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Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Book of the Month: Monsanto by Mathieu Asselin

                       All images from Monsanto by Mathieu Asselin

At the weekend Tony Fouhse posted a q&a with me on his brilliantly named blog, Drool. He asked me why I still blogged. And I wondered about it because I blow hot and cold on it. At it's best, it's  a place where you can pour out thoughts and get into a writing groove and link images and ideas together and be irreverent and basically do whatever you want. A blog is not an academic paper, or an essay, or an artistic statement. It's a place where you can have a personality and an opinion, it's a verbal sketchbook. And it doesn't have to work all the time and you don't have to be right all the time. In fact you can spout complete cack and chances are nobody will notice the difference. That's why Drool is the perfect name for a blog. It says it all.

But a blog does need to work some of the time, it does need to be coherent. And it can be difficult to have an opinion and a personality and be coherent. Sometimes you get bogged down in things and it becomes a chore. I used to do a lot of book reviews here. It was really enjoyable because you could go in depth into a book and try to see what the photographer/artist was trying to do and how the ideas and the images merged with the material form of the book, the design, the materials.

So I started doing book reviews on the blog  and then they escalated. And they escalated. And they escalated. More and more people would send me more and more books.

'How lucky you must be to get so many books for free,' people would say. Mmm, well not quite free. The piles grew bigger, and the blogging got harder because I tried to review almost everything. It became a chore, more than a chore, so I stopped it. Actually, I didn't stop it. I started doing book reviews in languages that I can't really speak. That worked wonders for stopping the stream of books. Fewer and fewer people started sending me books. I don't have a pile of books anymore. There's passive-agressive language learning for you.

Which is good but also a pity, because I've seen great books I would otherwise never have seen, and even when the book isn't great, I've gained a massive understanding of what people are trying to do, what they are trying to say, how they are mixing images, ideas, archives, materials and trying to make something really special with all their heart. And even if it isn't always successful, it's the unsuccessful ones that show you where people trip up, and the fact that there is this love and attention really means a lot in itself.

The trouble is I do like reviewing and writing about photobooks. So I thought I'd do a compromise with a book of the month . And the first book of the month is Monsanto by Mathieu Asselin.

I first saw shimmers of Monsanto online here and there. And then I saw it while judging the Photobook Bristol Dummy Award in 2016. We got about 100 books sent in for that. There were two that sprang out at all of us within seconds and really selected themselves. One was Mary Hamill's Semper Augustus, the other was Monsanto. I think that was the way it was with pretty much everybody who saw Monsanto and is interested in the world.

Monsanto was one of those books that you just know is good. Obviously good and powerful and with real meaning. That leapt out of the page, it leapt out of the cover. And it leapt out from every page.

The book is about Monsanto and it is scathing from the start. Forget neutrality, forget a balanced opinion, this is a book that has an opinion and is going to give it using text, using archive images, using photography, using press clippings, using first hand testimony, using any means necessary.

The introduction is by an Organic Farmer, Jim Gerritsen from Maine. Monsanto's activities, he says, '...are affecting hundreds of communities and their environment with terrifying health and ecological consequences. The company'...engages in campaigns of misinformation, the persecution of institutions and individuals, including scientists, farmers and activists that dare to disclose its crimes.'

So there you go. There's a statement and the book sets out to prove all of that in no uncertain means. Monsanto is, in this book not as Monsanto would have it the 'farmer's friend', but a soil-deadening, patent-bullying, earth-destroying beast of a machine.

And if you want to get a taste of that, the best way is to use the words of Monsanto itself. The first section is a booklet of old Monsanto advertisements and it is sarcasm personified

They show the propaganda untruths perpetuated by Monsanto and how they overlapped with images to create a brand of toxic modernity. It's the kind of thing any child of the fifties, sixties or seventies will understand, a world where the future is a one pill step of nutrient, where powdered potato (Smash), orange juice (Kool Aid), and deserts (Angel's Delight) are just a stop away from a time when food is instant, convenient and nutritious.

'Chemicals help you eat better' reads one ad. There are flavour enhancers, fire retardants, pesticides - all there to persuade the world, or the United States at least, that the debasement of food, land, air and water is somehow good for us.

Throughout the book, Monsanto's message continues.

'Chemicals help you to live longer.'

'Chemicals help you eat better.'

'There really is no much difference between foods made by mother nature and those made by man.'

'All Man-made foods are tested for safety. And they often provide more nutrition, at a lower cost, thant natural foods.'

Then we're into the hard centre of the book, a chaptered description of Monsanto's doings in the world of men. Asselin takes us to Aniston, Alabama, the home of PCB production and a place where chemical dumping and the poisoning of the land is all too apparent. Asselin reprints a 1969 memo that states 'we can't afford to lose one dollar of business.' They had been aware of the dangers posed by the chemical since 1937 but the lives damaged, destroyed and lost through their actions were nothing compared to one dollar of business lost.

There's a screenshot showing the Monsanto sponsored Disney house of the future from 1957. But this comes against the reality of Monsanto houses of the future in Aniston - in recent years 'Monsanto has bought and demolished around 100 PCB-contaminated houses and businesses in the area, turning the neighbourhood into a virtual ghost town.'

Next up is Agent Orange, the malformations of embryos, and the devastating environmental consequences of the use of this toxic defoliant, the responsibilities for which are evaded. Again we see illegal dump sites where chemical waste was disposed of with devastating consequences to both the environment and to inhabitants health and then we're into Vietnam where Agent Orange was part of  80 million litres of herbicide sprayed across the country -  with repercussions both for Vietnamese and US soldiers. In Vietnam, over 500,000 babies have been born with birth defects, and continue to be born, the book states.

Most shocking of all are the details of Monsanto's seed-selling market, under which '...farmers  can no longer save their seeds for later use, ending a 10,000 year old farming tradition' (Center for food safety).

So buy Monsanto seeds and you have to use them on your farm in one year. There is no saving, no sharing, no cooperation. If you don't have a contract with Monsanto and traces of Monsanto's genetic material are found on your land (from accidental contamination from a neighbouring farm for example) then you face being sued. Over 140 patent infringement cases against farmers 'to ensure that its seeds are not stolen or reused.' And once you've been put through the wringer on that, the only solution if you want to keep on farming is... you've guessed it ...buy Monsanto seeds.

It's a book that wears its heart on its sleeve and it punches home a message by any means necessary. As well as photographys, there are archive materials, advertisments, corporate ads, newspaper clippings, emails and links to videos.

The photographs are sober and brutally descriptive.  They are shot frontally in neutral light and are expository in mode; here is a woman whose father died after being exposed to Agent Orange, this is a river contaminated by waste from illegal dump sites, here is a farmer who was wrongly accused by Monsanto of 'saving seeds', costing him $290,000 in legal fees. It's direct and it's relentless and it is effective.

I read the book cover to cover. I read every caption. Part of this is down to having a fascinating subject and having done the research, another part is down to not overloading the reader with text. Monsanto is not a text light book, let's be clear on that. but thought has gone into how long captions and accompanying chapter introductions should be and they are, considering the subject, short and punchy and accessible.

This is not a book where you are left to make up your own mind because what is there to make your mind up about. They poison the land, they blackmail farmers, they kill unborn babies, you don't exactly need a road map. Asselin is angry and he wants us to be angry too. It works for me.

At the Gazebook Sicily Photobook Festival, Asselin gave a talk in which he said "There is no room for ambiguity." Monsanto is that statement in book form.

Buy Monsanto here.

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