Featured post

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...

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Chinese Torture

Thanks to the invite or Urs Stahel, I'm looking forward to talking at Platform at Paris Photo this year. I have 10 minutes to talk about something, anything and the ideas are brewing in my head.

It will be a rich and heady mix. But I don't know if whatever it is I will talk about will have the effect I intend it to have. Sometimes things just come out and get a life of their own.

That happens with writing and it happens with photography. I think that's possibly happened a bit with this website (h/t Alex at IC Visual Labs and Visualising China).

The website is called Turandot: Chinese Torture/Supplices Chinois and ostensibly the introduction sums up its purpose.

« Chinese torture » is a cliché. That is the visual representation of a prejudice according to which the Chinese singularize by a particular cruelty. Backed by testimonies and photographs, this representation proliferated in literature, art, theater, cinema, etc. The myth for long survived to the facts it was inspired by, and it goes on distorting our perception of Chinese reality.
To seize this polymorphic representation under all aspects, we constituted an international and interdisciplinary team, including specialists in Chinese history, comparative literature, Western and Chinese iconography, photography, etc. This multilingual data basis is a tool for crossing or approaches, and bridge the gap between our fields. This is a way to diffuse our research works, and provide access to our resources for our colleagues. Materials come with a critical apparatus easing their use for research; hyperlinks allow confrontations between resources of diverse kinds, to find out thei references, to link them according to this or that interpretative hypothesis.

So the site details tortures/cruelties and punishments (with incredible photographs reproduced with awful digital quality) as they existed in the 19th and early 20th century, with the cangue and lingchi particularly notable. Lingchi was a kind of death by dismemberment, similar to hanging, drawing and quartering we had in Europe in various forms.

I'm not sure why the quality of the images is so bad - perhaps it's because even though it has the above brief highlighted above, the people behind the website are also aware exactly how these images will be seen and used.

And of course we could look at these pictures then, and still look at them now and wonder at how cruel and uncivilised and alien the Chinese, Iraqi, Congolese, Israelis, Uzbekis or IS are - which justifies our colonisation and dropping of bombs and dehumanisation.

But it can work both ways and it does work both ways. So just as I can read the news and wonder at the cruelties inflicted on others by a variety of global evil-doers, I can also wonder what the websites are that detail the horrors that our bullets and bombs inflict on others.

These portrayals always tend to be in national or sectarian terms; this is what the Chinese do/did, this is what the Americans do/did, this is what the 'Extremists' (that's what the BBC calls Islamic Doo-Dah) do.

I'm not sure why these cruelties are always classified in these terms. Why not cut to the chase. This is what powerful males with weapons do? That might address the problem. Remove their power and stop giving them weapons. Then we might stop making excuses for the psychopathology of our leaders. And maybe we would have a better world. But that would be too simple wouldn't it.

Read more about Visualising China and the use of torture and punishments in images here. 

And read about the strength and determination of the Chinese here.

Monday, 29 September 2014

No Religious People

I had Battersea Dogs Home come knocking on my door last week. "Do you  like dogs," the two guys in yellow hi-visibility vests asked.

Excuse but fuck off! Battersea is in London and I'm sure it has stacks of cash. I live 100 miles away from Battersea in Bath. Bath has a Cats and Dogs Home. It also has stacks of cash.

But I'm polite so I didn't say fuck off! I kind of scowled and that worked instead. But wouldn't it be nice not to have my day ruined by these kind of people.

But what would work? Darned if I knew. Then we went for a walk with my sister visiting from Ann Arbor yesterday. We went up Solsbury Hill, to Bathampton Weir and a pint at the pub and then back home via the Tin Church on Bailbrook Lane.

And that's where we saw the sign. Perfect.

Friday, 26 September 2014

David Goldblatt and an Early Upskirt

David Goldblatt. 'Woman smoking, Fordsburg, Johannesburg' 1975

I went to see David Goldblatt in conversation with Martin Parr at IC Visual Labs in Bristol last night.

( See more IC Visual Lab events here, and check out  the Propaganda Event at Photobook Bristol here).

It was a fantastic talk, a mix of incredible images, the stories behind them, with some up-skirty shots of women's legs thrown in for good measure. Goldblatt talked about text, image (how do they work together? We're still figuring that one out), his work in the UK for Multistory and paying for images. He didn't pay 20c for the picture above. "Can I photograph your hands?" he asked.  He did photograph her, er, hands, but he didn't pay the the 20c. He didn't take up the woman's offer of a weekend away in Swaziland either. But now he will pay 80 Rand for a portrait; times change and in modern South Africa, payment legitimises photography and provides access.

