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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Random Conversations #6: Photographers are Conservative

L: It seems to me that photography people are very individualist really.

Me: I don't think so.

L: I do. Going off on your own all over the place with a camera to photograph people. On your own, with nobody else, drifting by, drinking and smoking and hanging out with a camera round your neck and shooting off a couple of rolls or whatever the digital term is now. It doesn't really matter if it's street, war, documentary, commercial or fashion. That's what it's all about really. Getting into your own little world.

Me: Not everyone does it on their own.

L: No, but then if they don't do it on their own, if they have a crew and gear, then what is the point of having a still camera. I mean, who's the guy I'm thinking of?

Me: Gregory Crewdson.

L: Yeah, that's the one. The big shoots out in the suburbs with the large format camera. Has he moved on to films yet?

Me: I don't know what he's doing now.

L: Well never mind then. My point is every photographer who isn't a bit of a loner, a bit isolated...

Me: A bit serial killer profile?

L: Exactly; quiet, on the spectrum, wouldn't hurt a fly, but underneath... ?. Anyway, if you're not like- and you're successful  you move on to films don't you. It's the natural progression. Forget about all that audio slideshow stuff you're always going on about. You make the big jump. Why go still when you can make movies? That's what all the good photographers do isn't it. But they can do it because they aren't loners. It's only the ones who can't really work with other people that stay with still cameras.

Me: I'm not sure I'm with you on that. What about Robert Frank?

L: Well exactly. Could he work with other people? I don't know - seems to me like a classic individualist who liked hanging out and smoking and drinking! And not only are photographers individualist, you're also incredibly conservative.

Me: Er, don't think so. Photographers are just about as left-leaning as you can get.

L: You like to think so, of course you do, but photographers are driven almost exclusively by their own selfish needs. In an ideal world, you'd do what you want, go where you want, photograph what you want, manipulate people into believing its in their own interests for this to happen -  destroy the environment in the process and then pretend that you're doing it for the sake of mankind. And when anything goes against you then you raise all these self-serving arguments about ethics which really only prove my point even more; reactionary and conservative

Me: That's just nonsense.

L: How much do photographers work together? How often do you undercut each other's prices? Or work for free? And if you're talking press or paparazzi, what are those media scrums or agency promotions other than the survival of the fittest in its most brutal form? And all those competitions and portfolio reviews you're always moaning about. Anyway, who did you vote for in the last election?

Me: Who I voted for doesn't prove anything!

L: Does too, Tory Boy!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

random conversations #5: keeping it local

O: Why do you think I should keep it local?

Me: Because then you are photographing what you really know and care about. You understand the people around you and the places they live in. You know where they're coming from, you can position the complexities of life and see where everything fits in. You can tell a story and the story will have some basis in the social, environmental and cultural worlds that surround you.

O: But what if you don't know anything about the place around you?

Me: Well you should. You have to know where you come from before you can start talking about where other people come from. I just read a book about Saudi Arabia and I discovered that the guys who wear cords around their headdress is a sign of camel herding and being a Bedouin, and if you don't have a cord that's a sign of being a crazy Salafist. Every Saudi is going to know a million things like that but I don't have a clue. Think of somewhere like Egypt or Libya. You had all these photographers going over there and they didn't know the first thing about the place. They didn't speak the language, they didn't know the politics or what clothes people wear, they might have a superficial understanding of the country but that's about it. Did they know what businesses the Mubarak family owned or the commercial interests of different intelligence services, who the main opposition was last year, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, who was in jail and who wasn't, who owned the taxis who had been co-opted and who hadn't. If you don't know all this stuff, the kind of stuff the average Egyptian would know without even thinking, then how can you understand what is happening in front of you. That's why you need to know what is happening in front of you first, so you can go somewhere else.

O: But what about if where you live is really boring and you're not interested in it?

Me: Nowhere is boring and  you should be interested in it. And if you're not interested, you need to cultivate an interest. Everything is as interesting as you make it.

O: Is it?  What if you just can't be bothered?

Me: You have to be bothered. You can't go round in life just not being bothered?

O: Are you interested in where you live?

Me: Er...

O: There you go. You're not interested are you. Same as me. I bet you think all the people are the same, that the middle-class conformity annoys you, that you can't stand all the selfish-what-school-will-I-send-them to conversations. You know the kind of thing. I can see from your face that I'm right. I am right, aren't I.

