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The final workshop of the year and for a while is  on December 14th Email me at colinpantall@yahoo.co.uk with any questions I'...

Thursday, 14 November 2019

In the Morgue

A morgue freezer; images copyright Arun Vijai Mathavan

Thanks to \Prashant Panjiar for the pointer to Arun Vijai Mathavan who has made this work on Indian morturaries in Tamil Nadu and Andra Pradesh. It's a story about the dalit people who work in the morgue, the people who do post-mortems, it's stuck with me because it's so unexpected and the images are all about the people, the space and the little details like where they sleep and what they eat, and the poverty and prejudice that comes with their work.

Morgue stories usually focus on the dead and either how peaceful they look, how artful they look, the transformation of face to mask, and the conflict between symbols of life and symbols of death and the natural entropy that overtakes us all.

There's a curator of a museum of death in London who once said that we are never more alive than when we die, that our living body is a mechanism of defensive strategies for limiting the species that live in our body. Life, to her, is a controlled farming exercise where the human cells that make up 10% of the body's 100 trillion cells control the 90% of the  viruses, microbes, and bacteria that are not human. When we die however, these cells are allowed to flourish, as are the mass of other microbes, flora and fauna that devour our body. For her, a human body is never more alive than in the few weeks after death. Which is a pretty good perspective for a curator of a museum of death to take.

By the same token, here it's the life that surrounds death, that is created by the death of these morgue inhabitants that is the essence of the project. The bodies are not irrelevant, but they are a side detail. And that's an interesting perspective to take.

Here's a description of the story from Chennai Photo Biennale.

What we do with our dead, how we regard them, is dependent on the specific conditions into which we are born—belief, religion, language, place, sect, caste, gender and, in recent times, science. In India, those classified as ‘untouchables’ or ‘Dalits’ have been forced to handle the dead for centuries. The manner in which they are compelled to do this in modern, state-run hospitals has gone unnoticed and undocumented. My project proposes to shine a light on an unknown, shrouded world.

We live in a time when unnatural deaths are subjected to investigation. Before a surgeon handles the body, a team of trained staff prepares it. There are elaborate procedures relating to how the body should be handled and what the qualifications a technician should have. After the autopsy, highly skilled work is performed; the corpse is wrapped; the ventilators are removed; no visible incision is left to be seen; the viscera are carefully handled; and the body is reconstituted by sewing it back together. In all this, the coroner is assisted by a team of lab technicians.

In India, the reality of this process is shockingly different from our perception. In almost all hospitals in India, a range of tasks, sometimes even the opening of the torso with the Y-incision, is done by semi-literate, low-level staff. They belong to the Dalit communities. Official identity cards designate the men as “Sanitary Workers.” Much like other stigmatized work in a society organized by caste, such as handling all manner of waste (including human excreta), the cleaning of sewers, or the skinning of animal carcasses, this modern work too has become hereditary. The ill-equipped workers, with outmoded refrigerators and crude implements, perform heroic tasks in dismal conditions. They suffer from several occupational ailments and work-related infections from handling the decomposed, verminous bodies. Tasked with endowing dignity on the dead, they face a social death. The untrained, underpaid, Dalits cannot tell their friends and neighbors what they do for a living.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Human Sites of Memory: The Story isn't Simple

image from Enghelab Street 

Hannah Darabi, Dragana Jurisic and Maria Kapajeva spoke at a symposium I chaired in Bristol the other week. 

Hannah spoke on her book Enghelab Street (which won the Best Catalogue prize in Paris Photo the other week - even though it's not a catalogue) and the ways in which conflicting narratives have been squeezed out from the 1979 Iranian Revolution by the idea of an over-arching Islamic Revolution.

Except it wasn't an Islamic Revolution - in the same way the American Civil War wasn't a war to free the slaves and Britain didn't stand alone against the Nazis. Myths are there to be made.

It's a false narrative where images, typography and design are used to claim and counter claim individual, national and symbolic histories in the name of a post-memory Islamic Revolution. She told stories of counter-memories and micro-memories that are stored in books, in bodies, in minds, that have a latent energy that can potentially shift histories and maybe even ways of thinking.