I really enjoyed that. It made me rethink Goldblatt's work and take it beyond the iconic into something more human, three-dimensional and thoroughly modern. Especially the legs. But (and I'm adding this after the fact), the legs are a digression - his photography of the body goes way, way beyond my lascivious take on the legs pictures. And we saw that in all his other pictures, especially his portrait of Zanele Muholi and her partner. But I like the fact that an icon of anti-apartheid photography can go beyond the saint-photographer discourse. It makes him a better man and a better photographer. And much more interesting.

To end the week here is a quote from Georges Sand (via Laurent Binet and HHhH). It fits Goldblatt's work and it seems to fit the UK right now

'Poor workers or sick people, you must always struggle against those who tell you : "Work hard to live badly"'

The woman worked in a shop in Soweto, 1972.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Cake, Cake and More Cake

In the UK we have a TV programme called The Great British Bake Off. It's presented by Mary Berry (imagine Margaret Thatcher crossed with The Terminator but nice) and Paul Hollywood (housewives favourite, if you're the kind of housewife who likes them not so nice). There are two comedians who run around to no good effect.

And then there are the people who do the baking. They're lovely. And the stuff they make is, on the whole lovely. Last night they did extreme dough; so they made doughnuts and fruit breads. The basic upshot is that you come out of it desperate to bake cakes (or bread or doughnuts). It makes you hungry. And even when the cakes don't turn out right, then you can play one-upmanship and say well I could do better than that. Last night they made a Croatian version of potica, which is something my wife makes for Christmas every year. But hers is far better and truer and all the rest of it than any of the chocolate infested dreck they had on last night.

So you win both ways.

Which brings me to my last family themed book of the week, Lots of Cake by Laura Curran. This is a modest book which looks at her mother and the way she celebrates every festival possible. I like that idea.

So we see snippets from birthdays, Christmases, Halloweens and various fancy dress parties. The pictures are rough, but it has a touch of the KayLynn Deveney's about it with its emphasis on the small details and the contrast of warm interiors with the dreich exteriors.

There are arts and crafts, the painting of banners and the hanging up of bunting. There's dressing up; for Halloween and for other events. There's one where Curran's mother (I think) and two guests stand in leopard skin blouses and shirts. I've always wanted a leopard skin jacket (a gold lame jacket too) so that gave me a twinge of envy.

We see the baking, the recipes and we see the cakes. My favourite is definitely the one with RIP printed on it - is this a Wake Cake (does such a thing exist) or a Halloween Cake. It's a quiet book so though you see the cakes they are part of a broader household celebration, the events that are created by Curran's mother, the events that add so much to the lives of everybody around her.

Buy the Book Here

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Morning Suns and Poetic Pregnancies


Morning Sun by Matej Sitar continues the fatherhood and book theme. But where Reluctant Father and Father Figure used text to take you into personal and cultural corners of fatherhood, Morning Sun takes a more poetic line; it's a love letter from Sitar to his pregnant wife.

There are no words in the book itself, but these are the words on Sitar's website. They set the scene

'What does it mean to become a father for the first time? How will everything change, what will the days look like and what will be the new routine? Well, I can’t tell the answers to any of those questions, at least not now anyhow. 

The intriguing part before going through all of this is the relationship with the partner. The appreciation of her, every point of her body that is constantly changing, but also sta ying the same. Something familiar that is developing. There is also the fear of the un- known. 

I like the changes. I like the look and the feel of it. And the constant reminder that it is her who is important. 

Maja, my love.

So the book begins with a picture of a basketball hoop set against a wooden barn door (which has a cat flap!) and quickly moves on to Maja in the snow, autumn leaves in the golden sun and the shadow of Maja's pregnant belly on the living room wall.


There is forest and rocks and jellyfish washed up on the beach. The words are pretty but there is still that sense of something organic and uncontrolled coming into the picture. Sometimes it's part of nature and a wonder to behold, sometimes it doesn't quite feel that way.


Morning Sun is not a pregnancy timeline but a book that flows with the seasons, the early morning and golden theme heading towards its inevitable end. Maja appears light, heavy and not always delighted with what is happening to her (or possibly the fact that Sitar is taking so many pictures. If I remember right, that doesn't always go down well). Which is what makes the book interesting.


It's that drudgery thing again. Whenever I think of being a father, a mother, or being pregnant, it's the drudgery. I've never been pregnant in my life (duh!) but when I see somebody carrying a baby around in their belly it astounds me. It looks so heavy, such a weight, a load, a sacrifice. And that I guess is what Morning Sun is ultimately about - but put in more poetic terms.

Buy the book here.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Reluctant Father and the Drudgery of Parenthood

Keeping on the father theme, here is The Reluctant Father by Philip Toledano.