Me: Yes, but that's different.

O: No, it's not. You should take more of an interest. Get involved, join the community, form a group, be part of the Big Society. If you can't be arsed to do that, why should I be arsed to do it. Why should I care about where I live? I don't want to photograph my house and my neighbours and my family. I want to get as far away as possible from England and go somewhere hot, where they have palm trees and the sea's hot. That's why I want to do photography, not to stay in some drab English town and photograph the tedium and undramatic squalor. If I'm going to photograph squalor, I want full-on really squalid squalor - squalor that smells. I want to photograph the exciting and the exotic, to go somewhere where the women are gorgeous and sexy and dance in the streets, where people scream and shout and celebrate, where they live their lives with love and passion and drama and emotion. I want to go somewhere with great weather and great food, where the beer is cheap and everybody is uninhibited and free and they have cool festivals where there are animals running in the streets and horses and everyone  wears crazy clothes. And loads of fish. To eat and in the sea.

Me: No such place exists.

O: Maybe, but it exists less in England than it does almost anywhere else. Now where would you go if you could go anywhere in the world to photograph? Weston-Super-Mare?

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Random Conversations #4 ; It's like Being a Brand

H: Why do I have to write it like that? Why can't I just write it the way I want to write it?

Me: The reason you have to write like that is because that's how you have to write.

H: Is that the discourse thing again?

Me: Absolutely. So if you are writing an essay, you have to use certain language and write in a certain way. It's the same if you're a photojournalist and you're writing a proposal, you have to have a certain discourse, if you are writing a grant application, you have another way of writing, a book review is different again and then there is the artist's statement which is a whole different barrel of fish and I imagine commercial photographers have their own private language too.

H: So it's like a kind of code, a language that shows you belong and can be taken seriously?

Me: I suppose so.

H: And you're not allowed to mix up all these discourses?

Me: No, absolutely not. Because if you mix them up, then you  lose your consistency and people forget what you're trying to say. You confuse them by being in two places at once.

H: Is that the same as being consistent in your work and developing the same theme and doing the same thing that you've always done, but a little bit different.

Me: I suppose so.

H: Kind of like developing yourself as a brand, so when people hear your name they know what they're getting, when they see your pictures they know they're by that photography - oh look, it's a scary looking man with scribbles on the wall and a bunch of wire, it must be Roger Ballen.

Me: Yeah, exactly like that.

H: And you think that's a good thing?

Me: Well, it's not a question of good or bad, it's simply what you have to do.

H: But you don't do it.

Me: That's because I can't do it. I'm too stupid, too indisciplined, too poor and daft and dirty to do it.

H: But if you could do it, would you do it?

Me: That's beside the point.

H: No, it's not. Would you do it if you could?

Me: Well....

H: Because if you did, then you would become a brand. Isn't that what it's really all about - becoming a brand. It might be a journalistic or an artistic or an academic brand, but it's a brand all the same. A brand where the bag and the outrage and the scarf are all part of it. And if you became a brand, isn't that the signal of your complete failure as a human being, isn't that completely contrary to what you or me or any documentary photographer or artist should want to become. Don't you think that to have that level of consistency, to have that anal obsessiveness to always talk in one particular way - even when you know it's bullshit - is alien to everything that is true and honest and good.

Me: Um...

H: And don't you think that's the problem with photography and art and all the rest of it, that people are becoming like brands, going to galleries and magazines and NGOs that are like brands run by people with money and power who completely believe in being a brand. But don't you think that only somebody who is a bit worthless could think of himself as brand, as a commercial entity?

Me: Not at all.

H: Bollocks Not at all. That's what you think isn't it?

Me: In a more polite form, perhaps.

H: Well then. And if you do think that,  you also think that everybody who is successful has to have that level of consistency of message and work that will gain them artistic or commercial success. And if you do that then you have to brand yourself. And if you have to brand yourself you have to be worthless. And so what you're saying is that all photographers are worthless. And if they are worthless, then isn't their work and everything they represent worthless.

Me: Er, no, I'm not saying that at all..

H: I think you are. You're being bitter? You should take a more charitable view.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Random Conversations #3: Self Promotion

I keep on having random conversations with all sorts of people about various aspects of photography. This is one I had about self-promotion.

