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Sofa Portraits now available for pre-order

  1.          Sofa Portraits is now available for pre-order from my website (orders will deliver in October/November)   The pric...

Friday, 30 May 2014

Analysing Images of Disaster: The Smoke Rubble Index

More student work from Aaron Law at the University of Brighton. I've been writing a piece for the RPS Journal on graduating student's work and going cold through various websites and the Source Magazine site (which is where you'll find lots of student work). It's interesting to see what's hot and what's not in graduating student land, what is being recooked, reheated and reinvented.

And then there are the people who are doing something really different, who are following their own path and their own obsessions.  I think Law's work (he's not in the RPS simply because I didn't get to talk to him in time ) is in that category - basically it's pictures made from aggregations of various disasters and how these are represented and disseminated. It's playing with major themes in other words.  It's called the Smoke Rubble Index and, well, I'll let Aaron explain...

What is the Smoke Rubble Index?

The Smoke Rubble Index – accessed via smokerubbleindex.org - is an online interactive database that attempts to approximate the scope of global disaster periodically between 21 December 2012 - 2013. The website collates online news photographs of events of catastrophe or conflict, selected for capturing either prominent scenes of smoke or rubble within them. They are then analysed, stored and indexed, located and mapped across atlases of each month the events transpired in.

All of the images are subsequently digitally compiled and merged together, creating sequences of accumulating formations of smoke, or rubble, over the course of the entire timeline. Statistical data is also presented – image search results, source links, charts and graphs – as part of the information that gathers and amasses over time alongside those images.

The website is made under the guise of an imagined organisation – fashioned on cult underground societies or the forums of conspiracy obsessives – intent on investigating ‘post-apocalyptic images’ following the 2012 phenomenon. But really, it is to be viewed and experienced as a piece of internet art in itself; it’s truly best just to go ahead and interact with it yourself online.

Why did you make the work?

When I began the project, I was initially simply curious in an exercise of seeing if I could effectively combine different images of smoke together using Photoshop. But soon afterwards, I was drawn to and started re-evaluating the very nature of what I was doing – combining not just these visual components from the photographs, but individual contexts, locations and events, from devastating geographical calamities to violent, mass political upheavals - condensed into single forms.

I also began to question the sourcing of these images too – from online news sites – and how the images themselves have individual information and data attached that gathers with the sequences.

In an effort in uniting these concerns – of the contextual layers, and the image data – I constructed the website as an interactive means of viewing the smoke and rubble sequences, and the images attributed to them. From there prompted broader questions, of what visually determines representations of disaster, and how we view these images online. How do we picture disaster under the rhetoric of journalism, and, when online, what kind of agency exists for the image when it is to be circulated and multiplied? These kinds of inquiries I felt could only capably, and perhaps more compellingly, be experienced on the kind of online platform from which the photographs were sourced.

How did you make the work?

The website is built using a CMS web host – the tremendously convenient berta.me – from which I’ve designed and arranged the web pages and navigation system. The sequences of smoke and rubble are entirely Photoshop creations, digitally merging parts of all of the images compiled for the database.

I was sought such references as Walid Raad’s Atlas Group, and, more broadly, the work of Broomberg and Chanarin. But also interactive internet art, such as Taryn Simon’s imageatlas.org, proffering methods of organising and presenting the work as an online piece.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Danny Carter and Dying Bees

Danny Carter, also graduating from the documentary course at Newport, looks at collapsing bee colonies in the XYZ of bee culture. He made the pictures on good old 35mm slides and will be showing this work on a large light box, replicating the intimacy of looking into a bee hive and giving the project an archival feel.

This is what he says about his project.

