Sunday, 25 May 2008
Lewis Hamilton won the Monaco Grand Prix today and now makes his home in Switzerland - which he doesn't like because it's boring. Bears - woods. Pope - Catholic. Switzerland...
Which leads us to the ad at the top, which is from the Swiss People's Party campaign of 2007, and could be indicative of a few other reasons not to be mad keen on living in Switzerland.
The Curious George/Obama in 08 T-shirt is a more localized American example of a similar thing (and one reason this isn't the same as showing George Bush as a monkey, is because Obama isn't).
The sign in the window is a pre-race-relations act bed and breakfast ad from England. And, last of all, courtesy of Simon Roberts come these contemporary versions from the Little England town of Stow-on-the-Wold - which, Simon Says, mysteriously shut down for a few days during the recent Stow Gypsy Horse Fair.
Thursday, 22 May 2008
picture - Sebastiao Salgado
From mines in Kentucky, to mines in Brazil and this image from Salgado's Sierra Pelada series. I love this image for its complexity - it combines economic, racial, social and environmental elements in a manner that also resonates with symbolism from the religious and art historical.
Salgado has been criticised for the sentimentality of his work and the inherent exploitation of its subject - Victim photography with a capital V. Alfredo Jaar was one critic - he made his own pictures of Sierra Pelada miners and showed them in a massive print in a gallery setting as a counterpoint to Salgado's exploitative images.
Not sure quite what the thinking was behind Jaar's rhetoric and how the agency or empowerment of the miners quite worked out in the scheme of things. I'm not even sure if ethics and exploitation are even terms that should apply for photographers working in this situation. It is a little self-centred to measure a humble snapper's (and great as he is, Salgado is just a humble snapper - as is Dijkstra, Mann, Lux, Crewdson, Sherman or whoever) efforts on the same level as the economic wheels that destroy an environment and the people that live in it.
Anyways, the great thing about old school photographers like Salgado is they do get straight to the point and show the peopled environment - he shows the environment people live in, their effect on it and the effect economic forces have on how they live in it.
I find this much more appealing than abstracted representations of environmental disaster, famine or war - representations that remove the people from the equation and show aftermaths of events denuded of human habitation. Jacques Ellul’s suggested propaganda was "an enterprise for perverting the significance of events."
Sure, Salgado might have once had a sentimental optimism (and why not?), but he also addressed the issue head on - he didn't pervert the significance of events.
By contrast, photographers who denude a landscape or nation of its people do, perhaps not in isolation, but certainly in combination with the work of others and also by circumstance do. Two of the main British representations of Afghanistan in recent years are Simon Norfolk's Afghanistan and Paul Seawright's Hidden. Hidden is a sophisticated work (by far my favourite of Seawright's work) but it doesnt' stand in isolation. Throw Norfolk's work in, add the odd Sunday Times photo-essay of marines camping out in the desert, follow up with a bit of Royal PR on behalf of Prince Harry, watch BBC Television's broadcasts on the Eurasian campaign and a common theme emerges - nobody lives in Afghanistan, there are no people there ( bar the odd balloon seller) the place is empty, the enemy is invisible and it's just a dried up old desert. That's what we are repeatedly shown and that is what we see - a perception that does "pervert the significance of events".
Except it's not a dried up desert of course. So, given the option between picturesque images of pockmarked palaces and orphans and war dead, I'll take the latter anyday, even Luc Delahaye.
Wednesday, 21 May 2008
picture - Shelby Lee Adams
This story from yesterday's Independent about coal-mining in Kentucky reminded me of lots of things. It reminded me of Indonesia, where the Mormon Mining Company of West Papua (aka Freeport McMoran) removes mountain tops, poisons water and displaces and dispatches the local people - almost the same as happens in Kentucky.It reminded me of Daniel Shea's recent work, and the older Appalachian work of Wendy Ewald, Shelby-Lee Adams and Susan Lipper. And it reminded me of great mining photograpy, especially that of Marcus Bleasdale and Sebastiao Salgado.
And most of all, when the article mentioned the failure of Obama or Clinton to take on the American mining lobby or defend the environment, it reminded me not to expect too much of whoever becomes the next US president.The Independent
The act of destroying a million-year-old mountain has several distinct stages. First it is earmarked for removal and the hardwood forest cover, containing over 500 species of tree per acre in this region, is bulldozed away. The trees are typically burnt rather than logged, because mining companies are not in the lumber business. Then topsoil is scraped away and high explosives laid in the sandstone. Thousands of blasts go off across the region every day, blowing up what the mining industry calls "overburden".