N: I keep on getting all these promotional emails in my inbox. What a pain in the arse.

Me: Who are they from?

N: They're from everybody - galleries, magazines, bloggers, you, everybody. But the ones that really set me off are from somebody I commissioned to do a portrait a few years ago. He sends me all these newsletters and updates about how well he's doing and he's got this show here and that show there and he's in this magazine and sold another thing somewhere else, but why's he telling me? I don't care. I took a chance commissioning his work and it's a chance I shouldn't have taken because now I have to look at his work every other week and I don't even commission anything anymore.

Me: But you don't look at his work. You just delete it.

N: I have to look at his work even when I delete his message because his pictures pop into my head, his face pops into my head. He's arrogant and I dislike his work and  his artist's statement saying how his art is all about his family and his addictions when it's not, when that is just something he says because that is what your are supposed to say. It's fundamentally dishonest.

Me: Isn't that what he has to do to get noticed and why are you taking it personally? Once, he could just bring in his portfolio and clippings and you could tell him to go away or, if you got on with him, you could commission him to do something, but now you can't - but that's your fault for being so distant and unattainable.

N: I don't think so. There are hordes of these people like him out there, you photo people, and if I gave every one even a single minute of my time I would be stuck in a vortex of characterless girls and liminal places or whatever the current thing  is. But I don't want to know every last detail of his unsustainable career. It's such bullshit; email bulletins, newsletters, facebook updates, blog postings asking me to like his page. How does he put this stuff out, how can he have any dignity or pride in what he does when he comes up with this. I make art and I don't do this stuff, I don't tell everyone how great I am, how fabulously I'm doing, how the sun shines out of my arse. I don't do it because 1. It isn't true and 2. I don't want to do it.

Me: Perhaps that's why you're so unsuccessful. Maybe your work should be about your family and your addictions and maybe you should be reaching out to others and sharing what you've been through on facebook or twitter or a blog.

N: Reaching out, sharing! Sharing is personal, it's not something you do on a computer, it's not sending somebody a message or a piece of quasi-personal information that promotes you as some kind of brand. The whole process just debases relationships, language and the art it is supposed to promote. You do it as well. You're just as bad with your blogs and your facebooks.

Me. You hate him so much but you're friends with him on Facebook. Why don't you just unfriend him?

N: But that would just be weird.And then I wouldn't have any friends on Facebook - I'd just have my brother in Queensland. And then all I'd know about is how wasted he got last night and how hot and sunny it is in Queensland, except when it's raining of course.

Me: So now you're telling me you like getting all those emails and updates and self-worship things.

N: Not at all. I'm telling you isn't there any other way, and if there isn't any other way, then what really is the point of it all because it takes something that I used to love and makes it counter-productive, destructive and crass.

Me: But you're still friends with him on Facebook!

For a more commercial (and confused) take on the same subject, read this creative's concerns on  A Photo-Editor.

Friday, 20 May 2011

random conversations #2: Why don't people like Salgado?

J:  So why isn't Salgado considered a documentary photographer when somebody like Jim Goldberg is?

Me: Well I like him.

J: But why don't other people like him?

Me: I think it's because his pictures were always regarded as too beautiful and people could write against him. He became a photographic superstar who was too considerate of light and shade and brought quasi-religious imagery into his work. And he's not a "proper" documentary photographer because of that. On top of that,he was too big and too successful. People envied him. Maybe. To be honest I don't know. I know you can read all about him and people say he denied his subjects agency - first by fitting into a photojournalistic/concerned genre and second by shooting in black and white. Or there's no context for his work and it stands in aesthetic isolation, but I always thought the his pictures, especially his Brazil ones, were contextualised by Salgado's economic and political groundings.

J: But lots of people do that and they are still considered serious photographers. Why is Jim Goldberg so often referred to, as just one example, but not Salgado. Why isn't Jim Goldberg exploitative or out-of-context?

Me: Because he uses the subjects own words and his pictures are, much as I love them, a bit ugly?

J: Is that all though?

Me: A different discourse attaches itself to Goldberg

J: What kind of discourse?