Image copyright Dragana Jurisic

Dragana talked about the history of Yugoslavia, the wars, the death, the ordinariness of it all, and the way that nationalisms creep into our lives, seep into our every pore, there right in front of our eyes but somehow invisible. 

Maria Kapajeva talked about how personal narratives cut through and intersect with dominant political and economic storylines, and in particular how women's experiences of family, work and space overlap in her project  Dream is Wonderful, Yet Unclear.

These came in her project on a former textile mill where her mother used to work. It closed down after being bought by a Swedish company. They bought it to close it down because it was a competitor. That narrative is repeated across many former Communist countries and maybe a little closer to home as well.

The commonly held notion that Soviet Bloc economies collapsed solely because of inefficiencies and incompetence and corruption is appealing because it indicates our western superiority and the power of capitalism to bulldoze over any belief or value system that runs counter to its destructive force.

The narratives that Kapajeva unearthed in the textile mill are simple, they are filled with life, they are embedded in personal histories that we can all understand and relate to, and are also complicated with nostalgia and an over compensating post-memory. Nothing is clear.. The narratives come from more micro-narratives, from altenative sites of memory that were lived rather than conceived, from the diary of workers who wrote of how to avoid pregnancy, how to lose weight, how to cope with a punishing workload - and a family - and domestic work - and still have a life. 

They come from the memories of the women who worked in the mill, memories that are laced with a nostalgia that is at times candy-coated. They come from idealised visions of textile mills in Soviet cinema, visions that overlap with concrete memories of community, achievement, and sense of belonging. 

On one level moving from a single  nationalist economic narrative to fragmented personal narratives is moving from the simple to the complex, from the single over reaching story arc to something that is more nuanced.

On another level it's moving from the  complex to the simple. The narratives of national identity are abstract and metaphysical in nature. They lack a voice, a grounding, they seek to find their place in ever more fanciful conjectures. They are made up. They lack substance. They are smoke and mirrors. 

The narratives Harabi, Jurisic and Kapajeva are interested in  are personal and  link people, place and economics. They are not simple, they are not moral, they are black and white, they don't make sweeping generalisations, they don't even fit into one simple story arc. But they are sited in human bodies, in human flesh, in places that have a life beyond abstractions of ideology and economics.

They don't necessarily make some grand conclusion. They simply are. 

The same idea in a slightly different way comes from Riffae Tammas  who talks about the difficulty of being a refugee who is expected to fit into some preformed story package.

How many stories do we hear about the challenges of young people adapting to a completely new education system? The difficulty of finding employment? The joy of discovery in a new country? If we are genuinely interested in supporting refugees, then we should focus on stories about their present and future, not just their past.

Which again is about human sites of memory that don't fit into pre-conceived narratives or story arcs however well meaning. 

Monday, 4 November 2019

Some rules about how to take great pictures

 How do you know if a picture is any good?

My latest piece on World Press Photo looks at many things, but especially the idea of what good photography is and the rules that we generate to uphold our idea of good photography.

The idea of good photography is tied up with linear ideas of the grid (there is nothing more panoptical than an image fitting into linear frameworks), of orthodox framing and use of light, and a whole range of  taste questions that run across genre and media.

And so you have any number of ways of telling what is a good photograph or is not a good photograph. There's EveryPixel (I've written about this before), a really stupid but addictive app that rates the chances of your photograph being awesome.

On a photojournalistic-conceptual level, there's Max Pinckers' and  Dries Depoorter's Trophy Camera. This uses World Press Photo winning pictures to analyse the likelihood of your picture winning a World Press Photo. And beneath the surface of all this, there is something that is a bit too close to the bone going on. We make pictures that look like other pictures. We make pictures that look like documentary pictures, or photojournalistic pictures, or to get a lot of likes on Instagram. At a supposedly higher end, we make pictures that we think will sell in the art market. We add a graph or a blue dot, or use a blue gel, or turn the picture into a sculpture, because... that's what makes it good right, or will get us a show or a bit of attention, or make us some money. Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or something to run away from.

And if it is, where should we run away to?

