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Monday, 28 May 2012

What's for Sale

 Last week I mentioned Michael Sandel's book, What Money Can't Buy, in which Sandel concluded, "The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?"

There is a crossover with Arlie Russell Hochschild's The Outsourced Self, a book (which again I have yet to read) which looks at how some people (within a particular cultural, lingual and economic minority it must be said) "outsource" their most basic social interactions.

What doesn't have a price in other words (and Blake Andrews points out that Lewis Hyde's The Gift looks at the question with respect to the arts) . Where do we stop with the price. It's a question that has great relevance to photography,  where the veneer of right-on do-goodery and some of the contradictions of the concerned photographer have been stripped of their sheen this week. Which is not surprising and might be a good thing in some ways. Too much of a consensus hints at underlying hypocrisies and double think that disguise an essential opportunism, capitalism and conservatism that has been apparent in photography since its very beginnings. More on Ron Haviv here, here, here and here.

At the same time as resisting the markets, people do need money to make work. The problem is as Hochschild points out, a belief is promoted that says that what is for sale if superior. This is extended by people in government, in business, in advertising and marketing to say that what uses the language of being for sale, what enters the discourse of the market is superior, and conversely, what does not use that language is inferior.

In the UK, this extends to education, health care, the arts and the voluntary sector (ie NGOs). The UK government believes that because Charities work with criteria above and beyond market values, that means they are somehow lesser than private enterprise. They also extend this to mean that because charities have different criteria then somehow they don't need money. This is reflected in government policy which, whilst stripping charities of funding on the one hand, is also attempting to market-ise and privatise charity work on the other. Simultaneously, there is a de-skilling of charity and NGO work, the idea being that only professions that have financial considerations as their absolute heart have any worth. David Cameron calls this practice the Big Society and it a more half-baked crock of shit idea you could not come up with.

This kind of thinking extends to education, health care and the arts. For the  photographer or the writer, it manifests itself in the stripping away of money making opportunities - in exhibition costs, in editorial fees, in commissions, in everything. Which makes it difficult to make a living, especially if there is a simultaneous increase in photographers who have a money-doesn't-matter attitude and who can afford to live in a garrett because the mattress they are crashing on is stuffed with the dollar bills of their trust fund.

So the dilemma for everybody is how to be selective in using that language of the market, when to use it and when not. And perhaps at the same time to change that language to resist it by refusing to use it, or to mess with its contradictory logic to undermine that particular, virulent way of thinking.  And I suppose, int the same way, that is the dilemma Haviv has. How do you make your money; do you take BAE money, do you take tobacco money, or government money, do you get embedded, do you do any commercial work or any government work? What publications do you work for? Do you work for Murdoch, or Fox, or the BBC, all of which have their own agendas? Is your photography carbon neutral, you make a book, what's it published on? Do you use Macs? If so, why so? How about Dell? Will you shoot the Olympics, or work for car companies or Coke or MacDonalds?  God, I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

Monday, 21 May 2012

What Money Can't Buy

There are models where having 1,000 fans will help you make a living, where having a few select patrons will finance your art, where social media and personal networks can be used to create value and make money.

Then there's the flip side. It can be found in this book - What Money Can't Buy by Michael Sandel - which says that placing a monetary value on everything devalues the thing, destroys the thing in itself.

I think the idea is that there are some things that don't need a market value, that are and should be a service that is beneficial to everybody - health care might be one of those things, law enforcement another, prisons another ( remember the judge in the US a few years back who was being bribed by private prison owners to jail kids), perhaps even things such as energy provision, water, public transport and education. 

In a recent child abuse/child  care scandals in the UK, Private Eye noted how the chain of ownership oc a home for vulnerable, abused children ended at a private equity company  whose aspiration is '..."to achieve superior returns by unlocking value obscured by complexity and market dislocations" -  some way off the arduous task of providing decent homes for troubled children.'

In his book, Sandel apparently (I've only read the review) talks about how "marketising" things degrades our behaviour, how it transforms us into money-grubbing worms and how language and the simplistic market ideology of financial reward can be part of that.