The Reluctant Father is a book about reluctant fatherhood. It starts out with Toledano's baby daughter being born. Toledano is both bewildered and resentful. It's not so much that he's gained a child as lost a wife.

The baby, LouLou, screams. That's her emotion of choice, so Toledano gets a picture of the screaming Loulou printed on a plate. When people ask to see a picture of the baby, that's what he shows. Fantastic.

Toledano calls LouLou a 'sea-sponge' and resents the cultural expectation of being constantly delighted by being a father. He doesn't connect.

Except that in the end he does, when she begins to smile (so when she's four weeks old or thereabouts) and do things other than scream. So they all live happily ever after!

I know you're supposed to go warm and soggy when you get the emotional payoff, but I was kind of disappointed when this happened. I wanted the confusion to continue, if not to its natural conclusion, then to something a bit more familiar. It's almost too polarised, the idea that the connection ends the drudgery of being a parent. That's when the drudgery begins.

I have always been a very present father but hold little nostalgia for the relentlessness of having a 3-year-old or six-year-old or 9-year-old in the house. The early mornings, the constant 'playing' and the bedtime reading had their moments but reading and reading again and again and again books such as The Flower Fairy series is a fate that I would happily wish on my worst enemies. Or the playing that is more like performing, or the half mile walk that takes two hours because you have to stop (my mistake, there was no had to about it) to look at every dog, horse, duck and train along the way. Yes, lovely but its time is past thank goodness. For Toledano, that time is just beginning.

Buy the book here.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Zun Lee's Father Figure

In the introduction to his new book, Father Figure, Zun Lee says:

'When I began my project in 2011, I knew that I wanted to explore a different take on the usually negative representation of Black fathers.'

As soon as he began photographing, Lee began having doubts, the question pile was getting higher and the answer pile lower:

'What qualifies someone as a “good” Black father? How much of the deadbeat-dad narrative do we tend to accept as fact? Do statistics confirm or disprove popular stereotypes? Can empirical evidence and actual lived experience  reveal another reality behind the numbers? The more I dealt with these questions, the more I realized that the path to my answers lay in finding redemption to my own past.'

That front door involved a biological black father who disappeared before he was born, it involved an emotionally and physically father and it had involved Lee seeking and finding solace in other families on the military bases where he mostly grew up.

As he photographed, Lee's attempt to understand American Black Fatherhood (and it's really important to stress that it is American) became a struggle to understand his own upbringing, his own father and to let go of the imaginary childhood that he didn't have. (read more about this here)

So a book that started as a counter-propaganda exercise (Lee says that he was originally looking for the right kinds of fathers) became something altogether more interesting - a three-dimensional portrayal of fathers that embraces far broader aspects of black fatherhood than the stereotypes allow,

And Lee's pictures show us how thin those stereotypes are. He shows us a black father lying exhausted on a sofa, two kids by his side. He's probably not as exhausted as the mother who's cooking in the kitchen, but he's still exhausted.

Or there's the dad standing on the street corner with a baby in a sling, his mates gathered round, looking all skinny and street in a dad kind of way. I've never seen that before in a photograph, movie or TV programme.

There are dads playing with their kids in the street, changing babies' nappies and going on days out to the aquarium or park. And all the time there are quotes, really obvious quotes

'My first few months as a father were so overwhelming. Sure, you prepare as much as you can but you quickly realize you don’t really know how things will shake out, and despite all the advice from family and friends, you’re still just winging it. You kind of learn as you go, and over time, your confidence grows.'


'It seems basic or obvious, but spending quality time with your kids – being present really comes down to that for me. For me, that’s not just being in the same room, but actively engaging with the kids.'


'Fatherhood at its core means that there is someone else on the planet that is more important to you and that it humbles you to realize that there are more unknown elements than known. It means that I have to be open to learning more and experiencing life through another. It is wildly satisfying.'

It's obvious but it's also essential. These are pretty much universal feelings that all fathers (and mothers for that matter) go through. But it's that obviousness that makes these sentiments so essential, because (from a distance - I'm not black and I live in the UK) they are so rarely expressed in such a direct manner.

I remember reading an interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (who is Nigerian). She wrote that until she came to America, she didn't realise she was black. This sentiment is echoed in a quote by one Domican-born father who, said:

'I got into a lot of trouble as a teenager. As part of my rehabilitation process, I spent time in Kentucky with the Job Corps Program. Living there you realize very quickly that no matter how you see yourself, America reminds you that you are Black.'

