you read the news, see the world or talk to anyone where the export of labour is a major industry, and it tells it through images, Facebook Posts (what do you do if your maid has Body Odour. Or wants a day off. Or runs out of jobs to do. Or has a boyfriend), agency rules and all the rest of the dehumanising hoops you have to go through. It's not on scale of the horror stories of murder, sexual harrassment and cheating that you get from Gulf Maids, but it's bad enough and actually it can be a horror story of lying, deceit and abuse. Samson tells that story but with some intriguing touches on the physical, emotional and creative escapism that people find even in the most claustrophobic of circumstances.

Format was a pleasure as always, it's attraction lying in the diversity of the venues and the sheer range of work you can see. I didn't see everything but I came away filled with thoughts and ideas and notions and cliches like keep it real and soul is the goal and the story is the thing.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Deaths that aren't shown

Ginnalyn Soriano weeps over the body of her elder brother Julius, who allegedly fought back and was killed by police during what they said was a drug sting operation, at a morgue in Malabon, Metro Manila, Philippines, June 22, 2017. At the morgue, the family noticed Julius’ wrists had cuff marks. The arm had a bullet wound too, and the slug was still embedded in his arm right where the cuff mark was, suggesting that the cuffs had stopped the bullet. © Ezra Acayan

My latest offering on World Press Photo Witness is on deaths in photography and how death is shown or not shown.

See my previous post, Rethinking the Ethical judgement of photography here...

I often wonder that what really defines photography is not what is shown, but more particularly what is not shown, and why it is not shown, and who decides it is not shown, and whose purposes that serves.

The not showing of something, the censorship is far more powerful in some ways and shapes how we see and understand the world. We don't see death in UK publications very much for example. It wasn't always that way. It is now.

This is from the piece...

Examples of when suffering is deliberately not shown provide a counter argument to this idea. From its earliest beginnings, war photography has been defined as much by what it doesn’t show as what it does. This tradition of not showing death extends around the world and is quite revealing of the power of photography to shock, outrage, and move people. This power is evident in the fear governments have of photography.

During the Great Leap Forward in China, around 45 million people are estimated to have starved to death. Yet there are no images of these deaths. The only images the government wanted were positive ones. Atrocity images of piles of dead bodies, of cannibalism, of people eating mud and tree bark in a vain attempt to survive do not exist. If they did, perhaps the history of China would be very different.

The political goals of photography are equally apparent in the post-9/11 images of the Iraq War when, between 2004 and 2005, The New York Times, The Washington Times, Time and Newsweek did not publish a single image of a dead American soldier. That asymmetry of reporting is still something apparent today in the ongoing debates of who is shown and who is not shown to be suffering in US media.

It is the same in the UK. There is an increasing reluctance to show people suffering, and when people are shown to be suffering to focus on those overseas in places where disaster and war are presented as part of the natural scheme of things with limited captioning or reporting to contextualise the image or state otherwise. 

The solution to this is not to eliminate all images of suffering but rather to create a more level playing field. Some of the most terrible pictures I have seen in British newspapers are from the Hillsborough Disaster but I think they serve a purpose, I think they helped in some small part create a counter narrative that was really struggled for and is only now, 30 years after the event, gaining some kind of just end. The trial of the police officer in charge during the disaster did not happen by accident and would not have happened if it hadn't been fought for.

Photography and its publication (and the lack of it), serves political narratives. Photography is also subservient to news, and news is a commodity. It is something that can be traded and sold and photographers operate within that system, creating work that can fit both the demands of the publications they work for, and the narratives that help make a story newsworthy and palatable to governments, owners, advertisers and, finally, the public.