Here's a quote from the review in the Guardian.

There's one example in particular that comes close to summing up the entire argument of What Money Can't Buy. It concerns an Israeli daycare centre, which responded to a problem with parents turning up late to collect their children by introducing fines. The result? Late pick-ups increased. Parents turned up late, paid the fine, and thought no more of it; the fine had turned into a fee.

The fear of disapproval and of doing the wrong thing was based on non-monetary values, and was a stronger force than mere cash. The daycare centre went back to the old system, but parents kept turning up late, because the introduction of market values had killed the old ideas of collective responsibility. Once the old "norm" of turning up on time had been marketised, it was impossible to change back.
This is such a vivid illustration of Sandel's thinking that it is almost a parable. Let's hope that What Money Can't Buy, by being so patient and so accumulative in its argument and its examples, marks a permanent shift in these debates. Markets are not morally neutral. Let's all be clear about that. As Sandel concludes: "The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?"

That's also a question in photography and the arts. Beyond making a living, is there a value in making work in and of itself. I suppose it depends on the work, but my answer is yes. I look at the recent book boom, the work being made, the people involved in it. It seems to me that the value of this resides somewhere in the community and the energy of that work, the smaller networks that have been created, the sense of possibility and freedom of expression that are being opened up. I don't think there is a value that can be put on that - neither a monetary value, nor a value that is founded on earlier norms of photobook publishing. Rather it is part of new potentials (and even though all the book publishing efforts have been done before - well, it wasn't quite the same was it) which will also have a worth that cannot and should not be measured in dollars or pounds or euros. And to its credit, it's not trying to be measured in dollars or pounds or euros - which is an achievement in itself.

I think the same can be said for all those great and talented photographers around the world who are struggling to make a living, who despite that ability and vision don't really make much of a buck from their efforts. Perhaps that's not really the point, perhaps there can be a personal fulfilment in what they are doing, perhaps there are relationships and ideas and ways of understanding that go beyond a monetary figure, even that were a monetary figure to intrude too much, the value of the work would go down -  gold turns to rock turns to sand turns to  mud turns to shit is the sequence I think. I like to think so anyway.

And anyway, what is value? What is the value of smelling a flower?

Language is central to this marketisation, so is news and the prominence we give to the state of the markets and our association of market values with a worth that can be measured in something more than pound or dollar signs. 

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Faces with Feeling

So a while back after Kim Jong Il died I watched all the videos of weeping North Koreans and wondered if it was for real - or how much of it was for real. I grabbed a load of pictures as you do and put them to one side. But then upon reading about Dr Killian and his Facies Dolorosa; an attempt to use photography to visually portray the sentiment of an illness, to get a physiological and psychological truth from a picture, I thought perhaps you can do the same with the mourning North Koreans.

But then I thought why stop at sorrow, why not include delerium, ecstasy and disbelief. So I found some faces that seemed to exhibit those traits from footage (including Mishka Henner's wonderful video of his dad walking across the pitch in a dream state) of Man City's incredible last-gasp victory against QPR on Sunday.

And to add to the mix, I wondered if studious expressions, expressions of thoughtfulness and intelligence could be captured, and at what stage do expressions have integrity and lose integrity, and when do pictures collapse beyond all recognition. So I included some pictures of some lovely and talented University of Newport Documentary Photography students at a lecture I gave last year.

So that is the background to these three series: Facies Dolorosa Korea Aquilonem, Facies Beatitudinis and Facies Documentali Consequat Alumni.

More of Facies Beatitudinis below.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Pain, Dentists and Appalachia

Bint Photobooks featured Dr Hans Killian's Facies Dolorosa 
last week and also linked to an Issuu upload of Elisa Primavera-Levy's article on the book. Published in 1934, Facies Dolorosa shows Killian's patients suffering from a variety of conditions. The book is his attempt to show the change in the psychological state of the patient as well as the physical state, to capture the mood or "stimmung" of the sickbed. He was after the essence of the sickness, an imponderable that could also have a direct influence on the diagnosis.

He was trying to use photography of facial expressions and moods to identify the essence of illness - photography as truth. This is what Primavera-Levy says about Killian's work.