Father Figure is very Family of Man; it says that black men are people too, that they love their children, they feel pride and sorrow and long for what is good for their families. But it also recognises that not all fathers are great, that there is a spectrum of fatherhood that ranges from the good to the bad - and that must be recognised and addressed.

I think Lee begins to do that with this book. I spend a lot of time talking to people about how all photographs are fiction and nobody believes in images anymore. And I kind of sympathise with that.

But at the same time, we do believe in images more than ever before. There is a reality principle behind images that is greater than ever before. That's why so many people believe in simplistic stereotypes of all kinds. Because however much we may say we don't believe in what we see, everything's manipulated - we still believe it in our hearts. It still works! We still believe in it. But most of the time it's in a bad way.

'I provide for my son as best I can, but as a single father, it’s hard to provide for him emotionally at times. I give him enough affection as a dad. But sometimes he needs the input of a mother in his life.'

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Paul Graham's Rainbows

I wrote something the other week in this post about people  in the Independent how 'Cultivating vegetables and herbs at home is also just an extension of the modern foodie culture, in which visiting farmers’ markets, home-brewing, and splurging £4.50 on a loaf of artisanal bread is increasingly the norm among urban-dwelling twenty- and thirtysomethings.'

I think that is a despicable thing when it is done in that particular precious way that is elitist and excludes others from food culture and claims good food as something that is only attainable through either great expertise or great expenditure..

And then I thought about photography and wondered about photography, wondered about this blog and how we could change a few words around so it was all about photobooks and handmades and Japanese stab-bindings and spending £126.73 on an artisanal crafted edition of 45 with slipped in leaflets... and well, we're talking about me and a fair few other people as well. 

Oh well, so it goes.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is I was sent Paul Graham's new book, Does Yellow Run Forever  in the post a few weeks ago. 

Sometimes it takes a bit of time for Paul Graham's work to filter through, sometimes it only filters through in conjunction with other books. So perhaps I'm wrong on this. 

But I couldn't really work myself up to liking it. The pictures are super-glossy and run through a rainbow, dreaming girlfriend, US gold shops riff ( pot of gold, streets paved with gold, sell your gold) but it all seems a bit artificial to me. Or maybe not artificial enough. It seems like the metaphorical is being pushed but it's got stuck in the photobook mode of presentation. Whatever it is Graham is trying to say is somehow blocked by the fuzzy cover and the glossy pages. Or it might be that it's not that interesting a story. 

Maybe it's because I got it at the end of the summer and I am just not in the mood for this obtuse kind of narrative when there's a more obvious one might do. The story feels disguised by the format rather than revealed . Or maybe I am out of practice and need to get back into my artisanal groove and appreciate it a bit more. 

Or maybe I just don't like gold.

I do like Teletubbies though. That's why I have the picture up.

I'm sure it will sell out though. You can buy it here. 

And here's an interesting interview with Michael Mack about the book here.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Osama Bin Laden's Secret Base

The great thing about interviewing Joan Fontcuberta was it gave me a chance to use Osama Bin Laden's secret base in a story - the most absurd secret base invented since Dr Evil's Underground volcano.. I've been waiting to do that for years and finally the opportunity came.

Osama Bin Laden's secret base was a fictional hideaway that had been dug out of the Tora Bora Bora mountains. It was the cave complex where Bin Laden and hundreds of his fighters were holed up in Afghanistan, post-911, 2001. It was packed with food, water, weapons and everything else that a good Jihadi needs; a mosque, cinema, boutique and bowling alley are missing from the diagram but you can bet they were there.

I remember seeing this in the UK papers and laughing out loud. The story of Bin Laden's secret base went global and was shown on TV. Donald Rumsfeld was shown the plans and said "And there's not one of those. There are many of those."

But of course the base was never found. Not yet anyway. And now if they found it, because Al Qaeda have now somehow been reinvented as the cuddly arm of the jihadist movement ("We would never have kidnapped an aid worker. He was helping muslims"), it would have yoga rooms and Anger Management Therapy and counsellors for religious OCD.

It was of course completely made up, one of many things (the dodgy dossier that was written by a student showing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction) that have been used to justify war.

Anyway, now that we know that Islamic State are the real bad guys, the really real bad guys, here is a handy guide to Good Beheadings and Bad Beheadings. There's a difference.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Joan Fontcuberta: Is he real?

I interviewed Joan Fontcuberta for the BJP this summer. It was one of my favourite interviews of all time because by the time it was finished I didn't know which way was up and which way was down. The fact that guys in white kept on walking behind Fontcuberta during the Skype interview probably helped as well. I thought he was in some kind of Dojo somewhere running through his killer moves, but he wasn't... But he might have been.

