'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
Friday, 22 March 2019
Thursday, 21 March 2019
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
'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
'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.
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
“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.
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.
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
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
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!
Monday, 25 February 2019
Perhaps the most viewed pictures in the UK this year have been Laura Dodsworth's Womanhood. It's a series of 100 images of women's vulvas and it follows her other series of images on penises and breasts.
The pictures have featured here there and everywhere including a tv programme dedicated to them but interestingly they don't quite figure in the worlds of photography that this blog is concerned with - art, photobooks, festivals, documentary, photojournalism.
The theme is there. Magazines and galleries have dedicated issues to the Girl Gaze and ideas of reclaiming the body that go back to the very powerful ideas of Carolee Schneemann and beyond into the distant, distant past.
It fits a particular theme and articulates ideas of the body, gender, agency and how perceptions of self are formed and can be changed. It's a good thing then, but still it doesn't quite hit the mark. It might well be because the photographer doesn't quite speak that same language (if it is the right language), is too mainstream, has a past career in publishing and marketing that has kind of stuck, or simply has bigger fish to fry. Or doesn't care.
Maybe it's because her pictures of breasts, penises and vulvas are so descriptive. There's the idea that is endlessly repeated that all the stories have been told (and they have), and everything has been photographed (and it has)... the conclusion of these ideas is that you can't photograph something without ending up in banal repetition. That perhaps is the cause of the endless overcomplication of things. I do sometimes end up looking at photography projects wishing that I was better at puzzle solving, because that is what so many books read like. They are a mystery for the viewer to solve, with the subtext that the more pain the better.
There isn't any mystery in Dodsworth's projects. Perhaps that's the point. And the point is also that even though the story has been told, it hasn't been told in this way. Dodsworth latest project focusses on vulvas. They have been photographed by photographers (and written about and exhitbited) and you'll see them in porn. All Dodsworth did was photograph them slightly differently, possibly not all that 'well' - and they don't fit into a typological grid because that's not their concern. Their concern is to show something unadorned and unfiltered. That's waht made them appear new to people, to women in particular, and in various publications they were accompanied by interviews and confessions that felt quite liberating.
It's a kind of stating the obvious. Anyway, I like them I think. I'm still struggling to grasp exactly why they don't really figure in the micro-photographic scheme of things. She just has the wrong voice, she's not an artist, she's simply operating in that world. I think that's interesting on so many levels, and indicative of so much, not of Dodsworth, but of the failings that shut her work out. It's indicative of a definite conservatism, quite a limited way of thinking. I wonder what little twitch of visual, verbal or personal expression would change her work from something that has been viewed by millions to something that could garner the praise from photography's more precious, if less-visited, worlds. Not much I'm sure, but then if you're getting shows on mainstream television, why really would you bother?
I remember when I was a kid and there were certain records you could buy, and certain records you couldn't (even if you liked them). It's that basically, but in photography...
Sunday, 17 February 2019
'Rembrandt is not to be compared in the painting of character with our extraordinarily gifted English artist, Mr Rippingille.'
John Hunt, 19th-century art critic' on the work of Edward Villiers Rippingille, whose Young Visitors you can see above or at Bristol Museum.
My wife used to quote this to me all the time when she saw people agreeing and nodding their heads to some absurdly mistaken opinion stated as face. And then we saw some Rippingilles in real life. It ain't nice.
Friday, 15 February 2019
I've got a vested interest in this book because Simone Sapienza used to be my lovely student and b) he was one of the three people who started Gazebook Sicily. Gazebook Sicily was a photobook festival by the sea in Sicily. For three straight years, that's how I began every september.
It was free and, if you're looking for a model on how to organise a photobook festival with food, drink, music and free access to talks and portfolio reviews and all the rest, well Gazebook might be the one. So because of that I kind of love Simone. That and quite a lot more including the fact that he's a brilliant photographer and human being.
Charlie Surfs on Lotus Flowers is a book Simone published last year. It's avisual stream of consciousness through Ho Chi Minh City, through Vietnamese capitalism and all its contradictions. It's a mix of still-lifes, portraits made in a pop-up studio. backdrop heavy street images, and disjointed fragments of the alienation of everyday life. How do you manage to live in a country with such a history, and such a present and so many contradictions, Simone is asking. How do you make sense of it all.
You can read a really good review of the book here.
And here is my short video review of the book.
I got the book just after reading The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The Refugees is a collection of short stories about the lives of Vietnamese refugees living in the United States, about people who left Vietnam after the end of the war there or in the late 1970s.
It's a book about people who are living between two worlds; one is the violence, dysfunction and tradition of Vietnam during the war years, it's a world where people are at ease with themselves and their families, where they own the dysfunction around them, where religion, family, food, community and the contradictions and psychosis that accompany those things are internal to their lives.