The rubble is then tipped into the valleys – more than 7,000 have already been filled – and more than 700 miles of rivers and streams have disappeared under rubble and thousands more soiled with toxic waste.
End Mountaintop Removal
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth
Monday, 19 May 2008
Wednesday, 14 May 2008
Mr Third-Rate Photographer here (at least that's what it says on my business card) with some extracts from Xiaolu Guo's excellent( first novel )20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth.
You can check any Chinese dictionary, there's no word for romance. We say 'Lo Man', copying the English pronunciation. What the fuck use was a word like romance to me anyway? There wasn't much of it about in China, and Beijing was the least romantic place in the whole universe.
'Fenfang, how are you? this is Old Third-Rate Director, but you can just call me Old Third.'
'Ah, hello, Old Third.'
The Chinese Film and Television Bureau has a rigid four-tier classification system for Directors: first-rate, second-rate, third-rate and fourth-rate. But the loss of face that would have to be endured by someone with Fourth-Rate Director printed on their business card meant that I had yet to meet one.'
The routine of a small, desolate village can rule its inhabitants' lives more effectively than an imperial dynasty. Fo thousands of years, people have done the same thing. In our village, it went like this: if, around, four in the morning, you heard a rooster in the yard singing five notes, then you knew with absolute certainty that you would hear the same rooster at the same time the next morning, singing at exactly the same pitch and frequency, just as roosters have done since the beginning of time, and would do for ever more.
Or one afternoon, as the sun fell into the valley, ou might see an old man carrying an old axe and walking along the fields.He might cough twice and spit once.And then, just wait, because the next afternoon, when the sun started to fall into the damn valley, you would see that same old man carrying the same old damn axe slowly walking along the fields. Again, he would cough exactly twice and spit exactly once. Whenever I heard this cough, I wanted to kill myself. You see, my ancestors ploughed those fields every day. And then they chose a day to die. On that day, they would tell themselves: today I will die. And they died as if they had never lived. They died like an ant dies. Who gives a damn when an ant dies.
I spent the next two days crawling over my carpet, shaking out my duvet and wiping the surfaces of my shabby furniture as I cleaned up leftovers from the magnificent glass party. I kept finding blood on the bottoms of my feet. For every shard of glass I pulled from my skin, another would find its way in.
It was on one of these days, as I was extracting a piece of glass from the arch of my foot, that Ben called.
'Hey, Fenfang, how are you doing? It's eleven o'clock her in Boston. I'm getting ready for bed. What are you up to?'
I was holding the phone and staring at the piece of glass that I'd just removed rom my foot. It glowed in the light from my mobile. 'Ben,' I said, 'I've just been tidying my apartment. I was just cleaning the carpet when you called.'
His voice came back. 'Fenfang. I miss you.'
I turned off the phone, and sat still and quiet in my room, my feet resting on glass splinters stuck in the carpet. I had this great urge to cry, but I didn't want to cry alone. For a really good cry, I needed a man's shoulder.
Sometimes stories are simply too complex to make an easily-digestible story, sometimes they don't really show the story that they are supposed to, sometimes stories are not interesting to anyone other than the author, sometimes they are just a manifestation of some obscure obsession.
I think my Komodo pictures are a combination of all those things. So a blog is the perfect place for them- from Komodo, the island of dragons, drought, cholera, corruption, conniving, kongkalikonging, poaching, shooting, the TNC, NGO imperialism, environmental regulation, tourism, blast fishing, tuba, money lending etc etc etc.
Tuesday, 13 May 2008
How to Write About Africa
by Binyavanga Wainana
Always use the word ‘Africa or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.
Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.
In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.
Fred Robarts, who has recently returned from Congo, sent a link to his Frontline piece on Congolese Cliches. Fred also has a blog here where you can check out the top sounds in Kinshasa
Fred Robarts, 20 Apr 2008
Victorian era cliches about Africa are all-too-often the mainstay for reporters and writersAlways use the word ‘Africa or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Binyavanga Wainaina, How to Write About Africa (Granta 92)
The going rate for a Congolese press pass is around $500 a year. They should come rubber-stamped with a reminder to visiting journalists of Martin Amis’s view that “all writing is a campaign against cliché”.
I’m all for free speech, but I like to imagine that a rejuvenated Ministry of Tourism might one day go further, warning of hefty fines for gratuitous references to ‘The Heart of Darkness’.
Continue reading here
Monday, 12 May 2008
Tying in with the Chanarin/Broomberg essay and returning to the theme of gorillas, in The Independent Media section, Claire Soares writes about the 'scandal' of an animal's death getting more coverage than the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Congo.