'The mysterious disappearance and collapse of bee colonies across the world is one of the most significant environmental issues of the 21st century.  They pollinate more than a third of all we eat and a lot of what we wear is entirely dependent on their hard work.  The endless list of foods and produce they are responsible for is mind-blowing.  Not only is honey used for consumption, but beauty products, preservation and medicinally.  Its antiviral and antibiotic capabilities make it the number one ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. 
Hand pollination of crops is already necessary in Sichuan, China, and this painstaking task is estimated to cost around £1.8 billion a year in the UK alone.  Scientists are even trying to build tiny robots to emulate the work of bees but nature is still thousands of years ahead.
Without bees our food system would collapse and our landscapes would become flowerless.  Although the exact cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD) is still in discussion, one thing is certain, it has been caused by man.  Pesticides, monocultures and intensive farming are taking their toll on the natural world.  Like the canary in the mine, the death of the bee is an indicator of an unsafe environment. 
This project acts as a bee retrospective, using the visual language of the archive and specimen collections, I wanted the viewer to imagine/ believe that this vital species is already extinct.'

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Emma Uwejoma: "When I grew up I never belonged"

This project is Ngwako by Emma Uwejoma, who's graduating from Newport this year. It's funny, touching and heartfelt. I had a chat with Emma last week about the project and this is what she said.

"When I grew up I never felt I belonged. I went to school in Dorset and was the only black kid in school. Was I English like my mother or was I a Nigerian Igbo like my father? I was a mixture of the two, an ‘ngwako’ as they say in Igbo, a hybrid, somebody who didn’t fit in here and didn’t fit in there.

In this series of portraits I relive this uncertainty and undergo a gradual entry into a world that I want to be part of. I look at the hardships my father went through as he struggled to make a living as a dishwasher when he first arrived in Britain in the 1980s, I experience the dilemmas of being a woman in Igbo society, of needing to be a pious citizen and a good wife, I imagine what it would be like to marry into a traditional Igbo family.

I have a sense of nostalgia but also a sense of wariness. Do I really want to give up my independence to become a bride traded for a dowry? Do I need to accept a lower status simply because of I am a woman? Is that the way it has to be?

But there are things I want to embrace and become part of; a world where my identity is not formed by the colour of my skin, where time is fluid and life is led according to the natural rhythms of nature and life rather than by the rule of the calculator and the clock. Is that over romantic? I don’t know. I’m still learning what it means to be an Igbo woman from an English home. I hope this project will help me discover who I am, what I am and where I come from."

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Let's Get More Immigrants in Here. They're good for the place

So it's getting to that end of year graduation show time of year, so for starters here is Laura Book from Newport's Documentary Photography Course at the University of South Wales (I work there).

This project is called Pujasjarvi, a town where there are more reindeer than people, where the town has set the goal for more than one in ten of the local population to be immigrants by the year 2018. To that end, the town invited in refugees living in dangerous citcumstances. The Boukono family were one such group, and Book interlaces her pictures of life in this Finnish town with archive images that the Boukonos managed to preserve.

This openness to migration goes very much against what you hear about in most of the European news at present. Perhaps that's because the vast majority of  people in Europe are less small-minded than the media and political establishment would have us believe. And perhaps the protest votes (in the UK especially) are more to do with the failure of those political establishments to engage with people on any level than with an essential racism.

I like to think Book's work captures that ability to live together and get on with life no matter what the surface expectations - and a Congolese family living in one of the more isolated corners of Finland provides some pretty good surface expectations.

Here's the full statement. And look at more images here.

The journey started by a river. The Congo river is the second largest river in the world, but outside the Boukono family's house in Brazzaville, it is so small you can wave to the other side. When civil war was raging in Brazzaville in 1998, the family escaped their home and crossed the river to neighboring DR Congo and the harsh conditions of life in a refugee camp. Fifteen years later their journey ended by another river when the family moved into a house facing the Iijoki river in Finland, so far north you can walk on its frozen waters in wintertime.

The Boukono family came to Finland through a UNHCR program that resettles refugees living in particularly vulnerable conditions with no possibility of returning to their countries of origin. Pudasjärvi, the family's new hometown, has an aging and rapidly shrinking population. In order to keep the town alive, the council has set a goal that in 2018, one of ten residents would be an immigrant.