Me: A discourse of sobriety - it's a film thing. If you talk about documentary, people use a discourse of sobriety. If you talk about musicals, they use a discourse of entertainment. You get generic discourses too - India movies have a discourse of love, German films a discourse of guilt, Korean films a discourse of revenge, American films a discourse of violence and English films the class discourse. But in photography, documentary has a discourse of sobriety; so when you talk about it you have to be sober and serious. I think Salgado might have be too beautiful for that discourse. His pictures don't fit the discourse of the genre, the discourse won't change - therefore Salgado doesn't fit the genre.

J: So where does he belong - in art? What's the discourse of art photography?

Me: The discourse of art photography is a discourse of pretension and deceit on the whole, which is wholely counter to the discourse of creativity - creativity doesn't have a discourse. Salgado doesn't belong in the discourse of sobriety. He belongs in documentary. But it's not Salgado who's wrong, it's the discourse.

J: So why don't you change the discourse?

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Random Conversations # 1: Geoff Dyer is so handsome

Me: I read The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer again in the hope that I would find what all the fuss was about.

C: You don't like it.

Me: It's not that I don't like it. I just don't find it that interesting. It's a book about old American photographs with a series of visual links. I know everybody loves Geoff Dyer, but I just don't see why the book is so great, apart from that it's about photography and you don't get many popular books about photography.

C: I love Geoff Dyer. He's so handsome.

Me: Is that why you like his book. Because he's handsome?

C: Well yes, it's one of the reasons. And he's charming and witty and kind.

Me: So your critical faculties are swayed by these things, by the fact that he's good-looking. And from that you exptrapolate him into being charming, witty and kind?

C: If I'm honest, yes. That's how critical faculties work Didn't you say the other day that you once saw a documentary on some photographer and you found him annoying, that his humanist intent was undermined by his massive ego, thick-skinned insensitivity and visible contempt for the people and places he was photographing - in fact, anytime you see a documentary on any kind of male photographer, you say the same thing.

Me: No I don't. Anyway, that's different. That's the contradiction between personal behaviour and the explicit statement a photographer is making with their pictures. If they say that their pictures are an examination of this and that terrible thing, when their behaviour is part of that terrible thing, then I think it's relevant. It's not like saying The Ongoing Moment is a great book because Geoff Dyer is a nice guy - which is what you do.

C: But you do that as well.

Me: Like when?

C: With Adam Fuss. You keep on saying how great Adam Fuss is because he pays his assistants really well and when your friend became a father for the first time, he made your friend one of his baby photograms and gave it him as a present for free - which was just kindness personified and something he absolutely didn't need to do. As if being generous has anything to do with how good a person's work is? And then you say how great Jem Southam is because your friend used to live on the same street as him and Jem gave him carrots from his allotment.

Me: But it does make a difference to how good a person's work is

C: No it doesn't. Are you saying if Jem Southam hadn't given your friend carrots from his allotment, you wouldn't like his work.

Me: No, it wouldn't make the slightest bit of difference.

C: How about if Jem Southam had stolen the carrots from your friend's allotment and your friend had said what a fool he was.

Me: That would make a difference, yes.

C: So there you go then. And that's why you like Jem Southam and that's why I like Geoff Dyer, No difference whatsoever.

Monday, 16 May 2011

University of Newport Art Photography Auction

The final year students of Photographic Art at UWN are holding an auction and print sale at Cardiff Arts Institute at 7pm on 16th May to raise money for the production of their graduating publication.

There's loads of great stuff on offer including signed books by Mimo Jodice, Chris Coekin, Clare Strand and Daniel Meadows and singed prints by Martin Parr, Simon Norfolk, Sarah Pickering, Ken Grant and Helen Sear amongst many others.

There are also some amazing collaborative prints from the Blank Canvas project. These come in editions of 5 - on offer for £40. I worked on a Mark Durden print, Wheatfields with Sunflowers and Crows, Dafen Art Village, Shenzhen, China (which you might know from Michael Wolf's Real Fake Art project).Other contributors include Alec Soth, Ed Clark, Joachim Schmidt, Chris Steele-Perkins, Susan Lipper, Simon Roberts, Emily Allchurch and many many more

See the full catalogue here.

Is racial equality in photography a valid What's Next? question? Discuss the issue on this blog post.

