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Friday, 3 March 2017

Jane Austen, Micro Celebrity and the World Press Photo

It's funny the multiple worlds we live in. They are complex places that are no longer limited by time and geography.

And then sometimes those worlds collide; at photobook festivals, at talks, at events, or on the road above the valley (that Jane Austen used to walk along) pictured above. .Yesterday I got spotted by a jogger who'd seen me in a video made by Jesse Alexander for a course he is running in Falmouth University. "I recognise you from the video we saw. It was really good," he said, which was nice. It's micro-celebrity status on a different level!

But it was like one self, the self that goes for walks down Charlcombe Valley, being taken over by another self, one who appears in a video where I talk about my photographic work.

My own life is lived in a geographic world that centres around the fields, hills, allotments, shops and cafes of Bath and Bristol, an extended family world that centres around Bath, London, Manchester and Canada, a work world that takes in Cardiff, Bristol, Magnum, China, Amsterdam, London and Australia, an online world that is rather lovely and takes in all kinds of wonderful people from all around the world.

I was thinking of these multiple, then I thought about an article Mohsin Hamid wrote about storytelling. Mohsin Hamid is a novelist who exists in multiple worlds  This is what he says about his background and how stories help him function.

Stories helped me unite parts of my existence that might otherwise have seemed irrevocably split by geography and time. And stories helped me find a future in which I, such a mongrel, could be comfortable. I do not inhabit an island in the Indian Ocean with a population as diverse as that of London, nor a nation composed of bits of Pakistan and California. But I have over the last three decades lived first in America, then in Britain, then in Pakistan. And I do spend many weeks in America and Britain each year, and many weeks in other places, and correspond on most days with friends and colleagues on multiple continents. My life might be peculiar, but it suits me. It flows directly from those first worlds I imagined as a child. Without my stories, without the journey and direction implicit in them, I might never have found it. Perhaps I would not even have looked.

The flip side of this article is the scourge of nostalgia and cliche. Hamid sees it everywhere; in politics, in nationalism, in religion, in film, in literature. And though he doesn't say it, he might well see it in photogaphy too.

Nostalgia and cliche limits our storytelling, it stops us creating the new worlds that we live in, it holds us down and back, it fetters the imagination. And anything that controls, or reigns in, or fetters, or looks exclusively back, is limiting. Because the world of the past, the worlds of idealised national identities, family life, clean-living monocultural, vanilla-skinned, eternal-summerred fantasies are limited. They are anti-human, they are Stepford nostalgias that deny the wealth, the diversity, the richness of the world.

The idea is that we live in created worlds and the worlds we can create through our writing, our art, or even our journalism should mirror and surpass those worlds. They should be things of wonder, that help us manouevre our way through life. They should be creative and filled with surprises, emotions, and sentiments that take us outside ourselves.

Even when it's journalism, Journalism has its conventions which are manufactured. It has its truth claims, which are also manufactured. Sometimes (see the previous post on OJ Simpson: Made in America) the story is so great (and unfathomably awful), that the conventions help frame it in the hands of a skilled story teller.

Sometimes, sticking to the truth claims but going beyond the conventions is what can add something to a story and take it beyond stilted cliches that we have all seen before. Isn't that what Max Pinckers' restagings or Carolyn Drake's collages or Richard Mosse's installations are all about. These are works that go beyond worlds that are rather fettered by their visual histories, that create new narratives and impacts, and give voice to the people who are portrayed.

I am trying to tie it in to Ramin Talaie's Objection to the World Press Photo second prize winning series  by Hossein Fatemi, ‘An Iranian Journey'. I don't know if the objections quite do it for me - there's a lot of staging and the captions are dishonest - but by the same token I don't think Lars Boering response. quite does it for me either.

Neither are entirely convincing. But then nor are the pictures or the ideas behind them. It's an old and jaded story that I've seen done better many, many times (including by Kaveh Rostamkhani). And I wonder if that, together with a little bit of dishonesty here and there (actually - there have been concerns about these images going around for many years) isn't really what the objections are all about.

It's really an objection to a shabby story, a familiar tale of brute juxtapositions with little subtlety. Nose jobs - tick. Drinking - tick. Exposed flesh - tick. Rock and roll - tick. Something else western - tick. All that's missing is the skiing. He's ticked them off and everything is a bit too manufactured.

Here everything is fettered and controlled by the expectations imposed on the frame by the photographer and by the history of representation of Iran. There is no freedom in these images, no life let's say.

I get the feeling the objections are to do with this lack of freedom, the constraint of the images. The objections are more to with the kind of world we would live in if everybody did this kind of photography, or thought along these lines. God help us! We'd be living in a land of contrasts, where east meets west, where cliche rubs up against stereotype! Are there really French people who don't like cheese, or English people who aren't polite, always get drunk and like fighting. I had no fucking idea. Or Russians who are really polite, never get drunk and don't like fighting. You'll be telling me they have coca-cola in China next!

But at the same time it's a story that gets an audience, and it serves a function - that's why the tag 'award hunter' hits home. And I'm guessing the photographer has done well out of it. He's heard these objections before now - I know that - and I guess he can't care too much. That's why he entered them in the World Press Photo competition. It's an approach that many photographers have used over the years. You do have to make money after all. You do have to sell your pictures. Good luck to him. But, but, but.. don't even mistake it for being a good story. Or an interesting story.

So what's the moral of the story? I'm not sure. Make a better story! Yes, that's it. Thank you Mohsin Hamid. I was stuck there for a bit. You got me out of a fine pickle.

Mohsin Hamid on the wave of nostalgia and storytelling.

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