The series follows the Boukono family as their first winter in Finland is coming to an end. Interlaced in the story are photographs that have made a long and improbable journey together with the family. They too have barely escaped a war and some bear their own scars. The oldest images began their journey in Studio Papa Photo Josky in Brazzaville, where Flavien Boukono started working as a photographer in the 1970's. Later photographs record daily life and important celebrations in the refugee camp, shared with friends who are now far away. Some images carry memories too painful to recall.

As days become longer and the light finds its way back, the breaking ice sounds like gunshots in a still forest. The river that carried people's footsteps now carries blocks of ice, slowly changing their shape as they float down the stream. 

For the Children

For the Children is a small book by Daniel Donnelly published by Antler Press in Plymouth. Like the classic Cafe Royal series, Antler books are more pamphlet than book, the lower end of the photobook food chain, and all the better for it.

This is what Donnelly (who is one of the lucky ones participating in this amazing looking working in the Himalaya with Cristina de Middel and Ricardo Cases) says about the book.

A sheep costs more than 200 euros. So why do many poor families buy one? Surely it is really difficult to find the money?
These are the questions I asked in the weeks coming up to Eid. A version of the answer I often found was:
“For the children. To have the sheep, to have new things in the house, to have new cushions for the sofa. You want the children to have a happy Eid.”
For the children is a collection of photos taken on Eid al-Adha in October 2013 in Asilah, Morocco.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Penises, Pendants and Sexual Harrassment: The Story of Women and Art

In The Story of Women and Art, Amanda Vickery asks why there are so few women on view in public galleries. In this article for the Guardian, Vickery asks why we should even ask the question.

Is art male? Most institutions would have us think so. The disparities are startling. In 1989 the feminist Guerrilla Girls discovered that fewer than 5% of the modern works in the Metropolitan Museum in New York were by women, but 85% of the nudes were female. It is usually possible to see works by one or two women in an entire museum, but you could spend hours looking.

So why is that? Vickery concludes that it wasn't because women didn't make art. They did. They worked in family workshops, they contributed to the production of paintings and sculptures despite horrendous prejudice. Some joined societies where the rules were reinvented to keep them out. There were double binds where if you wanted to be a serious artist then you had to portray the body, the male body in particular. But no respectable woman would be allowed to draw a live nude male model. So damned if you did, damned if you didn't.

But the best part of the series was when Vickery honed in on great key artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi. That's her picture of Susanna and the Elders at the top. Vickery says:

Gentileschi could match the men of counter-reformation art, but chose to dramatise the struggles of women. She depicted the same heroines, even repeating the scenes of her father Orazio, but she charged hers with a pungent critique of male possession of women. The violence of voyeurism is palpable in her Susanna and the Elders (1610), when the cowering woman is victim to the lecherous gaze of two old men. They will accuse her of the capital crime of adultery unless she agrees to sleep with them. Her strong twisting body is displayed, but her horror is uppermost, and her arms are raised in resistance. "What are YOU looking at?" 

 So women brought a different perspective to art then. There was and has always been a counterpart to the male gaze and the essential voyeurism of art. But if you don't see it, then you  are not going to be aware of it. Visibility, Vickery argues, is everything.

The idea is also exemplified by another Gentileschi painting, this time of Judith Beheading Holofernes. But here Gentileschi portrays herself as the Judith figure on the right and Holofernes is Agostino Tassi, an artist who was convicted of raping Gentileschi ( and he was sentenced to 2 years imprisonment with time off for something or other...).

A quieter, more domestic, but equally cutting perspective is shown in The Proposition by Judith Leyster. The embarrassment, humiliation and anger is right there in the woman's red cheeks, shining forehead and downcast eyes.

I think my favourite example of a different perspective was The Gozzadini Family by Lavinia Fontana, shown below. Here the story revolves around the inheritance that will be given to the daughter who provides the first male heir to the family fortune. 

Fontana's patron was Laudomia, the woman on the right. She failed to provide that heir and so missed out on that family fortune. What's more she was blamed by her husband for this misfortune.  She confided the the story to Fontana, who inserted the narrative into the painting through the two pendants the women are wearing. 