So Foam did their What's Next thing and asked people to post their own questions. Stan Banos at Reciprocity Failure Blog (Stan is American and has an interest in race in photography) posted this question on the Foam site

When will we finally see people of color not only in front of the lens serving as ample, year round subject matter, but also as: photographers, judges, editors, gallery owners, workshop presenters and festival organizers in some representative proportion beyond mere tokenism?

It didn't show up, possibly because it is not the easiest to navigate site. So Stan posted it again. Rather than post the whole question with an opportunity to answer on the Foam site, Foam then posted this comment, bouncing the question back to Stan's Reciprocity Failure blog.

Is racial equality in photography a valid What's Next? question? Discuss the issue on this blog post.

Stan reckons this is a roundabout way of avoiding the issue.  This is what he says..

"Here is a site that purports to be about a search into the future of photography, a site that is specifically asking for questions concerning the future of the medium, questions that will encourage conversation. And yet, they have neither the room nor the desire to post a question concerning one of the most fundamental inquiries imaginable- basically, who gets to play the game? Yeah, I really do think that question could initiate dialogue- hell, I can guarantee that!  And yes, I really do think it's a dialogue critical to the future health and welfare of any medium or art form.

This is Stan's post in its entirety.

So what do you think? Is this a reasonable question to ask a site endeavouring to find the future of photography? Or is it a stupid question?

Reasonable Question?

Stupid Question?

What do you think?

What do you think? 

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Fellating the Bishop

The chess scenes above is from Bekhudi (Kajol's first film) and is quite obviously inspired by this chess scene from The Thomas Crown Affair (starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway).  Austin Powers,the Spy who Shagged Me is another film that has a Thomas Crown inspired chess scene.

I don't know which of the three I prefer, but perhaps it's the Bekhudi version. Here Kajol's bishop-teasing antics drove the anti-hero so crazy with lust and desire  that he was driven to force her to marry him. Or did he? No spoilers on this blog thank you very much.

The fascinating thing about Bekhudi is that Khulbushan Kharbander (who plays the weak father who ultimately caused all the chess playing problems in the first place) also plays the unfaithful husband in Arth.

Directed by Mahesh Bhatt and starring Shabana Azmi (who starred in the incomparable Amar, Akbar, Anthony - and is married to the great Javed Akhtar), Arth is perhaps the only Indian film in which the heroine rejects both her faithless husband and the would-be lover. Instead she chooses to be alone and live in poverty.

Can I link this in to the deletion of H-H-H-Hilary from the Whitehouse Situation Room picture.

Mmm, perhaps not. But thank you Wikipedia anyway.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Intern Nation

Interns are big news in the UK, with both the upper-middle-class leaders (David Cameron and Nick Clegg) of the government having had lengthy internships which were found through family connections. The general feeling is that internships, whether it be for a political office or for Magnum photos, limit social mobility and narrow the diversity of practictioners in photography, the arts, journalism and the arts, not to mention politics. Part of the problem then, not part of the solution. A Photo Editor had a fine example of this with Steve McCurry's call for an unpaid intern. Who can afford this? Well we know who can afford this - rich people. And if you'll excuse a gross and sometimes inaccurate generalisation, let's make a correlation between excessive wealth and deep-seated ignorance. So we know who will be doing all the fun, 'creative' (a misnomer if ever I heard one) jobs, running our newspapers, art galleries and TV stations in the future. Or now even? No change there, then. Carry on everybody.

'Intern Nation: How to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy,' by Ross Perlin details the history of internship, how internships have replaced paid apprenticeships and a career ladder that, in photography and journalism at least, sometimes included more than just the filthy rich (sorry middle classes).

In other words, the only reason that there are so many interns is because we have made it acceptable. It wasn't always that way and it doesn't have to be that way. The book was reviewed in the Guardian this weekend and this is where the quotes below are from. See the full review here.

I think the most interesting point is the idea that a person is a brand and that one should act as a brand. We all know people who do this, but really. Grow up and become a human, get out from under your rock. Being a brand, acting like a brand, having that combination of self-delusion and grandeur is just the mark of an asshole. Anyway, this is what the review says.