"Kill a mountain gorilla in Congo and it gets much more coverage than five million dead... It irks me every time," says Anneke van woudenberg, the Congo specialist for HRW.
"Death and destruction in Congo is not something people want to think about over Sunday breakfast. The bean counters at media outlets know this," sighs Marcus Bleasdale... "But as journalists, we have a responsibility to let the world know what is going on, whether or not it sells newspapers or magazines."
As with animals, the death of children makes for good copy, as do bizarre stories of stole penises and of course celebrity - "Yet if I were to tell them (editors) that Ben Affleck is going there next week then suddenly I'd have eight pages," says Bleasdale. "What the hell does Ben Affleck, who's probably only going to spend 24 hours there, have to do with the story?"
Soares writes about the reinforcement of the Heart of Darkness myth through lazy reporting, while Richard Dowden of the Royal African Society says that there are few people to contextualise events. "What strikes the visitor may be important or unimportant to people who live thee - or have a completely different meaning. And it so very difficult to find Congolese who can explain Congo to outsiders."
The UN has tried to brand disasters to overcome this problem with one being "the most forgotten", another "the worst in the world". But still it is under-reported. "If journalists aren't writing about it or editors won't run the stories," says Bleasdale, "then they are just as guilty as the warlords."
This is an image of victims of the cyclone in Burma, visual evidence of those who have died, those whose deaths the Burmese junta is trying to conceal. They point to the venality of a regime, that rather than save lives, wants to bury the evidence. Like everybody, I have seen lots of pictures of victims of disaster and war. but images like this one don't cease to move me. These figures are almost doll-like in their deathly poses. Their clothes have colour, there is hardly any trauma evident on the bodies, and a whisper of what they once were remains on their masked faces. At the same time, their positions are so removed of life, it seems as though they are hovering in a deathly limbo.
Which leads on to UNCONCERNED BUT NOT INDIFFERENT by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. This piece ran on the Foto8 site and also appeared in the BJP. It describes the South African double act's experience of being judges on this year's World Press Photo.
"Flicking through the 81,000 images originally submitted a sense of deja vu is inevitable. Again and again similar images are repeated, with only the actors and settings changing. Grieving mothers, charred human remains, sun sets, women giving birth, children playing with toy guns, cock fights, bull fights, Havana street scenes, reflections in puddles, reflections in windows, football posts in unlikely locations, swaddled babies, portraits taken through mosquito nets, needles in junkies’ arms, derelict toilets, Palestinian boys throwing stones, contorted Chinese gymnasts, Karl Lagerfeld, models preparing for fashion shows backstage, painted faces, bodies covered in mud, monks smoking cigarettes, pigeons silhouetted against the sky, Indian Sardus, children leaping into rivers, pigs being slaughtered.
The twelve strong Jury must endure a barrage of photographic clichés over a period of seven days and nights, in order to locate one single image, the World Press Photo of the year. There are also prizes for photographs in a variety of categories, but it is this single image that gets the real attention. How do twelve people reach a consensus? And what criteria could possibly be used to nominate just one image?
First we were assembled into a windowless room in Amsterdam, squeezed between a digital projector and a coffee machine, and sworn to secrecy. We are six photographers specializing in war, nature, sports, editorial and art photography, plus five photo editors and a curator.
The World Press Photo awards have been running for over 5 decades and in that time a clear procedure has evolved. It is a highly disciplined, mathematical system designed by psychologists to elicit consensus from a group of diverse, opinionated individuals. The total number of images had already been reduced to17,000 the previous week by the first round jury. Most of the pornography and pictures of domestic cats had been removed. Our job was to reduce that number to one. Each of us clasped a voting button in the half darkness, and as the images flashed across the screen we voted anonymously to keep it in the competition or “to kill it”. As we progressed the long serving secretary and master of ceremonies, Stephen Mayes, announced in dry tones the results of each round of votes, a stream of IN’s and OUT’s, occasionally elaborating, “birds of paradise IN, snakes OUT, suicide bomb IN, dead children OUT, women with acid burns IN, Chairman Mao impersonator OUT, Guantanamo Bay detainee IN, sumo wrestles OUT…” The mechanism used for voting, nine buttons connected to a central computer display was originally developed for a Dutch TV game show."
Broomberg and Chanarin go on to critique photojournalistic representations of war - "Do we even need to be producing these images any more? Do we need to be looking at them? We have enough of an image archive within our heads to be able to conjure up a representation of any manner of pleasure or horror. Does the photographic image even have a role to play any more?"