"Killian's photographic project raises pertinent questions about medical ethics, patient-doctor relationships, the limits of photography, and not least, about the contextualisation of representations of suffering in arguing for a humanist cause. Yet another crucial issue concerns the reasons why a surgeon with a camera chose to photograph faces in pain."

Primavera-Levy also writes about the conflict between the typological and the humanist, the eugenic subtext of physiognomic typologies and the idea of 'ideal faces' and Killian's near mystical belief in the ability of photography to capture an underlying truth. She also writes about Killian's early adoption of Nazism and how context can influence our perception of the work.  The full article is below.

All this talk of faces and pain reminded me of Broomberg and Chanarin's Trust (the highpoint of which is people going under the drill at the British dentists).

And then I saw Stacy Kranitz's Appalachia story: Regression to the Mean and went over to her website and saw this picture of a kid at the dentist. Which kind of links in to the Good Doctor Killian and Broomberg and Chanarin..

It turns out Stacy didn't like the edit that CNN did. “I feel ashamed and humiliated for trusting CNN. I am stunned that they would take my work out of context,” she said in this interview.

In his turn, Joerg Colberg asked what does Appalachia look like? And that is the question that Kranitz is trying to answer. I like her pictures alot, and I like the fact that she is trying to establish some kind of 'mean'.

But what does Appalachia look like? Well, Kranitz starts her slideshow with this picture.

I don't know, but it kind of sets the scene for a particular perspective. The thing is, I don't really have a problem with that perspective. Just as I don't have a problem with Chris Killip's representation of the Northeast of England or Martin Parr's of New Brighton. Rather I embrace it. It might not be a 'mean' but then who wants the 'mean' if the mean is tedious and boring. Who wants to know what Appalachia really looks like? Especially when that 'really looks like' is up for negotiation in the first place. Perhaps that burning car is what Appalachia really looks like (especially if you're the kid on the car), or does  it really look like that place that Bill Bryson wrote about, or is it that Duelling Banjos kind of territory of Deliverance, or is it something more banal and possibly tedious?

There are photographers that photographer what places really look like, but the work generally ends up being rather squalid in a dull sort of way. That's what Paul Graham does with New York in his latest rather good book, The Present. He removes the Spectacle from the city and makes it look pretty much like anywhere else, anywhere else that is environmentally, socially and culturally bereft at a non-transactional level. But then Paul Graham's Paul Graham and he can do that and it's good that he can do that. But the world would be a terrible place if everybody photographed like him; a place without the spectacular, dramatic and cinematic; a place without the New York that  Lee Friedlander, Bruce Gilden, William Klein, Robert Frank and many others photographed.

So what does a place really look like, what do we pretend that it looks like, what do we want it to look like, what can we photograph it to look like? And what is the effect of the way that we make a place look? Those perhaps are the questions that Paul Graham is grappling with in the Present (that's a big perhaps by the way). And in a very different way, Kranitz is also grappling with the same questions.  

Monday, 14 May 2012

Blue Moon

Football and Photography - two great tastes that go together. Mishka Henner's Dad on the pitch at Eastlands at the end of the most amazing day ever in English football.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Football Films, Salutes, Mike Summerbee and the Olympics

I saw Offside by Jafar Panahi last week. Panahi is now imprisoned in Iran for his film-making activities. Offside is a film about girls who try to sneak into a segregated male-only stadium to watch Iran beat Bahrain in a world cup qualifying decider. It's a film about the doublethink of religion and the effect politics has on both those who enforce ideologically non-sensical laws and those upon whom they are inflicted.

Despite all this, Offside is still a film about football, about supporting a team and a nation, about being part of  a victory and being united in celebration and joy.

There are so few good films about football - I think Offside is the only one. I was bitterly disappointed by Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. I was hoping for the purity of one camera and one microphone but the multiple perspectives kind of ruined the real time for me.

For a top football film scene, it's hard-to-beat Brian Glover in this  scene from Kes.

For camp football and Nazi films it's impossible to beat Michael Caine, Pele, Ossie Ardiles and Mike Summerbee in the seriously bad Escape to Victory.