On the pendant of Ginevra, the sister of the left who received the inheritance, a man is shown with an erect penis. In Laudomia's pendant, however, the man's penis is a sad, flaccid thing. And that's how a family history gets told 400 years after the fact. Revenge, a dish best served cold!

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

99% of Photographers do Stuff for Free

'71% of artists who exhibit in publicly funded galleries receive no fees'. That's the tagline of Paying Artists, an online petition in the UK that aims to have publicly funded galleries pay fees for showing their work.

The campaign crystallises a whole raft of questions that photographers (and artists and writers and designers and musicians...) have to consider. When do you pay something and when do you get paid? It also crystallises the fact that 71% of publicly funded galleries do pay fees, so do provide for working artists. That's something to celebrate.  But what about the other 29%? How come they pay nothing?

Somebody told me over the weekend that Virginia Woolf (not sure if it was her) said  that anybody with a creative life is basically doing it for the 'fun' of it, or to avoid a proper job or just to get a certain satisfaction in life. And I have a certain sympathy for that.

There's also the equation of the creative with the authentic and the amateur. This is what Alfred Eisenstadt said, 'Once the amateur's naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.'

Another element in this idea is that anyone who argues for the gravity of the creative arts is engaging in earnest delusion. They are trying to elevate their creative outlet into a form of salvation for a beleaguered world. We see this all the time in photography.

Some people react against this because if it's only the doing that matters, if it's only the beauty, the creativity, the story telling, imagination and fun that matter then somehow you shouldn't get paid for it.

I don't really see it that way. In fact, I think a more flagrantly emotional approach that recognises photography as a form of entertainment (yes there are exceptions!) is of far more value than the earnest self-deception of photography as an offshoot of the caring professions. I also think there's more money in regarding photography as a kind of entertainment and because there is so much money in photography-the-industry (How much does your camera cost now? And how much did you spend on cameras 30 years ago?) as opposed to photograph-the-niche-we-talk-about-in-places-like-this-blog, we need to expand the latter to embrace more of the former.

Which brings us back to the question of what should you get paid for, what should you pay for.In this nice corner, much of photography is a vanity business, a profession where there is at least some element of paying to play. It's a spectrum where those who are wealthy have a huge advantAt one end you have the traditional photobook industry where people pay £10,000, £20,000, £30,000 to publish their book. No problem if you have the money. No problem if you don't have the money, but can raise it through Kickstarter or Sponsume type of campaigns - though then why not make something a bit cheaper. But it is a bit of a problem when you get somebody who is obviously minted trying to get the general public to fund their book in advance. That always strikes me as a bit odd.

Then you have to pay for a whole host of other things (and generally the more you pay the better you get) and at some point you flip over to the other side where people start paying you for stuff. And that's where Paying Artists kicks in. Money should go to artists as well as administrators and curators.

But most of the photographic world is not publicly funded and does not have much money. And even the people who have some money don't have that much of it. I think we can be delusional about how much money there is in photography partly due to a lack of transparency and partly due to a kind of wish fulfillment.

All of this struck me when the very nice people at Darwin Magazine put a call out for work and a photographer asked if they paid. Darwin has a print run of about 100 and is run on love. It's not really a money magazine but at the same time it was a fair question for the photographer to ask.

And that got me thinking about doing stuff for free. How much stuff should you do for free before you become a big patsy who's being taken advantage of, and who should you do stuff for free for? I'm ridiculously bad at bargaining or selling myself so I am slightly paranoid that I get taken advantage off, and I do loads of stuff for free, so I'm a double whammy loser.

I do this blog for free, but I quite like it and it gives me the chance to see and promote new work and sound off about things that are close to my heart. I do quite a lot of writing for free or near-free for other people and their blogs. I look at work for free, I give talks for free. And everybody I know in photography does stuff for free. People are remarkably generous. They give talks, they  mentor young photographers, they show people their studios or their work or their books, they give interviews, they help people out. I don't know if there is one photographer, even at the very top end, who doesn't do loads of stuff for free.