And then they get to America and everything changes. A simulacrum of family, community is built into their new lives but it's built on quicksand, it doesn't quite take; the dysfunction is not familiar.. Attempts are made to recreate the old life through political organisations but without the unifying sense of place of Vietnam, these are just deluded and corrupt.
In one story, the main character#s mother has a shop selling groceries to Vietnamese migrants. She faces the challenges of making money from customers who question every price, who wonder why it's more expenensive than back 'home', who are in denial about the deaths of their missing family members, and who threaten to blackball the mother's shop if she doesn't pay money to fight the Communists back home. The mother knows what will happen if she doesn't pay. She resists, but can't resist enough. In the end, she pays money that she knows is at best a waste, for a futile cause.
And as she pays, she realises that the old life, the life in pre-Communist Vietnam, is over, that she lives in America now. And with that, she gives her son, for the first time ever, a $5 bill to spend as he likes. He goes to the local shop, a shop run by Sikhs, and he looks in wonder at the comics, at the sweets, at the chocolate. 'While the clerks chatted in a language I did not understand,' the final line reads, 'I hesitated, yearning to take everything home but unable to choose.'
And that is what Charlie Surfs on Lotus Flowers is about! It's a wonderful book.
Buy the book here.
Tuesday, 12 February 2019
I feel like I'm missing something here and this has been written about before in lots of places but so it goes. The question of who is in the picture, if anyone (it is only a picture after all) is so complex.
We can fetishise images so much that we become like some cave-dwelling community adamant that photographs steal our souls. But that's not necessarily the case and here are a couple of examples of that. I don't know what's right here or even if there is a right. But I can see some wrongs, and that is what is most interesting.
I watched this video the other day of Ali Shallal al-Qaisi recounting his experiences of torture in Abu Ghraib prison. He aslo claimed he was the man in the famous hooded man picture but apparently he wasn't, and it was determined that he wasn't some years ago. I'm not quite sure how this was determined, but it was by all accounts even if the people giving those accounts might be less than reliable.
He had been in Abu Ghraib prison though, he had been hooded, he had been tortured, he had been electrocuted, but he wasn't the actual man in the picture. The man was apparently Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh.
It does matter that al-Qaisi wasn't the man, but the man who it was has not been found. You're left with a gap between iconic image and what lies behind it. The man who was apparently in the picture has not been found, perhaps he is alive, perhaps he is dead, perhaps he doesn't exist. He is not there to speak from the other side of the image (or the images) from Abu Ghraib - which leaves us with al-Qaisi who is very able to talk from the other side of the image of the humiliation, torture and lasting psychological damage that was done to him.
By claiming to be that man (and why not, every person who was tortured in Abu Ghraib could be that man), he crystallised his citizenship, he called out to the spectator what happened in that prison, how he was violated on every level. He also moves the image away from the politically and geographically limited American perspective (Peggy Phelan describes it as the "what these pictures say about us" view) and also remove at least some of the blind spots that have existed in the reading of these images.
And that's what matters. It's curious to see the comments on Errol Morris' views on the piece, in which Morris classifies the question of who exactly it was in the image (which does matter) as a 'who-is-under-it, rather than a who-dunnit?' and notes on the ways in which images do not exist independently of theories and presuppositions but feed off them and gain their own momentum.
The comments also reflect a particular way of thinking and seeing the world. They drill down into the photographic, into the minutae of sports reporting and cinematic and miss the real point of the image and Ali Shallal al-Qaisi's claim, a claim that is everything to do with that idea of the spectator as an active participant in viewing the image, and the photograph as a fluid entity that is not fixed by its makers or its history.
It all rather misses the point in other words. Photography so often misses the point by fixing on closed ways of seeing the image and the world. By fixing on the supremacy of the image and its supposedly indexical relationship to a defined world, you miss what really matters which is the before and after for the man in the picture and everything that touches upon. And if not the man in the picture, then the man under the hood. And for now, al-Qaisi has claimed the role of the man in the hood. He's not that man, but he was a man, and until the real man comes forward then he can stand as proxy for him
Maybe, I'm not sure. Ariella Azoulay (who I'm re-reading at the moment because of this series of posts) mentions the case of Mrs Abu-Zohir, volunteering her legs, injured by rubber bullets fired by the Israeli Defence Force. There's a debate as to whether the injuries will be newsworthy enough, but she insists the picture is taken. The photography, Zvi Gilat, asks to see her legs. She refuses. They are her legs, he cannot see them.
The conversation goes like this:
Photographer: Show me your legs.
Mrs Abu-Zohir: I won't show you my legs. You're not going to see my legs.
Photographer to translator: Explain to her that this photo is going to appear in the newspapers, and the entire world is going to see her legs.