The basic gist of Fontcuberta's work is 'don't trust the packaging'. And because the 'packaging' takes up at least 90% of all photographic work, it ends up as don't trust anything you see. But the problem is we do believe the things that we see, even though we should know better. This is what Fontcuberta said;

“We may not believe images in our conscious minds, but in our unconscious minds we do believe them. In both our individual unconscious and the collective unconscious.” This collective consciousness influences how narratives are presented to people and how we read them and it is these that Fontcuberta seeks to undermine. “I’m interested in fakes and fictions. I think there are 3 levels of fictions; criticism, parody and pastiche. I use fiction to create a critical discourse of how information is transmitted and filtered through academic and cultural institutions.”

Those academic and cultural filters are what make photography a fiction in other words. Or maybe it's non-fiction in which the packaging and the filters (galleries, museums, books, archives, magazines, blogs...) that are contained in the means of production, presentation and dissemination are the plane where reality strikes.

Anyway, if you want to get a taste of Fontcuberta's work The Nature of Photography contains extracts and the introductory essays on key works; it is a fantastic introduction into how photography works and how and and why we believe it in particular situations.

“I like to consider my work a vaccine where you inoculate the world with a very weak virus so it will protect you against the big virus. My mission is just to warn people about the possibility that photography can be doctored, that people need to be critically sceptical of images that format our behaviour and our way of thinking.”

You can also see Fontcuberta's exhibition Stranger than Fiction at The Science Museum in London. Most of his great projects are on show here (Fauna, Herbarium, Miracles...) but Sputnik (Fontcuberta's fictional project on a Russian cosmonaut - those are his images above) is missing, supposedly because the Museum thought that it would clash with an upcoming exhibition on Russian cosmonauts, but maybe because, as Fontcuberta told Source Magazine, "Yuri Gagarin’s daughter – an important officer at Hermitage Museum – disliked deeply my Sputnik series."


Monday, 15 September 2014

Who is Innocent and Who is Guilty?

The censorship row over Yunghi Kim's pictures of Hutu refugees had me spluttering my cornflakes over the breakfast table this morning.

In 1994, Kim was in Goma photographing the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were stuck on the volcanic wastelands around the Congoese town with little food, water or shelter. Cholera was rife and they were dying in their thousands.

Amidst all these refugees were those who had been responsible for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda two years earlier. In fact they were refugees as well; not all refugees are nice.

But still, they were people, as were the babies, the women, the children and the men who had played no part in the massacres. Kim didn't consider the crimes of the assassins, she looked at the human suffering those hundreds of thousands of suffering people were going through. She didn't think of who had done the killing, who done the encouraging, who had made the propaganda, or who had played a passive role in the massacres (which would have meant just about everybody over the age of ?). She simply photographed the suffering.

And this month her pictures appeared at Visa Pour L'Image at Perpignan, Kim was accused of 'revisionism' and the pictures were taken down.

This is part of what she said on the Contact Images Facebook page.

With respect to my Rwanda work, I have always been consistent and clear, in my floor talk at my exhibition and in the intro panel and wall captions, I indicated that I was not present for the barbaric and murderous rampage of the genocide that took place. I was responding to cover the humanitarian crisis -- the mass movements of people -- as they fled Rwanda for Goma. As photojournalist, I responded instinctually documenting life on the run, people frightened, burdened with possessions thirsty, hungry and fatigued. Later, along the roads and in the camps when disease took hold, it did so indiscriminately.

Some people thought it was terrible, some thought it justified. Jan Banning ( who knows a thing or two about revisionism and denial of history) thought it was justified. This is what he said on his website.