I know what they mean, but I think we do need to produce images such as the Burma cyclone victims picture - Broomberg and Chanarin question the relevance of photojournalism and cite the US media's censorship of images of American dead as an example of its current irrelevance - I think this censorship (which goes hand in hand with UK censorship of images of Iraqi/Afghan dead) shows how necessary it is for images of the dead, on all sides to be shown. Not everyone has the archive of images Broomberg and Chanarin have in their heads - not everyone has their images as heavily censored as those in the UK or US.
I also sympathise with the judging procedure of the World Press Photo, but isn't that a bit of a bears-shitting-in-the-woods criticism of a contest where they knew they would have to look at 81,000 images in a short period of time. And imagine how boring it could have been if all the stories had been of the "aftermath" nature proposed by Chanarin and Bloomberg. A week of powerpoint presentations of warzone typologies, museum exhibits and arbitrary archives! Ooo-eer, no thank you missus!
The other thing they say is that representations of war in photography remain the same - you can see pictures that mirror Goya's etchings of the Horrors of War. Why haven't the images changed? Possibly because the essential realities of war haven't changed, just as people haven't changed, in the last few hundred years, or even the last few tens of thousands of years - just because we've got ipods doesn't make us any different - as Roger Ballen so helpfully points out in his long-term projects from South Africa.
Tim Hetherington provides a response to Broomberg and Chanarin in By Any Means Necessary.
Hetherington won this year's World Press Photo of the Year, but really should be best known for his work in Liberia - long-term work made in difficult and dangerous circumstances, work that fully realises Hetherington's commitment and understanding of the complexity of representing poverty and war as an outsider.
"Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin," writes Hetherington, "begin their critique of contemporary photojournalism by referring to a quote by Bertolt Brecht in which he claims, without providing any basis, that photojournalism contributes almost nothing to our understanding of the world. In fact, he goes further, claiming that photographs are actually a 'weapon against truth'. Let us ignore, for a moment, the fact that photographs have been used as evidence in every war crimes trial since Nuremberg. Let us ignore the fact that photography has infiltrated almost every aspect of popular culture and private life – what Brecht dismisses as the 'bourgouisie'. If photographs do not reflect something of an objective truth, then nothing does, and we are left with an endlessly subjective, nihilistic understanding of the world."
"I’m not interested in playing the ‘concerned’ moral crusader by ramming violent images in people’s faces," he concludes, "but that doesn’t mean the world shouldn’t have access to them. Images don’t need ‘intelligent’ aesthetics to convey their message - again, think of the Falling Man – but they can benefit from them. Like advertising, visual journalism employs many strategies to communicate. In Yemen, I recently saw fly-posters of what appear to be dead Palestinian children. It’s the sort of thing that would be distasteful on streets of the UK and yet they are manifestly accepted in Yemen. These images highlight the plight of Palestine and inculcate anti-western sentiments. Similarly, images of starving Ethiopians were instrumental in focusing world attention, gathering funds and mobilising the international relief effort there in the 1980s. The fact is, images of pain and suffering make people uncomfortable and sometimes inspire them to action. We try to ignore them and we fail. And then we secretly look at them on the internet."
You can see both Tim's and Adam and Ollie's work at...
Tim Hetherington - www.mentalpicture.org
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin - www.choppedliver.info
And how come the Mao impersonator didn't win anything! No wonder Broomberg and Chanarin are pissed off.
Friday, 9 May 2008
Roger Ballen regards his distance from the sea of images that wash over us as part of his success at finding his own visual voice. Connected to that, Alessandra Sanguinetti notes that it is not enough to make good images, that she has to make great images.
How many great images are made though and what constitutes their greatness?
How many images will we see this weekend - in newspapers, books, magazines, on screen or posted in the street? How many will we remember when Monday comes around, how many are worth remembering?
With that perennial thought flowering once again, it's back to animals. Apes and monkeys are (after kids juxtaposed with the spoils of the day's hunting trip) one of the favourite subjects of photographers who shoot animals. Best of the monkey men for me is James Mollison. His James and Other Apes features portraits of chimps, orang-utans, bonobos and gorillas - all done in Ken Ohara (I still can't believe he's not Irish!) close-up - which, in opposition to Ohara's One pictures, accentuates the apes' differences and their individuality.
Apes look pretty good in a photograph, but monkey films, God help Us! The one exception is King Kong, especially the original, co-directed by Merian C.Cooper. Cooper was inspired to make his film by the island of Komodo in Indonesia - his first idea for the film was to take a gorilla to Komodo and have it fight a Komodo dragon to the death!
Partly because of King Kong, I have always had a bit of an obsession with Komodo - so tying in with the dead animal theme, here's a picture from Komodo.