There's Ivars Gravlejs' Useful Advice for Photographers, a collection of  Photography Rules (the book was so popular it sold out) which looks at the basic fundamentals of what makes a good photograph - which are actually quite bad, but then are actually good because they are conceptual art pieces. And they also point to what taste evaluates as good or bad so you can see the places where the opposite of good has become good in a particular sub genre or functional area of photography. And of course when the bad becomes good, it becomes orthodox and so is bad again - think the blurred, grainy, out-of-focus thing which Takuma Nakahira was saying was exhausted moments after it was invented.

Nakahira's is just one of many ideas of the exhausted language of photography, and then there are do's and don'ts, cliches to avoid, and there are books that tell you things like>>.

Read this if you want to take great photographs
Image result for read this if you want to take great pictures

Obviously there's only a 1.8% chance of that book being awesome considering the images they chose.

You can Google search for how to take great photographs and arrive at Kodak Moments@

Then grab your camera and start shooting your way to great pictures.
Look your subject in the eye.
Use a plain background.
Use flash outdoors.
Move in close.
Move it from the middle.
Lock the focus.
Know your flash's range.
Watch the light.

Or you can find Petapixel rules which includes stuff I never knew...

35. Hold your camera properly

You might not know it, but there is a right way and a wrong way to hold a DSLR camera. The correct way is to support the lens by cupping your hand underneath it. This is usually done with the left hand, with your right hand gripping the body of the camera. This helps to prevent camera shake. If you are gripping your camera with your hands on either side of the camera body, there is nothing supporting the lens, and you might end up with blurry photos. To get an even stabler stance, tuck your elbows into the side of your body.

But it does have this excellent rule.

18. Charge your batteries

This seems like a simple one, but pretty much every photographer on the face of the planet has been caught out before. Including myself. The trick is to put the battery onto the charger as soon as you get home from your photo shoot. The only thing then is to make sure you remember to put it back into the camera after it has been recharged… 

Er, and there's more as well, and to be honest, most of it is great advice most of the time. The trouble is if you follow any of it, you'll end up making pictures like everybody else. Perhaps that doesn't matter even. The point is to tell a different story to anybody else... and you can do that with exactly the same pictures. So maybe the rules are good, who knows, it's Monday....

Anyway, you can read the article here. 

And if you're a painter, so you don't feel left out....

Baldessari tips to sell paintings

John Baldessari, "Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell," (1966-68). Acrylic on canvas. 68 x 56 1/2 in. (172.7 x 143.5 cm). (Courtesy The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica / © John Baldessari)

Sunday, 27 October 2019

An English Journey

I went up to Northumberland last weekend, to the strange town of Allendale where my sister lives. We went for a long walk in the countryside, through the pissing rain because that suits the landscape.

It's a landscape of sodden moors, old lead mines, flues and chimneys. There are stone walls, fences, and sheep. And then you come off the moor and go into the woodlands and there are pheasants, partridges and grouse; millions of them.

There are tubs of feed stuck at intervals in this private land, feed that keeps the birds fat as well as stupid, to slow them down enough so that pissed up  city boys in landrovers, or country boys in landrovers, can outwit them with a Purdey, a game dog, and a full-house of beaters.

History is written beneath the land throuigh these mines, through this ownership, through where you are allowed to roam and where you are not. There are divided loyalties, ancient grudges, and diverting claims over this land. You can feel it.

It's feudal country and all around you can see weird marks of this feudalism that run full intoWicker Man (without the fun bits) territory; shot crows hung up to on tree branches, rows of moles strung along fences (go to the bottom for more on catching moles), scores of ferrets heaped in bloody piles.

It points to a different idea of the English landscape than that we are accustomed to. It's bloody, and brutal and you're not quite sure who's being threatened by lines of dead crows and moles. Is it to warn off the moles and crows, or just a reminder to dumb city folk like myself exactly who owns the land.

And who owns the land , and how they own the land is the thing. My friend Deborah Parkin lives here  and has had convoys of 20 land rovers skimming along her road with Prince William waving as they passed. That's a convoy that is burdened with so many assumptions.  Or here's a map showing pheasant densities in England, along with details of who owns what and the environmental costs and contradictions of gamebird farming. And it's all very complicated, right from the question of whether a pheasant is livestock or wildlife (it depends on if you want a tax break or if you want to shoot it. Even law is written for some people's convenience).