Yunghi Kim went to Goma to photograph these Hutu refugees. But she treated the evolving crisis as if it has started as a ‘deus ex machina’, a phenomenon without a history. And I tend to consider it even more naïve to see the captions that now – 20 years (and a lot of reports, books etc.) later – accompany her photos in the NY Times Lens and in the Visa pour l’Image exhibition. To give just one example: she talks of “residents who had fled the fighting” or “fled the civil war.” That is absurd: a great many of them fled to avoid the consequences of killing Tutsi’s.
In her captions, she also talks muscularly about ‘the deadliest crisis in modern history’; we are left in the dark about when ‘modern history’ begins but surely, the refugee crisis at the end (and in the aftermath) of WW2 in Central and Eastern Europe was deadlier. And now that I come to talk about WW2: it would shed light on Kim’s captions, if we consider an exhibition of photos of Germans having fled East Prussia or Sudetenland in 1944-46 with captions that would not mention their fate being related to the Second World War and, certainly in the case of the Sudeten Germans, without touching upon their massive support for the nazis just a few years earlier?
I don't know. I think I'm a bit with Kim and bit with Banning on this one, but ultimately the question is who is guilty and who is innocent? And historically where does innocence end and guilt begin? Even in times as seemingly clear cut as Nazi Germany or genocidal Rwanda, shouldn't compassion and a non-comparative morality be used, however difficult that may be. If we don't do that then we end up in a place where all that exists is vengeance and hatred, where everything is black and white and there is simply right and wrong and no in-between. And considering that pretty much everybody is collectively guilty of something, that is an ugly place to be in. 
So, perhaps Kim was naive or clumsy in her wording, but does that mean that the hundreds of thousands of innocent people (including a great many who were not directly involved in the killing) who were stuck on those Goma rocks didn't deserve some compassion and caring? Or is to show that just to show emotion and somehow be incompatible with informing the audience as Banning suggests (strangely, I've always felt that what made Banning's comfort women so powerful is the anger,grief and sorrow they convey as well as the dignity). Where does innocence end and guilt begin?
More on continuing campaigns for justice by Indonesian Comfort Women here.
...and this from Jan Banning on continued Japanese denial of war crimes.

Friday, 12 September 2014

#bringbackgoodluck, genocide and the first ever photobomb

I saw this on Twitter the other day (on @DapperHistorian) and I am inclined to believe it with the proviso that it might very well be nonsense or even the DapperHistorian himself. The exposure times don't quite add up.

But it doesn't really matter. Or does it? Who knows? Not me.

Then I saw this. Essentially, the story is how come you have Rhodes Scholarships when Cecil Rhodes was such an outright murderer, racist and plunderer.

Which is fair enough.

But was Rhodes a murderer responsible for the deaths of 60 million people, 10 times the number Hitler killled which is what the text that accompanies the text says.

Come again on so many points.

The Hitler comparison and the questionable numbers weaken the very good idea of ending Rhodes Scholarships because of who they are named after. Because Rhodes really was a piece of shit. Why would you name a scholarship after him?

One excuse is that things were different then, or we didn't know any better. I live in Bath which is next to Bristol, a city which for many years was one point in the slave triangle. It's not something that's properly remembered in Bristol - there's a corner of the M-Shed museum on the slave trade, and there's Georgian House, which is a fabulous museum that was owned by a slave-owning family, but apart from that we only have the streets and statues named after one of the city's great slave owners, Edward Colston, something that a large number of people in the city are still in denial about, 

This is what Mike Gardner wrote about Colston.

"Between 1672 and 1689, Colston's company transported more than 100,000 slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and the Americas. To maximise profit, his ships divided their hulls into cramped holds, so they could transport as many slaves as possible. They were stripped and chained in leg irons – the women and children were caged separately and were frequently victims of sexual abuse. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery, smallpox and scurvy meant mortality rates for the eight-week crossing were as high as 20 per cent. Slaves who died or refused to eat were thrown overboard.

A third perished within three years of arriving in the New World after a short life of unimaginable horror, flogged and chained and starved until they could take no more, farming the fields of cotton, sugar, tobacco and molasses."

I don't know if any of that can be justified by some kind of hisorical relativism. It's evil all round. You don't need Hitler and outlandish figures to justify your argument in other words. Research and a sense of common humanity will do the job much better. 

Oh, and while we're on dubious propaganda and slavery, does anyone remember #bringbackourgirls, the campaign from, oh, way back in April when almost 300 girls were abducted in Nigeria by Boko Haram. 219 of the girls are still missing, and the incompetence and disregard shown by the Nigerian authorities is something to behold, even from a very long distance and with a great deal of ignorance thrown in.

So imagine how offended people were when they saw this re-election poster for the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan. It was unofficial and has since been recalled, but still,

Is it real? It can't be? But it is. I don't know anymore....

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Olympia and her cat

Here's Manet's Olympia. It caused a scandal at the Paris Salon in 1865 because she's a prostitute and is looking boldly at the viewer and has a black cat (instead of a faithful dog). This is what Theodore Gautier (the photograph of him below is by Nadar) said about it.

Critic and poet Theophile Gautier writes, May 23rd, 1865:

With some repugnance I come to the peculiar paintings by Manet. It is awkward to discuss them, but they cannot be passed by in silence. . . . Many people think it is enough to pass them by and laugh, but that is a mistake. Manet is not without importance; he has a school, he has admirers, even fanatic followers; his influence extends further than is generally realized. M. Manet has the honor of being a danger. But now the danger is passed.
Olympia is inexplicable from any point of view even taken for what she is, a punymodel stretched out on a sheet. The color of the flesh is dirty, the modeling non-existent. The shadows are indicated by more or less large smears of blacking.  What’s to be said of the negress who brings a bouquet of flowers in a paper, or the black cat that leaves its muddy footprints on the bed? We would still excuse the ugliness were there only some truth in it, some careful study, heightened by some splendid effect of color. Even the least pretty woman has bones, muscles, skin and some sort ofcolor. Here there is nothing, we are sorry to say, but the desire to attract…
You can read more critics here.