Thursday, 8 May 2008
Ballen and Sanguinetti are two photographers who work well with living animals - Sanguinetti also touches on animal mortality - and dead animals are as much a mark of art photography as the living and the stuffed. Clive Landen did a whole book on dead animals. Titled Familiar British Wildlife, it features the roadkill Landen encountered around his home in the Forest of Dean.
Trent Parke did a series of pictures on Australian roadkill, the star of the Wonderland series of documentaries was The Man who eats Badgers and come to think of it, I see dead badgers almost every day, but I've never seen a live one. Never.
The dead dog above is from a market in China.
Tuesday, 6 May 2008
The Hereford/South Africa Photography Festival kicks off on 17th May and some fine work is on show - you can download the festival programme here.
Top of the bill for me is Roger Ballen, a great photographer and a phenomenal speaker. Hear him speak and you get Ballenesque aphorisms mixed with performance and rhetoric. With a dash of Dr Evil thrown in just to let you know who you're listening to.
Some snippets of a talk he gave at the University of Wales in 2004.
"I have created a Roger Ballen World."
"The meaning comes from the eyes."
"What are we trying to protect when we make our walls white and clean?"
"We are scared of nature. We are scared of animals."
"The relationship between people and animals is adverserial and usually one way. People who think differently are fooling themselves."
"What if I told you after I took this picture, the man took the puppy outside and strangled it? Would you believe me?"
"Modern life has blocked the relationship between man and animal. That's why people go out and buy a dog or a bunch of flowers."
"The horns may be plastic but they still mean something."
"Work done subconsciously is most important - don't walk away from your footprints."
"The eyes only reach you because they have the same emotion you have. Blankness."
"I did everything. You can't take photographs like me."
In an interview with Photonews, he describes, opaquely as is his wont, his working process.
"It is almost impossible for me to explain with any objectivity how my creative process works. I believe that there are literally thousands and thousands of subconscious and conscious decisions that assist in the construction and culmination of one of my photographs.
The process of taking a photograph is never the same and I work step by step in an interactive process in the environment around me. This process always takes into account my internal sensibility as well as my long experience in working with the photographic process, in other words I am an artist and a scientist at the same time. It is not clear to me what a staged photograph ultimately means other than that the subjects were aware of the photographer or one manipulated the environment around them.
There are elements in my photographs that one could classify as staged but there are others that occur spontaneously as I take the photograph. It is quite an interesting point for me to note that I have never taken two great photographs of the same thing which comments not only on the nature of photography and time but on the fact that something spontaneously happens from moment to moment."
I always feel that for all the staged elements, you see something of the people he is photographing (although he is eliminating people from his pictures now - probably in a Dr Evil kind of way), be it psychological or physical - and that there is an atavistic profundity underlying his scratchy work.
It's the same with Alessandra Sanguinetti's series, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Nature of Their Dreams. They have a depth and beauty to them, and for all their staginess, the girls who are acting out their scenes perform beautifully and with a conviction and belief that comes from within. They might be staged, but they are also thoroughly convincing - they combine primary reflections ofwho Guille and Belinda are with the infinite possibilities realised by Sanguinetti's interactions with the girls.
Heather Morton writes about Sanguinetti's process (which in some respects is very similar to Wendy Ewald's way of working) as revealed during a talk a few days ago in sunny Toronto.
1. During her first two months of staying at the farm with the girls (she used the girls’ Grandmother’s farm for her previous series The Sixth Day) she didn’t think about a project but rather just “went with the flow”. It wasn’t until she reviewed the film at the end of this sabbatical that she realized that she had something and decided to go back for further, more specific exploration.
2. She started by having the girls interview each other about their dreams, interests etc. And she videotaped everything at the beginning. She said this was helpful for her to review and see what was working, and how she might change her approach the next day. Alessandra was eager to show the girls’ “life going by” photographically and the video helped her to “see what was happening and to recreate it visually” She elaborated: “In a child’s mind there is so much more than what you see”. She also showed the girls the video of themselves which both helped and harmed: they “saw themselves as stars of their own life” which peaked their interest in the project but the it also made them increasingly self-conscious.
3. Alessandra’s most important advice came when she was talking about her process and suggested that at this point in her career, making a good picture is not good enough:
It’s disheartening what you find yourself just taking good pictures- pictures that don’t have heart. Great pictures surprise me, they have depth and mystery.
Thursday, 1 May 2008
My Sofa Portraits are about the physical and psychological absorption of Isabel's childhood, the landscapes are concerned with her relationship with the natural world, and in particular the English landscape which she inhabits, but I'm not quite sure where these flower portraits fit in - I love them because they have a beauty about them that ties in with the sensory overload - with a domestic overtone.