So that was where I spent my weekend and then I headed back south and stopped off at services and came back to earth with a a bucket of  man-breast chicken. From one England to another, or are they two sides of the same thing and how do they connect and what does it all mean?

I don't know. But J.B. Priestly wrote a book about England in 1934 called English Journey.

J.B. Priestley’s English Journey is a portrait of England in crisis, a unique document made at the point in history when the prosperity of the Victorian age which had been propelled through the second decade of the Twentieth Century by a war economy, tumbled into the abyss of worldwide economic depression.

Political extremism stalked the south while mass unemployment and the grim desolation of boarded up factories and silent shipyards haunted England’s northern regions.

Priestley’s account of a nation in decline was to influence political thought in Britain for decades and inspire photographers as important as Bill Brandt and Humphrey Spender to venture to the unfashionable north to capture on film the industrial landscapes and the lives of the working people.

Priestley was asking the kind of questions that would still be relevant now. And John Angerson has asked those questions again in his book English Journey.

This is a book where Angerson follows in the footsteps of Priestley and finds his own answers to English identity.

Angerson's England is not a rural-urban polarity, it's not north v south, or rich v poor, it's mixed, it's confused, it's a hotchpotch of denuded semi-industrial landscapes that appear in a really beautifully designed book (and isn't it great to see something with design that doesn't look like it was learnt on a youtube  video) that mirrors but diverges from the original.


The pictures are made on a five four Wista, and are then pasted into the book as glossy prints of a size corresponding to the original negatives more or less, and flipped 90 degrees so you need to turn the book to look at them. You have to work a bit to see them in other words. I'm not quite sure why they are printed like this, but it works.

These are quiet pictures, quite flat in their content, but they have a power that goes beyond the surface of the image. There are pictures of docks, hotel chains, American football, a KFC franchise. Liverpool F.C.'s pitch gets a look in - we see only the turf and halfway line. There are images of war, of migration, of Britain's fading glory, of industrial sites repurposed as retail parks or parcel delivery warehouses.


There are migrant workers, wannabe models, call centre workers, and the Adelphi hotel in LIverpool, where passengers for the Titanic stayed before its journey to the bottom of the sea.


Each image is accompanied by a short bit of text that is laconic and cuts to a deadpan chase. These texts add to the images and create a momentum as the book progresses. It's a momentum of questioning and doubt about what it means to be English. Angerson doesn't really give us any answers, but instead takes us on a journey that questions Priestley, himself, and all the assumptions we have about Englishness.

It's direct and it's hard and it goes to places, very quietly, that so few books of English photography do. There's no reliance on the great image, or a well-worn nostalgia, you don't feel like you are looking at something either pre-conceived or from the past. It's contemporary in the extreme, it's unforgiving, and it's beautifully printed and designed.

But you can buy it and see more images here with a selection of 20 different covers .

Oh and if you're interested in mole catchers, there's a whole nother world out there....

Mole catchers.

'On a blustery Sunday morning, I met Rob Atkinson near his home in Ludlow. Atkinson is the former chief scientist for the RSPCA and author of the natural history book The Mole. Although he corresponded with Nicholls while at the RSPCA and has supported research on mole traps, he came to realise that they had different goals. For Atkinson, it wasn’t enough to find nicer ways to kill moles – he didn’t want them to be killed at all.

Atkinson is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man who has wavy grey hair and a downy white beard, and I couldn’t imagine him harming a single creature. He admitted to me, however, that he was once tasked with clearing moles out of his parents’ garden. He still remembers the excitement he felt when he would see a sprung trap. But, he added, “even, then, there was this sadness”. The landscape, once dynamic and alive, soon grew still. The rain washed over the molehills and they gradually flattened out. “You’ve done what you intended to do, but there’s a feeling that something is gone that was once here,” he said. Moles are in no danger of becoming extinct, but they are a reminder of Britain’s ancient natural history. Unlike other species, such as the grey squirrel, which were introduced by humans in recent centuries, the resident mole has lived in Britain for more than 350,000 years.