Mrs Abu-Zohir: A photo's a photo. I don't care if the photo is seen, but you're not going to be in the room with me when I expose my legs.
Instead, Gilat sets up the camera for the female translator to photographer her legs. The photograph is taken but 'nothing has concluded.' ... 'the photo, existing in the public space, will not allow photography to end, nor will she alone dictate its course... Nothing has concluded, though the hour of photography has passed.'
Sunday, 10 February 2019
image by Marc Garanger
There was a social media conversation last week about writing about photography and the right to check what somebody has written about you. The photographer was putting his case for the right to check what is written, but also that the writer conforms to the 'right' interpretation.
I can understand that in a way, especially when there are technical aspects to the work (as with this work by Liz Orton - I am not really an expert on clinical imaging) or it's of a sensitive nature.
All this makes for extra work for the writer of course, and very often that is essential to getting accuracy out. At times however, there are occasions when the writing or platform (as with this blog) is more incidental, when time and money pressures kick in and there simply isn't time to check everything.
I have worked in circumstances where photographers have checked what is written and it is nearly always beneficial. On occasions though, it is a case where they want something rephrased, or they say something interesting and challenging - and decide that actually they didn't say that and they would rather be less interesting and challenging. They blandify the writing or their thoughts (I had one photographer take out the phrase 'human rights violations' once because they thought it 'too dramatic').
And then there are times when photographers are simply are unwilling to acknowledge that the work is going out into the world and will be examined and spoken about in ways beyond their control in the same way as when a person has their picture taken, they never (even when they think they have) have control over where it will end up, be reproduced or be understood.
It's a lost opportunity. Writing about your own work opens it up to different forms of understanding. Having other people write about your work, interpret your work, make connections can be terrifying and wonderful opens it up to even more levels of understanding. It makes new links that go beyond photography, creates new relationships. In the best of worlds, it means you start to see new things in your own photographs. You don't get that if you want someone to regurgitate your particular version of events.
It also recognises that images are not pinned down, that they do not operate in closed circles, closed ways of seeing, That's why research matters in photography, why if you just say something is great without research or questioning then you are operating at a trivial level.
Letting others read meaning into your photographs also shows a certain humbleness. It moves photography away from the smoke and mirrors of contemporary practice in bookmaking, curating, exhibiting and places them into a wider context. It acknowledges there is more than one way of seeing and that time is a great leveller, that can open images up to ideas that go beyond the original function in which images are made.
There are gaps in photography, the meaning of an image is never fixed. Even photography made under the most difficult circumstances isn't fixed - it can be renewed, recontextualised, re-evaluated.
This gap is what Ariella Azoulay writes about in the Civil Contract of Photography, the idea that a photograph has its place in a world that exists beyond the moment in which the image is made, beyond the functions that endowed the image with a particular meaning. Sometimes the purpose of looking at photography is to undermine and question those particular meanings, to find new meanings and expand the world beyond what the photography was supposed to be.
You can see this in particular in Marc Garanger's images from Algeria. As Teju Cole so rightly points out, you hope that pictures aren't made in these circumstances again. You hope that those circumstances don't happen again, but of course they do happen, they are happening, they will happen.
Unfortunately pictures did get made in these circumstance serving particular functions for empire and war. But despite this, the life they attained when they went beyond the power structures of French colonial archives is an example of...
''...the multiplicity of memories and responses they generate, even outside of the specific moment of their production. As such, they can aid in mobilising what Michael Rothberg termed a ‘multidirectional memory’ — a type of memory that engages with parallel memory strands.'
The photographer did not have total control in other words, the considerable framing powers of the identity archive and those who press-ganged him into becoming a photographer in Algeria were not enough to bound how the images were seen (and indeed Garanger's sympathies may be evident in how the images are ultimately being seen).
What gives these images power is the women themselves. The gazes these women give are not just directed at Garanger and the failures of photography (both of which are relatively inconsequential in the scheme of things), they are directed at something much larger, the injustices of colonial rule, the brutal oppression of the French.
They are such powerful images and there is an agency there that is monumental. It was agency that was initially closed off. The making of the images was one where these women were non--people, flawed citizens made a statement with their eyes, with their expression. There is anger, confrontation, indignation, but also sadness, sorrow, and feat. Collectively, it provides a manifesto in some form, an emotional manifesto that is directed not just at Garanger-as-photographer (he returned to the village to interview and rephotograph the women) and the French military authorities responsible for making the work.
Tied in to that idea is the notion that the spectator is implicated in the work, they are not passive recipients of the image. Photography is not a controlled thing in other works, images are not controlled, they have gaps and can attain a life of their own. And the life that lies beyond the image is not in the hands of the photographer, or the archive, it goes beyond it. In that sense, photography is a redundant thing, it's the passive element in all this, the marginal recorder of things. It's not the thing, it's a symptom of the thing, if even that; maybe it's only a symptom of a symptom, who knows.