And I don't resent doing things for free because one thing leads to another, because I'm working with interesting people who are kind and interesting and who are mostly in the same kind of boat as me. And there are fringe benefits. This coming June I'm doing some conversations and panel discussions at Photobook Bristol. It's a festival that is being run for free with guests who are coming for free and giving talks for free, all in the name of the photobook and having a good time. What's in it for them? What's in it for me? What's in it for anyone?

Well, quite a lot really. We get to meet some lovely people, and eat some lovely food and hear some lovely music; that's why we're doing it. But that's Photobook Bristol. There are many other things you should get paid for? What those are I haven't a clue. I'm not very good when it comes to money. Nor are most artists or photographers. Which is a real weakness I can tell you. If you want to make money, stop reading this blog and do a business course. Seriously! Make some money! And part of that will be finding out who doesn't pay, who is awash with money but just tight-fisted and mean-minded. They are the people you shouldn't do stuff free for.

Read more about Paying Artists here.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Richard Mosse's Toilet Paper

Congratulations to Richard Mosse (that's his picture above) for winning the Deutsche Borse Prize.

But even more congratulations for inspiring the British TV ad for Cushelle toilet paper (mixed with a bit of Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride and the Koala Brothers). It's interesting to see what is pretty niche photography influencing very popular visual culture.

See the whole ad here if you really want to. It's not worth it thought, The screen grab is as good as it gets..

Monday, 19 May 2014

A Book of Ugly People

all pictures by Christopher Anderson

I like it when connections jump out at you. That happened a few weeks back when I was looking at Christopher Anderson's Stump.

Stump is a book of faces; politician's faces, American politician's faces, Ugly inside-and-out faces.

So I looked at Stump and it reminded me of Oliver Sacks. This is what I wrote for a review in Photo-Eye.

There’s a section in Oliver Sacks’ book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, where the author visits of ward full of people with aphasia; a disorder where people have difficulty understanding the meaning of words. As he visits the ward Ronald Reagan, the president of the United States of America, appears on the TV. Suddenly the ward breaks into laughter. These people who cannot understand individual words or sentences are laughing at the speech that Reagan is giving? 

How so if they don’t understand the words that he is saying? Sacks points out that understanding spoken language does not consist of words alone. There is also the emotional delivery of the words. Reagan was full of that. He had his ‘rhetoric, his histrionisms, his emotional appeal.’ It was this that the patients were laughing at. Stripped of the deceptive power of the words they could see a ham actor delivering his ham lines in the most transparent way. It was literally laughable and for all their disability, this ward full of aphasics could see it better than most. Sacks sums up the experience with a quote from Nietzche; ‘One can lie with the mouth, but with the accompanying grimace, one nevertheless tells the truth.’ 

That pretty much somes up our political leaders and it pretty much sums up Stump. It's an angry book that lacks in decency and decorum. I like that.

They say tht politics is show business for the ugly. Anderson's hitting that note here. But the thing about ugliness is it's often been misunderstood. There used to be Ugly Laws in the US which were basically laws to keep the poor and disabled off the street (and they still exist but just not under that name).

Maybe there should be new Ugly Laws, Ugly-Inside-And-Out Laws, designed to keep the people featured in Anderson's book off the streets and out of politics. Now that would be progress.

Read the whole review here.

Everyone's just making it up as they go along

'Everyone's just making it up as they go along.'

That's the most important lesson life has taught British actor Stephen Mangan.

The people who make it up most of all are politicians. They do it with serious voices but that doesn't make it any less made up. The country where they're making it up most at the moment is India where the head of the BJP ( not the nice BJP, but this BJP), Norendra Modi has just been electedy've just elected prime-minister.

Pankaj Mishra does a wonderful description of where Modi comes from and where he's going in this article. He is a member of an organisation whose founders admired the Holocaust as "race pride at its highest," he is accused of complicity in the massacre of muslims, and his politics are an Indian variation on transglobal asset-stripping for the rich.