In the late 1980s, Atkinson studied the lives of moles while working on his master’s degree at the University of Oxford. He interviewed farmers about their impact, and tracked the movements of moles in the field. He came to the conclusion that mole catching was, for the most part, useless – a practice that should have died out years ago. In fact, scientists believe that moles benefit vegetable crops by turning the soil and eating pests.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Carmelo Stompo and Kindness in Photography

 all pictures copyright Carmelo Stompo

I interviewed Max Pinckers the other week. We were talking about originality in photography, apps and the idea that everything has already been photographed, it's already been done. We talked about the idea of the good photo, and what that even means.

The idea of a 'good' photo is insidious. Most 'good' photos are not very interesting or original or even good. And then people start trying to make deliberately 'bad' pictures to be creative, original and break out of the 'good' photo mode. They make them blurred, or grainy, or off kilter, or burnt out. And then the bad pictures become the 'good' pictures and we're back where we started because who wants to see another set of overexposed, or purple, or blurry pictures.

There are good good faces, good backdrops, good people to photograph, good tonal ranges, good materials, good themes. Everything fits into a pre-ordered template - but as soon as something becomes 'good' it becomes a bit of a cliche right. Just go to Paris Photo or Photo-London and you can see that, you can see where people are making work that fits into something that fits the market, that ticks the critical boxes. It's soul destroying.

And then there are good photobooks. You see them, they have nice paper, nice design, nice covers, nice everything. And they are so good that maybe that goodness is just a mask that shields the fact that they might be not that good. There's the idea that what makes them good has become a bit of a trope and that we're all being blinded by tropes. Some of my favourite books are made by Mack, APE, Akina, RPS, Ceiba, Eriskay etc etc, but sometimes the books are so good I don't know if they are good anymore.

The same thing applies with critical ideas. There are the right ideas and the right themes, and there are smart people who  work with those to make work that fits into particularly critical niches (the really smart people just make interesting work that critical ideas apply to).

I've been looking at some great books on migration recently but I wonder if the rhetoric that applies to them isn't a bit rehashed sometimes, isn't said because that is what you are supposed to say. It's defensive theory to block off criticism that dehumanises and objectifies. Perhaps ideas that restaging and collaboration, and giving people cameras, that scratching and painting and writing, going all the way back to Wendy Ewald and beyond, aren't just a bit tired. Is it just something we say to make ourselves feel less guilty or does it actually mean something. i don't know.

Or is giving somebody a camera or asking them to draw on their pictures or make a collage aren't the most patronising and colonial thing ever., more concerned with the photographer as moral hero than with anything else. Or perhaps the whole calvinist tone of so much of this theory shares more with a colonial era vicar ministering to his flock and lecturing them on the evils of this or that. It shuts out so much, and can be joyless in a way that belongs to a particular geographic and economic privilege. It's like watching what I imagine a Church of England sermon would be on a small British colonised island (oh, and there is theory that thinks the same thing - the greatest legacy of British colonialism is its shitty, condescending moralising voice)

But at the same time, why not, what the heck, talk about broad brushstroke generalisation! As long as it's fun and it's nice and you're not claiming to much. But if you're claiming too much, I don't think so.

Anyway, this is a preamble to Carmelo Stompo's book, Never Stop. It's a book abour Arouna, a Senegalese migrant who Carmelo ran into in his hometown of Catania, Sicily. It doesn't claim too much, and it's kind.

I saw the work at a workshop I ran there and it was great, a mix of images that Carmelo spoke of with great kindness and affection towards Arouna. It told the stories of Arouna's journey from Senegal, his arrival in Catania, and the limbo he found himself in. It's a story of the multiple near deaths he experienced along the way, adn the one he is living through in limbo in Catania.

And within that limbo, the one consolation for Arouna is the people he met along the way, the people he is surviving with, and Carmelo himself. The pictures are great, the story goes beyond the trope of the journey (although I think the story is still continuing, it's just beginning), and Carmelo published the book to raise some funds to rent a flat for Arouna in Catania.

The problem with Carmelo  Never Stop is there isn't really a problem (aside from the text which helps tell the story is almost impossible to read and could be used to much stronger effect). It's a book of kindness because Carmelo is a very kind man, it's a book of hope, because he's an optimistic man It's a beautiful book and it's human. It tells the story of Arouna, the Senegalese boy who ended up in Catania, Sicily, Stompo's hometown. Stompo befriended him, hung out with him, ate with him, helped him find papers and shelter. He's still helping him find shelter. That's part of what the book is about.