More Nazi salutes courtesy of the England team playing in Germany in 1938 - the FA ordered them to salute, God Bless them.

Still connected to nationalism and saluting are some more contemporary matters. What with the Olympics and the Queen's Silver Jubilee, England this summer is looking to be like a special circle of Hell for those of us who are both Republican and don't buy in to Jackboot-licking sports event. So it was heartening to see Liverpool fans booing the British National anthem at the FA Cup Final last weekend - a national anthem that begins "God Save Our Gracious Queen...", signalling an end to a popular consensus on the supremacy of the Royal Family.

Here is the Liverpool Echo on the booing of the National Anthem.

And a fairly typical comment from one perspective below.

"Well done those reds, the only Liverpool fans I ever respected used to be my mum and dad. But now there's a glimmer of hope for the rest of them, well those who jeered and booed anyway.
Absolutely atrocious national anthem, no matter what the toadies above say ("ooh what'll proper people think of us?!?!") - its the anthem of imperial butchers and belongs to a class of people that wouldn't pee on someone from Liverpool if they were on fire.. Decent hardworking people need not respect it, I always sit, boo, jeer etc whenever its odious cacophony is forced down my ears.
Long may the tradition continue!!"

And the same goes for the Olympics. I don't know what my favourite London Olympics factoid is - but it's probably that London's Olympic Stadium is going to be wrapped in some kind of corporate Christo advertisement for Dow Chemical - the company responsible for 15,000 deaths in the worst chemical disaster in history.

Anyway, enough of all this negativity. Let's hope that the athletes do wonderfully and rediscover the true spirit of the Olympics; as Jesse Owens did when embarrassing Hitler at the Nazi Olympics of Berlin in 1936 or Tommie Smith and John Carlos (with Australia's Peter Norman in a supporting role ) did when giving the Black Power salute at Mexico's Olympic Stadium in 1968. We all love them now for it, but remember that at the time they were villified for it.

As for London, well here's a little bit of an alternative view, focussing on the quality of the logo and Dow's responsibility for the horrors of Bhopal

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Mouldy Sausages, Boys Meat and Pink Slime

This is Pink Slime, aka Lean Finely Textured Beef.
"Made by grinding together connective tissue and beef scraps normally destined for dog food and rendering, BPI’s Lean Beef Trimmings are then treated with ammonia hydroxide, a process that kills pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli.
The resulting pinkish substance is later blended into traditional ground beef and hamburger patties."

In the US at least, which is where it's kicked up quite a fuss, with Jamie Oliver chipping in and everything - in fact he might have started the fuss.

Anyway, I wonder what the difference is between Pink Slime and Boysmeat. Boysmeat is the substandard cuts that white South Africans used to give to their servants - lips and assholes in other words. The only difference is they didn't wash it in Ammonia first and it wasn't ground up so you can't really call it "finely textured". 

This is what Ernest Cole said about Boysmeat in his great book, House of Bondage.

"Employers must feed their servants and of course they try to get away as cheaply as possible. The standard farem repeated day after monotonous day, is tea, bread, and jam for breakfast, and porridge and boysmeat for lunch and dinner. Boysmeat is the name given to the cheapest, least edible meat the butcher can find, cuts that no white person would dream of buying for himself. Boysmeat may be the neck of a cow, a pig's nose, the hoof of a goat, or some equally unappetising part. The butcher is free to use his discretion. When the lady of the house phones in her weekly meat order she simply says, "send so many pounds of steak, so many pounds of roast beed and, oh, yes, throw in a few pounds of boysmeat." (The "boy", of course, is the male African the meat is intended for. In the eyes of the whites, no African ever becomes a man. Until he reaches his teens he is a pickanninny; thereafter, until he dies of old age, he is merely "boy.") Even boysmeat is served in portions too small to fill the stomach and almost never is it supplemented by such white staples as salad, dessert or a snack between meals. Or even buttter."

People talk about pictures telling lies, but Boysmeat? What about words?

More ersatz food courtesty of Horrible Histories.

 "Oh look, sausages!"