And here are some caricatures based around the painting found at the olympia1865 blog, with a lot of the comments revolving around the idea that Olympia needs a wash. The cat features large as well.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Why make a book? Is that a horse's butt?

Over the summer I was talking with someone who wondered why people are so obsessed with making photobooks. What's the point of it all, was the overall sentiment? And I found myself agreeing with the sentiments - basically because what is the point of anything?

Why would you want to make a book of photographs that, if you're lucky, a few hundred people will look at? Why go to all that expense?

But then I thought about the alternative which is really either keeping all your pictures on your computer (or in a box under your bed if you're old school) or showing them in a gallery somewhere.

For which you could say exactly the same thing; why would anyone want to show their pictures in a gallery where they're only going to be seen by, if you're lucky, a few hundred people who are all whispering and putting on earnest faces because that's what you're supposed to do. It is all so phony. Why go to that expense?

But still, a big print on the wall might be the way to show the work, or a small print, or a simple book or a complex book. And whatever you choose, it doesn't have to be expensive if you don't want it to be. In the photobook world, there are enough people making affordable-but-classy books that you need a squillion dollars to publish a photobook is receding by the minute.

There aren't that many complex books about though, for all sorts of reasons. I think one of the key questions of photobookery is what is a photobook. It is surprising how conservative people are when it comes to photobooks. I've seen several posts questioning why people would even want to have a complex design?

Perhaps we should turn it around and ask why would you want to have a simple design (apart from the booksellers's view that they don't stack well on the shelves or sell well). Why make a book filled with pictures that is simply a copy of a book filled with words, where you turn the pages over and there's another image and you pretend that there's a sequential narrative when really there's not.

Why not mix things up a bit, why not make something where you can take things apart and order them and mix things up, something with loose leaves, or without a spine, or as playing cards. Or handmake them and add inserts and sell them for a bit more. Or photocopy them and sell them for a lot less. All this is happening already and I must say how easily I'm sold on something that looks a cool and has some thought put into it; something that helps tell a story and is a pleasure to look at and hold.

Gosh, it's interesting how imaginations run out when it comes to photography, how prescriptive it becomes. I suppose that's because photography is conservative in essence. It pretends not to be, but it is, and there is also that horrific presbyterian edge to it, that things should be simple and unadorned and cheap, that they shouldn't be dynamic and fun. Perhaps that's why so many photobooks have those dire, single voice essays at the front of them that often end up being dull, self-referential and uninformative. Where's the narrative there?

Anyway, the book above is by Anouk Kruithof and is called Untitled (I've taken too many pictures/I've never taken a picture). It's a book about how people choose pictures. It's not really a photobook in some ways, but the text makes you hunt out the pictures - which are not always that easy to see. It's interesting to read and the words give you a reason to look at the pictures but at the same time it's kind of annoying. But there's a story in there and isn't that what matters!

Here's my review of it for Photo Eye. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Yvette Monahan's Mountain Dwellers: Lonely or Troubled or Both

There are so many people who have photographed people who live beyond the suburban pale; people who live in buses and trees and dark and distant mountainsides. My favourites are Tom Hunter whose work has depth and sense of place that goes beyond the temporary (I think he might be the rare case of a photographer who is rated but still under-rated ) and Alessandro Imbriaco whose book The Garden is still one of my favourites; a homeless family living in a swamp in Rome! But done with sensitivity.

But sometimes I wonder if all the it isn't all a bit outlandish, a bit of a freakshow of those at the fringes of sociey. So when Yvette Monahan  told me about her new book, The Time of Dreaming the World Awake, I wondered if that wasn't just another oddity. It's about people who live on the mountain of Bugarach in France. That's the one where the world was going to end in 2012.

Then I thought again and thought about all the people I vaguely knew who had lived on mountainsides or become shepherds or had worked on farms in deep France selling maggot-infested cheese (the more maggots the better) to the locals.

And in the summer my cousin came to visit from where he now lives on Jeju Island in South Korea. But before he lived there he lived in a tree house in Oregon building cob houses and living in a virtually cash-free economy.

So perhaps my idea that living on a mountainside somewhere is odd is odd in itself, Perhaps it's me that has become so normalised to the British semi-suburban ideal that anything that is different seems frightening. Perhaps that's true of everything.