He photographed his whole story in fictionalise form - his departure from Senegal and Gambia - his journey across the desert, his arrival in Libya, his escape from Libya, his journey across the sea, and his arrival into the limbo of Catania.

It's a story where Arouna came close to death four times - in the desert, in the badlands of Libya, in the Mediterranean, and perhaps a living death in Catania. And the pictures are great.

But it doesn't fit the theoretical migrant project mode, because that's not how it was made or what it was made for and that's not who Carmelo is. It's an honest book then that doesn't tick theoretical boxes with a nod to collaboration and consent (even though that is exactly how it was made), even if most of these theoretical constructs are arbitrary and contingent. Carmelo helps Arouna, and he does, and that's in there, he's kind to Arouna and that's in there, and photographs him through images that are cinematic ni quality.

And I love that. And I look forward to the ongoing story of Arouna, and how he survives in Catania and beyond, and the pressures of living in Catania and beyond, and if he can ever make a life for himself in Catania and beyond. Because in the story so far, Stompo has humanised and visualised a journey, a brutality, and the quagmire of asylum in images and words.

Buy Never Stop here.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Colour:It's all so real

My German Family Album in colour via my favourite new app.

It's  great but terrible at the same.

All the cliches of time, colour, and memory apply but exactly how and why?

The best think  is they get colourised in a desaturated kind of way, which brings with it it's own expectations.

It's  all about making pictures we have seen before. And I've seen them before, so l is well and good, except the parts that are not.

It's  so real!

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Love conquers all. And that is the problem.

The Second Shift by Clare Gallagher is a book about 'the invisible domestic labour of housework and childcare carried out by women on top of their paid employment. It is physical, mental and emotional labour which demands effort, skill, and time but is unpaid, unaccounted for, unequally  distributed and largely unrecognised.'

It's a homage to the domestic, with small details coming out that flicker between the quiet moments of the small drudgeries of everyday life and the love for one's child that is expressed through those domestic labours. The two aren't separate and even the small comforts of cutting a child's hair or comforting them on your lap come with an afterlife of fatigue, mess, and more labour. It's a vicious circle where one cannot be separated from the other, where the costs of love, affection and caring are a myriad sources of unpaid, and unrecognised labours.

It's a great subject, one which has been present since, ooh, however long you care to imagine, and is expressed in brilliant domestic works by loads of people including Jo Spence, half of the feminist avant-garde exhibition from a few years back, and the American artist whose name escapes me who had an exhibition at the Arnolfini a few years ago on maintenance art - that's art that you can do while you're clearing up the house basically. Google it, you'll find it, I've decided that it's more fun to try to describe stuff I don't remember rather than googling everything.

It's a quiet book with images that resonate. The mess looks like a mess, it feels like a mess, it lies there inert waiting to be cleaned. And it's very likely that Gallagher is the one who will be doing the cleaning.

There's text in there, statements that pinpoint the mindsets that create and uphold this labour by women, this mental load of motherhood (I'm running a series of images on Instagram). Here's a little example from de Beauvoir and Sartre who manage to crystallise the dilemma perfectly.

And you can bet your bottom sou that Sartre left the toilet seat up, probably pissed up against the wall, and flicked ash all over the floor and didn't give a shit. But then nor did Simone I guess. But then maybe she did, I don't know. I could look for that - google Sartre and messy fucker and de Beauvoir and housework and see where it takes me, but mmm, that's just like reaffirming the problem in digital form. And sometimes it's more fun to imagine.

... Anyway this is what they said.

‘Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition. The clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.’                                                                                            
Simone de Beauvoir

I understand the snare of the slimy: it is a fluidity which holds me and which compromises me; I cannot slide on this slime, all its suction cups hold me back; it cannot slide over me, it clings to me like a leech.’
Jean-Paul Sartre

It's a thoughtful book, a book with a soul and with a little tinge of anger and frustration that is kept mostly under wraps. Because love conquers all. And that, essentially, is the problem..

You can buy it here maybe?