This book is important because Perlin has spotted that the internship phenomenon is a symptom of broader changes in business and the psyche of the middle-class worker. The increasingly entrepreneurial mindset of young professionals, seeing themselves as brands that require investment, such as unpaid work, to get established; the assumption of most companies that, executive salaries aside, labour costs should be ruthlessly minimised; the vogue for things being given away or done for "free", in business strategies and even political programmes such as Cameron's Big Society – all these trends may make the internship the quintessential modern workplace experience.

Half a century ago it was very different. "Almost no one worked for free in the offices of mid-century America," points out Perlin. Instead, there were paid apprenticeships and structured training programmes, sometimes oppressive and stifling compared to the open-ended experiences of the luckiest or most able of today's interns, but more egalitarian: parental financial support or personal connections were much less essential for the aspiring young professional. 

Yet the social costs are considerable. Besides the exploitation, boredom and cynicism that blight many internships – trying to look busy for days on end in return for a line on your CV – there is also their infantilising quality. Perlin interviews many serial interns: deep into their 20s, and already burdened with debts from university, they are still not earning, still without a solid career trajectory, still living with their parents, still only semi-adult. The steep rise in youth unemployment across the world since the financial crisis has made the job prospects of these perpetual interns even worse.

Free Anton Hammerl and Manu Brabo

Continuing on the theme of detained artists and photographers, Jodi Bieber pleaded for the release of Anton Hammerl, a South African photographer who has detained in Libya for 36 days and counting.

There are facebook for pages for both Anton and Manuel Brabo, a Spanish photographer, and two US journalists, Clare Morgana Gillis and James Wright Foley.

Read about it here and spread the news.

Committee to Protect Journalists is here.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Tere Bin Laden, Cocks and Ai Weiwei

For the conspiracy theorists amongst us who care enough to wonder about the truth about Osama Bin Laden (dead/alive/prisoner), perhaps the movie Tere Bin Laden will provide some answers.

This Indian comedy is about a Pakistani reporter (played by Ali Zafar - a big Pakistani popstar) who needs money to get buy a new identity to get to the place of his dreams, the USA. To do this, he decides to fake and sell a video of Osama Bin Laden, duping a chicken-farming Osama-alike into telling the world how he is going to destroy Amreeka.

He does this and the world listens. The USA listens. Osama is hiding in Pakistan! And so the US descend and work hand in hand with the Pakistani ISI to solve the problem.The rest, as they say, is history.

Some of the great lines said by the OBL chicken farmer lookalike are

"I have always liked cocks since I was little"
"I have always wanted to be surrounded by cocks"
"They call me the king of cock"

Which reminds me of Voina's cock graffitti from last year, a painting of a giant phallus on St Petersburg's Leteiny Bridge, a bridge that stood (when it rose) directly in line of sight of the windows of the building housing the FSB, the Russian security services. So fuck you very much indeed. Fantastic!

As the Free Voina website says:

"Voina is a Russian art collective that engages in street action art. It is a movement in contemporary art that is relatively new to Russia despite being widespread in the West and regarded by critics as one of the most valuable contemporary art movements.
The group was created on 23rd February, 2007 with the aim of developing monumental patriotic street art in Russia. The group’s idol was, and forever will be, the great Russian artist Dmitri Prigov. Voina currently counts over 200 members who perform actions in its name, sometimes without informing the rest of the group."

The FSB took offence however with the 'Giant Galactic Space Dick' being just the latest in several operative artworks that resulted in the arrest of Voina members Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev by the Russian security services in November last year. You can read all about this here.

More pictures are here.

Here is the Voina support website.

Below is a painting of the arrest and a picture of Leonid Nikolaev under arrest.

Drawing a giant cock on a bridge that goes up and down is so infantile but at the same time so effective. It is just funny, especially when the humour is directed against something so corrupt and inhumane as the FSB. And it took 23 seconds to make.

Which reminds me of the Cpak Ming projections in Hong Kong from a couple of weeks ago. Cpak Ming projected images of Ai Weiwei, the detained Chinese artist, on the walls of the barracks of the Chinese People's Liberation Army with the words, Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei. Judging from their reactions, the PLA are. Again, simple and effective! And cheap too!

And the HK authorities have just arrested some people in connection with Ai Weiwei graffiti. 

And lest we should forget why the Chinese authorities don't like Ai Weiwei, the bottom picture is from 4th May, 2009, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. He does awkward things like tell the truth and shout out when the nasty whiff of thievery and corruption is in the air.