Anyway, Monahan's book is lovely. It's a bit of a fantasy that presents a mist-shrouded mountain where the return to the land is portrayed as a combination of a return to paradise and a hermetic retreat. The people who inhabit the mountain have beards and horns and nestle in the ferns like little hobbits. But sometimes they're old and seem a bit worn down. The mountain is misty but the habitations that Monahan photograph are remote isolated. Some of the lives she shows are reclusive rather than secluded; it's not all happy campers. Some of these people are lonely or troubled or both.

Buy the book here. 

Monday, 8 September 2014

Allotments, Pumpkins and Food

I was in the allotment the other day harvesting a pumpkin when a man walked by. He was talking on his phone. "I'm going to stay here and do a power hour," he said.

Oh dear. And then I read in the Independent how 'Cultivating vegetables and herbs at home is also just an extension of the modern foodie culture, in which visiting farmers’ markets, home-brewing, and splurging £4.50 on a loaf of artisanal bread is increasingly the norm among urban-dwelling twenty- and thirtysomethings.'

Which is all well and good unless you visit farmers' markets, do home brewing and splurge £4.50 on a loaf of artisanal bread like a tosser (as opposed to do all those things in a not-like-a-tosser way, which is the way most people do them), then it's not all well and good.

In the article there are all these attempts to quantify and rationalise growing things into a little lifestyle box, a box that is detached from everyday existence, a specially designed bijou box with a tasteful typeface and a bow and clasp in nice subdued colours; a lifestyle box where you have a definitive understanding of everything and that expertise is a hallmark of your great taste and connection to the prevailing zeitgeist. It's a kind of being where the natural chaos and confusion of growing things and not knowing what you're doing is removed. But growing things doesn't belong in a lifestyle box - and the very act of placing it in a lifestyle box destroys the point of it all - which is to provide a pleasant outdoor space in which to hang out and grow things, especially if you don't have that much money or a big garden of your own.

So it was a pleasure to review Joachim Brohm's Typology 1979 for Photo-Eye, a series of German allotment pictures. I don't think too many people were doing 'power hours on these sites, or using the allotment as a shortcut to cooldom. Weren't the seventies great! No, actually they were really bad in so many ways, but still I love the pictures. But maybe that's because I'm interested in the subject and care about it.

Joachim Brohm's full site is here.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Death is all around

I reviewed Christopher Bangert's War Porn for Emaho over the summer. It's a great book with one of those uncut pages designs - I didn't cut the pages open because I've got too many books with badly-cut pages and it's starting to annoy me.

The basic premise of War Porn is why do we not show pictures of dead people. The problem with this is that I'd spent the previous week looking at pictures of dead people - a lot were historical pictures, but they were still pictures of dead people (and here is another really interesting perspective on War Porn from Paul Fox).

And this year, there seem to be more dead people all over the place; dead girls who were raped and lynched in India, dead Palestinian children who were killed out of spite it seems, and dead passengers on the plane tht was shot down over Ukraine.

There's more death around and there seems to be a concerted effort to show death more, especially on Time's Lightbox (now edited by Olivier Laurent, formally of the BJP).

As if to confirm this effort, Fred Ritchin wrote a piece about the showing of death on yesterday's Lightbox and the hidden contracts that are contained within it.

But still, I wonder. I'm not sure anything has changed. These things go in circles. I've seen a dead Gaddafi (see above) on television, and Saddam Hussein being hung and we can see murdered Palestinian children or Indian girls, or watch journalists being beheaded in Syria, but in mainstream circles there are still the same taboos. Will we see dead American children or soldiers on Time Lightbox or in the New York Times, will we see dead British soldiers in the Guardian or Daily Mail? And if it's not OK to show American journalists getting beheaded, why was it OK to show Gaddafi's body being dragged around?

So death is all around when it is people who are deemed fit to be seen dead, but we are sheltered from seeing our own dead. When their time comes, we're not going to see Obama or Cameron's dead faces smeared across the TV. And when it comes to sparing our feelings, then blurring and blobbing will still be applied to the faces of those deemed innocent  (and if you have ever wondered why television producers putting a grey blob over a dead person's face show's respect, read Robert Fisk here).

So what exactly are the rules about showing the poor and distant dead versus showing our rich and Western dead. And are those rules changing? And if they are, why are they? And if they aren't, why aren't they?

Oh, and what's it like in countries outside Europe and North America, and on mainstream social media? Completely different rules apply, but that's a post for another day.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Oh my God, it's September

Oh my God, it's September. Let's pretend it's not. Here are my a la mode holiday snaps from Greece. I'll close my eyes and pretend I'm still there!