Wednesday, 6 February 2019
all images copyright Liz Orton
These images are from Liz Orton's investigations into the medical gaze and her attempts to rehumanise a way of looking at the body that is depersonalising and comes with a barrelful of fetishised and dominating ways of seeing that date back to the photography of Charcot, Duchenne and Diamond back to the time of photo illustration.
The illustrations come from different editions of Clark's positioning for radiography (an incredible guiide filled with off-kilter, sexualised images - health and efficiency with added radium if you like), while the scans are Orton's attempts to rehumanise the body, reclaim it from the data that it has become under the medical gaze. It's not entirely successful as Orton admits but here, more than just about anywhere I can think of, it's the process that matters. And still the images are amazing.
Liz Orton uses medical imaging and clinical representation to focus on the medical gaze and its power relations. Through collaborative portraits, co-opted algorithms, and appropriated and cropped images from medical textbooks, she seeks to reclaim what makes us human from the hard facts and figures of medical imaging and the ways of seeing that accompany them.
It’s work that humanises images that are seen as evidential, scientific and objective yet come with a history that is tied to ideas of institutional power, surveillance and male dominated hierarchies. In that sense, her work is not just about the medical gaze, it’s about the history of photography and the ways in which it is used against people.
It’s also work that has a personal edge, its roots sunk in Orton’s experience of a ‘non-invasive’ MRI scan her 13-month-old daughter had to undergo at Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Saturday, 2 February 2019
My review of The Mirror Chair Project by Agus Prats is up on Instagram TV. You can watch it here.
It's a book which shows Agus's meanderings through the streets of Barcelona, with images of the doorways, shop fronts and windows he photographed to remember the attack that left him paralysed and the recovery that saw these pictures made.
See more about the project and buy the book here.
Friday, 1 February 2019
I spoke to Alec Soth yesterday on photographing without the burden of the project, without the weight of expectation of the grand narrative, on using photography to connect between photographer, person and place in a manner uncluttered by the idea of the epic.
"It was a cleansing of the palate," he said, "a cleaning of the system and getting back to this fundamental experience of being with another person, looking at them, wondering what’s going on inside them."
I love that idea of the photographer with no destination, wandering nebulously to create a visual map of what it is to photograph people, a template of visual being, of some kind of emotional truth. Because that is what photography is all about really. Except when it's not of course.
And it does beg the question of where else the photographic palate could be cleansed.
I'll post the full interview later but it's in connection with this book, I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating.
The title comes from this poem by Wallace Stevens, a poem that is all about distance and closeness, finding beauty in this gray room, finding consolation in the essential separateness of life. Which is what Soth's book is all about
The Gray Room
Although you sit in a room that is gray,
Except for the silver
Of the straw-paper,
At your pale white gown;
Or lift one of the green beads
Of your necklace,
To let it fall;
Or gaze at your green fan
Printed with the red branches of a red willow;
Or, with one finger,
Move the leaf in the bowl--
The leaf that has fallen from the branches of the forsythia
What is all this?
I know how furiously your heart is beating.
Friday, 25 January 2019
Conhecidos De Vista by Leticia Lampert is a lovely folding book of apartment blocks in Porto Alegre in Brazil. It's an inside-outside book. One side folds out to show the exterior of the building, the other side shows interiors.
It's a book that is curated by the apartment caretakers. They are the people who gave Lampert access to the apartments. No appointments were made, instead Lampert turned up and tried her luck. And she got lucky.
The images of the outsides spread across the accordion fold so one building merges into another, the anonymous shutters, balconies and ac units blending into one homogenous mass. But it's the people who make the project; they dine, they clean, they change, they look, they smile.
So it's Rear Window Dirty Windows, High Rise (Window), with Ed Ruscha, and Montparnasse thrown in for good measure.
Flip the page over and you get the interiors, dark lounge rooms with sofas, tvs, and tables and chairs. Again the pictures move over the lines, one folding into the next to show (less successfully than with the exteriors) the communal, shared nature of life. The images come with quotes, of lives shared, bodies seen, allegiances followed; the neighbours who supported the same football team, the woman who invited herself to a neighbour's party when she saw the plates being laid out, a clothes line strung out (and then taken down) between two facing apartments, the 96-year-old who never leaves.
It's a thick solid book, but one that is surprisingly easy to handle and open, an affectionate book on how we live in cities, how we manage (although surprisingly there is no outright hostility in there, and very few mentions of noise) our curiosity when we live in a hive.
Buy the book here.
Friday, 18 January 2019
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
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.”