Here's the Free Ai Weiwei website, and here is a petition to free Ai Weiwei.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Waiting for the Barbarians and Restrepo

I enjoyed seeing David Spero's Churches at Bradford's anticlimactic National Media Museum. It's a series that features buildings in London that have been adapted to churches of various descriptions. I loved the series in book form but for some reason I felt something was missing in the gallery - that there was more of a story that was waiting to be told. I didn't watch the accompanying video/multimedia element provided because it was an accompanying video and sometimes one doesn't want the tag-on (and it is a tag-on) to provide the thing that is missing - lazy but so it goes. And the thing that was missing was the story.Perhaps I should have watched and everything would have been complete.

I had the same feeling across the road at the relaxing (but deserted) Impressions Gallery when I saw Zed Nelson's Love Me. Great individual pictures that were about vanity, ugliness and vacancy (that's what I think at least) but again, there was something in the story that was missing. Somehow everything didn't tie together under the catch all title - there was an arbitrariness, a greatest hits quality to it all. Again, I was probably missing something obvious.

This ties in with Foam's much-publicised, but rather inconclusive What's Next series. The best and most truthful and long-lasting snippet is Alec Soth's comment that "In the end what's next is what always was; the story."

Which cuts to the chase and helps vocalise the problem we have with so much of photography, art, film and literature - you need a story. If you have one, fantastic and if  you don't, well the little dissatisfactions we feel with so much of what we see and read are made apparent. And generally, the little dissatisfactions are simply that there is not a story, or it's not told well enough or is simply not interesting enough.

Broomberg and Chanarin also chipped in with What's Next by asking if there is a role for stills photographers in the future. They also touched on the question of how photography is intimately connected with power and the definite necessity to always question what we see ( and used a Call of Duty video as an example of this. Deliberate or not, it is a very illustrative and easy mistake to make. But considering the nature of the talk, it's one that shouldn't be made if it wasn't deliberate. Unless it was deliberate? Does anyone know?).

Which ties in with the late and very much lamented Tim Hetherington. The story is what Tim Hetherington was about - he despised the "endless wittering about photography" (that might be a paraphrase but it gets the quotes for blog purposes) and cut to the delivery of the story, by whatever means. And the place he did this most was in Restrepo, his (and Sebastian Junger's) documentary of American soldiers in a God-forsaken valley in Afghanistan. I am still curious about how the film got made, the choices that were made in editing it, the purpose it serves and how it is seen by different audiences, but none of that takes away from the fact that it is a gripping film with multi-layered narratives that managed to include the rank boredom of war. My stomach was tied in knots just watching it - for me soldiers are people to be avoided at all times, especially when they are being shot at, and Tim was well shot at in Restrepo. The highlights for me were Pemble - the soldier brought up by hippy parents, never allowed to play with guns or watch violent movies and all the rest of it - and he ended up in Afghanistan. Then there were the repeated assurances to locals given by the platoon commander that a road was going to be built, a road was going to be built, that this would provide jobs, that everybody needs a job, and when the road was built. The road was the magic mantra, but even the commander, a true believer, had trouble believing this one.. And the time when the platoon went into a village, killed five villagers, injured the children and the commander told the villagers that he was very sorry but if their locals did insist on getting paid $5 to enlist by foreign fighters then the US army came into their village and killed their people - well that wasn't the Americans fault but... It was a chickens coming home to roost argument, but that works both ways sad to say. But a road was going to be built...

It's a brilliant film that is very sympathetic to the soldiers but what it reminds me of more than anything is J.M Coetzee's novel, Waiting for the Barbarians. This tells the story of a colonial outpost in a foreign land where a new chief believes the local 'barbarians' are preparing to mutiny against the colonial forces. Imprisonment and torture follow and the colonials encroach into barbarian land. Lured out into the arid desert, they are devastated, but not by the barbarian who simply vanish into thin air, but picked off by the land, the desert and the odd barbarian skirmish. The colonial forces leave, believing a barbarian invasion to be imminent, but some of the townsfolk stay (led by the hero of the book, the local Magistrate) and no invasion ensues.

In Restrepo, the American forces eventually left. Did a barbarian invasion ensue? I don't know. It's a different place.