Mishraj describes in his article the rationale of Indian and international politics and business; they're all making it up as they go along because as long as the decisions made (more labour 'flexibility', less support for the poor) are in the interests of the globally rich and powerful, massacres and sectarian rhetoric can be excused as a kind of immature 'opportunism' that the realities of real power will eliminate.

So progress is measured in terms of the growth of the rich at the expense of the poor.

"The bulk of India's aggregate growth," the World Bank's chief economist Kaushik Basu warns, "is occurring through a disproportionate rise in the incomes at the upper end of the income ladder." Thus, it has left largely undisturbed the country's shameful ratios – 43% of all Indian children below the age of five are undernourished, and 48% stunted; nearly half of Indian women of childbearing age are anaemic, and more than half of all Indians still defecate in the open.

And as the poor get marginalised so they become less important and a sort of invisibility emerges - in political debate, in corporate decision making. Even in Hindi cinema, the world has been flipped on its head. If in earlier decades, Bollywood was all about the poor peasant labouring against the evil landlord or corrupt mine owner, now it's been flipped on its head and its the rich and powerful who are celebrated.

But the case of Bollywood shows how the unravelling of the earliest nation-building project can do away with the stories and images through which many people imagined themselves to be part of a larger whole, and leave only tawdriness in its place. Popular Hindi cinema degenerated alarmingly in the 1980s. Slicker now, and craftily aware of its non-resident Indian audience, it has become an expression of consumer nationalism and middle-class self-regard; Amitabh Bachchan, the "angry young man" who enunciated a widely felt victimhood during a high point of corruption and inflation in the 1970s, metamorphosed into an avuncular endorser of luxury brands.

We have a European election in the UK in a few weeks time. A xenophobic party called UKIP will do very well in that election. They are the more 'acceptable' end of the spectrum, and they have a leader who isn't always serious (that simple fact is what makes them populare. He sugar coats his xenophobia and hypocrisy with a couple of pints at lunchtime) - more acceptable than the BNP. That's a BNP youth broadcast shown above. It's a video full of angry kids saying angry things about all the people who they imagine have done them wrong, kids who are so bitter it seems as though they must be victims of  the 'militant homosexuals' who go round breaking up families and imposing Shariah Law and banning tiddlywinks and English bangers or maybe I'm getting my messages mixed up there (like the guy in this video).

Anyway, the BNP aren't in government here. The BJP are in government in India. God help them.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Does the Conceptual add anything to the Documentary?

I like this. Johann Rousselot sent me his project on sexual harassment in Egypt. It's a project where fairly straightforward portraits and captions are mixed with Rousselot's collages - urban landscapes where images have been dropped in; like a Attie projection but virtual. And why not?

I'm not entirely convinced it works but I like the project overall. I love that it shows a flipside to what we are supposed to expect, that it shows people who are fighting against harrassment and misogyny in a very direct way, that there is a civil society in those countries that is as complex and nuanced as anywhere in the world. If you've seen some of the comments that connect to #BringBackOurGirls you'll know why that's a good thing. And if you're a basic human being, you'll also know why that's a good thing.

The nice thing is Rousselot's not entirely sure of the work either. So I thought I'd put it up here along with his statement and a question.

Does this conceptual element add anything to the straight up documentary? 

This work is a photographic essay, neither documentary nor photojournalism per se. It is a hybrid form, a documentary with a conceptual bent. It's photojournARTistic, if that is possible. 

Some pictures are modified, some are not. I used a digital collage and layering technique for the first time during the Tunisian revolution (Freedom Fighters project, 2011). I never tried to hide it or deceive the viewer, I’m openly comfortable with this.

There comes a time when you’re no longer satisfied with your usual way of shooting or telling stories, when you have the feeling it conveys the message in an always weaker way. 

So I tried this. I’m not sure it will please everyone, or that it has a bright and growing future.

Blurring the lines is not a goal, it’s an effect.  And actually it’s the least of my worries in this digital era where sampling, reproducing easily, stitching, have become « natural » processes.

As long as the idea is strongly there in the story, and that I’m being honest, I believe I’m informing people properly.