Perhaps that's why I think photographers such as Ezra Acayan, who record death, who lay out murdered bodies for the world to see, are so important. There are people (the murderers) who don't want those bodies to be seen, yet still he, and others persist. This is also from the piece

One of the contributors of Everyday Impunity is Ezra Acayan, a photographer who has photographed more than 500 murders (out of an estimated 12,000) and 100 funerals since the beginning of the War on Drugs in 2016. His pictures are beautifully composed, dramatically lit studies of death, grief and mourning that fit into a photojournalistic template. But they go beyond that as well. In an email interview, he describes the process of photographing the War on Drugs:
“I suddenly found myself in the frontline of this ‘war’, and at first I wanted to show the brutality of it all. Despite the large number of deaths, most of the public never saw the killings personally; almost all victims were poor and were killed in the slums.”

Read the whole article here.... 

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

It doesn't have to be boring

A few weeks ago Danny Blight (he writes on photography and is into theoryin a big way) got hammered on Twitter for saying Don McCullin is boring.

So I did a Twitter quiz on what is more boring....

What is the most boring thing in photography? You can only have four things otherwise, good lord, it would have been a long list. This is like an itch I shouldn't scratch but...

The Old British Photography bit didn't win, and it is more than just Don McCullin. There's a whole bunch of stuff up there, but still it only got 8%.

Personally I really like Don McCullin's work.He's one of the greats. I've seen it in exhibitions here and there, I've read his biography and seen his films. I've shown them students and had students coming out going, that's amazing, but where the fuck is Biafra and what's with the hero stuff. Which is good because it means you can do some history (on average 10% of students have heard of Chairman Mao - for example!) and address the hero element.

So I thought when they did a big show at the Tate, it would be an opportunity for people to come out of there learning about the world, about the period these images were made, about the monumental historical shifts they recorded. And to go beyond that photographer-as-witness-hero rhetoric. I actually quite like that rhetoric, I have a soft spot for it, but  it's a bit limited and superficial  ultimately and you need to leave it behind quite quickly when you have the right stage.

Maybe Tate was the right stage but I'm getting the impression that it's not. Anastasia Taylor-Lind expressed her frustration not just with the hanging of the images (all the same size in frames), the constant rhetoric of the heroic photographer, but also the lost opportunity to do something epic with the pictures.

The curation focused a lot on the war photographer as tragic hero and myth creation. One text read “ I want to create a voice for the people in those pictures” It’s 2019- time to start taking about passing the mic, not giving others a voice.
Another section intro read “I’ve been loyal by risking my life for fifty years” another “I dream of this when I’m in battle. I think of misty England...”
It honestly feels like I travelled back in time 20 years to see this show the curation is so outdated and poorly framed.

Because they are historically huge pictures that are of this world, and it is up to somebody else to realise their importance, and their role in UK publishing in particular, and take them outside the more limited frameworks of a super-talented individual to make us not just bask in their compositional brilliance but also understand something about the pain, heartache, suffering of the world, and the names under which wars have been fought and continue to be fought. Because that is the key message I choose to take from Don McCullin's work. I ignore the elements that don't interest me (the hero, great man stuff) and focus on the ways in which the images have a life beyond McCullin and the more hagiographic perspectives - which are the least interesting thing about the photographs, and perhaps have little to do with the photographs. The pictures have a life of their own, they are part of a larger visual field and that is what I have not seen recognised in any McCullin exhibition I've been to. And perhaps it's not recognised in this one.

I actually love old British work so it's a shame to see this show is a bit same-old, same-old. with a lack of imagination and maybe a cheapness about it (and it does cost a lot to enter so you should be getting alot). I don't know, I haven't seen it so maybe everything written here is wrong. And maybe it doesn't matter that much. I know that many of the things my photography friends moan about are completely irrelevant to the real, more-fully-functioning world. The show's doing well, getting great press, who cares? But I felt the urge to write this before doing something else that I really don't want to do...

But even when you there are economics at play, if you have some imagination, then you can be brilliant. I just reviewed Chris Killip's four part newspaper of his old work from the 1970s and 1980s from the Northeast of England. It's printed on newspaper it's printed brilliantly with a real design element that highlights vital historical work that doesn't feel reheated, that feels fresh and in its mix of images, feels like it is shedding new light on what it is to live in the communities where he photographed.

So yes, that's good!